Interview: Matthew Sweet

Interviews / News / Special Features / July 1, 2015

Almost 30 years since his since solo debut, Matthew Sweet is regarded as the king of power-pop in the alternative-rock era. Though reverential to acts like Big Star and ELO, hits like “Girlfriend” and “Sick of Myself” transcended both college and mainstream radio in the ’90s, buoyed by pleasingly unpredictable, force-of-nature guitar solos and cheery, lush vocal harmonies.

While having a hand in films such as the Austin Powers series and Tim Burton’s “Big Eyes,” Sweet has consistently recorded and toured despite the MTV culture’s drastic shifts over the years, including “Modern Art” in 2011 and several EPs worth of covers with former Bangles member Susanna Hoffs. He also recently wrapped up a successful Kickstarter campaign for his upcoming album, tentatively titled “Tomorrow Forever” (as of an April update to the project’s contributors).

Before hitting the road for a handful of Midwestern dates in July, Sweet recently chatted with Modern Vinyl via phone about his early experiences with — and current connections to — vinyl, his childhood obsession with monster movies and almost collaborating with Paul Westerberg. 

Modern Vinyl: Growing up, was there anything that drew you to records in general? Were they around your parents’ house or friends’ houses at all?

Matthew Sweet: Yes. A lot of musicians, when I’ve read interviews with people, grew up with some sort of influential parent or someone that really was super knowledgeable in some realm of music. But that kinda wasn’t the case in our house. There were records around, but it wasn’t anybody’s main hobby, as far as my parents went. I have a brother who’s five years older than me and that made a big difference during my early record-buying time and especially during my teenage years when I started being able to go and steal records from his room. He was just a little ahead of me, especially in terms of the breadth of the kinds of music he was interested in; they were pretty wide-ranging. But going back, the early records I remember buying are some 45s. I remember I had “Nowhere Man” by The Beatles and I was really obsessed with that one. Just the whole mood of the song and plus it just sounded really cool to me.

When I was in 5th grade, I played the violin, but I was getting interested in electric instruments. I saw an electric violin and that looked really cool to me, so then I was really interested in Electric Light Orchestra. I remember I bought the “Telephone Line” 45 on green vinyl, so that must’ve been — it has to be I guess 6th grade, probably before 7th grade. And then on the other hand, there were these kids a couple years older than me, so I was starting to hear the radio some, and I was just being influenced by what I heard older kids talk about. At some point during that time, I bought the Yes album, Fragile. I heard “Roundabout” on rock radio, like everybody did. I was really into them because later in 5th grade, I got an electric bass guitar and I started to learn to play just by ear from listening to records. So the other thing that kinda happened was that I was looking for bass lines during that time in between discovering that I liked songs and records, and sort of becoming a bass player.

I remember when (Fleetwood Mac’s) Rumours came out, I went down to Treasure City, which had a record department. It was this kind of a Wal-Mart type place that I could walk to from where I grew up. I can’t remember the first hit from it. I think it was a Christine (McVie) song. Maybe “Don’t Stop” or something. Later on, by the time Tusk came out, I just wasn’t that interested because I was getting into British new-wave songwriter people like Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe and those kinds of records. So as I got into being a fan of records, I really liked melodic songwriting, especially if it had moodiness in it. I like that in the Beatles, I like that in people like Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello. I liked John Lennon a lot. The Beatles album I first remember really listening to in my room belonged to my parents, and it was the soundtrack to Help!. So it had those kind of James Bond-like interludes (laughs), but it had a bunch of the songs. They just kind of amazed me in this way that I could not even conceive how they could exist. It was so beyond anything else I heard.

And I had some other records that were just the ones that were in record stores as I got into junior high. I had Endless Summer, the Beach Boys compilation, but it was before I realized that Brian (Wilson) was as important to me as The Beatles. It was not until I got out of high school that I really started to understand those records that were a little bit older.

MV: I just saw the Love And Mercy film a couple weekends ago.

MS: Yeah, I saw the trailer for it and thought it looked really good. I’ve heard mostly good things about it. What’d you think?

MV: I liked it. For as many music documentaries and biopics that I’ve seen, I’ve never teared up at a reenactment of a recording session before. And that’s what happened, just watching Paul Dano as young Brian go through all the Wrecking Crew musicians for the “Pet Sounds” sessions, telling them their parts in a way that wasn’t that James Brown kind of way, where it’s that old story that his band messes something up live and he makes them stay until everyone’s gone to replay the set in its entirety. This is Brian Wilson leading the charge, but doing it in such a gentle way, getting such respect from these other musicians, who have played with everybody.

MS: They looked at him and said, “This is a special kid.”

MV: I think you’d like it, knowing your influences. The music sequences for sure are incredible.

MS: I like the people in it. My only concern about it is that considering my feelings and interest about Brian, it’s not a thrill for me for it to be about the (Dr. Eugene) Landy period (Laughs). Kind of a not-good period in a lot of ways, but it’s great that they’re showing those sessions.

MV: Not to get too nerdy, but do you remember what kind of set-up, audio-wise, your parents had?

MS: My dad had a good stereo. At some point, he had a pair of Klipsch Heresys, which are really fancy speakers, and amazing sounding still. That was in my dad’s den, quote-unquote (Laughs). In fact, that’s my dad’s den on the cover of 100% Fun. He probably didn’t have those speakers yet when I was that age, because that was when I was an early teenager. I’m so young (in the photograph), that my obsession at that time was monsters and monster movies. Famous Monsters Magazine and all this stuff, and trying to watch these teeny, little 8mm films of abridged monster movies they would sell (Laughs). They would make these radio plays of monster things and put them out as albums. That (album on the cover of 100% Fun) isn’t one I remember going to the record store and buying. Someone must’ve gotten that for me.

But there was other kinds of interesting music around. My parents played a lot of Irish music. My mom’s side is 100 percent Irish so there was a lot of Clancy Brothers and that kind of stuff. I remember my dad liked Leo Kottke and these finger-picking guitar guys, so there was some of that around. It’s funny — I was just laughing about this the other day with a friend of mine, although in no way do I mean to disparage them because I listened to these records forever, but I was going, “Why did my parents have two – two – albums by Captain and Tennille?” (Laughs). It wasn’t like they had a record collection, so there weren’t that many choices, you know?

Some more of them are popping into my head. It’s so hard to do this because it’s hard to remember them all at once. I always do interviews where I talk about this and then later on, I’m like, “But I didn’t mention this and this and this.” For instance, they had the soundtrack from What’s New, Pussycat?, which I thought was really cool for some reason. This weird, fantastical kind of thing. Carly Simon, my mom and dad were obsessed with for a while. The big Carly Simon album (No Secrets) with “You’re So Vain” they would just play all the time, during that moment. We drove somewhere, which would usually be to Colorado for a summer visit to the mountains or something, and they would play that the whole way. They had some Simon & Garfunkel. I remember hearing that album with “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and I would hit my sister’s head to make the crash sound on the “lie-la-lie” parts of “The Boxer.” Like, her empty head would make the sound (Laughs).

Eventually, I remember being in that den listening to Revolver and looking at those Klaus Voormann drawings on the cover. With that and “Nowhere Man,” I kept going back and going “These guys are the best.” In junior high, I got really into The Who but by the time I was in 8th grade, all the new-wave invasion stuff is happening so I’m really getting into XTC and the Buzzcocks and Generation X and all these other things that are sort of power-pop. More of the history of power-pop I discovered as I got out of high-school. I was still in high school when I got dB’s records and I discovered them before Big Star, sort of. My knowledge of American music and a greater idea of all the kinds of music I liked really weren’t being formed until I was writing songs and out of high-school.

MV: You brought up your monster movie phase. Is that something you feel went into a song like “Superdeformed?”

MS: Yes, totally. I didn’t think of it that way at the time, but I found it in a different way. When I think of the Altered Beast-era, I really felt it was like a split-personality kind of record. I was under more pressure than I had been in my life and it was just kind of popping out at the seams, this sort of conflict between being frustrated and angry and confused and then more like a normal, human and loving kind of person. I was kind of swinging wildly. I suffer from bi-polar disorder. It ran in my mom’s side of the family very strongly. She had two uncles who committed suicide and she was untreated her whole life. I came from this thing where I was really swinging, but I didn’t understand why I felt the way I did, and especially during that time as I felt overwhelmed, I was trying to decide my personality in these two sides through the music.

Like, there’s the one from monster things and the one from normal person things (Laughs). And I liked that because it added breadth to the difference of the kind of songs, and that was the thing about The Beatles I always really liked. They would have a mix of moody things and things that were sort of cooler. It’s harder to make more upbeat things or more edgy things be deeper and emotional, but if you have all the different kinds…songwriters like Neil Young, they can do the whole breadth. Those are people I really looked up to.

Now, when I look at it, certainly Son of Altered Beast, it was a complete riff on monster themes and I didn’t go, “Oh, I loved monsters when I was a kid” (Laughs). The record label wanted to put out this thing of extras and I don’t remember who came up with the idea to call it Son of, but I was certainly into it, like, “Good. Make it like monsters or something.” I don’t think I was really aware like I am right now because we connected the two things. My dad would fly on business trips during a period when I was eight years old, nine maybe. And at that time, in airports, there were these shops that were full of posters. I don’t even know if there would be an equivalent now exactly, but sort of like a Spencer’s Gifts but not. They were these sort of visual poster stores, I guess. And when he went through one of those airports, he would bring me a new monster poster. So one time, he brought me Frankenstein and one time he brought me Dracula or The Mummy. So I would put these posters up in my room until it was filled with monsters.

MV: Obviously “Superdeformed” was on the No Alternative” compilation, which I think still holds up completely, from an era that was full of great compilations. With the recent news from the Supreme Court legalizing gay marriage nationwide, can you talk about that compilation and what it stood for? Maybe how it was brought to some of the musicians in the first place?

MS: It was great, in that it was for a good cause. It was a time when there hadn’t been, I don’t think, that many things like it, that sort of had a major profile but that were done as a benevolent thing. I have funny memories about the time. I knew Victoria (Williams, for which there was a 1993 benefit album Sweet appeared on titled Sweet Reliefafter her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis) when I was touring with the Golden Palominos in 1986, she was opening up. I knew her then and she was a doll. We all really liked her, so it was a no-brainer to do (Sweet Relief) when asked. I was in the studio working on Altered Beast and the interesting fact about it is that I was supposed to do it with Paul Westerberg. He was recording across the way in the same studio, this place Sunset Sound Factory in Los Angeles, and there’s sort of a little parking area in the middle and the rooms were on opposite sides of it. Kind of a little cottage-y sort of place, very cool. Somehow I had run into Paul and we agreed he’d do it with me. I don’t remember if we were going to write the song together or if he was just going to play on it. I didn’t really know him though I had been around The Replacements when I was in Athens, Georgia. They were friends with R.E.M. and would always be around when they were in town. It was like a big party. But I never really knew them. I was really shy at that time and had never gone up to meet them or anything.

So when I met Paul at the studio, I didn’t really know him but I knew all about him and his music, and I was a fan. At some point, I’m in there and I’m playing bass on some song from Altered Beast that’s really loud. It was just me in the control room, because the engineer had left and I just had this kind of weird feeling. And I turn around and Paul was sitting right behind me, just sitting on a chair, listening to me play bass (Laughs). It was so weird. “Well, now I can’t play,” you know what I mean? He actually asked me to go over and listen to a mix he was working on with this guy Matt Wallace, who was producing him. It was all slightly strange. In front of Matt, having me listen to this mix, Paul says, “What would you say? Is there anything you might change in the mix?” and I’m like “God, what do I say?” So I say, “Wow, it sounds really good! Maybe, I would turn down the snare a little bit.” And Paul goes to Matt, “See!? I told you!” (Laughs). I had accidentally said the thing he was mad about, or whatever. I just was grasping to say something! I’ve seen Matt many times after that and it’s always funny that we remember it. I don’t think it had anything to do with that, but Paul ended up pulling out of working on the song with me. It may have even been before we talked about his song.

MV: Do you have a chance to sit down with records now? Do you have a record collection at all currently?

MS: I don’t really have a new record collection per se, but I do like vinyl. I’m aware of its resurgence and I’ve done things in recent years, like when I put out Modern Art and had that transferred, we cut lacquers of all the mixes and put them back in for the CD, to make the CD sound like vinyl (Laughs). So we have done some fun things regarding vinyl and it’s cool that now it seems like a given that we make some vinyl. In the very beginning of my career, you only got a CD pressed if your record was really big. And then it got to the point where you only got it on vinyl if your record was really big (Laughs). And now, it seems it’s survived on this indie level that’s really vibrant.

I love hearing it, playing with it and it’s of course nostalgic for just the packaging and the way that we would go in our bedroom with a record and that was your private world, you and that record. I think in the world we live in now, in the way we’re all connected through the Internet and throughout the world, I think it’s just very hard for anyone who comes after 1995 or so for them to understand what that experience was like. There was nowhere for you to go to find out anything more about the record than what you were looking at, unless you found a magazine or a person that could tell you about it, and that was just not that likely. So you heard about things in bits and pieces and it made everything much more exotic and special. You didn’t have film of everywhere the artist went at all times.

MV: For me, having graduated high school in ’97, the ways I’d learn about bands were from reading, or going to see bands or seeing their promo photos, and they’d be wearing a T-shirt of another band. And you’d go, “Who’s that? Who’s Dinosaur Jr.?”

MS: That’s a good one, Dinosaur Jr.! (Laughs)

MV: The art on those Dinosaur Jr. shirts always looked very elementary. It wasn’t this gigantic, brazen logo across your chest. It was kind of drawn by kids, almost like Built To Spill in later years. Sometimes you wouldn’t even know what a band looked like if there wasn’t a picture of them on the record. You’d only find out when they came to town.

MS: It was such a battle at record labels that I didn’t want to be on the cover. They just could not conceive that it was OK. So of course, by the time I was having success, every indie label did it but the labels would just force me to put a photo somewhere or I was the biggest asshole in the world or something. I never liked that. I never wanted to see my face on a cover of a record, but I was forced to have it around. I really did attempt to not have that be the focus. I wanted to like the record. I’d automatically hate a record that was a picture of me. I wanted to like my record and have it be cool to me (Laughs). It’s a weird tightrope.

MV: One thing on “Altered Beast” specifically, since it had a very retro look and included these different colored stripes, am I wrong or did it have a bunch of alternate-colored covers?

MS: There were five different colors. It was just a fun thing since we’d had success with Girlfriend and that made it more fun for the art department, because when we had ideas, it was just fun and we could do whatever. I got a lot of relief from getting things that were kind of my hobbies into my album covers (Laughs). It made me just have a better experience and be able to stand it at the time.

MV: I don’t know how much you’re aware of represses of your own catalog, but a label called Plain Recordings had rereleased “Girlfriend” on vinyl recently and then in the Netherlands, kind of a boutique or more higher-end label called Music On Vinyl is repressing “100% Fun.” Are you in on those sorts of things or do they reach out to you in some way to do that?

MS: No. In the case of Plain Recordings, I just heard someone was reissuing the vinyl. They must’ve gotten rights I guess from the label. I don’t know exactly how that works because I don’t have a direct deal with them. I’ve never really gotten in deep with management on it because I was just like, “Cool, there’ll be some vinyl out there!” (Laughs). But the 100% Fun one I don’t recall really knowing about, but it sounds cool.

MV: Did I hear correctly that you and your wife were consultants on Tim Burton’s “Big Eyes” film?

MS: Yes, it was awesome. For us, it was really kind of surreal because we had been collecting the original art back in the ’90s. It was just this thing you couldn’t find anything about when we started. We just collected and searched and found things out and when we could find (Keane) paintings, we bought them when we could. It was sort of this urban archeology project. We also collected over the years a lot of the other artists that came in the wake of (Margaret Keane), which there was a small boom of this interesting, cartoonish, surrealistic kind of art. It was a different vibe. People didn’t know what to think. They still are kind of polarized by it, but certainly we know now that it’s iconic from that time. Around the late 1990s, I know I brought up (the Keane story) to my friend Larry (Karaszewski) who, eventually, he and his partner Scott (Alexander) wrote the script many years later. He was kind of interested but not really going, “Oh yeah, we should make a movie out of it.” He told me about a movie called Scarlet Street, where it concerns a person posing as the artist when another person is really doing the art. So it was somewhat related to the concept.

In 2000 or so, right before he was making his remake of Planet of the Apes, Tim Burton and his then girlfriend Lisa Marie, who was in some of his movies then, she was a big collector of this kind of stuff. Tim had already been involved getting Keane portraits done and things but she was more interested in another artist named Igor Pantuhoff, a Russian guy who painted these really fashion-y, little etherial girls. He was very, very prolific and his paintings are quite valuable anyway. Even though there’s a ton of them, they’re always worth a little more than $500 to a couple thousand dollars.

At the time, we had something like 80 of these paintings (Laughs). So she came over just to look at our collection and brought Tim with her, and I ended up pitching the whole Keane story with all this memorabilia I had. I had told him I had pitched it to Larry and that Larry wasn’t that interested but lo and behold, a little over 10 years ago, I heard from Larry and Scott saying “We’re writing a Keane movie and we want to talk to you.” So they came over and we told them everything we knew and then when they optioned the rights, they were allowed entry kind of into Margaret’s world through her gallery, which is very tight with access to her. So that was exciting just because we were able to, through them, experience a little bit more info and they knew how to research things very well because they wrote the Ed Wood movie originally for Tim Burton and they wrote The People vs. Larry Flynt, Man On The Moon, all these biopics. The Milos Forman movies. So they were the perfect people to really dig out all the info. They finished the script and it was almost made as a movie with various actresses and every time people or the producers came to our house, we had the most old originals to show people. They would always come over and go “Oh my god, they’re amazing!” They were always valuable, in the thousands of dollars, but now they’re really becoming a lot more valuable in the wake of the movie.

By the time it had actually got made — because it had gone to just before production twice and then fell apart — our very favorite hope for playing Margaret was always Amy Adams. Because all that time passed, Christoph Waltz got on for the film and they were able to get Amy, even though she had passed on it years before, to look at the script again and take the time to see what she thought she could do with it. And I think it resulted in a really special movie that did show the character of Margaret very well, even if all of it was kind of more extreme. She was more complicit, they were both wilder and more in the scene than it showed. Walter (Keane) was more of a womanizer, more flamboyant and crazy, as was she. They were real artists, fringe kind of people and I know a lot of this because I spent so many years interviewing people who were still alive who met them in the time.

Because I worked on the Austin Powers movies, for instance, I was able to speak to Robert Wagner who, with Natalie Wood, had spent quite a bit of time socializing with the Keanes in 1960 or so. He made a really big point to me, like, “You really have to understand: They were these weird artist people. Real quirky. We were real square compared to them.” Everybody from Hollywood, who were artists themselves as actors, loved the pantings because they had this kind of mystical quality that was unusual to them. I think most of them felt real weird inside, for one reason or another, and these paintings speak to that. Unless you’re a person who just goes, “That’s the worst art ever and I hate it all,” it’s very magnetic. It’s hard not to be pulled into this world and to provide this place for you to pour your feelings, you know? I think that’s why people like Joan Crawford and these complex people would fall in love with the art and be almost like I am, where they like it excluding almost all else (Laughs). Where I make a gallery in my home.

MV: I thought the film was really great, but even having been familiar with the artwork for “In Reverse,” I didn’t realize how deep these paintings went for you. It’s cool to hear that you’ve dedicated a big portion of your interest to that.

MS: It’s weird to be so specified in a thing, but I’ve always had hobbies like that, and in this case, this hobby became something that my wife and I can fully bond on and have as a hobby together. Both of us just are amazed when we see these paintings in person, and to us, we don’t know where we’d ever find them when we started out. We had these prints and it was like, “This is like art from the future or something. And where are the original paintings for it? It’s just so strange.” To us, by the time it was 10 years ago, we’d look at those paintings and they’re fully normal to us (Laughs).

It’s hard for me to remember what a strong taste there is to it. People would be like, “Oh honey, you don’t want that kind of art,” even when we were searching for it, back in the day. To anyone we found who actually had a Keane original, it was worth gold to them. A Keane painting that’s really nice might be worth $20,000 now. Many people 15 or 20 years ago wanted that for their paintings, it’s just that there wasn’t the market really. There weren’t enough of them coming out for it to ever to get established. If we were lucky, we’d find one that we could talk someone into selling to us for some reason for some measly little amount.

Now, the paintings are actually worth that much and you still aren’t seeing that much come out of the woodwork. It has been an amazing year for us because we have been able to nab a couple things that are really, really iconic and sell a few things that were in the movie that maybe weren’t super important things to us, or we wanted to try to acquire a couple larger things. We’ve kind of been thrust back into the collecting thing, which we really had in check pretty well over the last few years.

MV: Well, we share that in common because my thing is records, so it’s important for everybody to have a hobby that they’re passionate about.

MS: While we’re on records again, I should throw out that Ric Menck, my dear, dear friend and drummer on most of my records, he is a vinyl junkie and he has been on just cloud nine for the last year because he got hired full-time at a record store called Freakbeat in Sherman Oaks, on the valley side of the Los Angeles, Hollywood area. And it’s run by one of the main, main most knowledgeable vinyl guys I think there is, according to Ric. And I believe Ric (Laughs). So, I feel like I have this very strong connection to the world on vinyl now, just through Ric being there. What they go through for Record Store Day, all the people he sees, their different ages and what they buy, and what they’re interested in, all that stuff is super interesting to me.

Vinyl, I love and I’m also a person who loves technology and I love the future and it’s insanely crazy kick-ass to have the access to music instantly like we do, but we’re able to record at home and the sound quality isn’t bad by the time it gets to someone. Those are truly advancements, but as its own medium and as something that’s really organic, we strive to have our records that we make on computers sound more like magnetic tape and the interaction of sound being recorded and that’s because there was a real human quality to hearing things that way. Records were a big part of that.

We thank Matthew for his time. You can see his upcoming July tour dates, here.

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Jim Hanke
Jim Hanke has been a contributing writer to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Prefix Magazine and, as well as a co-host for the Sock Monkey Sound podcast and "Liner Notes," a music-discussion program on WRRG in River Grove, IL. A Milwaukee native, Jim also assists Chicago-area groups with publicity via his own Forest Bride PR imprint.

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