“I need a room to rock in,” sings Matthew Sweet on his excellent new album, Sunshine Lies. As a matter of fact, he has one: a lovingly cluttered recording studio near the back of the Hollywood Hills home Sweet shares with his wife, Lisa, two crazy-cute kittens and an extensive art collection that includes a number of paintings by Margaret Keane, on whom Sweet is a recognized expert. Crammed with guitars and keyboards and a tiki bar that looks like it hasn’t produced a drink in some time, it’s the type of room little kids envision hanging out in when they imagine themselves as grown-ups able to live in houses of their own design. He calls the place Lolina Green Studios, conjuring an appealingly expansive quality not necessarily justified by its cozy reality. The power-pop whiz surfs the Web in here, and he talks on the phone, too. But mostly he rocks.
Sunshine Lies, which arrives August 26 on Shout! Factory, was recorded at Lolina Green, and you can hear the effect of Sweet’s at-home autonomy all over it: Though he builds his songs around classic radio-pop structures, Sweet tricks them out with weird little details that can only come from the sort of creative trial and error that’s simply too expensive to indulge in at any professional studio (at least for an artist at Sweet’s level). Take the new album’s opener, “Time Machine,” with its lush swirl of Mellotron, layered electric guitars and what the liner notes refer to as “sound effects” — it’s the stuff of late-night tinkering, not 9-to-5 efficiency.
Despite his isolated-genius mien, Sweet, who plays the Echo on August 28, didn’t make Sunshine Lies by himself; the record features performances by a crew of longtime collaborators, including drummer Ric Menck (of Velvet Crush), guitarist Richard Lloyd (of Television) and singer Susanna Hoffs (of the Bangles). Ye, as Menck says, Sweet does seem to exist in a world of his own. “I think he has a certain degree of social phobia,” the drummer explains, adding that the combination of Sweet’s musical talent and his introverted nature give him something of a Brian Wilson–ish air. “He’s not a hang-out guy, someone who cares about making the Hollywood scene. His house is his sanctuary, and he’s definitely become more insular as he’s gone along.”
After a visit last month to Sweet’s house, where we sat on oversized cushions on the studio floor, I can report that Menck’s Wilson comparison holds some water. Sweet is an excited conversationalist and a supersweet host, but there’s a dreamy awkwardness to his interaction with strangers (or this stranger, anyway) that suggests he’s more comfortable communicating through his music than through words. That’s hardly an anomaly among artists, of course. Yet very much like the legendary Beach Boy, Sweet funnels his real-world anxiety into heart-piercing songs that conjure another world, in which melancholy becomes so pure it somehow transforms into a kind of happiness. As much as it’s a physical location, Sweet’s room to rock in is also a psychological space, one whose door is opened with melody and harmony and backwards guitar solos.
“We were both freaks as kids, and music was our salvation,” says Hoffs, who in 2006 released a collection of ’60s-pop tunes with Sweet called Under the Covers, Vol. 1. (The pair are currently at work on a ’70s-themed sequel tentatively set to include versions of “I’ve Seen All Good People” by Yes and Fleetwood Mac’s “Second Hand News.”) “Matthew just wakes up in the morning and surrounds himself with art; his artistic mind is always stimulated. That’s a great way to live and a great way to work. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from him.”
It’s tempting to wonder if dwindling sales have fueled Sweet’s inward turn. After all, most people still think of him — if they think of him at all — as the guy who made Girlfriend, which came out all the way back in 1991. (According to Nielsen SoundScan, Sweet’s 2004 album Living Things has sold 11,000 copies; Shout! Factory president Garson Foos says he’d consider sales of 75,000 to 100,000 a success for Sunshine Lies.) Hang out with Sweet for an hour, though, and you get the impression that he’s not all that troubled by — nor even all that interested in — how his records perform commercially. For Sweet, tucked away at Lolina Green, his desire to make music comes from the same place that drove him a few years ago to begin throwing pottery.
“They’re both these things that are so precarious,” he says. “When you’re trying to throw on the wheel, it’s so easy for it all to go wrong — it’s such a tightrope you have to be on. But if you just let go totally and get into the zone, the magic will happen. Then when it’s done, there’s this object, and you’re, like, ‘Where did this come from?’”
Matthew Sweet | Sunshine Lies | Shout! Factory
Matthew Sweet performs at the Echo on Thurs., Aug. 28.