TIME CAPSULE: On Matthew Sweet (But Not His ‘Girlfriend’) Hitting The Half-Century Mark

NOTHING LASTS, BUT THIS DOES: Iconic 14-year-old actress Tuesday Weld graces the cover of Matthew Sweet's equally iconic breakthrough album, 'Girlfriend.'

NOTHING LASTS, BUT THIS DOES: Iconic 14-year-old actress Tuesday Weld graces the cover of Matthew Sweet’s equally iconic breakthrough album, ‘Girlfriend.’

Cueing up Matthew Sweet on the ole turntable in honor of his birthday this week got me thinking about time (but then, doesn’t everything?). The notion of time speeding up and (thankfully) slowing down, and how it defines and marks us, after all, is precisely the effect certain music and albums have on our lives. In the case of  contemplating Matthew Sweet and his breakthrough 1991 album, “Girlfriend,” we’ve got a few time-and-number-centric things going on: Sweet turning 50; album cover girl/actress Tuesday Weld being reportedly a mere 14 years old when this cheesecake shot was taken (no wonder she was considered for the film version of “Lolita”); and how that latter number is just about the age listening to “Girlfriend” makes me feel: a yearning and crushed-out mess of hormones; awkwardly sincere and  passionately fumbling (and fumblingly passionate) when it came to making sense of the slightly stoned, dizzy, disorienting feeling of  falling in love (or something close) for the first time.

It also made me think of an unexpected encounter I had with Matthew some years back when I had just done a 180-degree turn (another number) in my journalism life and had  decided to devote myself to writing about music in earnest after moving to Columbia, South Carolina, where my wife had landed her first college teaching gig after grad school. (Such a brilliant move leaving the New York City-to-Philadelphia corridor to write about music and arts in a state capitol where Strom Thurmond, the Confederate Flag hoisted atop the State House — sidebar: since when do countries, lands, or states that lose get to fly their flag anyway? — and, er, Hootie & The Blowfish were its most famous — or infamous — landmarks. There were, of course, the novelists and screenwriters James Dickey and William Price Fox who, along with his wife, Sarah Gilbert Fox, also a novelist, would become our landlords and lovely next-door neighbors and friends).

But we didn’t know that then when we packed up our belongings and made the eight-hour drive heading south across the Mason-Dixon line and major culture shock. Before we even pulled up to the house where we were going to live, a pick-up truck had apparently picked up our scent (liberal, northern) and followed us for several blocks. I noticed the tail and kept driving well past our home to another designated spot as a decoy. The truck slowed, pulled up alongside our crammed  ’87 Toyota Corolla emblazoned with the Clinton/Gore, Amnesty International, and Wesleyan/UMass-Amherst bumper stickers. “Go back to Lebanon!” an unseen (but definitely heard) voice yelled from inside the courageous comfort of the much larger vehicle, then sped off without waiting for our bleeding-heart response. 

SWEETLY SVELTE: Young Matthew strikes a pose in an early publicity shot for "Girlfriend"

SWEETLY SVELTE: Young Matthew strikes a pose in an early publicity shot.

Anyway, I digress. Sweet and his band had swung through Columbia to play The Elbow Room (a grungy dive with a pretty kick-ass sound system as I recall) as part of a modest tour he was doing for his then-new “Blue Sky On Mars” album (which was alas, not the second coming of his breakthrough album from a few years earlier). As was usually the case, I was assigned to review the show for Rolling Stone’s then-fledgling online edition before the tour made its way to New York, thereby getting a two or three-day jump on other national press covering the artist and tour. (Who knew that writing from Columbia, South Carolina would turn out to be such an asset?)

After what turned out to be a very good, energetic, and satisfying show (my original review appears below), and emboldened by a gin-and-tonic or two, I screwed up my courage and asked Sweet’s road manager if I might be able to hop on the bus and grab the guy for an impromptu chat if he had a moment. Even this modest request, believe it not, was very unlike me. (Despite the stereotype of the aggressive news reporter,  I’ve never been very good or comfortable hustling or schmoozing my way way backstage or asking for things, even when they’re in the best interests of the person I’m asking; in other words, it don’t come easy, and never has). Sweet’s road manager said Matthew wasn’t scheduled to do any interviews, and the publicist who handled press requests was gone for the day (the day, by this point, being around 1 a.m.).  But she said she would take him my request and disappeared inside his massive, gleaming tour bus. I waited at the curb with a fellow fan and friend of mine. A few minutes clicked by. Then a few more. All of a sudden, the door swung open. She re-appeared in the doorway and beckoned me on board. Inside, she introduced me to Matthew, who was wearing a “Mopar” trucker-style cap (a nod, I thought, to his beloved purple Dodge Challenger). Weirdly, in retrospect, he was alone. (I’m guessing the band was at the bar or, ah, tied up with company elsewhere).

A BEAST OF A FOLLOW-UP TO 'GIRLFRIEND'

A BEAST OF A FOLLOW-UP TO ‘GIRLFRIEND’: A tangerine orange version of a cover that was issued in four of ’em (orange, purple, blue, and mustard)

We soon sat down and I began winging it with no prepared, thought-out questions for a proper interview — not the way I usually like to go about interviewing someone. But Matthew was casual, friendly, and down to earth, and our conversation flowed easily and naturally. Sweet seemed relaxed and in good spirits because the show had gone well. Being careful not to make it too obvious that what I really wanted to do was grill him about “Girlfriend,” we chatted about the new album (which he was promoting) and tour before I took the plunge.  I asked how a record so vital and vivacious like “Girlfriend” could possibly come from the same guy whose previous records were such, well, banal middle-of-the-road fare (no, I didn’t put it to him that way). Matthew told me was going through a rough patch when he made it — not the least of which was giving up on the idea that his music was ever going to find a fan base. Also, it turns out, he had just split from his wife.

Although divorce certainly sucks, it does, apparently, have its artistic advantages. Much of the album’s material, he said, was wrought from that specific experience and a low personal period in general.  Thankfully, it seemed, those  darker days were behind him. I left his bus elated and relieved that, at least in Matthew’s case, it wasn’t a mistake to meet your heroes (or, if not heroes exactly, people whose work you respected and admired). Small talk aside, here’s the meat of our conversation, much of which was subsequently published online by Rolling Stone as a Q&A that ran alongside my concert review.  Following the Q&A are two additional Sweet pieces:  that original concert review for Rolling Stone, as well as a subsequent feature profile I wrote on Matthew for Stuff@Night magazine in Boston when I caught up with him by phone a couple of years later.

PIANO MAN: Sweetly tinkling the ivories circa 'Blue Sky On Mars'

PIANO MAN: Sweetly tinkling the ivories circa ‘Blue Sky On Mars’

 

Matthew Sweet Q & A For RollingStone.com:

The title of Matthew Sweet’s forthcoming album, “Blue Sky On Mars” (Zoo Entertainment) is an apt one. Sounding, as it does, like the vintage science fiction movies Sweet loves, the title conjures a visual equivalent to the Technicolor pop landscape the songwriter has crafted with alarming ease over the course of his last three albums. The title also serves a telling metaphor for Sweet’s best work, where the otherworldly intermingles with the familiar.

Sweet’s is a universe where ruminations on God’s existence are linked with childhood monsters, lovers’ betrayals, and a healthy (or perhaps not so healthy) dose of self-loathing. But then again, you probably knew that. Songs like “Someone To Pull The Trigger,” “Sick of Myself” and “The Ugly Truth” pretty much say it all.

In anticipation of the March 25 release of “Blue Sky On Mars,” which was recorded with “100% Fun” producer Brendan O’Brien in Atlanta, Sweet is in the midst of a 20-date “mini-tour” trying out his new material, as well as re-acquainting himself with the old.

After a recent show at the Elbow Room, a 400-capacity rock club in Columbia, South Carolina, Sweet took some time out to talk about the new disc; how divorce led to his 1991 breakthrough album “Girlfriend”; and how sometimes, there’s nothing like a good cortisone shot in the ass to shake you out of your doldrums.

Rollingstone.com: So how are things going so far, on this “mini-tour”?

Matthew Sweet: It’s gone pretty well for people not knowing the songs or the album yet. People seem to like the songs, which I’m happy about. We’ve gotten a really warm welcome from the audience.

RS.com: What’s your assessment of how the new material is sounding live, now that you’re performing them and incorporating them in with the older material?

MS: It’s kind of hard to say. But I think this new record translates really well live, actually. The last record (“100% Fun”) was more complex, and there was all sorts of stuff going on in the songs that was a little harder to capture on stage. This new CD is simpler, I think. Maybe more straightforward.

GOODFRIEND GIVEAWAY: The cover of a companion disc of early demos, takes, mixes, and live covers was issued to press and radio to promote the 'Girlfriend' album. It quickly became a sought-after collectible, and was eventually released as a bonus disc, as part of the Legacy deluxe reissue of that album.

GOODFRIEND GIVEAWAY: The cover of a companion disc of early demos, takes, mixes, and live covers was issued to press and radio to promote the ‘Girlfriend’ album. It quickly became a sought-after collectible, and was eventually released as a bonus disc, as part of the Legacy deluxe reissue of that album.

RS.com: How did you choose which songs you were going to perform on this tour?

MS: We just kind of voted as a band to see which ones we liked and right now, we’re just seeing how they work. We don’t have a definite set list or anything.

RS.com: You played a David Bowie cover tonight, “Moonage Daydream.” What struck you about that one as far as deciding to perform it?

MS: Yeah, the Bowie tune — I really liked playing that one — and the other one we did, “Waterloo Sunset” by the Kinks, was something I was really into listening to for awhile. It’s a really pretty song. I’ve always listened to those songs. Especially when I was growing up, I listened to those songs a lot.

RS.com: Let’s talk about the new album, “Blue Sky On Mars.” I understand that you recorded it in Atlanta with Brendan O’Brien and wound up playing most of the instruments yourself. How did you come to that decision? Was it a big departure for you in terms of how you wrote the material or conceived of it, knowing you were going to handle most of the instruments?

MS: Well, on my records I usually play a lot of the stuff. But yeah, on this record I play all the guitars. I just hope that people like the songs and don’t miss the lead guitar too much (laughs sheepishly).

RS.com: Well, you DO have great taste in lead guitarists.

MS: Thank you. You know, originally, I was going to make the whole record at home and the idea behind that was just to try something different. And I started doing that but Brendan (O’Brien) told me that I was way, way behind schedule in terms of pulling all the material together. So, ultimately, we decided to go into the studio and do it. But I still continued to record at home, and in fact, the slowest songs on the record were recorded at home.

RS.com: Where do you see “Blue Sky” fitting in with your catalog?

MS: I think this one’s more fun than “100% Fun.” It’s funny, because people saw that album cover and thought it was going to be a lot lighter than “Altered Beast.” But then …

RS.com: They heard songs like “Sick of Myself.”

MS: Yeah, right (laughs).

RS.com: What’s it feel like to be out on the road again? Are some nights better than others? It seemed like you were really enjoying yourself up there tonight.

FEELING BLUE? Blue Sky On Mars, Violet Light On Matthew

FEELING BLUE? Blue Sky On Mars, Violet Light On Matthew

MS: It’s actually been feeling really good, but last night I was very sick. But I didn’t want to have to cancel any dates on this tour, so I finally had to get a cortisone shot just to play. Before, it was hard to cover up for the bad voice and I just kept getting sicker and sicker. So they finally gave me a cortisone shot, right in the ass (laughs).

RS.com: I want to backtrack for just a moment and ask you about “Girlfriend,” because I’m always struck by how radically different that album sounds from your previous albums “Earth” and “Inside.” It just seems like such a sharp shift in direction, from the sheer sound of it with the 60’s-era stereo separation, to the songwriting which is so much more focused and self-assured. How did you get to “Girlfriend”?

MS: There were a few factors. I was sort of giving up on the idea of ever finding an audience and I just decided to start writing songs I wanted to hear because I really had no audience. And I became kind of self-centered about it. But you know, we had a lot of the same players we had on “Earth.”

RS.com: That’s what I think is so interesting, because the sound and feel on “Girlfriend” is so different, a lot fiercer.

MS: Well, also at that time I had just split with my first wife, so that meant I could move a drum set into the living room, and it didn’t matter if I had microphone stands and amps everywhere cluttering up the room. And I recorded the demos for “Girlfriend” that way, really loud and noisy. And the record was an outcome of those demos.

RS.com: So basically, you lost a wife and gained a record contract. Let me ask you just one more question: You still got the Dodge Challenger (he drove in several of his music videos)?

MS: (nods, smiling) Still got the Challenger. But you know, it’s hard because I moved to Los Angeles and there’s not really many places to open it up on the road, because you’ve gotta blow out the carbon. But yeah, the Challenger’s great.

RS.com: Cool. Glad to hear you still have it. Gotta say, I love that great purple color.

MS: (Laughs) Yeah, that crazy plum!

HAPPINESS IS HEADPHONES: The cover of Sweet's fifth album, 1995's "100% Fun."

HAPPINESS IS HEADPHONES: The cover of Sweet’s fifth album, 1995’s “100% Fun.”

MULTI_TASKER: Sweet plays guitar and twirls the knobs while doing press kit promo. All this and 'Girlfriend' too!

MULTI_TASKER: Sweet plays guitar and twirls the knobs while doing press kit promo. All this and ‘Girlfriend’ too!

MATTHEW SWEET/Live at The Elbow Room, Columbia, South Carolina, Feb. 6, 1997

A scant 24 hours before he was scheduled to perform at the Elbow Room with his five-piece touring outfit, Matthew Sweet was feeling a tad under the weather. He thought it might pass somewhere in Florida. “But then we played this show in Tallahassee and I got really, really sick,” Sweet remembered, relaxing in his mammoth touring bus minutes after Thursday night’s ebullient, sold-out show here. “It was hard to cover up for the bad voice. I had to get a cortisone shot just to be able to play.”

Sweet didn’t have to do much covering up Thursday, when he and his backing band — led, as usual, by the nonchalantly ferocious lead guitarist Ivan Julian — delivered a blistering 21-song, 90-minute set as part of his 20-date “mini-tour” to advance his forthcoming album “Blue Sky On Mars” (Zoo Entertainment). Not bad for a guy who, 24 hours earlier, was forced to succumb to a shot in the derriere.

Though he only played five new tunes during this club date — one of  20 Sweet was doing as part of a pre-release “mini-tour” — Sweet could be forgiven for relying mostly on material from his last three killer albums. After all, as he explained later, he had been sick as a dog while sorting out which new material to play and wanted to give the fans what they were yelling to hear: the hits. Or near-hits, as the case might be. And frankly, what was there to forgive?  Drawing liberally on the fizzy power-pop gems from “Girlfriend,” “Altered Beast,” and “100% Fun,” Sweet offered a reminder to anyone who didn’t already know that his is a song catalogue that rivals just about anybody’s in this decade when it comes to the collision of crunch and melody.

As evidenced by the scattering of new tunes, Sweet continues to be obsessed with themes of, well, obsession and the power struggles associated with love requited and unrequited. Though he’s not necessarily breaking any new ground, few artists explore that familiar terrain with the verve, willfully skewed intelligence, and occasional claustrophobic stalker-creepiness that Sweet brings to the subject.

True to form, “Where You Get Love,” his slated new single, featured an infectious, wraparound hook and Sweet’s unadorned tenor front and center, alternately defiant and pleading. Although he became momentarily annyoyed when someone requested “Evangeline” before he even launched into the second song of his set, Sweet was in very good humor throughout, cortisone shot considered, and his set exuded the commitment and exuberance of someone reveling in playing for an audience again.

Opening with the full frontal sonic assault of “Dinosaur Act” off 1993’s “Altered Beast,” Sweet set the tone and the terms of the evening early, offering his usual contrast of bright jukebox pop and darker, slightly unhinged rock to magnificent effect. And during ripping versions of songs like “Divine Intervention,” “Girlfriend,” and “The Ugly Truth,” he threw more than a few broad gins at Julian, whose knotty, searing lead guitar work gave the implied ominousness in Sweet’s songs their dangerous reality. If Sweet’s writing occasionally recalls David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet,” Julian was Dennis Hopper as Frank Booth. The remainder of the supporting cast — which also included bassist Tony Marsico, and Velvet Crush alumns Paul Chastain (keyboards) and Ric Menck (drums) — was equally adept at helping Sweet issue his brooding ultimatums and desperate confessions with unsparing authority.

IF YOU'RE WET IT MUST BE TUESDAY: A Wet Weld takes a dip in a pool of reverb on the cover of Sweet's greatest hits compilation

IF YOU’RE WET IT MUST BE TUESDAY: A Wet Weld takes a dip in a pool of reverb on the cover of Sweet’s greatest hits compilation

Alhough the sound was consistently trebly and a bit distorted (a minor, and nearly inevitable drawback given Sweet’s penchant for turning the knobs up to eleven), the shimmering, pure gorgeousness of Sweet’s pop songcraft was as sparkling as the silver guitar he strapped on for the first of his two encores, which included the dusky, reverb-drenched beauty of the Kinks’ ballad “Waterloo Sunset” and the Sci-Fi glam of David Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream.” The band adroitly, and repeatedly, shifted gears to accommodate Sweet’s change in mood, going from the tortured nihilism of “Someone To Pull The Trigger” to a spiraling, playful reading of “Time Capsule.”

Judging from the look on his face, by the end of the evening Sweet was feeling a whole lot better.

STUFF@NIGHT’s SOUNDCHECK #51 (Oct. 26-Nov. 8, 1999)

Matthew Sweet’s Pocket Symphony

Matthew Sweet’s ending the decade much the same way he began it: by issuing one of the most lovingly conceived and beautifully realized pop albums of the year. Eight years after Girlfriend stood like a startling, impossibly bright beacon on the rock landscape, Sweet’s just released In Reverse, that 1991 album’s true sequel and a disc that serves as an apt bookend for Sweet’s nineties output. If Girlfriend buzzed with a thrilling, open-ended urgency that borrowed from the bedrock of the Beatles and Big Star , In Reverse is a far more circumspect effort that finds the songwriter wistfully taking stock of his past — and approaching a new century with wonder but also a greater sense of ambivalence.

“Part of the reason I call it ‘Matthew Sweet In Reverse’ is the psychedelic aspect of things being backwards,” said Sweet in a recent interview. “Technically, backwards sounds were the main way of getting psychedelic without it being necessarily tricky … I was also thinking about life and how it’s divided in a way. Once you learn everything, then you begin the process of trying to go back to how you felt in the beginning. There are so many places on the record where that was in effect, like the song ‘Millennium Blues’, which is about my life being half over right at the millennium — living half in one and half in the other — like this mirror of my life sandwiched between these two times.”

Again, Sweet’s drawn upon the pop vocabulary of another era to articulate his present. This time out, he conjures a seamlessly sweeping orchestral-pop vibe reminiscent of vintage Brian Wilson, Phil Spector’s “wall-of-sound” production, and, of course, the Fab Four. “Thunderstorm”, the four-part, nearly ten-minute song suite that closes In Reverse, for example, is an ambitious marvel of moods that recalls both the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” and “Abbey Road.” A reveille of trumpet and trombone announces “Millennium Blues” and offers a glimpse of what’s in store for the rest of the album: lots of lush, stacked harmonies, tack piano, sleigh bells, and creamy layers of acoustic and electric guitar.

PULLING THE TRIGGER ON ANOTHER SONG

PULLING THE TRIGGER ON ANOTHER SONG

The disc isn’t without it’s more raucous moments, however: “Write Your Own Song” is a frontal guitar-stoked assault salvo seemingly directed at critics both formal and informal who’ve placed unrealistic creative and commercial expectations upon the singer’s shoulders; “Faith In You” and “Split Personality” are blistering rockers that showcase Sweet newcomer Pete Phillips’ fiery lead guitar work (the guy always did have good taste in guitar-slingers). In fact, compared to his last effort, Blue Sky On Mars, on which Sweet played nearly everything himself (with mixed results), In Reverse marks the songwriter’s welcome return to recording with a carefully chosen group of musical collaborators and old friends (including Girlfriend producer Fred Maher) — a scenario that’s often yielded mutually inspired results for Sweet and the musicians working with him.

“After Blue Sky, some people were telling me, ‘make a more musical, adult record.’ Then I felt like everything shifted and nobody wanted that: ‘that’s the last thing you should do — make a bunch of rock singles’, ” said Sweet. “For me it doesn’t matter anyway … I go and just write a bunch of songs; it has nothing to do with what I’m supposed to be writing or not. If I could write all the things I’m supposed to write, I’d be rich.”

REVERSE-SHIFT CHALLENGER: The cover of Sweet's "In Reverse" album, 1999.

REVERSE-SHIFT CHALLENGER: The cover of Sweet’s “In Reverse” album, 1999.

Here’s the video and title track from Matthew Sweet’s breakthrough album: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q9aWPTCc2r0

Here’s the video (again indulging matthew’s fondness of Japanese animation) for the terrific pop nugget, “I’ve Been Waiting”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7gQqR8x8dR4

Here’s an audio clip of “Evangeline” from ‘Girlfriend”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vHPjzdFCVBA

Watch Matthew with guitarist Richard Lloyd rip it up on “Someone To Pull The Trigger”  back in ’93 right here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ipMWruDIscY

Check out Matthew’s official website here: http://www.matthewsweet.com/

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