Since the release of his 1991 breakthrough Girlfriend, Matthew Sweet has been frequently and unfairly maligned or ignored for not duplicating that classic's content and success. Consequently, albums such as 1995's hugely accessible 100% Fun and 1993's dark, grossly underrated Altered Beast have been perceived as under-performing critically and commercially. Sweet's ability to craft memorable pop songs is rarely equaled, and his chiming guitar work continues to develop, but that has yet to translate into broad mainstream success. The recent In Reverse finds Sweet weathering music-business strife and personal change with a rougher exterior protecting characteristically tender pop songwriting. Sweet recently talked with The Onion A.V. Club about the music business, mortality, and what the future holds.
The Onion: Did you have any ideas about what 2000 would be like when you were a kid?
Matthew Sweet: It is weird that it's 2000 now. When I was a kid, I must have thought, "I'll be 35 when it turns 2000." On my new record, there's a song called "Millennium Blues" about my life being sort of half over in 2000.
O: With all the medical advances, you may live to be 130. So you could be nowhere near half over.
MS: I know. I thought about that, but I wonder if it's really true.
O: Do you have any predictions for this century?
MS: I don't know; it's frightening to think about to some extent, because things change so much and there are still so many problems in the world. It's hard to imagine that it's all just going to turn out great. Some things need to be worked out. I expect to be amazed by the things that happen, because it seems that things have been changing at exponentially faster rates lately than they did when we were kids. Obviously, things have changed more in the last 50 years than they ever have before. I think we can expect things to change a lot, just from the standpoint of population. There's a study I just read today saying that there'll be twice as many Americans in the year 2100. But maybe we'll still be alive then, depending on the medical advances.
O: How about popular music? Will it get better or worse? Will radio still suck?
MS: It's always sucked. When I was a teenager, that was never where I went for music. It's hard to believe how bad it is. It's very strange. I hate complaining about it, 'cause I don't want to sound like an old fart who doesn't like new music. [Laughs.] But it does seem really narrow, as narrow as it was in the late '80s with metal bands. I do expect it'll get better in some way. I like to think people are going to want it to, that it's not just you and me who think that way. There are a lot of things going on with radio that affect me. First of all, alternative-rock radio, where I have the nearest thing to hits I've had, does not play records like mine anymore. It's all very heavy, rap/rock kind of stuff. Even stations that a couple of years ago were playing Fastball and Semisonic won't play their records now. Maybe Semisonic will come out with a record so heavy that it'll get played. I don't know. I still get played on some of those stations, but only the ones that will play something that's not as heavy. It's just long, hard work. It's so hit-oriented on the radio: It's a very narrow playlist in most places, everybody follows everybody else, and it's hard work to break into it. It seems to me that maybe the promise of the Internet and the future is that the people who care about music for different reasons, and don't want to only hear the 20 songs that radio decides you can hear at any given time, are eventually going to have a place to go to find out about music. And it's not MTV anymore; they won't play a video unless it's already a big hit on the radio. Radio really rules everything, which is a drag. If you can manage a hit somehow, everything falls into place, at least for a while. Without the numbers, all artists struggle, and that's the classic battle between art and commerce in action.
O: Will pop music, songwriters, and guitarists still be relevant in the future? Or will technology change that?
MS: I still think it's very relevant. You can't deny it, because it's very direct and it remains extremely close to people. It's not one step removed, like when you make an electronic record and you didn't exactly make the sound yourself, you know? I also think nothing becomes clearer faster than the limitations of electronic music. Pretty much everything has been tried with it. It seems to be the kind of thing that will never last that long, just until the focus gets more on people instead of trying to replace the newest trend. It'll come back again; it just takes people being interested again. When people are tired enough of groove- and rap-oriented rock, people with songs will come back with a vengeance. There are a lot of artists around right now who are really good and in the prime of their music-making ability who aren't getting much of an outlet, and that's a shame. Part of me feels that some smart person will figure out how to get them all together and co-opt them and make some money and make their careers last.
O: In terms of your output, it's safe to say that Girlfriend is considered by nearly everyone to be your creative peak.
MS: That's the way it's been. But 100% Fun did as well as Girlfriend much faster and I didn't get that quite as much. I got it around the time of Altered Beast and Blue Sky On Mars; those records people didn't connect with as much.
O: Why do you think that was?
MS: I think because Girlfriend was such a simple, emotional, relationship sort of record, and it could apply to so many people in relationships. I didn't want to try to make these completely standard relationship records forever, so I went off and made a little weirder and freakier record with Altered Beast that had different sorts of moods on it. 100% Fun was more balanced. Blue Sky On Mars was perceived as not connecting well with people, but it's done better than the new record has, and people are saying that the new album is as good as Girlfriend or the best since Girlfriend.
O: Does it bother you that everyone uses it as the yardstick to measure your career?
MS: I don't think it does. Everybody still only talks about Girlfriend, but at least they really like the record. I'm happy to have a record anyone cares so much about.
O: Getting back to songs like "Millennium Blues," are you more concerned with your own mortality at this point?
MS: Not more than I ever have been. I've always thought about that; it's always been the thing that informs the depression in my life. [Laughs.]
O: Isn't 35 kind of early to start worrying about it?
MS: How can it not be, for anyone who faces up to the facts of life? It's in there somewhat. But when I go to those places, it makes me feel better about everything. At least I acknowledge that I'm not going to live forever, and that I'm not super-young anymore. I'm not saying I'm the oldest person around—I still feel young—but if you're a self-aware person, you realize what's happening in your life.
O: You've packaged In Reverse with a painting by Margaret Keane. Is your interest in her work part of a desire to capture that nostalgia of childhood?
MS: That's interesting. My wife and I collect a lot of her artwork, as well as the work of a lot of the people who've copied her style. We've become crazy about that whole world of these painters that existed then. We collect stuff by a lot of other artists, too—all in the "big eye" category. We're actually starting to write a book about all the artists in this trend and compile them in one place for the first time. We have a book agent in New York, and we're slowly writing the book. The paintings are partly about that innocence, but, especially in Keane's stuff, there's also a spacey mystical quality that feels sort of pure to me. Collecting art has been a very valuable thing for me in terms of thinking about what I do. The more I can make things that make me happy, the more I'll be an artist with an identity.