ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, APRIL 17, 1997
By Steve Newton
When Matthew Sweet calls in the afternoon from a Manhattan hotel room, he’s just hours away from taping an appearance on Late Show with David Letterman. That night, through the wonder of TV, Sweet’s new single, “Where You Get Love”, will be transmitted into living rooms everywhere, but the 32-year-old from Nebraska isn’t nervous about the impending performance.
Not yet, at least.
“I suppose I’ll be a little more nervous when I’m standing there waiting to go on,” he says with a laugh. “But this is my third time on there, so I know the people pretty well, and I’m fairly comfortable about it. It’s the coldest place on earth, though. Letterman has them keep the studio really cold ’cause, like me, he sweats a lot when it’s warm. So at least I know I won’t get sweaty.”
If Sweet’s Late Show appearance is a “no sweat” event, it helps that Letterman has been known to crank up the rocker’s previous hit, “Sick of Myself”, while working in his office. Having fans like Letterman on one’s side can’t hurt, although Sweet admits that he isn’t sure what kind of overall effect such high-profile TV spots have on a career—apart from looking impressive on a record company bio. His management pursues the TV angle quite diligently, but Sweet still hasn’t managed to crack that most desired of late-night gigs, Saturday Night Live.
“We were waiting and waiting to see what happened with that before we booked the Letterman show,” he says, “ ’cause there’s all these wars, you know—like, if you do Saturday Night Live you can’t have done any late-night shows first. We really had the music people there gunning for us, and we very nearly got a date on there this spring, but at the last minute, supposedly, somebody went skiing with [SNL producer] Lorne Michaels and talked him into putting Henry Rollins on the show. And I’m sure Henry’s been trying to get on there for even longer than me, so…there’ll be another time. I imagine if my record does well enough, maybe we’ll get a date in the fall or something.”
Judging by the winning sound of Blue Sky on Mars, Sweet needn’t be too concerned about the CD’s commercial potential; its dozen tracks brim with the infectious guitar-pop he’s noted for. “I’ve always wanted to make an album that really stood up for the pop idea,” states Sweet in his current BMG Music bio, and with Blue Sky he accomplishes that feat.
“I was really going after that on my last record as well,” he says, referring to 1995’s 100% Fun, “but to some degree I just think this record is more uniformly kind of upbeat and poppy—there aren’t as many ballads on it. And I thought it was a pretty fun record when I finished it.”
Things aren’t all beauty and light on Mars, however; the tunesmith’s trademark bittersweetness rears its head in the caustic “Hollow”, where he sings about the growth of “an evil deeper than you could know”. It’s one of his favourite tracks on the new record.
“That’s one of the harder songs for me to give a concrete meaning to,” he says, when asked what inspired him to write “Hollow”. “Definitely the whole mood of the song when I was working on it had a very murky, dark kind of vibe to it, and it’s pretty much a stream-of-consciousness kind of thing. I think of it as being a lot about just personal darkness, ya know, and it definitely captures it really well. I’ve seen a lot of people really be intrigued by that song, but I guess I would leave it up to the individual listener to decide exactly what’s going on in it.”
As far as musical arrangements go, straightforward, cut-to-the-bone pop has always been Sweet’s forte, but he makes things even leaner on his new disc by handling most all the guitar parts himself. His previous release featured more in the way of lead-guitar shenanigans, courtesy of ex-Television guitarist Richard Lloyd and Lou Reed mainstay Robert Quine, but those guys are nowhere to be seen on Mars.
“I haven’t had a lot of contact with Quine since 100% Fun,” explains Sweet, “which he was kinda mad about not being on more. I think he was just sorta jealous of how Richard played on it. But up until I was making the record I never made the decision that I wouldn’t use outside people, it just came about as we were working on the record and liking the way it was turning out. It was just a more sparse record, with less lead guitar on it. Ivan Julian [Sweet’s touring guitarist] was gonna play on it as well, so when I talked to Richard and Ivan about it afterwards, they were mostly just relieved there weren’t other lead-guitar players on it. As long as no one else got to play on it, they weren’t really ticked off.”
Although there aren’t any songs about Mars on his new CD, its artwork is completely concerned with space exploration, an interest of the sci-fi–loving Sweet ever since he was a boy. He is pictured grinning from inside a space helmet on the back of the disc’s booklet, which includes photos of Martian sunsets and terrain, as well as the immediately recognizable lettering of Roger Dean, famous for his fantasy album covers for prog-rock bands of the ’70s. As it turns out, Sweet, producer Brendan O’Brien, and engineer Nick Didia were all big Yes fans in high school.
“Nick brought a bunch of his Yes albums in while we were recording, and I said, ‘Wow, how great it would be to get Roger Dean to do something.’ I was already pretty married to the idea of using the NASA photos, but we found Roger and he did the logo, and that was another fun aspect of the record for me.”
As a title like 100% Fun suggests, having a good time is a big priority for Sweet, and in conversation his joyful enthusiasm comes through loud and clear. Vancouver fans can connect with that happy vibe themselves when Sweet plays the Rage on Wednesday (April 23).
“I never conceived in the beginning that I would be a solo artist with a career making records,” he says, “so I feel really blessed with what’s happened for me so far. I’m really starting to feel, at this point, like I have a few records under my belt, and it’s not a total fluke or whatever.”