As half of the most reliable party-starting team in modern pop music, the last thing Matt Johnson wants to do is let anyone down. It’s only fitting, then, that he proves to be a dream interview subject, the singer and keyboardist for Brooklyn duo Matt and Kim making it crystal clear that no question is off-limits.
Over the course of an hourlong interview, the Vermont-raised musician happily discusses everything from future family plans with his girlfriend and drummer, Kim Schifino, to the highfalutin eating habits of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. The time Kanye West seemingly dissed Matt and Kim is proudly raised, as is the fact that Johnson and Schifino have been able to make enough as indie musicians to buy a home in Brooklyn.
And right off the bat, the de facto frontman is perfectly willing to tackle the delicate question of why critics sometimes dismiss Matt and Kim, even though the band is revered as one of the best live acts on the planet. Part of the problem might be that both Johnson and Schifino spend the bulk of their shows laughing and grinning like they’re permanently high on life, which is evidently grating to those who are convinced the world is a giant shit sandwich.
“You see some actor that’s smiling all the time, and most of the time you just wanna smack him,” the affable and outgoing singer offers with a laugh, on the line from his Brooklyn home. “I get it. Like, for what reason does Anne Hathaway get so many haters? I don’t know—it’s probably just because she seems content and okay, and not like she has any problems. People hate that.”
So what happens when being perpetually thrilled to be alive is not an act? If there’s been a criticism of the band’s fifth and latest full-length, New Glow, it’s that—horror of horrors—Matt and Kim continue to be somewhat too upbeat for their own good.
After praising the record for delivering the band’s catchiest songs yet, Rolling Stone felt the need to snipe “the cuteness starts to wear thin pretty fast.” Famously humourless Pitchfork missed the entire point of the single “Hoodie On” by dismissing it as “a thin sartorial pride anthem for the Urban Outfitters set”. Consequence of Sound made one wonder if they’d confused Matt and Kim with Rage Against the Machine, with such criticisms as “Will they challenge you or make you question any of your preconceived notions about the world? Definitely not.”
While such reactions might be perplexing to Johnson and Schifino, it’s highly unlikely that they’re tormented by them. After all, that they come across happier than you’ll ever be is something they’re well aware of.
“We’re sensitive to that in a lot of our photos and music videos,” Johnson admits. “A lot of people come to us and go, ‘You should do this with swing sets and lollipops and stuff.’ We’re like, ‘Oh my God—what are you talking about? We’re already too close to cute too many times.’ So instead, we’ll go, ‘Let’s use as much fake blood as possible. Let’s have Kim get hit by a bus. Let’s have us beat the shit out of each other. Let’s do something to counteract that, because we understand that it’s a fine line.’ ”
But ultimately, Johnson and Schifino know full well which side of the line they want to be on.
“In the end, we’re going to be ourselves,” Johnson says. “We’re not going to be one of those bands that pretends to be bored on-stage or isn’t having a good time. Because we lucked out. I’m living my 14-year-old dream, which is being a musician for a living. I’ve got a badass girl that I’ve met, and we get to do this thing together. I’ve fucking hit the jackpot.”
If there’s an overriding theme to many of New Glow’s reviews, it’s that Matt and Kim haven’t radically reinvented themselves. What might be getting lost is that Johnson and Schifino aren’t interested in fixing something that’s not broken.
“My big thing is that people who listen to Matt and Kim are in a way so involved,” Johnson says. “That’s because of the shows, and because of that way that you can now reach everyone through social media and things like that. I’d never want to disappoint them. There are artists that say, ‘Well, I don’t give a fuck—I do it for me.’ That’s not our attitude. We do it for us, but it’s also important to me that people who like our band are happy with our records too.”
Still, New Glow continues the band’s long-running tradition of carefully tweaking its sound, even if that’s lost on some reviewers. No one would go home disappointed if Matt and Kim kept remaking hits like the off-kilter dance-punker “Yea Yeah”, the sweeping synth ballad “Daylight”, or the soft confection “Let’s Go”. Instead, in what they’ve described as the first album where they’re not afraid to sing about their relationship, the couple draw on everything from ecstasy-laced EDM to classic New York hip-hop to the paint-stripping punk Johnson was obsessed with as a skateboarding teen. Matt and Kim aren’t afraid to play things quiet and introspective (check out the devastating album closer, “I See Ya”), but as always the big goal is setting the dance floor on fire.
“For people who just know ‘Daylight’ or ‘Let’s Go’, they think that there’s been some sort of big departure,” Johnson says. “For those who know our live show—and there’s lots of those people, because they’ve come lots of times—I would say these songs are the closest thing that we’ve done to what our live show is. The live show has all sorts of genres of music involved, so it’s by no means just an indie show.”
Nonetheless, Matt and Kim are ultimately rooted in the indie world. The couple first got together while enrolled at Brooklyn’s respected Pratt Institute, where Johnson studied film and Schifino illustration. But both had more fun playing music, right from their first show at a friend’s art-gallery opening.
From that decidedly DIY beginning there have been placements in commercials and television shows, helping break the band out of a world where Pabst Blue Ribbon is a fashion statement as much as a beer. Steady touring has led to appearances at every high-profile festival that’s ever mattered, from Coachella and Lollapalooza in North America to Fuji Rock and Big Day Out overseas.
Impressively, they’ve done all of this on their own terms, often self-producing their records and handling artwork and merchandising themselves. That DIY spirit is celebrated in New Glow’s “Hoodie On”, an electro-glitched mission statement in which Johnson delivers lines such as “A suit and tie always felt wrong/Bought my new house with a hoodie on.”
“Some people have been like, ‘Do you just have a hoodie that you really like?’ ” Johnson says. “I feel like going, ‘Listen to the song for a second.’ The truthful story is that when Kim and I started out on Greenpoint Ave., she did buy this hoodie that she had when we played every basement in Brooklyn, and every person’s mom’s house, when we’d play to 15 people around the country, which is what we originally always thought we’d do. Now we’re headlining festival stages, and it’s still the hoodie she wears wherever she goes. My point is that you can find some success, but you don’t have to change as a person.”
And that’s why Johnson and Schifino remain stoked about life, and about memories most couples can only fantasize about. Like the time that Kanye West tweeted at them, which thrilled them as massive hip-hop fans.
“When he first got on Twitter,” Johnson gleefully relates, “he tweeted, ‘The drums in that Matt and Kim song are stupid.’ As a huge fan, I was like, ‘He might mean stupid like they’re awesome’ so I tweeted back, ‘By stupid, I hope you mean stupid good, because those drums are perfect.’ He tweeted back, ‘By stupid, I mean stuuuupid good.’ ”
Then there was the time Matt and Kim spent half a week at the Fuji Rock Festival in Japan. “I’m eating the catering three times a day because we’re stuck in a ski resort, which is where the festival is at,” Johnson says. “The last day, I see Thom Yorke come in, grab a plate of food, and sit down at a table by himself,” he continues. “He leans forward, gives it a sniff, and then looks at [Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist] Flea, who’s just walked in the door, gives him a no-go kind of headshake, and walks out. It was good enough for me to eat three times a day, but he wouldn’t even give it a try.”
Consider such encounters a sign that Matt and Kim now play to audiences more varied than just scenesters who can name every dive bar in Williamsburg. The band’s broad appeal, Johnson admits with a laugh, can present challenges, including tailoring its live show to more family-oriented events. Like the one that Matt and Kim will play at the inaugural Richmond World Festival this weekend.
“This is an event that seems really cool because of all the different, diverse aspects of it,” Johnson says. “At the same time, I recognize that Kim’s not going to be able to use the language she normally would at a pure rock festival.”
What fans can be assured of, however, is seeing the patented, full-throttle Matt and Kim live show. That show is captured in all its sweaty, hyperactive glory in the new video for the glitter-bombed “Get It”, off New Glow, the clip stitching together various live performances and all of the variety that makes you wish you’d been there.
A big question is where Matt and Kim go from here, and not just musically. If New Glow makes anything clear, it’s that the two are still madly in love; it’s not by accident that the crunk-flavoured opening track, “Hey Now”, has Johnson singing, “Sometimes you just make me lose my mind/But if you died, I’d die right by your side.” The standard path for most couples is to pump out a couple of kids at some point, something that Schifino has joked about in interviews.
Johnson, however, has other priorities.
“As far as any kind of settling down, we’ve talked a lot about whether there would ever be a baby or something like that,” he says. “The thing is that I do this band 24 hours a day—this is my life. I give it my whole ass. And if I was to have a child, I’d have to give that child my whole ass. I guess that doesn’t make much sense without using the term half-assed, so what I’m saying is that I couldn’t half-ass either of those things.
“I feel that something would have to be sacrificed,” Johnson continues, “because if I was a parent, I’d have to be one badass parent that could put in all my time. At this point, we’ve sort of recognized that maybe it’s just not in the cards because of what we do with this band. It’s our life, and has been our life for 10 years.”
Considering he’s hit the fucking jackpot, the last thing he wants to do now is let anyone down.
Matt and Kim play the Richmond World Festival in Minoru Park on Saturday (September 5).