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An Interview with Matthew Sweet

Talk about a sweet release ...

 

by Alison Richter

 

 

IF SEEKING TO exemplify the seismic shift in the music industry, look no further than Matthew Sweet’s career. In 1985, he signed a development deal with Columbia Records, which contracted the making of his first album after six months. Thirty years later, he crowdfunded his new project, Tomorrow Forever, a 17-track CD/double album released on his new Honeycomb Hideout label and distributed by Sony/RED.

 

“It has changed very, very, very much,” he says. “For people not in the industry, it’s still hard for them to get their heads around just the difference in the amount of records sold. There’s so many less, one for every ten that used to go out back then. It’s not for the faint of heart, what happened in the music industry. The bright side is that it made it indie again, as far as people like me recording are commonly left with no one to try to tell them what to do or to be pushy in any way with them.”

 

Tomorrow Forever is Sweet’s first album since 2011’s Modern Art and his fourteenth overall. The material had its genesis three years ago, when he and his wife, along with their cats, left California and moved home to Nebraska.

He set up a home studio and launched a Kickstarter program to fund the album, but was sidelined by the loss of his mother. Sweet spent months working through his grief and came out on the other side by writing and recording almost forty songs.

 

In the meantime, supporters donated and waited, creating a different and self-imposed pressure to deliver above and beyond expectations. “Maybe some artists needed that push and pressure from a record label,” he says. “For myself, with this record, that pressure came from my wish to please the Kickstarter people, who not only put up money for me to make the record, but who also had to be incredibly patient for me to put it together as well as I felt it could be. It’s different; it’s hard to explain. There were somewhere around 800 people who did my Kickstarter, and the pressure of people who got impatient or didn’t believe I’d ever do it tended to come from a tiny, tiny percentage of those people. But I still felt the pressure. I felt I really needed to deliver, but it wasn’t the same as having a label pushing you to do something and they’re the only person there. The Kickstarter thing always had a big happy side to it, but I certainly sweated it over the years, wanting to bring it to fruition. It’s a huge relief to finally come through and deliver on all the rewards and get the records out there to people.”

 

 

 GEARPHORIA: Let’s start with the gear on this album.

 

Matthew: Before starting the record, I was playing pretty much exclusively guitars made by Dennis Fano. I love his guitars. They are interesting combinations of classic things. We struck up a friendship and he provided me with some guitars that I just love. I used those guitars in the first batch or so of the record. In the meantime, Dennis did a deal with a larger company so they could make more guitars. Eventually he parted ways with that company and his name, and started a new company called Novo. Those guitars are on half of the record. They’re a little different, different design. The two I have are very much like a Jazzmaster on steroids. They have Jazzmastertype tremolos and bridges made by Mastery. Anyone who’s into Jazzmasters knows Mastery is really happening for a replacement  of the old style that is a little more reliable and workable. My Novo Sectis sounds almost like a piano, with a big, fat bottom end and a glassy, jangly thing to it as well. I used it a lot on songs that were power-pop, like ‘Circle’ and ‘Carol’. I built a late ’50s Fender Deluxe clone from a kit from Mojotone, a company that makes cabinets and guitar kits. I bought a cabinet for it, finished it myself, and used it a lot. I used an amp by Analog Outfitters that’s made from the power section of a Hammond B-3. They repurpose things from Hammonds.

 

They made me a Leslie speaker that I used quite a bit to run guitars and vocals through. They came up with a unit called The Scanner that uses the optical vibrato units out of those old organs. It’s built in a Plexiglas case, and you see it moving in a circle inside, making its vibrato sound. Using the combination of The Scanner with the Leslie through their stuff, I got a lot of interesting sounds. I used those a lot.

 

Sometimes I use plugins. The McDsp EQs and compressors I used all the time. I really like Slate Digital; they have a subscription model and you can get access to everything you need. Waves has come out with a lot ofinteresting Abbey Road plugins modeled on the original gear built by the engineers from EMI at Abbey Road Studios. They have a version of the ADT they came up with for the Beatles, a way to make a fake double-track by using a tape machine that was going just slightly in and out of speed, and in and out of tune, and making the sound of a double vocal. I used that quite a bit.

 

I use the Cranesong Phoenix, which emulates magnetic tape, the harmonic structure of how things sound when they’re on tape. I use a part of the Phoenix plugin called Luminescent a lot to run things through and give them a fatter, more solid tape sound. I can’t imagine the trouble it would be to have real tape decks and keep them aligned and worked on, and what the cost would be.

I live very much in the modern age, but I use various plugins that help me approximate the way stuff should sound from when I was growing up and when I started recording, because it was all tape then.

 

 

    

     

            IN STUDIO: Sweet’s studio is filled with amps from brands like Analog Outfitters and Metropoulos.

 

 

 

 GEARPHORIA: What are some of the recording and miking techniques you use?

 

Matthew: With guitars it’s usually pretty simple. I’ll use an SM 57, a Sennheiser 901 maybe, sometimes I’ll use a vocal mic, something like a 47, for guitars as well. It just depends. I have a pair of Blue Microphones Hummingbirds that I use a lot on acoustic guitar sounds. I’ve used them on electric guitar cabinets too, and they work great. I don’t have any secret weapon tricks. I get a mic and go from there and see what sounds good. Sometimes I used various guitar pedals. I have a couple of things by Midnight Amplification, a Rangemaster clone called a Derangemaster from them that’s sort of a treble boost I used quite a bit on the record. Catalinbread makes pedals that I really like. I recently acquired the Jext Telez White Pedal. It’s based off of a circuit that was in solidstate Vox amps that the Beatles and Stones used in the late ’60s to make more of a fuzz tone. There was a built-in circuit you could turn on and make this sound. People keep finding those old sounds we love and putting them in pedals and plugins. There’s a wide range of things that sound really cool.

 

 

GEARPHORIA: When you say, “those old sounds we love,” is “we” one generation or is it all demographics? From interactions at shows and on social media, do you find that young players are part of the“we” who love those old sounds?

 

Matthew:  I think they are. They discover the old records that we love, and by “we,” I mean people like me. When I started out, the only way to record was on magnetic tape in a real studio. I had the benefit of being in high school around the time they first invented four-track cassette players. You could multitrack yourself for a reasonable amount of money. That was very helpful in learning to write and record things with myself. So much stuff was in those studios because everything was outboard gear.

What we see now with Pro Tools is all that old stuff being recreated painstakingly to where in most cases you could never tell the difference between the old hardware piece of gear and the new model piece of gear. That wasn’t always the case. It’s taken many years for things to get dialed in to where they sound right — to me, anyway.

At this point, I’m used to recording with Pro Tools. There are so many fantastic things about it: how quickly you can work in it, having all the extra tracks that you need to not have to make decisions quickly as far as what gets mixed together, and all that.

I’ve been working on some songs even since my new record, and I’ve been experimenting with trying to combine things down a lot, so that whenever I’ve got a drum track, I get it down to just a stereo drum track, and when I have a bunch of vocals done, I get them down to one vocal track that has all the vocals on it, unless there’s something that maybe would be a stereo track to have some of the vocals be on one side or the other. I get off on the simplicity of it. Something that thing to them, even if it’s not that I meant for it to be that exact thing for them, but just that it’s useful in that way. It’s pleasing when someone’s able to get a strong feeling off a record, and I do hope that when I record and make songs, that they have that feeling in them intrinsically somehow.

 

  

       SIX STRINGS: Sweet’s guitars showcase his love for Dennis Fano’s work via the Novo, Fano and Rivolta.

 

 

 

GEARPHORIA: Early on, you called this “the mother of all records.” That was a year and a half ago. Now that it’s here, what is in your hindsight?

 

Matthew:  I’m always looking forward. I am not a person who looks back too much. Once I’ve got something said the best I think I can get it, my eyes and ears start to wander forward a little bit. I don’t get hung up on secondguessing things.

It isn’t “the mother of all records,” but it was for me the mother of all projects, in that because it was a Kickstarter project and I had approached it that way, I wanted it to live up to being something that fans thought was really special. The way I went about doing that was by recording a lot of material and then whittling it down to the most favorite things.

I had a few people helping me, friends and family, who listened to all 38 songs and made their top 10, top 15, and top 20 lists. Our top 10’s and top 15’s included most of the same stuff, so it made me feel like I was right to think, those are the ones.

When I originally did the Kickstarter, I planned to make demos from which I would put the album together. Because I got started so late, with my mother passing away and a bunch of months passing without me getting started, I felt like I didn’t have time to make demos and make the record, or it would have taken even longer than it did.

So I recorded everything like it was a real recording, and the people who got the demo downloads are going to get this whole extra record, which I call Tomorrow’s Daughter. It harkens back to an album of mine called Altered Beast , where they did an extra thing with some songs and some live stuff that was called Son of Altered Beast . Tomorrow’s Daughter  has a dozen songs that aren’t on the main record, songs that everybody liked that were floating around slightly later in the lists. It’s fun that that exists, and I imagine we will make it available in a package version at some point. For now, it only goes to those who signed up for the demo downloads. Instead, they get a bonus album.

 

                               STUDIO SKINS: Sweet’s DW kit along with assorted percussion specialties.

 

 

 GEARPHORIA: Did recording everything immediately make the project more raw and intimate, as opposed to polishing and perfecting a set of demos?

 

 Matthew: I didn’t work on anything a whole lot. I did mini batches of music. Each time I did a batch, I’d spend a few months working on it, but I don’t feel like anything was overwrought. There was nothing that I worked on and worked on and tried to change or perfect. I was just looking for which things popped up and everybody seemed to like the best. With the pain it was weird. When I started the first batch, it was more basic and maybe didn’t have a lot of wistful stuff that had to do with painful feelings.

As I got into it, more and more of that came up naturally. I didn’t know where that would come from, or what part of the record it would be exactly, but once I was making the record and got close to finishing the record, I could identify the places where maybe I would start to tear up a little bit from a certain line or words or something happening in the song, and I realized where all those feelings were placed.

 

 

       SWEET ON WRITING: I don’t sit down and go, “I want to write a song about this specific thing.”

 

 GEARPHORIA: We spend so much time talking about gear and recording, but often, because of time constraints, we spend so little getting to know the people behind those things. So, as we wrap up: You have a passion for nature, animals, and pottery. How do those passions find their way into your music?

 

Matthew:  I think music is nature, too, and something I learned when I taught myself how to make pottery is that it was very similar. It came from a space that was almost a negative space, a place where you didn’t know what was happening or what’s going on there. I found when you threw a piece of pottery, it happened kind of magically, and you have that same feeling of “Where did it come from?” when I was finished with it and couldn’t imagine how I ever made it. That used to happen to me with music sometimes too.

So I think we are nature, what we do is part of nature, and it’s all kind of mixed up in there. With the Kickstarter rewards, one of the things that I offered was a bronze cat sculpture. Fans know that I’m kind of cat-crazy, and this cat sculpture turned out amazingly well. It was so exciting to make. I made it out of pieces of pottery that I’d thrown, so now I have these bronze permanent records of some of the cats that I’d made using pottery.

It’s been a satisfying, interesting thing to be involved in seeing the bronze being poured. I had to find a foundry here in Omaha to make them for me, and just to see the process … it’s called a lost-wax process, where you make a mold of the original thing, fill it with wax, you make a whole bunch of wax versions of the object, and then that wax gets put into ceramic-type material that keeps it inside it. When the hot bronze is poured inside, it replaces the wax and becomes the same image that the wax was. Again, it’s such forces of nature — the great heat, the metal when it becomes liquid, and in pottery it’s mud that becomes a solid object.

It’s a little different with music in that it’s something in the air, it’s something that you hear, so to some degree it always felt like the most ethereal and hardest to grasp on to. As I learned about other art forms, it helped me understand music a little better. You don’t have a hard object to look at, other than the thing that holds the music, be it a vinyl album or a CD or whatever it is, but it helped me have the feeling with other art forms that’s the same feeling I have with music, of the whole thing coming together in a beautiful sort of harmony. -HC-

 

               

                                                                   Matthew Sweet's Latest: Tomorrow Forever 

 

Matthew ’s Gear List. . .

  • Pro Tools HD System with Mac Pro
  • Shadow Hills Quad Golden Age Microphone Amp x2
  • Blue Mics Mo-fi and Ella headphones

Plugins -

  • McDsp EQs and Compressors
  • Cranesong Phoenix II tape emulation
  • Slate Digital various through subscription
  • Waves Abbey Road plug-ins various ADT etc

Mics -

  • Neumann M149 Tube Mic
  • Blue Microphones Humming bird x 2
  • AEA Stereo L arge Ri bbon
  • Sennheiser various drum mics for kick, toms.
  • Sennheiser E 901 (for guitar cabs)
  • Shure SM 57s, SM 58s

Guitars -

  • Novo Guitars Sectis (silver foil pickups)
  • Novo Guitars Serus J (Novak open-top soap bars)
  • Fano TC6 with Gretsch Powertrons
  • Fano PX6
  • Fano PX4 Bass Guitar
  • Grammer Guitar acoustics (1960s)
  • Gibson Hummingbird acoustic

Amps -

  • Analog Outfitters Organic 1-12
  • Fende r Deluxe ( late 50’s s tyle )
  • Marshall JCM 800

Effects -

    • Analog Outfitters Leslie Speaker (used on guitar, vocals and organ)
    • Analog Outfitters Scanner (vibrato/reverb)
    • Midnight Amplification Derangemaster
    • Midnight Amplification Sonic Violence
    • Moog MF Delay
    • Catalinbread Naga Vipe r
    • Catalinbread Karma Suture
    • Catalinbread Adineko
    • Jext Telez White Pedal

 

Republished with expressed written permission

 

 

____________________________________________

 About The Author

Alison Richter interviews musicians, producers, engineers, and other industry professionals. She's a regular contributor to Gearphoria.

 

 

 

____________________________________________

Who Are Gearphoria? 

Blake and Holly Wright are Gearphoria. They travel full-time in their 25 foot Airstream while writing about cool guitars and guitar accessories. Gearphoria is a bi-monthly free-to-read online publication. You can visit their website by going to www.gearphoria.com and while you are there, sign up for their free e-zine.

 

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