Interview with Matthew Sweet

Originally published in Stylus in 2005. Keep in mind the 2005 bit.

Matthew Sweet has been a solo artist since the 1980s, having his greatest success in the early- to mid-nineties with a string of hit albums (Girlfriend, Altered Beast, and 100% Fun). In 2002, Sweet teamed up with Pete Droge and Shawn Mullins to form The Thorns, a side project for the three solo singer/songwriters. Sweet recently released two solo albums, Kimi Ga Suki * Raifu (previously a Japan-only release) and his latest, Living Things.

You recorded Living Things in a relatively short period of time and I was wondering what the cause of this sudden inspiration burst was?

It was written faster than it was recorded, most of it was written really fast. Out of the eleven songs on it, at least eight or nine of them were written all at once, the main music for them written all in one sitting, in a couple of hours. The words I fleshed out over the next couple of mornings, I sat out under this tree on this ranch, I was actually still writing with The Thorns at the time when I wrote those. I think it was just because I had spent two weeks doing co-writing between three people, all of us tiptoeing around each other trying to make it work. So I think it was just kind of blowing off steam, like, “it’s so easy to write on my own!” I didn’t spend a lot of time recording it but I probably still spent two or three weeks recording, taking the weekends off.

How has your work with The Thorns influenced your solo work, or is it too early to tell?

I don’t really know. It’s a pretty wacky album, Living Things, at least for me. I think that I was a little crazy at the time, I couldn’t cope, I was probably the most conflicted out of the three of us about doing [an album together]. It kind of came out of the blue, we did this writing session and then people were jumping all over us begging us to make a record. In the end, I think it was an incredible experience for me to be in such an uncomfortable situation where I would not normally be, because it forced me to grow as a person. It was good and I feel a lot better for it, but those stresses at the time probably influenced me when making Living Things.

Is this quicker approach, not to recording but to songwriting, something you see yourself using in the future?

Yes. That is something that I think is good. I’ve thought a lot about artistic process lately. I think that really, when I write a song, it’s done in five minutes. I have basically what it’s going to be really, really fast. Everything else is just — I’ve got to write words, or I’m just not sure if it’s good. My thinking is that I should write with little effort and let it flow out when I’m in the right mood, that’s when the best stuff comes. I’ve found that by taking that approach and not worrying about it, stuff just kind of pops out. I’ve never had a problem with being prolific. I’ve always written lots of songs, but I’ve never understood where that comes from, I’ve always felt so detached from it. The other thing for me, and the thing that I love about doing stuff more independently, is that I’m sick of the rules. Everything has to be so normal, or held to some standard that everybody seems to have. There seems to be a lot of pressure on music to be a certain way these days. It makes me want to fight against that, to break rules and do weird, unbearable stuff, just for the sake of doing it.

Why did you initially release Kumi Ga Suki * Raifu in Japan only?

I went to Japan in August of 2001 and did a big festival there, it was the first time I’d been there since the early ’90s. While I was there I said, “you know, I’m getting out of my long-term contract, I’m going to be totally free, I can do whatever I want — I could make a record just for Japan if I wanted to.” From that comment came some offers to put out a record that way. So I did it because I felt there was no pressure and that it’d be fun, I could make a record in my house, and they’re so nice over there, surely they’ll like whatever I do. So it was sort of a way to pretend that I wasn’t making the same old pressured, “we need you to make the right record,” music business thing.

With your new independent status, how is that working out?

In all ways musically, it’s great. It’s worrisome just because I don’t know how I’ll manage to survive, because it’s really expensive for my wife and I, between our mortgage and our monthly expenses — we live right in Los Angeles. That’s the biggest fear for me. I sell small amounts of records, initially I haven’t sold any huge amounts, because there’s no way to spend tons of money doing tons of huge publicity without a label pouring tons of money on you, putting you on the radio and everything. So it’s a challenge to figure out how to grow it, but the reality of the business is that I can sell tiny amounts of records and be doing really well, I just have to connect with enough fans so I can do that. I just think I can. But I think it’s going to take a bit of time, and I honestly don’t expect these two records to cement me making money or whatever. I want to just test the water and get things started, so that when I make my next record, probably early next year, I’ll be able to have a way to put it out in a timely fashion and tour and just build it up.

It must be especially difficult now, with radio being how it is.

Yeah, it is really difficult. To do it without them is a challenge. But I just feel that it’s going to be more and more how people do it. All these artists aren’t going to go away just because the record industry has no place for them. They’ll find their fans, one way or another, at least the ones who are into it enough … If someone had given me two million dollars, maybe I would have made five records for them. But I wouldn’t have let them tell me what to do. It’s not even an issue for me now. I’m in my own house right now, and I have the power.