ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, JULY 6, 1995
By Steve Newton
When Matthew Sweet checks in from his L.A. abode for an afternoon chat, I’ve got a fair supply of questions lined up. I want to uncover the acclaimed pop rocker’s thoughts about his place on the Another Roadside Attraction megatour, which comes to UBC’s Thunderbird Stadium on Thursday (July 13); I want to get the goods on his work with famed producer Brendan O’Brien on the current 100% Fun CD; I want to pry into his penchant for strange and foreboding lyrics.
But most of all, I want to know about the album he has on his lap in 100% Fun’s 20-year-old cover photo. I had a lot of albums on my lap in 1974, but none that featured the big-monkey cover art of the disc he’s pictured with. I’m concerned that it might be some quintessential ’70s-rock item that snuck past me, even though I spent all the spare cash I could muster on music back then. (All my teenage pals had nice cars; I had nice records.)
“Oh, it’s like a King Kong soundtrack,” explains Sweet with a chuckle. “I was into monster movies and I used to get this magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland. I think I ordered away for it out of that.”
Sweet’s youthful interest in scary creatures shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, since his demented appearance on the lurid cover of last year’s odds-and-sods EP Son of Altered Beast showed a keen appreciation of the horror/sci-fi genre.
“It’s a thing I was really, really into as a young kid,” says the Nebraska native, “and I have kinda felt it resurface a lot lately. I’ve been starting to relive all my original dreams and loves of my life, you know, ’cause when I really got into music I lost sight of some of those hobbies I’d been into. As I’ve gotten older and into this profession where I have to express myself, I’ve tried to get them back into, like, the artwork and the videos and stuff. I’ve kind of gotten back in touch with the whole monster thing through that.”
Even without shoving any creepy crawlies in people’s faces, Sweet has managed to freak a few folks out with his often bizarre lyrics, which rarely tend toward sweetness and light. As a matter of fact, he chose the title 100% Fun in sarcastic response to the people who kept telling him how dark and weird the songs were on his 1992 release, Altered Beast.
“That’s part of why I liked the title,” he says. “Ultimately, when it kinda stuck in my head, it was because I thought it made an interesting contrast to some of the more sober themes in the music. And something about the combination made me think about the title almost in a melancholy kind of way, like, ‘One hundred–percent fun—did you ever have it?’ You remember those moments where you kind of do, but it never really lasts, and you are always trying to find it. Maybe it doesn’t exist.
“But [the title] also does sort of fool people. It makes them think the record’s real cheerful, which I think has kind of helped sales. People go, ‘Oh, yeah, one hundred–percent fun! I like it!’ ”
100% Fun still features enough of Sweet’s semitwisted lyrical concoctions to keep folks guessing, but the actual music roars along with a distinctly straightforward, rockin’ vibe, thanks in no small part to the raging electric guitars of Richard Lloyd (Television) and Robert Quine (Lou Reed, Richard Hell and the Voidoids) plus the slippery pedal-steel and electric lap-steel guitar of Greg Leisz (k.d. lang). And having a hotshot producer like Brendan O’Brien at the controls didn’t hurt, either. So far, the in-demand knob-twiddler has hit it big with Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, the Black Crowes, and Stone Temple Pilots, to name but a few.
“When I heard Brendan’s records, I agreed with, like, the aesthetic of them,” says Sweet, “but they also really impressed me in this bewildering way. I would always hear things by whatever band he had worked with and I would say, ‘Why does this band sound so great? What do they do to get that kind of sound?’ Even if it wasn’t the kind of thing I was into that much, I was always impressed by records he’d worked on. They didn’t offend me—like he never had some, quote, ‘production’, unquote, sort of style that jumped out at me. The band just seemed really powerful and really maximized sonically.
“So I mentioned to my manager that I’d like to do a record with Brendan O’Brien, and he kinda laughed at me, ’cause Brendan was just so sought-after at this point. But it turned out he was a fan of mine, and we very much hit it off in the studio. He likes to work really quickly, which I like to do, and it’s just nothing to him to make great-sounding mixes in, like, half an hour. He just sits down there and does it.”
With O’Brien at the helm, Sweet manages on 100% Fun to create glorious guitar-drenched pop tunes with simple melodies and gorgeous harmonies. Most of the songs hang raggedy and loose in the best Neil Young tradition—which isn’t surprising, since Young is one of Sweet’s all-time rock heroes. He recorded a dandy version of Young’s “Don’t Cry No Tears” for Son of Altered Beast.
“Sometimes I’d almost react against it,” says Sweet of his Young love. “I’d be like, ‘Come on, Neil Young isn’t the only guy I like; I certainly like John Lennon or Brian Wilson or Gram Parsons all equally as much, if not more.’ But then again, I listen to Neil’s stuff now after having gotten off it for a while since the whole Girlfriend time, and I’m like, ‘Wow, he’s so great.’ I wish my records were as loose as his.”
Although Sweet may know his stuff when it comes to Neil Young, he’s not so up on another of Canada’s most valuable rock gems. He’ll be taking part in 10 shows on the Roadside tour as it wends its way across the country, but when the Straight spoke with him he still hadn’t heard one Tragically Hip tune.
“I don’t know their music, I must admit, but I’m planning on getting a CD or something before I come up there, so I can comment more intelligently on them. We met their manager and their road manager, and they seemed really nice, like the main goal was gonna be lots of fun for everybody, so I think it’s gonna be pretty cool.”