The first sound you hear on Matthew Sweet’s latest record Catspaw is a thundering guitar chord. It sets the tone for a record that’s built upon the six-string, in this case with Sweet, for the first time in his career, as the one who is playing the leads, which take turns being soulful, psychedelic and scorching. As a matter of fact, he plays everything on the album except the drums, a one-man show of sorts that represents another high point in a career that’s now almost four decades long and showing no signs of lagging.
After churning out three albums in a two-year span in 2017 -18, Sweet had cleared the songwriting decks to prepare for Catspaw. “Getting all of that out the door, then I had a little bit of a breather before I started the stuff that ended up being this album,” he told American Songwriter in a recent interview. “It was actually recorded last year and I mastered it right before the pandemic hit this last spring. I feel fortunate that I had it done so that we could actually work on getting it released during this year, which has been mostly downtime for me. I haven’t been able to do what I normally do, which is go and play shows. That’s really how I make my living. It’s fun to be getting an album out at this time when I might have had nothing for a really long time.”
Sweet believed he could handle the lead guitar role, in part because of an experience he’d had when he was just starting out in music. “It’s funny because when I was a teenager, I started out as a bass player,” he remembers. “I used to have this theory when I was about 13 that even when I didn’t play the bass, that I made progress unconsciously to where I got better even though I wasn’t playing. At some point when I was thinking this, I thought, ‘I wonder if I’ll be able to play guitar really well.’ Especially lead guitar, I couldn’t conceive of how you did it. I never had any lessons or anything.”
What Sweet found on this album is that his role as the songwriter fed into his guitar playing. “One of the cool things about it was, since I write them, I really hear what notes are relied upon in the scales in the songs,” he explains. “There’s something pleasing to myself when I’m playing lead and I explore these notes that are there in my head already. It turned out to be a great experiment.
“When people come in to play for me, it’s like jumping in the cold swimming pool. They don’t really know what to expect. And they just kind of go for it, and that works really well. If I’m trying to think what might be different about my playing, I think that it might be a little more melodically in tune with the way I wrote the song.”
Even though Catspaw strikes a consistent rock vibe, Sweet wrote the songs on the record without any grand plan about a cohesive whole. “I never know what it’s going to be when I first start working on it,” he says. “I’m not a very technical songwriter in the sense that I don’t really think about my songs in terms of sections and beats and things. I think of them in terms of how they feel to me. They pop out of a kind of open mindedness that’s just waiting for magic to happen. It’s like I get in a Zen state where my mind is cleared of everything and stuff just pops out. I don’t know really what I’m going to like. I don’t know what’s better or not as good. I just work on a bunch of music and the things that are important rise to the top.”
Among those risers in this case are tracks like “Challenge The Gods” and “Hold On Tight,” which find him playing the role of sage advisor to his fans. “Songwriting was always very personal for me and I thought of it in terms of very personal communication,” Sweet muses. “I’ve never really been a story songwriter. It’s sometimes situational and sometimes vague feelings. I always have tended toward a me-and-you sensitivity. The voice you’re talking about comes with age, with being a little older.”
Sweet has always been the rare songwriter who can convey upbeat emotions without becoming cloying, and that quality shines through on Catspaw tracks like “At A Loss” and “Coming Soon.” He explains that particular talent came from not settling for the obvious in such songs. “Back when I was making records for big labels, they wanted simpler, more upbeat kinds of things to put out as singles,” he says. “And I always felt like I didn’t really know how to give them what they wanted. But people that I love as songwriters always had a wide variety of moods like that. I do like really upbeat stuff. In my history, I’m really glad when I manage to get an interesting perspective into something that also masquerades as something that is really upbeat.
“I remember ‘Sick Of Myself,’ which became a radio song, but is really a very weird sentiment to be in a radio song. Things like you’re referencing from this record, I think it really needed to have some positivity in it to show every side of what it means to be alive and have feelings. I’m pleased if there’s stuff that comes across as a little less bogged-down by iffy feelings.”
Sweet enjoyed the experience of being a jack-of-all-trades of sorts on Catspaw, to the extent that he could see himself doing it again in the future. “It was fun to do,” he says. “And, of course, it’s the simplest way to do it because I don’t have to work on finding people and who’s going to play. I guess I have a hard time imagining that I won’t play with other people again at some point in my life. I imagine that it might get boring just doing stuff on my own after a while. But I do feel like I haven’t fully explored it and that I could do it a couple more times.”
As far as where he feels Catspaw stands within his impressive catalog, Sweet explains that, while it isn’t quite for him to say, he certainly enjoys the sustained vibe it captured. “It’s hard for me to exactly compare it,” he says. “That’s really something that I leave for other people to do. Because we’re so early on with the release of it, I don’t know what the reaction is exactly. To me, it feels like a really solid record that’s really consistent and it achieves a rock edge that works throughout the record. I feel like if I had to compare it to a bunch of my records, I would say it’s a very focused one. It really gets in there and does its thing in a focused way.”
Read our review of the album, right here.