MATT SHARP has a friend in a band. That friend's band took on one of those newfangled internet-era distribution experiments and put out a new song every week for a year.
When it was all said and done, Sharp's friend gave him the collected works.
"I found it really daunting to get into, but he's a very good friend, so I thought, 'I'll go back in and listen again,'" Sharp says. "But you would kind of take a breath every time before you had to dive in."
His persistence paid off. The more Sharp listened, the more individual songs stood out from the crowd.
"I went to him and said, 'Look, you should really think about re-approaching what you've done here because it's too... difficult to get into. But there are some really great moments. You just need to find the thing that tells the story, and give it to 'em more directly and I bet you people would really connect to this,'" Sharp says.
That's when it clicked.
"I hung up the phone and sat there and went, 'Oh hell.' I was talking to myself. Or I should be talking to myself," Sharp says. "I'm guessing that's what somebody would tell me."
When Weezer broke big in 1994, it was Sharp's kinetic bass playing that provided a much-needed yang to frontman Rivers Cuomo's sheepish, stoic yin. And in 1995, Sharp's gritty, new-wave side project, the Rentals, had its own breakthrough when the lo-fi video for "Friends of P," from the band's debut album Return of the Rentals, became an unlikely MTV hit.
After Weezer released its second album, Pinkerton, in 1996, Sharp was "unceremoniously fired" from the band, according to his current bio, and turned his attention back to the Rentals, recording a second album, Seven More Minutes, and releasing it in 1999.
From there, Sharp's output became scattershot: He put the Rentals on hiatus, released a solo album of acoustic songs, brought the Rentals back, toured around the 10th anniversary of their debut, and so on. It was hard to follow. In 2009, he undertook a sprawling new project: Songs About Time, a yearlong multimedia extravaganza consisting of three mini-albums, weekly short films, and daily photographs. It was also hard to follow.
"The idea was to use an entire year to just create—without editing yourself too terribly much. So output and output and output, as much as you could, while making very quick decisions," says Sharp, who cites Picasso, Warhol, Dylan, and Prince as inspirations for this ungoverned creativity. "[Don't take] any time to think, 'Is this the absolute best it can be?' but just let people... sort through it themselves and see if they can find the diamonds in the midst of all that."
The project was artistically satisfying, he says, but he eventually realized he was "actually keeping people from finding the thing that matters most." Talking to his friend from the single-of-the-week band drove that home, he says.
"I realized I was giving him my own advice," Sharp says. "Personally, I would prefer that Prince just hands me Purple Rain and says, 'Here you go. This is how the record should be.' You listen to that record and you know that that's the best record he could possibly make.
"In trying [Songs About Time] I found that there was something in there that I specifically wanted to share with people that [by] working in that process I wasn't able to," he continues. "That's essentially why this album came out the way it did."
The album he's talking about is Lost in Alphaville, the Rentals' third full-length (and first in 15 years), released last summer on Polyvinyl Records. It features drumming by the Black Keys' Patrick Carney, and Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of Lucius provide the honeyed female vocals that have become such a central part of the Rentals' sound.
Songs were plucked from the Songs About Time project and re-recorded for Lost in Alphaville. They recall the punchy but somber synth-pop of Return of the Rentals, stocked with enough hooks to fuel a weekend fishing trip, but blanketed with a fuzzy feeling of vague, gray ennui that coalesces around Sharp's trademark deadpan delivery.
"Those songs were written to be together... in a very specific time, all together in very rapid succession," Sharp says. "So I knew they belong together and I want them to be heard that way. And they got lost within [Songs About Time]. They needed to be separated from that and heard on their own."
Now it's time to tour, and Sharp has gathered a band he's excited about. Half the group is from Portland: Starfucker's Shawn Glassford will play bass, Lizzy Ellison and Patti King of Radiation City will sing, and all three will play synths. Sharp met Glassford through Polyvinyl, and the Rad City ladies through Glassford.
"When I make a record, it's specifically with the thought of working with people who will have something strong to be a part of the record. There's no one on Lost in Alphaville that's a passive person within the music," Sharp says. "On the road, I want to work with people that I'm a fan of their music and their bands."
Sharp digs what Starfucker does, and he calls Ellison and King the "two biggest analog synthesizer geeks I've ever met." That, plus their voices, make them a perfect fit for the Rentals' controlled chaos.