Still stripping: Matt & Kim at Winter X Games Music
The Aspen Times
Matt Johnson and Kim Schifino, who make up the indie-rock duo Matt & Kim, have gained their piece of notoriety by stripping down. The video for “Lessons Learned,” from their second album, 2009’s “Grand,” tracked the couple walking through New York City’s Times Square, taking off their clothes as they went, tossing shirts and pants aside. They spend a moment blissfully naked in the crowded midtown street before the cops interfere. The video, which ends with Kim fading into the ether just before being hit by a bus, went viral; was temporarily bumped off YouTube, which gave it another boost in popularity; and went on to earn the Breakthrough Video honor at the MTV Video Music Awards.
Matt & Kim haven’t made any news as nudists since, but they continue to focus on stripping things down. They aren’t averse to a little musical knowledge. Even now, a decade after starting the duo, Johnson, the group’s singer, is taking voice lessons.
“I wasn’t a natural,” he said.
But he is also of the mind that too much musical know-how can be a dangerous thing.
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“Sometimes the most basic thing is what works best. A great drummer, classically trained, can have a tough time to strip things down,” the 28-year-old said from Los Angeles, where he was working on new music and hoping to dodge a cold. “People can sometimes be too educated for music. That’s never been a problem for us.”
True enough. Even now, four albums into a career that has had them appearing at top festivals and touring with Blink 182 and Passion Pit, Matt & Kim’s music is marked by an aesthetic of simplicity. Kim, the drummer, has no trouble taking things down to a thick, thudding beat that doesn’t change noticeably from a song’s beginning to its end. Lyrics tend to be repeated. Matt & Kim have a pop flavor — the sound is upbeat; the emphasis is on fun. But there is a connection to punk rock in the insistence on simplicity.
Johnson and Schifino were barely musicians at all when they started the duo. A decade ago, when they met as students at New York’s Pratt Institute and right off became a couple, Johnson was studying film, and Schifino was an illustrator. Schifino had played a tiny bit of clarinet in her junior high years; Johnson had played some guitar and bass in punk bands, which he assures did little to raise his musical IQ.
But Schifino got an out-of-nowhere urge to bang the drums.
“And I had found this cool-looking keyboard,” Johnson said, adding that keyboard was an instrument he had never attempted at the time. “That’s what caused us to become a band. We accidentally became a band.”
Johnson didn’t see much early promise for the duo.
“After hearing my voice the first time, I was thinking, ‘We’ve got to get someone else. This will never work,’” he said.
A self-titled debut album from 2006 was largely ignored, which Johnson believes was the proper result.
“Few people knew about it,” he said. “We made it in one week. It fell into the mediocre category.”
But Matt & Kim might have been cleverly keeping expectations low. Their next album was “Grand,” and though it was recorded in Johnson’s childhood bedroom in his parents’ home in Vermont, it represented a new level of artistry and popularity.
“A lot of bands start with a great record, then can’t follow up with something as good,” he said. “Now I say we did this on purpose — we made our mediocre album so afterward we could step it up. For whatever reason, ‘Grand’ became platinum.”
A main reason “Grand” was so successful was not so much of the musicianship Matt & Kim have brought to the studio but what they bring to the stage. In its earliest days, the duo was known to play frequently and in almost any venue. They developed a reputation for playing with infectious energy.
“We try to make it a real party, as exciting as possible,” Johnson said. “It’s not the two people onstage; it’s five thousand and two. It’s always been important to have the concerts be about all these people. We tell our lighting designer, ‘We want to see everyone.’”
Johnson says the combo’s musical influences are “anything that makes you feel excited.” He is pleased that Matt & Kim don’t seem to have been pigeonholed much; Johnson notes that they play dance festivals, on hard-rock tours and on bills with hip-hop acts.
“As long as they’re bringing the energy,” he said.
This weekend, Matt & Kim will encounter a distinctive sort of energy. They make their Aspen debut as part of the X Games Music concert Saturday in Wagner Park, where they open for French rock band Phoenix.
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Rejecting the need for technical wizardry in their music doesn’t translate to Matt & Kim lacking in artistic ambition. The duo created itself — producing its own music, silk-screening T-shirts, booking tours.
“We felt connected to the whole creative process,” Johnson said. “You build your own identity rather than waiting for someone to come along and help you. That’s the only reason we’re still around.”
Johnson has become educated as a musician, even if that doesn’t necessarily mean learning complex piano chords or tricky shifts in rhythm.
“Songwriter and performer — those are my main things, first and second. I’m a musician down around five or six — after entertainer and juggler,” he said. “I can do what I need to do to play the songs we write. I do everything for the song. If the best thing for the song is a concert-style pianist, I’d do that. But so far, that hasn’t been needed for a Matt & Kim song.”
For their third album, 2010’s “Sidewalks,” Matt & Kim brought in outside producers to assist them and made a more refined album. Johnson refers to the sound of “Sidewalks” as “slicker,” and he seems happy to distance himself from it. For their latest album, “Lightning,” released late in 2012, the idea was to get back to the earlier approach.
“We wanted to complete the train of thought we were in in ‘Grand.’ It feels like an extension of the ‘Grand’ album,” Johnson said.
But he doesn’t want to get stuck in that place.
“I think that what comes next will be different. I’m looking forward to seeing it,” he said.
He’s not looking to get back to the ideas of “Sidewalks” — too much musicianship going on there. If Johnson has learned anything, it’s how to stick to basics.
“We came up with the phrase ‘WWMKD — What would Matt & Kim do?’” Johnson said. “We were getting too musician-y, playing seven notes at the same time. Matt & Kim would only play two notes at one time. We had to focus, make a more conscious decision to keep it simple. Maybe now that we understand why the simple side works, we’re becoming more deliberate in that.”
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