The attack is a bit "sweeter" this time around for Matthew Sweet. Instead of the usual jabbing guitars flexing up the straight-forward pop, the singer-songwriter has decided to tone things down. "Up until recently Matthew gave guitar players all the room in the world," says guitarist Ivan Julian, who has worked with Sweet for the better part of the last six years. "It used to be, 'The song's in E -- go.' That's changed a bit since he did all the guitars on this last record. You have to mimic his parts. It's difficult."
The new album, Blue Sky on Mars, both suffers and benefits from this approach. Those accustomed to the all-out guitar wars of Sweet's last three albums (1991's Girlfriend, 1993's Altered Beast, and 100% Fun from 1995), might wonder if someone forgot to invite the wiseguys to the party: The host is as amiable as ever, but no one's around to spike the punch. Still, Sweet has had a better chance at getting a little radio play this time, something his type of singer-songwriter power pop needs more than the average rock and roll road band.
"In a way, pop bands have to now be more like blues bands," says Sweet during a phone interview from New York City. "The road is where I've made my living since Girlfriend. I've never made a penny from record sales. People are always saying power pop never really breaks through. Oasis aside, in general it's kind of true. I've never had an explosive record where I sold a lot. I still get the feeling that it's not going quite as well as it should. With the road thing, you're in the trenches trying to keep it going."
Ironic how a music built so firmly around hooks should fail in the marketplace where it seems a natural fit. "I hand a record in and the record company will think there's a million singles on it," Sweet explains. "It's never 'There's no single here, go back and work on it.' The first single from the new album, 'When You Get Love,' got really good radio support but it didn't get the reaction sales-wise."
So Sweet has been left to make converts the old-fashioned way -- one at a time. After shows, instead of spacing out, he meets and greets his fans with a smile on his face. "I feel lucky to have them," he says. "I never expected other people to like my music in the first place. You see, I became a huge Elvis Presley fan and the thing I kept reading in all his books was how no matter what was going on, he always took the time to talk to people and feel thankful for it. That always made an impression on me, as corny as that sounds. There are nights when it's quite a chore. It's always the show you thought was really grim that they're there waiting for you."
Sweet has been on this album-tour-album-tour grind since his third release, 1991's Girlfriend, the album that announced his arrival as a serious contender for the power-pop crown. The story behind Girlfriend has become almost legendary -- how it had been recorded while Sweet was signed with A&M and then sat in limbo for months while he and his management decided the label could not provide the necessary support and looked elsewhere.
"Every label rejected it, even Zoo [the label that eventually released the album]. If someone didn't do something with it, I'd be finished," explains Sweet. "Lots of young people who liked it would get excited and they'd go to their boss and suddenly be convinced it was bad. It was kind of funny. You didn't even hear, 'My boss won't let me do it.' It was more like they'd say, 'This is the best thing ever' and the next week it was, 'It's kind of derivative,' or 'You can't sing.' Something would just pop up."
Eventually Zoo's label head heard one of his A&R people playing the Girlfriend record in the office and inquired as to its status. Upon hearing Zoo had already passed on it, the label head made provisions to sign Sweet pronto. As it happened, Girlfriend was a turning point for the artist. Many fans continue to think of it as Sweet's first album, a viewpoint he doesn't mind. "The diehards have the first two albums [Inside and Earth, released in 1986 and 1989, respectively]. But really it's a blessing since it's just two albums of songs I don't have to hear about how I don't play them," he laughs.
Girlfriend was most noted for bringing two Seventies-punk guitar legends to the foreground: Robert Quine of Richard Hell and the Voidoids, and Television's Richard Lloyd. The addition of the two guitarists put a chaotic vortex at the heart of Sweet's power pop and gave him a level of respectability not usually associated with his chosen genre. Quine, however, had warned Sweet in advance that he wouldn't be available to tour. "Quine used to say to me, 'You do not want to take me out on the road.'" So Sweet didn't. He used Richard Lloyd a bit, but Lloyd has always been a loose cannon -- a great player but a volatile human being. Says Sweet: "One of the cool things about Richard is how he'll work melodically with what's happening. But he's much easier to rein in in the studio than live. That's what I like about touring with Ivan [Julian]. There's more variation in how he'll approach things."
Julian was brought to Sweet's attention by Quine, who, after issuing Sweet his warning about the road, set out to find the perfect replacement: the other guitar player from his old band the Voidoids. "A solo like in 'Girlfriend,' which is Quine's, comes from a school of playing we both came from -- rudimentary and mutated Chuck Berry," Julian explains. "That's the whole essence of our playing -- Fifties, Forties, even Sixties guitar players that were blues players, taking [their work] to the next level. Play a minor sixth. Chuck Berry wouldn't do that, but it's in the framework of his style, so it sounds new."
Julian likens his job on stage to that of an overseer making sure the songs are well taken care of and not in need of anything more. "When we play live, I am the final editor," Julian laughs. "I listen to the song and figure what it needs. It's like it's a chapter in a book and my job is punctuation. If it needs an exclamation point or a semi-colon, I'll put it there."
Sweet's new album, Blue Sky on Mars, is his first release since Girlfriend not to feature any of the guitarists. "Once I got down to Atlanta with [producer] Brendan [O'Brien], we quickly started working on things," says Sweet. "We'd do a song a day and work on everything during the day and mix it at night. We'd done two or three songs this way and we had to ask, 'Are we going to have other people on it?' One of the things I wanted to do with this record was make it different somehow, and it was happening without me having to decide how to do it.
"I knew I'd get attacked for it," he continues. "Brendan's attitude was: 'Be a man about it.' Everyone else took it all right that they weren't on it. Quine's never forgiven me for using Richard Lloyd more than him on 100% Fun, but part of it is just the natural cycle of Quine turning on everyone he works with."
"Quine and Lloyd are incapable of learning somebody else's parts," maintains Julian. "I came up with the Foundations [the touring band for the hits "Build Me Up Buttercup" and "Baby, Now That I've Found You"]. I had to play hit records note-for-note. I'm classically trained, besides. It's not the easiest approach to play [written parts]. Playing live is usually like writing spontaneously."
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And because of Julian's restraint, Sweet has the chance to do things he never did previously, like taking guitar solos. "I've started doing it and it's completely horrifying for me," he says. "Before I used to be so overwhelmed. It was enough to just sing every night and get enough sleep. I never envisioned myself as a solo artist. I was real shy about it. Part of the struggle is to not let the struggle get to you. I prefer writing songs, hearing how they come out in recording. That's what really got me into music, just liking to put together sounds and music and not knowing where it comes from. Whenever I'm most miserable I always start writing songs. I write them when I'm really bummed out or really excited, so it's when there's excess emotion going on."
The band has also taken to playing the songs faster, at a near-Ramones pace. Sweet laughs: "Sometimes I think we play like Elvis Costello in 1980 -- everything super-hyper raw. I'll say this: When we hear the records after playing live a while, they seem really slow. We had mosh pits when mosh pits were in vogue. Mosh pits! We almost adjusted our shows to that, playing loud and ferocious. I've spent the past few years actually trying to get back to having different levels of it."
With this tour, Sweet is delivering more than a fair share of his catalogue. He admits that, with four solid albums of material (not counting the two pre-Girlfriend albums), it's tough to play every song his fans want to hear. It's something the audience-pleasing star has had to accept. "Even last night, we played a lot of songs we don't often get around to and we still had no way of squeezing in 'Behind the Smile' or 'Heaven and Earth,'" Sweet laments. "But you try, y'know? That's all you can do some nights."
Matthew Sweet performs Wednesday, June 18, at Chili Pepper, 200 W Broward Blvd, Fort Lauderdale; 954-525-5996. Showtime is 8:00 p.m. Cover charge is $12.