Pop singer Matthew Sweet's album Girlfriend
is pretty widely considered one of the definitive albums of the
Nineties. The record, a wonderfully eclectic mix of rock, pop and
country, still feels amazingly fresh today.
Therefore, it's rather shocking to hear that Sweet
is currently touring to celebrate the album's twentieth anniversary.
Ever since last fall, Sweet has been doing a series of gigs around the
country where he plays the album in full, then adds in a few other hits
like his 1996 smash "Sick of Myself."
Even Sweet is a little surprised by the excitement
about the anniversary. He was planning to spend this year touring for
last year's album Modern Art when the Girlfriend requests
to do anniversary shows came pouring in. Therefore, he makes sure to do
one song each show from the new album, to show audiences that the new
music is just as strong as the classics.
Right before he opened the latest leg of the
Girlfriend tour in Philadelphia, we gave Sweet a call to discuss his
career and his influences.
What are some of your
first musical memories?
That's an interesting question. First musical
memory. I must have been asked that before, but I think it's been a
long time. Let me think a sec on that. What popped in my head was just
beating on some kind of drums or something. (laughs) But, I
don't know where that comes from. It's hard for me, I guess I just
don't know that I can pinpoint the first. I can remember things I did
really young. I had to take piano lessons when I was pretty young. I
really hated taking lessons, so when I was in kind of a funky mood –
maybe I was home sick or whatever and my mom was either gone doing
something or not around – I'd go to the piano and do little mood pieces,
hitting chords and bass clefs a little bit. (laughs again)
That's one early thing I did. I played the violin in a junior youth
orchestra when I was in fifth grade, maybe... I started playing
electric bass in sixth grade, no that was actually in fifth grade, too,
while I still played the violin. I thought they looked really cool. I
wanted to play electric guitar, but the bass seemed like it would be
easier, sort of. So I became a bass player and could play with the
stage band at my grade school, which is amazing they even had one. Then
I continued to play bass and started to play in bands when I was in
seventh grade and eighth grade. I was a bass player up until then.
Obviously, your music
shows you are a fan of many different artists and styles. What were
some of your earliest influences musically?
That's a good question, too. It would have been
stuff that was around the house. Either my older brother, who was five
years older, had things. My parents... I remember like the What's
New, Pussycat? soundtrack. One of the first things I remember was
the Help! soundtrack. Some of the first Beatles I knew was
[from] that. Then I remember the Revolver cover. Revolver
was somehow around, and that's really my favorite Beatles record to
today. Help! and Revolver were the Beatles I knew until I
was older. Then I got into a lot of British Invasion New Wave – Elvis
Costello and Nick Lowe. The Buzzcocks. The more melodic stuff, when
that whole wave came in, although I guess it was pretty indie here. I
knew people at the record store and we all bought the 45s.
You had actually been
around for several years before
hit, in fact, I remember seeing you opening up for I believe Toni
Childs circa the
That's early. God, you know... I can't swear to
this. We did some Buzz of Delight shows in New York and some Oh OK
shows [two early bands he was in]. But that was probably the only tour,
the A&M one with Toni Childs. Oh, you know what? I played with Golden
Palominos and we did some of my songs, so that was real early, like
'87. But [the Toni Childs tour] was the first time I really toured on
my own, you know? (chuckles) That tour with Toni Childs. It's
funny, because we're going to Philly tomorrow to start the tour on
Yeah, I'm in Philly.
Looking forward to seeing you on Friday.
Oh, that's great. The thing is, I have this memory
of Philly. For some reason I was thinking that Toni bailed on the show
No, she played. I
remember seeing it. It was at the old Chestnut Cabaret.
Oh yeah, I remember that place.
In fact, that was
where I first interviewed you on the
Wow. That's amazing, because that's way back. That
was probably one of my very first interviews. I didn't do a ton of
stuff in [the Inside] time. I was really given to the college
radio departments. They couldn't do too much with those records. That
was just really early one. But yeah, that would have been a very early
experience of me playing live.
What was it like when
suddenly after years of scrapping with groups and solo,
hit and you were suddenly getting all this acclaim and
Yeah, it got lots of airplay, and amazingly 100%
Fun did as well. It was very overwhelming on a lot of levels. Also
it was kind of a double kick, because after I made the record A&M merged
with Polygram and all of the sudden everybody was being ousted,
including my A&R guy. So, we thought, well, the record is cool, we'll
sell it to somebody else. My manager actually became my manager at that
time, he was my lawyer before that, and we're still together. He said,
"We'll sell it somewhere else." He was convinced that Girlfriend
could be on the radio. I had no concept of that. That was just like,
"yeah...," you know? He kept at it, but in the end we sold the record
for pennies on the cost of it to Zoo Entertainment. So, I had
especially low expectations. I was just: it was getting released. So
to have it then suddenly take off was pretty amazing. Part of it was
that the tapes spread around in a younger record industry over the
course of that year before Zoo bought it. Nine months after I made it,
we didn't have a place to put it out. So it was especially a big deal
when it became successful. I had to really tour a lot. I had to talk
about myself so much and I hated myself especially at that time.
(laughs) It was sort of mentally killing for me. Emotionally it
was difficult for me.
I remember you
telling me years ago that you didn’t consider yourself to be a great
singer or guitarist or songwriter, it just happened that the three
worked together. Do you still feel that way?
That's pretty funny. I guess I was just trying to say that I wouldn't
make any claims for my musicianship, but I know when I do my thing, it
will work. So, yeah, I guess I do sort of still feel that way.
(laughs again) It's kind of funny to hear myself saying that. It
doesn't immediately sound like me, so it makes me laugh.
It was actually kind
of ironic, because the way that you had put it was "it's all part of the
ugly truth." Then a year later, you released a song called "The Ugly
That's amazing. That's so funny.
You are playing the
album in concert now. Do you do it straight through as it appeared
on album, or do you fool around with it a bit? I read an interview with
Lars Ulrich of Metallica recently where he said they were doing a
concert version of their Black Album, but doing the song sequence
backwards so that they start with the songs no one knows and end up on
the big songs.
It's very funny you
say that, because the first few times we did it, I was like it's like we
just played the encore. (laughs harder) We go from the
beginning, but that's kind of clever to go from the back end, because
then you would get to the more well-known songs.
Girlfriend also had
lots of non-album b-sides, like “Superdeformed” and the cover of “Cortez
the Killer.” Do you play any of those songs?
No, we do all fifteen songs that includes the three
[CD] bonus tracks. That's pretty much it. Then we play a couple of
other things. "Sick of Myself." We play at least a song off of
Modern Art, my record from last year. Sometimes we play "We're the
Same" or "Time Capsule." [Songs] that go with the theme. "Sick of
Myself" is great, because we just had to play the whole Girlfriend.
After playing these
songs all these years, do you ever fool around with the structure of
them to make them fresh or do you stick with the basic studio vibe?
I guess I always stick with the basic way. I'm sure
it's probably really different if you compared them side by side, just
because the energy of playing live is different. But I don't try to
deconstruct things I did in the past. I don't feel like I have to do
anything to them to make it worth doing them. Sometimes you can have
that urge where you start to get a different melody in your head for a
certain part of the song. I probably do that on some of the
Girlfriend stuff. I imagine there's a few things I didn't cop. I
didn't try to listen to every thing. But it's pretty much as it was.
You had such a killer
band back then with Richard Lloyd and Robert Quine. How does the new
I think we do really well at capturing the album.
Lead guitar player Dennis Taylor, he played all the lead on my latest
album Modern Art. He happens to be not only great at
improvising, but so musical that he has an ear that is amazing for
hearing how things were played or put together. I think he does an
amazing job, because there is a lot to cover. There's the Quine
Stratocaster kind of jangly chord shapes and things. Then there's the
Richard Lloyd type, real blues rock kind of playing. Dennis can do all
that stuff, but more amazingly has very well copped the melodies and the
things from the album. It really helps it really seem like
As I recall you
telling me years ago, Tuesday Weld was on the cover of
Girlfriend just because you liked the picture. Do you enjoy collecting old
photography and movie memorabilia?
I went through a period where I did that. Kind of
pre-Girlfriend, so a really long time ago. We still have books
that we put together when Lisa was my girlfriend. We've been married
now since 1993. I'm into that kind of thing, but I haven't actively
gotten into it since back then.
You also named a song
on the album after Winona Ryder, though it wasn’t specifically written
about her and the name is never used in the lyrics. Did you have a
thing for actresses?
It's funny, that song was probably called "Alone in
the World" (laughs) or something like that. Lloyd Cole [the
British singer who fronted Lloyd Cole & the Commotions], who I was
hanging out with at the time, he said, "Why don't you call it Winona?
You love that movie." I was into Heathers, the classic movie.
I thought it's kind of country. That sort of fits. So I just used
his title. It wasn't really a song about her. I had to do a lot of
explaining about it. (chuckles) The idea of loving a girl...
like if you're collecting movie star stuff from actresses you loved.
You have this ideal idea about this person that would be so amazing that
it would solve all your problems, although those girls are all crazy.
(laughs) Eventually I met her. Recently I saw a photo of the
two of us together. (laughs again) I didn't even know there had
ever been one taken. It made me smile. It was funny.
How crazy is it that
is over 20 years old
It blows my mind, but now we've been touring it
since last fall, so I'm really comfortable with it. It's not as crazy
to me [now]. But yeah, it was mind-blowing on a lot of levels. I had
to go back and really learn everything, the words. Then just to think
it's been 20 years and to see the audiences. To think 20 years back,
you know, it's so far! When I think of myself as a young person, I
started getting records in probably '77-'78-'79, or whatever. I was
born in '64, so I was probably buying them by '75 or something. I had
been five years since the Beatles broke up. That seems like ancient
history. So much had happened. It was just so different.
What was the first
record you ever bought?
To be honest, I'm not exactly sure. The first one I
remember going to the record store to get, I bought the 45 of "Telephone
Line" by ELO. Vinyl.
What was the first
concert you ever saw?
First concert is ELO. (laughs) Probably
that following year. With green lasers. Steve Hillage opened up. I
couldn't even breathe the air because there was so much cigarette and
pot smoke. I went with my big brother and his girlfriend.
What music do you put
on when you are in a bad mood to cheer you up?
Interesting. Let me think. Maybe it would be
something more uppity, like the Nerves – that's somebody I've listened
to recently. Kind of a power pop thing that's really upbeat, I like.
The Beach Boys usually would cheer me up. They also have the anxiety
and everything, which is perfect – Brian [Wilson] anyway. If I'm
feeling super-agitated and I really want to cool out, I will play Bill
What songs can
automatically make you feel like you want to cry when you hear them?
God. Let me think. There's Brian stuff. "Surf's
Up" and "'Til I Die" and that Dennis [Wilson] song "Forever." Those
kind of songs I'm really a sucker for. Sad, meaningful songs.
What do you listen to
when you are in the mood for romance?
Romantic? Wow. It's funny, I don't know that I've
ever associated music and romance in that way. Maybe I've never really
put on music and romanced it. It was always in silence, I guess.
What record would you
say you have listened to more than any other in your life?
God, that's very interesting. In high school and
right out of high school, Big Star. I liked Radio City and
Sister/Third. I played those a ton. I want to say Pet Sounds,
but almost as much is probably Surf's Up. Stuff from
Smile as well. I bought the Smile box set.
What record are you
ashamed to have in your collection but still kind of love?
There must be. I guess I'm not ashamed about
anything. (laughs) It would be like, "woo, you like that?" It
would probably be the nerdier side of the Beach Boys. (laughs again)
I was talking with my friend Rick about this. We went to see them play
live and we've been on this crazy Beach Boys trip.
I can't wait to see
the new tour. I was lucky enough to see the band the last time Brian
toured with them in the Eighties, when he was in the middle of the Dr.
Eugene Landy days. I've never seen someone look so scared on stage in
my life. But it was a great show.
Just weird and terrible. But to see Brian still
there, he was clearly enjoying himself. He was pretty funny. Some
unintentional funniness, but, you know... We were having this
conversation about how we like some of even the really dorky square
things. (laughs) We just accept them because we love them so
What song do you most
wish that you wrote?
There are so many other Brian things I'm starting to
think of, like "The Warmth of the Sun." That's pretty up there for me.
Rock records: "Like a Rolling Stone" or "Gimme Shelter." Those things
are just incredible songs. The way I always feel like, even with
everybody I love, it takes more than one song. It feels like there has
to be more than one. One alone never seems like enough. There is a
moment where that record is so cool to me. It captures something.
Lightning in a bottle.
Even though even Zoo
Entertainment wasn’t a huge label, your last few albums were released
independently. With the very fragile state of the music business these
days, what advantages and disadvantages are there to recording as an
Well, the advantages are you are totally free. You
can do whatever you want. Not a lot of money has to be spent. If you
sell a few thousand records, you'll make some money. For me, I just
watched the industry change and change and change. It goes down and
down and down, the amount of money someone will give me for a record.
And the possibility of places goes down and down and down. These places
that are good indie labels are really full of stuff right now. So much
stuff. So in the end I think it's best to put things out ourselves.
For Modern Art we teamed with a marketing company that had done
promotion and things and were sort of acting as a label for me. We've
had different opportunities depending on certain people we know and ways
we write it. I'm thinking I'll probably go to Kickstarter for the next
one and try and raise a little money, so that I can live, you know?
You have also done a
couple of duet covers albums of 60s and 70s songs with Susanna Hoffs of
the Bangles. I know you two had also worked together on
Austin Powers and
the latest Bangles album. Will there be a Volume III with 80s songs and
maybe even more down the line? What's she like to work with?
Going backwards, Volume III, yes. There's an
80s one. We're in the middle of working on it. We have a lot of the
tracks done, but we haven't done any singing, so we've got a lot to do.
I think we'll get it done this year and it will either come out late
this year or early next year. Sue has a solo album she's releasing this
summer that she made with [producer] Mitchell Froom. That's going to
come out, I think, in July. I'm going to be doing these next three
weeks touring and then touring the midwest again in September, doing
more Girlfriend shows. Then I'll probably start making a record
of my own. So there's enough for the next year or so.
How did you hook up
with Susanna? What is she like to work with?
She's delightful. She's a lot of fun. Likes to
have fun. We really did those records for fun. I was at a Bangles &
Friends performance at McCabe's, which is a classic acoustic guitar
store/venue where 100 people come see acoustic shows. I went to sing on
something in that show. I was just talking to Sue. We've known each
other over the years, but we didn't hang out a lot during the Austin
Powers times. We hung out some. I said to her I've always loved
your voice, I'd love to record something with you sometime. My idea was
writing songs with her and doing a solo album for her, not me being on
it, but Shout! Factory really wanted us to do these covers records
together. She's wonderful. We're like two kids when we work together.
What else can I say?
Power pop is such an
amazing musical art form, but it never quite catches on with the
public. Why do you think that is?
I don't know, really. Sometimes I think it gets
more of a bad rap than it deserves. It's also just how you want to
categorize things. To me, power pop was The Beatles and The Byrds in
early rock. Then in the Seventies there were all these incredible
groups like The Raspberries and Cheap Trick and a million people.
Dwight Twilley. All these cool things. Of course Big Star. There was
a wealth of great stuff with the people who loved that kind of melodic
music those Sixties bands did. Then in New Wave, there is sort of a
power pop thing about it anyway. That period was alright for it. I
never wanted to categorize myself, but I never minded the name power
pop, because I love to be in any group of importance of any kind.
(laughs) Even if it's the sad, neglected group. I don't know, when
I meet people that are into it, they are just so into it, still.
I think there will be kids that are really into it. People that really
want melody are going to stray into what is considered power pop. If
they like rock & roll, but they prefer for it to be really melodic.
People who maybe aren't as into that, but maybe just like the image of a
group and their sound, probably don't care as much.