Matt Sharp, ‘I had two golden rules with Polyvinyl’

Matt Sharp Interview  - FDRMX
courtesy of FDRMX

Matt Sharp has just wrapped up his tour with The Rentals, in support of their new album, Lost in Alphaville. Just before one of the last stops on the road, at Irving Plaza with Mates of State and Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin opening, Matt Sharp of The Rentals took a few minutes to chat with FDRMX about the outcome of the album and what he’s plans to do next. Now that all that hard work is done and has paid off, what’s the first thing he’s going to do?

“I’m gonna have a movie night at my house… show Earth Girls Are Easy outside… we do this big screen outside. I rent a house in L.A. that has about an acre of land with all these big redwood trees out front and we put a big screen up in the trees and have a movie night. That’s my big next thing. I’d been doing it for years and then this year we didn’t do it at all cuz we’d been busy with the record and stuff. And all my friends were asking me, ‘Oh you gotta do it before it gets cold.’ Not really cold, but cold enough where you can’t do it.”

Despite the wind and the weather, Sharp has managed to do about thirty or forty movie nights. Some of the best of included Prince’s film debut Purple Rain, which had people dancing up in the balconies, “So it was like the movie was happening and life was imitating art, and everything was really fun.” Another good one was Mel Brooks’ Space Balls, which ironically is not one of Sharp’s favorite movies, but the best movies for movie night aren’t always the best ones to watch for your own viewing pleasure. Whyever not? Well, “because they have to be just dumb enough for everybody to enjoy, [they have] to have not seen it in long enough so that everybody’s not over it. There’s all these components to it, because everybody’s just drinking beer and hanging out, you know. So you can’t go, ‘Oh we’re gonna watch a movie with subtitles now and stroke our beards.’ That’s the cappuccino.”

After the surprise ending of his show at Irving Plaza, perhaps Sharp will be showing Ghostbusters before Earth Girls Are Easy (tis the season, after all). But let’s get back to music. Lost in Alphaville has been well received by fans, and Sharp is equally as happy with it. “Insanely proud of it,” is actually how he put it. “Definitely the most proud I’ve been at the end of anything I’ve worked on. I never feel like I slack on anything when I work on it, so I tend to always feel a deep sense of pride on anything we’re doing but probably more so on this record just because it’s probably the best thing that I’ve been able to help put together. I feel like I have a better understanding of who I am and what things I’m good at and that stuff helps a lot.” For those who don’t know, this album is a massive collaboration, including a handful of artists as well as a children’s choir. Drummer Patrick Carney of Black Keys, guitarist Ryen Slegr of Ozma, vocalists Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe of Lucius, Lauren Chipman, and mixer/producer Dave Sardy all helped make Lost in Alphaville what it is. Here’s a little-known piece of album trivia: Sharp flew to them. Whenever there was a window of opportunity for him to meet up with his collaborating artist of choice, bam – he was on a plane and he was there.

One would think such conditions would lead to outrageous hiccups and hitches along the way, but instead Sharp fondly recalls many pleasant memories of the mini adventures that ensued. “Just really cool strange memories of how different all the scenarios were,” he explains. “There were lots of different – it was a really interesting record to make, and there’s some really funny things. There’s like a children’s choir on a couple songs, and we tried to use them so they’re weren’t too overtly forward because people have been using children’s choirs the last couple five to ten years or more, so I just wanted to use it in a more atmospheric way,” he elaborates. “So it’s not going too far with trying to say ‘Yeah! This is what we’re doing!’ I just wanted it to be a sort of tone in the way that you were hearing it, but you weren’t sure if you were hearing it kind of thing.”

How does one record a children’s choir for a pop rock album? Sharp’s method is low key.

“I took my laptop, and I have a little studio in my laptop like people do now, with a couple speakers, and I went to a rehearsal, a children’s choir rehearsal and worked with them before they were gonna do their first big rehearsal of the year and they gave us a couple hours to do everything, so it was just quickly setting up around these thirty, forty kids.” But how to keep that many kids focused long enough to get a decent recording? That’s when your team comes in.

“Lauren [Chipman], who I work with, is a music teacher, so she has a real – I don’t have this ability – but she has that real [claps] ‘Focus!’ So she’d clap, ‘Everybody HERE!’ and everybody would be focused. She’s amazing at that, and she had never conducted a big group of kids like that, but she took to it like that, and then all of a sudden she’s there conducting these kids and I’m there basically documenting it and just singing some melodies that I wanted them to sing. That was really interesting.”

Lauren seems to have a penchant for getting it done one way or another, in regards to anything music related. Observe Sharp’s anecdote about his adventures with her:

“So a friend of hers is a professor at this music conservatory, so she snuck us into the conservatory early in the morning, we had to get up at five in the morning and sneak in before the security guards were there. We snuck past the security to get to these little rooms where they have these really nice pianos that, because you’re in this kind of ‘hoity-toity’ music conservatory, are tuned every day – perfectly in tune – and gorgeous sounding. These are just the things they practice on, they’re not even the big crazy concert ones.

“And so we snuck in there, put something over the window, and ducked down and recorded all of her piano stuff on the album that way. And we were just sort of hoping that the night watchman wasn’t gonna get us. So that’s really fun to think about. Little moments of how, Mission Impossible it is, in a low-fi kinda way, you know “Duh duh duh, duhduh” [sings movie theme]. There definitely some of that going on.”

As a matter of fact, there was a lot of that going on. “Working with Jess and Holly was like that a little bit to a degree,” Sharp muses. “I was just so crazy about their voices those couple days [we worked together].” Why so crazy? “I’d been on a very long search for the perfect female presence to represent that album, and it just took a long time to figure out who would be right for that, and who was just right on all kinds of levels.”

It’s very important when planning a collaborative project of this large a scale to pick the right people, or else you jeopardize the success of your work. Sharp explains that in this situation you have to choose, “People that you think conduct themselves in a way that you want to be associated with, [people] that have this certain sense of being a decent person and all those kinds of things, because you don’t want someone out there representing your album that you don’t particularly care for or click with.” Contrary to first thought, “It’s not just how their voices are, it’s who they are as people and I just love them [Jess and Holly], head to toe, I love them both and who are they separately and who they are together, and what they do musically and how they carry themselves and what they think. They’re smart – it’s the whole package. It’s the whole thing.” In effect, the featured artists were trying Sharp out as much as he was testing them out. “That was just another one of those adventures with the album.”

What’s especially unique about Sharp’s multiple collaborations is the fact that most everybody was of the mind “What are you doing right now” when Sharp approached them. “They’re not like, ‘Oh I know what you did with Weezer, I know what you did with Tegan and Sara.’ We didn’t have any connection like that. They were just like, ‘Is the thing that you’re trying to do right at this moment, is it relevant, is it good, do we want to be associated with it?’”  In effect, the featured artists were trying Sharp out as much as he was testing them out. “That was just another one of those adventures with the album.”

Working with drummer Patrick Carney was also a major mini (two day) adventure. “Strange and crazy in a completely different way,” Sharp says of working with Carney. “We only met hours before we started working together. We had talked about working with each other for years, but we’d never met each other. Then next thing I know I’m in Nashville and he’s got this beautiful Nashville estate, overlooking this gorgeous piece of land, just as romantic and picturesque as can be with deer in the backyard, going over the creek – it was just phenomenal.”

Carney shook the album up for Sharp when it was hovering in a directional rut. “This record was something that I didn’t want to mess around with any more. So I got to a place of, ‘I’m just gonna work until I find out exactly where we’re going and not gonna make any compromises along the way. And if I can’t get it to the place I’m thinking of, I’ll just shelve it, no matter how long it’s gonna take to work on it, I have no problem just shelving creativity in general. I’d be fine. I’d go be a farmer.’ That was my thought. Just go and explore different directions and see if you can figure out whatever this puzzle is.

“It’s one of those things. It worked with him and it worked with Jess and Holly, you don’t know until you get there. Whether you’re looking for something specific, you’re searching for a specific sound and you can hear it in your head but you don’t exactly know how to find it. So you just go down these different paths. But then once you arrive there, it’s ‘BOOM! Seize the day, we’re here let’s do it now!’ And those moments are really quick and explosive.

“I worked in Nashville with him [Carney] for maybe two days, two and half days. So those moments were go-go-go. Jess and Holly were even less than that, they were like a day and a half, or two days for the whole record. I was very prepared for them when that moment came. Once I knew we were in the right place you know you take it seriously. And you don’t take them for granted. I’m gonna respect this moment and understand how special this moment is for us. Or is for me.

“So with Patrick it was like that for sure, and I love him. I think he really did change the album. When you get to that place you want to share it with as many people as you can…. People are talking about it more, probably because of his involvement.”

When we asked about the effect producer Dave Sardy had on Lost in Alphaville, Sharp’s reaction was, “Oh my god.” Yeah, your album producer is that big of a deal.

“I only had one rule with, or two I should say, two golden rules with Polyvinyl, the company that’s putting this record out,” Sharp begins to explain. “I had two rules with them. One was that I would make the record with them and we didn’t have to sign any contracts or anything. It was like just a handshake kind of thing. But I would make the record on my own and go off and go on this exploration of trying to find this thing that I wanted us to accomplish. But I knew I was gonna go down a bunch of different avenues and paths and that kind of stuff, so it wasn’t gonna be super quick. So my main thing was, ‘You don’t get to hear any of the record, you just have to trust me.’ So that was one part of it. I’m gonna go wherever I need to go, I’m gonna make mistakes, I’m gonna try things that we’re not gonna end up using and I don’t want you to hear any of that. I don’t care for you to hear any of the multitude of choices of like, ‘Oh you could’ve done this or that,’ or ‘How do you think this sounds,’ I don’t want you to be dragged into the process at all. I just want you to hear the album when it’s done. So that was number one.

“Number two golden rule for me was, that when I’ve taken it as far as I can go, I want to make sure that the last person who has a creative impact on it is a real talent. Like somebody who is an extraordinary person. And there’s only a handful of those people, in my mind. People who are really the best of the best. And so basically, [I told Polyvinyl] you can’t hear the record, and when it’s done, it’s gotta be put in the hands of somebody I feel comfortable will give it the best chance it can to be made. So there’s like ten people that I could think of like that, and they all cost like a billion dollars to work with, right? [laughs] So those were the two things and they agreed to those. Dave was one of those people. He’s an extraordinary mixer. Extraordinary. So that was it.”

Alphaville adventures never stop though. “The fun thing about him is, I went down to talk to these different people who I had a great admiration for, and they asked for ideas and I said, ‘No I don’t send out music. It’s either you wanna work with me or you don’t.’ So the second I reached out to him (it was through Tegan and Sara – he mixed one of their records), the second I wrote to him about it, he wrote back, I think it was just, ‘In.’ [laughs]

“He’s a man of not the fewest words, but almost no words. He was just like, ‘In,’ ‘Yes, ‘Cool,’ ‘Done,’ ‘F—’ ‘Whatever!’ We were never in the same room together. So we were doing it through these long notes and his responses were, ‘Ok.’ But that felt so amazing, to have somebody who’s done the incredible work that he’s done to be like not making me jump through any hoops. He was just ready to go.” All adventures and the fifteen year wait for The Rentals’ Lost in Alphaville definitely paid off and after hearing all this, it’s hard not to see why. Hooray for teamwork!