The Rentals’ 15-Year Lease

By
Photography Dirk Mai

Published August 26, 2014

ABOVE: THE RENTALS’ MATT SHARP. PHOTO BY DIRK MAI

Almost 15 years have passed since the release of Seven More Minutes, the second full-length album by the The Rentals. Today, Lost in Alphaville, the band’s third and most explosive offering yet, blasts its way into the public sphere. Frontman Matt Sharp, the only remaining constant in the band, concedes that Lost in Alphaville is, at least thematically, the long-gestating and admittedly superior sequel to Seven More Minutes. Emotional seeds planted 15 years ago, mostly dealing with the difficulties of building and maintaining relationships (a topic Sharp seems to understand better than most headstrong musical show-runners) blossom in simple yet profound lyrical musings, perhaps best summed up in the title of the album’s second track, the bittersweet “Traces of Our Tears.”

Much has been speculated about Sharp’s tumultuous past with Weezer (Sharp parted ways with the group after playing on both the legendary “Blue Album” and Pinkerton). In the space between those albums (arguably Weezer’s best), Sharp recorded The Rentals’ ironic debut, Return of The Rentals (1995). It scored an unlikely hit with the light and quirky geek-pop anthem “Friends of P,” which broke through to mainstream audiences amidst a writhing sea of masculine mid-’90s grunge and floundering post-punk anguish.

In many ways, the current musical climate is primed for Sharp’s triumphant return. The guitar, a standard of the ’90s, has given way to the synthesizer, an instrument (the Moog Source, especially, for Sharp) synonymous with The Rentals. On Lost in Alphaville, Sharp embraces his affinity for complex, out-front production techniques and, with the guiding hand of the extremely prolific D. Sardy (Jay Z, LCD Soundsystem), pushes it to a delightfully monstrous level. Sharp’s consistently cool, low-octave vocals frequently take a back seat to the angelic, songbird sparring of Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of the Brooklyn-based five-piece Lucius.

Sharp recorded with the ladies of Lucius in New York, while the rest of the album was recorded in nomadic, hunter-gatherer fashion across the country. He ventured to Nashville to enlist the percussion talents and raw pulsating energy of Patrick Carney of The Black Keys, while sessions with violist and ongoing collaborator Lauren Chipman of The Section Quartet were accomplished remotely. “I had the little compact home studio thing—basically a laptop with a backpack full of microphones. It was all really guerilla style,” says Sharp, who spent weeks with Chipman sneaking into local conservatories with mischievous professors to record on immaculate baby grand pianos. In one instance, Chipman assembled and conducted a 30-piece children’s choir at the crack of dawn with little to no permission in the institution’s auditorium.

Not to be outdone, rounding out the latest incarnation of The Rentals is guitarist Ryen Slegr of the Pasadena-based New Wave power pop outfit Ozma. It should be noted that Slegr’s guitar, like Sharp’s mellow voice, is by no means entirely lost in the shuffle. On “Song of Remembering,” Slegr’s guitar leads the charge in a nihilistic ballad of epic power-chord euphoria.

For Sharp, the process of recording Lost in Alphaville was a journey unlike any he’d previously taken. Speaking on the phone from his home in East L.A., the seasoned indie veteran, hipster progenitor, and magnet for some of the greatest musicians in the last quarter century explains how he never got hung up on the final destination, but knew only that it had to be somewhere he had never been before.

KURT MCVEY: Where are you right now?

MATT SHARP: I’m in Los Angeles. I’m wearing all black and it’s very freaking hot outside. So I’m second-guessing my choice of clothing.

MCVEY: If you weren’t wearing all black I’d be a little disappointed.

SHARP: I should be in puffy old shorts and a Hawaiian shirt, holding a Mai Tai with an umbrella and all that kind of stuff.

MCVEY: Do you own a Hawaiian shirt?

SHARP: No, I don’t. I gotta look into that.

MCVEY: Is there a point in a man’s life where he feels compelled to buy a Hawaiian shirt?

SHARP: It just might be the final surrender.

MCVEY: [laughs] Is L.A. where you lay your hat? Are you officially home and sedentary for the time being?

SHARP: I’m both sedentary and catatonic. In fact, I’m completely immobile. [both laugh]

MCVEY: Do you live in one of those cozy L.A. suburbs?

SHARP: Despite being here since 2008, it’s still difficult to tell where I am exactly. I kind of live at the crossroads of four different neighborhoods. There’s a place called Eagle Rock and Highland Park, Glassell Park and Mt. Washington, and from one street to the next you’re in one neighborhood and out the other. Right now it seems to be the destination for a massive migration of New Yorkers.

MCVEY: People are really getting squeezed out of this city at the moment, even Brooklyn. A lot of my friends are bailing.

SHARP: It’s funny, because I’ve been contemplating moving to Manhattan or Brooklyn only because it would be more conducive to the way I put this album together. In having different collaborators and contributors, rehearsing and recording, playing live shows, isn’t so easy when you have to drive from all over to get together. Also, I miss the street interactions. I have friends in New York or Brooklyn who are in bands and they look at L.A. like a retirement home for musicians.

MCVEY: What keeps you in L.A.?

SHARP: My place. It’s got a lot of space, and there’s a group of redwoods in my front yard that give it a Northern California feel. It’s also very quiet, so I don’t have to worry about it being too noisy when I record at home. Not so easy in New York, I hear.

MCVEY: Are you living alone? Do you have a bunch of pets or an entourage?

SHARP: I totally have an entourage. In fact, I’ve got Turtle living on the couch right now. [both laugh] No, I live alone.

MCVEY: Is David “D” Sardy, the producer, still based out of Brooklyn?

SHARP: Well, he mixed this album. I was really focused on him being the last major contributor. Actually, bringing him on for this was one of the greatest decisions I’ve ever made creatively. He was along for a good part of the ride. Nothing was going to stand in my way working with him.

MCVEY: Would you call yourself the producer of Lost in Alphaville?

SHARP: Well, I’m certainly the director of the album. As far as producing, I worked with each collaborator in isolation, one on one. So each individual piece, each moment, we produced together. I really, really trusted that each person would be able to push and pull, hit and bite back a little bit.

MCVEY: You’ve got some great people working with you on this album. Was it more about bringing the individual musicians and their respective talents on board, or were you looking to incorporate sound elements from their respective bands? In other words, did you say to yourself at one point, “I’d like this Rentals album to sound a little bit like Lucius with a little bit of The Black Keys with some Ozma thrown in?”

SHARP: It was more about focusing on the ideas we were looking to explore. We approached Lost in Alphaville in a very different way, in that I laid out the ideas like scaffolding for each contributor and we went off on these individual explorations until those chapters merged into one complete journey. I had the title, I did the album artwork very early—I knew how I wanted it to flow. I definitely wanted “It’s Time To Come Home” to open the album, and I knew I wanted “The Future” to close it out.

MCVEY: It’s been 15 years since the last Rentals album. Is opening the album with “It’s Time to Come Home” an acknowledgment of your return to a genre of music which seems to be having a moment, especially in Brooklyn—this big, layered, synthed-out indie-pop eargasm—a type of sound you were doing well before it was a thing? Are you coming home to roost in a way?

SHARP: [laughs] There’s no literal meaning behind most of the lyrical content. Some of it is reflective. You make it sound like I’m Clint Eastwood sitting on my stoop and all these kids keep walking on my fucking lawn.

MCVEY: [laughs] They’re trying to steal your Gran Torino, and you’re not going to let that happen, Matt.

SHARP: Exactly, but instead of a Gran Torino, it’s a Moog synthesizer.  

MCVEY: [laughs] I’m glad you brought up the Moog. Is that instrument part of The Rentals’ identity? How present is the Moog in this album?

SHARP: It’s kind of like John Bonham, who only played Ludwigs because they have a certain sound, or a guitar-driven band that only plays Les Pauls or Fender Stratocasters. I don’t do that much programming. I’m not looking for the latest thing. I honestly don’t really know that much about synthesizers, only that I find using them to be very satisfying. The ones that I use I’ve had since before we recorded Return of The Rentals, and I just love them. They’re the last Moog Sources that Bob [Moog] really had his hands on before he sold the company.

MCVEY: When I saw the title of this album, I immediately thought of the Jean-Luc Godard film Alphaville; this weird, pre-Gattaca, pre-Blade Runner exercise in sci-fi film noir.

SHARP: I know it well.

MCVEY: The other is the German synth-pop band of the same name that recorded the amazing “Forever Young,” which has been covered a million times.

SHARP: I actually just learned that Jay Z just sampled that. I think of that as being a pretty massive hit for him.

MCVEY: Yeah, I believe so.

SHARP: As far as the German band Alphaville, there was some concern that people might get confused when searching for the album online. In fact, this girl I was seeing brought that up on the phone, so to prove a point on how ludicrous the potential for confusion was and how amazing and specific something like Google can be, I typed the first random combination of words that popped into my head in the search bar.

MCVEY: And that was?

SHARP: “Marshmallow machine gun.” [both laugh]

MCVEY: I want one.

SHARP: Well, you’re in luck. There were a million results featuring actual marshmallow machine guns. I actually ordered a couple and gave them to some friends who have kids.

MCVEY: Can you give us a hint as to what the title actually means for you?

SHARP: I think it would be pretty easy to think it’s a reference to something musical when thematically; it’s more about being lost in the place where it all began.

MCVEY: Do you feel like you’re coming full circle in a way with this album?

SHARP: No. [laughs] I’m not trying to recapture anything. It’s really about moving forward. I don’t have much reverence for what I’ve done in the past. Even the whole production process was completely new to me. Also, at this moment, I couldn’t be a bigger fan of the people who worked on this album with me. I think Jess and Holly of Lucius recently made one of the best albums [Wildewoman, 2013, Mom + Pop] I’ve ever heard. It just knocked me out. Certainly [Patrick] Carney is that in a big way. Some of the things The Section Quartet is doing are just incredible; so alive, smart, relevant, inspiring and just very much in this moment.

MCVEY: I feel compelled to ask you about guys like Rivers Cuomo, Patrick Wilson [Weezer], or even Josh Hager [longtime Rentals collaborator]. Have you sent the album to them? Are they still in your life in any way?

SHARP: I occasionally speak to Pat. The gaps can be pretty wide, but when we do talk it’s like we speak every day. It’s funny that you mentioned Josh in there, I actually just saw him after quite a bit. I brought him over to my home studio and he was really the last guy to listen to the album with me before I turned it in. We were sitting there like we were about to watch a movie together— popping popcorn, you know? We listened to the whole thing, side by side, from start to finish. It was kind of the last moment that the album was still mine and not everyone else’s.

MCVEY: The umbilical cord had yet to be severed.

SHARP: Right. Josh is an ambitious fellow, too, and we have similar desires. He said something very cool to me, actually, something that just meant so much to me—a sweet musical moment, really. After we listened from the first chapter to the last, he turned to me and said, “Hey, one of us finally did this thing.”

LOST IN ALPHAVILLE IS OUT NOW. FOR MORE ON THE RENTALS, PLEASE VISIT THE BAND’S WEBSITE.