After spending 30 years working alongside such fiery gods as Robert Quine, Ivan Julian and Richard Lloyd, the power pop great himself takes lead guitar duties on his excellent new album
On January 15, power pop icon Matthew Sweet released his fifteenth studio album, Catspaw (on Omnivore Recordings) – and he says he feels fortunate to do so, given all the problems in the world these days.
“I haven’t been able to do what I normally do to make a living, which is play live shows,” he says, calling from his Omaha, Nebraska home. “I was lucky enough that I just finished mastering this record right before the pandemic really started to ramp up in the spring. I feel lucky that it’s such a positive thing in a time that’s been so oppressive.”
While Catspaw contains the type of ultra-melodic, memorable songs that have made Sweet such a celebrated songwriter for nearly 35 years, there is one big difference this time, compared to his other recordings: He played lead guitar on it (as well as almost all the other instruments). Considering that Sweet’s previous albums have featured lead guitarists like Richard Lloyd, Ivan Julian, and Robert Quine (who played with Television, Richard Hell & the Voidoids, and Lou Reed, respectively), taking on that role himself is a significant step.
“I am excited that I finally played lead guitar myself on a record,” Sweet says. “I’ve never had any lessons or sat down and tried to learn lead guitar stuff from all the players I know, but I just had this hankering to do [an album] where I played it. So it’s an achievement in my little world to have done it myself! I just go by feel. I tried not to overthink it or get into trying to perfect anything, I really went for spontaneity over everything else. It was really fun to do because of that, and just a little different than it’s been, so that does make it a special record for me.”
As for Sweet’s lyrics, which have always been noteworthy because of their poetic candidness, Sweet says, “I think that my style of song is really personal. There is a lot of me trying to understand life and the feelings that come with it. In that way, I always kind of thought of it a little like whispering in someone else’s ear – that there was an intimacy that maybe was one of my strengths.”
VIDEO: Matthew Sweet with Richard Lloyd performing “Sick Of Myself” on MTV 120 Minutes 1995
Sweet’s songwriting skills have made him one of the most important players in the power pop genre, but Sweet says he can’t really explain how he creates his distinctive songs. “I would guess that if they’re memorable, it’s because of melody,” he says. “Stuff that was really melodic always was my favorite, even when I was a young kid. I think I gravitated toward that when I learned to find the place where music comes from, which for me is still kind of mysterious. I have to get in kind of a Zen state – and if I do, it just sort of comes out. I think it’s one of the things early on people mistook about me a little bit, is they thought of me as being really craftsman-like about making songs – but it’s really the opposite.”
Sweet began mastering his craft when he was growing up in Lincoln, Nebraska. He was drawn to making music, he says, because “I felt like I had an ear for it.” During grade school, he learned to play the piano, recorder, and violin, but by the time he was a pre-teen, he’d become more interested in playing rock music. “I just remember I thought electric guitars looked really cool,” he says. “I was always a fan of sci-fi stuff, and in particular the original Star Trek, and to me [guitars] sort of looked futuristic in that way.”
Sweet’s band teacher convinced him to take up the bass guitar first, because that’s what was needed for the school band. Sweet mostly taught himself to play by listening to albums by prog rock bands and trying to copy the complicated bass parts. “It really gave me a good musical education for my ear to hear that,” he says, adding that the group Yes was especially influential for him. “In that band in particular, the bass guitar was really kind of a lead instrument, so I learned from those records.” From there, he got into punk and New Wave music.
Although Sweet began playing in bands with friends while he was in junior high, his interest in a music career really blossomed when he was in high school, when he got a job at a music store. There, he found out about “the first cassette recorder that was multi-tracked – it could do four tracks at the same time. It was really affordable to make demos and home recordings,” he says, “so it was really through having that that I started getting into trying to make up songs. It was all fascinating to me.”
But Lincoln didn’t have a thriving music scene, so when Sweet graduated from high school, he moved Athens, Georgia, where “I spent a couple of years starting to learn what it’s like to be around a lot of musicians that were like-minded,” he says. At that time, in the early 1980s, Athens had one of the world’s leading music scenes, spawning seminal groups like R.E.M. and The B-52s. Sweet became the guitarist for the band Oh-OK (one of his bandmates was Lynda Stipe, R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe’s sister). “It was really exotic to me, the whole Deep South thing. It was a little bit spooky, almost. All the old mansions and the overgrowth of vines on everything.”
VIDEO: Oh-OK with Matthew Sweet and Peter Buck performing “Every Word Means No” at the 40 Watt Club in Athens, GA 1984
By the mid-1980s, Sweet had left Oh-OK to pursue a solo career. His debut album, Inside, came out in 1986, followed by Earth in 1989. Both albums received positive reviews, but it wasn’t until Sweet’s third release, 1991’s Girlfriend, that he really became commercially successful. That album has frequently been lauded as one of the best albums of the 1990s, and songs from it such as the title track, “Divine Intervention,” and “Evangeline” remain favorites in Sweet’s shows to this day.
Sweet says he doesn’t mind still playing those songs thirty years later. “For whatever reason, I don’t get sick of songs,” he says. “I never have a song I play and I think, ‘I hate this song – I wish I didn’t have to play it.’ Even ‘Girlfriend,’ I don’t feel disconnected from it, ever. I think I have a close enough emotional bond with songs I write that, for me, it’s a chance for me to experience the song again and whatever feelings were related to it.”
Time will tell if any of the tracks on Catspaw will join the ranks of Sweet’s signature songs. Most of the recording for this album was done at his home studio in Omaha (he and his wife returned to his native state about six years ago). He says that at this point in his life, he doesn’t mind living off the beaten path like he had when he was a teenager.
“I’m a really kind of a homebody,” Sweet says. “I don’t socialize a lot or go out, really – just my wife and I kind of hang at home. She works during the day so I look forward to her getting home.” He’s not totally isolated from the music world, however: “I do interact with other musicians – it’s just mostly when I’m touring or we send things back and forth over the Internet,” he says. Still, it’s clear that Sweet has returned to his roots, in more ways than one. As he puts it, “Now I feel like it’s really back down to me and my songwriting and myself.”