Q&A: Matt & Kim's Matt Johnson Talks Cuteness, Nudity, DIY and The Importance Of Not Overplaying Your Instrument.
Matt & Kim
For the past year, Matt Johnson and Kim Schifino of Brooklyn dance-punk duo Matt & Kim have been quietly making a case to replace Mates of States' Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel for the title of indie rock's reigning "It" couple.
But don't call them "cute."
With their songs "Good Ol' Fashioned Nightmare" and "Daylight" appearing in just about every television promo and commercial under the sun over the summer, the band has been positioned on a meteoric rise--one that has not only seen local artist of note Erykah Badu paying homage to the band with her controversial "Window Seat" video, but that has seen the band go from playing DIY venues such as our own 1919 Hemphill to places like the House of Blues, which the band will play tomorrow night.
Earlier this week, in anticipation of the band's show, we spoke with frontman Matt Johnson about coming up through the DIY scene, running around Times Square naked, and what makes a good live song. Read the full Q&A after the jump.
It seems like every other thing I read about you guys the writer obsesses with how "cute" or "adorable" you guys are. Does that ever get old to you?
Hell yeah, it does. We're going to be who we are, but a lot of people might pick up something cute about that. A lot of people get "fun" confused with "cute" I feel like. So that's why with our videos and songs and shit, we don't write things or do things about swing sets and lollipops or anything like that. We try to do things that sort of counter-balance that stuff, whether it was our first video, which had tons of fake blood or stripping in Times Square. Even the "Daylight" video, which came out, admittedly, so as people brought to our attention "cute," we didn't even think about it before hand, it just happened.
Why do you think Erykah Badu's video for "Window Seat" was viewed as so much more controversial than your "Lessons Learned" video?
She is definitely a more established artist. This is just my theory, and I don't know a lot about it because I've never lived in Texas or in Dallas or anywhere like that, but the Northeast seems a bit less conservative when it comes to, say, the amount of creepy shit that's gone down in Times Square compared to [Dealey Plaza]. That's what I hope to believe.
It seems like what pissed Dallas city officials off the most was the fact that she didn't obtain a permit to film her video. Was the "Lessons Learned" video shot guerilla-style as well?
No, we had a permit to shoot for a web promotional video. We couldn't get a permit to shoot a music video in Times Square. We sort of described it in the [section] where you have to describe what you're shooting as "two tourists walk through Times Square dressed inappropriately for the weather," and, while it may not have been the whole truth, it was enough to get us out of any trouble.
You're no strangers to playing DIY clubs, art spaces, the 1919 Hemphill's of the world. What do you see as the benefits of coming up through that scene?
In the sense of everything this band has done, it's making all of the choices for yourself and that's what a lot of that DIY scene was. Kim booked all of our first shows and tours and all that without having to impress some booking agent or manager. Early on, we were just able to do whatever wanted and sound like whatever we wanted--and we're still able to sound like and do whatever we want--but sometimes, when you're just trying to get noticed at a early age of a band, it can be tough. We've gone through  Hemphill at least three times and had sweaty, sweaty fun shows there. And I think another think that was great about coming up through the DIY scene was the element of having everyone there next to you. 1919 Hemphill has no stage and everyone stands around you [with] that feeling of everyone's involved in this. We have continued to try to take [these ideas] even as we've gone to bigger venues where we put plenty of light in the crowd so everyone can see each other and we talk to the crowd as much as we can. We just try to keep that same vibe of "we're all in it doing it together" even as the venues get bigger.
Is there ever any concern about trying to maintain any "indie cred," so to speak, with the DIY kids now that you guys are starting to make it on that next level?
We've been lucky that a lot of people who like Matt & Kim come back again and again and people say, "Oh, this is my fifth time seeing you." So we definitely don't want to shed off anyone that has been there for us since square one. We make a big effort to keep our ticket prices as low as we can keep them. We're still the same band as we always were, but I understand that if you were used to seeing us in a basement or an art space somewhere you might say, "Oh, I remember the good old days when it was only me and three of my friends" or whatever. But, the thing is, we're just able to put on a bigger and better show now. For the most part, people have just been able to come along with that.
You go from the almost minimal self-titled to Grand which seems to have a lot more going on musically. Does Sidewalks represent the next step in this trip to becoming more maximalist?
Well Grand was recorded in my bedroom that I grew up in in Vermont and we figured it all out ourselves. With Sidewalks, we worked with a couple of different producers where they could worry about how to mic a snare drum and we could worry about how to write a song, so we were just able to concentrate more on the music.
Would you attribute any of that to just playing your instruments longer now, getting better at your instruments, and getting better at songwriting in general?
To an extent, yes. We started playing our instruments when we started this band so it's been a gradual learning curve. The thing is we had a saying, which was "WWMKD?," which was "What would Matt & Kim do?," which was, if we got too sort of musician-y, we would kind of step it back because that sort of naïve instrument claim was something that really is characteristic of Matt & Kim and something that we really like. I feel like sometimes musicians get caught up in showing everything they can do on their instruments and they forget about just breaking it down to the basics, which is just beat and melody. We just kept trying to simplify even though we might be a little better at our instruments now.
As your albums get more complex does it becomes more difficult to translate them accurately in a live setting, or do you just view the live and recorded versions of songs as two completely separate entities?
Yeah, fuck, we're terrified. We're not playing any of [the Sidewalks songs] live yet*. It was the same thing when we did Grand. We were like, "How the hell are we gonna play these songs live?" and we just figured it out. I think it's totally OK to change your style so that the songs might sound a little different live than they do on the album because a great live song and a great recorded song are two very different things.
[*Editor's Note: Even though Matt & Kim won't be playing any songs from Sidewalks in their live sets, fans who show up when the doors open will get to hear a sneak preview of the album in its entirety.]
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