Happy Birthday, Matthew Sweet! (Interview)

With a 30-year career and the critical kudos reaped by crucial albums like Girlfriend, Altered Beast, and 100% Fun, Matthew Sweet has earned his inclusion among power pop's elite. While his wavering commercial fortunes have reflected his never-ending shift in record-label affiliations, each new album still brings renewed possibility for even more renown.

Sweet turns 47 today, and yet given his boisterous enthusiasm and baby-faced features, he seems to hardly have aged. He's been that way since the beginning, when he originally emerged in the fertile musical environs of Athens, Georgia -- first as a member of Oh-OK in tandem with Michael Stipe's sister Lynda, later at the helm of his own short-lived outfit Buzz of Delight, and finally through to his prodigious solo career. Most recently, he released a new album, slyly titled Modern Art. Always ready with a retro reference, his '60s sensibilities reached their zenith on a 2006 collaboration with the Bangles' Susanna Hoffs titled Under the Covers, an apt tribute to his influences and inspirations.

Still, Sweet's sound has always been... well, as sweet as his surname implies. In the midst of his relentless riffing and compelling choruses, there's a wistful melodic underbelly that ensures accessibility and keeps his tunes exceedingly listener-friendly. While Sweet's music consistently bows to an earlier era, his emphasis is always on keeping the hooks front and center. Ultimately, Sweet's set a high bar -- not only in his attempts to emulate his revered forebears but also with his own earlier efforts. A dependable power-pop mainstay, he imbues each new effort with elevated expectations.

Then again, who better way to explain Mr. Sweet's MO than the birthday boy himself. Here's an extract of an interview he gave yours truly last month.

New Times: How do you keep the quality of your music so consistent? After 25 years, do you ever worry that you're going to repeat yourself?

Matthew Sweet: [laughs] Oh, all the time! I feel like I can't get away from what I'm like! So I do get that feeling, but I guess I keep it different enough that I can get away with it.

Do you find that you're intimidated or continually challenged because you set the bar so high early on?

Well, I think most people to some degree have their hits and then they're slave to that. Girlfriend was the first record of mine that became really well-known, but it also had a lot of very direct relationship things attached to it, both from a positive and a negative view. And I think a lot of couples got into it, and people that had broken up got into it, and they had a personal thing about it. So I don't know; I never thought about how I would achieve that again exactly. I've gone on and done what I felt like at the time, and sometimes it's more like Girlfriend and sometimes it's less like Girlfriend. I try not to lose that direct, personal feeling of things, and I find that's sort of a common denominator.

You've always been so self-reliant, playing and singing most of the instrumental parts yourself when you're in the studio. So when you go out on the road, does it feel like a drastic transition to have other musicians around and having to divvy up the parts between them?

No, not really. When I'm out playing live, I'm thinking about me and getting my vocals right, so I'm just trying to get through it [laughs]. So I guess I don't worry about it that much. It's a different situation. It's louder and more visceral live, so it's a different thing I go after in a live setting than maybe what I'd go after on a record.

Why is it then that when you're in the studio, you choose to record everything yourself rather than employ a band?

And bring other people in? Well, I think it's easier for me. It was what I was always doing when I made demos for the records that I made. So now I don't really make demos; I make recordings, and then pick which ones I want to put on something. So now I've lost my train of thought...

We're talking about why you choose to do it yourself...

Oh yeah -- it's not consciously that I don't want other people. In fact, I do like other people. I can try to play guitar myself on a record really easily, but it's fun to get someone else who might discover something that I wouldn't do. And I always did miss having other people, so I do try to get them involved when I can. Playing live helps me have that family feeling. It's kind of lonely being a solo guy. 

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Lee Zimmerman