Matt Johnson called in from a busy schedule at SXSW to update PopMatters on all things Matt & Kim. After all, not only was the band continuing their hot streak following the release of their acclaimed album Sidewalks, but they were also looking forward to catching up with friends in other bands converging on the mega-festival. As a guy from rural Vermont with a knack for a good tune, Matt once met up with Kim Schifino — a proud Rhode Islander — at the artsy Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, and before long, the duo began making the angular indie-rock that has become their signature. That was well before the place became a hot bed for indie bands, which means that Matt & Kim helped fuel the fire. Three releases and countless tour dates later, Matt explained how it all began and even how the band got their name …
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Your music has been labeled as dance punk — how did you arrive at this hybrid of sound?
It’s dance music not like in at a club where a DJ could just put it on but you can definitely move to it. At our shows there’s still like crowd surfing, stage diving and veritable mosh pit sort of things going on — that’s that bit of punk rock energy that’s going on that still lives in it.
The Matt & Kim songs are full of great hooks, I was wondering if you’ve always been a fan of sing-alongs? The songs are so much fun to sing along to plus you use lots of handclaps and shout outs to add to the audience participation.
Well I remember this time Kim was upset with me at this comment I had said once in this interview, where I said how we don’t write songs anymore: we write anthems. She was very disappointed — she thought it was a very cocky-sounding line. But I said it more in the sense that there is something I think that exists within our songs. I’ve always been into that kind of stuff. I grew up with punk rock music, things like that. A lot of that stuff that I’ve liked has that gang vocals with of everyone singing these chants. You could be at a show and everyone can scream it along together or you could have your windows rolled down I your car as you’re driving and shout it. That sort of thing we have wanted to keep in the music. I mean we think very much in a beat and melody composition sense and we put that forward. As in there’s a beat that’s a hook and a melody that’s a hook, which sometimes results in singing along.
You’re known for your incredibly high energy shows — were you two hyper kids or are you antsy people? Or does that energy just come out during the shows?
We don’t sulk around or drag our feet or whatnot, but we are pretty high energy. And Kim for sure, there’s no stopping her. If she’s sitting down, she’s not relaxing. She has to be doing something and that’s the only way she can relax. But as far as being on stage and performances there’s so much during the day — all the travel and the flights that accumulates before the hour or so of playing music. I think that’s when we save it all up and let it come out at that point. Even though we’re planning on our upcoming spring tour to be doing our longest set that we’ve ever done, which is somewhere around an hour and a half of playing music. I don’t even know how we’re going to be able to play that long. When we started touring we played only five songs, and it sort of droned on very slowly. But now we did our last tour we played for over an hour and by the end I was just basically falling off stage and taking a nap. I was just worn out.
As a keyboard player, I was wondering if you had a current fave to play — maybe a vintage model or something new on the scene?
There’s actually one synthesizer, which is actually the reason I play keyboards that I still play as when I started playing. I play two keyboards on stage but one is called the Yamaha CS-5. It’s an old 1970s keyboard — I call it the poor man’s Moog. It’s a cheaper version of that sort of analog keyboard. But I found it in my neighbor’s garage when I was 15. We were playing with it, and I remember at the time that I could only make it make sounds that sound like [he demonstrates a percussive melody that cascades down and back up]. We couldn’t really make it sound like an actual musical instrument. Basically five years later I thought this thing looks so cool, I should actually learn how to play this. And that’s what got me into playing keyboards at all, since I came from a guitar and bass background never really piano.
You were at the Pratt when you met Kim, what were you both studying and how did you meet?
I was there for film and Kim was there for illustration. Kim was a couple of years ahead of me, so we had some mutual friends or whatever. Basically she ended up picking me up but the thing was she ended up giving her number to me three times. I was actually quite intimidated by someone like her. I had never dated a girl who was older than I, or who had a whole bunch of tattoos. I was very shy back then so that’s why it took a while for it to actually happen. But then after we met we were living together after two months and that was seven years ago. About two years after we met, the band began. Kim had never played drums and I was still learning that keyboard. We were just learning those things separately and then just accidentally became a band.
We worked on all kinds of things together. From school and then into art installations and silkscreen stuff, we made album covers for other bands. We were kind of on the same plane creatively. We had a lot of friends who were in bands and our first show was with a friend who said, “You’re playing a show with us.” And we’re like, we’re not even a band — they had just heard we were learning our instruments. But they were like, “You don’t have a choice, we’re making it happen.” So we figured out three songs that we wrote and we couldn’t think of a name so we just got listed as our name, which has since stuck. That was basically it. We tried to think of a name for so long and then in the end, Matt & Kim sort of just made sense because it’s a first name basis — you didn’t have the wall of a name. Just being be your names seems very friendly.
Where was that first gig, do you remember?
The first gig was in a basement of an art gallery in Queens. I don’t think it exists anymore. We were just terrified, even though there were only fifteen people there. Kim and I were like, “We shouldn’t do this — this is a bad idea. Let’s not do this.” We were trying to think of anyway to get out of it. And I don’t know if it was just friends who were being nice, but everyone was really positive afterwards. Then we kept being asked to play stuff.
After your first self-titled release, you retreated to your childhood home in Vermont to write the songs for Grand. Where were the songs for Sidewalks written?
They were written broadly over time between finishing Grand and recording Sidewalks. We came up with a bunch of ideas at that time but then it actually came time to sit down and take all of these ideas to mold into an album. We were in New York during December of 2009 and January of 2010 before going to Atlanta to record at the beginning of February. It was interesting because as much as I love writing music, doing the band as a full time job which is what we’ve done for the past three or four years, has given in some ways the least amount of time to write music that I’ve ever had in my life. It’s hard to carve out that time so we’ve had to be like, we’re not doing anything else — we’re working on this album.
How do your songs come together? Is it the melody first or a drum beat?
It’s generally that Kim and I will work out a drumbeat. That’s how it goes and then I’ll record things over that, different ideas and different melodies. It’ll be like me calling my phone’s answering machine and leaving messages of like [sings a melody: do-do-do-dah] some sort of melody. I’ll make a collection of all those different things; sort of a collage — to go back and think what kind of melody would work with that beat. And then writing lyrics is always our last thing. Some bands, I feel they write lyrics and then they write songs around that but that’s the total opposite of us. As I mentioned, we think very much in beat and melody in composition, not so much lyrically. We kind of let the feeling of the song musically dictate what the song will be about, so in a way it sort of writes itself.
The new video for “Cameras” is an epic battle of the sexes. On your website one of you commented how you were sore for a week afterwards — who was that attributed to and who came up with the concept?
We were both very sore afterwards. It was funny because the soreness wasn’t from being hit or anything like that. We had done fight choreography for a couple of days before we started. It’s crazy how detailed it is and how much like dance it is — in the sense that throwing a punch isn’t about that punch swing, it’s about what your other hand is doing and how strong that looks. It’s about how you shift your weight and all these things that is what sells it. Because it’s not real, you have to do these different things that make it look stronger and what not. All those different movements and stuff, I think I didn’t even know I had hamstrings. They were just killing me and I had to walk sort of bow-legged. We were both completely sore.
Kim really did sock me right in the nose though. You’re supposed to punch about a foot away so it’s all about the reaction. She’s tough; her biceps are bigger than mine. But the second we got on camera she just drove me — gave me a bloody nose and everything. After I got punched in the nose, it kind of gave me a black eye and my nose got sort of swollen. So the make up artist was like, “This is great, I don’t have to enhance things.”
That was an idea I came up with, as well as the “Lessons Learned” getting naked in Times Square video and the “Yea Yeah” food fight video. Basically as someone who went to school for film, who was always interested in film and interested in music, I definitely take the chance to be involved with the project.
Is there one place you’re really looking forward to visiting on tour? Or going to a new place that you haven’t gone to?
Everywhere we’re going to we have been to but I really like Spain and we’re going back there. We just went to Hawaii for our first time and that was the last state in our country that I had yet to lay my feet on. Although I’m starting to do push ups and crunches now for the longer sets. Why we play keeps me going. Hopefully, I don’t have to slow down too much. I used to snowboard every day growing up in southern Vermont in a very small town. I went to public high school and graduated in a class of seventeen. It was one building with Kindergarten through high school in one school building. So that’s a part of how I ended up in New York. When I went looking for colleges, it wasn’t about looking for colleges I was looking at cities. It’s like “I’m going to an urban environment.” That’s how I ended up in New York and at Pratt.
Do you have any plans after the tour? Are you going back in the studio or take some time off from everything?
We just got this proposition from our European agent about these European festivals, but I realized it was three days after our spring tour. We’re basically busy all the way until then, playing at a lot of colleges and we’re actually going to head back to Europe next week. I was like, “Oh my gosh, I will be so worn out.” So I think we will spread that out a little bit — I think we’re going to head back to Europe for some festivals and what not. Like when we wrote Sidewalks, we didn’t sit down and write it all at once. We do want to be constantly writing music. So we could spread it out a little bit and have songs that sound like they’re from different points of what we’re doing. We really want to be working on music as well. I’m sure the wheels won’t stop rolling anytime soon.