For Matthew Sweet, inspiration can strike at unforeseen moments.
"It's emotionally driven for me," he said in a conference interview last Wednesday. "I might be driving in a car or taking a shower, and get a melody in my head."
Then he has to find a guitar or a piano before the song escapes. "As long as I have a basic chord pattern down, I remember the melody," he said.
Pop musician Sweet will perform at 7:30 p.m. this Thursday in the Robertson Memorial Field House. Tickets are $4 for students with Bradley ID; $7 for the public. The concert is being co-sponsored by the Activities Council of Bradley University, the Student Activities Budget Review Committee and WRBU.
Now on tour for his new album "100% Fun," Sweet was polite and friendly over the phone, though he claimed to be grouchy and a little hung over from the night before.
Sweet said the songwriting process isn't an intellectual experience for him. Instead, he develops a song out of a general feeling.
"I just get in a mood of wanting to write," he said. "I start from a few words, or a vowel sounds suggested by a melodic line, and work from there. Sometimes I start with stupid words, and switch later to good words."
Sweet sees music as a kind of therapy, "a way of dealing with nagging feelings I have about life and relationships." But it's not as personal as some people seem to think it is.
"When I sing about relationships," he said, "I can mean more than the romantic kind; it can be about your relationship with yourself, or with your family, or whatever. It's more than boy-meets-girl."
For "100% Fun," Sweet tried for a looser approach than on his previous release, "Altered Beast."
"It's a little more direct and simple," he said. "[Producer Brendan] O'Brien likes to work quickly, which I liked."
The last song on the album, "Smog Moon," has a strong emotional pull for a lot of people, Sweet said.
"I got an image from Los Angeles: when there's a full moon on the horizon, the smog makes it look weird and red and kind of coolóor horrible, however you look at it."
Sweet said he considers MTV a necessary evil. "When they play my records, I sell records," he said with a laugh, "so I guess it can be a good thing.
"There are so many people trying to get in that they can't really play everybody. Some bands do well without MTV, but it's really the exception, not the rule. If you do well on radio, MTV will play youóbut a lot of times radio stations won't play you unless you're big on MTV."
Sweet isn't sure whether to consider himself a mainstream artist or not.
"It's hard to know where I fit in," he said. "I have a certain level of success, and it's nothing to sneeze at. But you can't count on being successful. Success is directly related to how hard you work. On the other hand, some record companies see you as a failure if you haven't had platinum records."
Of course, anyone who appears on the David Letterman show can't be too much of a failure. But Sweet doesn't want to overplay the importance of his appearance.
"These sorts of things are fun when they happen, but then it's like, 'So what?'" he said. "The best thing about being on the Letterman show is the week beforehand, when you can say, 'Yeah, I'm gonna do Letterman.' Once you're there, it goes really fast."
If he weren't playing music, Sweet said he might be working in film. "It's the only other thing I have a lot of interest in," he said.
He first got interested in film as a high school senior. In the video for "Girlfriend," Sweet used anime, or Japanese animation, as a visual backdrop.
Sweet has been a fan of the anime style since well before it caught on in the United States. "It used to be hard to findóI used to have to really seek it out," Sweet said. "Now the availability of it has just exploded."
In answer to the perennial questionóis the song "Winona" (off of the album "Girlfriend") about Winona Ryder?óSweet responds as he's responded for years: with an emphatic "No."
Well, sort of.
"It's not about Winona Ryder, but it was named for her, which sort of muddied the waters and helped perpetuate the myth," Sweet said. Since "Girlfriend" was released in 1990, Sweet's been trying to set the story straight in interview after interview, with little success.
"I try to deny it in magazines, but they act like I'm lying," he said. "I'm not some weird obsessive person; I'm more apt to write songs about real people." The song was actually about his girlfriend at the time, Lisa, who's now his wife.
Sweet and Ryder met for the first time in Boston, when he was touring with Soul Asylum. Vocalist David Pirner, who's also Ryder's boyfriend, joined Sweet onstage for a duet of the song.
"I taught Winona how to play it backstage, and she was going to come out and sing it with us, but she chickened out," Sweet says.
Though Sweet said he usually doesn't write songs about specific media events, he did have an opinion about the result of the O.J. Simpson trial.
"He's got to be guilty," Sweet said. "There seemst o be so much evidence pointing toward guilt. But there's doubt. The jury was in a tough position. I don't know the details, but fromwhat I saw, I'm convinced he's guilty."
Sweet plays mostly rhythm guitar on his albums, leaving the lead work to people like Robert Quine and Richard Lloyd. "I really like what these guys do," he said. "I could do lead guitar if I wanted to, but doing everything yourself is boring."
Sweet confesses to being a guitar junkie, because he likes to play with a lot of different sounds. "People complain I use so many different guitars that I'm sort of embarrassed," he said. "I've tried to tune it down." Most of his guitars use open E or G tuning.
HATE FREE AMERICA
Sweet lent his support to Artists for a Hate-free America, but said his involvement wasn't really active. "I got all the literature and read through it, but it was mostly handled by my manager," he said.