We speak to Matt Sharp of The Rentals (and formerly Weezer) about The Rentals' long-awaited third album "Lost In Alphaville" (out now via Polyvinyl Records), his admiration for the female voice, and working with Britpop's finest.
Back in 1994 you were a big part of Weezer - what drove you to form The Rentals?
Well I guess at this time of doing a lot of interviews you have no choice but to be a bit reflective, answering all these questions about these different times, and I guess when it comes to the beginning of The Rentals I see some patterns that were with me then, and are with me now. Like through lines going through The Rentals and the music we’ve made. One of those things is my feelings about Jess and Holly, who are the female vocalists on the new album, and just my passion for them and what they do, and what they do in their own band, and the way their voices make me feel - all those things I’m passionate about - and when I start to turn back the clock, that’s essentially how I felt about the Haden sisters in 1992. The Haden sisters, Petra and Rachel Haden, were in a band called That Dog, and they were the only group that Weezer really connected with, and especially that I connected with, when Weezer was coming up. They were one of the only bands in Los Angeles at that time that I had that feeling for - a deep admiration for them musically - and their voices. So, in some ways The Rentals were born out of a desire to work with them. I wanted to do something where we could be in a room together and create something together.
How would you describe The Rentals to anyone unlucky enough to have missed out on them so far?
Probably the worst person in the world to describe music is the band themselves. Or, to have any kind of sound judgement on anything to do with them. The Rentals were born out of the desire to collaborate with others. It’s never been about just me, or what I’m looking for, it’s about working with each other and trying to figure out where we’re going together. More than anything else I’ve been involved with, certainly more than Weezer, it’s not a traditional group so every time we’re going to do something creatively I look at what I’m inspired by at that time, like we were talking about That Dog just now, or recently with Jess and Holly of Lucius, or like in 99 wanting to be in London, wanting to connect with the artists at the time that I admired, like Damon and the other folks that contributed to Seven More Minutes. It gives you the freedom to connect with artists you’re inspired by. it has a lot of that spirit in it and it’s not restricted to just being with those people time and time again. Essentially I can look at it and ask who’s doing things right now relevant or inspiring, who puts me in the place where I’m challenged to make better music. To get in a room with those people and find ourselves in a place we’ve never been before.
Your smart suit and spectacles look became much imitated on both sides of the Atlantic, providing an alternative to the other fashions that indie kids were adopting at that time. What inspired the look and style of The Rentals in 94-95?
The person I worked most with on Return Of The Rentals was a guy called Tom Grimley who produced a lot of the coolest music that was being made in Los Angeles at that time. He worked on the That Dog record, a lot of the cool things Beck was doing at the time, and a lot of the noisy L.A. garage kind of things that were happening, and he had this little nasty studio called Poop Alley, I mean nasty in the best way, which was attached to a car garage that shared a common window. So, it would get full of petrol fumes and you’d get light headed if stayed in there too long. You could hear the sounds of car lifts and drills - the gasoline wafting in. We were creating in that environment and we had to play loud enough to get over that sound and that smell, and that’s where Return of The Rentals was made, and maybe we smelled too many petrol fumes, but we had this thought when we were finishing up production on this album, of coming up with this story that The Rentals were this band from Czechoslovakia that were formed in the late 70s. That we had been put in prison during the fall of Communism, and we’d been locked away for all this time, and finally when we were released, we came out with this album. That was literally our press release that we had Warner Brothers putting out and it just confused the shit out of everybody. It just made us laugh. The Friends of P video was based on that thought, how would those people have dressed and whatever, and was just done in the crappy apartment I had at the time, using a Vietnam era camera that our guitar player had and old 16mm film. The video cost nothing, like 500 dollars at the most. One of the girls in the group, Cherielynn, went out to a thrift store and bought us all these glasses, handfuls of senior citizen glasses, and they all had these awful prescriptions of bifocals - everybody was getting migraines - and those images were what we used for the artwork on the album. The thought of that being influential in any way is hysterical [laughs]. I don’t know if there’s any truth in that. If it is that’s a pretty ridiculous thought.
You’re often credited with initiating the Moog synthesiser’s comeback. What attracted you to working with analogue synthesisers, when so many others were making guitar music or digital music?
Well the main thing was that studio we were talking about, called Poop Alley, had two synthesisers in the studio. They had a Moog Source and a Moog Opus-3, Tom had those two synthesisers and I remember the Source functioning relatively well and the Opus-3 was a little hit or miss. There were bands at that time in Los Angeles using those synthesisers but they weren’t doing anything remotely commercial with them. They were used as noise, avant-garde, abstract, crazy sounds, and the one thing we were doing was using them in a melodic way, as the lead in a group and have them up front. I think it also had to do with the type of music that Tom and I listened to and the things we were interested in.
The Rentals’ debut album, “Return Of The Rentals” is often cited by UK artists as a key album of the mid nineties. Do you think you inadvertently gave the Britpop scene a new set of elements to integrate into its own later period?
I never heard that before in my life, I wouldn’t know who you were referring to. It’s kind of interesting that on Return of The Rentals, because i was juggling being in Rentals with being in Weezer, it was literally a case of being in the studio with Weezer, going out on the road with them, being in the studio with Rentals, going back out on the road with Weezer, back in the studio with Weezer, back on the road with rentals. That kind of thing just back and forth. So, when Return of The Rentals came out we didn't have very much of a window, so we didn’t do very much touring on our own, where it was our audience exclusively. We were usually opening for other bands, Like Blur or The Red Hot Chili Peppers. We’d be playing these arena shows and you’d have no idea if you were connecting with your audience or not at those things. You can appreciate the people that you meet on the street and say ‘hey thank you for making this’ and whatever, but you don’t really get a sense of whether you’re connecting or not. I don’t know if we ever got that sense in the UK of whether those records were hitting home at all. But that’s good news to me.
Damon Albarn of Blur, as well as members of Ash, Elastica and Lush all contributed to The Rentals’ second album “Seven More Minutes”. How did it come about that you ended up writing the album with a Spanish theme and recording it in London with so many British artists?
It’s very similar to the way that we approached the first record and the most recent album. With Seven More minutes it was just wanting to be in a room with the people I was inspired by and the people I admired. I have nothing but admiration for Damon, and that goes from that time to now, and with the other people that are on that album as well. The chance to be in a room with Miki and listen to her voice on those songs, and be with those people, that for me is what makes The Rentals special. To not be restricted by these other four guys that I went to high school with, or grew up with, locked into each other death till us do part. The coolest part about The Rentals to me is that I can just ask myself what am I listing to, who am I inspired by, who wants to make me get up in the morning, who makes me want to roll down the windows in my car, live a better life, have the wind blowing through my hair - and reach out to those people and see if they’re interested in doing something together, and kicking off a little dust. That’s certainly what we did with Seven More Minutes. I really had no plan of how we were going to collaborate or who we were going to collaborate with, but at the time I was spending a lot of time in Barcelona, I was really inspired by the girl that I was in love with at the time. I was really inspired by the city and the friends that I had there and the people that were surrounding me. Most of the people I had had around me were wallowing in their own misery - and here the people I met were on the other end of the spectrum. They barely had a sense of their name and were celebrating where they were at and inviting me into their home, into their kitchens, into their discos, and I was very moved by that. We had talked about trying to make the album in Spain and recording in Barcelona but I realised with my connection to the city and my pentiant for wanting to be in discos till 7am, that I would probably get nothing done, and we looked into all the translators we’d need, and all the artists I wanted to be connecting with were all going to need to be flown in, so it was easier to do it in the UK and the people I wanted to engineer the album were there, people that had worked on the My Bloody Valentine albums or Stereolab albums - those were the kind of engineers and technical people we were working with. Being able to be there and phone up friends that were making albums, whether it was Blur, or Lush, or Elastica or whomever, if they happened to be in the studio next door and popped their heads in like ‘what are you doing?’, ‘I’m doing this’, ‘Oh I hadn’t thought of that’, having that freedom - for me that’s the best part - when The Rentals are at their best it’s because of that freedom. For me the desire for The Rentals is to never get caught trying to do something we’ve done before. I don’t have much reverence for anything we’ve done. I don’t want to go back to try and recapture anything. I honestly want to be in those places like we were in Seven More minutes thinking ‘I’ve never been here’ and ‘I don’t know where we’re going’, and that’s where we found ourselves on the new album for sure, and that’s where we were back in London.
Blur also notably covered your song “Friends of P.” If you could have any artist, living or dead, cover one of your songs who would it be?
Living or dead - well that brings it down to just a couple of people [laughs]. For me, honestly, if I could have a different life, the thing I’most like to be would be a woman with an amazing voice. My deepest jealousies are when I hear a great female singer who emotes in a way I could never emote. On the first Rentals tour we did a tiny run of a week's worth of shows around Björk’s tour just so I could follow her. We were playing late shows so I could and watch her in the early part of the evening, around the time she had Hyperballad out. She was able to belt the living shit out of those songs and be guttural, sexual and amazing - that thing she can do live. I’ve always been blown away by female vocalists whether it be her or Ella Fitzgerald, they can be super expressive with their voices. I’ve always had that profound jealousy for that, why can’t I sing that way, why can’t I be at the top of the mountain letting the world know this is how I feel as an impassioned woman. Not enough to get surgery - but enough to feel that thing, and I’ve felt that way with all the women that have contributed vocals to The Rentals' albums. I have such deep admiration for them. I listened to the Lucius album ‘Wildewoman’ and there are certain songs on there, I’ll be going for a jog listening to it on my headphones, and I’ll be singing it to the other joggers, wishing to be them, and that was an amazing part of recording with them, having that passion for their voices and the thing that they can create. Being in a studio just a couple of feet away from them and hearing that sound actually being put on these songs had that feeling - like the question you’re asking me. It kind of happened on this album. I heard Lucius only days before we started recording together and when I heard them it was one of those things, when you discover something and it becomes the most important thing to your world, to your universe - everything else kind of falls away. I found myself in a very small studio room with them and listening to them actually sing these songs was just an incredible experience. It’s a reoccurring theme with The Rentals being able to be there with these women and just do things in a way you’ve never done before, the three of us there making a Rentals album thinking ‘wow, never been here before’, going forward not looking back.
Fifteen years on from the last full length album you’re back with “Lost In Alphaville”. If you had to say this album had an overall theme, what would it be?
This record is very thematic. I wouldn’t call it a concept album in the way that some heavy metal albums are, it’s not Rush 2112 where the guy finds a guitar or whatever, but there’s definitely a big dichotomy in this record, which is musically it’s all looking forward with musicians that are thinking about the future, but lyrically it’s certainly a very reflective record and it comes from a different place. Those two things are working against each other and fighting with each other, the push and pull of future and past. There is a sense of a Murakami book called Norwegian Wood, and the very first thing in that is a man returning to the place of his childhood and his teenage years. The plane is landing and the guy is thinking back on the first big love of his life and reflecting on that, being in a relationship with a very troubled woman and going back over those times and going through that. Who he was as that person then. Where he’s been in the meanwhile. Where he’s going - and there’s a lot of that feeling in in this album.
"Lost In Alphaville" was recorded in Los Angeles, Nashville and New York City. Appearing alongside Matt Sharp Matt Sharp on the album are: Jess Wolfe & Holly Laessig (Lucius), Ryen Slegr (Ozma), Lauren Chipman (The Section Quartet) and Patrick Carney (The Black Keys). The album is produced by Matt Sharp & The Rentals and has been mixed by D. Sardy (LCD Soundsystem, Jay-Z.)
Find out more at www.therentals.com