Matt Sharp is the founding member of L.A.-based power-pop band The Rentals, and an original member of Weezer. Since November, he’s been releasing his new album Q36, one song at a time, so he’s about halfway through. If you haven’t heard any of it yet, now is as good a time as any to immerse yourself in the sci-fi-themed loveliness. We spoke to Sharp about all that…
L.A. WEEKLY: First of all, how are you getting on during the pandemic?
MATT SHARP: My life is oddly unchanged in many ways as far as my daily routines because so much of it has been, this album, working in my little home studio. But still, obviously it’s all around us everywhere affecting everyone you know in every corner of the world. It’s incredible to have a unified conversation. A friend in Spain is on total lockdown. It’s the most extraordinary thing any of us have even thought about. The closest thing, which is so far away, is — I’m 50 years old and when I was a kid, when Jimmy Carter was president, we had the gas crisis. We had a few different crises under the Carter administration but I remember the gas crisis because we had to wait in these extraordinary gas lines, in the back seat of my mom’s station wagon with the wood paneling on the side, waiting for a couple of hours to get gas. That eerie, ominous feeling, that’s what I thought of when faced with a certain ways that you feel what’s in the air itself.
I went for a run two nights ago, and I hardly saw a car and when you did see them they were quiet. All the streets were empty. You didn’t even hear televisions. There was no feeling of pulsating life, joy or anything. Just complete calm. It’s serene, which in a weird way has got its own beauty to it. But at the same time it’s haunting as hell. It just feels like how I’ve seen it portrayed in countless science fiction movies and things. There’s an accuracy in the way they tried to frame it without having been through it.
It’s been six years since last album, Lost in Alphaville. This new, Q36, one is about space, correct?
It’s at least connected by that. An outer space/science fiction element that weaves through everything. The song “Great Big Blue” is about the Challenger explosion, and then the song “Forgotten Astronaut” is written from the perspective of Michael Collins, who was the commanding officer on Apollo 11.
Where did the idea come from?
It started from after Lost in Alphaville. We were done promoting that album and were sitting down to begin writing for whatever was to be next. From my normal starting point, what’s going on in life at this moment, I started writing and was immediately bored senseless with my own story and thoughts. So I stopped after giving it a go a handful of times, and decided to challenge myself to write 50 songs that weren’t a slice of life, a page out of a diary. No restriction on subject matter. That was a curious enough place for me to get my interests. About half of them were living in outer space one way or the other, whether it be in biography or fiction. It was pretty glaring.
So much of that probably had to do, when I started my father became ill quickly. His prognosis was looking worse every day. I was writing at that stage, and it’s possible that so much of the writing was a means of escape and not wanting to be on the ground in the literal sense. Not wanting to process in the midst if losing my father and what that meant.
You worked with some incredible artists, musical and visual — how did you choose them?
With any of the people, and it’s even more true now, it’s essentially playing a piece of music or in this case a full album for different artists that I’m interested in, and seeing if anything in there connects with them, resonates with them. If it doesn’t, I don’t have any interest in talking them into doing it. With the visual artists it’s down to just that. I leave it up to them. If they do, let’s figure out a way to do something. With the music, that’s how it started with Nick Zinner [Yeah Yeah Yeahs] — inviting him over to my house and playing him a large amount of songs, seeing if anything connected with him. This album in its entirety is the songs that connected with Nick. We did it over two different listening sessions, 25 songs each time. That’s how we ended up with the songs that we ended up with.
You’ve been releasing the songs one at a time…
Yeah, we’ve been releasing one song every two weeks since mid November. Sometimes there’s a visual component to it, sometimes there’s not. It depends on what we can do. There are some elements that are very consistent. We released a song every two weeks and for instance there’s a graphic illustrator named Ivan Minsloff in L.A. I played the album for him, and asked him to create a design based on the song based on whatever he wants. A feeling, a single word, anything. We’ve been doing that with each song. Very short additions. It’s been really fun because it’s almost always down to the wire. It’s exciting for me because it brings new life into my songs. That’s been an element to Q36, which has given me such optimism and joy. There’s been this liberated element to working on this element. Now that the album is done, the music, then working with all these visual artists, not hands on with the micromanaging, has been great.
Obviously it’s tough to plan things right now, but what’s next?
Q36 is a double album, so it’s 16 tracks. We have released 10 so far, six to go. The only thing that has changed due to the virus is we’re pushing everything back two weeks to give ourselves a chance to adjust. The one thing is, we’re all doing from afar now, all in our own little pods. Less face to face. Nick and I were the beginning of the album. But we never worked together in the same room besides those listening sessions.
I wanted to share an incredible aspect to Q36 — we partnered with Hit Record. It’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s online creative community. Some time ago, he created this online community. When you join, you collaborate with all these different artists in many different ways and artforms. Voice acting, illustration, musically, photography, design. Everything you create stays in that world. You can’t benefit financially, it’s art for art’s sake. Early on, before we started started releasing songs, they came to my home studio and listened to my record, and told me of an idea to take the song and take elements out of it, and use them as launching pads to creative challenges. It may be about a single word in the song, or a phrase or feeling. Draw a picture based on this lyric, or take an opening line from the chorus and write a short story. Take a photo of something. I wouldn’t be inclined to join a community like that, but if you give them little launching points they’ll take it and run with it. It’s been the funnest part of this whole process. Artists from all over the world creating off a single lyric. They’ll make things, flip them upside down and turn them into all sorts of different things. It knocks me out, how positive and interactive it’s been. Very inspiring and super therapeutic. I’m used to obsessively micromanaging how the audience consumes what you present them with. It’s been super inspiring to let go of the reigns.
Listen to Q36 on Bandcamp.