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.

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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!

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