Matt Johnson of Matt and Kim on Haters, Love Songs + More
If the Grammys gave an award for "Cutest Couple," Matt and Kim should win every year -- despite what Kanye West inevitably rants about Jay-Z and Beyonce. But don't let the inherent adorability of the Brooklyn indie-pop duo fool you: singer/keyboardist Matt Johnson and drummer Kim Schifino are capable of leveling packed amphitheaters entirely on their own with only their infectious, eclectic sound (and, occasionally, Kim's hypnotic booty shaking). With the pair set to release their fifth full-length, New Glow, on April 7, some fans have accused the couple of straying too far from their DIY roots. But Johnson recently told us New Glow is the same old Matt and Kim -- just finally channeling the genre-breaking energy of their live shows into album form. In this interview, the affable frontman opens up about everything from the creation of their new album, why he isn't surprised some people are shocked by it and how he and Kim have avoided becoming a new-school Sonny and Cher.
You guys spent a ton of time on the road supporting Lightning but you got to spend a lot of time at home while you worked on New Glow, didn't you?
Yeah, we did. Well, sort of. A lot of it we just wrote in our house, but then we finished a lot of it out in L.A. and some of it here. Essentially, it wasn't like we just left to go somewhere [to work on the album], which I think is the best case scenario. You should work where you're most comfortable. That's my feeling.
You once said that when you recorded Lightning at home, you wore pants only 15 percent of the time.
[Laughs.] Yeah, if that.
What was the percentage on New Glow?
Well, this time we were working with a couple of different producers, so it felt like there was more of a need to put pants on. You catch a little bit of "pants vibe" in the songs. [Laughs.] I don't know what a pants vibe is.
But you know when you hear it.
Who did you work with?
A few different people. One of the guys we did most of the songs with is this dude Lars Stalfors who we actually made our first album [2006's Matt & Kim] with. It's the one you can't find anywhere, the one we made in a week. He was just sort of starting out then, we were starting out and we stayed friends. We did eight of the 10 songs on New Glow with him. Then there's a song we made with Jesse Shatkin who was a producer and co-writer for Sia's "Chandelier." Another guy we worked with named Andrew Dawson was Kanye West's engineer for many years. So it was really cool. We even worked with a handful of other producers but we ended up not completing or deciding not to go with those songs. It was fun to get to work with a bunch of different people as opposed to either working by ourselves or with just one person. It was like going dating.
I think I read you came away with something like 60 songs?
Well, we didn't finish 60 songs, but I can say that's how many were started. It really varied on how far they made it. Some songs would get fazed out early, but there were also songs we've held onto from back when we were working on our second album that we just completed now. Sometimes it's just not the right time for a song.
That's something you've said a lot about this record: that you could finally record all the different types of songs that go into what makes you guys you. Why was it the right time?
This is the longest gap between two albums that we've had. There were lots of shows and lots of different stuff in between. I don't even know if it was a conscious decision as much as it wasn't. We were working on song-by-song basis and just trying to make songs we really liked and I think, in the end, that gave it diversity. Instead of worrying about making an album, I think we just tried to make 10 songs. When you're always trying to find something that fits thematically, I think that can take a little out you.
So that's why it feels so eclectic?
Yeah, I wanted this to feel like it could have been someone's Spotify playlist. People listen to all kinds of stuff now which is the magic of music. I remember it being different even 15 years ago. I'm such a big hip-hop fan and I like indie music and electronic music and dance music. I like jazz. I don't know. All of those things get played back to back on my playlist and we wanted the album to have that effect.
Are you surprised by some of the negative response to the new songs?
Yes and no. When we came out with "Get It," I expected we'd freak a lot of people out. When we came out with our third album, Sidewalks, the first single was "Cameras," and I remember that freaked people out pretty good. But then it became one of our most beloved songs. So when we came out with "Get It," I was actually surprised people were as accepting as they were. But then I was extra surprised by [the response to] "Hoodie On." It hadn't occurred to me that maybe it sounded different than a typical Matt and Kim song. It never really crossed my mind. I thought it was wholeheartedly very "Matt and Kim" and that song really freaked some people out. But, at the same time, we've been seeing a lot of stuff online from people who weren't Matt and Kim fans before but really love the new stuff. I think we're reaching different people and, in the end, we're the same band, we have the same intentions we've always had and we just make the music we want to hear. Overall, it's been very positive. Still, every now and then, there's someone will say something negative and I'll say, "Woah, really? I didn't even think of that."
But the sound shouldn't really be all that surprising to anyone who's seen you guys in concert.
Yeah, I think if someone only knew say a song like "Daylight" or "Let's Go" and they came to one of our shows, they might not expect what was going to happen. We play a lot of different types of music and it always seems to be welcomed with very positive and open arms. Like, we have no problem putting a Ludacris song right in the middle of one of our singles during a show -- almost like a DJ would. To me, Matt and Kim is about making music that makes you want to shake your a--. It could be rooted in punk or hip-hop or even electronic music. The one thing the live show isn't rooted in, I thought, was things that were typically indie rock -- like the staring at your feet "too cool" vibe. That was the one thing we didn't want to go for. We'd much rather go for a punk rock vibe. But a lot of the time, I don't know if that came across on all of our recordings. While I'm a fan of our recordings, I think of recorded music and live music as two very different things. I think we tried unintentionally to bridge what we do live and what we do recorded a little more with New Glow.
Another thing you do a little differently on this record is talk about your relationship together. What changed?
It had never come up. Well, that was intentional. I said we'd never write any sort of love song. There are plenty of people who have got that covered and I didn't want to be some sort of Sonny and Cher. I have the utmost respect for Sonny and Cher, but that wasn't what we were trying to do. We didn't want to be cute and singing to each other. But we've been together for as long as we've been together now and we've accomplished all these things together and have a really great connection. It became more of a lie to not discuss it. It was leaving a big part of our lives out of the music. But I feel like a song like, "Hey Now," we talk about it in a very "Matt and Kim" way.
You both always seem to be having such a great time. Are you this positive all the time?
[Laughs.] Well, I think we're very lucky people. I never take for granted that we get to play music with our significant other and that's the only thing we have to do. That's what became our life and that's very fortunate. There are days when you have an early flight and you were up late the night before and maybe you have shoulder problems from fist-pumping too hard on stage. [Laughs.] It's ridiculous. You know, sometimes you can be, like, "My body is falling apart! I haven't slept!" and things can get really difficult. But, at the same time, even if I'm tired or in pain or sick, when I get onstage and there's a bunch of people excited to hear a bunch of songs I wrote, it's always been the cure for whatever ails me. It can bust you out of any funk. We're not inhuman. You can certainly get in funks and have bad days. But I never take for granted that we're two very lucky people.