Written by Eric Sperrazza
In 1992, the early alternative rock scene was blossoming to the mainstream public through radio and music video channels. Through a venerable cavalcade of talent that played, one after the other, an artist emerged who had both a vintage feel and was still wildly ahead of his time.
Enter, Matthew Sweet. A singer/songwriter whose career was birthed on the streets of Athens, Georgia, with the likes of The B-52’s, R.E.M. and Widespread Panic, Sweet began rubbing shoulders with the who’s who of future Billboard stardom.
When talking about the catalyst for starting in Athens, Sweet said, “I grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska, and I played in bands there. I met Michael Stipe (singer of R.E.M.) when he played at a little club called The Drumstick in Lincoln. I gave him 4 track tapes I was working on and then Michael wrote me a postcard sort of encouraging me about my music and put me in touch with the person I was really interested in, a guy named Mitch Easter. Mitch had produced that first single for R.E.M. and I just wrote him. He started writing back to me and sent me incredible tapes of all the stuff he was working on and he was the person that said, ‘I think you should go to either Boston or to Athens if you want to try to do original music, once you’re out of high school.’ When I got out of high school, that’s when I went down to Georgia, to go to the University of Georgia, but really to be in Athens! We were making original music and Athens was hot.”
With two earlier albums released in the latter part of the ’80s to little fanfare, the environment of the music scene and the constant bar-raising of creativity seen on MTV by artists in 1992 made for the perfect storm for Sweet’s third endeavor, Girlfriend. Seemingly the world had caught up to the direction Sweet was traveling and, subsequently, landed with a sonic boom on MTV with two hit single videos: “Girlfriend” and “I’ve Been Waiting.”
The videos not only introduced a sound that teetered on power-pop and alternative rock, with shades of vintage classic rock, but it used clips from Japanese anime movies to add a unique and colorful visual experience to the songs. By today’s standards, this was not something to double-take at, but in 1992, Japanese anime was not a mainstay in pop culture and separated Sweet’s videos from the surplus of alternative rock videos parading across the television.
On the creative direction of those videos, Sweet had this to say, “My, then-girlfriend (and, now wife!) and I started getting into watching anime movies. I was just really attracted to the artwork. It just looked like so foreign to me, like that it was from Mars or something. I was so lucky that people that I knew in entertainment helped me find out how we could get rights to some of that stuff to make the videos. One of the things I dreaded about being a singer/songwriter was it just seems so inherently boring to be just a guy with the guitar, so I was always trying to get stuff that was hobbies of mine into the artwork, and the videos that we made.”
Sweet went onto his fourth album endeavor, Altered Beast, a nod to a video game he related to while navigating fame and still trying to work at continued relevance. For gamers of the day, this was a deep reference.
When elaborating, he explained, “When I made the album, Altered Beast, I had no idea I was bipolar. I was going through the success of the Girlfriend LP and that’s why I thought of the video game. Altered Beast; you transform into a monster to help you get through certain levels of the game. I felt, at the time, like I was a little bit like becoming a Jekyll & Hyde. Like there is a side that explores from the darkest most sarcastic and pessimistic side of things and then there is the side that was sensitive and a nice person. I see that now that it was such a bipolar album for me and I couldn’t reconcile those two ends of the spectrum.”
The album saw the release of two singles, “The Ugly Truth” and “Time Capsule.” Although the singles didn’t have quite the commercial impact of the last album’s offerings, Sweet had the chance to record with Mick Fleetwood and come out with even more musical street credit, leading to the next album, in 1995, 100% Fun.
The album’s single, “Sick of Myself,” was such a seminal hit that it went on to be covered by Bowling For Soup and Death Cab For Cutie, years later.
That same year, Sweet was a guest on a compilation album of bands like The Ramones, Sublime, Liz Phair, Juliana Hatfield & Helmet covering classic cartoon theme songs of the ’70s, called Saturday Morning’s Greatest Hits. This album was not only a “Generation-X Party Sing-Along Treasure,” but Sweet’s version of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? led to more work with Scooby-Doo projects, in the future. Sweet was asked about the compilation album and shared about the experience.
“You know what, a good friend of mine spear-headed that project. It seemed like a real novelty sort of thing when we made it. I actually got a gold record for that! I love that I’m on it and I’ve got my gold record, so awesome!” Sweet explained.
Cemented in pop culture, Sweet would be featured on the game show, Win Ben Stein’s Money, as well as cameos on The Drew Carey Show, The Simpsons, Austin Powers, and even collaborated with Lindsey Buckingham on a song for the Sabrina The Teenage Witch Soundtrack.
Sweet would also go on to release new work, as well as a series of cover song albums with Susanna Hoffs, of The Bangles, through the 2000s.
In January of 2021, Sweet released his 15th studio album, Catspaw. When told the album encapsulates the sound many of us grew up on, listening to his music, Sweet replied flattered saying this, “You know, I think one of the things that makes me happy is the biggest difference for me on this album is that I played the lead guitar myself. It’s pleasing to hear people saying that it reminds them of a kind of classic era. That means somehow, by osmosis, I absorbed all those great people who played lead guitar with me over the years, and even the lesser-known people who’ve I played live with… all of them were in the back of my mind and sort of an influence.”
The album, a musical journey through self-reflection, a coming to terms, and a call to action make the most out of the future, Sweet broke down the album’s name and the subsequent vibe of the album, philosophically.
“I was thinking of a cat’s paw; something that comes down too quickly and with finality. You can’t escape it. It’s going to come down on every one of us, eventually, and we will die. We are not going to last forever and there is no escaping it. People go through a lot of different weird things trying not to think about it. I always had a hard time not seeing that. And, because of that, there has always been a nihilist feel to some of my songs,” Sweet began, then added, ” I once heard that went ‘You can never go home.’ I can’t remember where it really comes from. Time changes and even if you try to go back to where you were, the place won’t be the same. So, a person waiting to get back to where they once belonged and can’t. However, it works out that that’s fine!”
With the current concert scene on standby with the state of the pandemic, Sweet has recently looked to digital streaming as a means to deliver his music, new & rare, to his audience of faithful listeners of all ages.
“I am getting more into doing some streaming things. I did my first Facebook live streaming at the beginning of January to kind of celebrate the New Year. We are gonna try to perform songs that I never played live that people would like to hear me do on the 20th of February. Like a mini-concert. Just pick 6 of those 11 I never play and then play those songs. I am getting into doing a little more streaming. My only way to make money is really touring and, for the most part, we just can’t now. So, at least when we can do these streaming things, we can have a tip jar, per se, so make sure you hit the tip jar to support our artists!” Sweet explained.
After 35 years of working with rock royalty, helping define the sound of a generation, and living forever in the annals of pop culture, Sweet shows no signs of stopping, any time soon. Scooping up new fans with every endeavor and keeping true to the feel of his artistry that has moved so many of us, Matthew Sweet is a true rock & roll success story. In an era where musicphiles feel, at times, that they are grabbing at straws for genuinely original and powerful art, Matthew Sweet is still ever-present to invite us all along for the ride.
We should all feel so incredibly grateful for that.
Catspaw, being the most current bookmark in the journey of Matthew Sweet is available for download on Apple Music, Amazon Music, and at Sweet’s website. Reissues on vinyl and SACD of Girlfriend & Altered Beast can be purchased at Intervention Records and anywhere records are sold.
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