Matthew Sweet feels like it might be time to take a little bit of a breather and you can hardly blame him for that. “I’ve had so much stuff,” he chuckles, late in our conversation. “I feel like taking a break would be good for all of us. Meaning, me and the fans.”
In the past two years, he’s released Tomorrow Forever and its companion album, Tomorrow’s Daughter. Fans can get their hands on a third album of new songs, Wicked System of Things, which will be in stores for Record Store Day this coming Saturday, November 24. The album, as Sweet tells us, is one that worships inspirationally at the feet of bands like Cheap Trick, Shoes and the Raspberries.
At the same time that Sweet is adding so many new chapters to his body of work, Intervention Records has been offering up an extended look back at his classic ‘90s trilogy of Girlfriend, Altered Beast and 100% Fun, issuing incredible vinyl reissues of all three albums, plus the Son of Altered Beast EP that came out during the same time period. The titles have been fleshed out with bonus tracks, many making their first appearance on vinyl. Sweet accurately terms the new versions as “gorgeous and comprehensive.”
Featuring 100% analog mastering from the original master tapes, the new reissues were mastered by Ryan K. Smith and pressed onto 180 gram vinyl. Album art was faithfully restored by Intervention’s art director Tom Vadakan, printed on heavy film laminated “Old Style” gatefolds by Stoughton Printing (who snagged two Grammy Awards this year, one in the category of Best Boxed Set or Limited Edition Package and a second for Special Packaging). The three albums will also be available on SACD from Intervention.
The reissue project, like all of Intervention’s output, has been a true labor of love for head honcho Shane Buettner. “I love all of those albums,” he tells us in a separate interview. “To me, it is kind of fascinating. Girlfriend is an amazing thing of its own and everybody knows that. But I think for me right now, Altered Beast is the one that I look at and I think by the time the extra tracks are on there, it’s about 75 minutes or more. He damn near had a double album. He could have Smashing Pumpkined it up and probably done two double albums. It’s a tremendous amount of material and the quality of it from top to bottom is just off the charts.”
Fans can order the reissues directly from Intervention as a subscription package where they’ll receive all of the titles as they’re released. Both 100% Fun and Altered Beast are available now with Girlfriend and Son of Altered Beast set to ship in the coming months. All four titles are also available individually.
We spoke with Sweet to talk about a plethora of topics, including Wicked System of Things, the new reissues and the 25th anniversary of Altered Beast.
You’ve got this cool new record coming out for Record Store Day. You’ve got to tell me some details about it — because I love that the idea for the project starts at the core, with Cheap Trick.
We did a show with Cheap Trick at 30A, the songwriters festival that my manager Russell has. I’m a little bit friendly with them from kind of a long time back. They were doing radio shows when I was in the ‘90s and in particular, I knew Tom Petersson a little bit. So it was fun to see them and they were of course, amazing. I just said, “You know, I’d love to write an album and just record vocals and guitar and then have you play bass and then Rick [Nielsen] could play lead guitar. So it would be like you guys playing on a record that I made, or something. And they were like, “Yeah, we’re totally into it!” So I was really excited about it.
I wrote a bunch of songs really quickly in [about] a week’s worth of time and got Ric Menck to come down to my house and we did these drums and guitar and singing of this album’s worth of songs. There’s 11 songs and that’s all there is. There weren’t extra songs. Then I found out that they had to bail from it. They were trying to finish a Christmas album and this was right before they had an album came out at the same time as Tomorrow Forever. So we were both releasing in June [of 2017] and I did this in March or something. So there wasn’t that much time. Rather than have it hanging around unfinished or later on trying to get them to do it, I just decided [to] play bass on it and I got Jason Victor, who I was about to go on tour with, to play lead guitar on it. So the whole thing is just me, Ric Menck and Jason Victor.
I really just kind of made roughs of the whole thing and that’s what this record is. It’s just kind of a “lost record” and I wanted it to somehow come out without it really being “my next record.” It’s something that I sort of had and it was kind of interesting. So I don’t know what people will think of it. But the intention, it was kind of a nod to Midwest power pop groups from the era when I was a teenager and it was guys like Cheap Trick, Shoes, the Raspberries, all of these groups that came from the Midwest.
The album is called Wicked System of Things. Where does that come from?
It actually comes from some kind of a Jehovah’s Witness thing. They have this really apocalyptic sort of vision about the world ending. Like, it’s about a paradise, but first, the world has to be totally destroyed. So they have this way where they take all current events and make it into some idea that they have of the world ending is coming true. It was something I just read offhand and in among a bunch of other words, I saw, “wicked system of things.”
A friend of mine is a screenwriter in L.A. and he and I were talking about it and I just thought, “‘Wicked System of Things,’ that sounds really cool” and he’s like, “Yeah, I really like that for an album title!” So I called it [that]. It doesn’t have a real meaning other than just, I guess the time of when it is is a turbulent time, sort of, I guess, in the world. At least for us here. We’ve got the worst thing going on here! [Laughs] Anyway, it just got pulled out of a random place, the title. There’s a song on the record that has a little bit more of that jargon in it. “Counting The Days,” it’s like, “Counting the Days/ ‘Til the end comes,” you know? [Laughs] And “The last days of the last days,” that’s another thing in the literature, it’s like, “We’re living in the very last days of the last days,” so I just thought that was sort of crazy and I used those words in that song as well. So there are a couple of places where it came from, scary to me, end of the world kind of Jehovah’s Witness stuff. [Laughs] And I mean no disrespect to them.
Another song title that jumps out at me, tell me about “The Biggest Lies.”
“The Biggest Lies” are like, “the biggest lies are the ones we tell ourselves,” is kind of the gist of the chorus in the song.
That’s a very Matthew Sweet kind of gist. I like it.
That one’s got a moody thing, it’s got some interesting kinds of feelings and things going on in it. I don’t know what to claim about it, other than it’s a lost album that I felt was worth getting out there.
Looking at this Wicked System of Things album, you wrote these songs in a short period of time……
….[It was] very crammed together and really quickly and just kind of one batch of things that we recorded. It’s just 11 songs and that’s everything. So there might be some B-sides in there. [Laughs] But you know, I honestly kind of liked it. So like I said, I felt enough about it that I liked the idea of it coming out. And the cover’s going to be really cool, it’s these paintings from the era of Keene and those Maio harlequins of what we call “last man on Earth” paintings, where there’s one guy in sort of a desolate landscape. It opens up gatefold and the one inside is this crazy version of one where the last man guy is standing in a field near a house and his family are around him, the daughter on her knees on the ground, pulling on him. Off in the distance coming is this gigantic tornado. [Laughs]
So it’s like, they’re begging him not to go into the tornado or something. It’s really freaky. These paintings, you know, I think, started out as just kind of a surrealist thing. There was a guy in San Francisco that did it and then people sort of co-opted it, other artists, and it became more about dying or something. Being alone and whatever comes next. But that one to me, was sort of the most perverse version of that with the tornado, that I ever found. So it’s kind of fun that I’m getting to use that artwork on a record. It goes with the title, “Wicked System of Things.” The whole thing probably sounds [more] wicked than it is as a record.
It sounds like the perfect artwork for the album title. That rules.
Yeah, I don’t know that it’s really a dark record, but I guess there’s some dark-y things on it.
“Baby Talk,” is that the Cheap Trick song?
No, do they have a song called “Baby Talk?”
Yeah, they have a song that came out as a bonus track on their ‘97 self-titled record, so it would be lesser-known.
Wow, I had no idea. I’m surprised Ric didn’t tell me, because he probably has every record.
It’s a B-side of sorts, so I was thinking, if Matthew was going to pick something random from Cheap Trick, that would be random.
No, it’s not the same thing, but it makes me wonder if they thought, “Hey, that’s our song, ‘Baby Talk’!” Because I sent them the raw skeletons at one point. But no, that’s just by accident. It’s kind of a rock riff song. And you can imagine why I would have thought Tom Petersson would be cool on this, because it’s kind of [imitates the riff] and you can sort of hear him doing the runs along with the chords when they change. So there are some things where I was thinking about them a little bit, but you know, I didn’t try to make it all about them. I was really just trying to think of that general time. And then I told Jason Victor, “Play like ‘80s power pop stuff” and then he just got “‘80s,” not really like Midwest power pop, from me telling him that. So it has some of these spooky clean guitar lines that he played on it that give it an interesting quality too that maybe is ‘80s-like. I don’t know.
I think it’s really cool that Intervention Records is doing a series of album reissues for Girlfriend, Altered Beast, 100% Fun and obviously, the Son of Altered Beast EP as well. I think that folks kind of look at those albums as your ‘90s trilogy and it’s great to have the extra tracks that go with each of those albums collected with those records for the first time on vinyl. I wanted to have you talk about your involvement with these reissues a bit.
The honest truth is that I’ve been somewhat of a bystander during the whole process, just because I could be. I was kind of busy doing a lot of other things. I met Shane [Buettner, CEO of Intervention Records] and he was great. They got the rights to do reissues from the original label and he really wanted to work with us. My manager, Russell, worked closely with him initially, coming up with the idea of doing a Pledge campaign. Really, someone who has been so instrumental is Russell’s youngest son, Adrian Carter. He is the one who really dug through all of the tapes and called me all of the time and had real dedication to being super hands on. So it kind of made it so I didn’t have to be so much. I just got to listen to the masters and hear these songs that I didn’t hardly remember. [Laughs] What’s so amazing is how they’re coming out. They’re just so gorgeous and comprehensive.
I’ve got 100% Fun and Altered Beast so far, and as you say, the packaging is just unbelievable.
It really, really looks nice. Very, very high quality. So I couldn’t be happier with Intervention. You know, somebody released Girlfriend on vinyl in the last few years and I wasn’t even involved in that one. I don’t think they came to us. I think they just got the rights and put it out. And I would kind of go, “Yeah, I’ve heard that around” and people would occasionally come and have one. But this is such a huge step up with what it offers.
Obviously, printing technology has come so far, but the treatment that they’ve given these records, it feels like if these records would have come out in the ‘70s as glorious gatefold records, this would have been what you would have taken home.
Yeah, super deluxe!
What comes to mind for you when you look back at these three albums now and the period as a whole?
I remember the time mostly in the general feelings that I was going through. With Girlfriend, everything that first happened was new, coming from Girlfriend. I learned what it really meant to work hard all of the time and to be really busy in your life. [Laughs] That was sort of a big shock to my system. In the middle of that, we went right in and made Altered Beast, so Altered Beast was kind of born of a slightly crazy, unhinged-ness, which really is, that I’m bipolar.
But at the time, I just thought, there’s an evil me and a nice me. [Laughs] I couldn’t reconcile the two. So Altered Beast was the most I ever felt that way, like here’s a song from one guy and there’s a song from the other guy. I don’t know how much it really seems like that when you listen to it as an album, but that’s how my feelings were going and I was just sort of trying a lot of different things and a lot of different musicians and being in the studio out in L.A..
Richard Dashut was teaching me all about the different areas in Los Angeles and what the canyons were like. It had a really great history that he kind of introduced me to during the making of Altered Beast and that’s when we moved to Los Angeles, so we were there for 20 years and that was the beginning of a long affair with Los Angeles.
100% Fun, the record was in some ways for me, I heard a lot of “not as good as Girlfriend” during Altered Beast, even though I’d really poured myself into it, it was just regarded as, like, maybe it didn’t sound as good, it just wasn’t sort of as good. So that’s why I ended up getting together with Brendan O’Brien, because I’d really liked some of his engineering work and knew about him through my manager Russell, who knew him really well. Russell thought the two of us would get along really well, because we both love loads of weird old instruments and everything. And in fact, we did really hit it off. But because Brendan was at a time when he was having actual giant hits with Pearl Jam and all of those other bands, it gave it sort of this thing with the label where it was sanctioned. They sort of weren’t worried the way they were worried from Altered Beast a little bit, I think. What was great though, about 100% Fun is that I did “Sick of Myself.” That really did something that I liked, which was, it got a sort of unusual, slightly twisted sentiment, into something that became a radio song. So that was something I was really proud of and it was kind of an unexpected little resurgence on 100% Fun. Those records happened pretty quickly over the course of three or four years and they very much to me, are like a time capsule of that time.
It’s the 25th anniversary for Altered Beast and you mentioned working with Richard Dashut on that record. How did he come on board and what was the process of going over material with him for the album?
I was over-recording, so I was recording most of what I came up with. I guess that there were some songs that we didn’t use. But there wasn’t a ton that I didn’t record. You know, because I didn’t live out there, it was sort of like, I showed up and we went in the studio. We just kind of took our time at Sunset Sound Factory recording that album. I was pretty driven at the time about the way I wanted things to be and not as good as I would understand now, how it’s important to just let things be what they are. [Laughs] I really look back and wish I would have made Dashut engineer more on it. You know, he was really just acting as the producer. I wish I would have milked him more for the sound of Fleetwood Mac or something. At the time, you know, I got him because I was such a huge fan of Tusk and all of that Lindsey Buckingham era of Fleetwood Mac. I didn’t even realize at the time that he had produced [the band] Shoes, which is so cool. But he was a great, great guy and a wonderful friend to hang out with in the studio and a real cheerleader. You know, you can see how he took a dysfunctional situation in Fleetwood Mac and sort of acted like the glue for those few records, the Fleetwood Mac album, Rumours and then Tusk, an incredible trio of records, there.
Tell me about working on songs with Mick Fleetwood, Jody Stephens and Pete Thomas, did you have kind of a vision what songs you wanted them to play on?
I don’t know how I chose who to play on what exactly. Mick came in, amazingly, through Dashut. We were just so starstruck over him. You know, like, this is a great example. If I had recorded with Mick Fleetwood now, I would do whatever it was and just let him play whatever he did and that would be it! [Laughs] Whereas then, I was kind of trying to work him to do something specific. So I feel like I was sort of annoying. Although, we did all have fun together. He might not have bad memories of it, but if I had it to do over, I would have been a little bit more careful. Jody Stephens, I knew, because I’d met him through people that knew Big Star and he would come out to L.A. on trips for Ardent Records, who he was working for. He’s probably still involved with Ardent. He guested on a live show that I did that was sort of a Zoo showcase at a smaller club in L.A. He came on and played “Don’t Lie To Me” with us, I think. We played together live and then I just asked, “Will you come in the studio and do some songs?” What’s cool is that they all sound like them.
When Mick Fleetwood is drumming, it’s like, it’s him. And now, when I hear those records, I even more hear him and the way that his drumming propels them. Same with Jody Stephens, he had such an identifiable feel and style to how he played drums. And you know, I was a huge, huge Big Star fan, so it was a total pleasure to get to do it. Those are the kinds of things I used what little power I’d amassed in that short time, the year of success from Girlfriend, to sort of say, “I’m doing this and this and this.” [Laughs] And nobody said no. You know, it was just so crazy amazing with Nicky Hopkins playing piano on that album. He was just one of the most amazing musicians I’ve ever seen, if not the most. He came in and I would play him a song and while he was listening to it, he would chart it out, without having to go to the keyboard and go, “Oh, it’s this note, with this note.” He just knew what the notes were. It’s like a perfect pitch, like beyond perfect pitch. So he wrote out his thing and then he’d go in the other room and could play the entire thing perfectly the first time. It was the most mind-blowing thing. I’d just never seen anyone quite like him. Greg Leisz, who played steel guitar on a lot of my records, did some of those sessions with Nicky and I. Greg’s a genius musician, so those two were two peas in a pod and they did so much cool stuff. Somewhere, I have DAT recordings of just them jamming with me. I don’t know if I’m even playing, or if it’s just them, I’m not sure exactly. But you know, we’d run the tape when people were doing interesting stuff, just in case we wanted to use something.
Nicky Hopkins, Ian McLagan, those were just guys who were cut from a special cloth.
Yes. Very amazing, those British piano players from the ‘60s. I got to play with McLagan too, he was great. Glen Hardin, who played piano for Elvis in the ‘70s, charted out and played on a Carpenters cover that i did and he was also super-amazing. Like, he wrote charts for everyone. Old school, how it used to be done.
What was it that Ian played on?
He plays on a song called “Silent City.”
Yeah, it’s like a slang term for the graveyard, the “silent city.” It was recorded right during the L.A. riots when the Rodney King verdict came out. We were at the studio that day. I’m not sure if he was even in on the day of…he may have been in there during the riots with us or it might have been the day before. But people were running down the street, like, “They’ve taken the 7-11. It’s on fire.” It was really crazy. All of the looting was going on and we were just freaked out to get to our cars. I was staying at the Hollywood Roosevelt hotel and they locked everybody in. But you could go to the windows and see people looting all of the tchotchke stores across the street and running around.
One thing that’s interesting, looking at these new reissues from Intervention Records, is how “Superdeformed” popped up as a demo in the Girlfriend period and it’s there again as a B-side in the Altered Beast period. On paper, it seems like it was in consideration for inclusion on both of those albums and it’s really surprising that it doesn’t make either one of those records.
I don’t know what the exact timeframe of it is, but you know, we gave it to the AIDS benefit, for the No Alternative album. I think I did it for that.
It was on that record. The demo version came out at some point on an EP after Girlfriend was released.
Yeah, like maybe as a B-side or something. But I remember that song, it became big, because that [No Alternative] record, they made a video of [“Superdeformed”] because that album was being promoted pretty highly.
And certainly in that era, lots of people were asked for songs for one thing or another and in the case of that song for you, as you said, you made a video for it and it ended up being pretty big. It’s interesting the life sometimes that songs that you give away have, instead of being on a record.
They get kicked around a little bit, but they’re in the running and liked! [Laughs] It’s good to have those extra things.
Was it complicated to clear that Caligula excerpt that goes in front of “Ugly Truth Rock?”
Now, that’s a complete Fleetwood Mac thing. You know, Dashut would tell me all about Fleetwood Mac and then when Mick was in with us, then they would do these things. You know, Dashut was like, “Sweet, have you ever seen Caligula? It’s so funny, it’s this crazy thing.” He used to do routines from it where they would talk like them. They would have sword fights with each other, Dashut and Fleetwood, so there was kind of a joke. It kind of matched my attitude in the studio, that I would do whatever I wanted. That sort of insane speech in the Caligula movie, which we had watched, I just kind of thought it was funny. It became in my mind, that it had to go on there. I don’t know how much it made sense to anybody. I don’t remember it being difficult to get the clearance for it. I guess they probably had to have him say it was okay. I know in those days, as much as ever, legal affairs was always really worried about getting the okay on everything. Otherwise, Girlfriend would have been called Nothing Lasts. Until somebody told Tuesday Weld, “Is it okay with you that it’s called Nothing Lasts?” And then they were like, “No!”
How did Byron Berline end up on the record playing fiddle?
I think I must have had a connection to him through Greg Leisz. Or maybe we just went straight to him. You know, he was a guy kind of from that era that I really loved [of music and figures like] Gram Parsons and that would have been an influence from that. He was another person who was just crazy amazing. We really dug what he did and that might be part of the reason why there’s two [versions of] “Ugy Truth” on Altered Beast, just because Byron did this cool sort of country one and then there was the rock one with Richard Lloyd. I don’t know, I wanted them both.
I think the Altered Beast album is such a cool left turn of sorts post-Girlfriend. Sonically, it’s just such a cool record. The other record that I hold up in that way is your In Reverse record.
Oh, that’s great. Jim Scott is such a great engineer and co-produced that with us. I’m glad to hear that sounds really good. I haven’t listened to it in a while.
Those are the two records from your catalog that they seemed like they were albums that were kind of “out there” to release at the time in the major label system and I’m glad that whatever you had to run up against to get those two records out, that they came out.
I always felt very lucky. [Laughs] To get to do what I was doing. It’s just crazy that now we’re looking back at it and it’s so long ago.
What’s next? I know you have some shows and then this record that’s coming out on Record Store Day, which you’ve said you don’t really classify it as your next album, but you wanted to get it out there. Are you thinking towards your next record yet?
You know, I’ve started saving up little ideas and stuff for whatever I do next. So I have some of it. But I haven’t started doing any recording. I’m imagining next year that I will start something. We’re going to go to Spain and do a few shows in December and I think we’re going to play a show in London, which we haven’t done forever. And then we’re back in early January, we’ll do two or three weeks of dates with Dream Syndicate and then I’m not sure what we’re doing after that. I’m sure I’ll tour next year, but I’ll getting a new record started. I’ve had so much stuff backed up with Wicked System on top of Tomorrow’s Daughter and Tomorrow Forever, you know, I feel like taking a little break would be good for all of us! [Laughs] Meaning, the fans and me!