Matt Sharp and the current Rentals lineup…sort of. (photo by Brantley Gutierrez)
“My choices often have gone against probably what people have most wanted to hear out of me.” Matt Sharp tells me this towards the end of our hour-long conversation, which he conducted entirely from the parking lot of a Los Angeles Starbucks. Sometimes, as we spoke, it seemed as though Sharp’s mouth couldn’t keep up with his brain. Whatever the opposite of burnout is, Sharp’s there. He’s happy to be invited to the party, even if he’s the pessimist in the corner.
For the uninitiated, Sharp’s life in music is a long one that begins, at least publicly, in the alternative boom of the mid-’90. He was the original bassist in Weezer, playing on the band’s first two seminal albums, 1994’s The Blue Album and 1996’s Pinkerton. Between those two records, he formed The Rentals, a power-pop project for Moog enthusiasts and those with a strong sense of irony (their debut was called Return of The Rentals, after all).
With Weezer drummer Pat Wilson on board, the band seemed at first like a weird side project, despite Modern Rock charting and MTV video play for “Friends of P.” But after Sharp was, as a recent Rentals bio phrases it, “unceremoniously fired” from Weezer, The Rentals came into focus — or at least the joke did. Sharp was just renting his sidemen, so his second Rentals album — 1999’s Seven More Minutes — featured a new lineup: members of Elastica and Ash, Damon Albarn, and more.
In 2014, he’s equipped with yet another new line-up. “It’s a little confusing when you’re talking to your record company,” he says, “and they’re like, ‘What picture do you want to you? How do you market that you have this revolving door of folks?'” He brought the band back in 2005 for touring and four EPs, but this week, Sharp releases the first new full-length Rentals album in 15 years. Lost in Alphaville (out on Polyvinyl) features Lucius’ Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig as the delicate vocal foils to Sharp’s deadpan delivery, The Black Keys’ Patrick Carney as the percussive heft, Ozma’s Ryen Slegr with classically frenetic riffs, and The Section Quartet’s Lauren Chipman’s with string arrangements that add a dreamy dimension to Sharp’s fresh and fuzzy play on new-wave. (The group will play a handful of shows this fall, but don’t expect a full tour with this lineup.)
Flavorwire: You’ve always changed the lineup of the Rentals a lot, getting everyone from Joey Santiago from Pixies to [a pre-SNL] Maya Rudolph to play with you. How did this specific group come together?
Matt Sharp: Piece by piece. It wasn’t really something that was a vision that had come to all these people together at the same time. The most important thing is working with people you truly have a reverence for, that make you try to take it to an even better place than you would if you were just on your own. Some of that has to do with living in fear of letting them down because you look up to them or their talents, and that that’s a good thing. Also, a lot of it is wanting to work with people that you really trust implicitly. That doesn’t go for everybody you admire, even; you might have to be on guard to make sure you’re taking things in the right direction.
What was interesting about working with Jess and Holly from Lucius is I had only heard even about them in any sense a few days before we started working together. That excitement of discovering something that really takes over your life, and everything else just falls from you at that point. Like, “these are the only two women on the planet.” I hadn’t felt that in some time with new groups.
FW: So you were really fanboying on Lucius when you recorded vocals with Jess and Holly in New York? [Sharp recorded with his collaborators separately, in different cities even, with the exception of Jess and Holly, whose talents he describes as “one voice — they record at the same time, they record facing each other, they often are recording the same part, and they have to both be happy with a single performance of the same part.”]
MS: Certainly that is true, yes. I get that way about music in general. When I first started working with Tegan and Sara, it was maybe even more of an extreme example of, “I’m a fan of yours. I just like being in your company, so whatever you need from me, you’ve got me.” [Sharp played bass and keyboards on various tracks from Tegan and Sara’s The Con and So Jealous albums.]
You discover some band that for a brief period makes everything else seem insignificant. You feel like somehow that should have been part of your life all along. And then the next thing you know, you’re in the studio with them, and learning about each other, and recording this thing, in rapid succession. I’ve never been there specifically. I’ve been really fortunate to work with really interesting, fucked-up, cool people who do things I only wish I had the ability to do, but never right in the exact second I discovered it.
FW: When and how did you come to Pat Carney from the Black Keys? I thought maybe Devo would be a common bonding point…
MS: I’ve known about the Black Keys for years, and had somewhat of an understanding of what it is that he does that’s special. Devo was never a big group for me though — obviously you have mad respect for everything they brought to the table — but that was a thing that shocked me with Patrick. I think he’s in the world where he can geek out on being a collector of all these little bits of Devo history. You think about the Black Keys as being such a piece of Americana in this blues-based dirty garage way, and you don’t equate him necessarily with the Mothersbaughs and synthesizers. But he’s definitely pretty entrenched in that world. I never put those things together, and so when I first reached out to him about doing this album, it turns out he’d reached out to me years before.
I went to see the Black Keys at one of these ridiculous arena shows, and before the show, I was thinking, “How will this translate to a big production?” Looking around the arena, it felt like a big percentage of the people there wanted to go home right away and start a trashy garage band. Seeing the show inspired me — this was after we made the record together — but it gave me that feeling of, “Fuck, I can do this! Let’s bash out some shit and have a sense of urgency to it.” And in his own way, that urgency is something Carney brought to this album. When I asked him if he’d be interested in helping with some of these songs, the moment that we finally had that connection, he said, “Get on a plane. Tomorrow. Get here this week. I have a friend that has a studio.” I’d never met him before, and within moments I was in a plane and in his house and in a studio two seconds later, and we were already like, “Let’s go!” The young engineer was scrambling to get the mics up in time. Losing the preciousness of the direction I was probably headed was really necessary, and informed the whole thing being a little more bombastic.
Matt Sharp of The Rentals lineup. (photo by Brantley Gutierrez)
FW: When the Rentals came out in 1995, you didn’t sound like anything that was going on, even though there was so much alternative in the mainstream, including your other band, Weezer. The sound has evolved, but The Rentals still don’t sound like anyone else happening right now.
MS: The place you want to get to when you’re making an album is a place of feeling like you’re never going to make another album again. It’s important to honestly feel that way, not to just say clichés like, “You’ve gotta live each day like it’s your last” and all that kind of crap. It’s not that, but it is about getting to a sincere place of, “Hell, this might be it.” If I’m going to make the last Rentals record, I want it to be something special. I know in all sincerity that when we made the first Weezer record, we felt it was very possible that that was going to be the only record we were ever going to make. That’s the place I felt I got to on this album.
There was also a sense of basically not working to reclaim anything or try to get back to any particular space. I don’t have a huge amount of reverence for the material I’ve already done, or that the Rentals have done, and there’s nothing in there that I want to recapture or relive. What’s interesting about that with this record is that was the driving feeling behind it while making it. Although the lyrics are very reflective and look back on life, there’s a push and pull with that — of trying to go into places you’ve never been, have experiences you’ve never had before.
FW: It’s interesting hearing you say you don’t have reverence for your past work when a lot of people clearly do — especially your work with Weezer, now 20 years removed from Blue Album.
MS: I’m proud of those records, and I don’t mean in any way to be negative when I say those things. I’m certainly appreciative of any kind words anybody has to say about anything I’ve ever worked on, and I do not take them for granted. I always thought of early Weezer albums as being stepping stones to something else. I never thought those records were going to be the end-all, be-all of our creative lives. I thought, “Okay, this is some stripped-down, bare thing we’re starting here, and we’re going to go to some really interesting places.” For whatever circumstances, we didn’t end up going on that journey together. I look at the first two [Rentals] albums in a similar way: stepping stones to something, hopefully, greater. They’re both inherently flawed albums that have some interesting things about them. I’m not going into it like, “If only we could recreate that Return of the Rentals sound.” We haven’t made the great Rentals album yet.
FW: There’s a theory among Weezer fans about why they went downhill after Pinkerton and Blue Album: because you left the band, and essentially, nobody edited Rivers [Cuomo, Weezer frontman]. Do you have any thoughts on this particular theory?
MS: We’ve had very little interaction. I’ve seen Pat [Wilson, Weezer drummer] recently within the last year. We were friends before Weezer started. It’s almost one of those things where… to put it like this, I grew up in Virginia, and I probably haven’t seen 90 percent of the people I knew there since I was 16 years old. But if I went back to Virginia and I saw these people, a part of me would fall back into that person I was in high school or junior high school. Whatever that initial connection is, you can always fall back on that, and Pat and I really have that thing. You don’t lose that part of how you connected back then. But that did not answer your question, so you might have to ask again.
FW: *Repeats theory about why Weezer’s early albums are so much better than the rest of their discography.*
MS: That’s real hard for me to answer, because I don’t really know them in that way anymore. I don’t know the way they deal with each other creatively. I know what our time was like. But it would be really hard to be judgmental of them. I’m sure they’re trying earnestly to do whatever they can the best they can. “I just really have no idea” is the short answer.
As we were talking about earlier, and as it goes for this album, the people I choose to work with are only people that I have a sense of real trust in their instincts. Not that my parts had a big impact on the two albums I worked on with them, but with Tegan and Sara, I had such a feeling that they were going to make the right choices. Those are the only albums I can think of where I went up, recorded my parts on the album, and felt completely, “do with that what you may, I trust where you’re going to go.” This is really sidetracking, but even with their latest album [2013’s Heartthrob] — an overtly pop album — when I first heard it, I thought, “We might have to part here at this point in my fandom.” There was a little too much Katy Perry in the melody in the lead track for me. Lo and behold, they’ve been touring off that record for years now. I just saw them for the first time in a couple of years, and it was in this small club in Tokyo, and they went into this one section of the set, and it was only the new album. And I thought, “Goddamn it, they were right again.” My initial instincts were wrong, and they know what they’re doing and where they’re going. You can always go back to that place of trust.
I can’t say that I would feel that way about the Weezer guys — what their choices are, where they’ve gone, what they’ve done. I honestly don’t know a lot of it, and it’s not meant to be a slight on them. I just don’t know if the choices they’ve made would be in any way choices I would have approved of, or made myself, or been a part of. There’s certain things for sure where I’m like, “That doesn’t fall in line with my own sensibilities.” And probably my sensibilities would have made them much less successful. I don’t know if it would have sustained them.
A lot of the time, my interests go in a pretty un-commercially viable direction. Obviously the last bunch of years my own creative life prove that pretty highly. My choices often have gone against probably what people have most wanted to hear out of me. “We want to hear vintage synthesizers.” “How about I go to Nashville and just write an acoustic record?” Who knows I wouldn’t have had instincts with the Weezer guys? The records they’ve made without me have not been the records they would have made with me. I’m sure they would have been very different, because I definitely have strong opinions on those kinds of things.
Would it have been any better or much worse? Would people have said, “Oh my God, Weezer’s in Nashville making an acoustic record!”? Maybe! Or maybe people would have said, “This is the most boring record I’ve heard in my fucking life!” There’s this idea that I would have been a one remedy fix-all, but there’s also that possibility of, “be careful what you wish for.” Maybe it would have been a much bleaker thing with me in there. Who knows? I would have maybe put us down very pretentious roads.