The indie-pop duo talk performing live and their latest album, "Lightning."
Matt Johnson is taking a breather in his New York apartment, although he insists that “it’s not a break.” Tomorrow, he and girlfriend/bandmate, Kim Schifino, take off for a series of shows in Mexico. “We’ve had a busy year in a good way,” he assures me, but for now, Johnson enjoys a second to himself. “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, as that wise man named - uh, whatever, said.”
It seems strange that a career in music was never the ultimate goal for an indie-pop band in such high demand. The duo were studying film and illustration at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, and only started making music after Schifino decided to pick up drums. “It all started with Kim,” says Johnson. “She had seen some band and decided, ‘I want to learn how to play drums.’ Kim is such a crazy, driven person that that decision turns into her becoming a drummer. We had no intention of starting a band, it was more about learning to play music, which is more fun with someone than on your own.” Johnson had played guitar and bass in some punk and hardcore bands, but only experimented with keyboard and vocals. “I was a vocalist in some of the bands, but it was really more a type of screaming, not trying to sing and hit notes.”
Matt & Kim start taking on gigs at loft parties, warehouses and art shows only after being pressured by friends. Johnson looks back on those early performances with a sentimental fondness, but he's also grateful for the group's progression toward playing larger venues. “There’s a certain energy when everyone is crammed into one smaller space and falling over each other, but then there’s this totally different energy when you have 20,000 or 30,000 people dancing and jumping around at a festival like Voodoo, or Lollapalooza, or Bonnaroo. It’s like a scene out of Avatar or some shit.”
Johnson and Schifino’s popularity stems heavily from the success of their live performances, which usually begin with the two dancing to a pre-selected hip-hop track along with their audience. Johnson claims that the visceral excitement experienced during their shows comes primarily from their focus on crowd involvement. “We weren’t going to put together one of these shows where people stand around and look at their feet. The type of shows I most remember going to had mosh pits and stage diving, so we wanted to have that kind of energy in the room.”
Johnson also attributes the group's success to their emphasis on simplicity, and entertaining on an instinctual level. He explains, “I was an art school guy who did motion graphics, after-effects and computer animation when I graduated, and I would spend weeks on a little, ten-second animation spot. It could be designed perfectly and sound perfect, but if it was on Youtube next to a video of someone getting kicked in the junk, 'kicked in the junk' would get viewed a million more times. I’d want to watch 'kicked in the junk' a million more times. It’s something instinctual."
Taking a second to contemplate his statement betweens fits of laughter, Johnson continues, "As an ex-film major, I come up with a lot of ideas for our music videos, and I always want those ideas to have some intrigue within a second. You know, 'Matt & Kim take their clothes off in Times Square!' I’d want to see what that’s about. Or 'Matt & Kim beat the shit out of each other!' I'd want to check that out too. We aim for something simplified like that.”
Matt & Kim’s latest album, Lightning, embraces a less-is-more formula as well. “More than leaving anything out, it was about emphasizing the two most important elements, the beat and the melody, which I think as humans we have connected to since the beginning of time," Johnson says. "If you keep adding different layers of this or that into songs, in a way, it makes you feel safer because there is less laying out there to be judged. But for us, we’re able to keep stripping back, really putting the beat and melody out in front and letting everything else sit farther back. I feel that as people, that’s what we respond to.”
Matt & Kim play the Ritual Stage at Voodoo, Sunday at 3:30 p.m.
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