The making of Matthew Sweet‘s Girlfriend
By Hobart Rowland
By ’90s industry standards, Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend performed well. It peaked at number one on the Heatseekers chart in 1992, even if it barely cracked the top half of the Billboard 200. The title track made it to number four on the Modern Rock chart and number 10 on Mainstream Rock, while the album’s sublime leadoff track, “Divine Intervention,” was a number 23 Modern Rock hit—and, quite frankly, deserved better.
That’s nowhere near the astronomical numbers Nirvana’s Nevermind and U2’s Achtung Baby enjoyed that same year. But we’re talking about a quirky—albeit monumental—power-pop record that almost didn’t find its way to listeners. Prior to Girlfriend, Sweet was less than an unknown commodity—he was a liability, with a pair of glossy, nondescript late-’80s albums that tanked commercially and critically. The vibe surrounding Sweet was so toxic that Zoo Entertainment, the now-defunct BMG affiliate that finally took a chance on Girlfriend, pretty much spun the thing as Sweet’s debut.
And for good reason: It sounds like nothing that came before—from Sweet or anyone else. Its edgy, honest beauty set the tone for a string of great albums, including Girlfriend’s underrated 1993 follow-up, Altered Beast, 1995’s 100% Fun and 1999’s Phil Spector-inspired masterpiece, In Reverse.
In the months prior to Girlfriend’s October 1991 release, a devoted cadre of industry people embraced the album—dubiously titled Nothing Lasts at the time—making it their personal mission to ensure its survival. One of those fans was veteran music scribe Bud Scoppa, who was working A&R for Zoo when a cassette arrived in the mail from his New York counterpart, Scott Byron. Scoppa’s stellar liner notes for the 2006 Girlfriend Legacy reissue are required reading for any Sweet fan. They’re so good, in fact, that we found no point in reinventing the wheel here.
Legacy Recordings just released a vinyl edition of Goodfriend (Another Take On “Girlfriend”), featuring home demos, session outtakes and live performances. Think of it as an unruly companion piece to the original, which was reissued on 180-gram vinyl at its intended 12-song length in 2014.
Describing Girlfriend as one of the best power-pop LPs ever may be accurate, but it’s also selling the album short. After all, what purist in the form would allow the late Robert Quine to run roughshod over his pristine melodies and multipart harmonies—and, in the process, deliver some of the Richard Hell And The Voidoids guitarist’s most wrenchingly inspired work?
So let’s just say this: What follows is an oral history of one of the best albums of the ’90s, a decade swimming in great music.
Matthew Sweet: I got married when I was really young—19—and we were married for six years. By 1989, we’d moved out to Princeton, N.J., from New York City, so we could rent a whole house. It was awesome for me because I could do music without bothering anyone. The house was built in 1780, right on the edge of the Princeton Battlefield. I’d ride my bike in the backwoods all through there. But my wife at the time was restless. She felt like there was something she wanted to do. So she got some money from her dad and moved back to New York—got an apartment there. We hadn’t really broken up, exactly, although we weren’t getting along. It wasn’t, like, a positive thing.
Ric Menck (drums): Matthew and I toured to promote his previous album, Earth—just the two of us in his Honda, opening for ’Til Tuesday. We listened every day to my cassette of Full Moon Fever, and we loved how unadorned by technology it sounded.
Sweet: I set up drums in the main living room, and I started playing them on my demos. I sent those to (manager) Russell Carter, and he said, “It reminds me of Crazy Horse and Neil Young.” And I said, “I know, my voice is really high and weird.” And he’s like, “No, the vibe of it.” He sent me a bunch of Crazy Horse stuff, and I was like, “Fuck, now I understand what he’s saying.”
Menck: Matthew was recording demos at his house, and I visited him at several points during that time. He was really getting into Neil Young, and he had an abiding love for the Beatles—especially Abbey Road. As we drove around Princeton in his little Honda station wagon, he told me he wanted to make an album that sounded really organic.
Lloyd Cole (guitar): Matthew would write very quickly—sometimes two or three songs a day, where I would take a week. He’s never been the most disciplined guy in that respect, and that’s kind of endearing.
Sweet: Having my marriage end was something I tried so hard not to do. We tried to make it work; we went into marriage counseling. But we were like kids. In the end, it was me who said I wanted to get divorced, even though she was the one who left. By that point, she was sort of desperate to stay together. All my life, I thought I was a good guy. But when you have to be the one who says it’s over, I had to accept that there was no way to be the good guy. It was a thing where I went, “Wow, I’m really tainted.” You know, original sin or something—like, “Now I get it: I’m good and bad, and there will be times in my life when the right thing to do isn’t being good.”
Cole: My main claim to fame is on the song “Girlfriend.” Matthew kept talking about “good friend.” He’d just been recently separated from his wife, and I don’t think he wanted to address the issue straight-on and say “girlfriend.” And I said, “For God’s sake, just call it ‘Girlfriend.’”
Sweet: At the time, I tried to explain that none of it was exactly autobiographical—that everything could be looked at in a couple different ways. “You Don’t Love Me” might be a song my wife was singing to me—you know what I mean? But I felt those feelings, and so I was working that out in a song. Whereas something like “I’ve Been Waiting” was really like a brand-new, untouched fantasy of how it could be great to fall in love or whatever.
Fred Maher (producer, drums, guitar): Matthew originally wanted to record at his house in Princeton, and we planned it out. But he got cold feet a few months before recording was to start; he was nervous about upsetting neighbors. I suggested Axis Studios in New York City, since it would be as cramped and difficult a place to make a rock record as his small house.
Sweet: Fred and I had met on my first record (Inside) and worked a lot together on the second one. We were already buddies for a long time, so it was kind of coming together. Even (Television guitarist) Richard (Lloyd) and Bob (Quine) played with me before Girlfriend. I met Richard during my time with the Golden Palominos, when he filled in for Jody Harris. There was no way to learn the whole set, and we had to do these rehearsals with him, and I just felt so bad because it was so impossible. But Richard was really nice to me and told me he liked my songs. So we started to become friendly.
Menck: Prior to making the album, Matthew, Richard and I went through a few of the songs at a rehearsal space near the studio. We warmed up by playing Television’s “See No Evil,” and Richard yelled at me when I acted too much like a geeky fan.
Cole: The rough demos were nowhere near as extreme as what’s on the album. Jim Rondinelli deserves a lot of credit for that. He and Matthew gelled really well.
Jim Rondinelli (engineer): The sound of Girlfriend really goes back to lengthy conversations I had with Matthew. We talked about it for months before we actually did anything. When I heard Earth, I loved the songs, but there was a dissonance between the slickness and the precision of the production and Matthew’s voice.
Maher: Matthew didn’t want to use any of the technology available at the time. So we decided we’d make the entire record on 24-track tape. Parts were mercilessly bounced together, with no way back.
Rondinelli: I worked with Fred and Matthew to establish an entirely different framework for his voice, and that meant not drowning him in reverb or studio processing, not burying his voice but making it loud and clear in the front of the track, framing his voice with his primary weapon for attack, the electric guitars, and making sure those guitars were raw power and unadorned. I mean, good God, we had Richard Lloyd and Robert Quine, and Matthew’s rhythm-guitar playing is so incredibly concise.
Menck: My drum tracks were completed in one or two sessions. Matthew played rhythm guitar, and I played along. Very simple and straightforward, which was a change for Matthew, whose previous album was made with programmed drums. It took one or two takes to complete each track.
Rondinelli: We established rules at the start: It would be all live instruments; it would be all Höfner Beatle bass. The Höfner has this big, heavy bottom that stays nicely out of the way of the guitars, so we could really compartmentalize and separate the instruments. That left Matthew’s voice and the guitars front and center. By having the drums loud but dry, there’s always some ambience in the room where the music is being played. We didn’t want to soften the impact of Fred and Ric’s drumming by washing it in reverb. Really, we wanted to take everything that was done on the first record and do exactly the opposite.
Menck: Axis was in a high-rise building surrounded by other highrises. At one point, I looked out the window to see a very pretty woman undressing. She was the inspiration behind my playing on “Divine Intervention.” The drum track for that was definitely completed in one take.
Sweet: People see what they want in “Divine Intervention.” If they’re religious, they might think, “Awesome. That’s when God comes.” But I was saying that he’s not. I was coming out as an atheist, in a way. Christianity has great things about it. Jesus is totally cool, and I live by those morals. I don’t do anything that’s really un-Christian—and most atheists probably don’t. We put the whole album in [the precursor to] ProTools, which was so novel back then. The intro to “Divine Intervention” was something we turned backward—then you hear Richard playing a lick.
Rondinelli: We’d complete the basic rhythm tracks for the album, and Matthew would take a long weekend and go back to Princeton. He’d come back with these unbelievably layered and complex guitar and vocal arrangements. Then he’d sing additional vocals, and we’d add the guitar tracks. It was really a fun way to work.
Sweet: It’s a typical studio thing, but we made comps of our favorite guitar bits. So Richard and Bob didn’t have to do anything but play what they felt—and that’s why it worked so great.
Rondinelli: It’s funny. There’s only one spot on the album where two people are actually playing together in real time, and that’s Matthew and Lloyd on “Thought I Knew You.” Fred, wisely, wanted to pull the swing section out of the demo version of “Girlfriend,” which gave it a life on radio it probably wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Cole: Matthew was obsessed with Winona Ryder—especially in that Heathers film. I said to him, “You’re singing a song about Winona Ryder, and ‘Winona’ is a great title for a song—so just do it.”
Rondinelli: My favorite song to record was “Winona,” because there’s so much Greg Leisz and Quine on that song. Greg is something else. He does an incredible lap-steel part that’s an answer line to the vocals in “Girlfriend.”
Sweet: I went to see Jules Shear play. We were outside the venue afterward, and he introduced me to Greg. They were in a group together called the Funky Kings. I’m like, “Hey, so do you know the Sneaky Pete (Kleinow) kind of steel playing?” And he was like, “I love all that stuff.” So I asked him to play on the record. It was that simple.
Rondinelli: The first time Richard came in, his tracks were so exciting that I remember popping out of my chair when I heard them. With Quine, we’d have him play top to bottom on a song five times, and we’d go back afterward and compose a highlights track. I don’t think there’s one spot on the finished album where Bob played a continuous track. The most amazing thing is that Dennis Taylor, the guitarist who plays with Matthew now, learned all this stuff that no human being had ever played before.
Menck: An abiding memory of the sessions was hanging out with Bob Quine in the lounge. He was a passionate music fan who loved to talk about songs and records. Bob could be a little cantankerous, but when he started talking about music, he really softened up. I’ll forever treasure our discussion about the Velvet Underground. He loved them so much.
Rondinelli: Bob would get something going in the first couple of takes, and then he’d get really down on himself and go through this incredible self-loathing. On the fourth or fifth take, all this additional fire and anger would come out, and he’d take it out on his instrument. Then he’d be emotionally and physically exhausted.
Sweet: The album was originally called Nothing Lasts, and we had to go through hoops to get Tuesday Weld to let us use her photo on the cover. Then somebody from the legal department called her and asked, “Is it OK that it’s called Nothing Lasts?” Well, it wasn’t.
Cole: A terrible name for an album. So he changed it to Girlfriend.
Rondinelli: The sound of the needle at the end of the record—that groove in the middle—was done by Alan Friedman, a programmer who was a fixture at Axis Studios.
Sweet: I just kept adding extra songs, because I was having so much fun in the studio, and it was just such a joy to hear what we made it sound like by adding everybody’s thing. I kept cramming them in, and I was so enamored by what we were doing that I wished I could put it all in there. I’m pretty sure it was me who came up with the idea of putting the three extra tracks all the way out. Then, if you accidentally left your CD player on and you were playing it really loud, they’d come on and be really loud. It makes me laugh now because that supposes a lot of things. But I figured if that happens a few times, it’s awesome. So we put in this long gap after the first 12 songs. I probably wanted to put three minutes, but I was talked down to something more like 40 seconds.
Rondinelli: We made Girlfriend for A&M, and they dropped it. God knows, every label in New York heard that album. We were all working that album, and Karen Glauber at HITS magazine was a huge supporter.
Karen Glauber (president of HITS magazine): I met Matthew when he was in the Athens, Ga., band Buzz Of Delight and worked closely with him as the director of new music marketing at A&M, which was the label for his second solo album, Earth. I left A&M in 1990, and I was absolutely insistent that (Zoo founder) Lou Maglia sign him, the label that employed many of my friends—and fellow avid Matthew fans.
Scott Byron (former East Coast A&R director for Zoo Entertainment): Zoo was a new company at the time and didn’t have a set process for getting things signed. The first thing I had to do was convince the head of A&R that it was a worthwhile project. Then I had to convince Lou. We had a verbal agreement, and Lou just sort of pulled the plug one day. I had to call Matthew and say, “It looks like it’s not going to happen.” Then, Bud Scoppa was cranking the album in his office one day, and Lou walked in and said, “What’s that you’re listening to?” And Bud said, “Matthew Sweet. You nixed it a few weeks ago.” Then Lou went back to his office and changed his mind.
Sweet: At the time, “Girlfriend” wasn’t an important song to me. It was just kind of a ditty. But if you were an artist at that time trying to sign to a label, they always used the track that’s nothing like you as the single. It was actually my manager, Russell, who became obsessed that it could be on rock radio. And he really trumpeted that all through the thing.
Rondinelli: I don’t want to downplay the record, because it’s really a testament to Matthew’s genius. But there was a bit of lucky timing to it, as well. Every radio station that programmed Nevermind had to very quickly find songs with loud guitars that they could play in its wake.
Maher: Girlfriend has aged well because we didn’t allow ourselves to use any modern recording techniques. We stuck to our guns. Ultimately—and possibly most importantly—it was made at a time when the record company let us do our thing. Matthew had a vision, and I defended it—brutally at times.
Glauber: Girlfriend is a perfect album. The songwriting and musicianship is unparalleled—most notably “Girlfriend,” “I’ve Been Waiting” and, my absolute favorite, “You Don’t Love Me.” The contrast of Matthew’s voice and the frenetic, angular playing of the guitarists elevated the songs to another dimension. Fred and Matthew’s production combines the energy of the late-’70s CBGB scene with the gorgeous harmonies of the Beach Boys and the Byrds.
Sweet: When I’m doing music, it’s kind of like throwing pottery on the wheel and just losing my mind. This thing comes from somewhere else. It’s almost like it’s not from me, but I know what to do once it starts coming. But what’s cool is that somehow I had an instinct on how to put those songs together, where it seemed to have worked so well.
People will ask me if I’m sick of playing the Girlfriend stuff, and I’ll be like, “No, I’m just happy someone likes something I did.” It’s a gift to me that it means so much to people—that it wears so well for them.
Rondinelli: It’s one of the greatest divorce records ever made.