Released earlier this year, Matthew Sweet’s newest solo album, Catspaw, features the power pop great's most feral guitar playing yet. While in the past he had turned to Television's Richard Lloyd, or Richard Hell and the Voidoids members Robert Quine and Ivan Julian to handle the leads on some of his biggest songs, the new album forges forward with Sweet laying down unhinged vibrato ("Blown Away") or slip-slidin', back-masked sustain ("Parade of Lights").
Well before snarling through his Catspaw with raw abandon, though, Sweet and Co. praised the world's doofiest Great Dane with a playful reworking of the iconic theme to Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! His band's tribute was part of 1995's Saturday Morning: Cartoon's Greatest Hits compilation. Having been a major fan of the cowardly mutt and the cartoon's uniquely gothic presentation, Sweet was quick to single out the Scooby theme when album producer Ralph Sall came calling for a cover.
“It’s kind of funny, because I’m really known as more of a cat person— I’m a cat maniac! But when I was a kid, I actually watched Scooby-Doo regularly. I really liked ghosts and monsters, all that spooky stuff. Even if, as I remember it, it was pretty much always Old Man Withers that was really causing the haunting, I really dug the spooky vibe that Scooby-Doo had."
Speaking with Gut Feeling, Sweet riffed on his love of the supernatural, his evolving lead style, and how ol' Scoob has stuck with him over the years.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Was “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!” ever a part of your set?
Matthew Sweet: I don’t remember really covering the song at live shows, but I remember people yelling for it quite a bit.
Did the band that you had going at the time at least have it in the back pocket, were you to maybe give in to that kind of a request?
We never really learned it for the live shows. I want to ask you, do you know who played on it?
Richard Lloyd is on lead guitar, Tony Marsico on bass, Stuart Johnson on Drums, and, of course, yourself on guitar.
So that actually would have been the guys I was touring with at that time. That’s amazing Richard is on it. I would view it as something unique that he played on— not that he hadn't played on lots of my stuff back then, but in particular on a cartoon song? That’s pretty cool that he’s the one playing lead.
Tony toured with me and played bass, so that helps me remember [the timeframe]. On almost all the records I made back then, I played bass— I was a bass player, originally. So that tells me we were probably actively touring if everyone was around—and in particular if Richard was around. We probably would have just been in town [in Los Angeles] at the time. I probably only played rhythm guitar; Richard would have been the lead player on it. And I didn’t play bass if Tony played on it.
Do you remember shooting the music video? You’re basically all chilling on a stoop in front of an old apartment building, like a “Waiting on a Friend” vibe…
I do remember sitting on a stoop. I believe it was in New York, but it might’ve been L.A.. Was there any footage of the cartoon in it?
Yeah, the band shots were spliced with chase scenes, or shots of Scooby popping out of a barrel—all that classic footage.
I feel like I was on the road so much then that I don’t even remember seeing a finished video. Like you said, we sat on a stoop. If we were pressed for time, we were probably doing a show in New York and they arranged to get it filmed. That’s cool that that exists, though. Are there many other music videos from the album?
There was a whole VHS component to the release. All the bands had performance footage cut with cartoon clips.
That’s crazy! I just don’t remember that. That would explain, partly, how the record was so successful at the time; I actually have a gold record from Saturday Morning.
It’s interesting, because much later on I actually did some music for a new version of Scooby-Doo called Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated. They asked me to do a theme song, and I made a version that was actually Susanna Hoffs and I doing this fun, upbeat sort of Scooby song. For some reason they didn’t want to use that one, [so] I worked on it quite a bit over time, and it became an instrumental— a sort of spooky synthesizer type thing. They did end up using that, and I loved hearing that on the show. It was really cool! They sent me stills of the animation [while I was writing the theme]—just jpegs of it, but it was cool to see the artwork. I enjoyed watching that series. Scooby did hang in my life.
Also, I run into people who know me from when they were kids and had that record [Saturday Morning]. A lot of parents probably got it for their kids. It’s amazing how long ago it was. We just celebrated the 30th anniversary of my record Girlfriend; I believe Saturday Morning is 26 years, now.
That was in 1995, the same year you released 100 % Fun. Basing this off the timeframe, would your gear have been similar between the Scooby Session and 100 % Fun? In the video you’re playing an Epiphone Casino; around then you also had the sponsorship ads…
At that time I had so many guitars and switched between them a lot, but that sounds right about the Casino. It was one of the things I was playing at that time, in particular because of that Epiphone promotion. I worked with them to try to up the quality of the Casino. They eventually put out these excellent [models]–one with a finish, and one in the Beatles way of having the finish sanded off. They might not have made them just yet, but I was getting guitars from them. If I had a Casino at that shoot, I would’ve been playing them live at the same time.
Let’s get into your arrangement of “Scooby Doo, Where Are You!” The original is, you know, one of the most iconic TV themes of all time, but there are some really cool, unique elements to your version, too. Richard plays this hooky, spritely lick motif in the verses, for instance. Or you all walk it home with a surfy half-time feel. How long did it take to arrange this take?
Not long! A lot of times I would get drums down, play bass and guitars myself, and eventually add a lead player. I’m going to say we were all there for this, so it could’ve been worked out on the spot. The two studios that we recorded at, [Los Angeles'] Kingsound and Andora, weren’t places I normally worked. It was just whatever the engineer or Ralph got us.
Somebody might’ve said “go into half time,” or whatever. It’s kind of hard to say, but I don’t really remember any records of mine where a lot of labour went into arranging things
Connecting the leads on this to what you’re playing across Catspaw, had working with Richard or Robert Quine help shape your own approach to soloing?
Anything I picked up would’ve been through osmosis, just by hearing all those guys play guitar. Also, I would throw in Ivan Julian, who toured with me quite a bit.
Richard plays on the recording, but it’s actually Ivan playing with you in the video.
Oh, ok! That’s interesting, too. That makes sense. Richard had stopped touring with us by the time we shot the video. That would have been early on in Ivan joining the band, and that state of the band—what’s in the video— is how it stayed for many years.
All of them influenced me in the sense that I love the way they play. I never thought of myself as a lead player, even though I did it a bit on my demos. I’d like to say “Oh, I would sit with Richard and he taught me how to play incredible leads,” but I never really did that. I feel those sensibilities, though. There was a reason why I like the way they played back then. It rubbed off on me, the feeling and attack of all those guys as players.
I would say that I think Richard would be the biggest influence. There’s just something about his attack that I feel influenced my playing the most. I couldn’t have known that really until the last couple of years while I was making Catspaw, because I never played much lead. I just did what came out and went for it. I’d do two or three takes, weed through them and look for my favourite bits. I tried to leave it spontaneous, which I would have done recording any of those guys. We never laboured over getting some specific thing. It was much more about catching moments where something cool happens. And there was always something cool!
Having covered a number of songs over the years— including your series of Under the Covers albums with Susanna Hoffs— where does this take on “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?” fit within the broader context of your career?
Well, you know, it’s very special to me because I loved the show when I was younger. The sensibility of the original show was really different than other cartoons. Having the ghosts and other spooky things, I was really into that. I was born in October—my birthday is October 6— and I always had Halloween-themed birthdays. Like, pumpkins on the paper plate [laughs].
I loved Halloween, not so much because I was hugely into dressing up—even though I did that as a young kid—but more that I loved the world of spooky horror. I never cared as much about gory kind of horror, but I loved the supernatural; anything with ghosts or witches. My mom would do this incredible imitation of a witch; her voice would change and she’d do the Wicked Witch sound. It was super convincing! Also, my wife and I recently got a vanity plate on one of our cars that says “Witchy,” because we were trying to put that love of that kind of thing out there. So Scooby is special to me because [it fits into all] of that.
It’s funny, because [other than when] I was a pre-teen in a band in Nebraska, where I grew up, I never played a lot of covers. I remember during those early years touring on Girlfriend, my manager Russell would be like, “why don’t you do a cover of Neil Young?” and it was almost like I had to be nudged to do covers. But when Susanna and I got together, she already had this label [Shout Factory] and they wanted a covers record. They wanted it to be fun, almost in the way that reminds me of this Saturday Morning record— a fun, quirky pop culture thing. So a little bit of that energy went into the records Susanna and I did, as well. Once we did those records, you know, I certainly had a lot of covers under my belt.
We’re planning to make a ‘90s record of covers as well, I’m just not sure when we’ll do it. More covers will be coming down the pike.
Ted Nichols - Scooby Cues
Interestingly, the instantly familiar Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! theme wasn't the cartoon's intro music, initially. For the first few episodes, it was actually composer Ted Nichols' haunted house psych-funk scoring the gang's ghoulish mishaps. While soon replaced by the Larry Marks-sung "Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!", Nichols' original draft was kept as production music for years.
Some of that in-episode music is true screwball orchestral work. My favourite, given the catchy title of "M14-T27", somehow stands on the shoulders of big band jazz and Carl Stalling's bombastic Looney Tunes work, while also stitching together discombobulated Psycho strings, early fuzz pedal nastiness, and a jittery, jazzed-up polka pace that honestly brings to mind something like Mr. Bungle. One of many essential Scooby cues.
Austin Roberts "Daydreamin"
The Scooby music got even weirder in season two, when chase scenes started showcasing the faux-Brit vocal style of Austin Roberts (Roberts had also cut that season's alternate version of "Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!"). Take this scene from "Jeepers, It's the Creeper," featuring a cut called "Daydreamin." In true non-sequitur fashion, it finds the Scooby gang getting chased across a farm property by a mop-topped creature of the week, all to a jangling cut about being in love with an ostrich. Surreal stuff!
Apparently these songs were originally made for the Josie and the Pussycats cartoon before being shuffled off to the Scooby-verse, but that still doesn't quite clear up the bizarro lyrical content. Either way, it's a bubblegum bop.