It was 1999 when Matt Sharp and his band, The Rentals, released their last full-length album, Seven More Minutes, packed with cheerful Moog synth lines and distorted guitar riff rock that reminded audiences of his influence on the heralded Blue Album and Pinkerton during his time as Weezer’s bassist in the early ‘90s.
It’s been 15 years for Sharp and his audiences, years that saw The Rentals disband and regroup, releasing small EPs and harboring a multimedia project in 2009 full of photos and short films, including sporadic tours and performances sprinkled in the midst of the long absence of a new record.
As a group that features a new lineup each time they come together for an album or tour, The Rentals are Sharp’s brainchild that features a lineup of superstars and musical stalwarts, highlighted by drummer Patrick Carney of The Black Keys and Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of Lucius, for their latest effort, Lost In Alphaville, due out Aug. 26 on Polyvinyl Records.
Through spontaneous musical bliss and retrospective lyrics, Lost In Alphaville is an aggressive yet reflective step in maturity and musicality for The Rentals, and continues where the band left off so long ago. While it may have been over a decade since a Rentals release, the band returns packing a musical punch to tell an enthralling story.
After The Rentals returned from performing in Japan, I had the opportunity to speak with Matt Sharp about the new album and the unorthodox approach he took when recording, listening to how paths twisted and turned sonically to develop into Lost In Alphaville.
Why has it been so long without a new Rentals album?
Well that’s a good question. Uh, I don’t know, I guess it’s difficult to answer that. I’ve gone in different directions than I felt like were appropriate in the right place that were quite a challenge to me and probably a bigger challenge to the audience. With this album, I just felt like I had one sort of driving focus and it felt like the time was right to make this particular album and to set out and try to make the best Rentals album we could possibly make.
That was the only thing I focused on, or cared about, or was interested in. I didn’t have any compromises or try to recapture anything that we did in our past. I just sort of placed the question in front of us of trying to make the first—it’s hard to say to yourself—but make the first really good Rentals album. And that was really the only thing that was in front of me.
What is the overall message or meaning of the album?
This album, in many ways, is a sequel to the last Rentals album, Seven More Minutes. Seven More Minutes was written about a specific time and place, and it was at a time in my life where everything was exploding with optimism. I was spending a lot of time in Barcelona and I was chasing this girl that was the first true love of my life. The album was written about that place, it was celebrating that place, and this album very much returns to that place.
At one point I went back many years after that affair dissolved and my relationship with the country was more distant. I went back maybe 10 or 11 years after the fact and just stood there in those places that I stood before as a much younger person, and the whole album just came to me out of that. Just standing in that very same place and sort of reflecting on where I was back then in that point of my life, where The Rentals were at that point and what we were trying to do musically, and also what had happened since then and where I am now currently. Essentially that’s what this album is; at least the lyrical content is based there.
Those ideas were written in very quick order in almost no time. It just all came rushing through in one big thing and I knew I just had to stay there and jot it all down, either in musical terms or lyrical terms. All of these thoughts and emotions and feelings came from right there standing there in Barcelona, nearly just stemming from a single moment. And then, the feeling now was, if I was going to make another Rentals album, that’s where I would want to start. It just picks up the story from where we left off.
But in a musical sense, I didn’t really have any desire to recapture any sort of feeling from the past. That’s never my intent. None of that concerns me. It’s about what you want to do right now, what inspires you right now, where are your feelings and desires and passion musically in the moment. So, from a musical standpoint, those two things go against each other. The lyrical content, or storyline or whatever you want to call it, all comes from this reflective place, but from a musical standpoint, it became very much of what just dopes me right now in the moment.
The people that are on the album and involved in the album, and the approach that we took to the album sonically from everyone, from Jess and Holly in Lucius, or Ryen Slegr [Ozma singer/guitarist], or Patrick Carney all the way to D. Sardy, who mixed the album, all of those people are people that I am an enormous fan of their work, of what they are right in the midst of doing. Those are the people I wanted to work with to find that sound together. So I guess that’s what the album is, those two things meeting in a way.
Why did you choose to work with each musician one-on-one?
I made a conscious choice very early to work with each person completely in isolation, separate from everyone else. I went to each person with the desire to get that thing that I love about what they do out of them, the best version of that for the band. So with this album we started with just Ryen Slegr and I. Ryen, who is a guitar player that I love, can challenge me. He’s got a peculiar personality where I think we have a great feel of love for each other, but we also want to kill each other about 50/50 sometimes, and we work together that way and I enjoy it.
Essentially, he had the toughest part, because the album started from him, without any music. I mean, the structure of the songs were there, but there were no drums and no bass, and no keyboards or anything. I know that thing that he does that’s special. I can’t put a finger on it, but I know what it is, and we went in search of that. Unfortunately for him, there was nothing for him to react to, so we were in our imaginations together, which was a pretty funny thing, and I think at times it kind of freed up what we were trying to do, but at other times it really constricted it.
How did your recording approach on the album differ from previous Rentals records?
Basically, the big difference is that on this album, at the very beginning of recording, I sat down and thought about the different ideas for the songs, and put them in order. I just sat and thought about these ideas for a while and just wrote them out on a white board in the order that they’re on the record. I thought them through without having any music, without the scaffolding of the songs. Just the titles and knowing what the lyrical content was and the chords, things like that, but before we had recorded any of the instruments.
We put it up there that way and worked on it thinking about it in order first instead of what people normally do, what I normally do, which is record a bunch of music, and then think about what should go first and second. In this case, all that stuff was predetermined, it was all written out. Doing that was really cool. I had never done anything like that before.
It made you just think about, “Well, if ‘It’s Time To Come Home’ is the opening song, then what should it sound like?” It made you think about and produce it entirely different than if it were just a song unto itself. I don’t know if I would ever do something like that again, but I really enjoyed the approach on this record.
Who really contributed to the aggressive musicality of the album?
Carney, he really changed the album. Every single person on this record has a very definitive impact on the album. There’s nothing extraneous to me about anyone’s participation on the album. Every single person, from Lauren Chipman onwards, are all powerhouses, and none of them are on the album just to be on the album. They all bring something specific to it. But when I brought the album to Pat, I kind of was exploring this idea of maybe doing this really cold, sort of science fiction Blade Runner-y kind of an album that was all old sterile, drum machines and beat boxes from the ’70s and ’80s and doing it that way, not having any real drums on it.
I went down that path for a while and started layering field recordings of doors shutting and cameras clicking, trying to come with our own unique approach to the drum. And I kept going down that path, encountering some interesting moments, because I had never programmed anything before in my life, and I tried to go that way, but it just didn’t work, you know? I ended up hitting a wall with about three or four songs.
Patrick and I talked about working together in some form or another before, but we never met each other, and that had been some years before. So I wrote him and basically said, “Hey, I know we talked about working together before and we were never able to make it happen, but I’m kind of stuck here, is there any way I could get you to play drums on a couple songs for this Rentals album?” and he said, “Get here tomorrow. Get on a plane. Let’s go.”
The second he started playing some different beats for some of the songs, it was very clear to me that it made everything I had worked on to that point irrelevant. Just the way he approaches stuff, and his sense of immediacy, like, “Let’s just do it. Now. What are you waiting on? Go!” That thing put me out of the depression-ness of it. It really made the whole record more aggressive.
Carney’s drumming definitely has a huge imprint on the record.
Yeah! He doesn’t give a fuck! We only had one microphone set up, and it was just, “Fuck it, he’s already playing.” His whole attitude I think is really essential to the album. There was a moment after we had first worked together where we were having drinks at his place out in Nashville and he was like, “Just do me one favor, don’t let me walk into a record store, hear the new fucking Rentals album be a bunch of old drum machines, because that would really bum me out.” I got back home and I tried to figure out how to fit his whole approach into the scheme of things.
I did the first song and I fell in love and said to him, “What you’re bringing to the album is awesome, but the bad news is, you’re going to have to do the whole album, especially if you don’t want any drum machines on it, because I don’t want anybody on this record but you.”
How did you choose the lineup for this album?
It was essentially a “cross that bridge when we get there” situation for each part. Like I said, I knew from the beginning I wanted to work with Ryen, and I wanted this record to be, in a way, Ryen’s record, and be a special moment for him and what I love about what he does. So we got into it together and everything after that was “cross that bridge when we get there.” The very last thing that we did was work with Jess and Holly.
We got to a place during recording where we were right there, and the label said, “That’s great, what do you have left to do?” “Well, actually the whole album is done, I just have to find the right female voices to finish the record,” and I was thinking at the time it would take two, maybe three days of recording. They wanted to come down and hear and I thought, “Sure, what the hell?” So they came down to my house, where I have my home studio, they listened to it and were really excited, and wanted to know which female voices I wanted for the record. I didn’t know yet, but I told them I’d know when we find them. I think they thought it would take a few weeks, but it was that and a whole lot more.
I went on that search for a very, very long time. But once I was there with Jess and Holly, I knew this was right and everything was exactly where it needs to be. But before that it was a good year of listening to every female vocalist that has opened her fucking mouth. It was a long journey to get to those ladies.
“The Future” features strange vocals from both ladies and is quite abstract. How did that track come about?
The first song that I worked on with Jess and Holly was the song “The Future,” which is the last song on the album, and just essentially the whole song is one note. It’s just a D over and over and over again. The material structure is just sort of this drifty, dreamy thing, and for some reason, with every musician that worked on it, it just allowed them to not be confined by structure and do shit that I never expected them to do. I didn’t have to instruct them on anything or give any suggestions.
At one point while working on that song, the recording was rolling, and I can’t remember if it was Jess or Holly, one of them said, “What if [we] did this like, African chant?” and she just started doing this chant and the other one picked up on it right in the moment. “Oh, you mean like this?” And they start doing it together. That’s exactly how it is on the album. There’s talking underneath all the music. You can barely hear it, but it’s in there. We stopped for a minute after and I was like, “That’s the weirdest fucking thing I’ve ever heard.” I had no idea what inspired them to take that approach.
Ryen contributed to the song with a lot of futuristic weird shit on the guitar. A lot of that was just spontaneous, and other things took more consolation about making sure we were going down the right path and trying different directions. Electronic drums seemed to be the thought for a while, but the moment Carney changed the gears, I had no problem no matter how much work was put in or not going, “Okay, fuck that! Wipe that idea, wrong path, new path,” that kind of thing.
After Lost In Alphaville, what’s next for The Rentals?
One of the things that I want to make sure of is to fully support this album. I don’t exactly know what that means but I don’t want to just put it out and not be behind it. I want to make sure everyone knows about it. I mean, this is something I am truly very proud of and very excited to share with everybody for sure, and more so I think than for any album I’ve ever made. It makes me want to do that.
Each time we’re doing something to promote the album, it will probably be a new incarnation of friends and different bands, different collaborations, happening in the moment, and we’re going to do that very shortly. It might be one-off events that are sporadic around the country, like in San Francisco, L.A., New York and Chicago, that kind of stuff. But hopefully if we can find the right group to work with, we’ll be able to do a longer, more substantial tour, because I’m definitely into that.
It has to also be with bands that don’t mind playing double duty a lot, because it would be the kinds of things where it would a be bunch of bands playing on one bill and then all coming together at the end of the night to promote and play The Rentals’ album.
The Rentals’ new album, Lost In Alphaville, releases on Polyvinyl Records on Aug. 26. They’ll play at Union Transfer on Sept. 25, The Stone Pony on Sept. 26, and Irving Plaza on Sept. 27. For more information, visit therentals.com.