Matthew Sweet has been making albums long enough to know that opinions on any artist’s output tend to ebb and flow. A brilliant start and warm reception from the critical community early on may turn sour before said artist is later resurrected in the eyes and ears of the press. Critical reappraisals of previously panned recordings appear. Terms such as “underrated” and “underappreciated” become as overused as “genius” and “brilliant.” His latest album, Tomorrow Forever, received a warm welcome upon its release and if welcomed by overwhelming fanfare, it fared better than some might have thought possible.
Sweet, an industry veteran who issued his first solo album (Inside) in 1986, knows better than to scour the Internet, reading tidbits about himself and his work. That said, he’s not oblivious to how his current effort is being received. “I’ve felt a lot of positive energy with this one,” Sweet says, “but I don’t read every little thing. Early on I learned that if you do that you’re going to get hurt by all the things people say and some things they say when they don’t mean to hurt your feelings. Those things can make you feel weird about yourself.” He adds, “Likewise, you can’t take glowing reviews and think you’re the greatest thing in the world and that you’re impervious to someone not liking you. I try not to focus on how reviews are but instead making music.”
He made quite a lot of music in the lead up to Tomorrow Forever‘s release. The final collection weighs in at 17 songs and though that may seem unwieldy in an age where many have returned to taut, 35-minute LPs or gone in for singles and extended plays instead, there’s nothing that feels long-winded. The album stems from a Kickstarter campaign launched in late 2014. There was talk of new material arriving by the following spring but there were various twists and turns along the way. He started later than he hoped, casting aside hopes for demo sessions. Still, he was prolific during that time, ultimately emerging with roughly 38 new songs which he pared down for the final release.
“I had so many songs that I recruited some friends and family to listen through them and try to pick their favorite things. I found that we all kind of picked the same stuff as our favorite,” he says. “There were occasional outliers but basically everybody was in agreement about their top 15.” Though he remained in command of the project, the outside ears were ultimately invaluable. “I didn’t wanna miss anything that people really liked.”
Among the aforementioned outliers? “The song ‘Come Correct’ I might have thought was too weird but that became one that everybody picked,” Sweet offers.
He split his time across three major sessions: one that found him writing in a variety of moods and styles, a second that focused on power pop numbers (that yielded “Trick,” “Circle” and “Carol”) and a third, involving Debbie Peterson (Bangles) focused on slower, moodier vibes. “I wanted to make sure that I had something that was really in that vein,” Sweet offers, noting that members of Velvet Crush and Gary Louris of The Jayhawks also popped in to track with him. “I used those songs as a way to round out the record. I always loved albums that had variety: The Beatles would always have a wide range of songs and I tried to make sure that this record had that.”
The slow start to the project and the record’s labored birth had some fans on edge. “Some people were impatient and mean about it,” recalls Sweet. “They’d write to me and say, ‘You took my money you’re never going to do your work!’ That was while I was doing updates and telling them how many songs I’d recorded. I think that, in some ways, I’m not perfectly suited for really direct contact with the fans. I’m just not a social media butterfly.”
He adds that, given the chance to do it all over again, he’d probably have started with Pledgemusic, allowing an intermediary to handle updates and field concerns. Sweet isn’t one to dwell on the negative and the material proves more than worth the weight. For one, there are those classic guitar tones: hot, loud, and imbued with an admirable naiveté. It may be hard to imagine that the instrument wasn’t his first choice or that, given his talent for power pop, he was first a progressive rock devotee.
Playing bass in elementary school, he started picking out Chris Squire’s basslines on Yes’s Fragile. “When I wanted to write songs, it felt like I needed to play guitar,” recalls Sweet. “Once Girlfriend (1991) became successful and I started playing live a lot, that’s when I really started cranking up guitars and understanding how amps work.”
“Sick of Myself,” which opens 1995’s 100% Fun, may serve as the quintessential Sweet guitar sound, one that is echoed on Tomorrow Forever.
“I don’t ever labor over the sound of guitars,” he says. “In some sense, they all sound the same to me. A different guitar with different pickups really will change the sound the most. I always use tube amps. I like to overdrive them somewhat. Occasionally, I do cleaner kind of sounds or people who are playing lead parts will give me parts that aren’t distorted. I rarely use pedals.”
He’s fond of his amplifier, built by Analog Outfitters, a company that repurposes sections of Hammond organs. “That amp sounds really sweet with guitars. I’ll use some plug-ins occasionally too,” he says. “If I use a plug-in when we’re tracking a song, when I’m just getting the drums for it, I might end up keeping that sound because I like it. Other times, I’ll re-amp. I’ll run that dry signal out into the room through a real amp and then record it back in. The kind of guitar and the pickups it has, that kind of makes things the most different.”
Sweet proves an affable-enough interview subject, warming slowly to questions. He acknowledges that having Yes’s longtime cover artist Roger Dean lend his talents Blue Sky on Mars‘s sleeve in 1997 was cool, though it didn’t come without tension.
“I wanted to use Roger because it was otherworldly kind of stuff. I wanted to combine it with these real photos from Mars,” Sweet recalls. “Roger wanted me to use a painting that was a sort of War of the Worlds kind of thing with these tall space ship type things that were destroying everything. I wanted him to do just the logo stuff. In the end, he did do the cover.” It did not go over well with his label. “The guy who was running Zoo Entertainment at the time, I remember it so well, came a video shoot. We were shooting ‘Where You Get Love’ and he told me outright, ‘I think the album cover looks like a bunch of shit.’ But even that record had its fans.”
It was the last of Sweet’s albums to crack Billboard‘s Top 100 albums, though that seemed to matter little in a career that wasn’t built upon chart success. Though he enjoyed some favor with alternative radio with Girlfriend and other tracks across the rest of the decade, he was and perhaps remains mostly revered by a small-ish but loyal fan base.
His rise coincided with a renewed interest in and greater visibility for power pop. In the early 1990s, Big Star’s first three releases were gaining popularity thanks to reissues by Rykodisc, offering the legendary Memphis trio arguably a wider reach than it had experienced in its initial, ill-fated run. Bands such as Teenage Fanclub and Urge Overkill were updating the sound that Big Star’s Alex Chilton and Chris Bell had forged in the early 1970s.
Sweet became friendly with both those acts, though admits that being a solo artist could be lonely at times. I felt that I was unusual because I was just one guy writing songs,” he says. “There were so many bands in that era, the era of Nirvana and Pearl Jam and all those kinds of bands. Everybody had a group of guys and I was one of the few solo artists.”
He did bond with fellow travelers, including Velvet Crush, Urge Overkill, and Teenage Fanclub over musical tastes. “All of us loved Big Star,” he says. “I had the Big Star records when I was in high school. I had a friend that was older than me who turned me onto them. I was a big fan of the first dB’s record, from them I found out about Big Star. It almost reminds me a little bit of Pet Sounds: It was known to be this incredible thing but only in this somewhat underground kind of way. it’s so wonderful because they became really well known over the years and now people know how great Big Star were and people judge Pet Sounds as being the greatest album ever made, a lot of them, anyway. It’s cool to think that some of those things that only some of us were on to found their way into a wider audience.”
Though he would remain largely a solitary figure throughout the 1990s, Sweet would ultimately experiment with band life and have a further flirtation with chart success in the early 2000s when he teamed up with fellow songwriters Pete Droge and Shawn Mullins. In recalling the trio’s relatively brief time together, Sweet becomes more animated and reflective. If he misses working with his colleagues in that project he doesn’t say so but one senses that there was something rewarding about the project for Sweet.
In 2002, Sweet and Mullins were under the same management umbrella and someone there suggested that Sweet drop in on a collaborative session between Mullins and Droge. Droge had worked with Sweet’s longtime producer, Brendan O’ Brien. On paper alone it made sense. Sweet was, at first and for a long time after, reluctant.
“I always dreaded co-writing because I was never the person to push my own idea,” he says.
I always felt like it didn’t matter. I felt like I was just there. I always felt like I was following along with whoever wanted to be in charge. I can’t believe that I did it because it was normally the kind of thing that I would be horrified to do. I went down and spent a couple days with them writing songs. I think on the second or third day, I was talking to my manager and said, ‘They’re much more forceful with their ideas. I don’t know how I can influence it.’ He said, ‘Just go there and make them do an idea of yours.’”
The turning point came on the third day of writing, when Sweet pulled out a tune of his own. “I kind of pushed it on everybody,” he says. “We all worked on it, made up harmonies. This was maybe a Friday and there was a guy paying for the sessions, I don’t remember exactly who he was, but he came in in the evening and we sat and played him the song. The following Monday, we got a call from management saying, ‘Sony wants to sign you. They want you to make a record and be a band.’”
It was happening too quickly and Sweet applied the breaks. “I said, ‘I can’t do that. I have my fans. I’m not like these other guys.’ I had a lot of reservations about it. But they were super intense about us wanting us to do it.”
The trio flew to New York where executives waxed enthusiastic about commercial potential and the arrival of a new Americana-influenced trio. Sweet decided to stick around and joined the others at a friend’s ranch outside Santa Barbara for further writing sessions. “It was rocky,” he says. “I was sort of in a bad mood about it and nasty a lot of the time. But I came to enjoy my part in it and also not having to be the only guy. That was really cool. I ended up singing a lot of the high parts and I got to play weird instruments a lot. I got to play baritone ukulele and dulcimer, all these things I’d never played before.”
A full-length album emerged in early 2003 with backing from keyboardist Roy Bittan and legendary session drummer Jim Keltner. That Friday afternoon song that Sweet had thrust upon his colleagues, “I Can’t Remember”, was issued as a single, as was a cover of the Jayhawks’ number “Blue”.
Soon, The Thorns were on the road with the Dixie Chicks, becoming a favorite in Europe and England. “We played the Royal Albert Hall, which was unbelievable,” Sweet notes. There were stadiums in Australia (also with the Chicks) and heavy rotation on CMT. “We sold a lot of records,” he continues. “I want to say that we sold around 170,000 records. That’s be a Number One today. Much less than that today would be a great success.”
When touring wrapped for the album, Mullins and Droge suggested that a second record seemed in order. Money, however, proved an obstacle. “We got really small advances when we signed. There were big promises about gigs for insane money. We were skeptical because it was so ridiculous. At the end of all this touring, our options was just about up and we said, ‘We want to produce it ourselves or we’re not going to do it.’ The option passed.”
What had started as something like a favor to management was now something in which he’d become deeply invested. Perhaps even a little bit of his nastiness had subsided. “By the end of it, I was OK with it and willing to do whatever anyone wanted. Shawn and Pete were sort of bitter about it and angry, kind of like I’d been at the very beginning,” says Sweet. “We just never did anything after that. But it was really different for me to be in a group. Sometimes it was really cool and sometimes I was ready to be back on my own.”
Sweet returned to his own career with renewed vigor, issuing the acclaimed Living Things in 2004, though he would soon find himself open to another collaboration, this time with Susanna Hoffs. He’d met the Bangles’ frontwoman while working with Mike Myers in the fictitious band Ming Tea, which appeared in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery and the follow-up, Austin Powers in Goldmember. Later, they met up for a night of music at McCabe’s in Los Angeles at a Bangles and Friends event. Sweet declared his appreciation for Hoffs’ voice and suggested the two work on something together. Though he initially thought it would be a collection of original songs with her singing, the Shout Factory imprint soon expressed interest in a Hoffs-led project and intrigued by the possibility of her working with Sweet.
The result was a collection of covers of songs from the 1960s and 1970s, ranging from The Beatles and Bee Gees to The Who and The Left Banke. “We had no idea it would be multiple volumes,” Sweet recalls. “When we made the first record and they put together the cover, they put ‘Volume One’ on it. ‘What do you mean “Volume One”?’ We knew that it was low odds that we’d do a second one. By that time the industry had largely collapsed.”
There was a second one, though the sales were weaker. “We were often in a situation where Shout Factory was mad at us that we hadn’t done the work quickly enough,” he says. “The second one was supposed to be a double album. We recorded over 30 songs for it but Shout Factory said, ‘It’s taking so long, pick 12 songs and we’ll put it out.’ So, a ton of stuff that we did for that never saw the light of day. Sue has often come to me and said we should get it out. We kept working on it through that third record, the ‘80s one.”
He adds, “For me, it was an opportunity to do some engineering and playing on a ton of different things that has to have benefited me somehow. It’s hard to say. People ask me, ‘How did those songs influence you?’ and I don’t really know that as much as I know as much as I know the engineering experience was what had the greatest impact on me.”
Since the second Sweet/Hoffs collaboration in 2009, he’s been content to work as a solo artist and to return to his first home, Nebraska. But Sweet remains uncertain that the change of address has changed him much as an artist, adding, “Friends of mine would say, ‘What will the record be like?’ But I don’t know exactly how it’s affected by being here. I feel like wherever I am when I’m writing music is the same, it’s such an internal world.”
// Notes from the Road
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