Monday, September 18, 2017

An interview with Matthew Sweet

photo: Evan Carter
Modern technology, a major relocation and personal loss all influenced Tomorrow Forever, Matthew Sweet’s first studio album in nearly six years.

Among the veteran rock musician and Nebraska native’s strongest solo efforts to date, it features Rod Argent (The Zombies), Gary Louris (Jayhawks), Debbi Peterson (The Bangles), Ric Menck and Paul Chastain (Velvet Crush), Val McCallum (Jackson Browne), Jason Victor (Steve Wynn) and John Moremen (Orange Peels).

Sweet is best known for such gold-selling 1990s albums as Girlfriend and 100% Fun and modern/mainstream rock radio hits like the former’s title track, “Divine Intervention,” “The Ugly Truth,” “Sick of Myself” and “Where You Get Love.” More recently, Under the Covers, his impressive three-volume duet collection of decade-spanning pop/rock interpretations with Bangles singer Susanna Hoffs, drew critical acclaim.

Tomorrow Forever was recorded at the multi-instrumentalist’s home studio, just outside Omaha, where he moved after spending 20 years in Los Angeles. Most of the new album’s contributions came via email. It was released through Sweet’s own Honeycomb Hideout label via Sony/RED and funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign.

During the process of making Tomorrow Forever, Sweet’s mother passed away. As a result, death informs several lyrics (the melancholy, Beatlesque closer “End is Near,” a sublime “You Knew Me”). But there’s also upbeat power pop (“Carol”), Neil Young & Crazy Horse-styled rockers (“Bittersweet,” “Off the Farm”), enthralling guitarwork that evokes George Harrison (“Haunted,” highlighted by Argent’s stately piano lines) and the rustic “Country Girl.”

The physical formats (180-gram gatefold vinyl, CD) are a must-have for diehard fans, since the artwork beautifully incorporates Harlequin oil paintings by Jean Maio. Sweet and wife Lisa have a large collection of Maio and Margaret Keane works; the couple even served as research consultants on Tim Burton’s Golden Globe-winning Keane biopic “Big Eyes.”

I caught up with Sweet, via phone, while at home on a short break between tours.

Q: Some songs on Tomorrow Forever recall the best moments from Girlfriend and 100% Fun. Were you in a similar sonic mindset while recording it?
A: Not really. I’d done this Kickstarter thing, so I had the fire under me to put some good feeling into it. It never occurred to me people would think it harkened back [to those efforts]. That was just an interesting effect that I didn’t see coming.

Q: You really went a real creative tear this time around, recording 38 high-quality songs that weren’t demos.
A: There were so many that unlike the usual [process], I drafted various friends and family to hear the whole amount of songs. The goal was to pick their favorites. It was interesting, because in the end, we all had sort of the same top 15 songs. Then everybody had another few they felt really strong about that got them up to 20 songs. I put together another batch as a satellite album called Tomorrow’s Daughter that has 12 songs beyond the 17 on the main record. That was given to Kickstarter supporters who had purchased demo downloads because I never ended up making demos. I thought I’d give ‘em these extra songs. Soon we’ll figure out some way to release that second album of stuff. Right now, we’ve just been focusing on the main album.

Q: You’ve utilized the drumming talent of Ric Menck dating back to Girlfriend. What is it about his rhythmic style that pairs so well with your songs?
A: The first time I played with Ric was in Lincoln, Nebraska. We went to somebody’s rehearsal space. He really had a classic backbeat thing that was really strong. I’d never really played with a drummer who had the energy that Ric had. Ever since then, he’s been my favorite drummer to work with. Now we’ve been touring together for so many years, we’re kind of like brothers.

Q: Debbi Peterson also played on a few songs. Since you’d co-produced The Bangles’ underrated 2011 album Sweetheart of the Sun, was she already in the back of your mind to use on the rest?
A: Debbi’s drumming is always really strong. I did just think, ‘Ric can’t do it, I’ll see if Debbi will.’ Honestly, I didn’t expect anyone to want to travel out here to [Nebraska] and record. We can do everything else over the internet. With drums, I need to guide them through my ideas so that I’ll have what I need to build up the song. She was willing to come out here. That particular batch of songs had a whole lot of slow things. A lot of it is on Daughter. Some of those made it on the main record. The most upbeat thing we did was “Come Correct,” which came out really well and had a [distinct] feeling because of her drumming.

Q: When you sent songs out to the various musicians to add their magic, didn’t you basically give them free reign and once you got the results back, you were pleased with everything they came up with?
A: I was always happy and ‘magic’ is a good way to put it. I think when you get something pure from someone who’s a musician, they’ll do naturally what they’re good at, you know? One of the earliest lessons I think I learned in the studio was ‘don’t take someone and try to force them to be a certain way.’ Instead, get people who have their ‘thing’ and let them do it. That had brought me really good results over the years and worked really well [here]. I think saying, ‘Play what you feel,’ yielded really good stuff.

Q: On several tracks, there are four guitarists including yourself. When it came to the solos, how did you end up metering those out?
A: I mostly gave different songs to different people in terms of solos. Mostly there aren’t people doing a solo that I had to pick between. In fact, the song that I had both James and Victor do was “The Searcher,” a sort of surf song. Even though they both played their take on it, I ended up using them as a back and forth thing, even though they never heard what the other one did. It works like a call and response thing. Mostly, I didn’t have that. Whoever had the song and could put a solo on it, did. On some songs, Val played around solos that were already there or along with them, things with the electric slide guitar. Some main parts. A lot of things, he and John mixed together and it’s pretty cool. John had done his parts and Val came in and did this overlay kind of thing.

Q: “Hello,” with Rod Argent’s majestic piano work and an amazing outro guitar solo, is definitely a highlight. Were the lyrics (“I am from the future/From when exactly I’m not sure”) inspired by sci-fi at all?
A: I do love sci-fi and physics in general. I’m sort of an amateur physics nerd.

Q: Yeah, I read in the bio that “Entangled” was inspired by physics.
A: I don’t plan to make a song about ‘X.’ Just the little ideas and thoughts about them come into songs as I’m writing lyrics. I have been asked about [references to] time on this album. Most of it, I’ve been doing for a long time. It’s a little bit of me that comes up now and then in the songs.

Q: Is the optimistic jangly “Music for Love,” where you sing, “Any way I can/I will make music for love” a personal mantra for you at all?
A: The guy in the song could be me or whatever. But I thought it was a little bit sad or desperate, where he feels like he has to make music to get love. It’s more like, ‘will work for food’ and ‘will make music for love’ - meaning he’s discovered there’s only this one way he can get love. Say I was a person who experienced my life and the only way I could feel love is from fans liking my music. That’s not the case. In the song, it was a little bit of me imaging this kind of alternate guy who never really got love the way he needed it when he was young. So he’s spending his adult life doing this thing in this weird exchange. People can take it in whatever way they want and that’s fine with me. We’ve been playing it live and it seems to go over really well.

Q: The album artwork, with the color paintings, really jumps out at you.
A: What’s really nice is the vinyl. The package is just gorgeous because it is the biggest display of the art.

Q: Nowadays, when more and more people are streaming music instead of buying physical product, is the album artwork still as important as it’s always been for you?
A: It is. It was an important part when I was young and listened to records. It is weird how minimized those things are these days by just the sheer amount of information on all topics. For the people who are still getting vinyl, people that are still buying CDs, it is important. So, I do try to make it something I think is [worthwhile].

Q: Have you been encouraged by the uptick in vinyl sales over the past few years – especially among younger music fans?
A: I think it’s really cool. When my last couple of records came out on vinyl, they did really well. This time, we vastly under-ordered the vinyl. It sold out so quickly, we had a bit of a shortage during July…It’s still an awesome feeling to have it, then going out to these record stores and seeing people line up, buy that vinyl and have me sign it - a really concrete thing that really harkens back to the old days.

Q: In 2014, you guested on an episode of “The Simpsons,” alongside Sammy Hagar and Will Forte. How did it come about and what was the experience like?
A: It was awesome. Through a friend of a friend, I kind of know some comedy writers who have worked for ‘The Simpsons’ over the years. One of the guys there approached me and asked me to do music for this episode where Homer has a garage band with the neighbors. It was a dream come true for me because I’m originally a bass player. I got to do all the bass parts as Homer did the scenes where he gets enamored with the bass.

Music videos: 

Trick (Live, New York City)


Sick of Myself

Remaining fall tour dates:

9/19 Fall River, MA @ Narrows Center for the Arts
9/20 Hudson, NY @ Club Helsinki
9/21 Wilmington, DE @ The Queen
9/22 Tarrytown, NY @ Tarrytown Music Hall
9/23 Port Washington, NY @ Landmark on Main
9/24 South Orange, NJ @ South Orange Performing Arts Center

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