Decades after his groundbreaking record jumpstarted an almost 40 year career, one of rock music’s most enduring talents is still going strong.
By Steve Houk
If you were a rock and roll fan in the early 90’s, finding music that not only rocked you but also had great writing was pretty hard to find, and could actually be pretty frustrating.
Enter Matthew Sweet, whose breakthrough 1991 album Girlfriend contained not only some fierce guitar licks but well-honed lyrics and power pop hooks, and took FM radio by storm. The title track went Top 10 and springboarded Sweet into the mainstream.
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Some unaware music fans may have wondered what happened to Sweet after the 90’s, but absolutely no need to wonder there. Sweet has continued to put out not only a slew of well-received solo records, but has thrived in some memorable collaborations and other unique projects, even appearing in an episode of The Simpsons. Sweet recently released arguably two of his finest records, Tomorrow Forever and Tomorrow’s Daughter, in 2017 and 2018 respectively, and is on a tour that will take him across the USA this summer, including a stop at the Birchmere on June 13th.
So how has Sweet kept his unique brand of pop-rock relevant, and even more importantly, kept himself interested and focused over the last couple decades? Sweet feels that a simple desire to keep at it and to enjoy making music is the key to a long and fulfilling career in an increasingly tough business.
“I feel really lucky to be at the age I’m at and be able to still do what I do,” said the affable and engaging Sweet, 53, on a break before the current tour begins. “For me, I didn’t know what else to do, so I’ve just kept at it. The main important thing is doing music. It’s something I enjoy on my own doing, even if there was no audience. That’s how it has to be. You have to first of all really want to be doing music. I think if you have that feeling, then you can keep going forward on whatever level.”
It’s been a long road since the early 80’s when, after dabbling in music in high school, Sweet moved to the musical hotbed of Athens, Georgia from his hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska in an attempt to get closer to the music scene he thrived to be a part of.
“I went to Athens to quote, go to college, unquote, as far as my parents were concerned, but they knew I was interested in doing music there,” Sweet explained. “I just wanted to go somewhere when I got out of high school where people were trying to do independent music. Athens was really magical at the time I went there, it was exciting and scary, and the south was really different, super different than Nebraska. The hot and humid hanging trees and the antebellum mysteries, the ghost house thing, all just really made me intoxicated by Athens.”
And it was a serendipitous and unexpected bond forged with an eventual Rock & Roll Hall of Fame band who hailed from there that really had a hand in giving his career a boost.
“I met REM when they played at a place called The Drum Stick in Lincoln where I grew up, it was a chicken restaurant in the daytime and then at night it was a bar where rock bands would play, it was the place people would play if they came to Nebraska. When I first saw REM, there were probably a hundred people there. I had just gotten their first single and took it to get them to sign it for me. I ended up sitting with them and talking about (their producer) Mitch Easter. They put me in touch with Mitch and I wrote letters to him, I wrote postcards with Michael Stipe and his sister Lynda Hopper from (the Athens band) Oh OK who I eventually played with in Athens. It was like I had these amazing people encouraging me. I’d sent them the first demos I was working on, and then who knew I’d be living in Athens later on.”
From Athens, it’s a swirling tale of rough times and good fortune that enabled Sweet to truly kickstart his career after he moved to the Big Apple in search of bigger things.
“It was really lucky that Girlfriend found it’s way at all. I made a couple of records not that long after I went to Athens, then a couple of years later, I got a development deal with Columbia Records in New York City and I ended up moving there. Then the guy who signed me there left to go to A&M Records, and A&M was sold to Polygram, so I was in limbo at a new version of A&M and my manager talked them into letting us sell the record, so we sold it to a little startup BMG label called Zoo Entertainment. Right at the time this was all happening, I was going through a divorce, then I fell in love with somebody new, and those feelings and thoughts all got cemented into Girlfriend. It became the little album that could, because it was known among young people in the industry who wanted to sign it at various labels, but they couldn’t get their bosses to do it. But there was this young industry support when it came out that helped to push it, it seemed like magic. When it started to catch on and sell some records, it was mysterious, you know?”
In addition to his own albums, Sweet has relished being part of a slew of collaborative efforts over the years, including a duet with Darius Rucker on a Brian Wilson tribute record, his supergroup The Thorns with Pete Droge and Shawn Mullins, and some memorable collaborations with Bangles lead singer Susanna Hoffs. Sweet has thrived in these collaborations, even though it took some time for him to find his comfort level working with other musicians.
“The Thorns, when I did that project, was really challenging for me, because I’d never worked with other people at all and had a really bad attitude in the beginning. Then over time, I came to really dig being the high voice in this thing and we played live a lot. Since then, all my experiences working with other people have been pretty good in the end. I’ve been really lucky to hang out with Van Dyke Parks and he played a bunch of keyboards on an album of mine called Living Things. But I guess my favorite would have to be making records with Susanna.”
Sweet decided to use Kickstarter to get his fans engaged in helping him create 2017’s Tomorrow Forever, and even though it had some stressful aspects to it, it was an experience he takes alot of good away from.
“I think that the pressure of some people being impatient with it made me freak out about it. In a way, I think I wasn’t the best suited as a personality to really cheerlead the project and keep doing a lot of content. Instead I would just give updates now and then of where I was at, and it made me a little nervous to have no buffer between me and potentially angry people, but I’m sure we fulfilled almost all of it. I really learned how hard the fulfillment can be, but it was a great experience overall and I recorded so much material during it, that’s how come I was able to make Tomorrow’s Daughter.”
As he did many moons ago with his seminal record Girlfriend and has with every project ever since, Sweet continues to try and make music that he really enjoys, with the hope that people will like it as well, not an uncommon mantra with musicians.
“You know, with Girlfriend we really made a record for ourselves that we thought was cool, and had no idea if someone else would like it or whatever. To have that feeling and not have expectations attached to it, that’s the feeling I still look for still, is just to do something I think is cool, and then hopefully someone else will hear it.”
Matthew Sweet with special guest Justin Trawick performs Wednesday June 13th at the Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Avenue, Alexandria VA 22305. For tickets, click here.
(Matthew Sweet photo by Evan Carter)