Welcome to Oral Hit-story, a new Made Man series where we interview songwriters and bands about the tunes that made them famous. We begin with one of the biggest hits of the mid-’90s…
When Zoo Entertainment released 100% Fun in 1995, solo artist Matthew Sweet had been on a bit of a roll.
Back in 1991, Sweet had released Girlfriend, which garnered major critical acclaim along with popular success—the title track hit No. 4 on Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks chart while the album itself made it to No. 100. That amounted to an incredible showing for an artist who seemingly came out of nowhere. (More specifically, Lincoln, Nebraska and later Athens, Georgia.)
Sweet followed up Girlfriend with Altered Beast, a decidedly less commercial album that did not get as warm a reception from critics. However, a single, ‘The Ugly Truth,’ reached No. 3 on the Alternative Songs chart, indicating fans were still hungry for more. The time was right for a second coming.
“When I met my wife, I still had that viewpoint like I’m this old, used-up person with lots of baggage, and you’re this fresh thing, not-yet-spoiled. I wouldn’t say it was autobiographical, exactly, but just that it had that conflict in it.”
And that brings us to 1995’s 100% Fun, Sweet’s fifth album, featuring his highest-charting song ever, ‘Sick of Myself,’ which got all the way to No. 2 on the Modern Rock chart. We talked with the now-49-year-old performer—last seen collaborating with Bangles babe Susanna Hoffs on an eighties covers album, Under the Covers, Vol. 3—about its conception.
That is a kid picture of you on the cover of 100% Fun, right? Where did you get the idea to do that?
That’s me on the album cover. I just thought, ‘What happened to that little guy that just had an album to make him happy?’ You know, at the time Kurt Cobain killed himself, he made this comment like, ‘Life just isn’t 100 percent fun anymore.’* That really struck me, because I was like, ‘What are you talking about? Your life was 100 percent fun?’ At the time, I really didn’t talk about that connection, because it really wasn’t supposed to be a comment on him, but it was this ultimate sarcasm in my head.
Do you remember specifically where you were when you wrote ‘Sick of Myself’?
You know what, I actually do. I was in a place that we rented on a road called Willow Glen in Laurel Canyon, and I was getting ready to go down to Atlanta to record 100% Fun. I was sitting at this desk, and for some reason, some of the melody came in my head first. I don’t think I even had an instrument when I was first thinking of it. And then I got a guitar, but I didn’t have time to make a demo.
I ended up going down to Atlanta, with just a basic [idea]—the part that said ‘sick of myself’ and a couple [other] sections. It wasn’t in the radar of the songs we picked to record.
Then one night, the producer, Brendan O’Brien, had to attend some sort of family function, and I got the engineer, Nick DiDia, to stay at the studio. I had Ric Menck in town, so we were doing drums still, and I think I just said, ‘I want to record this drum track for this idea I have, so I can make it into a demo.’ So we recorded the backing track that was the record—it was our first take. We kept doing over the ending because we were just trying to get a good ending to tack onto it.
So then Brendan came back, either late that night or the next day, and he sort of latched onto it, like, ‘Hey… that’s pretty cool. Sing it for me.’ I sang it, and then he did some kick-ass mix of it, which for all I know is the one that’s on the record.
Is the song directed at a specific person? One critic called it a ‘self-loathing’ song. We disagree. It’s more of an unrequited love song, right?
I think you’re right; I think it has those things in it. But it’s [more] about obsession; it’s that feeling you get [when you’re] older. You feel more and more. You see someone who’s in bloom—untouched. It’s almost like being a vampire [laughs]. I guess that’s what fixating and falling in love is like. It might’ve been the way I felt when I met my wife, Lisa, who I was just getting together with during Girlfriend. I still had that viewpoint like I’m this old, used-up person with lots of baggage, and you’re this fresh thing, not-yet-spoiled. I wouldn’t say it was autobiographical, exactly, but just that it had that conflict in it.
Tell us about that click-click-click-click muted guitar intro. Whose idea was that to start the song off like that?
I was doing it to count us in, because we didn’t play with clicks on [100% Fun], which is uncommon, because I liked when stuff moved all over and sagged and surged.
Famous guitarist Richard Lloyd of Television plays lead guitar on the song.
It’s very distinctive. I think of that as helping it be, as funny as it is, more commercial. It brought it up into something a little more joyous. That combination just sort of worked, you know?
I get this picture in my mind of this guy coming into the studio with a leather jacket on, no guitar case, just plugging his axe in and doing this crazy guitar part.
[Lloyd] flew down to Atlanta. We recorded the song at a place called Southern Tracks, which is sadly no longer there. It was Brendan’s home base, so it did have a homey thing about it. We would’ve picked him up at the airport, got him in a hotel room, picked him up on the way to the studio in the rental car [laughs]. But then he went in and played great. We probably had him play three or four or five intros, and then that was the one we picked.
Is ‘Sick of Myself’ the song most fans yell out during your live set?
We get quite a few yells for things, but it’s usually for something we totally don’t know how to play. Luckily, there’s not only the song ‘Girlfriend,’ but a few songs that can be set-enders or encores that we haven’t done in the set. One thing that blows my mind is that we can tour and have people come that really care about it and get into it. They’re not there randomly. When you have a radio hit and people come to concerts, they might [not] want to know anymore about you—they’re going out to party and be crazy. But the thing that’s cool later on is that it becomes the die-hards that come, and that’s pretty cool.
Do you still enjoy playing it live even though you’ve played it a thousand times?
I think so, yeah. I talked about this a lot doing interviews for local press when we were touring Girlfriend. I don’t have that thing where I [feel like] ‘If I have to play that song one more time I’m going to shoot myself in the head.’ I have more respect for the songs, and people like them. ‘Sick of Myself’ isn’t the hardest song to play, but it does have an emotional side to it, so maybe that helps it not seem too trivial to me. It’s just one where we kind of rock out. It’s a little bit of a free-for-all on that song. We probably tend to do it a lot faster than the record. I just know that because the times I’ve heard the record, I’m like, ‘Whoa, that’s so slow.’
As far as its legacy is concerned, where do you think ‘Sick of Myself’ ranks among the great rock songs of the era or all time?
I try to think small and be just one guy. How much anything will matter when it’s remembered is kind of a weird thing. No matter who you are, you’re going to be gone and not remembered eventually. We have the Internet now, and that’s a different thing. You know, because you were alive before the Internet. We know everything now, whereas we used to know nothing. There’s nothing that we have to know that we can’t find out on the Internet pretty quickly. It weirdly makes us not have to know as much, because we know it’s there. I don’t have big expectations. Maybe that’s why when I play these songs, I don’t feel weird about them, because they aren’t targets for me on this success level. It’s just doing a song that came out of me, and it feels pretty familiar.
*The actual quote from Cobain’s suicide note is “The worst crime I can think of would be to rip people off by faking it and pretending as if I’m having 100 percent fun.”
Editor’s note: Got a favorite artist and song you’d like us to track down? Let us know in the comments section below.