At the same time alt-rock band Weezer was in the studio recording its self-titled first and most famous album, one of its members was working a double shift.
Matt Sharp—whose falsetto backing vocals and expert bass work can be heard all over the album, as well as its emo-tacular follow-up, Pinkerton—was concurrently writing and recording a group of songs on a Tascam 4-track cassette machine that would later be released under the moniker The Rentals. But that 1995 full-length album, Return of the Rentals, wouldn’t see the light of day until a little over a year after Weezer had its breakout moment. Why? Sharp was told by a record exec that his first crack at songwriting was terrible.
After summoning the courage to revisit the tracks, Sharp made some final tweaks (see below), got signed to Maverick Records and put out one of the more inventive pop albums of the Alternative Era. It’s basically the forefather of the Postal Service’s Give Up, seven years before that sort of thing was deemed cool. The album’s catchy lead single, “Friends of P.,” quickly swept over AlternaLand, MTV and Billboard’s Modern Rock chart, where it eventually peaked at No. 7 on.
“On our first press releases, we wrote that the band wasn’t from this country. We were, like, living in Czechoslovakia in the late ’70s, and we had been put in prison. We were sort of the Pussy Riot of 1978 in Czechoslovakia.”
In 1998, Sharp left Weezer, following up Return with 1999’s critically acclaimed Seven More Minutes. This year, he is finally releasing the band’s third LP, the soon-to-be-loved-by-all Lost in Alphaville. It picks up right where Seven left off, a lush tapestry of distorted guitars, lasagna-layered keyboards and male-on-female vocal orgies. And while we’d love to talk about how the new stuff is better than all eight Weezer albums combined since Sharp left the band, our Oral Hit-story cravings are kicking in, the Stouffer’s French Bread Pizzas are on the table and our napkins are stuffed deep into our flannel shirts. So join us as Sharp tells all about “Friends of P.,” Maya Rudolph and one clairvoyant Czech supermodel.
The Rentals have a really memorable sound—more so, we’d argue, than your former band Weezer. Did you grow up in a family with singing sisters who all played keyboards?
There’s not even the slightest bit of musical DNA. My grandfather, who’s no longer with us, was cut from the Rush Limbaugh cloth—really very right wing and a staunch Republican. He had all these issues with the rest of my family for being really liberal, and the only thing that would get him to calm down was when I would talk to him about Frank Sinatra. So when those moments would flare up, I would be sent in. It would always work. He had this great story that he was working in his auto shop in Manhattan, and he was under a car one day, singing to himself, and somebody heard him singing and said, ‘Who is that?’ Nothing happened, and the guy left. Later on, [my grandfather] was in this bar, and the guy walked in and goes, ‘Hey, you’re the guy from the gas station.’ He said, ‘I want you to come in and try out to sing in Benny Goodman’s band.’ And he never did it, because he was too nervous and shy about it. It was this thing that ate at him his whole life.
Speaking of Weezer, you are featured prominently on their two best-loved albums. Have you revisited either of them lately?
In the past few months, I’ve done a couple guest things in friends’ bands. This year is the 20th anniversary of the Blue Album. One was [a mini-set] with the band We Are Scientists; and about two weeks before that, I did a couple shows with Manchester Orchestra. They’re my favorite band on the planet at the moment. We did a song off of ‘Pinkerton’ and a song off of the Blue Album. It was an interesting experience how their audience reacted to it. Because they’re already pretty young dudes, and their audience is probably five or 10 years younger than them, so I was wondering if they would even know [the Weezer songs] at all. It was apparent to me that, while we were playing ‘Tired of Sex,’ their audience was just looking at them, like, ‘It’s my favorite band playing some song.’ I don’t think they had much of a connection with it, directly. It wasn’t the soundtrack to their lives. Then we played ‘Say It Ain’t So,’ which is a little bit more universal, I guess, and is still on the radio to some degree, and after the first chords [were played], they were like, ‘Now, I understand what’s going on.’ It was fucking cool.
Let’s talk about the Rentals’ ‘Friends of P.’ There are quite a few theories about who the ‘P’ refers to.* Set the record straight once and for all.
In the beginning, that was the first question that we ever got [asked]. That song was out on MTV and radio before we’d ever played a show, before we’d ever rehearsed, before we’d done anything, so immediately we were in this place of, like, having some attention. But the first question was definitely that. ‘Who’s P?’ In the days of yesteryore, we’d get these direct fan letters to our mailbox—we had a Rentals mailbox and a fan club thing, and people would write in. Everybody had a different idea or thought about what that meant—this was before we did any interviews. And they were always so cool, interesting or strange or psychedelic or abstract. We were like, ‘How did you make that leap?’ And at that point, we didn’t tell anybody, because that would build on itself, and it was funnier. Since then, I’ve said it a bunch, so it’s not like a Geraldo mystery.
So it is actually about supermodel Paulina Porizkova, then?
Yeah, it’s about Ric Ocasek’s wife, who was basically in the studio with [Weezer] while we were working on the Blue Album. She was quite learned in the ways of palm-reading, so each one of us would sit down and get our palm read while we were waiting to do overdubs or tracking other songs. And the day that she was reading my palm, she was telling me all these different things that are pretty much verbatim what’s in the lyrics of the song. Which is cool, because I will always remember what she said. While she was doing it, I think I’d asked her—because she was one of the first, real super-iconic supermodels—had she ever had a song written about her? And she said the only people who have ever written songs about her, probably besides her husband, were, like, really cheesy ’80s metal bands. Sort of like, [sings in a falsetto voice] ‘She was on the cover of a magazine!’ So I went back to the hotel that night and just basically wrote those words down from the palm reading and two seconds later, had that song. It definitely was not an arduous task at all.
The latest Rentals: Sharp plus Lauren Chipman (The Section Quartet, strings), Ryen Slegr (Ozma, guitars), Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig (Lucius, vocals) and Patrick Carney (The Black Keys, drums).
That Moog synthesizer part in the tune is pretty damned memorable. Per the demo of the song, it wasn’t there originally. Who can we thank for it?
I [originally] wanted it to be really stripped down. [The record] was basically done, and I brought it to the person who had signed Weezer, and I think he almost choked on his own vomit. He was just basically like, ‘You should never do this again.’ [laughs] Like, ‘This is the most god-awful thing I’ve ever heard, and you don’t know how to sing, and you can’t write a song.’ So basically I shelved it for a little while and went on tour with Weezer [when] we were promoting the Blue Album. Then we had a little break, and I thought, ‘Well, you know, fuck him. And fuck everybody. I have to do this.’ So I went back to [producer] Tom [Grimley] and said, ‘I want to re-approach that stuff.’ When we were at his place, Tom and I were always listening to old ELO and Gary Numan records, and so basically, the two of us decided that we should just make [my songs] into an ELO record. I decided to tell nobody about it. It was the two of us, after the music was done, locked away, and I played some of the keyboards—probably the simpler parts—and we just sort of came up with it together.
The narrator, who we can now comfortably assume is you, says he’s going to ‘break down at 50.’ According to my calculations, that’s only 6 years away for you. Are you worried that a bum knee and heart condition are going to come out of nowhere in 2020?
You know, that song has been pretty fucking accurate so far—those things that were all [from] her reading of my palm, essentially. It’s a little scary. My body’s started breaking down a good deal. I don’t wish to break down any further than I already have, [but] it’s probably inevitable in some ways. I’m fighting the good fight.
There’s also the line that strikes us as quite predictive: ‘Somebody’s fame and fortune/is gonna come to me early.’ Was the Rentals sort of your way of escaping the fame of Weezer?
Well, the Weezer record hadn’t been finished yet, so that was written before we started mixing. It was written while we were in the studio and just tracking, so we hadn’t had any ‘fame and fortune’ at that point. There was a point, around that time right after the Blue Album came out, we were all so poor that we couldn’t afford shoes. All of us had freaking holes in the soles of our shoes. And we were sort of in this hovering period; no one wanted to get a job, because we wanted to go on tour, but we didn’t really have any support from the label. The label didn’t think that the album was going to be successful. We were just one of the many bands that were signed. So we were definitely the lowest priority [at] Geffen and definitely the underdog. They had no idea what to do with us; they didn’t know where we fit in. That fame and fortune that we got was definitely a surprise. And I would definitely say that, in the shadows of that, whatever the Rentals had was modest. [Porizkova] hit the nail on the head with that shit.
Future Saturday Night Live cast member and actress Maya Rudolph was a touring member of your band during the Return of the Rentals era. Was she the funniest Rental ever?
Yeah, gotta be. Maya also sang on that second Rentals record. When we were on tour together, she was a kid. I used to call her ‘the kid.’ If I were to see her today, I would still call her ‘the kid.’** We had a little camcorder that we brought with us, and she would use it to do little sketch comedy things and watch them on the bus or in the venue. When the Rentals stopped promoting the first album, [she joined] one of those little black-box comedy troupes. We sort of reconnected through that; I would go see her do those things, and she was always the standout of all those shows. She’s also a great singer. Obviously, her mother was this iconic singer. I remember we had done a benefit concert together for a friend of a friend who was in the hospital who needed help with hospital bills. So Maya and I played one of these little theaters where Upright Citizens Brigade now plays in L.A. Before the show, we covered a Tegan and Sara song called ‘Not Tonight.’ We recorded it, because Maya wanted to do something that wasn’t a joke; she wanted to sing on something that was earnest. It’s not a perfect recording, [but] it’s a cool moment that we shared together.
The video for the song is pretty hilarious. Sort of these lovably bored automatons performing the song. Was it shot in your apartment?
That video was shot in one of these apartments that record companies would rent for bands. I don’t know if they do that anymore, but back in the day, you’d have these apartments that were very stark, very depressing, pre-furnished places. It already had this feeling of ‘Russian ghetto’ to it. Tom and I would just sit around and make up stories for our own enjoyment. On our first press releases, we wrote that the band wasn’t from this country. We were, like, this band that was living in Czechoslovakia in the late ’70s, and we had been put in prison. We were sort of the Pussy Riot of 1978 in Czechoslovakia. We were against the government and Communism and we got put in prison for it, and we had just been released from prison after 20 years. And that’s what the Rentals are. That’s why the video has the Russian subtitles. That was all part of that story. When Maverick [Records] signed us, I asked for Madonna’s fax number.*** I sent her these faxes, thanking her for bringing me to her country and getting me out of prison. It made no sense, and I had no idea if she ever received them. Shortly after I sent those faxes, that number didn’t work anymore.
Those glasses you wear in the video and on the cover of the first album—they’re fucking everywhere now. Are you at all sorry for making ugly ’90s glasses a hipster fashion statement?
No, but it is weird—not that I had anything to do with it. Now you see them on big million-dollar athletes and basketball players and football players. And of course, all the fans and stuff. It’s just funny. So I don’t know.
Do you still wear those glasses, Matt?
I ended up trading frames with Cherielynn [Westrich], the girl that plays the keyboards on the record and in that video. All those frames that are in that video she bought maybe an hour before we shot the video. She bought them from the local thrift store, and they were all fucking insane prescriptions for elderly people or bifocals. If you watch the video, you can see that nobody’s looking directly [at each other], because they were so hard to look through. And Petra Haden was chewing gum throughout the video, because she got a migraine from those glasses. It put her in a really bad mood. So she would chew the gum and then look hard left or right, so she wasn’t looking out of the frames.
*Wikipedia is a fickle bitch; we don’t trust that little bastard as far as we can throw it. That’s why his answer didn’t completely surprise us.
**If you were wondering, she’s 42 now.
***Pop musician Madonna was one of the label’s founders.