Tomorrow Forever Knows:
The Future Comes to Pass for Matthew Sweet
Matthew Sweet started out making music in his hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska. Moving to Athens for college, he fell in with the vibrant music scene there, playing with Oh-OK and The Buzz of Delight. After scoring a record deal with Columbia (and then with A&M), Sweet released a pair of albums (1986’s Inside and 1989’s Earth), neither of which caught on with the record-buying public.
But everything changed with the making of 1991’s Girlfriend. Rightly considered a landmark album of its era, Girlfriend effectively combined the many dimensions of Sweet’s songwriting – with elements of power pop, classic rock, psychedelia, country & western and punk – into a seamless whole. Aided in his pursuits by a top-notch musician ensemble that included Robert Quine (Richard Hell and the Voidoids), Richard Lloyd (Television), Lloyd Cole, and others, Sweet also brought to the sessions his best songwriting yet. Tracks like “I’ve Been Waiting,” “Evangeline” and “I Wanted to Tell You” helped define the Matthew Sweet sound.
Sweet’s career took off in the wake of Girlfriend, and – relocating to New York City and then to Los Angeles – he would go on to release a string of high-quality albums. But as tastes changed – grunge was taking hold in the commercial marketplace just as the ear candy of Girlfriend hit the airwaves – Sweet settled into a kind of cult status. Despite the irresistible charms of his songwriting, playing and arrangements, Matthew Sweet would not enjoy widespread commercial success once the 1990s ended.
Thankfully for his ardent fans, he has remained busy, touring and recording new material. In 2013 he left L.A., returning to his home state and settling in Omaha. After a lengthy gestation, his twelfth solo album (not counting three all-covers collaborative albums he’s made with the Bangles’ Susanna Hoffs), Tomorrow Forever was released June 16. The product of a successful Kickstarter campaign, Tomorrow Forever was created and released without the involvement of a traditional record company.
For people who insist upon classifying an artist’s music into a single genre, Sweet’s catalog is potentially frustrating. Over the years, various critics have neatly defined every one of Sweet’s albums with a genre label. By their measure, 100% Fun from 1995 is alt-rock, Blue Sky on Mars (1997) is new wave, and 1999’s In Reverse is psychedelic. It’s enough to confuse – and potentially ward off – someone unfamiliar with his music.
“I think that probably some of it is from me doing so many interviews about albums over the years,” Sweet says. When interviewers ask, “What’s up with this album?” he says that he might respond, “’It’s more psychedelic.’ So I sort of feed into that.” But his music doesn’t veer all over the stylistic map, like, say Neil Young or Todd Rundgren. “When you are one person, you can’t really not be yourself,” he chuckles.
“It all feels pretty connected to me,” Sweet says, “but I’m also very close to it. I [make music] that comes naturally to me; that probably comes from stuff I liked on other people’s records.” That said, Sweet is proud of the fact that his music draws from a wide array of influences. “There’s sort of a blues/rock thing, but there’s some country. There’s some very punky kind of stuff, there’s power pop. I love backwards stuff, so that’s where psychedelic comes from … partly, at least.”
In the end, Sweet is largely unconcerned about how people describe his music. “I’m not worried about what they are going to say,” he admits. “I’m just glad they care.”
For past albums projects, Sweet would often write as many as thirty songs, recording demos for each. Then he’d begin the process of winnowing the selections down to an album’s worth of songs, and record them properly. And though he originally planned to streamline his working methods for Tomorrow Forever, in the end Sweet amassed a large cache of finished studio material. “I really tried to be extra ambitious about getting good stuff, so I ended up doing three album-length batches of songs,” he says. He spent the better part of last fall and winter selecting the songs for the album. And while the Kickstarter campaign promoted a disc of demos as one of the available premiums for those helping fund the project, things worked out a bit differently in the end. “Since I didn’t really make a lot of notable demos, that’s going to become an album of outtakes,” Sweet says.
Because he came of age in the DIY era, Sweet is comfortable with the notion of working without the support of a major record company, with its in-house promotion people and high-end recording studios. “I probably wouldn’t be a musician if I hadn’t had multitrack cassette players in my bedroom,” he says. “In a weird way, it’s back to that now.”
There’s a freedom that comes with not being on a major label, Sweet believes. In the old days, he often felt an implicit – if not direct – pressure. He says the clear message was, “’Why can’t you be a thing that will sell?’ And even if you are doing well, it was like, ‘Why can’t you be a thing that will sell even better?’” That frustrated Sweet, who says that he wouldn’t have known how to make music that was more commercial in any event.
“That feeling is gone now,” he says. “I really like doing music as much as I ever liked doing it. I must sort of like being independent,” he says with a chuckle. Referring again to his past, he says, “I used to say, ‘I’m going to make my record at home,’ and I never did it. But now the future has come to pass.”
Crowdfunding an album is a new experience for Matthew Sweet, and so far it’s been a very positive experience. The campaign for Tomorrow Forever took in nearly twice its target amount of $32,000. But Sweet says that the raw numbers are a bit misleading. “I did really well in what I raised,” he acknowledges, “but it all goes to make everything, do all the recording. So it’s not really a way for me to make money. I spent a lot making the record, because I had enough to pay people.”
Among Sweet’s sidemen on the new album are longtime associates Ric Menck and Paul Chastain of Velvet Crush, and John Moremen (of Mystery Lawn Music artists Flotation Device, The Paul and John, and the Orange Peels). Sweet says that drummer Menck and bassist Chastain worked with him on the basic tracks for nearly all of the tunes on Tomorrow Forever, and that their presence greatly influenced the sound and feel of the finished product. “They give a certain sort of well-worn thing that you get from years and years of playing together,” Sweet says.
Much has been made in some circles of Sweet’s involvement in the nascent Athens music scene of the 1980s. But though he spent several years there, he doesn’t feel that his music is greatly defined by the places in which it is created. “I never really strongly connected where I was to my personal struggle of making music,” he says. “I always felt like it didn’t matter where I was, and that has given me a certain kind of freedom. I have a lucky thing where I can do what I do anywhere.”
Outside Matthew Sweet’s releases under his own name, his most high-profile work has been the three albums he made with singer-guitarist Susanna Hoffs. Each volume of Under the Covers focuses on beloved – and sometimes relatively unknown – songs from a specific era (loosely defined, the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s). “I had always been a fan of Susanna,” Sweet says. “I really like her voice. And at some point I said to her, ‘I want to produce something with you if you ever wanted to record.’”
Hoffs had already been talking to the people at Shout! Factory about a new project, and so she and Sweet teamed up to make 2006’s Under the Covers, Vol. 1. “I didn’t think we would do a bunch of them,” Sweet admits. He laughs as he recalls seeing the record come out with the Vol. 1 subtitle. “We were like, ‘I’m sure there will never be a Vol. 2! Why are they putting that on there?’” But the record sold well, as did the two that would follow in 2009 and 2013.
“It was really a rock archaeology sort of thing,” Sweet says. And the two developed a lasting friendship through the collaboration. “The two of us like a lot of the same kinds of things, so it was easy,” Sweet says. “We’d get easily excited about trying this or that.” Though Sweet ‘s primary focus remains on his own projects, he values the shared nature of the Under the Covers project. “It’s fun to have a friend, to have some camaraderie.
But no matter how critically acclaimed Under the Covers or Tomorrow Forever (or any of his other albums, for that matter) might be, the high water mark of Sweet’s body of work is likely to remain Girlfriend. That album’s enlisting the talents of Lloyd and Quine was a real masterstroke, and in retrospect seems part of some brilliant design. But Sweet admits that while the seeds were planted many years earlier, in fact there was no plan at all.
Sweet recalls that when he was a kid, the cool thing was all the music coming out of Britain: “Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe and those melodic people that kind of came out of there.” But he found himself more interested in American artists. “And that’s when I started to find out about the dB’s, R.E.M. and all that,” he says. Still, he bought nearly all of the singles released on London-based indie label Stiff Records. “That’s how I first heard ‘Blank Generation,’” he says. And he was struck by Robert Quine’s guitar playing. He also was a fan of the pair of 1970s albums by New York-based Television, featuring guitarist Richard Lloyd.
After leaving Athens, Sweet headed for NYC. There he became friends with drummer Fred Maher, who introduced him to Quine. “Fred told me, ‘You know, Quine’s really into Byrds-y, jangly kind of stuff; I think he would be really great.’ Quine taught me a lot about the Byrds, and he taught me all about ‘50s rock and rockabilly and why it was cool,” Sweet says. “To me [’50s rock] was like Happy Days or something; I didn’t really know about it, and I didn’t understand its importance.”
After the release of 1986’s Inside, Sweet was touring with Golden Palominos. On the last night of the tour, the band’s guitarist couldn’t make it, and so Richard Lloyd was asked to sit in. “We did one rehearsal,” Sweet says. “Richard was supposed to learn our whole set; I felt terrible for him, because I couldn’t conceive of anyone being able to do that at the time.” But he did, and Lloyd and Sweet became friends as well.
When the time came to make Girlfriend (originally to be called Nothing Lasts in acknowledgment of the end of Sweet’s first marriage), he brought in both Quine and Lloyd on guitar, as well as Maher, pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz, Ivan Julian, Indigo Girls Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, and others. “We liked what we were doing, but it was by accident,” Sweet says. “I wasn’t trying to do some brilliant thing; it happened much more naturally than that, really.” Girlfriend would be Matthew Sweet’s first Gold record. In acknowledgment of Girlfriend‘s enduring popularity, Sweet has mounted tours in recent years centered around that album’s songs.
After what he describes as a “greatest hits” tour late last year, Sweet’s summer 2017 run of dates is focusing on songs from the brand-new Tomorrow Forever. Starting at home in Omaha, the tour will take Sweet and his band to venues in nearly 40 U.S. cities. After the many months of effort with the Kickstarter campaign and making the album, Sweet is ready to play. “And,” he adds with a laugh, “sometimes I’m good live!”
Photo by Evan Carter.