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Accidental tourist

Imagine Matt Sharp, the Rentals' frontman and former Weezer bassist, at a rave in Barcelona at 9 a.m. Or just imagine him at a rave in Barcelona. Or just at a rave. It's hard to picture the same man who appeared on the cover of the Rentals' 1995 album Return of... with a homemade buzz cut, ill-fitting gray suit, and government-issue eyewear partying till the break-of-break-of dawn in some foreign disco. Sharp doesn't exactly strike many people as the typical funk soul brother. Rather, his image is that of the affable Everygeek--a notion introduced by his stint in Weezer and reinforced by the Rentals' first disc. He's the kind of guy you'd call if you were having trouble with Windows 98, not the first person you'd ring up to go club-hopping.

Well, at least he didn't used to be. For the past several years, though, he has been at more raves than Ecstasy, freeing his ass and letting his mind follow. He's seen and done more in that time than he ever could have dreamed, opening his eyes to new possibilities, forcing him to reconsider the way he writes songs, how he lives his life, everything. It eventually led him to leave Weezer and spend the past three years making a new Rentals album, Seven More Minutes, due in stores April 13. In the process, he's become a different person, and certainly a different songwriter, judging by Seven More Minutes, so full of motion where The Return of... was static. Then again, so is Sharp.

He's been on the road almost permanently since Weezer's self-titled debut reminded people who Buddy Holly was in 1994, turning four dorky white guys from Los Angeles into the biggest band in America for about five minutes. And the unanticipated platinum sales of Return of...--based on the ubiquitous single "Friends of P"--took him even further than he thought possible. After touring the world several times over, Sharp is just happy he's been along for the ride--and remembers some of it.

"I just think that the whole scenario was surreal, whether it was the Rentals or what was going on with Weezer," Sharp says from his apartment in Los Angeles. "It was just an enormous cluster of surrealism. One minute, you're at the MTV awards talking to Madonna about new wave or whatever. And then, a few months later, we're in Portugal opening up for Blur, and we're playing in front of a bunch of people on the other side of the world, and you're going, 'How the hell did we get here? What happened to the past couple of months?'"

Or, what happened to the past couple of years?
Sharp hasn't been heard from since Weezer's buzz-killing (in terms of sales) 1996 sophomore disc Pinkerton, save for an appearance on the soundtrack to the 1998 comedy Meet the Deedles--along with Weezer singer-guitarist Rivers Cuomo--under the name Homie, and a collaboration with Blur's Damon Albarn ("We Have a Technical") that turned up on a Gary Numan tribute album, 1997's Random. It's not exactly a mystery: Thanks to Weezer's and the Rentals' unexpected successes, Sharp had the money and time to do what he wanted to do, so he did. One thing he decided was that he'd allow the songs to happen when they happened, and not force one note. With that in mind, he went to a place where he was comfortable, where there would be absolutely no pressure to write another "Friends of P": Spain.

After falling in love with Spain while on tour with Weezer, Sharp has become an unofficial resident of the country, flying in every chance he gets, whether it's for a few days or a few weeks. It's where the bulk of the songs on Seven More Minutes were written, as he walked the streets of Barcelona and danced his nights away accompanied only by a crude grasp of the language and a hand-held tape recorder. He refers to Spain as his second home, yet he doesn't really have a first one, splitting his time between Los Angeles, Boston, New York, London, and Spain during the course of writing and recording Seven More Minutes.

Seven More Minutes' biggest influence is Sharp's travels, but it's not really a road album, less about the places he's been to than the things he did when he was there. Falling in and out of love, dancing in a crowd of thousands, drinking and smoking until the sun came up, losing his inhibitions, trying to live in a foreign country, trying to live. If you want to know what happened to Sharp in the past few years, it's all there on the lyric sheet. And that's exactly what he wanted.

"I really wanted to make a change in my life, to be really open to letting environment affect everything I do," Sharp admits. "Let the people that surround you and the conversations that are going on, the life that you're leading, really impact everything, the way that you write and the way that you approach thinking about writing and everything. It was a better way for me to think about it, because it was just more in the moment.

 

"There were certain songs where, you know, you come up with this idea at 7:30 in the morning in this disco, with 3,000 people jumping up and down, all singing pop songs," he continues. "A lot of that inspired where I wanted to go, and I wanted to write songs that would be played in that same environment. So if I'd write something, I wanted to write something that would be played here, now. I don't know if I necessarily got there or not."

Only Sharp knows whether he captured the feelings he was having when he wrote the songs, but the sound of Seven More Minutes unquestionably benefits from the influence of musicians he met along the way, many of whom appear on the disc, including Albarn, Elastica's Donna Matthews, Lush's Miki Berenyi, and Ash's Tim Wheeler. Seven More Minutes retains traces of the Cars-Gary Numan fetish Sharp proudly displayed on Return of...--it still comes off as an ad for Moog synthesizers at times--but it has much more in common with the music made by his new friends. The furious "Insomnia" might as well be titled "Song 3," complete with woo-hoos, and "Say Goodbye Forever" begins with the same riff Elastica nabbed from Wire.

But Sharp couldn't have made the album without help from his old friends either. That Dog's Petra Haden, who sang and played violin on Return of..., is all over Seven More Minutes, lending her angelic voice to nine of the album's 15 tracks. (If you're wondering where Haden's violin is on Seven More Minutes, it ended up on Bella Neurox, her recently released album with Miss Murgatroid, which, it should be pointed out, bears no resemblance to her work with the Rentals. Or pop music in general.)

Sharp's former bandmate Rivers Cuomo also appears on the album, helping Sharp write the gentle "My Head Is in the Sun." The song happened almost by accident, and it's the kind of tune you wish had happened more often when they were in the same band.

"Rivers was out in L.A., actually trying to replace me at the time," Sharp recalls, laughing. "I was in Boston, living in his house and mixing the end of the record. He came back to Boston, and I showed him the song I was working on. We sat around and sang a bunch of stuff together. He played me one of his songs, and I ended up producing it for him. So we still get along, probably actually artistically better than we ever did when we were in the same band together. Which is too bad, because I do believe we could have done some great songs, written them together. With me and him, it's just not meant to be that way, I think, in the end."

Sharp insists that his split with Weezer had nothing to do with clashing egos or internal problems in the band. It had more to do with the fact that once his eyes were opened, he couldn't close them again. He couldn't find a way to be happy playing bass on someone else's songs, singing someone else's words. After recording Pinkerton, he found he had things to say he couldn't express as a member of Weezer anymore. So he quit, simple as that.

"You can look at it this way," Sharp says, sounding like he's explaining it for the 10th time that day. "If your life is changing consistently, and you're open to new ways of looking at life, and you're traveling a lot and learning a different way to look at things, and doing things that you're ashamed of, and doing things you're proud of, and running around, and eating the best food you've ever had in your life, and having the best sex you've ever had in your life, and learning how to write songs, and doing all that, and traveling around and touring, and having all these surreal experiences, and having just one intense experience after another, at some point you have to reflect that in some way in what I want to do artistically. I really just had some incredible experiences in the making of this record and being in Weezer. But if there's no real output for it, then I just don't get the point."

He doesn't rule out working with the band--or at least Cuomo--again in the future, but at the moment, Sharp has too much to worry about. He is heading back to Spain to shoot a video for the album's first single, "Getting By," and the band plans to head out on another endless tour shortly after the album is released. And, for the first time, he's actually trying to learn Spanish, more as an apology to the country and the people who helped him change his life than as a way to make it easier on him.

 

"I've literally picked up nothing," Sharp says, laughing at the absurdity of barely being able to communicate in the place he calls home. "I only recently started to study, because I just can't be that rude to the people that really influenced the record and have really let me come in and out and drift through their lives and show up on a moment's notice. After a while, you don't want to be the bad American tourist over there, taking everything for granted, especially since I have had such great experiences there.

"If I could really capture what some of those moments were like, especially the first few times I was there, I don't know how it couldn't sell a billion copies. So I wouldn't say that I necessarily did that. If you could just tap into something like that, it would be fantastic.


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