Pop stylist Matthew Sweet didn’t write songs at the outset of coronavirus and lockdown, he spent hours partaking in doomscrolling, combing televised and online bulletins for increasingly darker topics to be upset about.
“I’ve really watched a lot of news over the last year, and between the pandemic and politics, it’s been really stressful,” says the Omaha-based artist. “So I don’t know how I would have felt about doing a bunch of new music in 2020. Who wants to hear more doom when the doom is still upon us?”
But Sweet, 56, already had finished recording his 13th album, an ebullient chimer called “Catspaw,” just as COVID-19 struck, and it’s finally being released Jan. 15 on Omnivore. The cover art features a yawning black feline, inspired by a classic “Star Trek” episode of the same name, in which Capt. Kirk is terrorized by a giant tabby.
The feline theme is a recurring one, he admits.
“I’ve had cats around the house forever, and I have three right now — a brother and sister who are 3 years old that we got from a Nebraska rescue, and one older girl who’s about 13 or 14,” he says.
“Now with the pandemic, I haven’t left town and I’m always here, so they think that my wife and I are cats now. But it’s fun to make them happy.”
Sweet was such a fan of the Gene Roddenberry sci-fi TV series, he researched vintage installments like “Catspaw” to discover how they built miniature rooms and hallways for the predator to prowl through. He even was planning to contact CBS to acquire a still of the original cat until Omnivore found a suitable stock-photo replacement.
“If you catch any of my three cats in a yawn, they always look ferocious. They’ve got some really happening fangs,” he adds.
Cats dominate Sweet’s parallel pursuit in sculpture, as well. It started a few years ago when his wife Lisa impulsively bought a potter’s wheel, then lost interest. Without lessons, he commandeered it and began making his own ceramics, eventually settling on the one thing he sculpted best — tribal-looking cats of all sizes, which he hand-fired in a garage-situated kiln.
Then, when he was planning his Kickstarter funding campaign for 2017’s album “Tomorrow Forever” and its 2018 follow-up “Tomorrow’s Daughter,” he began bronzing the pieces to be offered as fan incentives. Within a month, he’d exceeded his $32,000 goal by 75%, courtesy of fewer than 800 donors.
“Now, all I’ve done since is sell bronze cats,” says the Jack of all trades, who markets the figurines via an Etsy site.
His ceramic visions are morphed metallic by noted Omaha artist Les Bruning, whom he met when he returned to Nebraska seven years ago, and he often sits in on the forging process.
“I don’t know how to do the bronzing myself,” he says. “But I go down there sometimes when they’re making a batch of my stuff, and it’s super-cool. I love hanging around other kinds of artists, because we always get along really well. We’re all like big kids who still get excited about making stuff.”
The singer first caught that bug as a Lincoln, Neb. teen, when he started home-recording songs. He relocated to then-red-hot Athens, Ga., where he formed a pre-R.E.M. duo called Community Trolls with Michael Stipe, then joined other early alt-rock outfits like Oh-OK and The Buzz of Delight.
By 1986, he signed with Columbia and issued his first solo disc “Inside,” but it wasn’t until 1991’s power-pop collection “Girlfriend” that he broke through onto radio and MTV playlists.
Along the way, he formed a band called the Thorns with Shawn Mullins and Pete Droge; recorded three “Under the Covers” outings with Susanna Hoffs, interpreting retro standards; and saw “Girlfriend” expanded to a stage production by the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. He also appeared as bassist Sid Belvedere in Mike Myers’ “Austin Powers” backing band, Ming Tea, alongside Hoffs as guitarist Gillian Shagwell.
With “Catspaw,” Sweet switched to guitar, playing lead on1 960s-jangly tracks like “Blown Away,” “At a Loss” and the Dylan Thomas-inspired “Challenge the Gods.”
Though Sweet includes the dictionary definition of catspaw in the CD booklet — a person used by another, a tool — he says, “All of the record isn’t that way.”
He goes on, “I look for hope, I get defiant, and yes, sometimes I say, ‘There’s no hope. It’s all going to come crashing down.’ But this record was really fun for me, and I’m glad that I had it in the can. Because when I make the next one, I’ll be emerging from how tough a year 2020 has been.”