The year was 1992, and Matthew Sweet was enjoying a first rush of success. Months earlier, in the fall of ’91, Sweet had released his third album, Girlfriend, which would eventually be considered his most popular work, eventually reaching platinum status. Singles “Divine Intervention” and the album’s title track were mainstays of alternative radio, and Sweet found himself in demand across the U.S. by both press and audiences. They were heady days.
Which was roughly when Sweet’s career started to get a bit out of control. A grueling tour in support of Girlfriend was followed by an immediate return to the studio to record a follow-up. Absent were the straight-ahead anthems of love and loss that populated Girlfriend. In their place was a stranger batch of songs, a mixed bag of edgier hard rock and twisted but gentle balladry. Songs like “Dinosaur Act” and the agoraphobic “Knowing People” fumed with malice, while tracks like “Evergreen” and “Someone to Pull the Trigger” were tuneful numbers that belied an obsession with death.
Nothing matched Girlfriend‘s commercial success, and critical reviews of the album at the time were mixed. Yet Altered Beast remains one of Matthew Sweet’s most interesting and engaging albums, very much tied into the new world in which he found himself after his big break. Sweet spoke with Wondering Sound about Altered Beast and the culture from which it emerged, including the bizarre monologue from the controversial 1979 film Caligula that separates the album’s two halves.
What sort of headspace were you in when you finished touring Girlfriend? I imagine you were exhausted. And I understand you pretty much went right in to record Altered Beast.
I was really burned out, but there was also this excitement because I knew I could record more, so it was this weird mixture. I think [the Girlfriend experience] just brought out a lot of weird feelings in me — spending a whole year where it was just so “me, me, me” the whole time. It’s interesting to me now, when I think about making Altered Beast, I really feel like it was the most split my personality ever was. I was dealing with this dark, weird side of me that came out under pressure, and it just felt separate from a normal, nice me. I almost started to think of it like the evil one and the good one.
What do you mean by “the evil one?” What emotions were present for you at that time?
I think a sort of anger, frustration. I was more, I hate to use the word, misogynistic than I would be normally. So it was the side of me that’s lust and anger and frustration and sarcasm, and then the other side, which I just felt was separate, where I might be loving and melancholy and those kinds of things.
Did you feel pressure to follow up Girlfriend?
I didn’t really. They [the label] were sort of letting me do whatever I wanted. They were coming over and liking stuff they heard, because I was recording right near the label [in California]. We recorded a ton of material. But I didn’t feel a lot of pressure about it. It was only when it started getting released that I realized it was being thought of as not as good as Girlfriend, and also kind of weird. I’m really glad I did it, because the other thing I would have done was to try to follow up Girlfriend with a record a lot like Girlfriend, and while that may have been more successful for me at the time, I really wanted to be a real artist who expressed things that were beyond just a radio song. So I’m glad I didn’t [worry about expectations] and I just went in and did whatever I felt.
Did the Girlfriend experience make you feel like you needed to almost wall yourself off, like in a self-protective way?
A little bit. The thing is, we still had enough momentum from Girlfriend. I went right back out and started touring again. When I went out touring for Altered Beast, I was having a lot of emotional problems. I was having real bad panic attacks, almost nervous breakdowns. I know now, many, many, many, many years later, that I suffer from bipolar disorder. My mother was very, very bipolar, but it was never treated. And she’s still alive. So I came from a family with a lot of that going on — a lot of depression and bipolar disorder. So I think a lot of that was that coming out from not [getting] enough sleep and [having] an overloaded brain, just trying to do everything I was supposed to do every day. I had never worked that hard as a musician. I never worked as hard in my life. There was a lot of demand, and I never like to say no…One of the catalysts for me really having these breakdowns was a lot of flying. I just developed this really severe fear of flying, where it crippled me two weeks before I was going to fly; I was already unable to focus.
How much, if any, self-doubt was there when you were writing the Altered Beast songs?
A huge amount. I think I always had a huge amount of self-doubt, to the point where I didn’t feel like I ever could contextualize myself with those artists who were popular during the time alt-rock became mainstream. When I was that young, if I heard other stuff, it just seemed so great to me that I felt really small. Everything sounded better to me than my music. So, in a way, I tried to not think of anything else and be in my own world. Now I’m just more normal. I don’t have the feelings of dreading stuff or just awkwardness as much, so I can take in more of the world.
Do you feel that people misunderstood Altered Beast?
The problem in answering that is I don’t know how well I understood the record. I felt like it was pregnant with a lot of stuff and that if someone was a big fan, they’d probably get a lot out of it.
Finally, I have to ask about the Caligula sample that arrives in the middle of the record.
It’s so odd isn’t it? I don’t know if they tried to talk me out of it or not. I just don’t think anyone really got it. The Caligula thing, to be honest, goes back to Fleetwood Mac. Dashut [Richard Dashut, Altered Beast's producer] and Mick Fleetwood, when they were in the studio, probably doing all their unbelievable masterpieces, would do these pantomimes, and they would use the Caligula voice and make demands. They would have fake swordfights, and Fleetwood would crumple down and die on the floor from being stabbed, and it was just this really funny thing. Dashut was doing it kind of with me, and Mick eventually came and played drums on a couple things, so then they were doing it together, which was just amazing to watch…So I just got it in my head that we should use a sound bite from it. And we did. He declares himself a god. It’s this distastefulness about the idea of stardom, and I just wanted to put a pin in it and let the air out, by showing fame gone mad, or power gone mad.