Matthew Sweet | Does He Talk?

The paragon of power-pop brought the 20th anniversary tour for his biggest hit, Girlfriend, back to St. Louis for one more go-round.


Matthew Sweet is the kinda guy I would love to have a latte with. Or a beer. Probably a beer, really, out on a sunny patio on an afternoon that no one has any plans. Because Matthew Sweet is easy to converse with on a number of topics including, but not limited to: politics, the possibility of a single-payer healthcare system, space, daredevil pottery and ‘90s cartoons. He recently took some time out of his schedule to have a chat with me about all of those topics and his upcoming, sold out show at Blueberry Hill’s Duck Room on September 22nd, which is your last chance to see Girlfriend, that deliciously power-pop early ‘90s album that everyone can immediately hum the title track to, played in her entirety. He was also kind enough to discuss some of his upcoming projects, including an ‘80s album in his Under the Covers project under the name Sid n’ Susie with Susanna Hoffs of Bangles fame, and a solo album.
We’ve decided to split the interview into two parts, one covering music and politics and one discussing comics and art and both of them completely fascinating. Head on over to Lovefool to read the comics and art section, read on for the music and politics and, for heaven’s sake, go to the show. | Erin Jameson
Girlfriend was released such a long time ago and it was kind of a tumultuous time in your life. Is it a little strange revisiting that now that you’re older and a little more settled?
*laughs* Well, that’s a good question. You know, there were a lot of different kinds of feelings that went into Girlfriend and, strangely, the answer is really no, it’s not that weird. I think I was afraid it would be when I knew I was going to do it and had to go back and learn everything. I thought “Will I feel really out of touch with it?” But instead, it all just feels kind of normal to me. So I guess I haven’t grown much. I still feel all kinds of different emotions like I did then. So I guess that’s why it’s not that weird that I would still relate to it.
We were talking, my editor and I, about some of the content, “Divine Intervention” and “Holy War”, these are songs that are addressing things—spirituality, politics—that you haven’t really addressed since then. Was it weird putting them on Girlfriend and is there a reason you’ve kind of shied away from that sort of thing since?
That’s another really good question. At that time in my life, I knew I was sort of an atheist, I think, but I was still kind of sarcastic about religion and stuff. So, in those songs, they generally aren’t pro-religious things. But I was raised Roman Catholic and I came to see that, in my opinion, the whole idea of the morality is great but, on the other hand, I just don’t believe in that sort of all-powerful human-created God. But I still think I was sort of railing about that and I think some people took it the wrong way and thought I was really religious or something. But I don’t think, in general, people thought that. But maybe that made me not go back there that much. I think, for me, the issue was just kind of settled and it just didn’t mean as much to me to talk about it.
That is really interesting to me because I moved to Omaha last year, and I can kind of see where you picked that up.
*laughs* Well, you know, yeah. The thing is, when I grew up there, I really wasn’t super into politics. Although I registered Democrat when I was old enough, I didn’t really realize how super-Republican it was. More recently, obviously, the last few years, the super right-wing thing has taken up so much of what we see of the Republican party that now when I go there, I can really feel that. Wow, it’s not that liberal. But Lincoln, where I grew up, was the college town so it wasn’t the least liberal place in the state, it was the most liberal place. Moreso, I think, than Omaha. I don’t feel like I had some hardcore right-wing upbringing, even though my dad was a Republican. It just wasn’t that much in my world until I got a little older and realized “Wow, I really want to know about this and be involved, if I can.”
Are you involved in anything politically or is it something you’re aware of?
Not really, I’m not really involved, other than voting and feeling strongly, watching and learning about everything. I am a little bit of a political junkie. I watch a lot of both sides, I read a lot about it, especially during an election, I start to focus in on it. And it’s just really wanting to be aware and understanding why I vote the way I do, like any voter would think, I guess.
Well, I don’t know that I would go so far as to say “any voter” but…
I know, I’m trying to be fair. I’m pretty far left. I wish we had single-payer but I’m really glad that, so far, healthcare’s been upheld because, in 2014, I’ll be eligible…mainly, I have insurance through my wife’s various jobs, over the years, and I have preexisting conditions where I’ve been turned down for insurance. Not even offered some high, excessive insurance but just turned down a couple of times, so just the idea that I can’t be turned down is kind of exciting for me. It’s hard to watch. It’s hard to watch them throw that whole thing out. It’s so crazy and so many people already depend on it. Millions of people are already benefiting from it.
I know, I agree. I don’t understand why it’s even a question.
Like so many things…
Getting back to the city of the publication I actually write for—you were just in St. Louis for the Girlfriend anniversary tour, it was a great, super-fun show. Is there a particular reason you’re coming back for this leg of it?
We just got offered a couple of dates in the Midwest and we thought we’d bring together a week of dates. It’s not a super long tour but we are still playing Girlfriend, we haven’t worked out a different set.
We spent three weeks in June touring the East Coast still playing Girlfriend ’cause we got these repeat requests to go back to some of the big cities and do it one more time. In this case, there’s a place we play a lot in New York called the City Winery and we do a lot of multiple shows there. When we first went over last Halloween, first playing Girlfriend, we did four nights. It’s not super big but it’s three or four hundred people or something. And they are opening one in Chicago so we’re going to do a couple nights there and I’m guessing that’s what we sort of based the whole tour around. We all just had such a great time last time in St. Louis so we’re all just “Yeah, all right!” So hopefully people will be okay to come and see it again.
I know, personally, several people who missed it last time around so they were really excited to hear that you’re coming back.
Oh, that’s great. I feel like “Wow, we’ve got to wrap up doing Girlfriend soon.” But you know, she’s not quite 21. Not until later in October. She’s still 20, this is the last chance.
How are you going to get her into the Duck Room? They’re pretty strict about that.
They are. We like the place a lot and the crowds are always awesome there, the people are really awesome there. We’ve done tons of great shows there, it’s a positive spot for us, always. We love to go there.
It has been a big success, the Girlfriend anniversary show, but there are people who are saying it would be fun for 100% Fun. Would you consider doing it for any of the other albums?
I would consider it, I guess. It’s hard for me to imagine that it would be as generally popular with getting people out to do other albums. I wonder—you know, there’s people who have asked about Altered Beast. You’re the first one who’s said 100% Fun. I guess I could see doing it but I just don’t know if we could make as big a deal out of the anniversaries of those records. Girlfriend is such a unique kind of thing and moment in the way people related to it. But I would do it, it’d be pretty crazy. We always played lots of songs from [Girlfriend] because it was my first big thing. I think if I got into Altered Beast or 100% Fun, there’d definitely be a few songs I hardly know. It would be a challenge but maybe fun. I kind of feel like I’ve got to mix some stuff up now and just do normal shows for a minute.
Absolutely. I was just going to ask about that: will you be doing regular touring soon? I know Modern Art came out right around the anniversary of Girlfriend.
Yeah, we never have toured much of it, though we’ve talked about it and sold it and played at least a song from it every night but, yeah, it’s hard. It’s just been that the Girlfriend thing has been popular and the club owners are like “We want to book more Girlfriend” so we’ve just been following that lead. I’m expecting we’re kind of winding it up with these Midwest dates because we’ve been everywhere twice. I guess you never know.
I know someone who just listened to Girlfriend for the first time in the last year and they’re kind of younger. Would you say anything to someone like that, who maybe gets into Girlfriend and then gets into some of the other material at that time, which is a lot different? I mean, Altered Beast is kind of dark and I know you did that on purpose, but is there anything they should take with a grain of salt?
Well, they should take everything in their whole lives with a grain of salt. But, no, I would just be excited that someone young related at all. I’m all about music that was before my time so I think that’s a great thing to do, to kind of go back and discover stuff. I guess Girlfriend, again, it’s particularly kind of relationship based, although I think all my music is somewhat that way, or most of it. That record really had a me-and-you thing that I think people really grasped onto. Altered Beast is a lot more experimental and it was also me venting. I had been through the wringer, as far as becoming successful and then having no time and being kind of overworked and not taking care of myself. You know, I just kind of—it was a little bit more my monster side coming out, you know? But that’s there, that’s kind of there in everybody and that’s kind of why there are people who are die-hard Altered Beast people. I guess, probably, Girlfriend is more of a friendly album, in a way, even though it does kind of rail on things quite a bit.
That is true. I actually have a friend who still, to this day, has all five of the Altered Beast CD colors.
Oh, my god, that’s crazy! All right…
While I was prepping for this, I was actually looking at your Wikipedia article, because it’s a good starting part for everything in life these days…
You know, it’s funny because I was thinking about you calling me earlier and I thought “I wonder if they go read my Wikipedia” and then I thought “Oh, my God, I wonder what’s on there.” I should probably have someone go through it because there’s probably a billion things that aren’t on it.
It’s completely weird, because you go look at it and it has all of your albums listed chronologically and it’ll say, for example and this is quote, “In 1995, Sweet released 100% Fun, an alt-rock album” followed by “In 1997, Sweet released Blue Sky on Mars, a new-wave album” and that’s the format for every album you’ve ever put out. I don’t know if I necessarily agree with it, but when you do sit down to record an album, do you think about what genre you’re doing?
No, totally not. I just feel like me instead of a genre. I feel like the me-ness really overwhelms that. I can’t get away from that side of it if I’m making the music. So, no, not really.
Can you give us a hint about what’s going to be on the ‘80s Under the Covers?
Well, you know, it’s an interesting thing. This is the first one we’ve done where…I guess there was some stuff in the ‘70s that I’d heard at the time, but this is the time when I was in high school, 1980-1983, so I was really buying records then and checking out a lot of stuff. So I maybe have a relation to it where I think Sue was really becoming famous in the ‘80s [but] I was still a little bit behind that.
There are a lot of things I wanted to try that are a little more indie. We’re going to do R.E.M. and XTC and we’re doing a song by the Bongos that I hope somehow we use. I don’t know if you know the Bongos, but they were a great indie band from New York. There’s a song by Marshall Crenshaw and Lindsay Buckingham. We still love him so much and he put out Trouble, his first solo album, then so we’re going to do that song, “Trouble.”
I’m trying to think… That Dave Edmunds song, “Girls Talk,” is on it. And stuff that’s different: the Smiths, the Clash, the Pretenders. There’s so many good songs from then that we like. It was easy to pick a few, we like all of them. But we’re trying to keep from doing 30 of them like we have in the past because that really slows us down. So, initially, we’re only working on 15 songs.
Anything you want to let the people reading PLAYBACK and attending your upcoming show know?
Just that we’re coming back there and we’ll have a great time. I hope people who missed Girlfriend come, which we won’t do forever. I’m hoping to make a new album very soon, which I’m very excited about and…that’s about it.
Will you be making a new Matthew Sweet album next or the Sid ‘n Susie album?
Well, the Sid ‘n Susie album is next but on the heels of that, I’m hoping to make a real me record next. I have a lot of ideas about so I’m pretty excited to get started about it. But it’s going to take me a few months to get ready for that.
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