Matt And Kim may have started as a playful experiment, but the Brooklyn couple has grown into a formidable musical presence. Playing synth-heavy indie punk with inescapably catchy enthusiasm, the twosome encapsulates the purity of DIY and the power of pop. While on tour in support of the band's sophomore album Grand—which includes a stop at Bottom Lounge tonight—Matt Johnson spoke with The A.V. Club about recording in his parents' living room, working without a producer, and having the band take over their relationship.
The A.V. Club: You both studied art at Pratt Institute—was it hard giving that up?
Matt Johnson: I was there for film and Kim was there for illustration. I did some jobs after school and Kim did one illustration job before deciding it wasn’t for her—so, you know, after a $120,000 education you can decide after one job that it’s just not for you.
AVC: Was music something that you guys had talked about collaborating on before then?
MJ: I played in bands throughout my teenager years—never keyboards, mostly just guitar and bass and screaming vocals. I remember once with a band I was recording vocals in my living room, and my parents were just cringing at every note. As far as Matt And Kim, we just sort of started playing around with it and having fun, and we’ve just continued with that.
AVC: Is it more about self-entertainment or entertaining others?
MJ: It’s definitely shared. Just last night we played in Norman, Okla., our first time ever there, and we had a really fun show. I was a little nervous because we were playing at a college and it was a big, seated auditorium—it felt like we were going to be giving a big lecture or something—but they’d over-packed the place and everyone stood up, came down to the front, got up on their chairs. It was so wild and everyone could feel it.
AVC: Your live shows are pretty notorious—can you elaborate on how you approach a performance versus a recording?
MJ: It took me a while to really be able to define it to myself—my favorite live songs are not my favorite recorded songs, and my favorite recorded songs aren’t my favorite live songs. There are very different things that go into it. For instance, we have a song called “Good Ol’ Fashion Nightmare” and I think it’s a great recorded song, but at first when we played it people looked like they were totally bored. Now that they know it, people will sing along, but inherently it’s just not as exciting a song as, say, “Cinders,” where people were totally into it from the first time we started playing it.
AVC: And how is the recorded approach different?
MJ: People get too concerned with putting that live energy into an album—if you play louder it doesn’t come out of someone’s speakers louder, and if you get drunker while recording an album it doesn’t make the sound more loose and dramatic. You have to do different things to bring a different kind of energy. You have to add more detail so people will be excited to notice something the 30th time they hear it.
AVC: You recorded Grand at your parents house in Vermont?
MJ: Yep! Bringing it back to the living room.
AVC: How did your parents feel about your recording this go-around?
MJ: We were respectful enough to wait until they were at work every day and finish by the time they got back. But they are so supportive of everything I’ve ever done. I think there’s even a possible chance that they might like Matt And Kim stuff.
AVC: What was the experience like in that setting as compared to your previous experience?
MJ: It was its own kind of nightmare. The first [album] was so quick and rushed within a week. I listened to that album again recently and it’s definitely good for what it is but I was also like “Oh my god, I can't believe I missed all these notes!” This time we had enough rope to hang ourselves with, though. We didn’t have any kind of real timeline—we’d tour and then every break we had we’d work on it. I’ve learned a lot about who Matt And Kim are and what we should sound like. There was no one else’s perspective going into it—it was just me and Kim recording it ourselves, being ourselves.
AVC: You guys have a pretty idiosyncratic lyrical approach—Kim writes lines and you pick the ones that sound good to you—how does that dynamic work?
MJ: Kim comes out so quickly with pages and pages of stuff. We listen to a lot of hip-hop and lately she’d gotten a little battle-y with her lyrics, so I’m trying to keep that out of our songs. [Laughs.] It’s very much our personalities coming together—Kim’s about getting it done and not worrying about it, whereas I’ll write the first word and get stuck. We need our two personalities to strike a balance.
AVC: Having gone from one recording extreme to the other, would you try either one again?
MJ: We are excited to work with different producers who are on the same plane, and I think we’re definitely excited for what’s to come. We tried working with a producer we like, Ben Allen, who’s worked with a variety of people—from Gnarls Barkley to Animal Collective—and I love the song that came out of that. If we want an album to come out next summer though, we actually have to start working on it—I’m supposed to be writing it on this tour, but I’m pretty much just into sleep right now.
AVC: The band has really encompassed your personal and professional lives—touring, recording, writing—would you have it any other way?
MJ: Not at this point. I sometimes think about what it would be like to have the life I had when I was a film editor—I’d clock out at 6 or 7 and not think about the job until 10 o’clock the next morning. Now there’s no clocking out. It’ll be 1 in the morning and we’ll be sitting there trying to decide what we want for a T-shirt for our next tour. You think about the men and women who get addicted to their jobs to the point that their spouses leave them because there’s nothing else that can be in their life. If Kim and I weren’t doing this together I wouldn’t be able to see the difference. I feel bad when I lose touch with my family and friends because we’re so busy. It can definitely be a challenge in that sense, but what’s fun about it is our love of it—so there’s no draw to pull you away.