Gold and platinum-selling songwriter and musician Matthew Sweet has announced his 15th studio album out from Omnivore Records on January 15th, 2021, titled Catspaw. The album has a haunting name, hinting at an irresistible twist of fate, but the album is also different in other ways, since for the first time, Sweet plays lead guitar, and all the other instruments on the album except drums, himself. The album was recorded in Sweet's home studio in a state of relative isolation just before the pandemic, prefiguring some of what was to come.
The single "At a Loss" has already been released to give fans an idea of this sonic direction, one which does give a lot of room to the vocals and lyrics, but also to the electric guitar, and another single, "Give a Little" will arrive on November 20th. Sweet has noted that more than a couple songs on the 12 song album do engage with the heavier ideas of human struggle in the face of big life events, but you'll also find much-needed and interesting notes of hope and defiance in the new songs.
Matthew Sweet spoke with Tower's PULSE! about his days with Tower Records, the Star Trek origin of his title Catspaw, the stories behind some of these songs, and finally, why geeks simply do rule the world. You heard it here first!
Hannah Means-Shannon: Did you have any overlap with Tower Records?
Matthew Sweet: I lived in Los Angeles for about twenty years. I live in Omaha now and I grew up in Lincoln, which is about 50 miles away from here, and my wife and I moved back here a few years ago. I went to Tower Sunset as a person buying records. I did in-stores there at least once or twice. I did a performance there one night where it was sponsored by a vodka company and it was an insane drunken thing. It’s one of the craziest shows I remember ever. I definitely had great experiences at Tower Sunset and it was a go-to place for me, so it’s fun and a blast from the past to hear the name!
I remember it was the first place where I saw a giant, blown-up version of my album covers. They’d make them about six feet by six feet, and a couple of times I had an album up there outside the building. I must’ve done a million Tower PULSE! things, too.
HMS: That is the neatest thing! Are you someone who’s into physical media, like vinyl or CDs?
MS: I get the most excited about vinyl because it’s what I had as a kid, before CDs. CDs were just getting big around when I started having success, around 1990. When I put out my first major label record with Columbia in 1986, you only got a CD if you sold enough records on vinyl.
Then, by 1990, into the 90s, it was the opposite, so you only got to do vinyl if you did really well on CDs. I did get to do some vinyl in the 90s, but it was mostly CDs then. Then, in the last 15 years or so, vinyl has really come back. I love it because it’s the most fun, and you get to see the artwork large. I do have the ability to play vinyl records and I completely dig it.
When we tour, we actually go to a lot of stores that sell vinyl. There’s a cottage industry of it, with Record Store Day. So it’s almost gone full circle where we used to do in-stores at places like Tower Records.
HMS: I think people are choosing what is meaningful to them right now in terms of vinyl and physical media. Not just during the pandemic, but prior. We may see more record stores if that keeps happening.
MS: It’s just so different, when you can hear anything instantly on streaming services, to have tangible records. It feels so different. It’s a whole other hobby. I couldn’t have expected that it would come back the way that it has, but it’s a nice surprise. And we always do vinyl now!
HMS: There’s even some limited edition colors coming up for Catspaw, with orange and with blue variants.
MS: I’m very excited about it. I love how the cover came out. We worked on the vinyl artwork before we worked on the CD artwork, for what it’s worth.
HMS: This is a pretty big album. Is it a single record?
MS: It’s single. It’s twelve songs and we fit it on there. In recent years, we’ve had to add an extra disc occasionally, but I really think of this record as all of one piece, so I actually like that it’s all on one disc.
HMS: Does this record fit together as a unit more than the past couple of albums you’ve done? Is it special in that way?
MS: I think so, for a number of reasons. One of them is that I played lead guitar and all the instruments except drums. Usually I have another lead guitar player, or a couple of different guitar players. In this case, I had it in my head that I wanted to do one where I played the lead guitar. That alone makes it different, glues it together, and makes it a little more all one thing. It’s a little more consistent in that there are not super-different things throughout it. It’s mostly a Rock record. If we went through it, I might say there are different kinds of things, but it does have a wholeness to me.
Catspaw, to me, as a title is so final sounding in the way that I mean it. What “catspaw” generally means as a term is where someone does another person’s bidding. You might say, “He’s just a catspaw for the King”, meaning, “He does the dirty work of the King.” I had the term in my head since I was a kid, when I used to watch a lot of the original series of Star Trek, and there was an episode called “Catspaw”.
HMS: Right on!
MS: It actually featured a black cat that was supposed to be giant and terrorizing the crew down on some planet. I heard it again on something I was watching on Netflix, and I looked up the definition. It did have this other definition, of something that comes down, hard and final, like a cat’s paw upon its prey. The catspaw is like life as it finally smashes you!
HMS: I like how direct you are about that. For me, the term also has this sense of fatedness, or like a check mate. Whatever is inevitable and, as a human, you have no way of contravening.
MS: Exactly. I’ve always touched on different themes in my songs, but there was more than one song that fit the catspaw idea here. It’s a Rock record for me, and even though there are some things on it that are more hopeful, the album has both things. I’m also a cat freak, so I’m always looking for ways to involve cats in things. It was fun to be able to do an album cover that reflected that as well.
HMS: As a cat person, you must not think cats are sinister, then.
MS: No, I don’t. I think of them as familiars, like with witches. I’m a big fan of ghost and witch movies, not so much slasher type stuff. But I like spooky, haunted things and evil witch stuff. I loved that movie The VVitch that came out in recent years. I do like that cats are in that world. But I have a very loving relationship with my cats. And my wife is cat-crazy, too. Especially with the virus this year, we’re really embedded with our cats. They think we are cats too, and we wish we were cats and could sleep 18 hours a day.
HMS: There’s a whole attitude and lifestyle in cats that’s very enviable. I have two small dogs and after this year, they think I’m never going to go anywhere ever again, but just stay with them all day long.
I did notice the album cover had a black cat, so that made me think of the gothic ideas, too.
MS: Yes, this episode of Star Trek is almost like a Halloween episode, though it’s not. I don’t currently have any black cats, though I’ve had a couple in the past.
HMS: The single, “At A Loss” is out now from the album, and “Give a Little” is coming out soon. Do you have any thoughts about why those are good forerunners to introduce the album?
MS: I don’t think any of us knew which ones should be the singles, since the album was very consistent. It was down to what Omnivore was thinking, and I was easy-going about it. “At a Loss” is pretty straight-forward, and a simple Rock song. These are more teaser tracks than singles you’d put out in the old days. This one has a lot of the sounds of the record, and me playing the lead guitar on it, which is a big part of what makes the record different than other things of mine.
With “Give a Little”, it’s more of a classic song of mine that’s a bit more hopeful, reaching to find comfort and a way through the catspaw era. It’s a little more of an upbeat thing. Anything I do is kind of melodic, but this one a little more so. I think it’s a little more substantial than “At a Loss”. There will be one more single, too. But it’s really meant to be a whole album.
HMS: With “Give a Little”, I agree that there’s a more upbeat undercurrent there. It surprised me and I definitely responded to, especially given the times we’re living in. It’s really helpful.
MS: Just anything to grab onto. I have a really good friend who was going through a really bad period of depression around the time I that I wrote that song. I’ve kind of thought of the song as being for him, though I never told him, “I thought of you, writing this song.” But I wanted to cheer him up. It does have that sort of, “Have some hope” angle to it.
HMS: Another song that won’t be out for a while, but I wouldn’t be surprised if people were asking you about, is “Challenge the Gods”. I think that’s upbeat, too.
MS: I really like that song. It’s more of a “Fuck You” sort of song. It came about because there’s a guy who’s been playing guitar with me live for a number of years, named Jason Victor. Jason is ten years younger than all of us and in demand playing with lots of people. We sort of joke with him about being a hotshot. One day we were kidding around and I said something about “hubris”.
I looked up “hubris”, curious what the actual definition was. One of the things it said was, “to challenge the gods”. It really came from that, as a title. Then I had the title, “Challenge the Gods” and when I was working on music, I married the two together. I like how that one came out. It’s different than the positivity of “Give a Little”. It’s more defiant. It’s more like, “I will prevail through sheer will.”
HMS: The phrase “rise above” really got to me. I don’t think it’s a song that gives false hope. I think it’s a song that challenges but opens that door for trying.
MS: I love that. I love that you get that from it.
HMS: Hearing that you like science fiction, the mythological side of the song makes sense too.
MS: I love all the Ray Harryhausen films, like Jason and the Argonauts, and all the things that deal with Greek gods. I even like some of the modern versions of those things. It’s also a thing that’s in Star Trek. “Catspaw” is from 1967, but I think in 1968 there’s an episode where one of the Greek gods has gone to a planet. He wants to make people worship and love him again the way that they did in his early days on the Earth. All of those things probably do influence me a little bit.
HMS: I think it might have been Apollo.
MS: I think it is Apollo. It’s the episode “Who Mourns For Adonais”. The title comes from line 415 of the 1821 elegy, “Adonais”, by Percy Bysshe Shelley. It roughly means, “Who mourns for gods?”
HMS: Awesome! I am impressed that the original Star Trek is quoting Shelley. I knew they went in for Shakespeare a lot. I didn’t know they liked the Romantic Poets, too.
MS: Original Star Trek is great. I have never really gone beyond it as my favorite Star Trek.
HMS: I was really into The Next Generation because I grew up with that. But my whole family watches the original, and I am hugely fond of it.
MS: One of the things I’ve done this year is watch all of the Star Treks. I’ve seen them all now. Now I understand that all of them are kind of good.
HMS: Did you even watch all the movies?
MS: The movies can be hit and miss, but yes, I even watched all the movies.
HMS: Now you have a very considered opinion. That’s great. Now you know.
MS: Now I know everything. I really quite like the new one, Discovery.
HMS: I watched Picard and I loved that. That was really good.
MS: Yes, I watched Picard, too, and I liked it. That’s probably really good for anyone who knows The Next Generation. I love it all.
It’s fun that we overlap in so much stuff that we like.
HMS: I love hearing about geeks in every industry, including music.
MS: Me too. We rule the world!