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His Pop Gems Make Feeling Bad Sound Good : Matthew Sweet's career is built around lovelorn tunes. He's at the Ventura Theatre tonight.


Matthew Sweet, a man who lives up to his name as a peerless purveyor of seamless pop-rock gems that make feeling bad sound good, will be singing about Ms. Wrong and/or That Big Jerk in a most heartfelt manner tonight at the Ventura Theatre.

Sweet will be playing selections from his half-dozen albums, including the latest, "100% Fun," which, by the reckoning of even the poorest math student, is unlikely to cause any unanimous outbreak of good cheer. With "Sick of Myself" getting lots of airplay, and other songs such as "Not When I Need It," "Everything Changes" and "Lost My Mind," Sweet is clearly nobody's sweetheart.

But Sweet nonetheless makes love sound appealingly saccharine. Since his first album came out in 1985, Sweet has become a master of his craft. The Nebraska native always had an ear for music and began emulating Yes albums before he got into British New Wave bands such as the Buzzcocks, XTC and Elvis Costello & the Attractions.

He moved to the happening rock mecca of the time, Athens, Ga., in the mid-'80s, joined a couple of bands and ended up getting a record deal. Now he lives in L.A. but is never home because he's always driving around in a big old bus, toting an adjective-laden press kit that weighs more that several British pop stars. He does interviews from truck stops in New Mexico.

So what do you do when you're just riding around in a big bus doing the rock star thing?

Well, I don't really have a whole lot of time. We sleep a lot, play a few video games. When we drive somewhere, I do a lot of radio stuff, then sound check, then we play, then load up and do it again. I've been out a lot more than I've been home, but that's how I make my living, touring most of the year.


So then when do you find time to write?

I've had to learn to write on the road. It's hard, but I have to do it. Mostly, I have to be in the mood, and I have to be alone, but not for long. Sometimes I think the road is the bane of my existence. Somehow you end up drinking beer every night, eating junk food, getting to bed real late. It's hard not to eat the food when you're down South and there's the best barbecue in the world across the street--you sort of create excuses for yourself.


Has there always been a market for well-crafted pop songs or is the genre the eternal Next Big Thing?

There always has been, I guess. But it seems like a lot of [bands] I liked, Big Star, for example, didn't really do that well. I don't think there's always a place for that sort of music, but I've been lucky by not fitting in, which has enabled me to fit in, if you know what I mean. There's not a whole lot of singer/songwriters out there. So there's not really a huge competition for me except maybe Paul Westerberg or Frank Black, people like that.


What do you think your music sounds like?

Oh, I dunno. It must be some sort of song-oriented rock. Over the years, if anything, I've become more comfortable with myself, and it's become natural for me to make records that are less exploratory than in the past.


What are relationship songs?

A lot of things fit into that format. It's comfortable in a "me and you" sort of way, but it can also be you and yourself or him and her. So for me, relationships kind of define how you see things. I suppose I could write songs about other topics, but I don't think those songs are about anything.


What's college rock and where do you fit in?

Well, I just had my first No. 1 on college radio, "Sick of Myself." Also, I think success on college radio is a good sign for tomorrow. If they like me now, these are the people that will be buying records 10 years from now. It gives you a certain sense of longevity and a future.


I know you've done a lot of both, but what's the difference between opening and headlining?

When you're the headliner, you have all the pressure and you actually have to be good. The opener really doesn't matter, nobody really cares and nobody really listens. But being the opener is also cool in that you don't have to play as long, and you play really early. Yet I'm always still looking to get on tours. This summer, for example, I'll be doing some shows with Soul Asylum.


As just another 10-year overnight sensation, what would you tell the kid with those MTV dreams?

I'd say to be into music because you have to and not to expect to get anything out of it. You shouldn't glamorize what you can get out of it. You either have it in you or you don't--it's beyond making money. Then, who knows, you may get lucky. Yeah, it was seven or eight years before I got anywhere. It can get depressing and a lot of people just give up.


What can you afford now that you couldn't before?

I can afford more guitars. I paid off all my credit cards and I finally bought the car of my dreams, a 1970 Dodge Challenger, plum crazy. It's home sitting in my garage.


What's next?

I'll tour most of this year working this record. Then after I've exhausted everything here, then maybe go to Europe and Japan. Then I'll write some more songs for another album next year.


* WHAT: Matthew Sweet, Ariel, Zoo Story.

* WHEN: 8 p.m. tonight.

* WHERE: Ventura Theatre, 26 Chestnut St., Ventura.

* HOW MUCH: $13.50.

* CALL: 648-1888.

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