"I lived in outer space throughout this," Matt Sharp said about the Rentals' new double album, Q36. "My girlfriend is going to be thrilled when my brain is finally allowed to return to Earth."
To hear him tell it, Sharp's experiences making Q36 were a blend of escapism, patient persistence, and a new collaborative mindset. Five years ago, he set out to write 50 new songs that didn't originate from his personal experiences, but that explored other people's worlds and stories. Only once he zoomed out and looked at the overall collection of songs did he realize that his brain had left the planet. The songs told stories, both real and imagined, about doomed or lonely astronauts, explored sci-fi literature and films, and imagined a lifelong rival of Elon Musk, among other space-themed ideas.
And it's not just that Sharp has seen Star Wars too many times, although his story about seeing it for the first time is excellent. Q36 was partly created as a way to escape from his unhappy reality, in which his father was near death, and found Sharp in a less dictatorial mode regarding its creation. He even let Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs pick the album's songs from the pool of 50, a level of control he never would have relinquished before. Sharp spoke with AllMusic about Q36's unexpected theme, misusing Patrick Carney on the previous Rentals album, and his childhood Star Wars tantrum.
AllMusic: You've been releasing the songs individually over several months, does that give you a deeper relationship with each one?
Matt Sharp: Usually when I finish a record, once it's out there in the ether, it's no longer mine. The thing that distinguishes Q36 from any of the past music that I've worked on is that we've been releasing one song at a time since November, and each time we release a song, it kind of gives me a way to say goodbye over the course of that two weeks until the next one comes out, and that's been really meaningful, much more satisfying for me. Then I can sort of send it off to college, now that piece of music is becoming its own person and can survive on its own. That's given me a more meaningful experience with each piece of music than I have in the past with traditional records, where you put out the album and have a single or two, and that's it.
AllMusic: Do you get the sense that other musicians you know enjoy delving into the worlds of their songs this much, or do find that you get more invested than most?
Sharp: You may be a Stanley Kubrick and take 10 years before your next movie comes out, or you may be some more prolific filmmaker who just creates and creates and moves on to the next one. Although there's a lot more variation between artists than that, I think about people being in those categories: Soderbergh versus Kubrick, or Leonard Cohen versus Bob Dylan, as far as people who created in two completely different ways. In Bob's case, for the majority of his career, it was album, album, album, two or three a year, and meanwhile, Leonard Cohen's rolling around on the floor for five years trying to figure out a rhyme for "orange" and get the thing just right. I think that I definitely fall into the type of person who is going to spend a lot more time, and it doesn't mean that you have any less of a desire to work, you just have a specific way of getting there, and in my case, it takes some time.
AllMusic: Are you that meticulous and selective in all areas of your life?
Sharp: No, if you told me that I can only have a cheese sandwich for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the next month, I'd be totally fine with that. With this album, I was more able to be a strong enough person, when I was working with other people, to not over-micromanage them. That happened a bit on the last Rentals record, where Patrick Carney from the Black Keys played drums. We recorded the drums last, and by the time we got to him, the tone of the music and the tempos and the feelings were already in place, and I had to figure out how to bring him into it and make it all fit together, and by the time the album was finished, much of the thing that makes him him was gone.
When I went into this record, the main collaborator was Nick Zinner from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and if anyone is able to create worlds and bring the music into outer space, it's Nick. When I brought him in, I wasn't sure if it would resonate with him, so I played him a ton of music before we started. Once we were done listening to everything, I told him, if he was interested in collaborating on the music together, I would want everything to start from him, I'd want him to pick the songs. So he chose all of the songs that we worked on, which is something I never would have had the strength to do. So the 16 songs on the album are Nick's choosing.
AllMusic: Were you surprised by any of Nick's choices?
Sharp: There's the song "The Ninth Configuration." I wondered if, in the history of all the space programs, has an astronaut ever returned to earth and not been able to cope? I tried to find a nonfiction story about somebody like that, because I imagine they'd be a fascinating person. I couldn't find them, but I did find that film and book The Ninth Configuration, and I ended up writing the song as a quick elevator pitch of the script.
It was written just after Bowie had passed, and I was not writing it as a thing I wanted included on any album, it was just for me. I was singing in this overtly colorful Bowie style, just to see if I could do it. I was thinking about him and singing in this large voice, which I'd never sung with before, and it would make me laugh. It felt the least connected to my personal story, and yet it felt somehow very emotional, and it raises the hair on your arms, even though it's this silly thing.
Towards the end of the album, Nick said, "What else do you have?" and I played him a series of things, including that. I was embarrassed to play it, since I was doing a bit of a Bowie impersonation, and the moment he heard it he said, "That absolutely is going on the record," he had no doubt. I was a little bit, "Are you sure about that?" and he said, "Yeah, just find your own voice. You can sing that same song as yourself, just find your voice within there." People commented that it reminded them of Bowie, or it sounded strange for me to be singing that way, but the reason why is because of its origins, and I couldn't completely erase that influence. I'm glad I wasn't able to.
AllMusic: The album combines science-fiction ideas of space with concepts more rooted in reality and human experience. What were your main touchstones for envisioning space?
Sharp: I was seven years old when Star Wars came out, and on the way to the theater and my parents said, "Oh, we're going to see a new science-fiction film." When I heard the word "science," it made me think they were taking me back to school. I started kicking the back of the chair in the station wagon, going, "I don't want to go back to school!", with tears flowing down my face, horrified at the prospect of having to sit in class and learn something. So I was having this little tantrum, and then once we were in one of the front rows of the theater, from that moment on, my jaw dropped and I was filled with awe at every frame.
I grew up in Arlington, Virginia, and one thing that was really great was you could get on the DC Metro; it had these lights in the tunnel that would flash by, and you could sit facing the opposite direction and feel like you were in a spaceship. It would take you straight to the Air and Space Museum in Washington, and you walk in and immediately see these gigantic rockets right in the front. So I could go from the theater, watching Star Wars and seeing all these visuals you'd never seen, opening up your imagination like mad, and the next minute I was in the Air and Space Museum and feeling like all those fantasies you're having are real or could be real. That combination of those two things was such a luxury to have as a kid.
AllMusic: Do you think you can pursue other ideas as intently as you did with space here, or was this a special deep dive?
Sharp: I first started with the simple questions of, "What interests you? What are you curious about?" So the album started from there, and I wrote 50 songs about a variety of things, not all with a central theme of science-fiction or outer space, but just wrote and wrote until I got to 50, and I figured, "Once I get to 50, that's a good spot to take a step back and look at what you've done and see if there's something you keep coming back to." It's like in any FBI movie with the cork board and the yarn going from one thing to another, you take that step back and see that half of these songs aren't even on this planet.
Now, with quite a bit of distance, I realize that I was looking for a way to escape, and songwriting was the way to do that. I didn't particularly want to have my feet firmly on the ground on earth, I didn't want to face the more difficult things with my father, I wanted to get out of here, and space was an easy place to escape to and inhabit. I think that's really the starting point for everything that this album is about.
I don't know if there are things in life that would trigger me to do that again. My girlfriend has joked with me about, "Are you going to be in the Wild West after this, writing cowboy songs? Are you going to write about Napoleon and walk around saying 'Vive le France'?" I have no idea, I don't think I can pre-plan any of those things, I think you have to get in there and start writing and see if there's an obvious direction. With this album, it was quite obvious.