The Rentals toured through Vancouver recently in support of their latest LP Lost in Alphaville, and I was lucky to have a chance to sit down with helmsman Matt Sharp before the show to have a chat about the record, touring, and his collaborators over the years. I had initially compiled what I imagined might be 20 minutes worth of questions, but when his answer to an introductory ice-breaking ‘how’s the tour going?’ small talk query while we were settling in ended up being an over five minute response, I knew we were going to be there a while. I had only to prompt him occasionally for a conversation shift, and he’d take the reins. While I didn’t get through all my questions, Sharp’s open, affable and rambling demeanour revealed many an insight into his career. Read on!
Concert Addicts: So how has this tour gone so far? I know we’re only a couple days in.
Matt Sharp: We’re only a couple days in. It’s been really super fun. We played Seattle last night and San Fran the night before, and both were big surprises – the audiences were great, like great turnouts and stuff like that. Lots of enthusiasm and all that so all that stuff was exciting, and this is the first time touring with Radiation City. Lizzy [Ellison] and Patti [Craig] from Radiation City are playing with us in our show as well. They’re doing double duty, so to speak, so they’re opening the show, and then Rey Pila is playing, and then we play and they get into that, switch roles or whatever. And they are amazing, they are just like sent from heaven by Bob Moog himself or something! They’re incre- like really phenomenal. More than any other people that have played synths with us, they are so in tune with old analog synthesizers, like totally just like made for it, just geeked out on moogs, you know. They really own their worlds when we’re on stage. It’s great, I don’t mess around with whatever they’re doing. They know exactly where everything is and what they need to do and that part’s been really great, cause usually we’ve had different female vocalists over the years…
I guess it kind of started when I was in Weezer, I was really sort of obsessed with this band called that dog. at that time, who had three female vocalists and two of them were sisters and they had just such a perfect sense of harmony. I had just nothing but mad respect for them and just admiration for what they were doing and so The Rentals sort of started in some way as an excuse to work with them, an umbrella to work with different friends of mine who were doing different things that I was really interested in and really just trying to find that place where we could all be together. So that kind of started with them and over the years that’s been the case where it’s been, whether I was working with Tegan and Sara or I was working with [that dog.] or on Lost in Alphaville, our new album, with Jess [Wolfe] and Holly [Laessig] from Lucius, they’re the two women that sing on the entire album. That’s just been a crucial part of what we do and my interaction with them, and when it comes time to perform and just start touring, usually those people are, like in the case with that dog., they were out on the road they were touring with their own band. They were doing their own thing, so we never were able to really tour properly that way. So I just ended up finding like, this one over here and this one over here, we’ll put them together and see if it will work. There’s been some amazingly talented women that have been with us over the time but they’re usually from two different universes and I’m just kinda smashing them together, which is really different from the Haden sisters [from that dog.] who are on the first Rentals record ’cause they’ve been singing together since birth essentially so they’re super connected. Tegan and Sara, same thing. They didn’t record on the Rentals albums but just being around them and understanding how in tune with each other they are and how they have that understanding of not what’s right for the individual, but what’s right for them both as a single unit. They sort of complete each other or something like that, so they both have an understanding of, that isn’t where we wanna go or that is where we wanna go. And Jess and Holly are like just like that, if not moreso. They’re just so connected that they finish each others’ sentences. They know exactly when the thing isn’t who they are. We’ll be recording something and they’ll go, ‘yeah, that’s it’ in stereo together. Plus I record them at the same time so they’re facing each other when they’re recording.
But when it comes to these tours it’s never been like that, and this is the first time with Lizzy and Patti where we’re actually playing with two women who are kind of cut from that same cloth, who are just connected, they’ve been singing with each other for 8 years or whatever it’s been, so they know each other, they have pride in that thing of who they are as a single [unit], you know, what that is when they’re singing together. So.. that’s made this tour… it’s a very long answer ..every one of my answers is long… that’s what’s made this tour special, is to be with people like that. That’s one thing that’s made this tour different from other Rentals tours, that they have that sense of who they are as two women being one thing.
Concert Addicts: So that’s never been really a challenge, having all sorts of people come in over the years?
Matt Sharp: Oh no it’s weird… well, it’s more like what happens is you get these things where everybody’s learning the parts and it’s like, ‘well I have my part… do you have your part?,’ instead of what are we doing. It becomes more of an individual thing where, ‘well I know what I’m doing, I’m playing the right part, I’m singing the right harmony, whatever it is. But it’s not like that with the Haden sisters or with Tegan and Sara or with the Lucius girls or with Lizzy and Patti. It’s like they don’t think of it that way… that’s a whole lotta women! [grins]
Concert Addicts: So the opening track on Lost in Alphaville is about homecoming. Does it feel sort of more “Rentals” now with having an LP out instead of all the EPs and projects over the last 15 years?
Matt Sharp: Yeah, it’s a strange one. I feel like as far as when you’re making a record, you get into these delusional states where you’re in the midst of making them, thinking that it can bring world peace. You just get delusional and you’re like, just dream as big as you can possibly dream while working on things and before it’s actually been completed and before it’s been finalized and before you’re letting it go of it and giving it to other people, you can get to these really crazy states, just listening to it as loud as you can while you’re in the studio and you’re thinking about where this can go and all your hopes and dreams for that and whatever. And then ultimately it gets finished and you’re sharing it with people and you come back to it at some other point and then you’re like, ‘okay, we did good, but it’s not like, whatever, it’s not curing cancer or gonna get [us] a Nobel prize.’ But I think you actually think about Obama or something like talking about how the album has changed America, you know, funny stuff like that. But this record within that idea of getting to those places of just being super hopeful and about what I want out of it, it is the closest I’ve ever come on a record where you’re like, yeaaaah. I don’t know if that’s just getting better at doing things over time or whatever, but I had an understanding of, I don’t know where I’m going, I don’t know where we’re going, I don’t know where the people involved with me are going. We’re going to go find it together. But you also have this thing where even though it’s not tangible, you have this sort of general idea of where you’re gonna be at the finish line. And this is the closest I’ve been to that you know, and feeling super happy about that.
Concert Addicts: You really did sort of handpick a dream team of players to help you out on the record, some of whom you never had any kind of connection with beforehand, and everybody said yes, everybody was on board! How cool was that?
Matt Sharp: Yeah it’s cool! The album itself, I … basically did a handshake agreement with Polyvinyl who’s putting it out in the US and said, ‘I really love what you guys do,’ and what kind of music they’re associated with, the bands that are on the label and all of that kind of stuff, and they had told me they were interested in putting out whatever it was I said I was gonna do. And I said, ‘well, I wanna make another Rentals record, but it’s gonna take a minute to figure out how to get there.’ So basically we had a handshake agreement to say, okay well when we’re coming to the end, they’ll be there for me, and they were true to that. And they basically didn’t get to hear the record til it was completely finished, until we got to the mastering lab and then once we got there, they were like, ‘can we hear it now?’ They really suspended their, whatever… they took a leap of faith on it.. That part was really nice ’cause it let me go down different paths and try different things and see if I could figure it out, what this all is together. So there were numerous different approaches to things, and then finally when it came to working with Patrick [Carney of the Black Keys] or working with the Lucius girls, with Jess and Holly, those things just fell in to place pretty effortlessly.
But before this, leading up to this time, there were a million different ideas and thinking, ‘oh is this it, is that it, is this where we should be going, is that where we’re going?’ And then… I’m not like an everything-happens-for-a-reason kind of person – for some reason I really hate that phrase – but when it snaps into place, you know. Like, oh right, that’s what we’re supposed to be… The moment I met Jess and Holly… we had never met each other. They hadn’t put out their first record yet and they only had a few small things up online, but they had a bunch of live footage of them on Youtube and my friend… I must have gone down a million and a half different paths thinking about what should that – female presence is sooo important to a Rentals album – so who are those voices? And I really took it very seriously. It was almost like casting a movie or something like that and just thinking, ‘well what about this person, trying to get into that thought, and what about this person da da da. Or like what about a whole bunch, or like what about a million different women?’ All these different ideas, and by the end I was just sort of exhausted from that and a good friend of mine said… this must be after we looked at 2 or 3 hundred, 4 hundred singers or something like that… said, ‘oh yeah I forgot to mention, what about those, what about Lucius?,’ and I was just like, ‘I’ve never heard of them.’ Their album hadn’t come out but they had a couple songs, so I listened to a song and got knocked out by it. I went on Youtube and watched a live video of the song ‘Go Home’ and it just knocked me sideways. I basically just called him back like a couple minutes after he’d sent the idea to me and said, ‘I need to talk to their manager. Now.’
So I got on the phone with him, a really nice guy, and I said, ‘I have no idea what your situation is, but I really want to play them this music and see. I’m sure that they are the right voices for this album.’ And he’s like, ‘yeah, well I don’t know if they’d be interested or not ’cause I’m not even sure they know anything about you whatsoever,’ and I was like, ‘well that’s even better, in my opinion!’ So he’s like, ‘well the bad news is.. well, good news but bad news… is that their album is coming out in a week so they don’t really have any time. They’re doing all these radio station things and promotions to celebrate the release of their record,’ and I said, ‘I just wanna be in the room with them for like 30 minutes, I just wanna like sit in a room with them,’ or like enough time to play them the album, so like an hour. I said, ‘look, I’m just gonna fly to New York, and play them the album and just see what they think of it.’ So he was like, ‘okay let me bring that up to them,’ and he came back to me and said, ‘no that’s way too weird, they’re gonna feel all this pressure and what if you come here and you play the music and it’s really awful and they’re not interested in doing it and they’re sitting in a room with you?’ And I said, ‘naw, I’m a big boy. If they think it’s awful, they can just tell me.’ He goes, ‘naw I just still don’t think…’ I said, ‘well, I’m coming anyways, so I’m gonna get on the plane, I’m gonna go anyways.’ And this is like the day after I’d heard them for the first time. When you know something’s right, it’s right. So I basically just said, ‘just tell them I’m gonna be in New York, I’ll be there anyways, and if they don’t wanna do the album then I’ll stay in New York until I find somebody that does.’ I was there 24 hours later and they came up to my friend’s studio and we just sat in this little closet and I had my laptop and I played them the album. From the second I met them, there was just instant chemistry, and I just adore them and we just got on so effortlessly. The next day we started recording, we did half of a day and they’re like, ‘well we don’t have any time available for two weeks, but we only have a half a day available in two weeks from now.’ So I waited in New York for two weeks to work with them for another half a day, flew home, and then came back a couple months later and did another day with them. So we did all their stuff in two days.
Concert Addicts: Wow!
Matt Sharp: Yeah, it’s pretty crazy. Yeah, they’re crazy. And just insanely fun to work with. So I got really very lucky, but it’s one of those things where just, if it feels right, it feels right and I think what you’re picking up on when you hear that, when you hear somebody’s voice, it isn’t necessarily just the quality of their voice or the power that they have or how well they sing in tune or that kind of stuff. You hear their personality and you get a sense that you know something about them just from the way that they sound together. So I just had a sense of them right away. I listened to enough people leading up to that point where I was just like, yeah this is it.
Concert Addicts: You kind of did that with everyone too right, you kind of popped around everywhere to record.You did bits of it in various places.
Matt Sharp: We recorded the vocals in New York for Jess and Holly, and we recorded Patrick’s drums in Nashvile in the studio where they did all the early Black Keys stuff in a friend of theirs’ studio. Definitely not the poshest studio in the world, very low key. The situation with him was very similar that when it came time to actually speak to him about doing it, we’d never met each other, and when we finally did get a chance to speak, he was like, ‘yeah, get on a plane tomorrow.’ And so it was one of those same things where you’re like, where am I? All of a sudden the next day you’re in his Nashville home and two seconds later from that you’re in a studio recording together and it was cool. I think the record took some time but it has these very explosive moments in it with people going, ‘yeah okay let’s do it!’ Some of the energy in the record is just from that, just from the immediacy of not knowing that person and like, let’s go, where are we going? I’ve never been there. I don’t care, let’s go. Which way are we going? We’re going that way! Okay! So that’s really cool, with both of them it was like that. It was just really interesting. Next thing you know you’re in a studio in Nashville, what do you think of this? Boom BAP boom BAP boom boom boom… yeeeah all right, here we go! So hopefully it has some life from that.
Concert Addicts: Yeah it’s cool that you went and fit music to the people rather than the other way around.
Matt Sharp: It was a very backwards way of working for sure. It was definitely not like anything I’d done before. The only thing that I’d been a part of that’s similar, and maybe it was influenced by, was Tegan and Sara did a record called The Con with Chris Walla, he produced it. They recorded that record in a very, very backwards way. And at the time Sara and I were very close and she said, ‘hey I want you to be a part of this album.’ She sent me some early recordings of it and there were tons of really cool interesting keyboard parts that her and Tegan had done and, well, I played a little bit of keyboards on So Jealous before that, and I was like, ‘well I don’t really hear anything in this, like I don’t know what I can actually even contribute to your record.’ She goes, ‘I don’t care, I want you to be a part of it. I don’t care what you do honestly, but maybe you can come up and play bass on my songs.’ I was like, ‘yeah okay…’ I was going through some shit. I didn’t really feel like recording, but she was like a sister to me, is like a sister to me in many ways, sort of like a younger, wiser sister, and she’s like, ‘just get up here.’ And she talked me into that. Next thing I know, I was up there recording with them and she goes well, ‘one thing, we wanna do the bass second to last, we wanna do the bass before the drums.’ And I’m like, ‘that’s insane,’ right? They were doing everything backwards. They were building off of some music that they had already worked on a lot and then they were sort of filling it in, sort of painting the picture and changing it as they needed to. They’d already had all the music sort of done from their recording in their bedrooms on their laptops and that kind of stuff, and then kind of building it out with getting the Death Cab [For Cutie] guys playing drums and doing whatever. I sort of said, ‘okay I’m coming up but I’m not playing bass before the drums because… what the hell is the beat? You know, what am I playing to?’ But really, that’s how they were trying to do it, in that reverse process.
And this album was a whole lot like that. Especially the drums were the second to last thing to go on the record. Yeah, they were at the very end, which is real strange. And [Patrick] definitely changed the tone of the album, the approach of the album, the aggressiveness of it. It was definitely more of an electronic record before he came on board, with these sort of old vintage drum machines instead of real drums. And then he just came in and brought a lot of that stuff that just reminded me of something that seemed crucial to what Rentals records should be. I had only asked him to play on four songs and the rest of the record was all electronic, and after the first night we recorded, he was like, ‘wow that really went well and I can tell this is the right thing that we’re doing. Just do me one favour.’ I was like, ‘what’s that?’ He’s like, ‘tell me, for the love of God, I’m not gonna walk into a record store, buy the new Rentals album, and it’s gonna be fucking drum machines.’ I was like, ‘…okay, well, if that’s how you feel about it, we’re gonna have to do the whole thing!’ And that’s how it ended up being him doing the whole album. He’s been very generous and kind about his thoughts on the first Rentals album and what that meant to him when he was starting to make music, so he has an opinion of how things should be or how they should sound.
Concert Addicts: So all doing all this one on one with people and in different cities and everything, did you ever kind of get this feeling in your head like maybe this was just going to be a huge disaster and nothing would end up meshing in the end, or was it all just feeling right the whole way through?
Matt Sharp: No, I don’t think I ever felt that way, ’cause I’m a patient person. As we were going, there was a whole lot of things where there were tiny steps but it was like, yeah it’s getting a little better, we’re getting a little closer. And then there would be these big explosive steps and BOOM, Patrick, where it’s like it just sounds like the whole thing has just turned on its head a little bit. Then just takes on another life like, oh shit, that’s what we want, that’s great. And definitely Jess and Holly were very much like that. But all the other parts it’s like, mmm yeah we’re just figuring this out little bit by little bit and I really felt like I wanted to be able to tell this story a certain way. It’s important to me because I just came out of this big art project where I was working with all these different filmmakers and editors and photographers and different musicians from different countries and doing all this stuff where we were creating much more prolific sort of output, where we were just going and going and going and going trying to do something every day, where every day you’re creating something and you’re putting something out and every week you’re making, you know, we made 52 short films in a year and scored them, did all these things. The idea was that it comes from a different mindset, a different creative mindset how there are certain artists that create that way and go, I’m just gonna leave the engine on and let it just go full throttle and then I’m gonna spew out tons of bad music, good music, good art, bad art, good pictures, bad pictures, and you can sort through it. And within there, you’re gonna find some real treasures, would be the thought of those types of artists. Whomever they are, you know, there’s a million examples of that. Picasso or whoever it is, like I just paint every day! I paint and I paint and I paint and I paint, or Andy Warhol, I paint and I paint and I paint and I paint and I paint and eventually you’re gonna run into one of these cool Marilyn Monroe paintings. But then there’s gonna be a whole lot of soup cans that are good and a whole lot of soup cans that aren’t so good and millions of pictures of shoes, whatever. Spit it out spit it out spit it out spit it out spit it out spit it out. And Prince is like that and Bob Dylan was like that very much so, especially in the ’60s, early ’70s. There can be tons and tons and tons of filler but then you find these little beautiful things that couldn’t have been made any other way. So I worked on a project that was like that, that was like let’s just go and at the end of it, like in the process, it was like a really fun process, but I also realized that it makes it much, much harder on the audience you’re hoping to reach to find those great moments. And if you’re someone that, your audiences grow up with you and they understand you as somebody who does that, then they’re willing to do it. There’s people that are just willing to dig through , whatever, a million live Bob Dylan bootlegs til they actually find one that has this beautiful version of Visions of Johanna on it or something like that. And then they fricking love that thing, they’re just like, ‘I got it! It’s a great moment, it’s a great moment that nobody else knows about, yeah! I’ve got it!’ But at the end of it, I felt like though it was a really satisfying process to be in because you’re creating constantly, I felt like it, also that I was sort of skirting my own responsibilities of like, this is what I want you to listen to, this is the story I’m trying to tell, this is the best way that I can tell you the story. I’m really proud of it and I want you to listen to these ten songs or whatever it is. And you focused on that instead of making you dig through all the garbage to find those moments.
Concert Addicts: On a semi-related note did you ever get to see any of the pictures from the undeveloped rolls of Songs About Time [Photographs About Days]? Did anyone ever send you anything?
Matt Sharp: We had a website that ran for a couple years. It was just a private site for those people. A very low percentage of the people actually posted on it, maybe like 35, 40 of them did? So I got to see a percentage of them. We didn’t sell through them all [365 limited release box sets included one undeveloped roll of film along with the music] and they were quite expensive and I started to worry because the film that we were using had been out of print for a couple years before the project started. Fuji gave me all the film, so it was really nice but the film was already a couple years old when I started shooting it and then it was like a couple years for this last group of ones that didn’t sell. I ended up taking them all and opening up a ton of them and yeah, it was a trip. And they had started to damage from that couple years. It was really super high speed stuff and it didn’t hold up very well in heat and this and that. The place that they were being sold out of wasn’t regulated so it was like hot cold hot cold hot cold hot cold over a couple years and they just had faded and and didn’t have great …I mean some of them worked, some of them looked good but didn’t have great contrast and stuff like that, less warm, super milky and I guess that’s just from time. It was cool anyhow.