Matthew Sweet is one of the world’s best known Power Pop artists, with classic albums like “Girlfriend”, “Altered Beast” and “100% Fun”. In 2002 Sweet teamed up with Pete Droge and Shawn Mullins to form the Alt. Country group The Thorns, and in 2005 he teamed up with Susanna Hoffs of The Bangles for “Under The Covers Vol.1:” a series of their favorite ‘60s covers. Now, after last year’s “Sunshine Lies,” his 11th album, Sweet has released a sequel with Hoffs, “Under The Covers Vol.2,” which mines the pop and rock hits of the 1970’s. I was honored to speak with him during his tour in support of the new release.
Q: Having already done a Vol.1 for Under the Covers, was anything different this time around (selecting the songs, the playlist)?
MS: No, even on the first one we actually never made a list […] I think we started to make a list and the first one on [it] was “She May Call You Up Tonight” by The Left Banke, and we thought, “This is awesome, let’s come up with more as we go.” On the 70’s [Vol.2] there were a few things that were surprising about it. One was, we thought of the 60’s as our bag, you know? And so we just weren’t ready for all the feelings about the 70’s. We think it comes from the ages we were at. I was 12 years old in 1976, [Susanna Hoffs] was 17 that year, so we were both in our teenage years and influenced by older brothers who listen to music and FM rock radio […] So a lot of music was in our consciousness from then. That wasn’t our “banner,” things that we go along saying “Oh these our our heroes,” it was more haphazard. It was a very different musical movement.
I’m so glad The Raspberries ended up on it because, there’s so much of that kind of music, we could do a whole album of it. You know, The Raspberries, Rundgren, Big Star, I’m glad those things got on it. Although I know that stuff a lot deeper than Susie does, so sometimes it’s just about which songs we both click on […] I think they’re different than a lot of other cover records. I thought of this recently, that it’s almost like we cover the record, as much as we cover the song, and I think that’s unusual. They usually try to do a cover and not be like the original or they don’t pay attention to it really, and often times try to really reinvent something. For me, as fan of music, I never cared about covers by artists because of that. They weren’t a great record like the one they’re covering. The 60’s record [vol.1] we’re very true to the originals and then on the 70’s [vol.2] too. To the extent of using ProTools in the box and me at home being the terrible engineer!
So in a way, the 70’s one became a little more about pop culture and less about our cool-ness, like these are the things we’d be into. Part of the Sid n’ Susie thing is also, we’ve never toured that much and in our realm of friends in LA, Sue’s husband [Jay Roach, director of the Austin Powers series] works in movies a lot, so a lot of movie people sort of have our CDs. There’s an aspect to it that is sort of the spirit and enjoyment of the covers more than it’s about a hipster thing. We want a lot of people to be able to feel what we feel. Not to the point where we wouldn’t do an obscure song because of that, but more that we don’t eliminate well known things for any reason, unless we think “I don’t wanna do that.”
MS: Often times, we tried well known songs and didn’t use them.
Q: That’s what bonus tracks are for!
MS: Yeah exactly, and a lot of bonus tracks. For instance, we did a lot of new wave songs from the 70’s, but it was hard to fit them with the classic rock. The Raspberries, Todd Rundgren, that stuff worked with it, but it seemed minimized to the late 70’s punk songs […] I’ve realized so much stuff that I got into is more obscure stuff, [which] I got into in high school, which is 1980-83. So an 80’s one [vol.3] will yield a lot more obscure things.
Q: How has making music changed for you since the early days (when you were first on a major label)?
MS: I think for starters, I’m a lot more confident. Back then I was so scared and freaked out by everything. Like a jumpy skittish cat or something. I wanted to make music, I was a music egghead and record at home with my own multi-track, and that’s why I always loved people like Todd Rundgren or Lindsey Buckingham. People who would record on their own and multi-track, because that’s how I got into music. I was too embarrassed to do stuff in front of people much when I was young […] I had a band of my own in high school, but it was like I wasn’t really competent to go out and do that really. I felt that way inside anyway. For the first couple records I had no success, and it worked for me really well because I didn’t have to tour that much.
Q: That wasn’t the case for long …
MS: They started making me play on acoustic guitar then. Which was like, “You have to play acoustic guitar and sing your songs on the radio”. That was early in my career, like the mid 80’s. [The label] sent me out to do that and I was horrified. I never sat in a room with one person and played a song for them. I had done all my recording alone, in my room, with no one there. And that was how life was really different for me then. I was really afraid. And then I had some success, but I still had those weird feelings, except I had to tour all the time and fly all the time which brought more anxiety. There was an implied pressure that no matter how successful it was it still wasn’t enough, you know? Which is always the thing with labels, they need to be excited when you sell Gold, but it’s clear to you they want you to sell Platinum. That made me more uptight and less carefree to do music. But I managed to do some stuff and get through the nineties. Another couple successful records after “Girlfriend,” which is more than some people can say. I feel really glad that that happened.
Now I feel so much more able to do music. More free to let things happen. I feel like I understand what it is a lot better. I felt back then all this guilt, like people thought it was something, but to me it was like so insubstantial, I felt like I didn’t do anything. Now I understand what I do. I have some other hobbies, I learned to make pottery and throw clay on the wheel, fire it and glaze it. Those type of things do help me see music as a personal thing, and understand that the more personal it is for me the better. That was kind of a conflict with the idea that you should be the biggest star that you can, you know?
Q: “Girlfriend” was on Guitar Hero II, are there any plans to have “Divine Intervention” or “Time Capsule” or anything else on any future games?
MS: There haven’t been. You know none of us [musicians] made any money from Guitar Hero II […] And I didn’t know about until I started hearing about it from friends. I heard about it for about a year and then I was at a party at a friend’s house and his kid had learned how to play it and he showed me […] It’s cool, it’s funny you know? But I thought “My god! That’s me, it’s my record!” And everyone’s looking at me, “No it’s not.” And I was like, “It is!”
Q: One last question before I leave the subject of “Under The Covers Vol.2” What was it like working with Dhani Harrison?
MS: It was awesome. Sue knows him a little better than I do. I’ve met him a couple times, including when he came over to record. First of all he’s a extremely George-like, it’s kind of amazing to see. He’s got the vibe. In my opinion, more handsome than George. Really a good looking kid and he’s really cool and friendly. His personality reminds me of what I think I know about his dad from reading books over the years. He loves his dad so much, he’s proud of him and likes to talk about him. It’s not like the weird thing where he’s trying to separate himself or whatever.
Q: Is there anybody you wish you could have collaborated with, that you didn’t get a chance to?
MS: Well the whole guest star thing wasn’t ever something we thought of doing, and it was only when we recorded the song by YES, and started thinking about lead guitar players, one day we just had the idea – let’s try to find Steve Howe and get him to play on it. His guitar playing was so cool, I thought, “If he’s on it, we’ll get away with it!” We were able to find Steve and he’s a lovely guy and he recorded a bunch of stuff for us. That got our minds going, “Who else can we get?” But the problem is, on a lot of our song it would have taken us years and years to deal with getting the people, agreeing to do it, recording when they have a chance, and it would’ve been a lot of work and money that we didn’t have. So we had to cool it on our ideas. In Lindsey Buckingham’s case, we know Lindsey and his wife and ran into him a couple of times, so I was able to corner him about playing on our record.
And Dhani Harrison was the same. Sue had met him at a couple parties, they hung out a couple times, she asked him and he said “Sure”. So if I had my dream team to check people out, the guys from The Raspberries, we would have loved to have Wally Bryson play guitar, Eric Carmen […] I would have gotten Richard Lloyd for our cover of “Marquee Moon.” instead of having to play it myself. But part of the charm with our thing is to learn the parts myself. You know, our manager told us that Carly Simon was so excited ’cause she heard we were covering her song “You’re So Vain,” and offered to sing on it if we wanted, but it was already recorded and mastered.
Q: Susanna Hoffs has been on your solo albums too, is there a possibility you would work with her again?
MS: I think I would. I really like girl singers and I’m a huge fan of Sue’s voice […] and the fact that I know her so well, she’s like my sister ’cause we spend so much time together in home environments.
Q: As a long time Power Pop fan I have to give you full credit, you and Roger Manning Jr. of The Jellyfish, for the 90’s revival of the genre.
MS: Oh man, their mind blowing studio approach was so much more intricate than mine. I always thought of myself as a lot scrappier than those kinds of people. I mean, Lenny Kravitz would go and make these amazing sonic things and “Girlfriend” was interesting sonically but I didn’t think of it as being as crafted as that stuff. Some of that Jellyfish stuff was so cool, I got to meet those guys back in the day, we played this stadium in DC. It was cool we were there because we were not like most of what was going on.
Q: That’s what made you guys unique. Power Pop may have been a badge of ridicule at one point, but it’s great music and it’s identified with great classic rock.
MS: Yeah, yeah. A lot of it is the heirs to the really great Beatles stuff. The thing is, I never thought it was embarrassing […] One of my first interviews I ever did for my record “Earth,“ I didn’t know what Power Pop would be or that I was Power Pop, and I did the interview and someone said “Since you’re Power Pop, how does it feel to be part of a genre that never sells historically?” It’s like well, that’s awesome if I’m part of that ’cause I loved those kind of bands. The cool thing about the nineties was we were discovering what Power Pop was. People were starting to categorize it and make lineages of it, it was fun to be part of that concept. And I love Power Pop stuff like Brian Wilson and John Lennon. They are the Godfathers of it to me because what I love is melody. I always wanted to hear melodies. I love Elvis Costello ’cause he has melodies. I love XTC ’cause they have melodies. I loved stuff that’s weird or experimental, but I was always looking for a feeling of melody somewhere […] That’s what’s cool about it: Power Pop is fun and cool and has great melodies. It’s memorable and can be a source of rebellion as well.
Q: So what’s next for Matthew Sweet?
MS: I’m making a new solo album […] Since it’s all new songs, I can start the record quick. It won’t take me forever ’cause I’m not building it in batches over time. I want to get it out as quickly as I can, hopefully next year. And I’ll go tour again ’cause I want to solidify my thing. Some crowds are small, some larger – they’re all awesome. I just want to keep making records ’cause I’m in a good space to do it now.
And for some of the best in power pop make sure you check out Aaron’s amazing music blog Powerpopaholic!