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A Conversation With Matthew Sweet

Twenty years after the release of “Girlfriend,” the alt-rock singer-songwriter is touring once more with the seminal 1991 record.

Alternative rocker Matthew Sweet is coming to the Birchmere Wednesday. Photograph courtesy of the artist

Singer-songwriter Matthew Sweet had spent the latter half of the 1980s toiling in relative obscurity by the time his fourth full-length album, Girlfriend, introduced him to mainstream audiences. Released 20 years ago this month, Girlfriend was a perfectly calibrated hybrid of sun-dappled ’60s pop and early-’90s angst, bristling with infectious hooks and indelible melodies. (Two years ago, the Onion A/V Club’s Noel Murray dubbed it the best power pop album of the 1990s.) The songs were Sweet’s, but the performances were greatly enhanced by the interplay of guitarists Robert Quine and Richard Lloyd.

Sweet’s current band (which includes neither musician—Quine died in 2004) is touring to celebrate Girlfriend’s 20th anniversary. Sweet, 47, plays the Birchmere on Wednesday night. We reached him by phone as his tour van was pulling into Chicago to talk about how he manages his most celebrated album’s legacy without neglecting his more recent music.

You’ve just released a new album, Modern Art , but on your current tour you’re playing your 1991 album, Girlfriend, in sequence in its entirety. How did the decision to tour on that premise come about?
It was my idea. I realized it was going to be 20 years and I thought, Shouldn’t we do something? I suggested we play the whole album. Once we got into rehearsing for it, I was like, “What was I thinking?” But we got through the physical part of learning it all, and now it’s going really well. People seem to really enjoy hearing it.

Are there any particular songs that have felt especially good to get reacquainted with on this tour?
Yeah, a few. I really like playing “I Thought I Knew You.” And I really like saving “Nothing Lasts” for the very last song from the record. “I Wanted to Tell You” has become kind of a favorite.

It must be difficult to build a show around Girlfriend without making the new album you released seem like an afterthought. How do you approach that?
Well, it’s hard to do, because Girlfriend is a lot. It’s 15 songs. So we’ve only been playing a couple of songs off Modern Art. That’s just what we have to do be able to play all of Girlfriend right now. I imagine we’ll play more of [ Modern Art] in the future. We still hit on “Sick of Myself,” “We’re the Same,” and a couple of other favorite songs.

From 100% Fun , the follow-up to Girlfriend .
Right. And we play “Time Capsule” off of Altered Beast.

As a fan, I have very mixed feelings about the play-a-classic-album-in-sequence trend of the past few years, even when it’s an album I like a lot. I’ve been wondering what problems this introduces to a performer; for example, if you commit to doing the whole record, are there songs you’re obliged to play that you don’t enjoy performing or that you feel haven’t aged especially well?
[Laughs.] Well, there’s not too much that I don’t like on [ Girlfriend]. It feels really natural to play it. I thought it might feel foreign or weird to go back to it, but it hasn’t turned out that way. So no, I don’t dread playing anything on it. I think we do a pretty good job of re-creating it.

You’ve released seven or eight albums of new songs in the 20 years since Girlfriend came out, but that’s still probably your best-known work. Does it frustrate you that your more recent material doesn’t have the same level of recognition?
Not really. I’m lucky to have a record that someone cares about that much. I knew at the time that [ Girlfriend] was in a certain spot emotionally. People could really feel their own situations through various songs. I see plenty of fans who like my other records, so I don’t get uptight about that.

I’m very interested in the “legacy problem” that long-lived artists who have assembled deep catalogs face in assembling a set list. They all approach it differently. Radiohead, for example, might play a dozen new songs in a row and not worry whether it alienates the audience, whereas it’s much more common practice to soften up the crowd with some familiar songs before you introduce the new stuff.
Yeah, I would tend to break it up and not try to play a whole lot of new stuff. I try to sprinkle it in.

Do you start a tour with the set list locked down, or are you open to letting it evolve as you go?
Usually I like to keep it pretty close once we start touring; we just fall into kind of a natural rhythm. But it depends. Sometimes people will request a song, and we’ll throw it in there. On this tour, people keep asking for “Devil with the Green Eyes,” and we haven’t learned it or played it for a really long time. But my fans are very forgiving.

You’ve said regarding your new album, Modern Art, that you used a more experimental songwriting process than on some of your others.
Some of the songs I based more on the stream-of-consciousness tapes I make when I’m making up music. I noticed they kind of tried different things—different melodies, sometimes a little section that never comes back again. I thought that was one way to make things a little different: to stick a little closer to where [the song] was at that point. For instance, on “Ivory Tower,” Fred Armisen sent me a drum track and I just grafted the song onto it. That’s an unusual way for me to work.

That’s Fred Armisen the comedian?
Yeah, he plays drums on one track on the record. Keeping the other musicians in the dark a little bit helped me to explore areas, as well. When they don’t know the song is about to fall apart in the middle and then they have to find their way back in, it makes for a little bit of freshness.

So do you generally prefer to work quickly now when you’re writing and recording songs? Girlfriend seems very meticulously crafted.
It varies a little bit how much I get into the crafting of something, but lately, I’ve done things quickly. A lot of Modern Art is first-take stuff for the drums, the bass, the guitar [laughs]. It’s pretty quick, and we didn’t really change a lot about it. I listened to it a lot, and in the mixing process I’ll work a little extra. But more and more, I’m doing things quickly. Even a lot of the vocals are first takes.

Any chance you’ll be working more of those songs into the set as the tour progresses?
I’d like to, but I’m just not sure. It’s a physical challenge to play a lot more than 18 songs. Girlfriend wears me out. It’s a lot of singing and feeling, and by the time we get to the end of it, it’s like, “Wow, we’ve been playing for a while!” It’s doesn’t really take that long; it’s probably only an hour and ten minutes. But for some reason it feels like it takes more out of me than it normally does when I go out and play live. I want to do it really well for the fans, so maybe I put more pressure on myself because of that.

So even to you, the guy who made it, Gi
has assumed this venerated stature.
I guess maybe a little bit, yeah. Because other people seem to care so much, you know?

Matthew Sweet comes to the Birchmere Wednesday, October 26, at 7:30 PM. Tickets ($29.50) are available through Ticketmaster.