By Richard John Cummins
Speaking from his home in Omaha, Nebraska recently, Matthew Sweet was supposed to be discussing his new album. But his mind was elsewhere – like, on another planet. “I have a real thing for Mars,” he says. “I’m really interested in astrophysics and astrobiology, so Mars things I’m always kind of excited about.” At the moment, that would be the Mars rover Perseverance, which was about to land safely on the red planet. “I’m getting some nerves about [it],” he says. “I go way back to the 1970s Mars rover. I called the Jet Propulsion Laboratory when I was 10 or 11, and they sent me – [and] I still have – a cardboard black-and-white photograph of a panoramic view of Mars.”
Released at the beginning of 2021, his fifteenth (!) studio album, Catspaw, is a phenomenal collection of tight and raw ’60s-inspired power pop which would be welcome in any era, major health crisis or no. The title comes from an episode of the original Star Trek series, which is, not surprisingly, another one of Sweet’s favorite things. But despite his interest in both real and fictional space exploration, the 56-year-old confesses, “I’m sort of a homebody.” Fortunately, Sweet’s home contains a recording studio.
The new album is something of a departure for Sweet. Although he’s been a solo recording artist since 1986, Catspaw is the first album on which he plays all the instruments, with the exception of drums, which were supplied by longtime collaborator Ric Menck. “[Doing it this way] was something I was thinking about for a couple of years before I made the record,” he says. “It’s just something I’ve wanted to try, and I’ve actually been pleasantly surprised by the response to it, because people seem to like it.” Although he’s traditionally left the lead guitar work on his albums to virtuosos like Richard Lloyd and the late Robert Quine, his fretwork on the new album makes us wonder why Sweet hasn’t been playing his own lead all along.
One might assume that the (almost) one-man-show approach was necessitated by the current pandemic, which has severely limited travel and face-to-face interactions. But Catspaw was actually completed just before the crisis escalated. “It was mastered very shortly before the pandemic came on, [though] in a way I’ll always think of it – or others will – as my pandemic record, because it’s weirdly sort of isolated enough to fit [in with that], you know?”
Sweet, probably best known for his gold-selling albums Girlfriend (1991) and Altered Beast (1995), grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska – not too far from where he now lives. He recalls it as “a pretty liberal place for the Midwest.” The local scene housed, among other things, the legendary independent music store Dirt Cheap Records, which Sweet frequented during his youth. There, he stocked up on Buzzcocks 45s, Tom Verlaine solo albums (“This was before I knew about Television”) and releases by Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe and the Who.
By age 13, Sweet was already playing bass in local bands, mostly alongside college-aged musicians. The usual trappings weren’t far behind. “I had smoked pot when I was real young, like 12 or something. Weed and coke and acid [were] all around, so I’d done all those things by the time I was 13 or 14. By the time I was 16, we would party and drink so much. I could drink like 18 beers.”
Even with all the distractions, Sweet successfully finished high school and was accepted to the University of Georgia, which he attended “not very enthusiastically for sort of two years.” His main reason for being there was the Athens music scene, which he discovered through friendship with local heroes R.E.M. “I was like a fly on the wall in that scene,” he recalls. “I was a young kid and very wide-eyed. Even though I had my experience with college kids or whatever, I had never been around a lot of people making records.”
Sweet joined those ranks a couple of years later when he signed a development deal with Columbia Records, but after one album he was dropped by the label and it would be another three years before his next commercial release. In 1991 his third full-length LP, Girlfriend, truly jump-started his career, particularly after MTV latched onto the video for the title track, which was comprised of footage from the Japanese anime film Space Adventure Cobra along with the image of Sweet singing and playing guitar.
In his late 30s, Sweet was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which in his case manifested primarily as “an extreme — really extreme — fear of flying.” This was obviously a potential disaster for one whose occupation typically requires extensive touring (not to mention a bit ironic, given Sweet’s lifelong interest in space travel). “That came up during the most successful time of my career,” he says. “It started really disturbing my ability to work, as I had so much pressure to fly and go around the world [to perform].” Although his condition resulted in canceled shows, “I always resisted getting treatment. That was a mistake. But eventually I took a course from a guy who’d been a pilot all his life and became a therapist. We would have sessions on the phone [because] he was back East and I was in LA.”
On his first flight after going through therapy, Sweet found himself in good company, traveling alongside Brian Wilson, with whom he had been scheduled for a joint appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman. “Brian certainly hates flying as much as I do, or did,” notes Sweet, who also summoned his own courage through a somewhat macabre frame of reference. “I thought, ‘Well, if we go down, I could be like the Big Bopper,’” referring to the lesser rocker who was killed alongside Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens. Actually, Wilson’s entire entourage – band, family members and staff – was also on the flight. “They all knew I hadn’t flown in eight years and I had a terrible fear and they were all really nice to me and kept talking to me and making sure I was okay, and that helped a lot.”
Also up in the air at the moment are Sweet’s plans beyond promoting the current album. Despite his craving for the home-life, he’s anxious to get back to touring and live performance when that becomes possible (“We were thinking summer, but it’s hard to tell”). There are hopes for a fourth installment (possibly with the help of a crowdfunding campaign) of Under the Covers, the well-received series of collaborations with Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles which Sweet began in 2006. He says he’s also sitting on a considerable backlog of unreleased studio material. “I routinely in those early records would make 30 [or] 35 demos, and we ended up using 12 or 15 tracks, usually. A thing that’s come up again from fans is the desire for some kind of a box set of all the outtakes and demos and B-sides and things. I’ve just got so much that was never released.”
Sweet says actually he’s worked on “very little” new music since completing Catspaw in late 2019, much of which he believes has to do with recent events. “[Since] I suffer from bipolar disorder, I can get quite depressed. So I was probably having some depression during the pandemic. Maybe that’s why I didn’t feel like working.” Like many people, Sweet spent a lot of the past year enjoying streaming TV, where his personal viewing has included a plethora of recent horror movies, the entire run of Friends and “every Star Trek show ever.” But despite any internal or external setbacks, after making music professionally for 35 years, Sweet has at least learned to be confident in his own abilities. “I will be doing new songs [at some point]. Once I sit down and am ready, stuff will just pop out. It’s like magic, you know?”