But this is no ordinary touring cycle for Sweet. The release of Modern Art happened to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Sweet’s breakout 1991 album Girlfriend, and so the Pop Rock cult superstar decided to highlight his most famous work by playing Girlfriend live in its entirety.
“When it was the 20th anniversary year, I said, ‘Should we be playing the whole album?’ And now that we’re doing it, I’m like, ‘What was I thinking?’ It was kind of a lot to learn,” Sweet says by phone from his California home. “We want to fit a few songs in from other records. Girlfriend takes about an hour without the bonus tracks. We’re still debating how to approach that; it feels nice ending at ‘Your Sweet Voice,’ but we know some people will want the other things.”
One of the big challenges for Sweet in revisiting Girlfriend is that some of the songs from the album have rarely, if ever, been played in a live context. Between figuring out how to play songs that haven’t been in the set list for years to rearranging everything for the live quartet (Sweet, guitarist Dennis Taylor, bassist Paul Chastain, drummer Ric Menck), rehearsals for the Girlfriend tour have been interesting.
“One thing that surprised me is that it didn’t seem weird and foreign or ancient and small,” Sweet says, laughing.
“It feels like me, so it’s more natural to do than I thought it would be.”
Sweet seems to be looking even further back on Modern Art. The album’s 12 tracks are perhaps the purest distillation to date of Sweet’s avowed ’60s influences, from Byrdsian jangle to Beatles-for-Dummies course outlines to swirling Psych Pop. Sweet admits those elements are always drifting through his creative mindset but insists he doesn’t force them deliberately into the process.
“I was looking for anything different in terms of structure or approach,” Sweet says. “I wanted it to be kind of abstract, even though it isn’t exactly. Some of it comes from the stream of consciousness tapes where I’m making up songs, and I might try different sections that I never end up using. I went to those original ideas and used more of their structure, which went from thing to thing and maybe didn’t have a normal song approach. I felt like I was abstracting it somewhat, but when I look back at it, it sounds pretty personal and melodic and songish.”
There are similarities between Sweet’s most acclaimed work and his newest. Lyrically, Modern Art features Sweet’s patented gorgeous melancholy, certainly a hallmark of Girlfriend’s pain-of-divorce/thrill-of-new-relationship angle, and musically Sweet utilized the big Hoffner bass on Modern Art just as he did on Girlfriend, a sound that defines both albums. As Sweet explains, there’s an even more concrete connection between the two albums and to one of his most potent influences.
“I quite like ‘When Love Lets Go I’m Falling’; it reminds of the mood from ‘You Don’t Love Me,’ that kind of sad, letting go feeling,” Sweet says. “When I was working on the song, my wife came in to tell me Alex Chilton had died, so it has this weird connection to Chilton for me now. You know, even on this record, it would have been hard for me to make it if I’d never heard Big Star, specifically Big Star Third, because it was such an off-the-deep-end emotional thing.”
Sweet used slightly different approaches to songwriting on Modern Art, from having Menck and Taylor ad-lib along to his occasionally chaotic guide tracks to an interesting drum experiment with Saturday Night Live’s Fred Armisen. Early on, Armisen drummed for several Indie Rock outfits, and he and Sweet struck up an acquaintance when they were both visiting the set of Mad Men. Sweet asked Armisen to provide some raw drum ideas, and one of them wound up on Modern Art.
“He recorded two or three ideas, just drumming, and the one I made ‘Ivory Tower’ out of was just exactly like it is,” Sweet says. “It was a stereo track of him playing drums. I had that song idea and somehow was able to completely graft it onto his drum track. It shows how you can let happenstance guide you and it still does cool things.”
MATTHEW SWEET performs Sunday at Oakley’s 20th Century Theater with guest Miles Zuniga.