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The Return of Matthew Sweet

story by tim mcmahan



Lazy-i: Oct. 27, 2004

Matthew Sweet
w/The Velvet Crush
Nov. 4, 9 p.m.
Sokol Underground
13th & Martha

Where have you gone, Matthew Sweet? The man who reinvented pop rock in the '90s with the release of his opus, Girlfriend, and its hard-rocking follow-up, Altered Beast, just seemed to disappear from the music landscape, only to pop up in some of the wildest places, including as a member of Austin Powers' rock band, Ming Tea, and as a member of the singer-songwriter supergroup The Thorns.

Now after a five-year hiatus, Sweet is back with two new albums of his own that reflect his new, liberated approach toward music. Kimi Ga Suki is Sweet's thank-you note to the Japanese people, perhaps his staunchest supporters over the years. The spontaneous home recording was released only in Japan in 2002 and was considered by critics to be a return to the style that made Sweet a favorite. While riding the same creative wave that resulted in Kimi, Sweet recorded sessions for Living Things, his best record since 1995's 100 Percent Fun. Released this month along with the first U.S. release of Kimi on Sweet's own Superdeformed label, Living Things features contributions from the legendary Van Dyke Parks, Brian Wilson's collaborator on the recently rediscovered Beach Boys' album Smile.

We caught up with Sweet via phone at his Los Angeles home where he was preparing for the tour that brings him Omaha Nov. 4.




You graduated from high school in Lincoln in '83. What do you remember about the music scene back then?

I wasn't really too in touch with the scene at the time. I remember the local hero was Charlie Burton. I was in a group called The Specs that had a song on KFMQ Homegrown Vinyl. There was a guy named Danny O'Kane who had a group that played there a lot (Model Citizens), and a group called The Boys that played glam rock. I always played with kids who were older than me -- I was playing in bands at The Drumstick when I was 13.

Did you feel that you had to leave Lincoln to make it in the music biz?

It wasn't so much that I had to leave to make it in the music business as I was curious to be out on my own and sort of explore. I never felt that where I was ever influenced my songwriting. I moved to Athens because I met the guys in R.E.M. and became pen pals with Linda Hopper, who was in Oh-OK. I gave them my multi-track tapes and they liked them. Back then it was foreign for me to have much confidence in myself.

Has being from Lincoln influenced your songwriting?

The openness of rural Nebraska certainly influenced me. That openness, in a way, fosters the imagination. But growing up, Lincoln wasn't a small town. It was a college town. It had record stores and was a liberal place.

So how often do you return to Lincoln, and is it strange coming back?

My family lives there, so I come back sometimes between shows for a couple days. I get back a couple times a year. When I was 30 to 34 I was weirded out when I came back -- you know, how your past gets away from you. It's grown so much. Back then, we could drive a mile from home and there was nothing. Now it's grown in every direction and is populated and modernized. I guess I have mixed feelings about it, but I'm not someone that thinks everything should stop growing.

Let's talk about the new CD. In the press materials there's reference to your following in Japan. How would you characterize the devotion of those fans?

First off, I don't want anyone to think I'm this huge thing in Japan. Every group from here that's made any records over any length of time -- even indie bands -- have a Cheap Trick effect in Japan. When I go to Japan and do shows I play for 1,000 to 1,500 people. I like a lot about Japan. Their popular culture and mass commercialization appeals to me. There are things that I value now that I didn't when I first went over there, like Zen Buddhism, which has become part of my life over the last couple years.

I wanted Kimi to be a Japanese record with a Japanese title. I wanted it to be for them. They appreciate things on a different level, and take their art very seriously -- that's special if you're an artist. You know that they're not just into it for the moment, they really care about it and value it over time.

When I did the record, I was coming off a time when my contract had been sold and the music industry had changed a lot. I didn't understand how to make records for big labels. I was waiting for a new kind of record label to emerge. So it helped me to just let go of all my tensions and feelings about that world and say 'OK, this is for my fans in Japan. They'll be nice and get into it and have fun.' And it was the first record I made at my home studio.

It must have felt liberating.

I think of it as 'pretend freedom.' It was a way to trick my mind into not feeling so pressured. I felt like I had become numb to that process. I got into rediscovering how I felt about music before I was on a record label. I felt I could do this record totally apart from that world. A couple months after Kimi, I recorded another album's worth of stuff. It was fun and exciting.

Right in the midst of all this, The Thorns came out of the blue, and that was a year and a half of working with Columbia Records, the world I was trying to escape. During that time I could see what was happening with labels, and stayed free in terms of a contract. I know I had these two records I could release on my own label (Superdeformed) and got a distribution deal through Red Eye, which is one of the best indie distributors.

Would you consider releasing other artists on Superdeformed?

I don't know. I would if something came along and I felt I had to do it. I will do a record with Susanna Hoffs (The Bangles) the same way I did these records -- in my house -- but we haven't talked about putting it out on my label. I guess we could. Susanna and I have been friends for a few years. I really got to know her after I moved out here and after the first Austin Powers movie when I was a member of Ming Tea. We hung out a lot with her husband, Jay Roach, who was a film instructor at UCLA. He just did the "Meet the Parents" movies.

















"I got into rediscovering how I felt about music before I was on a record label."















" The reality is that the times I had the most media success, sold lots of records and played bigger shows, I had the least control of my own life. "



Did you meet Van Dyke Parks through Brian Wilson and what was it like working with him?

I don't know Brian really well. We did some things together, but I don't hang out with him. I guess I met Van Dyke before I met Brian, years and years ago, first through Greg Leisz who must have played with him on something. I went to a rare live Van Dyke show and met him there. And then he came to a show of mine and we spoke back stage. The third time was at Brian Wilson's birthday party.

I first met Brian back when he did a film with Don Was -- I was invited to the taping. Then I saw him a couple times at Cello Studios -- that's where the Beach Boys recorded Pet Sounds. I worked there a lot over the years. Then in the spring of 2001 TNT television did a tribute to Brian Wilson and I got asked to be on it. I had just finished touring for In Reverse and I didn't want to fly. They said, "If we put you in first class with Brian, will you do it?" So I flew after not having flown in eight years. If there's one person who doesn't like flying as much as me, it's Brian. I figured if the plane goes down, I'll go with a great genius and will always have my name connected with his.

The summer of 2002 at the Wilson birthday party I met Van Dyke again and I made plans to have dinner with him. He wanted to play accordion on something of mine and I said you can play accordion, but I want you to play piano and organ on some stuff. He came over a couple times a week for two weeks and gave me therapy as to whether I should do The Thorns or not. He helped make Living Things even more crazy than I wanted it to be. He added old-fashioned piano and classical folk music -- that weird otherworldly vibe -- all these elements got onto the record.

Every time you release a CD it gets compared to Girlfriend. Is that a good or bad thing in terms of how you're approaching your music these days?

It was more of an albatross earlier in my career when my experience with labels was to recapture Girlfriend. I always got press that said, "It's not as good as Girlfriend." So when I made Girlfriend I didn't have that kind of pressure. I had no allusions of radio success. I just loved being in studios. I was having fun and in that sense I now feel a lot like I did when I did that record.

How has your life changed since the height of your popularity?

Girlfriend and 100 Percent Fun were my two peeks, around '92 and '96. The reality is that the times I had the most media success, sold lots of records and played bigger shows, I had the least control of my own life. Those are not necessarily the happiest times. They were happy in that I knew I would be able to make more records.

In the beginning, I wasn't even comfortable playing live. I could never sit around with people and play my songs. I have more perspective now, and am happier now. It's not that I don't want success, but I now know I can have success at a lower level and make much more money doing it by myself. I make $6 or $7 bucks a record vs. nothing off those other records.

So you made no money off the big records?

I got better money playing live and some publishing money -- I still get checks from publishing. But the label was always recouping advances. It became a question of do I want to be on a label where it could take three years to put out a record instead of putting out three records over the same period of time on my own.

Things are going to change in this business. Look at how well Bright Eyes has done on Saddle Creek. No one's done anything like that before. More labels should be like that. Instead of putting these records out myself, I should have just signed with them, but they probably don't like my music (laughs).

My management always laughs at me when I say I felt all these pressures all these years. They think that I fought everything from the very beginning. Creativity is much better when it's free. Someone can take it and sell it if that's what it needs, and from that standpoint, you have to have a label. If you could make your music and just give it away and somehow make a living -- that would be the best scenario.

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This article was published in The Omaha Reader Oct. 27, 2004. Copyright 2004 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.