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Any band that did U.S. van tours in the ’90s and early 2000s undoubtedly spent time listening to spooky AM radio during long overnight drives. That’s how Matt Sharp—longtime frontman/songwriter for The Rentals, and former/founding Weezer bassist—first discovered Art Bell’s legendary show Coast to Coast AM. It may have taken another fifteen years, but Sharp’s fascination with the show led him to write the song “Conspiracy” about Bell for The Rentals’ album Q36 (2020).
“Art’s long-time radio producer Michelle Freed reached out to me to say she had heard the song and was touched by the tribute to her old boss and colleague. She told me about a new show she was producing that was in the mold of those original Coast to Coast AM broadcasts and asked if I’d like to be a guest,” Sharp said in the interview below. “A few weeks later I was on Midnight Society with host Tim Weisberg.”
Art Bell may have been the initial spark for Sharp’s fascination with paranormal radio, but Midnight Society lit the creative fuse. The result is his latest collaboration with Nick Zinner of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Rental’s Present: The Midnight Society Soundtrack (Mondo/Death Waltz Records, 2022), a collection of 12 atmospheric scores each named for the location of a famous paranormal event.
The Midnight Society Soundtrack was originally released as a vinyl-only Record Store Day exclusive, but recently hit streaming services. I caught up with Sharp via email to discuss this project, his collaborations with Zinner, a few of my favorite Q36 tracks, his feelings about the song “Elon Musk Is Making Me Sad,” and to find out what he’s up to now.
Matt Sharp: In the early 2000s, when I was touring in support of my first solo album, we would always listen to Art Bell on his Coast to Coast AM radio show when we had to make those typical long drives to the next town between midnight and 4am. His show focused on having his listeners share wild stories of their interactions with the paranormal.
Art had this even-keeled, empathetic way of listening. I always admired that. No matter how outrageous or fantastical the tales became he always listened without being patronizing or overtly judgmental. He could be talking with a scientist from NASA or a random listener calling from a payphone and treat them with an equal amount of dignity and respect.
I think plenty of touring musicians spent quality van time with Art Bell over the decades. How did this concept evolve from there?
Matt Sharp: Yes, it’s one of the things that bands in vans and American truck drivers have always shared in common. The Rentals’ last album, Q36, has a song named “Conspiracy” that is a tribute of sorts to Art. Most of the song is sung from his perspective—listening to his caller’s wild stories and in turn imploring his followers “tell me all your theories and I will try to believe.”
Did Bell ever have a chance to hear the song?
Matt Sharp: Sadly, no. He died while we were still at the mid-production point.
Was that disappointing?
Matt Sharp: It was, but shortly after the song was released, Art’s long-time radio producer Michelle Freed reached out to me to say she had heard the song and was touched by the tribute to her old boss and colleague. She told me about a new show she was producing that was in the mold of those original Coast to Coast AM broadcasts and asked if I’d like to be a guest.
A few weeks later I was on Midnight Society with host Tim Weisberg. He took calls from listeners and we talked for hours and hours about ghost stories and tales of the supernatural. The very last caller of the evening asked if I would ever consider making music specifically for the show.
For some reason, that question kept me up that night. A few days later I sent Tim and Michelle a giant batch of ambient music that all revolved around Nick’s contributions to Q36.
Matt Sharp: As Q36 came to an end, a friend of mine introduced me to Mo Shafeek and Spencer Hickman at Mondo. A large part of their company is dedicated to making these brilliantly extravagant limited-edition soundtrack albums with completely reimagined artwork by a collective of renowned graphic artists; the packaging they create for these records is absolutely breathtaking.
At first, I couldn’t think of a way for us to collaborate that made much sense, because they are not a traditional record company that releases just pop music. Their catalog is usually much more niche than that, but then I remembered the music I played for Tim and Michelle and I must have asked something like “by any chance, would you be interested in creating an ambient soundtrack album for a paranormal talk radio show?”
There seemed to be something symbiotic about a little vampire like Zinner setting the mood for a show about ghosts and aliens and have it brought to life through the prism of Mondo.
Amazing. How did you and Nick Zinner come together to create these scores?
Matt Sharp: In 2006, I was in an airport with The Rentals on the way to play a small festival in Spain when a friend called me and said “Hey! Listen to this!” I could barely hear what he was playing amidst all the public service announcements, but it was a recording of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs doing an acoustic cover of The Rentals song “The Love I’m Searching For.” That moment pinned an eleven-hour smile on my face and it lasted through the entire cross-continental flight. It was a very special moment.
Later that year I was in NYC at a New Year’s Eve party and bumped into Nick. It gave me an opportunity to tell him how much I appreciated their version of that song and then proceeded to drunkenly tell him that I thought we should create something together whenever the time was right. He agreed, but by the next day I was pretty sure he was just indulging the irrational confidence I found in a bottle of Fernet.
Matt Sharp: Nine or ten years later I read somewhere that Nick was in town to perform a live score for the Miyazaki film Spirited Away at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). I called him to say I was excited to see the performance, but he told me the show had already passed. He was still in town so I invited him up to my little home studio to give me feedback on some music I was working on. When he arrived, I explained that I was working on a cycle of songs that, thematically, would all take place in outer-space. It was my opinion then, and still is now, that if you really need someone to lift you sonically off this soil and take you on an interstellar adventure, there is nobody better to pilot that ship than Nick Zinner.
I played him a rough sketch of “Elon Musk Is Making Me Sad.” As soon as the song ended he told me to send it to him because he already knew what he wanted to add. We listened to a handful of songs after that and then he lifted his pant legs up to reveal he was wearing socks with little alien heads printed on them and simply said “I’m in.” An hour or two after Nick left he sent me an email with all his tracks for “Elon” and another song called “Breaking and Breaking.” We continued to work together that way, from a distance, in isolation all the way until the end of the album.
Throughout the production of Q36 I had a constant desire and yearning to share with everyone the subtler aspects of Nick’s contribution knowing they would eventually get eaten up in the bombast of a big David Fridmann production. So, I made quick instrumental rough mixes that were completely built around his tracks just to selfishly satisfy that itch. Those mixes eventually became the genesis of TMSS.
Matt Sharp: The guys at Mondo were quite enthusiastic about the overall concept album, but they said to fit it into their upcoming release schedule they would need the final mixes for the album delivered in only three weeks. Panic set in almost immediately because all we had were a few rough ideas, but not one track was even remotely worked out. The whole album had to be arranged, mixed and mastered from scratch in 21 days.
Matt Sharp: Haha, yes …Amongst my friends I have this well-earned reputation for being nauseatingly slow when it comes to completing anything, so a 3-week challenge was quite intimidating considering my average time to complete a full album is well over 3 years.
How did you choose the specific paranormal events you used as TMSS song titles?
Matt Sharp: Each track on TMSS was derived from one of the 16 original songs on Q36, but having them retain the titles from those songs really didn’t fit what we were all setting out to do. So, we asked the folks at Midnight Society to give us a list of infamous paranormal events that get talked about the most on their show.
While I was working on arranging the music, my girlfriend would go through their list and create a mini-dossier for each place including the exact location of where these other worldly events were said to have taken place. Then as the music started to take shape we would have fun conversations that might start off like “does this piece of music sound like the place where Bigfoot was discovered or does it sound a little more like Skinwalker Ranch?”
Matt Sharp: After the album was handed in the folks at Mondo introduced me to a young illustrator named Henry Abrams. Henry was brought on board to create all the visual concepts and artwork for the album and was an absolute joy to work with. To get into the mood during this lengthy process, we would both listen to these Apple Music Stations that play old Art Bell broadcasts on a constant loop. That really helped set the tone and inspired Henry to come up with some very twisted concepts before eventually landing where we finally ended up.
What are some current paranormal radio shows or podcasts you listen to?
Matt Sharp: Beyond listening to old Coast to Coast AM broadcasts on Apple Music, I would strongly suggest people listen to the actual Midnight Society radio show, because Tim Weisberg is the great spiritual successor to Art Bell.
Have you ever thought about hosting a podcast yourself?
Matt Sharp: Q36 is a 16-track double-album and we decided to release a different song from it every two weeks and that meant the whole thing was slowly rolled out over eight months. Before we started, I talked with a few different friends about the possibility of simultaneously producing a podcast in conjunction with each song. The idea wasn’t an all music-oriented Song Exploder type thing—I wanted to take a single lyric from each song and have it act as a springboard into tangential, strange history deep dives.
For instance, our song “Invasion Night” tells a story about the last two people on earth. In a panic they hot wire an old car and drive all the way up to Hearst Castle to watch the end of the world like most Americans watch fireworks on the 4th of July. The podcast would have shared a brief history and explored a few of the castle’s hidden secrets.
TMSS is a big departure from The Rentals’ more pop rock-oriented releases. Is there any difference in how you approach the songwriting and production for something like this versus The Return Of The Rentals or Lost In Alphaville?
Matt Sharp: In 2011, I produced an instrumental album called Resilience. It was to benefit the Red Cross after the Tsunami hit Japan. In a similar fashion, elements of that album were derived from straight pop songs and we used those elements as a catalyst to create more orchestrated ambient instrumentals.
Both Resilience and TMSS were more like creating a documentary out of found footage. You are taking something that has essentially been lost and trying to salvage what you can in an attempt to make something beautiful out of some detritus you found in the trash.
Matt Sharp: Oh, no. I never did any film work before the Weezer days. I definitely had delusions of grandeur that if I bought a keyboard with orchestral samples I could—with the press of a single key—be the next John Williams, but that never got further than fantastical phony daydreams.
The most I ever messed around with scoring was for an art project called Songs About Time. Within that, we set out to make 52 short films in a year. All of those little art films needed a quick, slapdash score and it was was my job to pull that together.
I’m a big fan of Q36. Any plans to release more music like that in the future?
Matt Sharp: Thank you. At the moment, I’m down the rabbit hole in the process of cataloging and archiving whatever unreleased music I can find from my past. I’m not exactly sure what will come out of it, if anything at all, but it feels like a very necessary spring cleaning before I start thinking about whatever will come next. That leaves the future a total mystery.
Matt Sharp: I set out to try to write a modern fable like the The Tortoise and the Hare. A simple children’s story of two young boys that grew up as best friends and had an imaginary lifelong competition with each other. In the story each boy earned their own small victories, but only one of them ends up an all-powerful, messianic, Jesus Christ Superstar like figure. I suppose that character could have been Jeff Bezos or Richard Branson or some other gazillionaire with interstellar aspirations, but none of the other choices were nearly as colorful as Elon.
One thing I never considered while writing “Elon Musk” is that ultimately the song itself will be colored by whatever eventually happens to the real life Elon Musk—whether he completes his metamorphosis into a mustache-twirling supervillain; evolves into a sweet and humble philanthropist hero in a comfy cardigan sweater; or even if he completely flames out and fades from all relevancy. Wherever he lands, the song will go with him.
Matt Sharp: That is a strange one. I almost never try to revive ideas from the past, but the seeds of that song were left on the cutting room floor just after The Rentals’ second album, Seven More Minutes. The working title back in ’99, was “Movers & Shakers” and it was just one of those things that no matter how much time had passed a little snippet of the melody stayed with me.
After busting out the defibrillator and performing CPR on this simple lullaby, it seemed to morph into a lyrical collage about being born into an ultra-violent world during the Vietnam war, and then surviving into middle age only to discover a planet-killing weapon on Mars has just been activated. Just like “Invasion Night,” there are only a few hours left in the survival of humanity.
I thought it might be funny if our protagonist learned that the end of the world was coming while standing outside of Buckingham Palace, just being your everyday run of the mill tourist. Immediately upon hearing the news all of the commoners storm the palace gates for one last blowout. I don’t think I meant the title as a John Lennon reference, but that rattle your jewelry line is certainly on the surface of my subconscious and could have easily sparked that thought.
Any chance that we’ll ever be able to see TMSS performed live?
Matt Sharp: My guess is it is very unlikely. But weirder things—like the existence of the album in the first place—have already happened. Like all good paranormal stories, the answer to that question will have to remain a mystery for now.
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