For the past few years, Matthew Sweet has been celebrating his classic ‘90s release Girlfriend with a series of full album performances. The shows which initially came about to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the album’s release proved that Girlfriend remains one of the more well-crafted releases from the decade. It holds up well, which as you probably know, is not something that always is the case when you’re listening back to albums past.
It’s fun to look back, but now Sweet is beginning to take steps towards writing and recording his next album which is slated to be released in early 2015. He’s using Kickstarter to fund the project and fans will have access to a number of incentives if they pledge, including things like the opportunity to own a piece of Sweet’s own custom 3-D printed art. He’ll make the demos for the album available as one of the additional incentives and there are lots of other options, including the chance to have Matthew either write a song for you and/or record and produce a song for you.
One Sweet fan has already pledged 10 grand to secure a “live house party” with Matthew and his band — so as you might be able to tell, he’s having some fun with the campaign.
In his notes about the project, he says “I’m going to write all new songs and make demos for the album, focusing on a strong clear delivery, energetic and heartfelt from rock to melancholy and back again.”
Presently, he’s on the road with his longtime roadmates Ric Menck, Paul Chastain and Dennis Taylor for a series of summer dates being billed as the “Matthew Sweet Rock Show.” The shows which started earlier this month and are scheduled to wrap up in early August, will feature a wide selection of material from across Sweet’s career, including cuts from fan favorite albums like Girlfriend, 100% Fun and Altered Beast, all of the way up through his latest album Modern Art, which was released in 2011.
We caught up with Matthew at home in Omaha for a brief conversation to talk about the upcoming album, the current tour and unexpectedly, J.J. Abrams.
It’s exciting to hear about this new album and the Kickstarter campaign.
I planned to do a Kickstarter for a while and just hadn’t done it yet, but I finally got one off the ground and my idea with it is that I would try to maybe go back to the past and approach it more like I would have long ago. You know, it’s been a long time since I’ve made demos for things, because I can record at home, I’ll just be writing while I’m recording still. I thought this time it might be cool to write all of the songs first, make demos of them and then take what goes on the album out of those demos. I thought it would be an interesting thing to make those demos available as well. I want it to be a whole project where I write it all, I demo it all, I record it all and then it goes to the fans. So I don’t know, I guess for my own guidance, I put those rules in place.
From your perspective, what do you accomplish for yourself by going back to doing it that way.
I don’t know, it’s just very song-oriented, where songs can fly on their own without being dressed up any certain way. I think it’s a good way to know what [kind of] material a song is, but it’s also just fresh for me to go back and approach it that way where it doesn’t have to be a record yet.
That makes a lot of sense and I think as we’ve heard from some of your demos in the past, certainly there are songs that have changed from where they started as demos compared to how they ended up on the album versions. I guess if you’re just recording straight to the final versions for the album, maybe that evolution doesn’t happen in the same way.
I think that’s probably true. But my main focus is just thinking about the songs, I guess. In terms of how they transform, they kind of do that on their own. It doesn’t necessarily have to be something that I plan, like “Let’s make it from the demo and let’s change it to this.” It just kind of naturally happens.
On the flip side of things, you’ve now done three volumes of covers with Susanna Hoffs. How much do you find the experience of making those albums really feeding back into your own new music when you get down to making albums?
You know, I don’t know. I don’t know how much I exactly do. It’s something that’s an interesting exercise, because I listen to those old records and kind of think, “What’s everybody playing on it?” and stuff, but I’ve never felt exactly how that transfers over, other than I do tons of engineering and playing on those records. [Laughs] It’s probably good for me, chops-wise. But that’s a hard question for me to answer. I don’t know exactly how, but it can’t be bad hearing lots of great songs.
For sure. I read an interview that you did last year where you said that you don’t listen to new music when you’re writing. Beyond that, are you drawn to musical discovery at all as it relates to new music? Does that stuff still interest you?
Honestly, not a lot. If things get to me, it’s usually through other people or through reading about them. It’s kind of not just when I’m writing music. I would say that since I became a recording artist many years ago, listening to other music has been different for me. I think way, way back, if I listened to other stuff, it made me feel so bad about how terrible I was, that I just had to be in my own world without it. [Laughs]
Now, I think it’s just more that I enjoy silence when I’m not working on music. So I will tend to not really play a lot of music in the car or anything. But I do go through periods where I will. I’ll get into it just for inspiration and it is fun to hear cool records. It’s weird, it’s almost like that part of me kind of separate, like the part of me that enjoys music and can be a fan is a little bit outside of the guy who writes songs for some reason. [Laughs] I don’t know if that makes sense.
It does! When you listen to those records that you’ve done with Susanna, it’s clear that those records come from a place where both of you guys are definitely fans. So hearing you talk about that is interesting, because it doesn’t seem like it bothers you to have that ability to be a music fan taken away.
It would bother me if I didn’t make music a lot, I think. I would probably play a lot more music and be drawn to it more. I mean, I don’t want to sound like I’m not interested or don’t care. I mean, I hear things that are cool or whatever and I have a general idea of stuff. It’s also just such a different time with the internet, there’s just so much more than there used to be. [Laughs]
There’s a lot to explore and I think that because of the time that it is, this sort of post-music business era for most artists, I think it’s probably a really fertile time for great music and art. I think that it will just take longer to catalog and categorize everything that’s happening now, because there’s just so much of it. It’s harder for people probably to break through, but I bet there are a lot of interesting things.
You’re right, with the internet, there’s an overload of stuff. It’s quite a contrast to growing up years back, where you would buy an album as a kid and spend a month or more listening to that album. I think that time is long gone at this point.
Yeah, now the attention span is very limited. People just don’t have as much focus because there’s so much else available to them and going on. If you’re young now, it’s probably hard to really understand how much we didn’t know about anything before the internet, in terms of the way it made music more mysterious and made the experience of escaping with an album — that’s how you got into your own world and away from other people and your parents and stuff.
Or it’s the way that you bonded with your friends in listening to things together. It was a really cool thing then and there’s an amazing amount of stuff that got created and made during all of those years, but still compared to now, I think things are easier to discern before the internet.
The current Kickstarter that you’re doing for your new album is pretty cool. One part of it is the opportunity to own some of your 3-D printed art. I think that many folks are aware at this point that you’ve done some pottery stuff in recent years. How did you get into the 3-D printing stuff?
My old friend Lloyd Cole decided he wanted to make a record in Los Angeles and have Fred Maher play drums on it and myself play bass. He was longtime friends with J.J. Abrams who created Lost and he has this company called Bad Robot and he directs the new Star Trek movies and he’s doing that Star Wars movie they’re filming right now where Harrison Ford broke his ankle or whatever! He has his production company office in Santa Monica and there he has a recording studio and they also have an in-house art department and stuff.
It’s not the greater place where they do all of the stuff for the movies, but it’s more like his own little space. In their art department there, they had a great big 3-D printer and they were showing me how they printed phasers for the Star Trek movies and they could change what size they were and everything and then the art department would paint them. I had brought some pottery in to give to a couple of people and when I met J.J. and we were talking about 3-D printing, I started wondering if I could somehow 3-D print prototypes for my pottery. Ultimately, I wanted to try to make bronze casted items, so he set me up with a guy who worked there who helped me learn about the 3-D printing and learn a little bit about how I would create things in software.
I got a MakerBot printer and eventually they came out with a little scanner and I started scanning pieces of my pottery. Originally, I didn’t think of the actual printed pieces as being the art, but I started taking some and painting them with metallic paints that will rust or get patinas when you spray various things on them. I started thinking “These are really cool on their own,” so I decided those could be a less-expensive reward on the Kickstarter. But you know, it’s just me getting my hobbies into things and trying to explore some other mediums besides just pottery, although I do plan to keep making pottery as well.
Let’s talk about your current tour. You are someone who often seems to hit the road with a new album to promote, but this time is a little bit different. What was it that got you back out on the road for this current run of tour dates?
Well, you know, I’ve been touring a lot the last few years, which has been really good. We played the whole Girlfriend album a lot in 2011 and 2012. I think in 2013, we might have played our last couple of all-Girlfriend shows. So we’re just kind of working our way out of that and we had the tour planned for this summer as a “Let’s go out and do a tour” kind of thing and it happened to coincide with the Kickstarter.
It took me so long — I really would have run the Kickstarter earlier this year if I’d had it a little more together. But it took me until now, so it just sort of weirdly coincided with the tour, because I’ll be able to go out and talk about it to people I know are fans. It’s going really well. I think we’re almost three-quarters of the way to the goal, so I am hopeful that it will fund, but we still have to get more people to come on and donate. It’s pretty amazing, it’s only 230 people who have raised three-quarter’s worth of the money. So it’s pretty cool that when you band together, how you can raise the funds to do these sort of things with not that huge a group of people.
Absolutely. Going back to what you were saying about the Girlfriend dates, that show was probably one of my favorite full-album shows that I’ve seen various folks do.
Oh, that’s awesome!
That album has held up really well, it would seem. Did it feel that way to you when you went out and did those shows?
Yeah, for sure! You know, people have asked me a lot over the years, “Do you get so sick of playing ‘Girlfriend’” or whatever. I never really felt that way about it. It was a very personal effort for me when I made it and it feels that way to me still and I guess I didn’t know what to expect it would be like going through the whole album. It was such a trip back in time, but it really just felt normal to me and people just enjoyed it so much. It was fun to see them relive it as well. I love playing those songs and so it’s kind of cool that we still are a little bit Girlfriend-heavy, because we have a couple of extra songs that we didn’t used to play that we really like playing from it. So I’m still working my way out of only doing Girlfriend.
I think it’s fun for folks for a lot of reasons. For me, I missed seeing the original Girlfriend tour, so it was great to have a second shot.
Yeah, sure! Those shows are so fun also, because everybody there really knows it. So it’s like a real experience.
I want to ask one more question about Girlfriend and that is, what was the reaction like when you handed in the Altered Beast album on the heels of that one?
You know, handing it in, it was okay. I was very near the label where I recorded it and they were pretty involved in that they got to come a lot and hear everything a lot. It was a difficult situation, because I really didn’t want to make Girlfriend II that was just the same. I wanted to kind of explore and try some other things and I think also the experience of having Girlfriend be really successful caused a sort of split in my personality that I didn’t understand how to make whole at the time of Altered Beast. [Laughs] So I really felt like it was two people. There was sort of this weird, evil, sarcastic edgy person and then there was the more normal, heartfelt, loving person. For some reason, I just felt them separating at that time.
So I think of Altered Beast as being a little bit crazy. I think when it came out, there was a general feeling, a sort-of “Not as good as Girlfriend” feeling, but the fans that I’ve met over the years and now, I think they really like Altered Beast. Looking back, I’m glad I made a record that was really free-form of how I was feeling at the time rather than trying to carefully create something that “worked.” So I have really good feelings about it. I’m sure it became a gold record at some point. I don’t have a gold record for that, but it sold over 400 thousand records at the time, so it was still pretty successful and luckily, I guess label-wise, I made 100% Fun next and that did well as well, better than Altered Beast. So even though it’s sandwiched between those really successful records, it did pretty well for the record that it is.