6/14: An Old ‘Girlfriend,’ a Sweet Return

Electric and eclectic singer-songwriter Matthew Sweet celebrates the 20th anniversary of his smash album GIRLFRIEND, in an Intimate Evenings concert at Two River Theater on Friday, June 15.

To be sure, Matthew Sweet has a lovely wife and a home studio that’d be the envy of any DIY rocker — not to mention a pleasing professional partnership with the ever-stunning Bangles frontwoman Susanna Hoffs, with whom the Nebraska native has collaborated on two volumes of 1960s and 70s pop covers.

Still, when the road brings Matthew Sweet to the stage of Two River Theater this Friday, June 15, it’ll be all about a certain 1990s Girlfriend.

The album of that name — a savvy set of plain-spoken power pop songs purveyed with a supercharged, guitar-drunk sensibility — celebrated the 20th anniversary of its release recently. It’s a milestone that sent the 47 year old Sweet (whose area gigs have included some at the late and lamented Trade Winds Nightclub in Sea Bright) back to the East Coast on a jaunt that brings him to Red Bank for the first time, as part of a renewed summer series of Intimate Evenings events at the Bridge Avenue arts center.

Following on the heels of Thursday night’s appearance by Linda Eder, the 8 pm show is the latest in a slate produced by MusicWorks Entertainment, the new concert promotion and production company co-founded by former Count Basie Theatre Foundation CEO Rusty Young (the Basie Foundation will also be presenting a handful of those Intimate Evenings in the months prior to Labor Day weekend).

The program is expected to spotlight a full menu of songs from the record that put Matthew on the map — running a gamut from “Divine Intervention,” “Evangeline,” “Does She Talk” and the title tune (all of them cradled in a swirling vortex of glorious lead guitars by NYC protopunk legends Richard Lloyd and Robert Quine), to the gentler approach of “You Don’t Love Me,” “Your Sweet Voice” and the ode to Ms. Ryder, “Winona.”

It also represents a rare, fully plugged-in set at Two River; one in which Sweet and his band (including veteran Ric Menck and new lead guitar discovery Dennis Taylor) might be persuaded to haul out such alternative-radio favorites as “Sick of Myself,” “Time Capsule” and “Where You Get Love” — in addition to things from his most recent release, 2011’s Modern Art.

UpperWETside phoned Matthew Sweet at his home in the Hollywood Hills, prior to his embarking upon an expanded schedule of East Coast dates.

upperWETside: We understand that the show in Red Bank will basically be a salute to the GIRLFRIEND album, which for me was certainly one of the things that was in heavy rotation in my life arounf that time. I remember it coming out a few months before my daughter was born…which means she’s about to turn 20 herself.

MATTHEW SWEET: People have an emotional attachment to the album, and to the time when it appeared. When I made the record, I just wanted it to be for me…and I’ve always been proud that so many people are fond of it. It’s like my little record went out into the world and made me proud.

Will this concert, which is being billed as an Intimate Evening with Matthew Sweet, represent a quieter, acoustic take on those songs?

No, it’ll be an electrified show, although the album does have its quieter moments. I like playing electric; not having to switch guitars. Acoustic is much less expensive to present, and a lot of venues do better with it, but our band is really simple and it’s possible for us to do an effective show in any size space.

You took an almost folkie approach on some of the things you did with Susanna Hoffs — a partnership which we have to say came as one of the more delightful surprises of the past few years.

Sue and I first worked together with Mike Myers, if you remember the Austin Powers movies, as ‘Ming Tea,’  and when I was backstage with Sue in L.A. I mentioned that I’d always wanted to do some kind of record with her — and when the label heard about it they asked if we would do a cover record. I’m working on a third record with her right now — it’s an album of 80s songs, which is a logical place to go with what we’ve been doing together.

Power pop people like me appreciate The Bangles as one of the groovy bands that brought the 60s into the future.

And that connection to The Bangles introduced you to your current lead guitarist, Dennis Taylor, who was working for them as a crew guy…  

It’s a miracle we hooked up…in addition to working with the Bangles he was also in the current version of The Records, if you remember them. He can play in the style of Robert Quine and Richard Lloyd, and he’s also so good at improvisation, which really fits the randomness of the new record.

Will you be spotlighting songs from the latest release as well at the Red Bank show?

Modern Art kind of gets overshadowed by Girlfriend on the current tour…it’s a different sort of album, a little difficult. I tried to think in a more abstract, stream of consciousness way when I began working on it…some of the things on it I would stop, change, and do over again in a completely different way. Something like “My Ass is Grass” I hardly think of as a song, but, as I said, a stream of consciousness process.

I was able to give a listen to a few of those tracks online, but that gets me wondering how someone like yourself, who’s had a career spanning some 25 years, solves the problem of getting people to pick up on your new music these days? And how did you, as a kid growing up in Nebaska, latch on to more esoteric pop like Big Star?

In high school, I had this older, rockabilly friend who turned me on to Big Star for the first time…they would become this very influential band for a lot of people, but at that moment there weren’t a lot of ways for someone to get exposed to their music…you had to rely on your friends in those days.

I first saw REM in Nebraska with like a hundred people in the audience. That was a special time…I became pen pals with people like Mitch Easter, and even after I moved myself closer to those people I was still being introduced to things I hadn’t been familiar with. Peter Buck was the one who told me ‘you have to check out Pet Sounds!’

Around here, we had a very fondly remembered radio station, WHTG-FM, that reflected a lot of what was going on with college and alternative radio at the time…

There was a time also when MTV could make or break an act…I would get my videos onto shows like 120 Minutes…but another important way of learning about new music was going to record stores; picking up on the music that was being played in-store.

I had to laugh over the last episode of Desperate Housewives, where there’s this character, this dying woman whose last wish is to hear this 45 record that she loves…they say that the character who went off in search of the song ‘had to go to 20 record stores to find it’…as if there’s any place in America that has 20 record stores nearby anymore.

So with commercial radio in the state it’s in, and record stores going the way of the newspaper biz, what’s your take on the ways in which the so-called digital era has affected how music is produced and purchased and distributed?

In many ways it’s great — I can work for free, from home, without booking a studio, and I can avoid having too many cooks on the other end. But it’s gotten hard to sell records.

I feel very lucky to have come from the pre-internet era, when there was a lot more mystery to music. But in the end, I think it’s a force for good.

Do you think that, if anything, things have become so fragmented that the Fan is the one calling the shots in an artist’s career — rather than the artist going off and trying something new, leaving the fans to accept it or reject it? 

I don’t want to get into the realm of taking criticism from fans. I love meeting and greeting the fans, but I feel bad for people who have to react to every opinion that everybody has.

I never had that desire for ‘it’…you know, the success and adulation. Chasing the times so intensely requires a lot more of me than I’m willing to dedicate. I can barely stand being as much ME as I can!

Tickets, priced at $49 and $79, are still available from the Two River online Ticket Purchase Window, with a limited number of $99 premium seating availabilities offered as well. The “Intimate Evenings” series continues at Two River Theater with appearances by Paula Cole (June 27), Marc Cohn (July 22), Rickie Lee Jones (July 28), Pure Prairie League (July 29), Leon Redbone (August 19), Joan Osborne (August 24) and Judy Collins (August 25).

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