Matthew Sweet Girlfriend Tour
June 16, 8 p.m., $40, $60, Infinity Music Hall & Bistro, 20 Greenwoods Road, Norfolk, (866) 666-6306, infinityhall.com.
Remember music at the beginning of the '90s? The retro movement ramped up. Beatles references surfaced everywhere and jam bands thrived. Bands lobbied their engineers and sound board operators against the cathedral-like, overproduced atmospherics of '80s music. Lenny Kravitz mixed flower power and funk, Sly Stone's Fresh with the Guess Who. The Red Hot Chili Peppers and newly sample-free Beastie Boys revisited Curtis Mayfield and P-Funk, and the Black Crowes revived Skynyrd, Keef-tuned guitars and Delaney and Bonnie boogie. Producer Rick Rubin was everywhere, and the radio was run by people born around the time of the British Invasion.
Of course, consciously backward-looking music wasn't absent in the '80s. But suddenly it seemed as though record execs, chuffed by Nirvana's success, grew more tolerant of it. In 1991, Matthew Sweet, then a little-known Midwestern singer-songwriter, released Girlfriend, a power-pop album that's fondly remembered by Gen-X listeners for its revival of Rubber Soul-era tunefulness and the country rock jangle of the Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers and Big Star, somehow processed through the late-'70s NYC punk scene. Girlfriend was a perfect cocktail of songs honed by Sweet and subsequently set loose in the studio with renegade guitarists — Television's Richard Lloyd and the Voidoids' Robert Quine — ready to rip, like they'd been locked in a closet for a decade. A couple of years before Oasis and other U.K. acts re-claimed the Mersey sound and re-invaded our shores, mounting a British Invasion echo of sorts, Sweet's songs were like authentic responses to "Paperback Writer" and "Rain." The title track was a hit. And in that pre-Reality Bites era, the album contained a pretty, stalker-ish ode to an actress named Winona.
"We didn't have rules," Sweet said by phone from his Los Angeles home, "other than no reverb and that it would be very dry. I was really into Revolver at the time. Everyone got to run free, and there was definitely a cool vibe in the studio, but it was built track-by-track. We didn't cut basic tracks with more than just me on guitar and the drummer... I play a lot of things on my records, but I ended up having to do it that way." Over time, Sweet started trying to get really exciting first or second takes, when the feeling was still fresh. "Something really cool that comes from that," he said, "although it took me a long time to learn that because of the way I do things."
There was little sense in the studio that Girlfriend would be a hit, although Sweet knew he liked the record. When the album was finished, his record label, A&M, released him from his contract. "Nobody knew what was going on," Sweet said. "We said, 'Sell us the record so that we can get somebody to buy it,' so that it wouldn't be in limbo. So then we had this record that we had to sell, and we couldn't get anyone to buy it."
Zoo Entertainment, former Island Records president Lou Maglia's new record label, purchased Girlfriend for a small amount. But while the younger folks at the label dug the record, they were having trouble getting the older executives interested in promoting it, until Bud Scoppa, music critic and then A&R man at Zoo, was blasting the record at his desk one day. Maglia walked by and asked, "What's that?" "By that time, it had gotten around with younger people in the music business, and once we put it out to college radio, it worked its way out and it sort of took off," Sweet said.
It's now 20 years later, and Sweet's on tour, playing the Girlfriend record in its entirety. He'll perform it at Norfolk's Infinity Music Hall on June 16. "The twentieth anniversary of Girlfriend allows me to get a really good turnout and connect with everybody," Sweet said. "It's amazing it's been that long. But the cool thing was that people saw themselves in that record. They had feelings of desperation, infatuation, love... It appealed to a lot of people. I see that when people come out now, and it makes it special for me, that my little record meant something."
Although Sweet was never lumped in with grunge, the impact of alternative music at the time helped his career. He recalls driving around, shopping his album while Nirvana was on the radio. "There became a wider taste in alternative radio, more different kinds of bands," he said. "I felt like, wow, I'm not like anybody else, but in a way that really was working to my favor. There wasn't a guy exactly like me at the time. There were people, I think, like Paul Westerberg, a singer-songwriter from the Midwest like me, but there weren't a lot of those."
The music business has changed dramatically, of course. Back in the day, Sweet would be dropped from his label for selling the number of records it now takes to top the charts. "To sell records these days is really, really difficult," he said, "almost to the point where records are just the reason to do live shows. But to me, the music is really important. That's never changed for me, so record companies didn't ruin it for me. They faded away and I can do my own thing."
"I've never been the type to say, 'Let's get it out there,'" Sweet said. "There is a lot of room now to be more experimental. There's not really a commercial goal anymore."
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