EDITOR’S NOTE: The Rentals play Union Transfer tonight in support of their fuggin’ excellent new album, Lost In Alphaville. The Rentals are for all intents and purposes the creative vehicle for ex-Weezer bassist Matt Sharp and a revolving cast of supporting players. This time out that cast includes Patrick Carney from the Black Keys on drums and the lovely ladies from Lucius laying down betwitching backing vocals. A couple weeks ago we got Matt Sharp on the phone to talk about the band and the new album. We wound up talking at length about Bangkok, where he was born, his secret agent man dad, and how impossible it is to nail down the Black Keys drummer. For the sake of expediency, we’ll let this snippet of Pitchfork’s astute review of Lost In Alphaville, which sums up neatly all the back story and power dynamics at play in the Rentals saga. To wit:
Rock bands inevitably get old and start to suck, but Weezer are an exceptional case of this. It’s not as if, since resurfacing from their post-Pinkerton hiatus back in 2001, they gradually turned into a less interesting, more pedestrian version of their younger selves (a la the Rolling Stones). They’ve intentionally become a total, aggressive affront to them, as if their entire post-millennial career has been one extended, James Franco-worthy performance-art stunt in baiting anyone whoever took them seriously. It’s hard to think of another band that has so eagerly created such a chasm between what they first presented themselves to be (in Weezer’s case, a Pavement that could sell records) and what they turned out to be (a Smash Mouth that sold even more). And that cognitive dissonance is weighing on the hearts and minds of old-school fans all the more heavily this year, as we celebrate the 20th anniversary of The Blue Album while bracing for the next inevitably disappointing chapter in the history of a band that long ago stopped writing great songs in favor of writing dumb songs about writing great songs. It may be a complete coincidence that Matt Sharp is dropping his first proper Rentals album in 15 years smack dab in the middle of this fray, but it’s a welcome thrown-bone nonetheless for those who were first drawn to Weezer for their winsome underdog charm (which got pissed away forevermore sometime during the first talkbox solo on “Beverly Hills”). It’s hard to say if Sharp was solely responsible for the enduring greatness of Weezer’s first two albums (though he has taken the band to court to essentially prove as much), but it’s no exaggeration to suggest they were never the same after he left in ’98. MORE
PHAWKER: Going all the way back to the beginning—you were born in Bangkok. What did your parents do that you wound up being born in Bangkok?
MATT SHARP: What my father did that took us there was really funny ‘cause people seem to think he was some kind of double agent/undercover C.I.A./James Bond-like guy. But, he was just over there during the Vietnam War and he was interviewing insurgents in the the prisons and basically just trying to find out why they’re doing what they do.
PHAWKER: Hmmm, that sure sounds pretty CIA. What agency did he work for? Or don’t you want to tell me?
MATT SHARP: I can’t, uh, no I can’t tell you specifically. I really don’t understand the inner workings of it at all. I was only there for a year. My family was there for four years and essentially, like, we went from living in the most exotic place on earth to moving to the most un-exotic place on earth which was Arlington, Virginia, which is where we moved when I was one years old. I got a chance to go back to, Thailand. It was one of the last shows that I had played with Weezer actually and it was an incredible experience to just go back to Bangkok. The touring company we were with at the time, from what I could tell, seemed to be interlinked with the mafia of some sort. Whenever we went people were terrified of the company we were keeping. I think they actually represented Bangkok in a way ‘cause it feels like there’s just such a dark and corrupt underbelly to [laughing] the city of my birth. I remember they escorted us off the plane and right through customs and security checkpoints where the guards had M-16s and nobody said a word. When we got out of the airport and there was a reporter there who had the big light on the camera and the first thing they did was put the camera on me and say ‘How does it feel to be home?’
PHAWKER: Let’s talk about the new record, why is it called Lost in Alphaville? It’s a reference to the Godard’s sci-fi dystopia, correct?
MATT SHARP: Not really, but I know that movie quite well and it would make sense that it should. The tone of that movie and the tone of the album, they both have a sort of moodier science-fiction aspect. In line with that sort of dystopian kind of future that’s sort of in that scene. So it makes sense. It’s more to do with just reflecting on a relationship I had with somebody and just sort of being lost in that place where it all began, you know? Before I recorded a note, I knew what the title of the album was, I knew what the order of the songs would be, knew what the artwork for the album would be and did that before we started recording anything.
PHAWKER: Let’s talk about some of the guest musicians on the album. Let’s start with Pat Carney from the Black Keys who plays great drums on the album. How does that come about? How or why is Pat Carney the drummer on The Rentals?
MATT SHARP: Many years earlier, Carney had asked his manager if he could get in touch with my manager and then if we could get in touch with each other. I, at that point, had barely even heard of The Black Keys, you know? They were just coming up and starting to play bigger and bigger places, I guess more well known but I didn’t know much about them particularly. This is probably all the way back to 2005 or 2006 or something like that? Quite a few years ago and my manager said “Hey, this guy from this band The Black Keys wants to talk to you about something is it cool if I give him your information?” and I said “Yeah, sure” you know and I found some of their music and listened to it for a second and moments later got just a brief e-mail later from Carney saying a few nice things about The Return of the Rentals. How maybe that, I think it sparked his interest in the whole synthesizers thing and all that which was sort of surprising because they’re such a blues-based Americana band and wrote some very nice things and so at the very end of it he said “But I have this idea of how we could—of this band I would like for us to work on together. I don’t know if you’d be interested.” So I wrote back “Thanks for those nice words and yeah what’s this idea? Why don’t you tell me about it?” and then he just disappeared and didn’t reply back. So I wrote to him again “Hey you know whatever let’s try to check in. Never heard back from you thought I’d hear what you were thinking about on that idea” and I still never heard back but he never wrote back. The Black Keys came to Las Angeles a couple times here and there so I wrote back to him again “Hey I heard you’re in town, maybe we could get a cup of coffee, talk about that idea” and nothing back. By that point I was like I was actually like “Eff that guy.” Years later he wrote to me and was like “Hey, by the way, I still haven’t forgot about that idea and I look forward to talking about it.” Then I wrote back, a very brief pitch because of the situation before, like “Cool, what are you thinking?” you know and, once again, nothing. So, years and years and years went by and here I am working on my album Lost in Alphaville kind of up against a wall, I can’t figure out how to make a couple of these sounds work and I figure “Oh, what the hell. I’ll write him and see if by some chance he’ll be interested on working on this.” So I wrote to him, something just very brief “Hey I don’t know if this would be of any interest to you but since you never told me what the hell this idea was, I have an idea for you playing drums on the new Rentals album.” He wrote back, you know, like a minute later “Absolutely, let’s do it. Get here, get on a plane, let’s go. Come to Nashville, let’s do it now, let’s do it this week. Let’s do it tomorrow, whatever.” The next thing I know I’m in Nashville standing in his home. We’ve never known each other, and two seconds later we’re in the studio recording together. It kind of changed, you know, like that and then I brought those ideas we were working on together back to LA and tried to figure out how they fit into this whole insanely layered album that we were working on, called him up a little while later like “Hey, I got good news and bad news. Which one do you want to hear first?” The good news was that the stuff that we had done together sounded amazing, you know, and the bad news is that it made everything else sound like shit. He really changed the direction of the album and he really just helped just, like, take the car and turn it in a different direction.
PHAWKER: And what about Jess and Holly from Lucius? How do they get into the picture? They sound fantastic on the record, they’re such interesting women and great singers, etc, etc. Tell me how you started collaborating with them.
MATT SHARP: This is probably is a good place to wrap up the thing because they were literally the last part of the album. Officially with this record the sort of guiding principle that I had that I’m going to try to bring us to a place that I want us to go and if we can’t get there, no matter how far we’ve gone down the road, then we’ll just stop. We just won’t release it. So if I can’t get Lost in Alphaville in this place where it belonged, if I don’t respect it that way then it just won’t be. So, by the time Jess and Holly came to be a part of the album the album was essentially done in every way. All the music was basically, the whole album was right there on the very line of being done. My only feeling was I wanted the exact right female voices for the album to make it feel complete. The role of the female singers is really a crucial thing and it’s a really odd thing in the sense that the women that sang on the Rentals records of the past. This thing is it’s not an insignificant contribution, it’s a very significant part of the album and it’s not really a backup role, they’re not singing backup vocals but at the same time they’re not singing the lead part either. They have to be women who have the confidence to be able to contribute as a major part of the album yet still kind of fit in with it. Honestly, Lucius is maybe my favorite album of the last…long time. I couldn’t be a bigger fan of their band and especially their voices and being in the studio with them was one of the best experiences of my life because I was just discovering this new thing I was completely swept up in and inspired by. Those two women just knocked my head off.
PHAWKER: Well, congratulations on the album, it’s awesome, looking forward to seeing you guys when you get to town and good luck with all this.
MATT SHARP: Awesome, I really appreciate it. This album is such an important thing to me and to everybody that played on it and I just want to be able to share it with as many people as possible and I really appreciate you taking the time to help us do that, it means a lot to me.
THE RENTALS & MATES OF STATES PLAYS UNION TRANSFER TONIGHT