A Conversation With Matthew Sweet

It took Matthew Sweet 30 years and 15 studio albums to conjure the cojones to play lead guitar on record. The result is Catspaw (Omnivore), which contains some of his most angular and aggressive moments since 1993’s Altered Beast. The fact that his solos on the album—raw and inventive—often recall the work of Robert Quine and (especially) Television’s Richard Lloyd should come as no surprise. Both guitarists were integral to Sweet’s evolution as an artist from 1991’s Girlfriend on, as was Ivan Julian (Richard Hell & The Voidoids) to a lesser extent.

Aside from the hearty support of longtime drummer Ric Menck, Catspaw is all Sweet. It was recorded in his home studio and finished just before the pandemic, and it’s timing feels somehow appropriate. Its 12 tracks find Sweet, now 56, pondering the back end of his life. It can get dark and sometimes a little desperate. But there’s also a morbid sense of fun and even some nostalgia at play. The album’s title was inspired by the feline villain in a 1967 episode of Star Trek—and the idea that life can “pounce” on you at any time.

It’s worth noting that Sweet did play some lead guitar with Lynda Stipe (sister of Michael) and Linda Hopper (Magnapop) in Oh-OK, an early-’80s Athens, Ga., indie pop outfit. HHBTM Records has just resurrected the beloved cult curiosity’s 2011 compilation, The Complete Reissue, out February 5.

MAGNET recently caught up with Sweet in his hometown, where, like the rest of us, he’s waiting out the pandemic and hoping to hit the road before 2022.

How are things in Omaha?
It’s been strange times for sure. It’s gotten rapidly worse here virus wise. The politics have been crazy, which is frustrating. My wife was furloughed in the spring but is now back at work, and there’s a mask mandate. I’m at home and seeing almost no one. Pretty much the only way I make money these days is through touring, so I’ve essentially been out of job all year, which has been really stressful financially for me and the guys in my band. I’m glad I just finished a record so I’m getting the treat of feeling like I’m doing something for the next couple of months.

So why did you wait so long to try lead guitar in the studio?
It just been easier for me to get various people to play lead, and it was fun when I didn’t know exactly what they were going to do. It’s kind of like Christmas Day to hear what they come up with—especially now that we’re doing more of our recording remotely and the player gets to be at home and do whatever he feels like and not feel any pressure.

What changed your perspective.
I guess I felt it could be a thing—something different. And I’ve always kind of dreamed that I’d be able to do it. I’ve never formally learned to play lead guitar from anybody, but I’ve been around it enough that I have a feel for how to do it. Once I tried it on this record, it was really satisfying.

Sort of a eureka moment?
Yeah. I found out that I really could do it. I didn’t want it to be overworked, so I forced myself to just go for it without learning the songs much beforehand—other than the way they sounded in my head. I’d do two or three passes of the song and play along with it. I found there was enough stuff that I could combine parts of two or three takes. I’d go through and eliminate anything with terrible notes or that I didn’t like for one reason or another. There could’ve been even more lead guitar, but I played it safe.

That’s something that also occurred during the making of Girlfriend.
Richard and Bob just really went wild, and we recorded them a few times and then went through it. There were definitely some solos that were made up of three different takes. Or maybe there was a change that never could’ve physically happened, but we edited it together because it sounded cool. I’m sure there’s a few of those on Catspaw, as well—a couple of things where I could’ve never jumped to that note, in reality. 

It sure sounds like Richard and Bob’s style has rubbed off on you.
If I had to choose one of them, it would be Richard. He has a certain approach that I really pick up on, and we also toured together quite a bit. I don’t have the technical ability he has. There’s this Mickey Baker book on guitar method … He was a really great studio player in the late ’50s and early ’60s and part of the duo Mickey & Sylvia. Richard gave me the book, and I couldn’t even begin to learn it—it was really intense. I’m more limited.

Catspaw is technically not a pandemic record.
That’s correct. But when I was mastering it with Bob Ludwig, the virus was in its very beginning stages and that’s when we first discussed it, so I’ll always think of Catspaw as my pandemic record. And it happens to have some doomy things on it that fit. I was already worrying and steeling myself against some things in life. In a way, the pandemic has made all of us come face to face with a lot of those feelings.

—Hobart Rowland

Read our MAGNET Classics piece on the making of Sweet’s masterpiece, Girlfriend: