Thought of Sound: An Interview with Matt Sharp of the Rentals

With years between albums, a lot of factors, including a "get here now so we can record" email from the Black Keys' Patrick Carney, was what got Matt Sharp's the Rentals back into gear.
The Rentals
Lost in Alphaville

Matt Sharp is happy enough to share.

The Rentals, a “band” that the ex-Weezer bassist started during his main band’s downtime, was a big experiment in sharing. He co-wrote and recorded songs with friends aplenty, making sure to never hog the spotlight from chums like Petra Haden, Rod Cervera, and Weezer bandmate Patrick Wilson. After their debut album Return of the Rentals spawned a modest hit with “Friends of P.”, Sharp gladly shared the praise with all who were involved. He believed in the cause of his collective enough to turn his back on Weezer to record another Rentals album, Seven More Minutes. The circle of friends went transAtlantic, including members of Lush, Ash, Elastica, and Blur. After that, the Rentals name was put on ice while Sharp contemplated his next musical move.

After a teaser EP from 2007 and an all-instrumental charity release, Matt Sharp has thrust his Rentals project back into high gear with a brand new album named Lost in Alphaville. It’s a dense, potent mix of power pop and psychedelia, a listening experience that colors all the vacant spaces with fuzzy swirls. The great hour of sharing continued as Sharp enthusiastically recalled the album’s long history to PopMatters. These days, a Rentals album features the talents of guitarist/arranger Ryen Slegr of Ozma, drummer Patrick Carney of the Black Keys, violinist Lauren Chipman of the Section Quartet, and vocalists Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of Lucius.

But semantically speaking, Matt Sharp doesn’t want to refer to these musicians as Rentals “members.” In fact, that’s how the interview started — I had mistakenly referred to these individuals as “current members” …

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One thing that’s sort of confusing about the Rentals is that it’s certainly not a traditional setup. That’s never been the intent of it. Within the name itself, the idea is that it’s myself and finding different people at different stages of wherever you’re at in life and finding the people you want to work with. And the reason it’s not a solo album is because the people who contribute to the album have quite a bit of input, quite a bit of influence and impact on it. I almost don’t really look at it as a lineup of a band or something like that. I think of this being, the people that contributed to this album, this being our album together. But certainly with [Patrick] Carney being in The Black Keys, [laughs] he’s not going to stop doing that and come out on the road with us and tour, at least for not an extended period of time. Hopefully we’ll figure out how to do some cool performances together, but it will always be a more “special event” than anything and the same goes for pretty much every member of the group and maybe Ryan Slegr] will work with me the most consistently, the guitar player, because we sort of worked on this album from the get-go together.

I worked with everybody individually and in complete isolation, but the first person I worked with on this album was him. We were both in the mid set, I think, of trying to make sure we supported [the album] and give it a chance to be heard and all that kind of stuff. But you have Lauren [Chipman] who plays in The Section Quartet, they work non-stop. They do so many things, you can’t even start to list it because every week they’re doing something with somebody. It’s either something really super interesting and cool or something really super commercial and ridiculous. Lucius is the same. Working with Jess [Wolfe] and Holly [Laessig], they’re just on the ascension of their whole career, I think. I couldn’t be any more stoked for anybody involved on this album than when I was working with them. But they’re in the midst of promoting their album and that record is one of my favorite albums that I’ve heard in quite some time. It’s just a tremendous record. It’s just a very special thing, even taken to another notch and surpassed every time they perform because they just have such an incredible joy when they sing. The best way I can describe them, and this is just talking about Jess and Holly — the rest of the band members are in an incredible place as well.

The best way I can put it is that you can see a three-piece band of any kind of music — rock or jazz or whatever it is — and it can be quite small sounding. It can be cool, you can hear the distinct instrument but it sounds just kind of tiny. And there are other three-piece bands you can see that just because of the way a person approaches their instrument and how it connects together, it just sounds enormous. You watch them in awe and go “Oh my God, I can’t believe this is just a guitar player, bass player and drummer.” Holly and Jess’s voices are like that. When they sing together, it’s really mind-blowing how that sound is coming from just these two people. They just do things the way I love, it really connects with me.

Now, you were talking about doing one-on-one sessions with all these people…

Well, with [Jess and Holly], it’s one-on-two. But oddly enough with them, one-on-two is actually one-on-one because they actually function in a way that I’ve never experienced. They function as one person. They do all of their parts together, they sing the same melody together. And with the microphones just a couple of feet in front of each other facing directly staring at each other, and then they sing the melody. And when they’re happy with the melody, they both almost simultaneously would say “Yes, we’re happy with that. Let’s go to the next part. Let’s double it”. And then they’ll double the melody together so it’s like that quadruple thing. Then they’ll say “Alright, like that, let’s do a harmony on top of it” and they’ll both kind of jump into a harmony together as if they’re one mind. And if they make mistakes, they sort of freakishly make their mistakes together. It was something I was really excited about, just working with people who have a different approach and do things in odd ways. I’m always fascinated by that.


When you are working with everyone, how much of the end do you have in mind?

It’s different with each set of people. I can’t say that it’s exactly the same with each one of the main contributors of the album. I have different relationships with each of them and they’re all working on the album in different stages of it. There were different scenarios, we did things in a kind of strange order, I guess. At least it was for me. We took quite a backwards approach to the production and I started working with Ryan with how we wanted to start thinking about guitars, what we wanted to do with guitars on this album before there were drums or keyboards. Everything was just scaffolding and outlines at that point and we sort of searched around. I had to put him through the experience of trying to imagine what the drums might be like. I would have to paint a picture for him of what I’m thinking and then he would just go “I have no idea what you’re saying!” [laughs]

So we had an experience together that was much more trials and tribulations kind of stuff, trying this approach, trying that approach, doing things in a weird way. You know, putting one amplifier upside down on the other side of the room and another one in the bathroom! And the difference between that and working with Jess and Holly, they were the very last thing, the most recent contribution to the record. My main feeling about this album, I wanted to make sure that every person that was going to contribute to the album really brought a very unique sense of themselves and have a significant impact where they carry some gravitas into the recordings.

When it came time to figure out the female vocals, who they were going to be and what kinds of voices and tones — when you start thinking about it, it’s not even just the sounds of their voices. You want to care about these people and like them as people. It gets a little hippie-dippy this way, but I’m not just using people for what they’re able to do on their instrument. For me it’s also about just liking them. That certainly went for them and Pat. Both Pat and Jess and Holly I had never worked with before. I forgot what the question was. [laughs]

That’s okay, don’t worry about it. According to your press release, some parts of Alphaville had built up to 200 separate tracks. You must not have had an exact idea at the very beginning of each song. It seems that you allow a lot of room for variables along the way.

It’s just a combination of things. With each person there’s definitely some sense of, at times, having a real idea of what you’re looking for. Especially with how we worked with Jess and Holly, everything had to be very organized because their record was coming out literally the week of or the week after when we were doing the recordings. Their time was incredibly limited and precious and I took that very, very seriously for them. I made sure that by far I was the most prepared for them, and that’s not saying I told them exactly what to do at every turn. I felt like, if I’m going to try to work with them, I don’t take that time with them at all for granted. I have such a crazy admiration for them and I only learned about them just days before we started working together.

When I first heard them I had been on a search for the right voices for this album for a very long time. And the moment I heard them I was convinced, at least sonically and by the tones that they have, the clouds parted, the opera singers were cued and I was like “Finally, these are the singers!” So I was really caught up in [the feeling] when you find a new group or singer, of finding somebody you really connect with. I’m just talking about as a listener, as a fan. And that moment is so exciting, where you say “Where have you been? Who are you?” I know this is going to sound dramatic, but you can’t believe your life existed without that sound being your thing. I can be very patient and overturn every stone. But once I know, once I’m there, I can be very direct and forward. Now I just had to meet them to see if we get along and see if they have any interest in working with me.

When I met them, what was cool is we started working the day after I met them. And I just at that initial moment — the thing I just described to you — where there’s no other music in the world. When you think “This is all I want to hear!” That was so amazing because we were in the studio working together in the midst of that feeling. And I never had that before. I respect the other people I’ve worked with and we’ve had great relationships and admiration, but this is first when I’m in my own kind of fan boy place with them. And what’s cool about that for me, and I’ve been thinking about this recently, I’ve become more [of the mindset] that if I can’t do it the way I want to do it now, then I’m just not going to do it. If I would have finished this album, had come all the way to the end and not found the singers that I felt that way about, I don’t think we would have released the album. I think I would have just said “Whatever, I’ll keep searching” or “It’s not going to happen.”

I felt that way about working with Carney, I definitely felt that way about working with D. Sardy, who mixed the album. I didn’t want this album to be mixed by just anybody, I’d like for it to be in the hands of somebody I have a crazy admiration for. I definitely have that for all the players on the album and certainly I have that with Sardy as well. I had that certain sense of certain about him, I wanted him to be at the helm of the last stage of the album.

One thing about working that way, working with somebody whom you have that feeling about not taking any of those moments for granted, it fuels everything you do past that point because you just do not want to let them down. I was terrified of the thought that if I didn’t handle the rest of the album past the point of working with them, if I didn’t handle it right, I was terrified of embarrassing them. That they were going to say “oh yeah, we played on that [Rentals] record but, uh …” [laughs]. It was very important to me when they gave their time, their creativity, their energy, their intelligence, their beauty and they’re giving you this moment.

And when it’s put out there in the world, they can say “Hell yes, I’m on that record. I’m proud of that record.” I felt like that for all of the people that worked on this album. I particularly felt that way with [Jess and Holly] because they were the last major contributors to the album. And I remember thinking when I first sent them the final, final, final version of the album — and I had sent it to Carney and I had sent it to Lauren Chipman, I sent it to Sardy and I sent it to the label — for whatever reason, I think they were on the road touring, or they were doing something. Whatever it was, they were busy and they ended up not being able to hear or download the record for days afterwards. And those days were nerve-racking. “Oh, fuck! They’re not thrilled.”

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Funny that you mention that. In the last interview I did, it was about a collaboration and one of the guys said almost the same thing you did. That when you’re collaborating, you’re a little more protective of the other person’s reputation.

Yeah. Which is the reason for shooting to work with people like that. If I wasn’t working with those kind of people, than I think everything else softens a little bit. Like, Well, this mix isn’t exactly the way you want it here, but okay. Because it’s just for yourself. But when you know it’s reaching back to them, and they’re in the public eye and out there doing interviews, going on radio stations and playing festivals, you know they’re going to have people ask them about it. These mixes were not easy mixes to do for this album because of the density of the arrangement. Each one, I had to go to the mat for it. I don’t want one of these moments to come out where I go “Ehhhh, I don’t know about that.” [laughs] How cool is that?

I’ve felt this way before, but not nearly to this level of responsibility for their honor. Certainly I felt that way about Carney. He’s been so supportive of us and he really came through on this album in a way that was really very humbling. There were a couple of songs I was working on where I couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t working. Something was wrong in the approach. I had gone down all these different paths trying to figure out how to approach the album, thinking “Maybe I’ll make it into this Blade Runner sort of sci-fi, cold drum machine-oriented thing.” I went down that path and would go out and do field recordings of doors shutting and cameras clicking and cars zooming by, trying to make that into the drums. Ultimately it did not work for a couple of songs and I couldn’t figure it out.

When I emailed [Carney], we had talked about working together but we had never met each other at all. He had just sent me a couple of sporadic emails. “Hey, I have this idea about how we should work together,” over a long, long period. And he would just kind of disappear. And this moment came where I just went to him and said “Hey, look, we haven’t talked in ages and when we did talk it really wasn’t that in-depth. But I’m sort of stuck here and I’m not sure why these things aren’t working. I think maybe what you do would be the answer to this thing.” Two seconds later he wrote back “Get on a plane, get to Nashville, tomorrow. We’ll record it tomorrow.” All of the sudden, I’m like “Holy shit!” I’m running to the airport, scrambling to book a tickets, get on the plane and think “Oh shit, did I remember the microphones?”

It was really out of nowhere. He invited me into his home and that was the first time we had ever met. And the next thing you know he recorded a bunch of ideas for things and I took them back [home]. Working with everybody I would let people record and free associate, give them some direction. [Then I took the recordings] back to L.A. to see how it could fit into what we were trying to do together. With his part there was definitely a true moment of clarity that just changed the tone of everything and made everything much more barbaric and aggressive and nasty. And everything just made sense to me.

Then I basically called him back up. I said “I have good news and I have bad news. Good news is that the tracks we just did sound great and everything fits into where it needs to be. And the bad news is now you have to do the whole album.” [laughs] So he said “There’s this Black Keys tour I gotta do, but the second I’m back I think there’s a day or two before I’m getting married to do some more work.” I went back then and had a much better sense of who he was and at that point I was able to give a little more direction. I now understand what he does and how it’s going to affect everything. It dictates how the bass should be and all that kind of stuff.

Is this how you see yourself working from now on? You had a brief solo career where it really was just you, solo.

Yeah, I did that in Nashville. Ages ago, I did a solo record with a friend of mine, Josh Hager. We basically lived in a house together. He engineered it and he created all of these atmospheric, background/mood things and I would do songs over top of that. But it was just for one record. So, I don’t know.

I talked to Carney about it and he said “Next record you should just come here and let’s make it a way more live, crazy whatever.” It’s more orchestrated, the way I have it. This record is definitely the most orchestrated record I’ve ever made by far, by a long shot. Everything has its purpose and its place. And his instinct right now is like “We need to make another Rentals record but I need you to come here and let’s improvise some stuff and see what happens.” So we’ve been talking about that, but I do feel like I’ve made these records where there are such big gaps between records with obviously this one being ridiculous with it being 15 years between Seven More Minutes and this album. That is just a ridiculous amount of time between two records. But they do sort of act as a movie and a sequel.

I do feel very much that this has — not in a musical sense, I’m not ever trying to go back, never trying to recapture what I’ve done before, I have no interest in that — but there’s a lyrical thing that makes this a sequel. It’s picking up where our characters left off. Musically, I don’t find it [that way]. I don’t have any interest in recapturing things. Like I said, working with Lucius, being in the studio with them, I thought “Okay, the best part about this is that I’ve never fucking done this before. I’ve never worked with two women that work like this before.” But saying all of that, I would like to do a sister record to this album if possible that’s closer to it and I don’t know if it will happen but it’s definitely a thought of mine now.

I don’t want to put this record in this category, but when other great records are made there’s another record that you kind of connect to it. At least my favorite records, a lot of them, are like that. You might think “Okay, I love Sgt. Pepper’s. Well, then there’s Magical Mystery Tour.” They’re sort of together in thought and in approach. So I thought about that with this, doing one more record that was approached [in a] similar [way]. We’ll have to see when the time comes. It’ll probably be [after] some time because I want to support this album for a while. One of the odd things about working in this format and structure that I work with is that the songs were written so far before actually getting to work with everyone. Had I known that [Jess and Holly] were doing it at the beginning, I would have written some things in different keys for them, to put their voices in that really special place. I thought about that a lot. If I know that I’m working with them, I would probably write for them or at least give them a platform that more suits that special place in their voices.

I did a tiny bit of recording on the Tegan and Sara record called The Con, which is pretty much my favorite Tegan and Sara album. It’s a really special moment for them. And they did it very, very backwards. That was one of those experiences where I was like “God, I’ve never seen anybody do anything so flipping backwards before!” There were some things where I was like “that’s just wrong!” the way they were going about putting everything together. And it’s ultimately ironic that I found myself approaching [Lost in Alphaville] this way. Before we started recording for it, I already worked out the artwork for the album, the title of the album, the order of the songs — I knew this song was going to open and this song was going to be next and this song was going to close the album and this song was going to be the halfway point — but there wasn’t any music in there. It was just scaffoldings and outlines.

The chords were there and the words were there, but Ryan was not on the tracks and Carney was not on the tracks and Lauren wasn’t on the tracks, Jess and Holly weren’t on there yet. I just worked it out and thought it through of how one song would go into another. I wrote it up on a big white board with a dry erase marker and put it right in the control room of my home studio and it never changed. I didn’t erase anything. We just stayed to what that was. The fact that one song came before another song would dictate the way we decided to approach it, instead of the other way around. Usually the traditional way for any band to record is that you record a bunch of songs and you go “Hey, what sounds good? That song’s badass, it should open the album!” And in the old way, “Oh, this is the single, we’ll put it second.” With this one it was exactly the opposite with the order of things dictated “Oh, well this song should be more aggressive because the album needs to pick up here or needs to get dreamier here because we need a break from all that assault.”

Since you brought up the Beatles, I was wondering if you were into “Revolution 9” at all because the song “Damaris” ends with a crazy collage.

[laughs] Yeah, that has nothing to do with that. But when I was a little kid — that’s the one with “Kennedy is shot” and that kind of stuff, right? — that used to scare the living shit out of me as a kid. You don’t even know why you get spooked by things. There are certain things in music that you listen to when you’re a little kid and — because you have no concept of recordings or studios, at least I didn’t, it was all a mystery to me and it still is in some sense I guess — that just terrified me.

The end of “Damaris” doesn’t have anything to do with that. I would go off on these little things. I would go off with Lauren and record a children’s choir out in the west side of Los Angeles, bring it back to the house to be dealt with later. Then we’d sneak into these music conservatories to record piano and stuff like that. We did all this bootleg, guerilla style recordings with her. A lot of what she contributed was done in that sort of way. And then going to New York to record with Jess and Holly, going to Nashville to record with Pat only to bring it back, then I locked myself away, trying to make sense of it. “What the freak is all this stuff?” I spent a lot of time thinking “Okay, now what? How does this all fit together?” And some of those times would be very extended periods of beakers and lab equipment, mad scientist Frankenstein type of situations.

When that would happen, one of my best friends would come over and go “All your friends are wondering where the hell have you been? What are you doing? What have you been up to? Are you okay? Are you losing your mind? You’ve been in the submarine for a long time.” What do you tell them? I tell them “I’m making fucking Purple Rain!”, that’s what I tell them. That used to make me laugh to no end. He knows what a Purple Rain junkie I am. So the end of “Damaris” is a little bit of a tip of the hat to that, a little bit of a tribute to the Purple One of how he ends side one of Purple Rain at the end of “Darling Nicky”. It’s a little bit of an inside joke with my friends. “You think I can’t make Purple Rain? I’ll fucking show you!” And there’s one thing that is wrapped up into that clusterfuck in the end of that outro.

We were talking about one of the songs and I was working with Jess. I think it had to do with “It’s Time to Come Home” and how it reminded me of The Wizard of Oz a little bit. Going down the dark side of the Yellow Brick Road. Good witches, bad witches, and she did this cackle kind of laugh and it was just so full-voiced. She’s a short little lady, so you can’t imagine this huge, boisterous, evil, wicked little laugh coming out of her. It was so shocking and funny and that is in that tornado. Part of how that song happened it just trying to figure out a way to find a place for it. There’s nothing “spooky” on the album, I had to find a place to put that!