In 2004, after meeting while pursuing art school degrees at the Pratt Institute, friends Matt and Kim decided to form a band— even though Matt had never played keyboard and Kim had never played drums. Surprisingly, the indie pop duo was able to self-release their first EP a year later. Matt & Kim continued to tirelessly practice, write, record and tour—which eventually earned them thousands of new fans, sets at massive festivals, a gold single (“Daylight”) and a VMA for their “Lessons Learned” music video.
Earlier this month, Matt & Kim released their highly-anticipated new album, Sidewalks, and received rave reviews from Spin, Entertainment Weekly, Billboard and more. Though these two hardly take a break from their work, we got the chance to catch up with Matt Johnson about the new record, the group’s influences and life on the road.
OS: Your last album, Grand, was recorded in your childhood bedroom, and you mixed it on your own. How was the recording process different for Sidewalks?
MJ: Well, the recording process was different because we didn’t do this one on our own. We had some people who knew what they were doing helping us, which was nice. While we were very proud of Grand and we’re very happy with what came out, we didn’t know what the hell we were doing. We were just guessing about, “I think this is how you mic a kick drum…” but there’s all these techniques that have worked for years and years that the guys we worked with on this latest one knew. But basically, what this came down to, was that Kim and I could concentrate more on the actual songs than the technical aspects of having to know what the fuck you’re doing.
OS: When the band first started, you didn’t even play your respective instruments. Did you start taking lessons and learning theory or did you just learn by ear?
MJ: We’re still figuring it out (laughs), just going by ear. Yeah, Kim had never played drums, I didn’t play keyboard. I played guitar and bass in bands, I sort of sang in other bands, but it wasn’t so much singing as screaming in punk and hardcore bands. I never tried to hit actual notes. Really, the only thing that has expanded our ability of playing is that we’ll write something that’s kind of harder than what we can actually play and then we just have to practice it enough to be good enough to play it. But singing was the one thing that I took a couple lessons for, mostly because I was really singing from all the wrong places and screwing my voice up super bad. When you have to sing every single night, it gets to be a lot. Also, I’m not opposed to singing on key, that wouldn’t be so bad (laughs).
OS: You and Kim started with, and still have, a very DIY approach to this band… how did you get the band to grow in terms of doing your own promotion?
MJ: We have a machine that does a lot of things, and that machine is Kim. For all the beginning years of this band when we did so much for ourselves, Kim booked all our own tours, she answered every e-mail about everything, she handled this and that….she doesn’t need to sleep. Her last name’s Schifino but I like to call her “Machine-o,” I think it might fit better! So it was a lot to take care of. Even now, we want to be so involved in so many things, but we have to give things away because there’s just so much and we’re on the road so much. Thankfully, we have a great team that takes care of a lot, but we still stay involved with everything and approve everything and put our input in.
OS: The two of you met at the Pratt Institute and continue to use your art skills for the aesthetic elements of the band. Where do you draw your artistic influences from?
MJ: Kim has had a style she’s worked in and you can notice from the album covers that they stay in a similar style, which is typical among artists that work in a wave rather than changing everything up. We like keeping things in that style. The fact of the matter is, through the last few years of this band, there’s been no time for anything non-band related. So whenever Kim works on art, it’s related to the band. Whenever an opportunity comes up that we need something for the band, it gives her a chance to work on art stuff again. But for me, I’m really involved with the videos. I have a lot of ideas on what makes a good video and a bad video. People have definitely appreciated our videos and they’ve had such a reach. We have one we’re shooting in a couple weeks that I’m excited about, it will definitely make some people angry.
OS: You won a VMA for Best Breakthrough Video for “Lessons Learned” and developed the concept for it yourself…which has you and Kim taking all your clothes off in Times Square. Do you have any crazy ideas for things you’d like to try in future music videos?
MJ: Yeah, it never hurts to get naked! We definitely have a dumb idea we’re going to do, coming up. We were supposed to shoot it before the tour started, but things got a little too hectic so we had to push it back. But it will be fun and it will be very much another Matt & Kim video.
OS: Even though you’re an indie pop act, you seem to be influenced by a lot of hip hop. Which hip hop artists influence you the most?
MJ: We’re big fans of whatever is fun. But I think a lot of who I find inspirational in the hip hop world are different producers, because I key really into beat and melody and composition, even more than to lyrics, for any sort of music. I think there’s producers like Swizz Beatz and Pharrell and the Neptunes and Timbaland, who make really creative, awesome, energetic music that can be very bizarre but still have such a reach. I think that’s very inspirational.
OS: You were on tour for most of 2010 playing both club shows and festivals. How were the two types of shows different from each other and how did the fans react to the new material?
MJ: Well, we’re not playing anything off Sidewalks yet. When people go and see a band and the band’s like, “Who wants to hear some new songs?” The general feeling in the crowd is sort of, “Well, I’d rather just hear the things I know and can sing along to,” and that’s my feeling when I go and see a band. So, being that the album wasn’t really out, people didn’t have a chance to study up yet. We decided that we’re really going to make this the last tour of Grand and we added some other little bits and pieces of new stuff and kept it fresh, but we’re waiting on Sidewalks for what will probably be a late spring, early summer trip. But as far as clubs and festivals, I love doing both, for similar and different reasons. Kim and I give every show we play 110%. There’s no point to doing it if you’re not going to give 110%. We love it and if I can squeeze 112% out, I totally do. But this year, with Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits and places where you’re playing in front of 30,000 people…it’s pretty wild, because you can feel all of that from so many people. But then when you’re in a tighter atmosphere, playing for 1,000 people or 1,500 people, everyone’s so close and they’ve paid just to see you and they know all your songs and they can sing along really loudly. That can harness that same energy that all those people can as well, but whoever’s willing to go wilder is usually my favorite. We love doing both.
OS: You and Kim live together in Brooklyn when you’re not on the road. How do you like to spend your time when not working on your music?
MJ: It sounds almost like it’s impossible, but Kim and I don’t ever really do things that aren’t really related to Matt & Kim. This last year, we never took more than one consecutive day off. But we’re happy working really hard on everything band-related. After shows sometimes, we’ll come back to the bus and we have a lot of things on Hulu, TV shows that we keep up to date with—Modern Family, How I Met Your Mother, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia—that’s sort of a good downtime for us, to take an hour and just chill. But we don’t usually take more than hour at a time!
Be sure to pick up Sidewalks, in stores and on iTunes now. Check out the band’s award-winning video for “Lessons Learned” below!