The Popdose Interview: Matthew Sweet
Hey, kids: remember last month, when we put out a “Calling All Questions” for Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs?
Well, here’s the thing: we thought we were going to get an interview with both of them on the line at the same time, but due to conflicts in their respective schedules, we ended up talking to them separately. Since we still got to talk to both of them, though, we’re still putting a mark in the “win” column…and you should, too, since it meant that we were also still able to ask them your questions. Now, at first, we were going to take the two interviews and combine them into one big piece, but in the end, it became evident that it would be a pretty disjointed conglomeration. As such, we’ll be presenting them independently…one this Tuesday, one next Tuesday…and since we talked to Mr. Sweet first, it seemed only fair to allow him to maintain his status and dive headlong into the fray.
Popdose: Okay, Matthew, are you ready for this?
Matthew Sweet: I’m ready to go! Now, did I hear…is it actually fan questions?
It is all reader questions.
And I’m using that as my escape clause. So if there’s anything that I may ask that offends you, then it’s something a reader asked, not me.
(Laughs) That’s all right.
Oh, you say that now, but…see, I say this specifically because the last person we did reader questions with got really, really upset by one question which was more or less intended as a joke. He did not, however, take it as such.
Oh, my God. Well, I have a pretty good sense of humor, so I won’t lose it.
I don’t think we’ve got anything here that would offend you, anyway, but I just wanted to offer the caveat, anyway.
I’ve never been offended by a question, I don’t think.
Well, that’s good. Okay, then, here’s your first question…
â€¢ Was there a nugget that you both loved and wanted to record for the new album but didn’t because the song was just too obscure?
Oh, God, there were lots of things that were more obscure that we considered, you know, but there was just so much stuff and so many different kinds of stuff in the ‘70s. Things we would’ve loved to have done…well, I would’ve loved to have done more of the punk and new wave. I would’ve loved to have done, like, “Blank Generation,” or something like that. I would’ve liked to have done…well, we did do a cover of “Marquee Moon” that’s one of the bonus tracks. There are ten bonus tracks, and a lot of those are…well, there’s a Buzzcocks song (“You Say You Don’t Love Me”), there’s a Blondie song (“Dreaming”), so there is some stuff from that era. But we could’ve recorded 30 songs that were just from that realm. I would’ve loved to have done, like, the Stooges or something like that. But, you know, when Sue and I sing together, it’s more of a poppy thing, and we kind of learned a little bit on the first record, I think, that there are certain things that work for us to do together and some things where we don’t find the thing that makes it ours. (Hesitates) I didn’t really answer the question very well. Dwight Twilley came to mind. I wanted to do one of those songs off his first record. There are so many cool things. Sue was a little older than me then, so she was really learning to sing and was into, like, Linda Ronstadt, but most of the things that we thought weren’t normal and that people wouldn’t expect us to do, we did. Like, say, the Yes song (“I’ve Seen All Good People”). We just got so excited about that. That was something that we both really loved, that group, and it was sort of radical to try and cover them, I guess.
Actually, that ties into one of the questions.
â€¢ Knowing that you’re a big Yes fan, what’s your favorite album by them, and are there any other prog-rock bands that you liked from the ‘70s?
Well, my thing was really the late ‘70s, probably discovering most of the records quite awhile after when they came out, but let me think. Of Yes, I really liked The Yes Album, and I really liked Close to the Edge. As far as one of their more stretched-out things, I think Close to the Edge I really liked, but there were really many things I liked from Yes. They were really melodic and interesting, and I liked Anderson’s thing, and Steve Howe’s just unreal, and Chris Squire is such an awesome, unique bass player. I really learned to play from Chris Squire, playing along with Yes records. If I went back…I guess what I’m saying is that I’d probably find that there are other ones that I really extra loved. Fragile was the one I had first, because “Roundabout” was huge on AOR radio at the time, and as I got to be a teenager, that’s sort of how I learned about music. I didn’t listen to radio a lot, but that was the kind of radio, I think, that kids a couple of years older than me were listening to, and I generally got my music from people a little bit older. (Laughs) Yeah, there was other stuff I was listening to. I was pretty into Emerson, Lake & Palmer, although I feel like they just sort of weren’t as great, you know? But they were one of the other super-prog groups, and they were cool. I dig some of their stuff still. The big classic in high school was “Lucky Man,” and that synthesizer sound, like a mini-Moog. Everybody who got a synth played that song. And I kind of got into Jethro Tull, but I don’t know if that’s really prog-rock. It was stuff that was kind of around it, at least. But Yes was really the group that I super-loved during that time. Oh, and I really liked Electric Light Orchestra, by the way. I started playing bass in 5th grade, but I was playing violin then, so I thought it was really cool that they had these weird electric violins and all that stuff. It was really awesome. (Laughs) I think I covered that one pretty well.
Yeah, that was pretty good. This next one is kind of related to the one I asked you a moment ago.
â€¢ Has there been a song that you really wanted to cover but that you couldn’t make work and therefore had to abandon?
Yeah, I mean, there are quite a few that we recorded for this, some of them more commercial things that just didn’t quite make it. We probably could make them good enough to make it, but we were so under the gun to finish it, and we had so many songs. I mean, we recorded something like 40 songs. But a couple of the things…you know, we did “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” and that was really kind of cool, because the girl and the boy voice sort of singing it together, kind of low and ominous. That song is, like, ultra-creepy, man. (Laughs) We felt like we were kind of doing something with that, but we never sort of got there with it. We made a valiant attempt at “More Than A Feeling.”
But that didn’t quite…I mean, theirs is just so crazy. We tried, but we just couldn’t really sing it high enough. Some of it is just so high that we couldn’t even fathom it exactly. But we tried! There was some other really cool stuff, too, but I’m just trying to think. Most of the others we recorded ended up either as bonus tracks or on it. I know that, on the ‘60s record, we tried to do an Easybeats song called “Sorry,” but I don’t know if we ever released that. Did we?
I’m not sure. I know the song, though.
I remember that one, anyway, from the ‘60s record as being one that we couldn’t exactly make work. I think sometimes things that are too crazy rock are hard to make work. But, you know, we did the Ramones on this one, and it’s pretty cool. And then the classic rock stuff, Sue could really do. We kept substituting Sue all the time, and it was really cool. “How about this song with Sue singing?” (Laughs) But, anyway, I’ve rambled off the topic, so I hope I gave some answer, anyway.
â€¢ Did you consider any Roxy Music songs for the disc?
That’s a good question. It would’ve been great for us to do one of those things off, like, Avalon or whatever. That was a really cool sounding record, and I do remember having it. I was always kind of interested by Bryan Ferry, but I can’t remember if Sue and I talked about it. But we certainly would’ve covered that. We probably thought about it after we already had 40 things. (Laughs) But we would’ve! That could’ve been cool.
Well, actually, you’d still be safe with Avalon, anyway. It came out in ’82.
You know what? That’s why probably exactly why we didn’t do it, because I’m sure we brought that album up. It would be so cool for us to do a bunch of vocals on something from that.
â€¢ During promotional interviews for Sunshine Lies, you mentioned a few covers that didn’t make the cut, including “Werewolves of London” and “Beast of Burden.” What happened to those?
Oh, “Werewolves” could really be good, but everybody just kind of felt that it was too much like the original. I sang it, but it just was…it wasn’t too much, but it just didn’t sort of have a thing that made it great. We did a bunch of weird background vocals with Sue that are kind of funny and cool, and once again, I think that would be come about if we’d just set the time to wrap it up. That was one we were really excited about doing, because it was so fun to relive it, but for some reason, it just didn’t quite make the cut in the end.
So that one was not actually finished…?
Well, pretty finished. It just isn’t, like, a final mix. It really just needs a final go-through. And with “Beast of Burden,” it wasn’t even really that it wasn’t super-cool, we just felt that…over time, we realized how many other people had covered it, and there were other things that we just felt were more important to put on. But, again, that one’s pretty good. It’s got a lot of cool stuff on it.
â€¢ Will these additional covers turn up somewhere down the line?
I think they should. I mean, it wouldn’t be very hard to finish them. Like I said, there are 10 additional tracks that are going to be iTunes exclusives or something, and those include a Gram Parsons song, “A Song for You,” and they have an amazing James Taylor song sung by Sue with me doing background vocals. It’s called “You Can Close Your Eyes.” It’s really great, and Greg Liesz does the finger-picking. It’s really like a Sue solo thing, it’s so great of her. And then there are all of the new-wavy things I mentioned. There’s “I Wanna Be Sedated” and “You Say You Don’t Love Me,” by the Buzzcocks. You know, I would’ve done XTC, and there were Elvis Costello things that we didn’t end up putting on there. We did a version of “Accidents will Happen.” It’s really cool, and it had a cool vocal, but, again, it just didn’t quite make it. It wasn’t bad. But we have “Peace, Love and Understanding” on the bonus tracks, which sort of hits both Nick Lowe and Elvis.
Did the Pillowcase EP come out on CD, or was it strictly on vinyl?
Good question. I think…God, I think it might be both, actually. It has to have been both. Someone told me they’re going to do one on this, but I was told that there wasn’t going to be any vinyl.
Yeah, actually, that was another question…
â€¢ Is there going to be another Pillowcase EP?
Well, that would be really cool. Ric Menck, who plays drums with me, he mentioned that they told him something about how maybe they were going to do one, but that was the first I knew about it, and it could just have been Shout kind of checking on what it would mean or cost. You know, I know that, a year ago, when I was putting out Sunshine Lies, everybody was, like, “Vinyl, vinyl, vinyl!” But this year, they were, like, “No vinyl!” (Laughs) So I just think that there’s this feeling like vinyl is selling really well, but the amounts are really, really small.
Several people asked approximately the same question, which was basically…
â€¢ Are you ever going to round up all of the various B-sides, rarities, and soundtrack inclusions onto one set for the fans?
I hope so!
For example, one of the Popdose writers said he thought he heard you guys doing “With A Little Help From My Friends” on the “Imagine That” soundtrack.
No, that wasn’t us…but that would be awesome! (Laughs) But we did do “Got To Get You Into My Life” for that. And, you know, there are other things from the sessions from this record. We did do “Venus and Mars / Rock Show,” and that’s pretty awesome. It’s pretty cool, with Sue singing the basic kind of McCartney vocal while I’m doing the weird sections. That’s pretty awesome, and that’s one that could see the light of day. I don’t know why we didn’t put that into the 10 bonus tracks. I guess just because there were others we wanted to put in. We also did “Bluebird” by McCartney, which was pretty cool. Our friend Rosanna Arquette was dating McCartney at the time, and the theory was that he was going to play on it or something, because she was going over to England to see him, but that kind of never came to pass. But we ended up putting Lennon on it, which is cool. And Harrison, too!
â€¢ What’s the criterion for choosing a song to cover? Do you have to both like it, or both at least hear something in it?
We need to both like it, yeah. Occasionally, there were songs that Sue didn’t know as well. For instance, that Buzzcocks song, “You Say You Don’t Love Me,” or in the case of the ‘60s record, the Marmalade song, “I See the Rain.” But she gets into things that I’m sure about pretty quickly. The criteria… (Laughs) …is almost nonexistent! It’s completely spontaneous. It’s, like, “What if we did that song?” “Yeah, let’s do it!” You know what I mean? These records are…I don’t know, it’s hard to explain. We go at them like fans, but we never attempt…like, we could go make albums of all songs that nobody would know but that are really cool to us, but part of the fun of it has been that people know a lot of the stuff, and it’s kind of this little party of enjoying these songs. So some of the stuff…I don’t know. As many times as not, we leave off the most well-known things. It just depends. But it’s very much just of the moment. One of us will call up and go, “Oh, what about this song?” If we even kind of can see how to do it or we like the other person’s idea, we usually go, “Great!” But some things we don’t know how great they’re going to turn out. Like, “Sugar Magnolia,” the Grateful Dead song, we had done a little bit of drums for it and stuff, but we never kind of finished it ‘til right near the end, and then it was, like, once we did, we went, “Oh, my God, I’m glad we did this!” And that’s why we tried to finish as many things as we could, because that’s when you can tell which things really win. So we tried not to cut stuff out until the very end.
â€¢ Do you two have a lot of common interests? Or are you really different in tastes, and that’s what makes it a good collaboration?
We do have a lot of common interests. We like the same kind of stuff. We like melodies that are sort of melancholy. I think we both really like that, when there’s a feeling in there that’s some kind of little twist. People like Todd Rundgren. We both loved that kind of music. And the Raspberries or whatever. I think that I probably get more into a harder rock side of things that Sue exactly does, where she’ll lean a little more towards the pristine because of her voice. She can do these really pro vocals… (Laughs) …and it’s just gorgeous. They’re really nice. I would use this as an example except that it’s actually the other way around, but we were talking about Bread when we were picking songs, and Ric and I were championing Bread. There was a longtime thing with our band when we were touring where there’d be different factions having mock soft-rock groups, and we’d been through this whole thing where we were saying, “Soft rock is cool!” And we can appreciate a lot of stuff on those records. But Sue was, like, “Really? We could do a Bread song and it wouldn’t be too uncool?” So we did a Bread song, and then she fell in love with it…and it’s great, and I loved her stuff on it, but in the end, I was, like, “Should we really put Bread on it?” (Laughs) So, um, I don’t remember your original question now…
(Laughs) Do you have a lot of common interests or are you really different?
Right! We really do. We like a lot of the same music things, and we both love when stuff is cool and weird. We’ve even found…I’ve started recording the Bangles’ new record, and we’ve done three songs so far, and I get to play bass on it, and they’re so cool. They’re totally ready to be adventurous and awesome! (Laughs) And they play really great, too! That’s another thing about Sue: she’s starting to write more songs and has a really good sense when it comes to making up ideas that are sort of folky but also have that Beatle-y cool melody thing. She’s never been really confident about it, though. None of them have ever been really confident enough about their abilities and writing, but when they work together and they’re here, it’s awesome! I’m, like, “Wow, they’re really great!” So that’s been a fun thing…and what made me think of it was that I’ll be playing bass on something, and I’ll play something crazy for one or two takes and do all of these nutty things, and then Debbi (Peterson) is, like, so into it. I’m all worried, but she digs it! They really like cool stuff, and so does Sue, and that shouldn’t be a surprise. I always liked girl groups who were into jangly guitars and stuff. I love, like, the Shangri-Las and those early groups, and I love the Go-Go’s and the Bangles. Their stuff is really cool, and it’s awesome being involved with those people. All of them. Charlotte and Jane from the Go-Go’s, we all like the same stuff. If someone’s cool and into a certain era of rock and a certain kind of music, you usually find that there’s a million things that you all love. In my case, I’m really lucky because Ric is, like, an insane record listener and collector, and he’s just a constant stream of stuff that’s always one level more obscure. Lots of psychedelic freakbeat rock from the ‘60s. There are still so many things that I’m getting into that so few people know about.
â€¢ Who plays what guitar parts in the studio, and how do you decide who plays them?
Well, it just depends. I mean, you know, our friend Greg Liesz lives right here, so whenever it was something where we thought, “Wow, someone needs to be great to play that,” we would get him. My guitar player Pete Phillips, who plays lead with me, he was great to have play on the Mott the Hoople song (“All the Young Dudes”). I mean, he totally made the sound of that! So it just depends. Usually, I play guitar to guide the drums, and then we sort of build it up, with some of the stuff on this record, Sue sang guide as well and sometimes played. But I’ll tend to build up the bass and the guitars and, on this record, I guess I did all of the keyboards. I wouldn’t say nothing was challenging, because it took something like eight hours to learn “Hello, It’s Me”! (Laughs) I had to do it by ear. But it was really cool, the way he plays!
So does Sue not play as much guitar on the records as you do, then?
Not as much guitar, no. She does a lot of percussion stuff. But she does play guitar on it. She’s really good at the jangly 12-string. She played that on quite a few things. But we got so that either I did the lead guitar stuff or we had some sort of a guest, like Greg or, as in the case of “Second Hand News,” Lindsey Buckingham played lead on it. Or on the Yes song, Steve Howe plays the lead guitar.
â€¢ How do you quell speculation about Volume 3 focusing on indie rock, electro, punk, new romance, power ballads, and dance of the ‘80s?
That’s cute. (Adopts fake angry voice) Fuck off! (Laughs) Well, you know, we just think “the ‘80s,” you know? In the beginning, I don’t know what Sue felt about the ‘80s, but I kind of felt, “Well, that might be kind of tough.” But then I realized that I graduated from high school in ’83, so, really, everything that came out new during that time from 9th grade through graduation was in the ‘80s! (Laughs) So, in fact, we found many things where we had to ask, “Was that in the ‘70s or in the ‘80s?” So I think it would be easy for us to do an ‘80s thing. It may focus on a different kind of music, maybe more in the realm of the stuff that we didn’t end up exactly putting on the ‘70s one. I just think there was a lot of stuff then, a lot of groups that were cool to us because of our age. And, of course, Sue was starting to make it then!
On that note…
â€¢ If you do decide to do the ’80s album, would you consider putting your stamp on a Prince song, or would the “Manic Monday” connection be too obvious?
Oh, Prince would be great! I think it would be great to do Prince. He was so amazing. To me, he was a real beacon, just because of the way he was creative and did a lot of stuff himself and worked a lot. He was adventurous. Those things are really cool to look at the records he was making. In a way, I think he sort of took that idea of Thriller, where he was expanding beyond just an R&B record or whatever, but he really did it. That stuff was…well, he’s just so awesome. He’s really got the goods.
â€¢ Was it intentional that the Sid ‘n’ Susie albums don’t contain any versions of R&B songs, and would you consider tackling such material in the future?
Oh, we could do that material great, I’m sure. It was more that we tended to move toward material that we were more familiar with and could do quickly. But it would be awesome. It’s less our realm, but I know it’s full of stuff that I know would be so beautiful.
â€¢ When you do the ‘80s album, you should do some TV theme songs, given how well you’ve done them in the past.
(Laughs) I was going to say, “Well, I’ve done that.” I have a gold record for doing a TV theme song, for “Saturday Morning.” It’s so awesome. I mean, it’s awesome that so many people bought that record, but it’s also awesome that I was able to get a gold record from that before the regime change, as it were, because the more time went on, the harder it’s become to collect them. The people who were there when you sold the records weren’t there when you got them, and you had to work on them to get yours. (Laughs) I’m not really into gold records. I have a pile in the back drum room. I only thought of that one because I just cleaned it out and saw it and went, “Wow, I can’t believe I have this.” But as far as covering them…no, we probably wouldn’t put a TV theme on there. What we should do, though, is do movie theme songs. Sue is really good at those!
This one’s not really a question, but…
â€¢ For the ‘80s album, you should consider the Beach Boys’ “Somewhere in Japan.”
Oh, I don’t know if we’d do Beach Boys from the ‘80s. I just think there’d already be so many things to choose from. But tell them I gave them a withering laugh! (Gives withering laugh)
â€¢ Aren’t you just covering ground that Barry Manilow and Rod Stewart have already covered?
(Nervous chuckling) Uh…yes? Wait, what has Barry Manilow done?
He’s also done a series of cover albums.
Oh, yeah, okay. Well, then, definitely yes. (Laughs) I mean, that’s the answer! The covers thing is funny to be doing, at least for me, because I never cared about covers. I really only wanted to do new songs of mine, always. And even before we did the first covers record, I was trying to get them to just do a Sue solo record and we’d write it together and I’d produce it. But they said, “Well, we really want to do something that’s more of a novelty.” And I was halfway poo-poo-ing that idea, but I really wanted to do something with Sue, and she was really excited about it, and it was a chance for us to do something in my house. So we did it, and it’s actually been an awesome experience. I’ve had to learn so much stuff that it’s got to be good for my engineering, first of all, and then to do so much work and to be needing to make our voices work together, it just kind of gets me a little bit out of my world, in a way. It’s been really great, perspective-wise, for me. When I go back and do stuff on my own, I feel stronger than ever. I think also that I never really learn all of the songs of the world, you know? (Laughs) I went straight to writing and had this kind of empty hole. I remember one time I was standing with Brendan O’Brien, maybe during The Thorns, and he can play, like, any song in all of rock history on any instrument. He’s a complete hot dog with that kind of thing. He was playing something, and he said, “Come on, play along,” and I was, like, “I don’t know how to play that.” “Oh, come on, what are you talking about? Quit fucking faking it!” He thought I really knew them, but I really just don’t know that many songs. So it was cool to go back to all of these songs to see how human they are, the production of them and the people performing them. I mean, even when they were becoming stylized, they just didn’t fix everything, and every single thing wasn’t done to a grid. That makes those records exciting and almost raw and daring-sounding! (Laughs) It’s kind of amazing. And, also, just to kind of see how basic music is and how simple it usually is, even when it has a huge impact. It’s been really cool. I feel more a part of it all than I did before, whereas I used to feel kind of alienated. (Laughs) So I think it’s a good thing to do, even if it’s a sort of a strange thing that I’ve come to be able to end up covering 80 songs or however many we’ve done.
â€¢ Now that you’ve covered all of these songs, what are the chances of an original Sid ‘n’ Susie album?
Hey, that’s a good idea! That’s a really good idea, except how would we really live up, y’know? But that is a pretty good idea, and it could happen. But right now, we’re kind of doing Sue solo and me solo and the Bangles, which is a pretty full plate. And we don’t even know if they want to do the ‘80s album. The record industry is continuing to dissolve, so every little thing is going to be a labor of love. It makes it kind of fun and exciting to make records now, because for us, it’s sort of renegade, you know?
Okay, now I’ve got a series of questions from various people, all of which are about touring, so I’ll just ask them back to back and let you tackle them en masse.
â€¢ Any chance of a tour behind the new album?
â€¢ Any chance Sid ‘n’ Susie will tour the east coast other than major markets?
â€¢ Will Sid ‘n’ Susie come to Australia for a tour?
â€¢ Any chance of UK dates?
â€¢ Any chance of touring Japan?
Wow. Okay, well, there’s always a chance of any of those things, especially if someone offers money that makes it work. Sue is in a really…she has a lot of Bangles shows, one-offs and a few dates in a row, sometimes a couple of weeks, so she’s even more strongly in the mode of going and playing than I am. Although I’m back into it now because I toured last November and I toured a week this summer, and I’m doing another festival in early September. Now, we have Sid ‘n’ Susie shows coming up, but they’re acoustic and they’re more like small venues, just the two of us on acoustic and maybe a third guy. Of those, so far we only have three booked. One’s in New York, one’s in Philadelphia, and one’s in Chicago. Those are in early September. And we’re working on doing some more: DC, Atlanta, and some places on the east coast that are more south. We’ve talked about trying to do some west coast, but the west coast would more likely be in January, I think. I’d like to do west coast… (Laughs) …so we will be out there in some incarnations of one or the other or both, but these acoustic shows are probably the way that you’re going to see the Sid ‘n’ Susie thing. Now that we have two albums, we kind of have enough that we can make a good set. God, I don’t know how we’re going to do it… (Laughs) …but we’re going to start rehearsing soon. We have a three to five song thing at the Grammy Museum here in L.A. later this month, so we’ll start with those three to five songs that we’re going to learn for that. It sounds like a cool thing: it’s a Q&A audience thing, and then you play a few songs. That’s actually on the day the album comes out, I think, which is…July 21st?
Um…maybe? That’s one problem with being a critic: you get advance copies and lose track of when things actually get released.
I know. And the artist never knows either. They move the release dates around all the time, and it’s usually my fault. (Laughs) “Well, we’re gonna have to move it back another week!” “Sorry!” Let’s see…as far as Japan, I would love to go there. I would love to go there again myself, because we’ve just had nothing but a good time going there. England? Sure. We’ll come to England.
We actually got an E-mail, and I don’t know if it was an agent or not, but just a couple of days ago, we were asked if we would come and do a Sid ‘n’ Susie tour with an Australian band backing us up. Sue was immediately, “Sure!” And I was, like, “I think so,” but Australia is a long and stressful thing to do, so I guess we’ll go slow on that. But, again, I want to go to Australia again and play with my band! I was there with the Thorns, but I haven’t played there with my band in almost 20 years. Well, okay, it was 16 years. But when we were down there with the Thorns, it was all, “When are you gonna play?” What I wish we could do is for Sid ‘n’ Susie play and I could play, if we could just make it a whole thing.
â€¢ Will there be a Sid ‘n’ Susie live DVD in the future, so that fans in the areas where you aren’t playing can still get the live experience?
That’s a good idea! Yeah, probably there will be. I mean, I suppose. Actually, I don’t know. (Sighs) Oh, my God… (Laughs)
â€¢ I love Volume 1, the song selection and performances are fantastic, with your voices complimenting each other wonderfully, but I do have one complaint: it’s too darned loud and compressed. It would be so great to hear more depth in those recordings. Any chance of mellowing the next record?
(Laughs) That’s pretty funny. It sounds like it’s from my mastering engineer! The answer is “yes.” It’s very much less that way on Volume 2. The more I learn, the more I’m able to kind of get it to sound the way I want it.
Okay, now we’re getting into questions that are more about your non-Hoffs projects… (Laughs) …but I also know how long we’ve been talking, so whenever you get sick of answering, let me know. I can always send you anything that’s left via E-mail.
No, we’re okay. I don’t have an interview after you.
Well, just keep me posted if you’re starting to get over it.
I’ll try to be faster with answering these. (Laughs)
â€¢ I’m a huge fan and have been listening to Girlfriend for 18 years. I love the 2-disc Legacy set, and I was wondering if we can look forward to any other 2-disc sets in the future for any of your other albums.
That would be awesome, but that’s really up to Sony Legacy or whoever put that out. They’d have to do it, but they have that catalog, and I’d love to see it. I’d love to see the Altered Beast out next, I guess. Speaking of extra tracks, when we were talking about the Sid ‘n’ Susie stuff, there is just so, so much stuff demo-wise that was never released. I mean, really, a lot.
â€¢ Which covers of your own work have you heard that you loved and/or loathed, and who was responsible?
I really haven’t heard that many! I’ve heard about some, but I haven’t really heard many. But, you know, I would never put anyone down who’d cover one of my songs. I’d be, like, “More power to them,” because I understand what it’s like! (Laughs) The only one I really remember is Jamie Walters’ “Winona,” and that was so long ago. I just know it wasn’t a smash and it didn’t make me a hit. But he was a very nice guy. I met him a couple of times.
â€¢ Matthew, you were once considered the guy who resurrected power pop. With the new batch of very young stars in the genre, do you have any specific advice to them, perhaps sage warnings of certain pitfalls and perils that they might not have a mentor to guide them through?
Yeah, the sage warning is that the pitfall and peril comes if you do power pop! (Laughs) It’s, like, the kiss of death! But, you know, I never really tried to think of it in terms of a genre. I knew I really liked power pop, but that was never a title I went after. Certainly, I’m extremely flattered who thinks I did anything for any genre of music, and I love all of that kind of stuff, and I loved it when I was a teenager. Probably it now has more of a likelihood of being more commercial, because there have been those kinds of groups where, you know, even stuff like Green Day is kind of power pop, right? So it’s more normal now, I guess. The groups that we liked that were power pop, like Cheap Trick and the Raspberries and all that kind of stuff, were a little more fringe, you know what I mean? More than they probably would be now. But, y’know, loads of people loved Cheap Trick when Live at Budokan was out. Oh, God, I just don’t know exactly what to say on this one, except to do music because you want to music and not because of the genre and its popularity. The pitfall is that it’s hard to do music your whole life, even if you have success, because you have to keep wanting to do it and finding the inspiration to do it. To me, I’ll always go back to a very personal side of just needing to do music.
â€¢ Before Sunshine Lies was released, there was a preview to the album under the title of Rock Bottom which had a few tracks that didn’t make the album. Will these tracks ever see the light of day? Because they sounded awesome.
Well, okay, there’s a song called “Bad Ass” that we really loved. My managers’ kids got really into it, and it was just this really weird, cool thing, but for whatever reason, the label just really, really didn’t want it to be on my record. They didn’t think anybody would understand that it was funny, even though everyone in the world says “bad ass” all the time. And it was sort of like a fish out of water, and in the end, I did leave it off of the album, although it wasn’t because they were asking me. It was because I was convinced that…well, of course, at the time, we were going to make an EP featuring a bunch of the strange shit that I didn’t put on the album. There was another song called “Stick It” that was kind of a nasty little thing. So, now, at least some of those songs…I know “Bad Ass” is on the vinyl as an extra track, but I don’t know if that got released in another medium. All of the stuff I’ll release, though. If someone gets it together and says, “Wow, let’s release this so people don’t miss out,” then I’ll do it. I’m kind of in a period where I feel like I’m going to make another record really quickly, but at some point when I’m more in between, there’s a load of that stuff that I could put out. I want everything to see the light of day eventually. I mean, it kind of does, anyway, right? If you gave it to someone, it’s out there somewhere.
â€¢ What draws you to your collaborations when working with songwriting or singing partners?
Well, in the past, I never really went out seeking songwriting or singing partners, as weird as it sounds. What drew me to it was being asked, usually. (Laughs) I don’t get out to do it very often. If I had time or I’m around them…I mean, the people who’ve asked me, like Hanson, I met them through a good friend of mine, and we went to dinner and they asked me if I’d do some writing with them. And I was scared and horrified, just because I’m always horrified to do co-writing. It’s not my natural thing to push my ideas on other people, so I’ve always felt kind of impotent into those situations. But I’ve learned do it a lot better. In that case, we had a friend in common, and…wow, most of the other times I’ve done it have been with, like, girls from the Go-Go’s or girls from the Bangles, and usually the stuff doesn’t really get used! (Laughs) So I don’t know. I don’t feel like I’ve really done a lot of successful co-writing. I guess in the Thorns was really the most co-writing I ever did, and we got to know each other to where we had sort of a system where we got through it. But it’s never exactly easy. In the Thorns, we would each bring an idea, and then we’d all work on that, so that everybody felt that they had things that were theirs.
Within the question, I should mention that they specifically cited your work with the Bridges. How did that come about?
That came about through my manager, Russell Carter, who’d heard them. In fact, he sent me something through MySpace really early on, and I was, like, “Oh, that’s kind of cool, they sound sort of like Fleetwood Mac with the way they do their vocals.” And then a couple of years later, I was in a publishing meeting at EMI, and the woman who was running west coast said, “You know, Matthew, you should produce a young girl group or something and work with harmonies.” And Dan, this friend of mine who was working there, had a very close relationship with Capitol, and he was in on this meeting, so she said, “You and Dan could take it and put it out on Capitol and produce it.” So I asked Russell, “Hey, whatever happened to that group of girls? I kind of liked the way they sounded!” (Laughs) And he’s, like, “Yeah, that could be really good! Let me see what they’re up to, and I’ll send you some stuff.” So he sent me this tape from their basement that was…it was like they’d put it on a DAT or a MiniDisc, and it had no IDs. It was just 45 minutes of them playing songs and talking in between them, like, “Okay, guys, let’s do this one!” (Laughs) But it had just this amazing music and writing on it. So they came out here, and I just did demos with them for the better part of a year, and after the first batch, they got signed to Capitol instantly. Everyone there was in love with them. And then on the following Monday, they fired the head of the label and closed up shop. (Laughs) And then we did more demos and got them a deal with Verve, who put quite a bit of money into them, but it’s just hard to sell records, especially when you’re new.
They were #1 on MTVU, MTV’s college video thing, and it was for weeks and weeks, with hundreds of thousands of hits on their videos and downloads of their songs, but…the actual records don’t sell! It’s so freaky. But those guys are great, and I’m sure they’ll hang in there and do really well, because they’re very talented. But, again, I just met them through someone I knew, and their own talent was what got me interested in them. It was a great thing for me, because it was one of the first times I ever produced anything that I didn’t really play on, so I’m glad I did it. It wasn’t the easiest thing in the world for me or for them, but we’re totally in love with each other. They opened a bunch of dates on my tour last fall, and we just had the best time. They would sing with us, and it was awesome.
â€¢ What’s the relationship between your songwriting and the process of choosing musicians for your albums? You’ve worked with quite a few sets of musicians, and it’s been reflected in the sound of each record varying somewhat significantly depending on the backing band.
MS: Well, the basic band is usually me and Ric. I mean, I play bass and guitar, Ric plays drums, and that’s kind of always a given. Then there’s other guys, but it tends to be almost as much who’s around and who I’m talking to as anything else. I know all of these guys and I know I like what they do, and since I’ve lived in L.A., I’ve done less work just because of location with guys in New York, although Ivan Julian and Richard Lloyd did play on Sunshine Lies. They weren’t around. They’d just be coming over whenever to play on stuff. Greg ends up playing on a lot because he lives out here and he’s around, and he can do all kinds of instruments that add so much texture or ethereal things and do them so beautifully and in a really freeform, melodic way. So he does the things that I really can’t do. That’s usually the case with guys who play lead for me. I get people who can make a thing totally different than me.
â€¢ Are there any unreleased Thorns tracks out there?
Good question. I don’t know! I don’t remember how many of the demos they released back then. My first thought to you asking that is that, no, there’s not that much stuff. We didn’t over-record for the record by very much, I don’t think. Most of what we did went on it. We might’ve over-written, but even then… (Trails off) I don’t know exactly. We did it quick, because we each brought in three or four songs that we felt like we were connected to, and that’s pretty fast to do. You write some lyrics, change a chord around or whatever, and that’s it. I think we just didn’t spend a super long time writing more music. The whole thing was really fast-tracked. I mean, I went down and wrote a song with Pete (Droge) and Shawn (Mullins) on Friday, and on Monday, it was, like, “We want you to be a group and make a record.” (Laughs) It was a weird time, because it was so fast, and I was very conflicted about it, because I was, like, “I don’t really know these guys, I don’t know their music, what will people think of me?” But then we sort of got it together and were able to do it, and we were going to make it really exotic at first, which would’ve been cool, although we probably wouldn’t have sold as many records, I guess. And then when we made the record with Brendan, he really was hooked in with the brass at Columbia and was very much, “We’re going to make a huge record!” And we didn’t really do anything to make it feel like that, but it was a little less esoteric than we probably would’ve done, and that sort of splintered us a little bit. In the end, though, we just didn’t really make any money, even though we worked really, really hard for it. It was the point at which they would spend a huge amount on your record and touring, but they wouldn’t give the artist any money anymore. The funny thing, though, was that, even though it wasn’t that successful, they wanted us to make another record. But we just couldn’t come to an agreement with them, because we wanted to make it ourselves and pocket some of the money, and they wouldn’t agree to that. They wanted us to have some sort of outside producer. And, you know, we might not have sold that many records, but we sold enough that, if we’d sold that many now, we’d be at #1! (Laughs) We had a video that did quite well on CMT, actually. And it was kind of a kick, because it was something kind of out of the ordinary. And I ended up getting into some early folk-rock and stuff, and I learned to play dulcimer, so it was a cool experience for me. But it was a major fish-out-of-water situation. Still, without doing that, it would’ve been much harder for me to the Bridges thing, let alone the Sid ‘n’ Susie thing, because…I had to learn to work with others. I was very much the “does not work well with others” kid, you know? I just didn’t know that territory. I just knew how to do stuff when I was on my own.
â€¢ I love the Thorns album and the Volume 1 album. With so many great collaborations, have you ever thought about doing a package tour with a few folks, kind of like a power pop Traveling Wilburys?
It would be awesome! I would love to do that, and I do think about that. In fact, I’ve done it more and more during this interview. First, you ask if Sid ‘n’ Susie tour, then I think about how awesome it would be for me to go there, too. It would be awesome to be able to connect them. If we could get a Sue solo record done and then go out and do, like, where I could play, then she could play, and we could do stuff together…? That would be awesome. Or Sid ‘n’ Susie with the Bangles, or me with Sid ‘n’ Susie, or me with the Bangles… (Laughs) …and the Thorns would be great, too. I don’t know how Pete and Shawn would feel about it, though. It’s funny, because I was the big drag in the beginning, and then they were sort of bummed at the end, so it was kind of a weird scene for that reason. But I love those guys, and I would do it with them. I’ll do whatever! It’s just great to be around still and continuing to make music, and it’s awesome to have made a few friends and have gotten out of my house a little bit, because if I hadn’t… (Starts to laugh) I mean, I’m a hermit, anyway. You can ask those people. As it is, I’m still greatly challenged, but it’s been more fun for me to have friends. And even with that question about who I have playing on things, it’s, like, once I had Richard Lloyd play with me on a record, I had a friend who was also into it! I could share it with somebody!
â€¢ What album were you listening to in the picture you used for the cover of 100% Fun?
It’s actually a monster movie soundtrack thing. It’s the story of “King Kong” on an album. I guess I had several albums from some series where it was monster stories that you’d listen to on a record. I remember my friend up the street from around that time had the “Haunted Mansion” double album from Disneyland. I didn’t make it to Disneyland for a few more years, having grown up in Nebraska, and my family didn’t travel the world like his family did, but we’d go up and listen to the album in the dark. I always liked monster stuff. I was into Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, and all of that stuff. So, yeah, that was my album: listening to “King Kong.” It’s funny when you look at it, because of the way it’s held sort of makes it look like a phallic thing, with King Kong hanging on it. I was kind of amused by that when it came out. I mean, it wasn’t the reason I used it. (Laughs) I just liked it because I looked so happy. Kurt Cobain killed himself and said, “Life’s not 100% fun anymore,” and I was, like, “Whoa, what a line to set!” Life was hard for me at that time, when I started to have to tour and all of that stuff, because I suffer from bipolar disorder, and I was untreated for many, many years, and it was just murderous for me. So it was one of those things where I looked at that photo and said, “Well, he’s happy there!” It was like Ren and Stimpy, with the Happy Helmet.
â€¢ When I listen to 100% Fun, I’m reminded of the debut album from Emmit Rhodes. Was that record an inspiration for you at all when making it?
No, it wasn’t, but Emmit Rhodes is really cool. Man, he really sounded like Paul McCartney! The first time I ever heard a couple of his albums, it was, like, “Wow, he really got the McCartney thing down!” I mean, more than Badfinger, even. But he’s awesome, and he’s done lots of really cool stuff. Sue knows a lot of that stuff. They covered “Live” in the Bangles. That’s Emmet Rhodes, right? Or at least the Merry Go Round. So, no, it wasn’t an inspiration, but I like that. It was very poppy. It was a healthy record. I was kind of a little out of it at that time, and Brendan was very…it was like a freak going to make a record with a jock. (Laughs) He just got me into it, and we had fun, and it was more instant gratification. He liked to do a mix right then and make something sound cool. I think he really did influence me in terms of being around him while he was engineering and the way he liked to hear sounds and make it exciting for himself. I do have the feeling that I picked up something from him that I use on my own. Not so much the moves, but how he would go after this impact.
â€¢ Will we ever get a Ming Tea album?
I doubt it. I mean, never say never. We should’ve done it then, and we almost did. We had actually written other songs and stuff, and we even did a show where we played probably eight or ten songs. The problem became that New Line didn’t…I mean, you have to remember that Austin Powers had never existed before, it was brand new then, and they were really concerned that people would just be confused by this record, and they didn’t want it to compete with a soundtrack album. So even though Mike really wanted to it, and that always would’ve guided whether or not we did it, it just never came to be, unfortunately.
â€¢ You and Susanna are both on the side of the music business where the primary support comes from longtime fans and big breakthrough comebacks don’t seem to happen for anyone anymore. Do you feel liberated by not having to jump through the corporate hoops anymore, or do you miss the attention?
I feel liberated, and I’m sure Sue would say the same thing. The amount of press that comes, even when you’re just starting to have success, is just huge. It’s not that the people are awful or mean. Everyone’s just trying to do their job and have some success. It’s just that the unspoken pressure is weird. If you’re the artist, you’re supposed to come up with whatever. In my case, I just felt like they never got what they wanted, in terms of something that would really be commercial for them. I never attempted to make things commercial, because I didn’t even know what that would be! (Laughs) It was just kind of, like, “I’m going to do my thing, and hopefully somebody will like it.” It is something I think about it. It’s weird to think about the fact that it just never seems to happen for anyone, where you’ll come back, so you pretty much have to do the grass-roots thing. So that’s what we’re hanging on to, trying to find some area where we can still do it and make enough money to make it work. It doesn’t feel like people don’t care about music, so that’s really heartening, and there are always going to be younger people, and I’m sure more and more will become interested in older things. What’s older doesn’t seem old now, though, you know what I mean? I mean, fifteen years ago just doesn’t seem as different as it did when you were looking back from 1980 to 1965. Everything great seemed to have happened in those 15 years, and it doesn’t exactly seem like that’s happened in the past fifteen years.
Well, that’s it. You’ve survived!
Yeah, but wait until you get the call after the interview. Oh, you’ll never have heard such anger! (Laughs) You know, that’s one thing: these interviews are a way that we can interact with the world, and that’s why I try to be so patient. I don’t have to do nearly as many as I used to have to do, so it’s kind of easy now! I feel bad for you, though, having to sift through all of this stuff! (Laughs) Sorry!