Glorious Noise Interview with Matt Sharp
Let’s get up and leave this town
I just want to go right now…
We’ll find some new place nice
Some other city or the countryside…
—”Move On” by the Rentals, 1995
It’s been almost a decade since the world first got to know Matt Sharp. He was the goofy bass player in Weezer, jumping around like a maniac and singing those falsetto harmonies. Within the Cult of the Weez, it’s understood that Sharp gave that band its soul, and things were just never the same after he left to focus his attention on his own band, the Rentals. Although his “side-project” was initially laughed off as a one-joke novelty act, their 1995 debut album Return of the Rentals has held up great since its release; it sounds better today than it did back then.
Things got a little crazier with 1999′s all-over-the-place follow-up, Seven More Minutes, with its sweeping production and British guest-stars (the guy from Blur, the chick from Elastica). Since then, Sharp has taken a step back from the craziness, from the busy-ness, from the business. Back to the country. He’s got a new, 4-song solo ep out now on an indie label. Glorious Noise caught up with him before his show at Gunther Murphy’s in Chicago on June 22, 2003, and asked him how he hooked up with In Music We Trust…
Sharp: It just started because of an interview I did with Alex, who runs the label, and we just started talking about artwork quite a bit, and the whole interview was really about that. And it had something to do with the situation with the internet and Kazaa and that kind of stuff, and my feeling that as music is being made more freely available, the record companies are combating that by making the packaging cheaper and cheaper and cheaper and making their product less tangible, and all that kind of stuff.
Sharp: Yeah, exactly. The paper’s thinner, whatever, it’s less elaborate, as opposed to getting a piece of vinyl where the image of the person you’re listening to is almost your size. And you almost felt like you had something you could look at and deal with while you were listening to the music. So that was what I was on a rant about that day, so he basically said if you ever want to do an album I’ll let you do whatever you want with it.
GLONO: How’d you decide on an ep rather than a full-length?
Sharp: Well, the record is quite a big departure for me, for I guess what I’m more well know for, with the Weezer thing and the Rentals. The new record is very patient, sparse and slow moving, so I figured it would easier to ease people into it.
GLONO: Is the full album going to come out?
Sharp: Absolutely. It should be out by the end of September we’re hoping for at this point. The hope was for the beginning of this year but I changed my ideas of how I wanted to deal with it.
GLONO: Do you have any plans to do any new recording?
Sharp: I’m planning this summer to do some recording with my friend Maya [Rudolph] who used to work with me a lot in the Rentals stuff. I don’t know what the result is going to be of it but we’re going to do some recording. And I’m always recording—we recorded a little song on the last tour up at a friend of mine’s place, and that kind of thing.
GLONO: The new stuff instrumentally is a departure, but they still sound like Matt Sharp songs.
Sharp: But sonically is the thing. There’s definitely some music on the new record that doesn’t follow the same sort of guidelines as the music I’ve done before. There’s some longer instrumental pieces, and there are some songs that are I guess devoid of choruses, and that kind of thing. But essentially, I think we all have a few themes that run through our lives and that’s usually what comes up over and over.
GLONO: What led to the departure? Dropping the stuff and stripping it down?
Sharp: I think the main thing is that when you first start a band, as when we first started Weezer in ’92, I think at the beginning of any band when you’re starting out you’re in a much more analytical place where you were just asking a lot of questions of why the music that you enjoy listening to, why you’re attracted to certain things and why are you not attracted to others, and it’s kind of a very introspective time where you’re just asking and asking these questions over and over again and trying to figure out how you can get to the place where you can make the kind of music you also want to hear from others. And for us we got to that place and then you kind of go into more of an automatic mode where you’re just cruising along and doing that thing that you came up with. And as time goes on, you’re still cruising along and doing the same kind of music although maybe the music that you’re into is different, the paths starts to go off from each other, and you never re-ask yourself those questions. For me I found that I was doing just that and playing a kind of music that was very different from the kind of music that was in my record collection. And I found that in most of my peers.
GLONO: Is that aimed specifically at the Weezer guys?
Sharp: No, no. It has nothing to do with them. It’s just literally everyone I know.
GLONO: Who listens to the same stuff they listened to ten years ago?
Sharp: No, no, it’s not that. It’s just that what I mean to say is that I get into a car with a friend of mine who’s in let’s say a pop-punk band and you look at their record collection and it has nothing to do with the kind of music they’re playing. And for me that was really the case. And that just didn’t feel too honest for me so I just decided that it was time for me to start re-asking those questions. So I went to this small town called Leiper’s Fork and it was a good place to cut all the ties and disconnect a bit.
GLONO: And get out of L.A.?
Sharp: Just get out of the world a little bit. And we didn’t bring any televisions with us or any radios or anything of that sort. And we were left to our own devices to see what we could come up with, and basically just spend a lot of time asking questions.
GLONO: So to kind of go back to that place where like when you’re first starting to figure out what kind of music you want to make?
Sharp: Yeah, I guess that’s a way to put it. It’s just also not knowing how to get to that place anymore.
GLONO: So when you went, did you bring all your gear or was it just acoustic guitars?
Sharp: Yeah, well I knew it was going to be in that headspace, and I knew that if anything it was going to be a much sparser record than it is, and it’s a pretty sparse record.
GLONO: So what kind of stuff is in your record collection that’s not so different from what your new record is?
Sharp: I think the big hero for me in my life was a guy named Mark Hollis. He came from a new wave band in the eighties [Talk Talk] and then took some time off and went away and recorded to me three of the most beautiful records I’ve ever heard. And he made a record called Spirit of Eden which was under the Talk Talk name and another record called Laughing Stock, and then he made a solo record a couple years back, and they all belong in the same emotional place. Those records for me are, like, they just crush you. He’s always been a person I’ve looked to for inspiration in that way.
GLONO: What led to having the audience sit down and bring pillows, and inviting people on stage with you when you play?
Sharp: Some of that is practical and some of that is… The music is so slow sometimes that for me, if I went to see it I wouldn’t want to stand because I’d just get tired. So there’s a practical element to the whole thing. And if you’re sitting on the floor of a club, or on the stage—if anybody’s seen most of the stages of the world they realize they don’t want to put their ass on it, so you might as well bring something to keep yourself clean. And the other part of it is that I just don’t enjoy having that much distance from everybody with doing this kind of music. It doesn’t seem to fit in with what we’re trying to do. It definitely wouldn’t if there’s a big barricade, the literal barricade and [the figurative one]. And the whole point for me was to make sure that these shows were as honest and direct as possible and to not build so many barriers between the performer and the audience.
GLONO: Do you think that’s going well? Do you feel like you’re connecting to the audience?
Sharp: It’s been one of the beautiful things about these. This is the fifth tour before the record’s come out. The first tour I didn’t know how the reception was going to be to the whole thing, and I was quite worried about it that it was going to be a group of jocks with backwards baseball hats on shouting out “Buddy Holly” or something, you know? So I didn’t really know what we were up for. Or that somehow the message didn’t get across of what we were trying to do, and people maybe thought there was going to be a more energetic, more pogoing, Rentals kind of event. And it’s been really pleasant the fact that people have been really able to drop their ideas of what it’s about and just come along with us and go where we go with it. Depending on the night the shows are different—sometimes they’re more serious and sometimes they’re more campfirey. And I really enjoy that part of it because I think with rock music it’s like you have one mission every night: you have to come out there and knock the head off people. I’m not always in that mood these days. So I like the fact that some nights are joyous and some nights are a little more somber.
GLONO: Do you ever miss the rockin’?
Sharp: Not too much. I feel like what we did when we did it, we did it as good as we possibly could do it, and that time to me is very special. And I feel like we did it about as good as we could, and I don’t really see the point of continuing on trying to reclaim that.
GLONO: What do you think of Pinkerton being considered one of the best albums of the 90s?
Sharp: There’s an odd thing with all the people that we’ve met in the audiences that we’ve played for. And I think we always considered that they were probably more connected with what we were doing than most audiences are connected to other bands. That might sound kind of conceited or something strange, but it always just felt that like we’d always play on these big bills with all these other bands who themselves had huge followings and had great careers, but there was something by what we were doing that always seemed to me that they were connected in a really emotional way, like it really meant a lot to them. From that, I understand it. It makes a lot of sense with the way that the internet works, and the way that’s it all about these niches that it could really find a place there. So I figure whenever these things happen like these polls and things, that because of their dedication to it, those people all vote 35 times at least. That it means something to them. I think our fans always felt that we were a bit of the underdog anyways even when we were getting all the exposure on MTV and all that. There was always a little bit of a fight for the little guy.
GLONO: And do you feel even more so with the Rentals? I’m always baffled that “Friends of P” was a hit, that it was played on commercial radio.
Sharp: I kind of almost think now it would have a better chance now than it did back then in some weird way with some of the groups like Hot Hot Heat, and it seems to have some kind of place for that kind of thing.
GLONO: But even that stuff doesn’t get played on the radio! I remember listening to commercial radio in my little hometown and hearing “Friends of P” on the radio.
Sharp: Yeah, it’s an odd thing. That was probably the most surreal time I’m ever gonna go through in my life. It made life seem awfully silly, all that stuff, because that song was recorded for, like, nothing, and the whole record was made for five grand. And the frenzy behind the scenes with that record was just as chaotic or more so than what was happening. Like nobody had any interest in it whatsoever and then all of a sudden one person has interest in it, and this is how Los Angeles works, and—
GLONO: A bidding war?
Sharp: Yeah, sort of. But the way that the dialog will change overnight if they feel like… I always thought that was just hysterical.
GLONO: With the Rentals even though there are synths all over the place, there’s the recurring theme of resistance to technology getting in the way (“The systems failed, all the circuits blown, and the message lost in this machine” – “The Love I’m Searching For;” “Empty, everything’s technical, sterile, and endless” – “Please Let That Be You”)…
Sharp: And here we are talking about a record that’s pretty far removed from all that, I guess.
GLONO: Yeah, that’s pretty cool. That was lyrically in your music even way back then, and now you’re acting on it and dropping the “artificial” stuff and just being out there with a guitar.
Sharp: There’s definitely a few songs—not songs that I necessarily play every night—from that record [Return of the Rentals] that resonate as if they could have been written for this record. The first couple shows I did back from coming out of Tennessee were really small. They were in the back room of this cafe right by where I live, and one of the first songs I did was “Move On” from the first Rentals record, and as I was singing it was pretty hysterical because I was talking about going to the countryside and living and writing new songs. Some of those songs fit even better to the situation of telling people where I was at.
GLONO: It’s like watching you become what you were singing about.
Sharp: I think the more you write, the more you realize that there’s a few kind of issues that come up over and over again. It’s the same way with filmmakers, the same way with anything. If you go and watch some filmmaker who has made 50 films or something, you usually notice that this guy has definite issues with religion, in every film there’s a relative on fire, or whatever it is. And there’s these kinds of things that are always recurring and I think it’s the same for anybody that’s writing or doing anything in the arts at all be it photography what you’re attracted to or not.
GLONO: On your website you’ve got mp3s of outtakes.
Sharp: There’s a lot of stuff from the record now too that are up so that’s nice.
GLONO: How do you feel about giving that stuff to fans?
Sharp: Well it’s nothing I would ever charge anybody for. I think there are a couple of thoughts about that. One is that I knew there was going to be quite a long wait with this record and I didn’t want to come out and start performing and meeting with people, and I didn’t want the appetite for this stuff to be to the point where people were going to be really tired of the record when it came out. So I figured it was a good way to keep people’s attention on the music that we’d done before and also it’s kind of closing those doors a little bit. Saying here’s everything, and time to go someplace else.
GLONO: What you feel about people taping live shows and trading them?
Sharp: I like it. I like it a lot, I mean if they’re good. I’ve heard some that are really bad. The only show that I didn’t want to do was the first show that I did back because that show was pretty heavily emotional and I didn’t want anybody to record it. And we tried to do everything we could, and we put up signs outside the club, and talked to every single person. You could only fit probably 50 people in the place but we fit like 75 people in the place and we talked to everyone individually and asked them not to bootleg it, and had it announced before the show not to bootleg it, and by the time I got home that night it was already on the net. You know? So I told those guys, “You should run the website.” So that’s kind of how the whole thing with the Overlee people and the mattsharp.net thing came about was that they were so stealthy and so completely inconsiderate, and I was like, “All right, you run the show then.” And I was really terrified and it was kind of one of those things that I just wanted to keep those emotions in the room and not have it, you know, whatever. I just wanted it to be for that moment, and that moment only.
GLONO: That kind of thing has almost disappeared in this world.
Sharp: It’s very difficult to do that. And I wasn’t too happy about that thing at the time because it was just a heavy evening and I know that the music wasn’t very good that night. And also it’s just strange because it had to do with dealing with all these emotions about where you’ve been, where you’re starting from, that whole thing, and all this stuff sort of descending upon you at once as you’re sitting in the back of the AA room essentially or whatever it’s used for. It’s a weird room. It’s got all these heavy emotions because it’s a narcotics room, an AA room, and all this weird stuff—it’s a great room. But it’s a strange feeling and it was pouring rain and it was very emotional. So the first song for it, I wrote just for that night, it’s called “In the Light” but I haven’t played it since then. And the reason I wanted to write it is because I wanted to write something that was so simple that there was no way I could screw it up. So I could just get past all the jitters and the butterflies. And I wrote it in an open tuning and with two chords so I basically had to go like that with one finger.
GLONO: How’d you do?
Sharp: I tanked it the whole way through. There’s only two chords and every time I had a 50% chance of getting it right, and every time I got it wrong. It was just that difficult to be away from it all. I’ve never been a person who’s had a tough time dealing with performing.
GLONO: How long had it been since you’d been on stage?
Sharp: Three years, I guess.
GLONO: Was it just you, acoustic solo?
GLONO: How did you hook up with Josh Hager and Greg Brown?
Sharp: Josh, who’s playing with me tonight, who played the last time we were here, he recorded the beginning of the record in Nashville and he was one of the people that was sort of… the thought was almost to go real quickly and make a third Rentals record. Or go to Nashville and make the acoustic record, and he was very supportive of just going to do the Nashville thing because he had heard a few of the ideas that we were working on. We didn’t have very much fleshed out for it but I had a couple thoughts about what I wanted to do and I started to realize that it would be this long now and we’d just be talking about the new Rentals record now. It would probably be another three years before we’d see it.
The thought was to make a Rentals records which I’d written two or three songs for, or go to make the Nashville record and Josh’s enthusiasm about the mellower songs was inspiring. I was going anyways, but he kind of pushed me out the door. And he came to the house with me and we built a home studio there and started writing and recording as we went along.
And with Greg I’ve known Greg for a while now. He’s that person who when I first got to hear him play, ever since then I’ve been clubbing him over the head with a two-by-four trying to get him to—I tried to get him to be in the Rentals for a while—he’s somebody I look up to quite a bit. I think people know the stuff he’s done [i.e., Cake] but don’t realize what a true talent he is, and I think he could be on that level of Johnny Marr, and that kind of person, a Mick Ronson kind of guy. He has such an incredible way of listening to music and understanding how to put another layer into it.
GLONO: You mention Johnny Marr. I’ve heard you cover some Smiths songs.
Sharp: Not in a while. And not with any real success either.
GLONO: Are you a big Smiths fan?
Sharp: Yeah, definitely. I mean at least I really was when I was 18, 19. And it holds up which is really weird because everything tells me that it shouldn’t hold up. Because it’s so dramatic and all those kinds of things and it seems like it should date and it doesn’t, you know, when I hear it now. And I go through phases where I can’t really hear it still and then I listen to it and then I can hear it again. But I think it’s interesting we just played at UCLA not too long ago and I used to live right close to UCLA and I used to live basically on campus in this apartment building that was wedged between two frat houses and I was going through a darker period of my life I guess and the music that I really connected with were really sad songs and most of them were “euro” kind of things, but all this music with darker themes and lonelier themes and a lot of songs that asked a lot of questions rather than knowing all these answers, and when we played there recently all the people who were at the show were at my age when I lived there and they were listening to what we were doing and it was a particularly good show for us, I thought, and we didn’t play any of the lighter material and we didn’t talk to anybody during the show. We just kind of went through it, and I really felt like people were with us and connected to it, and it was really interesting to feel that, and to be in that exact same place where I would mope around with headphones on, and to see a couple hundred other people moping around and listening to what we were doing. I really enjoyed it.
GLONO: Do you go in with a set list written, or do you let the mood determine the set list?
Sharp: With this tour we’re doing, it’s kind of set. The very first tour we did, I did with these two guys and we didn’t practice at all, we didn’t have one rehearsal for the tour, and basically the first night I went up and I started playing and then after a while I said, “Greg, you wanna come up and play anything you know with me?” and we kind of just rehearsed on stage every night. And then Josh came along a couple of days later on the tour and he came in and he improvised. He’s the person who gives the record its mood, so his thing is a little bit more ambient and he can be a little more liberal with what it is, he can just improvise with what we’re doing. So it just became that, where we were just going from town to town and making up what we were doing. And that was alright, except for the fact that most of the time we had no idea where we were going and that’s exciting when it’s good, and it’s terrible when it’s terrible.
GLONO: So it’s a crapshoot for the audience.
Sharp: Yeah, it was. I felt kind of bad about it at times because I felt like, alright, they’re going to judge us for what this is and the next time we come through they’re going to go, “Well, the last time I was hear it was pretty damn terrible,” and they’d be right to say so. So I said, well, alright, we’ll start rehearsing. For this tour we haven’t had very much rehearsal and so we were able to just get a few songs that I really wanted to play down, and we’ve been sticking to it. And traveling as much as we do, we don’t really have that much time. Every time I go on a tour you always picture that you’re going to have all this time where you’re sitting in the Winnebago and everybody’s singing along and working and hey, let’s learn that song, let’s do this song. And you’re wanting to play constantly and do all this and…
GLONO: Catching as much sleep as you can?
Sharp: Yeah and like today, I haven’t caught any. So some nights we can get in one other song here or there in there, but I like it. I’ve been enjoying it too, doing it that way.
GLONO: Are you excited that eventually people will be able to buy the ep, and…
Sharp: They can buy it tonight, which will be nice.
GLONO: …as people get more familiar with the material, are you going to play new stuff? I like to hear new stuff when I go to see a band.
Sharp: Some people are into it and some people aren’t into it. I guess it depends. I can understand why people would be not into it also. Like I went to see Frank Black when he first started doing his solo gigs after the Pixies, and I was like…
GLONO: Throw us a bone! One Pixies song!
Sharp: Yeah, and he wouldn’t do it back then. I don’t know if he does it now. And I remember feeling, yeah I’m on it, I saw Bowie that period when he wouldn’t do any of his old stuff, when he was in his Nine Inch Nails phase or whatever, and it was just like, come on, man. But I’m not sure how that will go over time, and it depends on how people react to these records and hopefully that will be more important to them than hearing the older stuff. But I sympathize with it.
GLONO: Are you hoping to not wait as long until the next record?
Sharp: Yeah, from now on. The process of making this record was the exact same process as making the last Rentals record, which was torturous. I have never gone into a record where I’m not really setting up some really big problems to resolve and to solve.
GLONO: Is that a creative challenge to you? Do you do that on purpose so you have to work your way out of it?
Sharp: I don’t know but it always happens. Whatever it is, you know the first Weezer record I had really not played that much bass and that was a difficult thing. And by the time I actually got to a place where I was playing how I wanted to which is kind of on Pinkerton and on Seven More Minutes, I gave up playing bass. And by the time I got to that place I decided to go make a record where there would be no bass. But there’s always big challenges. Seven More Minutes was a lot about learning how to produce a record of that kind of ambitious scope, and it was the first thing I really tried to do out there on my own, and it was an overwhelming challenge for me.
GLONO: How do you feel Seven More Minutes holds up?
Sharp: It’s exhausting. I like some of it, but I also find it’s like I can handle a couple of songs at a time but I can’t really take the whole thing and I think that’s how a lot of people felt about it. But I don’t know, it depends, you know. But it was definitely a lot of “Look what I can do with this and that.” And I think everybody does that when they’re starting to produce records. And this record was trying to learn how to do the other thing. I was trying to go in the completely opposite direction: “Look how little we can do,” hopefully. How little we can do with chord changes, how little we can do with actual arrangements, and keep things as direct as possible without putting up all these walls of bullshit. But for me those other things, I wanted to do that on the second Rentals record. The feeling was to create this enormous, grandiose tower and to celebrate a friend of mine and I always thought about it as we were working on it in epic terms for her, like this sort of fantasy of people all through Europe singing the songs in pubs and that kind of thing. And all in all, I probably could have grabbed an acoustic guitar and sat her down and said, “This is what I’ve been trying to tell you,” and it would have been a lot easier and it would’ve taken a lot less time.
GLONO: My favorite moments on Seven More Minutes are the mellower, slower, more stripped down songs like “Jumping Around,” “Overlee,” and “My Head Is in the Sun,” and I don’t feel like there’s layers of bullshit like you said.
Sharp: I don’t mean it like that. I don’t necessarily mean that it’s bullshit. Sometimes I think it’s a little bit putting your guard up. I understand where I was at and why I wanted to do it that way. I think it also clouds the message sometimes. And I think maybe that cloud is a necessity also. I hadn’t done that much singing back then, so it was like, alright let’s not keep all the attention on the voice.
GLONO: How do you feel about it now just being out there with a guitar?
Sharp: I would have hated it back then, because like I said, all of the attention would have been on…
GLONO: “This guy can’t sing!”
Sharp: I would have been a little worried about that back then.
GLONO: It just feels okay now though?
Sharp: Yeah. I’ve always been a bit of a ham with things, so performing has never been an issue for me.
GLONO: But really putting yourself out there emotionally. There’s a big difference between being a ham and really being vulnerable.
Sharp: I think it fits into the same thing though because you can enjoy that thing too.
GLONO: But don’t think that most hamminess is just covering up? A defense mechanism?
Sharp: Okay, see I’m very tired so I’m not using the right words. But I’ve never really had a problem just throwing myself into a situation where I can really fall on my face and it’s never really bothered me that much.
GLONO: Spill your guts?
Sharp: Or just not be very good, or whatever. Or like I said it’s kind of like the idea of those shows where we would do it without rehearsing for them and just figure it out. If it goes well it goes well, and if it doesn’t it doesn’t. And now I don’t feel like that’s quite fair. It’s a little selfish on my point to do that because if we’re only going to come through Chicago once every year or twice a year and we go out there—the show we did with Josh here was probably the best show on that tour, because we hadn’t done that many shows like that where it’s just me and him and we only did that for like two weeks. And that happened to be a good night, but if it had been a bad night it would have been a real drag because that’s the only time we’re coming through. And so I kind of feel that it’s more my responsibility now to make sure we perform a little bit more consistently.
GLONO: I was at that show and I was impressed and thinking, here’s this guy who’s not selling anything, just up here playing music and really connecting with the audience on a pure musical level. I can’t think of many shows I’ve been to that have that kind of real, communicative experience. If that’s what you were trying to do, I think it’s succeeding.
Sharp: Well that’s the thing. It succeeded that night. It didn’t succeed on the rest of… On that tour it was like 50-50. Because we did the same thing, Greg couldn’t come for that round. I’m doing half this tour with these guys and half this tour solo, because at this point I don’t really want to stay off the road. I had enough of the isolation and I’ve contemplated for long enough. So I think I’ll probably stay doing what I’m doing until the record collection ends up in a totally different space again, and I have to re-figure out how to get to that place.
GLONO: Any ideas where that next place might be?
Sharp: I don’t know. I think I’m going to stay here for a while.
You can buy Matt Sharp’s solo ep from cdbaby or Amazon. Download “Goodbye West Coast” from In Music We Trust. Glorious Noise was there the last time Sharp played Chicago: Ain’t Got No Moogs, Ain’t Got No Girls. And of course there’s that old interview with former-Rental Cherie Westrich that we did back in the day. Photos by Jake Brown.