Matthew Sweet On Latest Album ‘Catspaw’ And ‘Girlfriend’ At 30

Since the release of his breakthrough 1991 album Girlfriend, Matthew Sweet has established himself as one of America’s preeminent power pop artists.

Exploring topics like growing up and breaking up, Sweet tallied a pair of gold records in the 90s, selling more than a million albums in the U.S. along the way.

As Girlfriend turns 30, Sweet once again confronts the idea of aging, doing it gracefully over the course of the dozen tracks that make up his latest studio effort Catspaw.

While the guitar work of punks Richard Lloyd (Television) and Robert Quine (Richard Hell, Lou Reed) informs several of Sweet’s most celebrated albums, he goes it alone on Catspaw, handling lead guitar himself for the first time.

“Anything that pops out, I feel like is really just through osmosis. Being around all of these great players, I sort of absorbed more about the way, artistically, their stuff felt to me – the way various guitar players sort of attacked their thing,” said Sweet, noting the influence of guitar players like Lloyd and Quine on his playing. “I feel indebted to everybody that’s played lead with me on albums, live, in any way.”

In addition to lead guitar, Sweet handles everything from recording to instrumentation on his 15th album, now available digitally and on CD or vinyl via Omnivore Recordings, with Velvet Crush drummer and longtime collaborator Ric Menck the only other contributor to the new project.

I spoke with Matthew Sweet about stepping out on lead guitar and the way Catspaw unintentionally manages to address turbulent times in America amidst pandemic. A transcript of our phone conversation, lightly edited for length, follows below.

I’ve read that Catspaw was finished just prior to the pandemic. But you very literally handled nearly every element of it in your home studio, from recording to instrumentation – everything but drums. I know that’s a first for you. What impact did that sort of isolation have on this project as you started guiding it forward?

MATTHEW SWEET: I think it’s partly that I’m a kind of isolated person. I tend to not be very social. I don’t really go out much. So, in a way, it’s my nature to be a little more of a homebody.

But it is almost like Catspaw sort of weirdly predicted or fit with the time of the pandemic. Even though I mastered it [in the earliest stages of that]. For me, that felt like it was kind of eerie how well it fit with what we’ve all gone through. 

So many people got creative during the pandemic – whereas I was coming off that creative spree. And I really spent most of my year consuming tons of media – lots of movies and shows and streaming all kinds of things.

The bright spots for me were hooking up with Omnivore Recordings, who I’d always wanted to do something with, and working on the artwork with them – which is always one of the most fun parts of the process for me.

Then, knowing that the album was actually going to come out and see the light of day this month just kept me going kind of hopewise a little bit, since my actual way I normally make a living, which is through live shows, was entirely ground to a halt.

So it’s been a really happy occurrence to have it be coming out and be doing interviews for it.

Was the idea heading into this that you’d handle all of the guitar or did it kind of just gradually become that?

MS: It was. That was my idea. I thought, “I want to make a record where I play the lead guitar.” I didn’t know what that meant. I’m not really a lead guitarist. I’ve never been taught.

When I was a teenager, I was a bass player first – and played bass actually for many years before I started playing guitar or trying to write songs. And I had this idea that, even if I didn’t play bass for a while, that somehow, in my subconsciousness, I would get better at playing bass even though I was never playing it.

And I remember thinking one time, along that line of thought, “I wonder if when I’m old, I’ll just be able to play lead guitar – even though I’ve never really learned to do it. Just because I’ve been around music so long, and I have had music in my head, I wonder if I’ll get good at playing lots of things?”

I never really thought about it again until I had decided that I was going to play lead on this record. And one day it just popped into my head. I remembered having that kind of weird premonition when I was probably like 13. I’m 56, which, at that time, seemed impossibly old to me, you know?

I try to think of it as glass half full. “I’m not that old, hey!” I was saying that to myself when I was young. I was already obsessed with, and worrying about, death and what life meant. I worried a lot as a kid. I was very sensitive in that way.

But I had this little kind of vision and, low and behold, I made an album and I played lead guitar on it. I really had a lot of fun doing it. It was really satisfying. 

It was a first for me to stick my neck out and just go for it – and improvise playing lead. I feel like it has the right kind of grasping going on in it – where it helps the album and it also helps kind of define what the vibe of it is.

I tried to do it like I had learned to do with other musicians, where I learned pretty quickly, don’t tell them what to do. Don’t try to get them to do something that’s my idea – let them run free and pull from their freedom what you’re going to use on the record. And that’s really how I did it myself. And it was just really satisfying.

It was a little bit like scat singing over a song I wrote or something where I could just go all over the place and see what happens. I would just take a deep breath and go for it. 

You started to hit on something there that caught me as I listened to the record again earlier and that’s the idea of aging. Confronting aging sort of seems to emerge as a theme on Catspaw. How did that kind of manifest itself on this project? 

MS: Well, I think that’s been creeping into my music.

Even from a young age, I was trying to like put a spin on aging. I remember I did a song – I want to say it’s on 100% Fun – called “Get Older.” And it was about, you just have to let time pass and you’ll just get older. Don’t be afraid. It’s still you. As I’ve actually gotten really older, I think those themes get into my music more and more solidly. 

Some of the songs, in particular the opening song “Blown Away,” I felt really went with that definition well. But maybe I felt like the whole album really had sort of that edge to it. Because of the way I recorded it, and the drums, it’s got very kind of a rock edge.

But then, as I’ve talked about the songs and gone back, I really see that it has all kinds of angles on it. I try to find hope. I’m defiant. I have self-doubt. I’m resigned to my fate. There’s all sorts of different ways of going at thinking about life. And, in a way, that’s kind of what philosophy is – people trying to get their head around what it means to be mortal. And how you go about surviving life. 

You do cover a range of emotions on the album. “Give A Little” and “Challenge The Gods” sort of skew more positive, hopeful, while something like “At a Loss” goes the opposite way. How important was it to strike that balance?

MS: I’ve always tried to have a wide range of songs on my albums. This one, I didn’t maybe try as hard for that. But it just sort of is like magic. When you do a bunch of songs, they fit together in a certain way.

Once again, Ric Menck handles drums on the new album. And he’s the lone contributor to the record aside from you. What’s that musical relationship between the two of you like after all of these years ?

MS: We always have a great time recording together. Usually I start all of my recordings with just Ric and I. I’ll play a guide guitar and he’ll drum along. Sometimes he knows kind of what the melody is or what’s going on but oftentimes it may not be that developed yet – but I know kind of what it’s going to be. So I know kind of when we have the thing that I need.

Ric and I are very close. We’ve toured together for a long time. We’ve known each other for a long time. We really love a lot of the same music. To a large degree, he’s kind of been my mentor. He’s the one who’s really deep into record collecting and knowing about a lot of things. So he would turn me on to things that he knew I would like a lot. 

Since I’ve been making records – since pretty early on – I kind of, to some extent, lost my music fandom – in that, I usually want silence if I’m not working on a record. Maybe I’ve just had so much music in my head – and that combined with touring all of the time – maybe that was kind of enough music for me. But he’s kept me finding out about cool little things that get reissued and come out. 

We’ve been there for each other in difficult times just as friends. And I really think of him kind of like a brother. We just really see eye to eye on things. I think both of us are a little bit similar in that we’re pretty emotional people. So we sort of have that in common: when we feel something, we feel it really strongly. And if he loves a thing that he hears, I’m probably going to love it in the same way. I’m going to get the deeper feeling of why that thing is important to him. 

So I really can’t say enough good things about him. He was the first drummer who I just felt right with when we played together. I never really wanted to play with anybody else.

Later this year, the Girlfriend album turns 30. What’s it like being able to look back at a project like that three decades later and see the way that it continues to resonate with people the way it does?

MS: It’s crazy that it’s been that long. That’s just a thing in life that happens. As you get older, you realize, “Oh my god, so much time has passed.” 

With Girlfriend, it’s never really been far away from me. Because it meant so much to people emotionally. That was kind of its appeal when it came out. And it gained me a lot of fans that have been really die hard about their love of it.

I’ve never gotten sick of it. I’ve never felt like I don’t relate to it. I think a lot of the feelings in it were sort of universal. And I’m just super pleased that I have an album that people think was important in its own little way.

It’s just so amazing. Because it seems like yesterday that it was the 20th anniversary. And we did play the album in its entirety. We ended up doing that for probably four years because there was so much demand for it. And it still is a big part of our live shows. I still am fond of it and I don’t have any problem with that. 

I just feel lucky. It did a lot for me in my life. It made it so that I could keep making records. And making music was my first love. It was my therapy for life, you know? And it still is.

I always admired artists who kept doing it their whole lives. I looked up to that. These guys that were so serious that they never kind of stopped being who they were. Having that history now, I can’t believe that I made it this far. I can still make records and somebody cares.

Published at Mon, 25 Jan 2021 02:25:44 +0000

By Editor