Matthew Sweet may not be the king of pop – the title was pretty much taken before he was ever in contention – but he certainly knows his way around a pop song, and he’s proved it plenty of times over, both as a solo artist and in his choice of covers for the series of albums he’s done with Susanna Hoffs over the past few years. Under the Covers, Volume 3 hits stores on November 12, giving Sweet and Hoffs a chance to venture in the ’80s with their song selection this time around, but it’s also given Popdose a chance to chat with Mr. Sweet a bit more (you may recall that he and Hoffs answered your questions when we spoke to them in conjunction with Volume 2), quizzing him about his ties to R.E.M. and digging as deeply into his back catalog as time would allow.
Popdose: So after the success of the first two volumes, was Under the Covers Volume 3 always a given, or was there any hesitation?
Matthew Sweet: I donâ€™t think there was really hesitation. You know, when we made the first one, they called it Volume 1, which we thought was funny. Because we didnâ€™t even know if weâ€™d do a second one, so we thought itâ€™d be great if there was only a Volume One. [Laughs.] But we actually did do the â€˜70s, obviously, andâ€¦I think by the point we were doing the â€˜70s, we had an eye toward the â€˜80s, and I think we thought, â€œYou know, three would make a nice set together eventually.â€
What was it like doing this particular volume, given that you were actually covering songs by artists with whom you were performing â€“ or at least interacting â€“ right around the time they were recording these songs originally?
Well, I mean, it was fun, really. You know, for me, it was kind of reliving my high school time from â€™80 to â€™83, when I graduated, so a lot of the more indie American stuffâ€¦ Even though Sue was obviously, like, an R.E.M. fan and stuff, she probably didnâ€™t know the dBâ€™s and the Bongos and some of those things as well as I did. So it was a lot of fun for me to kind of rediscover that time as well as some of the English stuff that we kind of liked from then. And, you know, Sueâ€™s perspectiveâ€™s a little different, â€˜cause she was already starting to have success with the Bangles and touring more and stuff. Like, they toured with the English Beat. So, yeah, thereâ€™s a lot more crossing-over into our actual experiences in the â€˜80s.
Was the process the same as far as picking the selections, where you each came to the table with suggestions?
Yeah, it was very similar. And we also just kind of added things as we went along. Some things we figured would be bonus tracks. But we didnâ€™t really over-record for this record very much. Maybeâ€¦ [Hesitates.] I want to say that, once you include the bonus tracks, pretty much everythingâ€™s out. There kind of isnâ€™t anything else. There were only one or two tracks that we didnâ€™t finish. Soâ€¦uh, now I donâ€™t remember what your question was!
Just whether you guys came to the tableâ€¦
â€¦with suggestions, right. [Laughs.] Sorry about that! Yeah, I think we did. You know, we added a couple of things here and there that were just hair-brained ideas, like â€œFree Fallinâ€™.â€ And we did a cover of â€œI Would Die 4 U,â€ the Prince song. Some of those things were a little bit later. But, yeah, Iâ€™d say it was about the same as it always is. Itâ€™s pretty free-form.
Were there cases where you had to pare down lists to figure out which song by an artist you were going to cover? It seems like R.E.M. mightâ€™ve been a tough call.
Actually, you know what? That one was really easy for me, because I bought R.E.M.â€™s first independent 45 on Hib-Tone: â€œRadio Free Europeâ€ backed with â€œSitting Still.â€ I ordered it out of an ad in New York Rocker! So I had this 45, andâ€¦I remember I thought â€œRadio Free Europeâ€ sounded kind of English to me, but the flip side, â€œSitting Still,â€ just had something I thought was magical about it, that made me feel something interesting. So that song has always been kind of stuck in my heart as this thing that kind of heralded what was cool about R.E.M. to me. So I really said, â€œLetâ€™s do that song!â€ Which made that decision pretty easy. [Laughs.]
You said â€œFree Fallinâ€™â€ was kind of a late addition. I actually found that the most surprising of the selections, owing to the fact that itâ€™s the most instantly-familiar song of the bunch. I mean, thatâ€™s one that everybody knows.
Yeah, I mean, we thought it would be fun to sing, I thought Sue would sound cool on those choruses, we love Petty, soâ€¦it was kind of a natural. But, really, on all the records there are a couple of things that are more mainstream, and I think itâ€™s partly because we want to represent a wide range of things from that time, but also, yâ€™know, we have those pleasures that were kind of radio songs. So we donâ€™t shy away from those just because we need to be cool or something. Weâ€™re a little lighter in our openness about it.
You said there werenâ€™t many things left on the cutting room floor, as it were, but were there any tracks that just didnâ€™t pan out despite making an attempt at them?
Yeah, yâ€™know, I like to think that, if weâ€™d had more time, we couldâ€™ve made everything work really well, but I think the one that was most not quite working yet was Squeezeâ€™s â€œPulling Mussels (From a Shell).â€ Weâ€™d hoped to include it, but it justâ€¦ Sue wasnâ€™t happy with her vocals on it and the phrasing was kind of difficult for her, and it just didnâ€™t quite come together instrumentally as well, so that was just was a little bit stillborn.
Has there ever been a case where you went in to record a song and ended up flipping who was going to be singing lead because it just ended up playing better that way?
No, not really. When I pick things, I always want Sue to sing â€˜em. [Laughs.] I only sing stuff when I have to, â€˜cause Iâ€™d just rather listen to her sing. So, no, not too much of that. But I will say that sheâ€™s constantly surprised when I say, like, â€œOkay, â€˜More Than This,â€™ youâ€™re singing it.â€ Or whatever other things sheâ€™s never thought of as being the kind of thing sheâ€™d sing. So I think I kind of get to pull out some of those wild cards for her to sing.
You mentioned this one as another one that was kind of late to the game for recording, but I think the cover of â€œI Would Die 4 Uâ€ may be one of my favorites just because itâ€™s such an outside-the-box selection and performance. Iâ€™d love to hear an entire album of you guys stepping outside the box like that.
Yeah, itâ€™s a really different thing. I programmed the drums like they did on the original record, and I listened very careful to how it was built, which is very important on those records, andâ€¦it was really fun. [Laughs.] Again, it was just so wildly different than everything else, it just didnâ€™t seem to have an easy spot for us to put it, so we thought, â€œWell, thatâ€™s perfect as a bonus track, then.â€
So where do you stand on a Volume Four? Would a â€˜90s volume be taking it too far?
You know, I just donâ€™t know. Weâ€™ll have to see what Shout Factory wants to do after this one. I just donâ€™t know. I think we could do it. Like, I think thereâ€™s enough really interesting stuff that we could find good songs that we like. Itâ€™s just kind of a matter of whether the demand is there or not.
I think the bigger demand would probably be for solo albums from you guys before another covers album.
Oh, yeah. Iâ€™m going to make a new album next year, for sure. Thatâ€™ll be the next thing I do, other than touring for this album with Sue.
What kind of tour schedule are you doing? Just the big cities again?
We donâ€™t know yet exactly, because it hasnâ€™t quite been planned. But we are going to try and have a band and maybe do a little bit of our own material and then do the cover stuff together. Weâ€™re not exactly sure how itâ€™s gonna work, but my guess is it wonâ€™t be happening â€˜til February, March, Aprilâ€¦something like that.
Before I start running through questions about your solo catalog, I wanted to jump back and talk about R.E.M. a bit more, because you actually had some close encounters with the band in their early days.
Yeah, I met them a couple of times during high school. When I was 13, I was playing in a new wave cover band with guys who were in college, so I had access to this club from when I was really young. It was called The Drumstick. Chicken restaurant by day, rock club by night. [Laughs.] It was in Lincoln, Nebraska, where I grew up, and it was the place where anything national that was cool would come through and play. It heldâ€¦God, I canâ€™t imagine more than 200 or 300 people, and maybe less than that. But like I said, I bought that Hib-Tone 45, so when I saw they were coming to town, I was, like, â€œI canâ€™t believe it!â€
So I went to see them and I had their 45, and I had them sign it. And they couldnâ€™t believe that, â€œWow, some kid in Nebraska has our 45!â€ [Laughs.] It was fun. I kind of talked to them a little bit, and I asked them a lot about Mitch Easter, because I knew he had produced their 45, and Iâ€™d heard other solo stuff of his on some compilations that I was really interested in. And they hooked me up with Mitch, and I became a little bit of pen-pals with Mitch when I was in high school, and Iâ€™d ask him questions about what I should do, and heâ€™d send me these incredible tapes of Letâ€™s Active music that was just so cool. It wasnâ€™t quite Letâ€™s Active yet at that time. And I think by the time R.E.M. came back, theyâ€™d put out the Chronic Town EP, and I think it was that either on that tour or maybe the next one â€“ I was still in high school, anyway â€“ that Letâ€™s Active was opening up for them, because they were going to be putting out a record on I.R.S. So seeing Letâ€™s Active in concert was really exciting for me, too.
I gave tapes to everybody of the little four-tracks I was working on, and they were really encouraging about it, which meant a lot to me â€˜cause these were people who were doing original music, which was kind of what I wanted to do. And I would get postcards from Michael (Stipe) and from Linda Hopper, who was in this group Oh OK with Michaelâ€™s sister, basically saying, â€œCome play the 40 Watt Club!â€ And I was just a kid, so all of that was just kind of legendary to me, because I knew thatâ€™s where the B-52s came from. So I ended up going to college there just as a way to get to a music town. [Laughs.] And my parents were a little bit, like, â€œUniversity of Georgia? What?â€ But thatâ€™s where I wanted to go, so I went. And within a couple of years, Iâ€™d dropped out, moved to New York, and started making records.
So whatâ€™s the story on the Community Trolls project that you and Michael had? It used to be a bit enigmatic, but now thereâ€™s a Wikipedia page for it that, honest to God, is more detailed than the one for your solo career.
Really? [Laughs.] I didnâ€™t even know there was a Wikipedia page for it! Well, I can tell you what I remember about it. Michael and I were kind of hanging out some after Iâ€™d moved to Athens, and one day he was at my apartment. We were probably going downtown to eat, and heâ€™d stopped to pick me up or something. And I was playing a Velvet Underground record. You know, the banana record (The Velvet Underground and Nico), with â€œPale Blue Eyesâ€ and other stuff on it. And he said, â€œOh, I really want to do that song andâ€¦â€ Oh, what was the other one on that record that they did? There were two songs.
Yeah, â€œFemme Fataleâ€! So he asked me to learn itâ€¦which is funny, â€˜cause I could kind of just barely play guitarâ€¦ [Laughs.] â€¦and teach it to Peter, â€˜cause he wanted them to play it live. So I ended up going over to Peterâ€™s and kind of very basically showing him the chords that I remembered from it. And then they ended up playing it at, like, a big concert at the University of Georgia, outdoors at night. And I remember I got to go onstage with them and play guitar in the background, which was a really big moment for me. Amazingly, I have some photos from that.
So then I guess right around in that time of doing the Velvets covers, Michaelâ€¦ I want to say he just gave me some lyrics, or maybe we even sat together and I kind of played chords. I remember the recording of it better than the writing of it. [Laughs.] It was kind of sketchy, anyway, slightly mysterious stuff. But we went to this guy John Keane, who had a studio there. It later became a real serious studio, but at the time it was a pretty simple situation. An eight-track or something. But Michael and I went in, and we just recorded the stuff really fast, and he came up with the name Community Trolls. It sat with nothing happening with it for the longest time, and then it was supposed to be on some compilation that didnâ€™t come out for several more years, soâ€¦I donâ€™t believe it saw the light of day â€˜til the late â€˜90s or even the early 2000s. But this is just what I remember.
Well, it finally made it onto To Understand: The Early Recordings.
Oh, yeah! Oh, but it was on another thing. It was on some kind of a compilation. Not one of me.
It was apparently supposed to be on something called Donâ€™t Shoot, but it only ended up on the pre-release copies, not the final version.
Huh. That must it. Well, anyway, itâ€™s hilarious to me that itâ€™s known at all. [Laughs.]
I think the best part of the Community Trolls Wikipedia page is the section entitled â€œPossible Other Band Members.â€ It makes it sound so mysterious.
Well, no one else was on that recording. However, there was stuff under the Community Trolls nameâ€¦ There was live stuff, which was a whole different thing, and that probably had Peter (Buck) and someone else in it as well. It mightâ€™ve hadâ€¦God, I almost want to say that maybe the drummer from Pylon was involved. Or maybe not. But there were people from different groups involved at times. I donâ€™t think I appeared live much more than one time with something called Community Trolls. But I could be wrong. I do think, though, that there mightâ€™ve been other Community Trolls shows that werenâ€™t so much a link to the songs we recorded.
Do you have any recollection of busking outside the 40 Watt Club, or playing between R.E.M. sets at the Stitchcraft? Theyâ€™re both mentioned on Wikipedia.
Okay, well, I guess the Stitchcraft would probably have been the one I wouldâ€™ve been at. I donâ€™t remember busking! [Laughs.] And I canâ€™t imagine anyone from R.E.M. busking! Thatâ€™s interestingâ€¦
Well, itâ€™s Wikipedia, remember. Iâ€™m sure itâ€™s 100% correct.
Hey, it might be! Thereâ€™s probably people who remember better than I do! [Laughs.]
With you revealing that you had a hand in teaching Peter how to play that Velvet Underground song, I guess I now owe you at least a partial debt of thanks: in the wake of Lou Reedâ€™s passing, I wrote a small piece for the Onion AV Club where I noted that my introduction to the Velvets was R.E.M.â€™s covers of their songs.
Oh, thatâ€™s amazing! Thatâ€™s really cool. I mean, I canâ€™t claim I thought up the idea of them doing those covers. [Laughs.] I didnâ€™t go, â€œHey, you guys should do these Velvet Underground songs!â€ But I had the record and knew it really well, soâ€¦ Anyway, I make no great claim. But thatâ€™s still really cool!
Okay, so I wanted to run through your back catalog, but Iâ€™ve interviewed you enough times in the past that Iâ€™m just going to kind of hope that Iâ€™m not going to be asking you something Iâ€™ve already asked you.[Laughs.] All right. And I may not remember having answered it before, anyway, so weâ€™ll probably be good.
Iâ€™ll start generically, though, and just ask you what leaps to mind when you think of your debut album, Inside.
Wow. Uhâ€¦learning? [Laughs.] I guess thatâ€™s what Iâ€™d say. It was interesting, because it was at a time when a lot of people were using multiple producers on a record, and my A&R guy thought that was a good idea. We could just do it bit by bit with different people. So it was an incredible learning experience for me. It was the first time I was in real, major recording studios.
I know weâ€™ve talked before about your experiences as a co-writer, but I donâ€™t think Iâ€™ve ever asked you how you came to write (â€œSave Time for Meâ€) with Jules Shear in the first place.
Jules was on EMI, andâ€¦I believe Steve Ralbovsky, who signed me, had worked there under a guy named Gary Gersh and had worked with Jules a lot. And Jules had just had covers on the Cyndi Lauper record, and Rick Chernoff, who was the guy who produced that album, worked at Columbia and was sort of senior to Steve. So they were all kind of friends, and they were having me attempt some co-writes for the first time. Aside from the stuff I did with Michael, which I guess pre-dates that, Jules was kind of the first person I ever did a legitimate co-write with.
Looking at the credits for Inside, itâ€™s bizarre to imagine any album having material produced by both Don Dixon and Stephen Hague.
Yes! Exactly! Itâ€™s funny, â€˜cause I hear (a-haâ€™s) â€œTake on Meâ€ so often now, but that was, like, his big hit at that timeâ€¦and it really isnâ€™t super-different in the way that he programmed the song for me! I mean, I didnâ€™t really program it for the record. However, it was a big favor to Columbia, and years later I still had publishing guys trying to get me to re-do it and stuff because they believed in it so much. [Laughs.] Itâ€™s fun to have that 45 on Columbia.
How do you look back at the sound of that material, given that itâ€™s not necessarily as organic as your later stuff would be?
Yeah, I mean, I was still kind of trying to find out who I was. They came to me and said, â€œWe think you should be a solo artist, under your real name,â€ and that was kind of new to me. I kind of just didnâ€™t know who I would be as myself exactly. [Laughs.] So I just kind of tried anything, and by the time the second record was made, it was more of one team that sort of made it. And then I started playing drums on my demos at home, and my manager said, â€œThat sounds like Neil Young and Crazy Horse!â€ And I hadnâ€™t really registered that stuff yet, so he sent me tapes and things, and I was, like, â€œOmigod, this music is great!â€ And then we eventually went to no clicks and no machines, and that worked really well for Girlfriend.
Before we leave Inside behind, one last question about â€œSave Time for Me.â€ Did you and Jules write that at the same time you wrote â€œEverythingâ€™s Different Nowâ€?
Iâ€¦ [Hesitates.] Wow, good question! Iâ€¦donâ€™t think so. I think â€œEverythingâ€™s Different Nowâ€ was later. But it could be the same time. Iâ€™m honestly not entirely clear on that. But I know it had been around for awhile before Aimee (Mann) covered it.
Okay, so based on what you said a moment ago, it sounds like Earth was the start of you beginning to decide what you wanted your sound to be.
Yeah, I think so. It was getting there. It was a lot of the elements that are there on Girlfriend, like the guitar playersâ€¦my friend Fred (Maher) and stuff. The big difference was real drums, more of a free-form approach, and then it just kind of became real.
Fred wasnâ€™t a bad guy to have in your back pocket, either, given his back catalog.[Laughs.] No, Fredâ€™s awesome. Heâ€™s probably going through some bigâ€¦ I havenâ€™t talked to him since Lou Reed died, but, you know, during that time we were all in New York and hanging a lot, Fred produced the New York album for Lou Reed. So heâ€™s probably been inundated with Lou Reed stuff.
Did you have any interaction with Lou yourself?
I didnâ€™t, really, other than one degree of separation with Fred. Iâ€™m trying to remember if I even met him. I may have met him very briefly, but I donâ€™t have a strong memory of it. But I was a huge fan, obviously. And if I remember correctly, that album was viewed as a sort of return-to-form thing for Lou, and he had a lot of biting lyrics and stuff on it.
So with Girlfriend, itâ€™s obviously looked back on as a touchstone of your career, but does it often feel like an albatross as well, with people saying things like, â€œYeah, itâ€™s all right, but itâ€™s no Girlfriendâ€?
No, not really, â€˜cause I still feel very much the person that made that record, and I feel really close to it, soâ€¦Iâ€™m really just glad and proud that people like it. [Laughs.] You know what I mean? I know that thereâ€™s that thingâ€¦ And I do get this question a lot now, where itâ€™s, like, â€œDo you just want to go crazy because you still have to sing those songs?â€ Or whatever. But since weâ€™ve been playing the whole album the last couple of years, it just has been easy and good and a really, really great experience for the audience to come back. A lot of people have a sort of emotional slant to their attachment due to whatever they had going on in relationships at the time, so there seems to be a really strong bond, audience-wise, when people come to see it, andâ€¦itâ€™s really nice.
With Altered Beast, you had a handful of impressive guest stars in the mix.
Oh, now Iâ€™m trying to think who was on that. [Laughs.] Well, Richard Dashut was my co-producer, and thatâ€™s how Mick Fleetwood played on a couple of things.
You also had Jody Stephens of Big Star.
Yeah, because Iâ€™d met Jody throughâ€¦probably through Bud Scoppa or somebody at Zoo. Eventually, Zoo did a bunch of stuff with Big Star. I think maybe what happened was that Jody sat in on a cover of a Big Star song at a club in L.A., and then we had him play on the recordâ€¦or it may have been the opposite way, Iâ€™m not exactly sure. But I think it was maybe â€œDonâ€™t Lie to Meâ€ that we played. Heâ€™s just the nicest guy in the world. And Pete Thomas I met in London prior to making Altered Beast, when Ivan Julian and I went over there and did the recording of â€œSomeone to Pull the Trigger,â€ which Iâ€™d just written while I was on tour. So itâ€™s actually our BBC recording of that thatâ€™s on the record. We just used the one from BBC and got the rights. But Ivan knew Pete from, I guess, maybe the Voidoids touring with Elvis (Costello) or something like that, so Pete came down to BBC and played with us, and we hit it off. And by the time I was in L.A. making Altered Beast, I believeâ€¦maybe he had moved here. Or maybe he flew here. God, I just donâ€™t really remember if we brought him in from England or how exactly it worked. But for the last many years, heâ€™s lived in L.A. He was definitely doing a lot of session work at the time, too.
Altered Beast was also the first time youâ€™d worked with Nicky Hopkins, too, wasnâ€™t it?
Yes! Nicky was another incredible thing. I wanted to have some piano, andâ€¦Anton FIer, who played some drums on my first record, and I did some stuff with Golden Palominos, his group, he gave me as a gift one time Nicky Hopkinsâ€™ album The Tin Man Was a Dreamer. And I was just in love with that album. It has some really great stuff on it. So by the time I was in L.A. and could kind of get whoever I wanted, I was, like, â€œNicky Hopkins!â€ And it turned out he lived in L.A., and not only was he one of the sweetest guys Iâ€™ve ever met, but heâ€™s just so super talented. Him and Greg Leisz did a lot of just jams with pedal steel and piano that somewhere I have on DAT tapes. [Laughs.] But I have very, very fond memories of him. A really, really talented guy. And he would come in and listen to the songs without playing the piano, and then heâ€™d go and play, like, perfect, without ever having touched the keys. He didnâ€™t have to figure out where anything was. He just knew in his head. It was unbelievable. Iâ€™d never really seen anything quite like that, where it was just instant photo memory without touching an instrument.
A lot of people cite Girlfriend as your definitive album, but when it comes to your best full-on power pop album, I tend to go with 100% Fun.
Itâ€™s got a little more power. I think itâ€™s something Brendan (Oâ€™Brien) helped me get more on a record, more the way I was live at that time. I was always kind of louder and more rock than Girlfriend represented, once we were really playing it live a lot for a few years. Brendan kind of helped me capture a little more of that rowdiness.
What are your thoughts on Blue Sky on Mars? It didnâ€™t have quite the same impact as its predecessor.
You know, itâ€™s interesting. Itâ€™s kind ofâ€¦ I was trying to kind of get into some more sounds and a little different kind of thing, and I thinkâ€¦ Iâ€™d have to go back to that album and sort of listen to it. I donâ€™t have a clear memory of how much sort of emotionally-deep stuff there is on it. I remember it being a little more poppy and kinetic. We had a pretty good-sized radio song from it (â€œWhere You Get Loveâ€) and a video and stuff, so it had some good exposure. Whatâ€™s interesting, though, is that right before that, Roman Coppola brought his young nephew, Jason Schwartzman, to see my shows â€“ it wouldâ€™ve been during 100% Fun â€“ and I got to know Jason a little bit in later years. Weâ€™d run into each other around L.A. And Blue Sky on Mars was the album heâ€™s obsessed with. It was the one where he was old enough that he really got into it. So there are people that, if thatâ€™s the one they first knew, they really, really like it. But I think of it as being more fun and not as moody as some of my thingsâ€¦although Iâ€™m sure if I went through it, thereâ€™s probably some moody things. [Laughs.]
Iâ€™ve always felt that In Reverse is an underrated record. Sonically, it seemed like you were really trying something different.
Well, Jim Scottâ€™s incredible, the engineer that did that record, and the sound owes a lot to him. I was doing some demos at the time where I tried to do a Spector-type thing of doubling a lot of instruments, like three pianos, three guitars, three everything…if not more! So we kind of attempted to do a Spector-type thing in the studio. Carol Kaye came and played crazy bass on it. She was amazing. And I learned to play bass out of a Carol Kaye bass book, so that was amazing. And we did some things with, like, two drummers and whole big group of people, multiple pianos and all this stuff. And maybe we only did a handful of songs that were really that huge group, but we had some amazing experiences during the making of it.
At one point, Brian Wilson was next door, in the original little room that they did Pet Sounds in, and one night we got him to listen to one of the songs we were working on. I want to say it was â€œI Should Never Have Let You Go,â€ kind of a sing-songy thing with a bunch of vocals and stuff, and we did the Spector-type sound on it. And they got Brian to come in and listen to it, with all of us in the room. Fred Maher was there and Jim Scott and Greg Lieszâ€¦and itâ€™s great they were all there, because itâ€™s confirmed that this happened. [Laughs.] We played him the song, and â€“ literally â€“ Brian jumped up out of his chair when it was done, and he said, â€œI love it! I just fucking love it!â€ He started, like, going on about some chord change in it or whatever, and we just couldnâ€™t believe it. It was the greatest night of our life, yâ€™know? Because you never know, really, what Brianâ€™s gonna be like at any given time, or whether to expect anything out of him. So it was kind of a shocker to us. But he loves music, and it was kind of in a realm of stuff that he wouldâ€™ve liked. He was definitely going after Spectorâ€™s thing back in the day.
And then, on a related note, you actually got to work with Van Dyke Parks on Living Things.
Yeah! Iâ€™m trying to remember how I met Van Dyke. I think I went to a live show and met him, but I canâ€™t remember how we came to do the stuff we did on that. But, you know, it was one of my first really indie things. It was just something I was feeling out during the making of the Thorns record, and I was really wound up about the Thorns thing, and Van Dyke was really a great friend to me at the time. You know, heâ€™s a really, really wise person thatâ€™s incredibly, incredibly smart and incredibly funny, and also incredibly talented. So I regard it as an absolute treasure in my life that I got to meet him and work with him. We just had a great time together. Smoked lots of weed. [Laughs.]
So the big question Iâ€™ve got about Modern Art is how Fred Armisen came to be involved in the record.
Well, Fred and I met on the set of Mad Men when he was engaged to Elisabeth Moss. Sue and I are huge Mad Men fans, and she met Matt Weiner, the creator, and then I met him at a couple of her parties andâ€¦weâ€™re kind of the same age, so for some reason we kind of connect, he and I. Although I donâ€™t know him real well. So we went and visited the set and got to meet Jon Hamm and watch them filming a scene, which was amazing. One great thing was that Hamm had been at one of my shows in Columbia, Missouri, when he was in college, so we both remembered this one crazy night at this club. [Laughs.] Itâ€™s right in between the long drive from St. Louis to Kansas City, right in the middle of the state. So that was kind of cool. I felt cool â€˜cause Jon Hamm was a fan of mineâ€¦and that he knew who I was!
So, anyhow, we went to lunch, and then we were kind of with an assistant who was going to take us into a couple of the house sets where they werenâ€™t working that day, and I saw Fred walking on the back lot. And I was, like, â€œFred Armisen!â€ And everybody turned around, â€˜cause they heard me say it, and then he saw that Iâ€™d said it, andâ€¦it was sort of weird. [Laughs.] So we thought, â€œOh, well, we better go say â€˜hiâ€™ to him.â€ So we went over and introduced ourselves, and he was really nice. Heâ€™s a huge music fan and heâ€™s friends with a lot of musicians. He was in a band called Trenchmouth, I think, who were kind of aâ€¦science math-rock kind of group, I believe? But I donâ€™t exactly know. So he asked Sue and I to sing at a couple of little comedy things he did here in L.A., and weâ€™d just sing a couple of songs as breakers during his sets with him and some friends of his, and we just talked about, â€œYou should play on something!â€
What ended up happening was that he just played some drums tracks with no music or guidance or anything, and he recorded them in a room. Not multi-track or anything, just, like, a stereo drum track. And he sent them to me, and there were these kind of quirky beats that were kind of weird, but that one particular one, it was almost kind of a big-band thing. I just dug the vibe of it. And I had the song â€œIvory Tower,â€ and I just sort of crafted it onto his drums. The structure and everything is exactly what his drums were. [Laughs.] So in keeping with that album, I let things happen a lot that wereâ€¦ I let things stay how they were a lot on that record, not changing things or fixing things or planning stuff. So that was one aspect where I got kind of a wild card thing out of trying something weird.
So can we hope that an appearance on Portlandia is not far off?
That would be great! Weâ€™ve never been asked, but Iâ€™m certain weâ€™d do that. I know Portlandiaâ€™s so popular. Iâ€™ve got to catch up on the last season of itâ€¦
So when you come up with this new record next year, do you anticipate that itâ€™ll be a continuation of the sound of Modern Art?
Yâ€™know, I think itâ€™s going to be a serious album album. I think itâ€™s gonna be less me messing around with different approaches and more â€œIâ€™m gonna seriously try and write a bunch of good songsâ€ and make it like we used to make a record and a little less like â€œmake the record as you demo,â€ as we tend to do these days. Iâ€™m hoping to have Fred Maher be involved a little bit, and Ric Menck, heâ€™s my drummer, so heâ€™ll obviously play most of the drums.
Lloyd Cole, who was my great friend especially during the era of Girlfriend, he and I and Fred hooked up last year, â€˜cause Fred and I played drums and bass on a new album of Lloydâ€™s, which is actually really good. So we were kind of talking about maybe Lloyd could play a little bit of guitar on it. Iâ€™m talking about Lloyd Cole rather than Richard Lloyd. [Laughs.] But Lloyd Cole did actually play some rhythm guitar and stuff on Girlfriend and did a really amazing kind of inversions and arpeggios and things, not to mention he paid attention and learned a ton from (Robert) Quine while Quine was alive, so he can kind of do Quine-ish stuff. And now Lloyd Coleâ€™s son is also a great guitar player! So he can play all that stuff, too, and theyâ€™re kind of a fun angle that I may be able to get involved a little bit. I just want to try to do my best to kind of really get something super real and substantial and heartfelt, yâ€™know?