What do musicians do when their stars have settled down a bit closer to the horizon? Do they keep producing albums, playing gigs, chasing the brass ring and the gold record?
If you’re Matthew Sweet, he of 90′s hits “Girlfriend” and “Sick of Myself,” you do all that. And you make pottery that looks like cats.
If you’re Susanna Hoffs, she of ’80s hitmaking girl group the Bangles, you do all that, go on some national reunion tours, and make sure you’re done in time to pick the kids up from school.
Mr. Sweet, 44, and Ms. Hoffs, 50, represent two distinct narratives of musical fame, fortune, decline, and rebirth. The album they made together, “Under The Covers, Vol. 2,” is out this week. It’s the second installment of gently faithful covers from the duo (the first, focused on sixties hits, came out in 2006. This one looks at the seventies).
The Bangles formed in 1982, and rocketed out of the West Coast’s indie psychedelic-pop Paisley Underground scene, from early hits “Manic Monday” and “Walk Like an Egyptian” to the latter days of “Eternal Flame.” By 1990 the band had split, but have since managed to turn a reunion tour into a lucrative rebirth, and are currently working on a new album, and plan to keep touring intermittently. In the interim, Ms. Hoffs put out two modest solo albums.
Covers are somewhat in Ms. Hoffs’ blood, dating back to the Paisley Underground cover record “Rainy Day.”
“I learned how to sing just by copying records that I loved,” Ms. Hoffs told the Observer. “The Bangles were able to figure out who we were by the covers that we did. It was an important step in our evolution to learn songs and figure out how they work and play them.”
Although Mr. Sweet never cared much for covers (though he did do a great version of the Scooby Doo theme for the “Saturday Morning: Cartoons’ Greatest Hits” compilation), “Rainy Day” was an inspiration to him.
Born in Nebraska, Mr. Sweet started out as a peripheral figure in the Athens, Ga. music scene. He collaborated with Michael Stipe. But it was the major label triumvirate of 1991′s “Girlfriend,” 1993′s “Altered Beast,” and 1995′s “100% Fun” that Mr. Sweet became one of the landmark alternative acts of the era. The Thorns, his early 00′s band with Shawn Mullins and Pete Droge, was his last experience on a major label.
Mr. Sweet and Ms. Hoffs started hanging out around 2003 when they were both asked to be in Ming Tea, the band in the Austin Powers movies (which Ms. Hoffs’ husband directed). Shortly after they were working together on a benefit show.
“Matthew mentioned that the first time he ever heard me was in high school on that ‘Rainy Day’ record and my version of ‘I’ll Keep it with Mine,’” Ms. Hoffs said. “He said he really wanted to produce a record for me. We got interest from Shout! Factory and we were brainstorming and they said ‘what about doing some covers.’ Once we started working it became a sort of addiction.”
Covers albums for pop artists seem like a kind of retro idea (The Whirlygigs Sing The Beatles!), but particularly for artists attempting to find new audiences or to jump-start a stalled career (Rod Stewart), the covers album is pure platinum, in some cases literally.
Mr. Sweet and Ms. Hoffs weren’t quite likely to get there.
“I know I should be worried,” Mr. Sweet said. “Like how are we gonna pay for our house next year, but I dunno. The cool thing about doing the records that Sue and I do is that everything is kind of more casual.”
The two take on a persona as a duo for the purposes of the album: Sid and Susie, the names they were given by comedian Mike Meyers during the Ming Tea sessions. It creates a bit of distance between their own music and their work together as fanboy cover artists.
“We’re such fans that we made the covers by going and listening to these records,” Mr. Sweet said. “They’re by the seat of their pants, and there’s something really appealing to that, they captured a moment.”
Ms. Hoffs connected to the songs with the help of her two sons.
“I had a CD with all the original versions of the songs in the car, songs I’ve listened to so many times in my life, but my kids, by extension, are learning a lot,” she said. “So I’d be playing them these songs and I’d be asking them like, ‘isn’t this Yes song so incredibly ambitious?’”
The song choice communicates a kind of smart yet broad approach to the history of pop music. They’re mostly hits, or were when they came out, with a few curveballs (“Willin” by Little Feat, a lesser-known Todd Rundgren tune). Cute liner notes spin yarns like “Bob Weir once invited our girl Susie to ‘come on honey come along with me!’” (“Sugar Magnolia”).
Guests on the album include Dhani Harrison playing on his father George’s “Beware of Darkness,” Steve Howe of Yes contributing a guitar part for the cover of “I’ve Seen All Good People: Your Move/All Good People,” and Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsay Buckingham adding a blazing guitar solo to “Second-Hand News,” one that rocked so hard the duo extended the song to accommodate it.
Sometimes the process of finding these old pop geniuses was charmingly nonprofessional.
“We decided we would cover Yes,” said Mr. Sweet. “We built up the track but thought the lead of Steve Howe was so great, so I went online and found the Steve Howe Appreciation Society and wrote the webmaster and she hooked us up with Steve, and he recorded his parts in England and Emailed them to us.”
Elsewhere the album covers a breezy “Maggie May” and a sneering-yet-tender “All The Young Dudes.”
The duo recorded close to 40 tracks in all, stretching into harder rock and even punk and disco.
“The thing we realized about the 70′s is how incredibly diverse the era was, from sensitive singer songwriter stuff to Zeppelin and the Stones and punk rock,” said Ms. Hoffs. “So we did a lot of songs. We did a version of “Jive Talkin’,” and a song by the Ramones, and a Stones song. That’s why it took a little bit of time to finish the album.”
This week the duo descends on L.A.’s Grammy Museum for an intimate acoustic show and question and answer session, and from there will travel to several similar gigs nationwide.
They’re both apprehensive about taking the show on the road, despite their name recognition and, at least in Ms. Hoffs’ case, great success touring. “The problem is unless you’re recently a super famous group or really had a big following in the day, it’s still difficult to tour,” Mr. Sweet said. “I can go out and have really good crowds in New York and Chicago and the bigger cities, and some second-tier cities too, but it’s hard to make enough money to make money.”
But they both would love to get on the road and connect with their fans.
“Its hard for me to put my finger on the demographic,” Ms. Hoffs said. “All I know is that I’ve never made a record where the people who love it love it so much, saying ‘it was in my car all summer, it was my soundtrack.’ That’s really flattering to me.”
“I guess there’s just so much out there that it’s sort of overwhelming,” Mr. Sweet said. “That’s why playing for people is so appealing, and connecting with people in a small way and not a World Wide Web way.”
Not that either believes the rise of the Internet and the decline of the major-label system has messed up their lives.
“I have other things I’ve gotten into,” said Mr. Sweet. “I’ve learned to make pottery. I’ve gotten good enough at it, and my fans have gotten into it. I had an article in Cat Fancy that talked about my cats but also talked about cat pottery that I made, so I think of my house as a pottery and recording studio. I love that about the Internet, because you can connect to people without having to rely on some huge department. I have a studio in my house that’s just as good for all intents and purposes as studios I would have used back in the 90s. So at least we can keep making music and not be spending all that money.”
At the moment Mr. Sweet is helping Ms. Hoffs record some original songs as well as some Bangles tunes, and both look forward to making Volume 3 of Under the Covers. Mr. Sweet is philosophical about his time with the majors and his newfound freedom and its complement—self-reliance.
“What’s sad to see gone is the way labels would develop bands, all the David Geffen people, like James Taylor, allowed to make records before they made big records. Working with the Thorns with Columbia was a sort of last gasp,” he said. “We sold like 175,000 records, and that now would be like No. 1 most weeks, and they wouldn’t agree to keep us because we wanted to produce ourselves because we wanted to make some money. Why wouldn’t they just pay us what it cost to fly us out to do one radio show? They should have spent less and stuck with people.”
“Under The Covers Vol. 2″ (Shout! Factory) is out this week; Hoffs and Sweet come to the City Winery for an acoustic show on Sept. 11, 2009.