Right before the release of their first full-length, Matt Johnson, one half of Brooklyn’s Matt & Kim, talked to QRO.In the conversation, Johnson discussed making the upcoming Grand (QRO review), why it sounds so ‘grand’, why they financed it themselves, how come they play with such a diverse group of acts, the upcoming solo dates & tour with Cut Copy, going from playing warehouses to playing huge venues, the different ways they make their shows cheap & accessible for fans, warning security people, being called “The one band it’s okay to be in your late twenties and still crowd-surf to,” and much more…
QRO: What are you feeling now, in the run-up to the release of Grand?
Matt Johnson: Good. Kind of stressed, you know. Stressed only in being really busy. We’ve been practicing every single day, just getting these songs down. ‘Cause they’re a bit more complex than our last stuff.
But, I’m feelin’ pretty good. I’m excited – we haven’t released anything in freakin’ years, as far as an album goes. It’s like, finally…
QRO: How did making Grand compare to making Matt & Kim?
MJ: It was like, completely opposite. Being that we made Matt & Kim – we were in L.A., at a studio, and we had nine days to record in. Basically, it’d be like, ‘Close enough! Okay, move on, move on! Close enough, good enough…’
Which did give some good energy for that album, but this one, we went to my parents’ house in nowhere, Vermont. We spent an initial six weeks tracking, the initial part, and then, altogether, nine months – we’d be touring, coming back, tracking some more vocals, this and that, editing some stuff, coming back. Whatever – it was nine days compared to nine months.
It was a bit more work, but, at the same time, sometimes people get too much freedom, and then they just make worse albums, ‘cause they put too much in. But we just kept leaving and coming back, so I felt we kept gaining a new perspective on it.
QRO: Why did you record it all in your parents’ house in Vermont?
MJ: We recorded it in my bedroom there, upstairs, where there was no heat, freezing cold…
Instead of spending the money for studio hours, we just bought stuff for recording, not really knowing exactly what we were doing, but we were like, ‘We can figure this shit out…’ And we’re super happy with the result.
QRO: It seems like you had more effects on this, compared to the last one, vocal looping & stuff…
MJ: We went into it with the idea that, my favorite recorded songs aren’t my favorite live songs, and vice-versa. So we just wanted to make the best recorded album that we could make, and then worry about translating that into a live scenario afterwards.
So it feels very different: in the recorded thing, you have a lot of intricate things and different stuff that people can notice on their thirtieth time listening to or whatever. So we added tons of shit – not adding just to add it, but for very specific reasoning.
QRO: How are you doing, converting it to a live sound?
MJ: Oh, it’s hard, it’s hard. But we’ve pretty much figured out how to do it with all the songs, and now we’re just practicing.
But sometimes a beat will be really good for recording, like an up-tempo beat, but for live, we have more of that punk rock vibe, so sometimes we just slop the beat out and just put in a faster beat. So while we’ll keep the same vocals and melody and whatnot, we’ll adapt it to what we think makes it the best live song.
Matt & Kim playing the “Daylight” live for the first time @ Music Hall in Williamsburg in Brooklyn, NY on January 22nd, 2009:
See also them playing “Silver Tiles”
QRO: Is this how you presented the record to the label, or was there some further tweaking?
MJ: No – I mean, I kept tweaking; too much freedom – no one to tell me to stop…
But we wanted a situation where, whatever partner we had, we were just, ‘This is what we want to make.’ And we didn’t want much input; we wanted just this to be really us, because we knew we were going to do something a little different, and we didn’t want anyone to say, ‘Oh, they did this because this is what the label wanted, or the producer wanted, or whatever.’ We did this because this is what Matt & Kim wanted.
QRO: It does sound like you had more money…
MJ: Yeah, definitely. We were just able to put in the time.
But it’s funny, we financed it all ourselves. Because a), in the end, we wanted to own it. Our last album was financed by the record company and we won’t own it forever. They will always own it. So we decided, ‘Well, we’ll use the money to get the stuff, and whoever we partner with will basically rent it for a certain number of years, and then it reverts back to us after a while.’ You look at these musicians these days that are trying to get their own recordings back…
QRO: Is that what drew you to FADER label?
MJ: We went with them after meeting with a bunch of labels because it was cool that they weren’t just a record label; they had a bunch of different outlets. And we really wanted some sort of multimedia company – if we wanted to make TV show, or if we wanted to write a book, whatever. We have a lot of interests, whether it’s art, or film, or whatever; we like a lot of different stuff. We basically wanted someone who could help us out with whatever we wanted to try to do.
QRO: With Green Label Sound and others, it seems like you released a couple of tracks through other methods…
MJ: Yeah. Well, first of all, you record an album, and there’s a four-month prep period before it’s actually released, and we just want people to hear some of this, ‘cause we’re really excited about it. We wanted to start pre-releasing stuff just because we were still touring, and we hadn’t released anything in so long, and we had this album sitting under our belt – ‘How can we at least get a couple of these songs out?’ Even though it’s confusing to some people, ‘I can’t find your album!’ ‘Well, even though you’ve been hearing it for months, it’s actually not out yet…’
QRO: Why do you so often perform with either harder-core punk/noise bands, like the Todd P shows, or electronica/DJ’s, like the Green Label Sound party?
MJ: We were lucky, I think – I consider it lucky. It’s been tough to put us into one exact genre, in the sense that we’ll go from playing with hip-hop bands to punk rock bands to all sorts of thing, and we like to be able to pull it off. Especially hip-hop and punk rock – that’s where we get some of our influence from.
Some bands – like there are metal bands that only play metal shows, and that’s kind of rough. But we’re more, if the vibe of the show is people want to have fun and dance, it seems to work. It’s not as much about the genre as it is just about the vibe of the whole thing.
Matt & Kim playing “It’s a Fact (Printed Stain)” live at Green Label Sound party @ (le) Poisson Rouge in New York, NY on September 16th, 2008:
QRO: Do you notice a difference between these crowds?
MJ: There’s definitely a difference. There’s some crossover, and there’s people who come to see us, but then there’s people who might just be there. They’re different, but in a good way. You want to keep changing it up.
We just did three shows with Cool Kids (QRO photos, on the bill with Matt & Kim), and a lot of the audience was there to see Cool Kids, more of a hip-hop audience, and not really expecting who Matt & Kim is. But, in the same thing, we talked to so many people that were so excited about it. It was not something that they’d necessarily listen to, but the fact that, if the vibe is right, I think we can win people over in all these different kind of situations.
So it might not be the same crowd surfing, dancing, whatever, this time, but next time, it will be. That’s the way I look at it.
QRO: You’re going to be going on tour with Cut Copy (QRO live review) in March. How did that come about?
MJ: When we were offered the support slot on that, Kim & I didn’t really know that much at all – we’d seen their name around a bit.
Our first thing, when we’re checking out a band, is go to YouTube, find some live footage. We went there, just typed in ‘Cut Copy’, and saw a show of an entire crowd dancing and having fun, and we went, ‘Yes! That’s our type of show!’ As opposed to people who want to just stare at their feet or whatever…
So we just were like, ‘This makes sense to us.’ Again, in that ‘vibe’ sense of it being people who want to go out and not care. We were worried that it was going to be the kind of crowd that was the ‘too cool’ crowd, worried about getting their shoes dirty or whatever. But it didn’t seem that way in the videos.
QRO: How do you translate your live show, which is usually so up-close & personal, to huge places like Terminal 5 (QRO venue review)?
MJ: The thing is, when we first did our first festivals and stuff, like Siren fest (QRO recap) and Lollapalooza, we were totally like, ‘How the fuck is this going to work?’ Especially with the barricade twenty feet in front of you…
But essentially, we didn’t really change anything, and we still got such positive response. And I think that’s key: sometimes, I think people need to change their attitude or whatever, but we’ll do the same thing from being in a basement to being at one of those festivals or whatever.
We do have a bit more production we’re bringing in, but that’s just in general. And we also now have someone who comes with us, who works our sound and stuff, to give us the fullest sound possible for these big rooms. ‘Cause we got to be two little people in this big room. But essentially, we just do what we do.
QRO: Do you still set up right at the lip of the stage?
MJ: Yep. We began with that because of how we would play when we would play warehouses, and people would be circled around us; we wanted to be as close. And now it seems like it almost doesn’t make the same difference, because in these bigger places, we’re so far away in the first place. But I believe in sort of this ‘trickle effect’ – you gotta get up close and personal with the people in the front, and it will sort of trickle back and everyone else will feel that energy of being close and personal.
QRO: Where did you find The Rude Mechanical Orchestra & those dancers, when you played McCarren Park Pool (QRO venue review) last summer?
MJ: We played at SUNY-Purchase, at the college there, and they had something called ‘The Zombie Prom’, and they had booked The Rude Mechanical Orchestra. Who I’d seen around in New York – they do mostly political rallies and stuff like that; they don’t really do shows.
But they were trying to get a bus out to their convention out on the other coast. We asked to get their information, and we actually found out we had some mutual friends with the people who played with them. Kim had this idea to make this happen, and I thought it would be impossible, but Kim somehow pulled it together.
And then we went down and practiced with them where they rehearse in DUMBO, but we only really got two practices in. And we were just like, ‘Okay, we’re just gonna wing it. It could be a total disaster, or it could be epic…’ And I felt it was epic.
Matt & Kim playing “Yea Yeah” with Rude Mechanical Orchestra live @ McCarren Park Pool in Brooklyn, NY on July 13th, 2008:
MJ: Oh, man, it was… It created some memories; I’ll give it that.
But essentially, it was a big project, without a lot of… whatever: memories were made. But having five bands every night, and so many people dependent on that bus, there were definitely some logistic problems. But those bands, we’re friends with, and it was fun to be on the road with all of them. The next F Yeah Tour will be happening shortly, but you never know.
Matt & Kim playing instrumental “Cinders” “twice as fast as we’ve ever played it” live on the F Yeah Tour @ Highline Ballroom in New York, NY on July 12th, 2008:
QRO: You two played at least three open bar shows in New York last summer – why so many?
MJ: Well, the thing is, sometimes people judge, because of connecting yourself with certain different brands. Because people think music is this special thing, and don’t want it to be watered down with this stuff.
But I know all my friends are cheap, and if we can do a show that is free to get in, and has free booze and hors d’oeuvres or whatnot – there can be no harm in this! We’ve always loved to do things as cheap as possible. Even years ago, we did our first show at Bowery Ballroom (QRO venue review), we convinced them, we put the ticket price lower than they’d ever done in history.
Especially in New York, which we hold so close, we try to make the shows as accessible as possible.
Matt & Kim playing “Silver Tiles” live at Colt 45 party @ Hugs in Brooklyn, NY on July 5th, 2008:
See also them playing “Yea Yeah”
QRO: How do those 21+ crowds at those shows compare to your all-ages shows?
MJ: It’s funny because, for certain types of shows like that… well, it will go back and forth. Sometimes, the younger kids will be crazier, but other times, the younger kids will be uncomfortable, but for us, it seems to not matter.
One quote I was really happy to have gotten once was, “The one band it’s okay to be in your late twenties and still crowd-surf to.” So even if it’s an older crowd, people still like to get wild. And the younger crowd love to get wild, so either way…
The only thing is, what we’ve realized is that, while we were very passionate about doing all-ages shows for a while, sometimes we’re not totally comfortable going to shows that have a lot of younger kids. So while we thought that was the most accessible thing for everybody, it’s not really. There’s going to be some people who are uncomfortable. So we try to do both.
QRO: Are security people still your nemeses?
MJ: We’re getting a little smarter about it, where we can tell the kind of place that it’ll a problem, and we’ll have a little meeting beforehand about what to expect. ‘If people are dancing, that doesn’t mean they’re fighting. It just means they’re dancing.’ Sometimes, people just need to be aware of what’s gonna happen.
Matt talking about security people and Matt & Kim playing “Cutdown” live @ 70 Greene St. in New York, NY on May 28th, 2008:
See also them playing “Silver Tiles”
QRO: Do you ever still get press, where people call you a ‘cute’ band?
MJ: Yeah. The funny thing is, we are who we are, and even when we made the video for “Daylight”, we never once when we were making it or thinking about it thought of it as a ‘cute’ video – and then, when it was out, people were like, ‘It’s the most adorable video I ever saw…’ God damn it! We can’t not…
If people do enjoy that, I’m okay with that, but we’re still really trying to not push that. Because if anyone told us we had to see a band because they were ‘cute’ or ‘adorable’, we would definitely not go see them.
QRO: Why this one-off in Brooklyn, then the few West Coast dates before the Cut Copy tour?
MJ: The thing was, the Cut Copy tour came up, and it seemed like a good opportunity, a tour we really wanted to do. But the other thing was, we were releasing our album January 20th, and we wanted to do some shows of our shows, of our ticket prices and stuff like that, before we started the Cut Copy trip. So we decided to go where we weren’t really hitting that much, so we’re just doing New York and then a run-down of the West Coast before.
Matt & Kim playing the new “Good Old Fashioned Nightmare” live @ Danbro Studios in Brooklyn, NY on Halloween, 2008:
See also them playing the new “Spare Change”