INTERVIEW: Matt Sharp talks about the Rentals’ rebirth, the challenge of ‘Songs About Time’ and the Weezer Cruise

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photo: Brantley Gutierrez
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This October will mark the 20th anniversary of Return Of The Rentals, the quizzically named debut album from retro-synth-pop unit the Rentals, led by former Weezer bassist Matt Sharp. Though you’d never know it from talking to Sharp, as he is someone who firmly lives in the present and looks toward the future. You’d also might assume that given his 20-year career in the Rentals, he would have put out upwards of a dozen records by now, but you’d be wrong—last year’s Lost In Alphaville marked the band’s third proper LP in two decades (though there was a pretty large project in the interim—more on that later). Now, as Sharp assembles his “revolving, evolving” band for their first national tour in eight years, Substream editor in chief Scott Heisel caught up with him to dig a little deeper—and see if he has any interest in getting on a cruise ship with a few thousand Weezer fans.

So what are you up to right now?
MATT SHARP: I’m currently turning a couple of rooms in my house into guest bedrooms for the girls in Radiation City, who are about to come down and start rehearsing with me. This is the way we’ve handled things for a while: The thing I put the most focus on is the interaction with me and the two women who are singing and playing keyboards [live]. That’s the role that changes the most. So we have a little rehearsal space for the three of us in the bottom part of the house.

The Rentals is always a revolving, evolving thing. Different friends of mine from different bands come on board when time allows, which makes it really interesting because you’re always dealing with different chemistry, different people. The guitarists, bassists, drummers all work individually, and then I work with the women and on the synthesizer parts and the arrangements and the vocals. Then we quickly get into a room together a couple days before a show and we’re off! [Laughs.]

This is the Rentals’ first full U.S. tour since 2007, right?
Yeah. For the most part, I’ve been working from home. We did a big art project in 2009 [Songs About Time] that we didn’t do any performing off of; it was a big arts collective, film, that kind of thing. We did play a handful of shows last year, though.

But this will be the first cram-everyone-into-a-15-passenger-van type of tour?
Thankfully, I don’t think we’ll be in a van on this tour. Our group is quite large; we have seven people in the band, plus crew, so usually what we do is share a bus with one of the opening bands. In this case, it makes a whole lot of sense because we’re touring with Rey Pila and Radiation City, and the girls in Radiation City are in the Rentals now—even though we’ve only rehearsed together over Skype. [Laughs.] Like, we’re singing Moog parts to each other. It’s pretty silly. But from what I can tell, we have really great chemistry together.

One of the reasons the Rentals started in the first place was to work with Petra Haden and her sister Rachel, from That Dog. It was really difficult to find where [Weezer] belonged back when we started, but here was this band, That Dog, who I just completely fell for and was really nuts for them and for what the Hadens could do. In many ways, the Rentals was an excuse to work with those two women, who essentially have been singing with each other since birth. Then many years later, I worked with Tegan and Sara, who are very similar—two sisters who have been singing together since they were little kids—and then most recently on Lost In Alphaville, I worked with Jess and Holly from Lucius, and even though they are not siblings, in some ways they seem more like siblings than the other two. They’re just so connected, where one completes the other. So I’ve always been involved with these amazing women.

Is part of the reason why it takes the Rentals so long to come together, whether it’s recording or performing, because you’re always looking for those types of special connections that don’t always exist?
Not necessarily. If you’re in the studio with Jess and Holly and understand what a special thing it is for those two women to sing together, of course your dream is, “Gosh, I wish they could be there for every moment [in this band]!” When the Rentals first started with Return Of The Rentals, there was no way for us to be out with the Hadens, because they were touring nonstop with That Dog at the exact same times we were. I always tried to bring That Dog out with Weezer as much as possible. We were out on the road with them at one point, and at a brief period of Petra being, “This is really difficult, I don’t know if I want to be here,” I remember telling her, “Well, if you ever want to tour with the Rentals, I’d love to have you whenever you’re available.” And like, seconds later, she walks into her band’s dressing room and says, “Hey! Matt just asked me to quit That Dog!” [Laughs.] And I was like, “Noooo! That’s not what I meant!” And forever after that, there was this rift, or ill feelings between their singer and how she felt about me, which was really too bad, because I felt like I was always the one going to bat for them.

It’s been about eight months since Lost In Alphaville came out, but going even further back, virtually every song on the record started off in some form as a part of Songs About Time. So these songs have been with you for the better part of five or six years. Now that the album is finally out and you’ve had time to reflect on it, is Lost In Alphaville everything you wanted it to be?
Without a doubt, as far as where I set out to bring the record to, by far this record has gotten closer than any other thing I’ve ever worked on. I’m super, super-proud of it. I told Polyvinyl right from the get-go that once this album gets released, I want to do it whatever it takes just to give people a chance to hear it.

Obviously the arrangements are drastically different between the songs on Alphaville versus the same songs on Songs About Time. Where do you view SAT, then? The initial wave of press for Alphaville billed the album as “the third Rentals full-length,” and “their first new music since 1999,” which isn’t true.
It’s interesting. The one thing about that project is that it wasn’t just about the music. We had so many people working within all these different levels of what we were trying to do—there was cinematographers, video editors, different artists from different countries, we were trying to open it up to friends we wanted to collaborate with. People from Portugal and Spain… Just to be able to collaborate with people long-distance and trying a different approach to the arts, for me. It was, I’m guessing, a minimum of 50 different artists working within the scope of the project, maybe up to 75? As far as an artistic experience, it was in many ways the most successful creative thing I’ve ever been a part of. But monetarily successful? It might be the least. But it shows you that those things can both be true. It can simultaneously be both the least successful thing I’ve ever done and at some other level be the absolute most successful thing. It just depends on whatever your judgment of that thing is.

Being in it, in the midst of it—literally, my house was an open door. I’d wake up in the morning and there’d be a couple assistants editing photographs and a video editor in the next room working on a piece while you’re translating some text from some different language, and all these kinds of different things. It was amazing, and it would change every week. In that way, I couldn’t have been happier with that part of it. It gave me purpose. It was completely thrilling. But then you could say it wasn’t successful because maybe there were only four people watching it. [Laughs.]

The idea with that project was to embrace the sort of thing I had never tried before. There’s one way of working where you have your really prolific artists, like Picasso or Dylan or Prince, where they just go, “I’m gonna create and create and create and create, and you dig through it and find out what’s good.” Prince will go, “I’m gonna release this record and it’s seven albums in one.” And you’re like, “Holy hell, I just wanna hear ‘Purple Rain’! Help me find the great moments.” But I had never tried that way of working before, where you just go output-output-output. We made 52 short films in that year, and the idea was maybe only 10 of them are even going to be worth watching. You’re scrambling how to get a concept together, get it shot and edited within a week. Maybe 10 of those out of 52 were good, so that means people were watching 42 bad art films—or films that aren’t bad, but just don’t work. I’m not comparing myself to Picasso or Warhol, but they would just paint and paint and paint and paint, and one of them turns out to be the soup cans.

photo: Brantley Gutierrez
photo: Brantley Gutierrez

So do you view Lost In Alphaville then as sort of the Rentals’ “greatest hits” from the past five or six years?
No, no, no. These songs were written together, all in a short period, that we used as a basis to help score these films. Those songs belong together. They feel correct together. They have a feeling to them. The question for me at the end of that project was “Were you able to convey that feeling the right way?” And the answer was, “No, I’m having to make people dig through 52 short films to get there!” [Laughs.] I don’t think there is any sort of wrong way to do something, creatively, but coming out of that project, that’s not necessarily my idea of what the artist’s job is. You have a responsibility to not make people wade through all your filler material or your B material. If you want to tell them something specifically, it’s your responsibility to present it to them that way, so they’re not having to dig through all sorts of things. Ultimately, with that arts project, it was too vast and no one was listening. So what’s the point of that?

My friends are in a band called Ash, and they were doing a project right around the same time as mine where they would release a single a week. So they did an ungodly amount of recording over the course of a year. They released, like, 52 songs in a year or thereabouts. And Tim [Wheeler] came to play some shows with the Rentals—he played on the second Rentals record a little bit—and he gave me this big, enormous thing. We both went on a similar path at the same time to do these super-expansive things, just massive output, and I was really having a hard time trying to get my head into it. It was just too much. So I basically went to him and said, “Hey, can I go through this and find the thing that’s special in here, and see if we can focus it?” So I went on this long thing listening to all the music they created and I brought it down to 10 songs, and it made total sense to me. I played it for friends, and they were like, “Wow, this is great!” Those are all people who would have never listened to those songs because the way Ash was presenting it was just too overwhelming and people couldn’t penetrate it. I was telling Tim my feelings about that, and then not even realizing, “Oh, you should take your own advice, asshole.” [Laughs.] Essentially, that’s where Lost In Alphaville started.

Before that realization, what was your mindset?
There was a point for me where I thought, “Well, maybe I won’t make traditional records anymore. Maybe I’ll go into the art world more.” I really thought about it for a while, in the midst of working on that project and coming out of it, thinking, “Yeah, this is where it’s at.” So I looked into that, but I found out pretty quick the art world wanted nothing to do with me whatsoever. [Laughs.] It was gonna be real hard. The serious art world has a very particular view of musicians and pop art and all that kind of stuff where they’re really hesitant to open the gates. They don’t like seeing some musician, like, “Hey, I was in Weezer! ‘Buddy Holly!’ Can I be in your art studio?” That card couldn’t have made it any worse for me. You’re immediately framed by that. For most of my life, that has been something that has been super-beneficial. But in this case, it doesn’t do anything but hurt you. It means you can’t even get a meeting with someone who runs a well-known art gallery: “Geez, really? The fuckin’ ‘Buddy Holly’ guy?”

As you mentioned before, Songs About Time wasn’t a commercial success, and while Lost In Alphaville has been warmly received, it hasn’t sold a million records, because virtually nothing these days does. So with all that plus the long amounts of time you take off between records, I have to wonder: What do you to make ends meet as a musician who’s not out on the road 300 days a year? What keeps the bills being paid—or are you just not paying your bills?
Yeah, I’m just not paying my bills. [Laughs.] I’ve never really had a crazy living style, except for my love of traveling to Europe. Beyond that desire, I’ve always kept a very, very low-key profile. When Weezer started, we bought all of our clothes at Goodwill. Once we got a little more successful, shoe companies would send us kicks in droves. It was pretty great! “Look at me: I got new shoes, and I still shop at Goodwill.” My basic lifestyle never changed in that way. I live in a nicer place now, and I’m able to have a recording studio in my home, so I don’t take that for granted. Like all musicians, you just hope to be able to support yourself through [music], and hopefully you’re making something that people want more of to the point where there’s a demand for it. Being on Polyvinyl is the best thing that’s ever happened to the Rentals. They’re a group of very bright people who I feel very dearly about. They’ve showed such a flattering amount of respect.

The Rentals have been tied to Weezer for two decades. Now that we’re 20 years removed from Return Of The Rentals, how much of your current fanbase has no idea who Weezer is? Do you have Rentals fans that are completely unaware of your prior life?
That’s a good question. I think where everything is with technology, that is one of the hopes is that you’re getting to a place where people can discover Lost In Alphaville completely on its own and appreciate it without having any connection to anything I’ve done in the past. I think everybody hopes that when they create something new, you just want to have unbiased ears hearing it. You hope it makes a true emotional connection with people, regardless of where you came from. For myself and the people in the Rentals and for Polyvinyl, that is certainly where you’re trying to go. Obviously you can’t always be coming back to something from a completely different time. That’s in no way to shed any sort of negative light on that time; I’m very proud of the early Rentals records, and I’m very proud of my time in Weezer. They were completely relevant to that time. It felt very honest, and we put all of our best thoughts and creativity into doing that. It’s no different for me [now]: I know for me, I’m never looking for us to return to—you know, the return of Return Of The Rentals. [Laughs.] I’m not looking to recapture that, or re-find the sound of that first album.

A number of your musician friends have partaken in the Weezer Cruise in recent years. Ozma has played it; Ash did the last one…
The Cribs did it too.

That’s right! So the question is: If there were to be a third Weezer Cruise and you were invited, would you go along? Would the Rentals play the Weezer Cruise?
[Laughs.] No, I think I’ll let them do their thing and let them have their space. At some point I remember Patrick Carney saying, “We’re gonna do a Black Keys/Rentals cruise.” And I said, “Yeah, sure, as long as it’s equal billing.” If the Black Keys/Rentals co-headlining cruise happens, you’ll be the first to know. S