While the Marilyn Mansons of the moment have come to insure that the day of the winsome and generally melodic pop star never returns, there's enough resistance out there to keep the non-ghouls like Matthew Sweet from fading entirely. Album number six from the Nebraskan-born, Athens-reared (well, musically anyway) musician is more high-energy, guitar-etched pop. Blue Sky On Mars sees Matthew combine forces yet again with uber- producer Bendan O'Brien to come up with a hit-and-run style disc (it clocks in at just under 40 minutes) that's tuneful and fresh beyond what most regular record chart residents could ever hope to be. On the road for warm-up gigs with a slightly revamped lineup, Matthew took time for an extended chin wag.
Consumable Online: How are you doing?
Matthew Sweet: I'm crazed. Out of my mind. But I'm doing good. The tour's gone great and I was really nervous to go out because I hadn't played in like a year. It's been an amazing turn out every night. We've been so lucky.
CO: This seven week "warm up" tour - was that your idea?
MS: We did it last time where we toured for a few weeks. It was a little shorter, maybe like four or five weeks. It's definitely good to get the band out and get warmed up when you're not under full pressure yet. It's a little bit grueling, but mostly I was concerned that we wouldn't have a good turn out and that they wouldn't know the new songs and it would freak them out. But the crowds have been great and really accepting so far.
CO: Who's out with you this time?
MS: Tony (Marsico, bass), Ivan (Julian, guitar), Rick Menke is playing drums, and Paul Chastain is playing keyboards and doing vocals. So we actually have an extra member this time.
CO: So have you guys worked out any of the harmonies?
MS: Well there's me and Tony and Paul singing together, so there's more advanced harmonies than ever before in the live set.
CO: Someone had asked me why you haven't been over to Europe in a long time.
MS: And you said "Because he's stopped flying!!"
CO: Well I had read how you'd made some manic two-day cross-country drive.
MS: Yeah, I've done that a couple of times. I have a horrible fear of flying and I went through a period during Altered Beast where I really flew a lot and it just caused me to have mini-nervous breakdowns. And I went and got hypnotized and went to various different people about it and just never really had an easy time conquering it. It kinda got to the point where either I needed to say I wouldn't fly or I was still going to have to fly all the time to promo things, or flying every day to different cities, and doing a lot of international. So before the last record, my manager said "OK, we'll just not fly at all on this record and just concentrate on this country and Canada." and I got gold records in both places within the year, which is way faster than Girlfriend went gold. And since it worked so well, no one's really bothered me about it since. We spent a lot of money touring internationally and never really made money doing it. It's kinda like I feel I've gotten to go everywhere (already) and for the time being it's not like I won't fly, but it's just made it easier saying I won't.
CO: Have you thought about the "boat" option?
MS: Yeah, that really doesn't sound too great either. You need a lot of time for it and it's totally horrifying. I mean crossing the channel in England is scary. I spent a lot of time in England early on in my career before I had any success, like during my first record. Not so much touring, but recording.
CO: I've heard that you've brought a lot of guitars with you on tour. And considering what you guys have been doing, is there any reason why...
MS: Well I don't really have a ton of guitars with me, especially for me. I think most of that comes from the Altered Beast era when I was using a lot of different tunings. I was using an open G, open E, drop D, regular tuning, so I had to switch guitars a lot on that tour. I got so much flak that I really made an effort on the last album not to use open tunings so that I wouldn't have to explain all the time why I switch guitars. I also love guitars and I have millions of different guitars, but this tour I've been mostly playing Jazzmaster Telecasters. Mostly fender stuff which I haven't played in a long time. Also an Epiphone Casino I used a lot on the record, the one from the back of 100% Fun.
CO: What about that clear lucite looking thing?
MS: Oh, the Van Armstrong? I haven't used that a lot lately. I haven't been touring with it. I used usually on song with open E tuning. It's a cool looking guitar. It's really heavy, and not easy to play. I do have a double-necked Gibson SG out with me that I use in my new video.
CO: Is one coming out soon?
MS: Yeah, we already made a video for "Where You Get Love," which is the third song on the record. It's a space video where I'm like in a pod spinning through space and I go walking on the surface of the planet sort of in a space suit and all of the current band is in it. It really came out cool. It's directed by a guy named Andy Fleming, who directed The Craft which is a teen witch movie that I did a song for last year ("Dark Secret"). Lindsay Buckingham played lead guitar on it because he was working in Ocean Way (studios) when we recorded it. He's a huge idol of mine, so that was real exciting for me. It's also the first time I got to play theremin on a record. There's one credited on 100% Fun ," but that's not a real theremin.
CO: I saw that the new record also has as theremin credit. Is that yours?
MS: Yeah, Brendan (O'Brien, producer) and I both bought theremins. Bob Moog has been making re-issue theremins the last couple of years out in North Carolina. They're a lot like an old one, but they're a lot more stable. I used that a lot on the new record, mostly "Missing Time" and there's a little bit on the very end of "Where You Get Love."
CO: Speaking of theremins, I read the interview you did with Brian Wilson. How was that?
MS: It's very exciting for me to meet Brian and for that matter Van Dyke Parks who I'm also a huge fan of. He was so great. You know, Brian's a little out there, but in certain ways he was more normal than I expected him to be. You know, he's not talking out of the side of his mouth or any of that stuff like you see footage of him doing in particular in the theremin movie. I saw that movie shortly after I interviewed him and it was night and day from the guy I just met. He's really way a lot more normal than he was at that point. He just seems healthier, but he's a little out there. I've gotten to know his manager pretty well and he says "Don't think Brian doesn't know what's going on behind the scenes. He uses it a little bit as a buffer between him and the world, that kind of wackiness thing.." It's kinda hard to tell. I've never really worked with him musically. I was supposed to perform some stuff from Pet Sounds with him for some radio shows in conjunction with the Pet Sounds box set which then was shelved indefinitely. But it got to the point where I was supposed to go to his house on a Monday and rehearse and then the plug got pulled. I hope to one day check him out musically a little bit, like get him to arrange some background vocals or playing Hammond (organ) on something. But I'm just a huge fan of his work.
CO: There's that little bit in the beginning of "Back To You" that's sort of Pet Sounds-ish.
MS: Yeah, that's got a little. The funny thing is that really comes from Brendan. It's Brendan that's playing that percussive Hammond sound that so's signature-Beach Boys.
CO: I heard your voice coming out of a Coke commercial. Why'd you do that?
MS: I used to collect a lot of tapes of people, and in fact Van Dyke Parks immediately pops to mind as someone who did a lot of cool commercials in the sixties. And the Yardbirds and the Stones did these Great Shakes commercials and I always had tapes of those. My viewpoint is kinda opposite of the hoighty-toighty artist that won't do anything commercial. I'm kinda like, if they pay me a lot, I think it's funny and cool to do it. And they did pay me a fortune to do that Coke commercial which is like a minute long. We did it the same afternoon that I did a song called "My Pet" for the Ace Ventura II soundtrack, so I made a lot of money that day. I'm not shy to say it, because believe it or not having sold a combined million and a half records, I've never made a penny from record sales. I mean, people might not understand that, but I need to do things to make money. I buy so many guitars, I have to offset it somehow (laughs). So it's partly for the money and partly because I thought it was fun to do. It was the same thing like Flipper. They asked me to do the theme for the kids Flipper movie last year. They just paid me a fortune to do it, so it was like how could I say no? Plus it was like Flipper, so I thought it was kind of funny. None of the so-called alternative people really knew about it too much. I just built up my eight year- old fan base with that. I mean, I just like doing music and if I could make an inordinate amount of money doing little one-off things like that as long as they're something that I think would be fun or I'm interested in, I do them. I've certainly turned down my fair share of things.
CO: You did a track for the Germs tribute record, didn't you?
MS: Yeah, that happened because believe it or not, I got invited to Drew Barrymore's birthday party. When I was there I met Pat Smear who's in the Foo Fighters now and was in the Germs and a guy named Bill Bartell who was kind of the coordinator of that record. They were just really nice to me and kind of begged me to do it. My friend Brian, who's friend with them kinda helped me get it together and came over and did some of the synthesizer noises. He's actually the guy who did the Moog cookbook with Roger Manning of Imperial Drag. So that was just a quicky thing we did. I was really into the Germs' stuff. I like Pat's guitar playing a lot.
CO: So you knew their stuff ahead of time?
MS: I knew it a little bit. I wasn't hugely into at the time. I kinda got the compilation, listened to a bunch of song, and found one that I liked a lot.
CO: I guess you toured a fair amount for 100% Fun.
MS: Yeah, we toured pretty much a year for that record. Probably from February through December.
CO: And did you take a fair amount of time off aside from the smaller projects?
MS: Yeah, really like the whole year. I made demos during the spring, kinda got my demo studio together. I bought a house during May and June, which was a monumental hassle and then moved all my junk over there in early July. So I accomplished a lot of major life things due to my publishing deal getting renegotiated.
CO: Zoo (Entertainment, Matthew's label) gotten shaken up a little bit.
MS: Zoo was purchased by a group of Wall Street investors and a guy who was one of the high-up money guys at BMG who defected whose named is Kevin Zinger. Now it's Volcano Entertainment. It's kind of exciting, because it gives a whole new atmosphere to the label. They're more New York-based. It's a lot of my old friends from BMG who are running it now and they're all excited because there's more money for things like packaging now.
CO: Yeah, the sleeve is really neat.
MS: The cover has real Martian surface photos as well as orbiter photos and then Roger Dean, the Yes album cover guy did my name and album title for it. So we've got these really groovy looking name and album title and then all these real lander photos in color.
CO: Now the new record sort of comes off like Matthew and Brendan's house of harmony and distortion again. Did you two work pretty much together on this?
MS: This was like really the culmination of our friendship. We really had a great time doing it with just no turbulence at all. We worked really quickly, pretty much doing a song a day. We did a bunch of drums at first and then we'd just would work on a song a day and try to mix it by that night. So we kept up the kind of energy level of it because I played so much of it myself this time. It's really just me and him and a drummer on any given track. I played mostly all the guitars and everything, and he played a lot of the keyboards. Last time when we finished we said "Yeah, I think we could make a much stronger record." I feel like it's a really consistent record, kind of upbeat for me. It's almost kind of like a New Wave record.
CO: You've worked with a lot of different people on your records, but now that you've done this more or less on your own with Brendan, did that affect the approach? I mean Richard (Lloyd, guitar) isn't on it.
MS: Well the original concept for this record was that I was going to do it at home and then I was going to mix. It was going to be my home demo kind of record and then I took so long getting it together that (Brendan) finally called me going "Where's the record?" And was like "Well I just finished the demo stage (laughs)". So I ended going down and recording it with him. There are a couple of songs that I did mostly at home. Both of the ballads, "Until You Break" and "Missing Time" were recorded mostly at home. It wasn't a planned thing not to have outside guitarists on this record, but once I got there we just got into this process that was so streamlined. I mean, it wasn't even easy for Brendan to say "Let's not get Richard, let's not get Ivan", it was just that we had to make the decision at some point that since it was going so well do we even want to mess with that. I knew eventually I'd do a record where I didn't use those guys. It happened so naturally, I thought "Well, this is the time." If I take some knocks for that, I guess I'm prepared for it. I mean I haven't noticed a lot of people picking up on that right away. It's not the first thing they say to me.
CO: Are you going to play any of the ballads like "Until You Break" on this tour?
MS: We're going to. We haven't really been playing it. We did rehearse it. Almost every song from this record we can play live, which is good in case it becomes successful because we can play a lot of the songs from it which is not always the case. A lot of the songs from 100% Fun were really hard to translate from the record. But since we have Paul Chastain out playing keyboards, that helps to get some of those textures in. It's just a simple record which gives me a chance to play some lead live which is fun. Ivan's been really cool about playing rhythm parts on those songs. A lot of people at the label went really crazy about that song, and I think they have high expectations of getting it on the radio someday. I'm sure you'll see us playing it live.
CO: I read somewhere that you thought Zoo went a bit crazy with how many singles they could get from Altered Beast.
MS: They were talking about that there would be five singles and it just never works out that way. Usually it takes several months to get through a single and once you do that a couple of times, your record is either still happening or you're getting to a point where you're going to stop spending all the big bucks to promote it. In my case, the second singles have never been successful. They've been mildly successful and gotten some airplay, some MTV, but they've never really taken off. So we can always hope, but this time won't be different than the last. It's not usually that they're not saying that there are singles, they just sometimes get a little beyond themselves. But that's not their fault, I'd love it if all five singles came out.
CO: There are things that have been out a long time and they finally get a single to take off like that Verve Pipe record, "The Freshman".
MS: That happens a lot. That's a hard thing to get a label to do, to promote something for so long. People felt like we didn't promote "Sick of Myself" enough on the last record, that if we would have stuck with it longer, it would have been a much bigger hit. But the Top 40 felt so strongly that they could take "We're The Same," they just moved along to that track. You can't really back track it once you move on. So if anything, you should stay with a single longer.
CO: Have you guys chosen a follow-up yet?
MS: I'm not sure what it's going to be. I've heard a lot of different arguments. Some people say "Back To You," or "Into Your Drug." I've heard people say "Until You Break" being some kind of a pop single, but I don't think you'll see that happening unless we have some huge hits with other songs. People like "Hollow" for rock radio.
CO: Has the Chamber of Commerce for California not insisted on "Come to California?"
MS: That was all I heard about during the making of the record, but now I don't hear so much of anymore. I think people are just afraid of it at the label, like it's dumb or something. Brendan just went crazy for that song. He was just like "Feelgood hit of the summer!!"
CO: Well you live out there now, and it's such an uptempo opener.
MS: It's really a sarcastic song, sort of saying that this nasty machine will chew you up. But it's so cheerfully presented, people don't really pick up on it. When we play that live, they think it's a cover.
CO: I see you have a sizeable and thorough Web site going.
MS: Yeah, there are a few of those. There are some that are just amazing to me. I look at them and I'm so flattered that someone would go to the trouble.
CO: I remember asking you one time after a concert what you thought about all the online hysteria that can go on for an artist and you seemed kind of shy about the whole thing.
MS: My biggest problem with the online thing is that it becomes an excuse for people to spout off endlessly in a consequence free environment. And I just find that just breeds a lot of egotistical bullshit and that's what I kinda don't like about the Internet. But it's been useful to me in a lot of other ways, so it's kind of softened my view. You know, when I was looking for Mars photos for my record or just trying to find Roger Dean.
CO: You find Roger Dean on the Internet?
MS: Yeah, well we got an initial contact that way. I found his publisher through that. So I've kinda softened, but it's kinda of another thing to deal with. I'm really bad about answering e-mail. I mean, I can't deal with the phone calls I have in real life much less the other me in Internet life. I can certainly see that it's going to be a big part of our future.
CO: What sort of focus do you have on the lyrics at this point in your writing?
MS: I think they really grow out of the music for me more at this point. I don't really conceptualize them a lot beforehand. I mean, there are songs where I have a certain idea about a lyrical slant where I might write it all at once like "Missing Time" which I wrote all in one day with the words. A lot of times they are very fill-in-the- blanks and I don't know what they mean. A lot of the analysis of them is hindsight when people start asking me about them. I try not to overthink lyrics. I try to have them be natural and somewhat conversational. It's kind of a mysterious thing for me, the lyrics. I don't know where they come from.
CO: So something like "Behind The Smile" is not particularly directed at someone.
MS: No, not really. It's a song about somebody who knows they've let somebody down most of the time because of their own problems with themselves. It's a pretty universal concept I think. It has that funny thing "I haven't been a good friend" in it, which is obviously a little joke on Girlfriend. My manager really worked me hard to put that song first on the record and I was like "I don't need to be referencing my record two records ago just yet." But I thought it was funny opening Blue Sky On Mars with "Come To California" which is a very martian place in a way. More pressure than I've ever felt from people to move a song on a record.
CO: This record is pretty straight forward in terms of presentation. Do you ever think you're going to put together a more complex record using less traditional rock structures?
MS: I think maybe, but this was such a natural record for me to make. I didn't plan for it to be really short songs and really concise and all that. It's just sort of the way it came together. I would really love to make a record like, but I just never seem to do it. I'm sure I'm going to make some records where I really stretch out and do some different things eventually. I'm still kind of struggling to make my living you know, and I live in fear of not have anything to show for my success. And that's not to say that I gear my records so that they are easier to sell or anything but I think I'm really trying to do clear, communicative, strong, "me" kind of records at this point. It's not by any sort of design. I mean, you can talk and talk about what kind of record you want to make, but for me it's just whatever songs I happen to write then. I got a few things that are kind of weird and different for the demos that I made for this record for whatever reason. But I don't know if that would mean making kind of an orchestral sort of record by branching out to different sort of instruments. I'm sure it's going to happen eventually. I don't know what it would take for me to be in the right kind of mood.
CO: Do you think that if this record went through the ceiling and a year from now you were still even promoting, you'd feel comfortable enough to stretch out?
MS: I think so, but I think it would take more than that. After 100% Fun, I certainly felt comfortable to do a record like that, it just wasn't the time that I was interested in that. I was more interested in making a sort of New Wave record, like ultra-simple versus something complex and floral. But I would love to make something if I didn't feel I had a time crunch. That's the thing most likely to come out of my home studio when I get to a point where I have soundproof rooms and really pro-level equipment. It wouldn't want to do something that emulated too much of say, a Pet Sounds style. It would have to be something that would come out of my own space. I fantasize a lot about making an instrumental record that I may do sooner than later as a side thing.