Despite F. Scott Fitzgerald's oft-quoted remark about the lack of second acts in American life, many pop stars in this country manage to rise and fall and rise again. Perhaps the best known example is Weezer, a band that churned out power-pop hits such as "Buddy Holly" until it lost momentum with its pessimistic and poorly received opus Pinkerton. Yet five years later, Weezer's gift for melancholy became better known than its gift for melody, and the band returned, bigger than ever thanks to a rabid cult following that multiplied during the hiatus.
True to the formula, former Weezer bassist Matt Sharp has had his share of rebirths. Having played on both Weezer's self-titled début and Pinkerton, Sharp left (first temporarily, then permanently in 1998, when he was mysteriously kicked out) to form the Rentals, whose bouncy Moog-driven début, Return of the Rentals, was a mock rebirth of an imaginary '80s new-wave group. With the help of Petra Hayden, of That Dog, he scored a jerky hit with "Friends of P," a tribute to model Paulina Porizkova. Released just before Pinkerton met its commercial demise, "Friends" seemed to suggest that Sharp had dodged a bullet.
But when Sharp tried to move forward with his career, he ran into problems. The Rentals' follow-up, Seven More Minutes, was both a catchier and deeper record, possibly the first masterpiece of new-wave revivalism. Despite its obvious quality and big shot guest stars such as Damon Albarn, the record vanished without a trace. To hear Sharp tell it, though, it might have been a blessing in disguise. "I think I'm very thankful for the fact that record didn't do well, because I don't think I could have continued to make record after record like that," he observes. Shortly after Minutes was released, he put the Rentals on hiatus and moved to Lieper's Fork, Tennessee, just outside of Nashville, to re-evaluate the direction he wanted to go with his music.
"In the beginning of when you start writing music," Sharp says, "you ask yourself a lot of questions about what it is you're trying to do. Basic and simple questions like 'Why do you like certain types of music?' I think everyone's just trying to write music that they want to hear from other people. Eventually, you hopefully find your way to doing that. At that point, you're cruising along, and, over time, I think [what you want to hear] changes. You're cruising along the same path, and you don't even notice it, but the type of music you're listening to doesn't have a lot to do with the music you're performing. I felt like it was time to remove myself and start re-asking those questions."
Now, three years later, Sharp is back in yet another incarnation, this time as a solo artist making the sort of music that answers those questions. The answer that Sharp came up with is that he was tired of "new-wave pogofests" and wanted to do something subtler and more personal. He enlisted Greg Brown, whom he describes as "one of the great American guitarists," and Josh Hager, an ambient multi-instrumentalist whom he'd previously enlisted for help on a Japanese Rentals tour. Together, they've come up with a somber, pedal-steel-driven sound that glides along sadly, like a post-heartbreak road trip.
In late 2002, after a number of recording sessions at Lieper's Fork and two years out of the public eye, Sharp began a slow return to the spotlight. Accompanied by Brown and Hager, Sharp set out on the first of a series of mini-tours, intending to road test the material they'd accumulated. They decided to hit small venues and soon earned a reputation for relaxed, intimate shows where everyone was encouraged to bring a pillow and sit on the floor together. Explains Sharp: "The shows we do are set up so that if the stage is large enough, we have everybody in the audience sit on the stage with us -- or if the stage is too small, we just sit on the floor with them and just try to bring down the barriers as much as possible."
Sharp has been pleased with the audience's response to his new material and says few fans have come expecting a return of his Moog-driven hooks. "The people that come are dedicated enough to what we've done in the past and what we're doing now that they kinda have an idea what it's about," he says. And though he hasn't had major publicity or advertising for his tour, word has gotten around, largely thanks to his Internet fan base.
As with Weezer, Sharp has enjoyed the support of loyal legions of fans, whose devotion seems to grow more rabid in his absence. In late 2001, a small group of them even launched a "Find Matt Sharp" initiative wherein they suggested writing letters to former Rental (and current Saturday Night Live actress) Maya Rudolph and other Sharp associates, demanding to know his whereabouts. Elsewhere, posters to his bulletin board are planning a tribute album to his oeuvre.
As for Sharp himself, his debut EP Puckett's versus the Country Boy comes out shortly, and he hopes to put his still-untitled début full-length record out later this year, once he finds a label. "The album is more of an ambient record," he says, "It's a strange record because one of the feelings I had about it is, in a strange way, I didn't want people to listen to it in the sense that they sit down with it and focus all of their attention on it."
Puckett's, on the other hand, is "a bridge from [the Rentals and Weezer] to what the full-length is about," Sharp explains. Indeed, the strummy and elegantly melodic "Goodbye West Coast" is more stripped down than, but otherwise not far removed from, late-era Rentals ballads such as "My Head Is in the Sun." Elsewhere, on "Visions of Anna," Hager's piano chimes listlessly over the track's languid pace. On the whole, the collection recalls the ethereal folk of Departure Lounge or the simpler songs of Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum.
After a three-year dry patch, Sharp plans to release an album a year for a while. He speaks of music now like a man who's been given a second (or, in this case, a third) chance. "The biggest thing that I've learned from taking so much time off is that it's the most beautiful thing in the world to be able to go out and tour," he says. "That connection we have with the people we're playing with is something I don't want to take that long a time away from again." One possibility he's considered: going back on tour solo or with just a piano player. He'd also like to record again with Rudolph, perhaps for a lighter release ("When we get together, it's like Burns and Allen," he quips).
The only thing Sharp rules out at this point is looking backward. Although he concedes his music doesn't "always have to be as sedate as it is right now," he says he won't revisit the Rentals' sound and has all but lost touch with his former bandmates in Weezer. "It's not that I'm not on speaking terms with them," Sharp explains, "we just went our separate ways." He doesn't seem to have any regrets, either: "I would never be embarrassed of anything I've done in the past. I think I might be embarrassed if I was doing it now."