bill bodkin interviews one of the icons of ’90s power pop …
“You’ve never listened to Matthew Sweet? We are changing that right now!”
It was 2001, during my summertime grind of working at a Barnes & Noble Booksellers in Clark, N.J., and the guys who I was working in the receiving department looked at me jaws agape that I had never listened to power-pop superstar before.
The first album the guys popped in for me was Sweet’s seminal 1991 record, Girlfriend. I’ll never forget hearing the title track with its infectious hooks, amazing guitar work and the signature — pun intended — sweet vocals of the man himself. The song is an absolute gem, a true classic from an era teeming with classics.
Today, Matthew Sweet is on the road performing that album in its entirety. Tonight, he’ll perform at the gorgeous Two River Theatre in the heart of the Jersey Shore’s “hip city,” Red Bank.
I spoke with Sweet while he sat waiting to check out his hotel about Girlfriend, C&C Music Factory, being in Austin Powers and working with a former Bangle. (Thanks to my fellow Pop-Break co-founder Brent Johnson — a major Sweet fan — for the questions.)
Pop-Break: Twenty years after its release, what are you most proud of when it comes to Girlfriend?
Matthew Sweet: I like that at the time everybody kind of saw themselves in the album. It was very personal, but I think it had a universal thing about it. There was something for everyone and that makes me happy that [the album] wasn’t some sort of hipster thing — it was kind of an open-hearted project.
PB: Looking back, is there anything that you don’t like about the album?
MS: Not really. I really never think that way. I never go back, honestly. I rarely go back and listen to albums I’ve made once I’m done with them. Even in Girlfriend‘s case, I haven’t actually sat down and listened to the record much over the years, but I had to do it a little bit for learning to play the record live last year. It just sounded kinda good to me. I don’t know, I’m not into critiquing myself … so no, no regrets.
PB: What was the inspiration for going out on the road and performing the entire album?
MS: Well, I think the band that I knew that did that was Cheap Trick. They had toured a few of their albums a few years ago. I didn’t know my contemporaries really did [tours like these]. … I think maybe The Pixies did one a couple of years ago? Mainly, I knew the 20th anniversary was coming up, and I was like, ‘Shouldn’t we do something here?’ [laughs] [I thought] for the anniversary that we should play the album. I wasn’t highly influenced by anything outside of marking the anniversary.
It does seem to be a trend. When I do interviews, a lot of people ask me about this and mention people who come through doing albums. And I have another theory on this: Part of it might have to do with that time, the early ’90s. We were still sorta connected, having grown up wanting to hear whole albums of music. So I think it makes sense that people are nostalgic about whole albums from that time. If they weren’t, I think it would be hard to just go out and do an album.
PB: Do you have a favorite memory from recording the album?
MS: Oh wow, that’s so hard. I remember … being with Bob Quine, one of the lead guitar players, and he was turning me onto The Byrds at the time. We’d go into the room next to the studio, and we’d be listening to all these Byrds albums. Mainly, it was just a lot of fun. We were all friends, and it was a good time in general. We didn’t have anyone from the label overseeing over us that much. I was signed to A&M, and right at the time we were making the album, they were bought by Polygram, and everyone that was in charge got fired. So, a little bit, we were like kids in a candy store finishing up that record.
As far a real specific moment … I can’t remember. Well, C&C Music Factory were working upstairs and they always had a super ton of incredible pot. So after they would leave, we’d go upstairs because they would leave gigantic roaches in the ashtrays. [laughs] So that’s one memory! One day we went on the roof of the building in New York City, and we recorded a watermelon being thrown onto the car park below, and someone was down below with a microphone. [laughs] That was a stupid thing.
PB: Did you ever have any inkling that the album would be as successful today?
MS: No. I had already made two albums when I made it. I guess, thinking back, I was weirdly oblivious to the need to sell records and have success in that way. [laughs] So I think Girlfriend caught me by surprise.
Also, it existed [for a while before its release] and we sold to this independent label [Zoo Entertainment] due to all the craziness going on at A&M. They weren’t going to deal with it in a timely fashion, and we ended up [taking] nine months trying to sell it to somebody. So by the time it came out, we were just glad it was coming out. Then it pretty quickly moved up the college charts that fall, and when alternative radio was just starting to get popular, all this stuff from college radio was starting to cross over into mainstream stations, and it was just sort of a perfect situation.
PB: Do you feel modern radio is missing the melodic rock of the 1990s?
MS: It’s hard for me to say because I honestly don’t listen to the radio or listen that much current stuff to know. As we’re traveling around, we hear more of the pop hits of today, and it’s weirdly bland and not so melodic. I do notice in general, stuff’s not melodic. [In regards to being classified 'power pop'], there’s still some bands that keep it alive, but there’s so much out there now that it’s hard for any one thing to get attention. The amount of things that do [get attention] is a very small amount compared to back then when a lot more people bought records and there was a business to support everybody.
PB: Does songwriting get easier or harder as you get older?
MS: It’s easier because I understand the feeling and mindset I have to be in order for it to work. I think I know when it’s going to come, so I have more of a free feeling. It’s more important that I get alone and in the right state of mind and I know how to get there.
PB: Many people may not know you were in Austin Powers — as a member of Austin’s band, Ming Tea. Did you find it hard not to crack up on set? And how did you come to work on the movie?
MS: [laughs] I met Mike (Myers) through Susanna Hoffs of The Bangles. She brought him to a show of mine in Los Angeles probably a year or two before the first Austin Powers movie came out [and] we all ended up hanging out. Sue’s husband, Jay [Roach], was a screenwriter and professor at UCLA or USC. So Sue and Jay, and myself and my wife Lisa, and Mike and his ex-wife Robin would go and hang out at Mike and Robin’s house while he was conceiving the Austin Powers character. He was just starting to get into the character — trying on the suits, putting in the weird teeth. So he tried out a lot of stuff on us early on and we laughed a whole whole lot.
We watched crazy old ’60s movies and started jamming as Ming Tea before the movie was ever made. And then the movie came, and it was kinda slow to get big, but then it became this huge deal and they made the second one, which they used some of the music I had done for the first movie. It wasn’t until the third movie where we came back as Ming Tea and we wrote another song, ‘Daddy Wasn’t There.’ It was awesome being around Mike.
PB: What’s on the horizon for you for the rest of the year?
MS: We’re making an ’80s record, Susanna Hoffs and I. We made a ’60s and a ’70s record where we do covers together. We have ’80s one of those covers, and we’re going to tour the Midwest in September. Then it’s more Girlfriend, and then I’ll probably make a new album late in the year. I have an album from last year called Modern Art, which is the newest thing. We’re still playing songs from that as we tour Girlfriend. It’s still out there for people to discover, and people seem to like it, which is cool.
PB: What songs from the ’80s will you be covering?
MS: We’re doing R.E.M.’s ‘Sitting Still,’ XTC’s ‘Sitting Still,’ there’s some Clash, Squeeze, The Smiths, Dave Edumnds, The BB’s, The Bongos, the more indie pop groups. In the early ’80s, I was teenager so there’s a lot indie stuff than usual that we’re touching on.