It's hard to believe but it has been just about twenty years since the release of Girlfriend on October 22, 1991. In town for two shows at the Bottom Lounge, Matthew Sweet spoke to me on the phone about not only the anniversary of Girlfriend but also the September release of his latest album Modern Art, his recent work with The Bangles and SNL's Fred Armisen and what fans should expect during this week's shows in Chicago (which are set to feature a full performance of the Girlfriend album)...
Q. Matthew, you’re touring in support of a couple projects, one of which is the twentieth anniversary of Girlfriend. You’ve never really struck me as the type of artist to look back but Girlfriend is one of the nineties' seminal albums. How does it feel to be celebrating that anniversary?
Matthew Sweet: It feels good. You know, you’re right: I’m not the kind of artist to look back, really. But it is kind of my fault. I guess, when I realized it was twenty years, I was sort of like, “Should we play the whole album?” And then once we were actually learning to do it, I was like “What was I thinking?!” because it was kind of a daunting task. But I’m glad we’re doing it. I would’ve thought that it would seem strange to go back to it. But really, it just feels sort of normal to me. It feels kind of like I feel now.
Q. You’re also touring in support of the recent release of your thirteenth studio album Modern Art. Ric Menck drummed on the album and is joining you on tour. I can hear a lot of Girlfriend influence on the new album (especially in the guitars). Was Girlfriend or the anniversary something you had in the back of your mind as you started putting Modern Art together?
Sweet: Not really. I think that’s just kind of by accident because I’d finished this record a year ago last summer. So, it was kind of before I thought very much about the twentieth anniversary. But I guess it makes sense that I would kind of touch on similar things.
Q. Girlfriend is an album… Modern Art is an album… Really, you’ve always recorded great start to finish albums. With the rise of the internet and the dominance of vehicles like iTunes to promote singles, how do you feel about the state of the album in today’s music landscape?
Sweet: Well, I know that people ask me about it all the time so I believe that it’s not as prevalent as it once was. For me, I just think of things in that way, I guess. No one song is sort of enough. I like groups of songs and I like there to be some variety between the different things. So it’s something that I still care about. I do think of them as albums even though I can see that that has changed a lot. I mean, people today who weren’t around back when we used to buy albums on vinyl probably don’t quite understand how much that meant to our young lives. We didn’t have the internet to find out everything about anything we were interested in and so we had to kind of be imaginative about it and that was like your private world when you bought some records and listened to music. So I still think of it a little bit that way… like a private journey.
Q. On Modern Art, you worked with Saturday Night Live cast member (and one time drummer of Chicago’s Trenchmouth) Fred Armisen. How did that come about?
Sweet: Susanna Hoffs and I met Fred when we were actually visiting the set of Mad Men. At the time, he was engaged to Elisabeth Moss, although they since split up. Sue and I are big fans of that show and Sue met the creator Matt Weiner so we became friendly with him at a couple of parties and he invited us to the set. We were walking across the backlot and saw Fred and I kind of went “That’s Fred Armisen!” and he sort of turned around. So we went up and talked to him and he was really nice. We had a bit of a texting relationship and he came over a couple times. Sue and I eventually guested on a couple of his “Fred Armisen and Friends” shows here in Los Angeles. At the time I was working on Modern Art, I just said “Why don’t you send me some material to use? Just some drums or something.” So he went in a studio in New York and recorded two or three things and [for] one of them, I had this song “Ivory Tower” that just sort of grafted to it perfectly. So he had no idea what was going to be on it when he played.
Q. Well you just mentioned The Bangles... Dennis Taylor plays guitar on Modern Art and your playing with him really reminds me of your playing with Robert Quine and Richard Lloyd.
Sweet: Oh, that's cool.
Q. I’m told you met Dennis through The Bangles. What’s it like playing with him?
Sweet: I met him through The Bangles. He’s awesome! He has very much a sense of things like I have melodically but he’s also willing to take chances. He kind of encompasses a lot of what Richard and Bob did because he can kind of do both styles. But he kind of has a thing of his own as well because he’s really a power pop guy. He plays guitar with The Records. I don’t know if you remember “Starry Eyes” by The Records but they were sort of a power pop group from England back in the eighties. So, he’s very well informed for my kind of thing and we just hit it off and he just plays stuff I like.
Q. You’ve had quite a history working with Susanna Hoffs of The Bangles. In fact, on September 27th, not only did your Modern Art drop but also the new Bangles album Sweetheart of the Sun, which you produced. How was it working with The Bangles?
Sweet: It was awesome. I’m a big fan of theirs and when they get together, and do their singing thing, they’re just such a real group and it’s a pretty wonderful thing to behold. I should say, the record really is co-produced. Those guys did a lot of work on it after we did all the basic stuff on it at my house. So, it’s really fair to give them credit as well. But it was fun to work with them, and easy, because I’m a fan.
Q. Any plans for a third installment of the Under the Covers series that you’ve collaborated with Susanna on?
Sweet: There are plans. Actually, we’re planning on doing an eighties version next year.
Q. You’ve got quite the history of great live shows in Chicago (with multiple shows at Taste of Chicago, on the fourth of July and at just about every venue in town). What can fans expect from your upcoming shows on Thursday, October 13th and Friday, October 14th at Bottom Lounge?
Sweet: Well, it’s a lot of Girlfriend because we play the whole album and the bonus tracks. They should expect at least two or three songs off of Modern Art and a few other of the well known songs. So it’s going to be a pretty full show I would say.
I always look forward to coming to Chicago. We always have a great time playing there and we’re really psyched to be bringing Girlfriend there.
This interview was conducted by Jim Ryan.
Doors open at 7PM, show starts at 8PM
Miles Zuniga opens
Celebrating the release of Modern Art and the twentieth anniversary of Girlfriend
Features a full performance of Girlfriend
$30 tickets are still available for both shows. 17+