Reeling In The ’70s: Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs Turn Back the Clock on Under the Covers Vol. 2
For alt-pop icons Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs, who have been collaborating on and off for over a decade, the motivating factor was simple: allow the spirit of the song to lead the way.
“I was never that into doing covers,” Sweet confides, “because I think people have a tendency to ‘make it their own,’ and I often find they just end up with a weird version of the original. From my experience, when you can create an exciting landscape to be in, that’s what makes it more faithful to the original.”
In the case of Under the Covers Vol. 2 [Shout! Factory], the landscape is the 1970s—a logical step beyond the ’60s bent of Vol. 1, and a time when pop music was a many-splintered thing that hugged the blues-rock swagger of mavericks like Rod Stewart and Derek and the Dominos in the same embrace as the earthy psychedelia of Todd Rundgren and the pastoral Brit progfolk of Yes. Tracked largely at Sweet’s Lolina Green Studio, nestled in the back of his secluded home in the Hollywood Hills, the album’s 16 songs capture a mood and sound of the era.
“We realized in learning these songs that they were very spontaneous,” Hoffs explains, “so they had to be recorded in a spontaneous way because obviously they didn’t have endless tracks and endless amounts of choices back then. And there are a lot of imperfections on those records—or I should say those records are perfect in their imperfections. It was all about the feel. It wasn’t about a perfectly in-time drum track or a perfect vocal. They’re about emotion and feel and the spirit of the song.”
Of course, it helps when you have Lindsey Buckingham (on Fleetwood Mac’s “Second Hand News”), Steve Howe (on Yes’ “I’ve Seen All Good People”) and Dhani Harrison (son of George and a standout on “Beware of Darkness”) along for the mission. They were eager to contribute when they understood how reverently Sweet and Hoffs had kept to each song’s intent.
“We tried to learn the main parts pretty much as they are, but like Sue says, it would drive you out of your mind to make it perfect, because records back then were real,” says multi-instrumentalist/singer Sweet, who played a Fano electric guitar through 65amps 65-London and Swart amps, and enlisted help from longtime collaborators Ric Menck (drums) and Greg Leisz (guitars). “There was a looseness to [music from that era] that there isn’t now, so to try to capture that exactly would be too hard. The way we do it is by not playing with clicks and not doing modern stuff—just playing it like it would have been played then.”
With one notable exception—Sweet doesn’t record to tape. He’s a Pro Tools veteran, having first used the program in the mixing phase of his 1991 power-pop breakthrough, Girlfriend. These days he records and mixes entirely inside the box with a Pro Tools HD 8 setup outfitted with two Accel cards, Digidesign’s 192 I/O, and a C|24 console.
So how does he conjure the thickly compressed guitars of The Raspberries’ “Go All the Way,” the distant piano echoes of Todd Rundgren’s “Hello It’s Me” or the full-blanket spread of the drum kit on Big Star’s “Back of A Car”? Besides an array of microphones and preamps that lean vintage—including AEA stereo ribbon and Telefunken Ela M mics, and Universal Audio’s 2-610 and TAB Funkenwerk’s V78M preamps— Sweet relies on McDSP plug-ins and Audio Ease Altiverb’s Bill Putnam Echo Chambers (chambers 2, 4, and 5 at Cello Studios in L.A.) so he can paint with an analog brush in the digital realm.
“When McDSP’s Retro Pack came out last fall,” Sweet recalls, “it sounded so good that I had to go back and replace almost everything, even though we were already mixing. For the last few years I’ve been using the AEA ribbon mic for the drum overhead, and when you run that through the  Retro Limiter, it really squashes the cymbals, very much like what the Beatles got at Abbey Road.”
For anyone used to the signature Stevie Nicks-like clarity of Hoffs’ vocal work with The Bangles over the years, there are some pleasant surprises. She nails the Rod Stewart rasp on “Maggie May,” and takes Jon Anderson’s complex melodies to task on “I’ve Seen All Good People.” With Sweet’s help, Hoffs recently installed a sister Pro Tools studio in her own house, where she voiced most of the album’s background vocals (as well as the lead for Little Feat’s “Willin’”) on an Ela M 251. The two traded sessions online via Pando when they weren’t working together at Lolina Green.
“One revelation about working with Matthew is that he’s broken down all these rituals I had about overanalyzing and over-perfecting,” Hoffs says. “Sometimes when you first try a song, you think you can perform it better the second time, but there’s something magical about that first take. You don’t always need to clean it up and make it perfect, because the emotion is already there. That has a lot to do with why these songs will always have a place in my heart.”