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Matthew Sweet Discusses ‘Under the Covers’ Project with the Bangles’ Susanna Hoffs

Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs by Drew Reynolds
Drew Reynolds

The ability to play decent cover songs is one of rock musician’s most elusive talents. Through the years, the unending tide of lukewarm and flat-out godawful covers has overshadowed the good ones, making listeners rightfully wary or remakes.

Luckily, we occasionally get things like ‘Under the Covers,’ the three-volume set by alt-rock mainstay Matthew Sweet and Bangles frontwoman Susanna Hoffs. The duo have covered the ’60s, ’70s and, with their just-released latest edition, the ’80s, and nothing is off limits on these modern-day mix tapes. Tackling well-known hits like Tom Petty’s ‘Free Fallin’,’ deep cuts like the R.E.M. B-side ‘Sitting Still’ and goth/nerd anthems like the Smiths‘ ‘How Soon Is Now’ and Echo & the Bunnymen‘s ‘Killing Moon,’ Sweet and Hoffs offer something for everyone, passing lead vocal duties like the proverbial party spliff.

We recently had a chance to speak with Sweet and get in-depth about the cover-making process. As expected it was nothing short of a massive music geek-out session.

You and Susanna were in a fake ’60s band in her husband Jay Roach’s movie ‘Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery’ back in 1997. Was that the first time you guys played together formally?

She was the one who brought Mike Myers to one of my shows. And then her and her husband, Jay; me and my wife, Lisa; and Mike and his wife, Robin all hung out. It was out of that hanging out that came Jay directing that first ‘Austin Powers’ movie. Mike was working out the character, and in these jam sessions, he’d be Austin Powers. I got to know Susanna a lot better during that time. But even so, we still didn’t really know each other that well until we started doing these records.

You listen to the Bangles, and it’s very radio-friendly pop; and then out of the blue, they cover a Big Star song. I feel like they weren’t your average ’80s pop band.

I always think about the two big girl groups at the time — the Go-Go’s and the Bangles. They were really different, because they had that distinct thing of being into 12-string guitars and ’60s harmonies. And it was interesting for me to see them have this commercial success, because it seemed a little bit of a left-field thing. When we did ‘Girlfriend,’ I thought of [the Bangles] as somebody else who was really into that ’60s thing, at a time when not a lot of people were really doing it.

Covers are one of the toughest art forms to get right, in my opinion, because you have to locate the song’s soul, even though you didn’t write it. Would you agree it’s a tougher gig than writing your own material?

Well, it’s just really different. I never did that many covers. Susanna was a lot more used to that, because as you said, the Bangles would always do a couple of really cool covers. However, I know exactly what you mean. I guess I sort of always felt that when people do a cover, and it’s just sort of weirdly different, it’s missing [something]. It’s more them trying to do something radically different with it. We give a lot of weight to what the original was like and why it was appealing, and I think we have a sense for that. So we’re not trying to reinvent anything. We’re more trying to be true to it. [laughs] Instead of, like, ruining it.

You and Susanna have recorded pretty different stuff, stylistically, over the years — but you can hear the jangly roots in both of your bodies of work. Did you find that you had similar tastes from the specific eras you chose for this covers project?

Yeah! I would say especially ’60s stuff. There’s just so many cool things that we both liked. The ’70s was a little bit more of an open field, because there’s just so much stuff. And I was 10 years old in 1974, so I remember it more on the AOR radio, and Sue was in college then, so she had different viewpoints. And then I went back and learned about power-pop and discovered the Raspberries and Big Star, which I learned about when I was 18 or 20.

Focusing in on Big Star for a second, what has that band meant to you, personally?

I’ll tell you how I came across Big Star. I was starting to make 4-track demos in high school in my bedroom at home, and I would play them for somebody only on my headphones on my Walkman, because I couldn’t bear to hear it out loud. And then I met this guy, and he said, “You might like this group called the dB’s,” and I ended up getting the dB’s first album. Then somehow, I learned that if you like the dB’s, you should check out Big Star, and so I mail-ordered ‘Radio City’ and ‘#1 Record.’ I think maybe before that I found ‘Bach’s Bottoms’ [Alex Chilton’s 1975 solo album]. By the time I got out of high school and moved down to Athens, Georgia, I was already a Big Star fan. That was another thing I shared with R.E.M. and Let’s Active, although their roots with it went much deeper than mine.

Was that an impetus behind moving to Georgia? Your connection to R.E.M. and liking Big Star?

Kind of. What happened was I ordered through the ‘New York Rocker’ classifieds the first R.E.M. 45 — before ‘Chronic Town’ came out. And they came to play at this rock club that I played in a lot when I was 13. A place called the Drumstick in Nebraska. The club is no longer there. It was this chicken shack/rock-club, and if anybody came through touring, like Blondie, you would play at this club. It maybe held 300 people. I went over there and got R.E.M. to sign my 45, and asked them about [their producer] Mitch Easter. I just started getting postcards from Michael [Stipe] and Linda Hopper, this girl who [who would later be] in a band called Magnapop. They would say, “Come down to Athens,” because I gave R.E.M. some of my first demos. So then ‘Chronic Town’ came out, and they came back around. So I saw them again. Let’s Active was opening. At this time, R.E.M. weren’t super well known, so there were probably 100 people there to see them.

So you can actually say, “I was one of the first R.E.M. fans” and mean it.

I guess so. I don’t know how many of those singles they made, but [that was] part of why I got to meet them. It was all pretty innocent.

It’s cool talking to someone that’s not only put out great music, but is also a rock ‘n’ roll fan. It’s great to know that you honor the gods.

For me, R.E.M., Let’s Active, and Big Star were the last things I was hugely fan-ish about. After I started being more in the [music] business, I think I was so horrified to impair myself to anything else in my brain that I just stopped being as much of a music fan. And I think when I went back to rediscovering all that stuff was when I had my first success with ‘Girlfriend.’ We would tour a whole lot, and I had to do in-stores, so I would terribly take advantage of the label and buy a ton of stuff that I thought might be cool. In Athens, I remember [R.E.M. guitarist] Peter Buck was the one that told me to check out this album ‘Pet Sounds.’ I knew I liked the Beach Boys, theoretically, but I didn’t have any idea who Brian Wilson was. That was really, really huge for me.

So this covers project with Susanna is almost like a second chance to get into all the stuff that you might not have had time to get into while you were busy being a rock star.

Yeah, and Susanna and I think of so many things. We could do three times as many [covers] for every record. There’s a lot from the ’70s one that didn’t end up on [‘Under the Covers, Vol. 2’].

We noticed you did a version of Badfinger’s ‘Baby Blue’ as a bonus track on that one. How cool was it that it played in the final scene of ‘Breaking Bad’?

I know! I was slightly shocked. I’m sad that the show is over. But I was like, “Wow, I can’t believe they’re playing this.”

You go way back with the guys from R.E.M. Did you put pressure on yourself to do the cover justice?

Really, my thoughts were just keep it simple like it is. Sue kind of surprised me with these crazy ’60s-y background vocals and that immediately made it a different thing. That was our stamp on it. I kind of feel like if anyone ever covered something of mine, I wouldn’t be snobby about it, I’d just be happy somebody covered it.

Do you have any new solo material coming out?

I’m about to launch a Kickstarter. I’m going to make a new album, and I’m bundling with it this new hobby of mine: pottery. I’ve sometimes sold stuff on the road, and I had an Etsy store open for awhile.

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