Smile Politely

29 minutes with Matt

I don’t know how they do it. Whether it’s running around naked in Times Square for a music video, or partying with a bunch of dazzled Norwegians while on tour, Matt and Kim, Brookyln’s most cheery pop duo, seem able to keep their wits about them at all times.

I caught up with Matt Johnson by phone in Kansas City last Thursday. It was around dinnertime (7 p.m.), and I wondered as I was dialing his cell whether or not I would be interrupting anything. I wasn’t: Matt’s cheery hello and his immediate declaration that his hotel was “haunted,” gave way to approximately half an hour of lopsided questions by me and rather flowy answers from him, delving into his teenage years and touching on he and Kim’s newfound celebrity status on the indie music scene.

He mentioned that his long-standing relationship with Kim was not only deeply important to him, but also crucial to the lively and energetic personalities that make them unique as a band. Their quick, snappy, and blunt lyrics are randomly written, and they evolve into tellings of their own personal stories. Almost every moment of Matt and Kim’s lives are spent together: from dancing to top 40 rap music backstage, to seeing the movie District 9 (as they did later that night).

Talks of companionship aside, however, it is Matt’s journey from a bass-playing, punk-clothes-wearing, soccer-playing teen from rural Vermont to one of the most highly-regarded and energetic indie artists of today that can be an inspiration to anyone.

Matt & Kim will be playing a free outdoor show Parkland College this Sunday, September 13th at 8 p.m.

SP: What’s going on?

Matt: I just checked into this hotel that looks totally haunted.

SP: Where are you guys exactly?

Matt: We’re in Kansas City.

SP: Describe your last few days.

Matt: We drove up to Seattle and then Kim and I and a couple other guys flew here to Kansas City for tomorrow and we fly back to Seattle for a festival that’s there and then hop back on the bus.

SP: How has the tour been in general? Exciting? The usual? Has anything stood out?

Matt: It’s been really great. Every one of our shows has been sold out so far which is awesome. And we’ve played in towns like Norman, Oklahoma and things like that. I don’t know. People are just ready to get fuck wild it seems, across the country. One thing is that after you’ve done enough shows, you kinda start feeling natural and you don’t get nervous about it or anything. We’re pretty comfortable being on stage. We just did our first late night TV thing for the Jimmy Kimmel show and we were terrified. It was like we went back to playing our first show all over again. It’s like you’ve known this shit forever that you’ve done a million times and suddenly, you feel blanked out. It didn’t go quite as well as I expected but it was definitely really nerve-wracking.

SP: So you guys are going to be playing here in Champaign-Urbana next week, a free show…How did you guys get hooked up with that? I know you guys don’t really do free shows that much anymore, so this kind of stands out.

Matt: I’m not even fully aware of the whole back story. I mean, we would love to be able to do anything that’s free. Kim’s the one that really takes care of booking and what opportunities there are. But we definitely love to take advantage of anything that’s free, you know whether it’s collaborating with some website on giving away free songs, or yeah, free shows or cheap shows. In my life I’ve been in need of free stuff.

SP: Yeah, free stuff is definitely a universal like.

Matt: Yeah, like entertainment!

SP: So what’s next? I know you guys are going to be in Europe November and December. Are you guys pumped for that? Europe is definitely quite different in terms of audience.

Matt: Yeah, Europe is very different. You know it’s weird because we’ve built some sort of consistency and knowledge of what things are going to be like over there. We’ve traveled the states many times, but when you go to Europe, it’s like going a couple of years back. We haven’t really done it very much. So it’s sort of like starting all over again, so it’s difficult but challenges can be good. We’ll actually be touring with a band called The Sounds that have songs I really like. I think it’ll be great. Our last European tour was really, really tough. Just the traveling and long pressed days. So hopefully, this one will be chiller. That’s all I want in my life.

SP: Just chillin’?

Matt: Yeah!

SP: So, you guys have been on tour. A lot. Has it ever gotten to a point where you the two of have wanted to like, cut out each other’s throats? Have you ever gotten annoyed with each other? I know you’ve been together for a while now.

Matt: Yeah! Yeah, you know as with any other relationship I’ve been in we would have definitely, completely, killed each other by this point. But for some reason, it never really gets like that with Kim and I. We used to drive ourselves around and we’d get lost. That was like the only time we would get really angry at each other – typical family vacation, how you would act towards your parents or whatever. Then we got a GPS! This thing works on magic.

SP: Seriously?

Matt: Yeah, it just fixed everything. That was the savior. Since then, we’ve been pretty good. I really don’t know why it is, but we have a really uncanny relationship, like every moment together is when one of us isn’t in the bathroom. And we still do not want to kill each other.

SP: So I guess I have to ask, but are you and Kim getting recognized in public more often now? Any weird experiences? Has someone ever come up to you on the street? Are you chill with that?

Matt: It happens here and there and then if we’re in a town for a show, then obviously people are there who know you. It happens more often then. But it gets a little confusing only because our band our first name. So it wouldn’t be like, “Yo! What’s up Matt!” and I won’t know if it was someone I had met before and just forgot or…and usually it’s just another band. I have really bad eye sight so sometimes it’s like “ooh, maybe it’s someone I know” and I would wave back, and then I’d get really confused and awkward. I don’t know, we’re very down-to-Earth kind of folk. We’ll chat it up, you know? Yesterday we were at a show and I saw this dude waiting around outside for a long time, for some reason I had the feeling he was gonna stab me.

SP: That really sucks.

Matt: (Laughs)

SP: Describe your prefect show. If you could design your own concert experience, what would it look like?

Matt: We really like to, when possible, play at spaces that are really unique. When there’s a venue in a town, you want people to go over and over again. It’s cool having a venue that’s in a warehouse or even a block party. These places give it a really unique experience. It’s really important to Kim and I that we keep the energy up from when the doors open to when the show’s over. During supporting acts, between set-up. When people leave, I want it to be an accumulation of good things, like how the bouncers treated them. So Kim and I, coming from this history of playing at parties and warehouses, lofts, and art spaces, we just want people to have fun.

SP: Do you ever miss playing at house parties, sleeping on living room couches, and driving in around in a really shitty van? Or are you guys at a new level now?

Matt: What we’ve realized about sleeping on couches in people’s houses, is that we break it down into categories. You know, we would be on the road for a long time and would go out every night. You get to someone’s house and the people there would be like, “Ahh! I gotta take you here, here and here! I gotta show you the town!” and really, all you wanted to do was just crash, and like watch a movie or go to sleep. So we decided that it was just easier going to hotel rooms or what-not.

The van, well, we started off going to shows in an 89′ Honda Civic sedan and we would have to put the seats all the way forward and put everything behind the seats and the trunk. We did get good gas mileage though, I’ll tell you that…until we totally ruined the car. Sleeping is one my favorite things, and I think it’s important to get a full night’s sleep. To be able to go to sleep right after a show and wake up late on this trip has been really great.

SP: When was the first time you guys truly felt like a band? You know, that you were more than a couple that played in a basement every once in a while. Was there a show that really set it off, or did it just slowly come to be?

I don’t know! It’s weird! Actually, kind of stepping back and just seeing us through those eyes, even to be able to tell in the first place. Still now, after we’ve been doing this as our only job for years, I write “musician” under occupation when I go through customs. It still feels like – like a sham. I’m a musician outside, but I really do something else. Even if I don’t do anything else, I don’t know! As a teen, I would look at musician and say “Oh! That’s a band!” but now, it’s tough you who you actually are.

SP: Have you always known that you wanted to be a musician? Did it come in your teenage years? When did it start to become where like, “Oh yeah!” I want to be a musician, I want to play really awesome music?

Matt: Well, I started playing when I was into pop-punk and stuff when I was 14. That’s when I started playing bass. I had always played in bands throughout high school and then when I started college. It was never anything more than a really expensive habit. I mean, like you’re some sort of a drug addict that spent all your money on stuff. I mean, it was rewarding to do, but I never assumed it was something I could actually do. The most steady job, at this point, I’ve ever had has been rock n’ roll. It’s just kind of an accident; Kim and I started playing the exact same way any other band starts playing: It was fun. And we still do it because it’s fun but for some reason it also works out as a good way to get by.

SP: So I guess as a high school senior, I’m curious: how was your experience in high school? Did you kind of stand out? Did you try to conform?

Matt: I think I had a very different experience than a lot of people. I grew up in Vermont and I went to public high school. A Vermont public high school, so my graduating class was 17. And I went from Kindergarten through 12th grade in one school building. So there was no such thing as popularity. We didn’t even have enough people for a football team. I remember getting calls from the coaches, that even though I was no good at baseball, they said I had to be on the baseball team because they didn’t have enough people.

SP: How was playing baseball?

Matt: Er, well, I like soccer better. That’s one of my favorite sports as well as basketball. I don’t know, high school was a different experience because I remember me and my brother and some of my friends all got into punk rock, especially political punk-rock during my junior and senior years. The way we dressed and looked stood out. It was definitely weird for being in Vermont as well. But in the same sense you knew all these kids since you were very little, from elementary school through graduation. You knew everyone’s parents and their siblings and you went over to their house for their weddings or whatever. Everyone got along.

SP: What were you listening to in high school? I know you lived in a rural Vermont town and the internet didn’t exist to the extent that it does today.

Matt: We were into a lot of punk rock stuff coming out of Boston like The Unseen, The Trouble, A Global Threat and a lot of obscure weird, loud crusty punk stuff. But then it’s weird when you’re into punk rock like I was, you’re really closed-minded about other music and I was really closed-minded through all my high school years. You know, that you ONLY listen to punk stuff. So by the time I was finishing up high school and on in college, my mind opened up. I started to guiltily accept everything, like “Man, Destiny’s Child sounds really good.” Now I have NO guilt. I’ll listen to any sort of pop stuff. Kim and I listen to mostly hip-hop, like Top 40 hip-hop.

SP: Do you think the punk concept has transferred to your and Kim’s music?

Matt: Yeah, ‘cause I have this theory about what types of music kind of go together and it’s sort of all the energy in it. We played with this band Against Me! and people were like “Wait, you aren’t gonna like each other” and to me, we were kind of the same band, even though they were more towards the punk rock side of things and I guess we’re a little more electronic and fancy. The first time I saw them play was in a basement in Portland, Oregon to a bunch of sweaty people dancing and that is exactly how Kim and I started out — the energy is the same.

A lot of our principles are the same, too. Our tickets have generally been really low-priced and we have sold our stuff as cheap as we could. On all of our early tours, Kim booked everything. We did everything ourselves. I think it’s the DIY attitude that really makes us similar.

SP: Who writes the lyrics? Matt or Kim? Both?

Matt: It’s a conjoined effort. On Grand we had this lyric-writing technique that really seemed to work out for us. Kim basically wrote out pages and pages, and then I would go through and pick out lines that I liked, and that resonated with me. We sort of let the songs write themselves, rather than have it be predetermined. I think songs get too literal when people do that.

SP: You guys have some pretty interesting music videos. A few months ago I stumbled upon your video Lessons Learned (below), and I think a lot of people were kind of, well, intrigued. How did it go about? Did you notify the police? Were you really naked? I think that’s what a lot of people wondered.


Matt: We got a permit to shoot in Times Square, but we really didn’t give them the extent of what our plan was. For one, you aren’t supposed to shoot music videos there for some reason, so told them it was a “web-promo video.” We were definitely dressed inappropriately seeing that it was February. It took a lot of convincing on my behalf to get Kim to do it. She did NOT want to do the video, but to me it seemed perfect for that song. To me, that song was kind like how, you know when you get really stressed out? And you’re really and the bottom of the barrel or whatever, and you have to let it all go and say “Screw it”? That is this song. and I though “Well, taking all our clothes off in the most public place in the United States says ‘screw it’ to me.”

SP: So besides your love for Top 40 hip-hop, do you guys listen to any indie music? Are there any cool bands that we should know about right now? Any inside info on up-and-coming bands?

Matt: The truth of the matter is we don’t listen to a lot of indie music but there are definitely bands that I like. Tokyo Police Club, I was listening to today which I really, really love. There is a band from Brooklyn called Japandroids that helped us out so much in starting out and we’ve done so many shows with them and they actually gave Kim her drum set and kind of convinced us to play our show. There are a handful of bands that I just love seeing live and they are one that I have seen countless number of times. Bands like TheDeathSet and other bands that share the same energetic vibe as us, I think are great.

SP: How do you guys get ready for a show? Do you hang out with friends before the show, or do you go right out there and play and excite people?

Matt: Well, recently, part of my routine is I have to do all these exercises for my back. I’m trying to put it back together. I injured it a while back, it’s been nothing but a pain in the neck. So I do that, and I also do vocal warm ups which is also pretty fun because I’m by no means like any sort of traditionally good singer at all. But I realized early on in touring that I would lose my voice every single night. You just have to be smart about this. Your voice is like a muscle and even right now, my voice is a little raspy. I just get too into it, and I just start shouting on stage and it gets all fucked up.

In general, we just liked to put on music that gets up psyched up and sort of have a private dance party in the backstage room. I think that’s important too and like we choose what music is played in the venues before we go on, so we play the same music that gets us excited to the audience.

SP: So are you touring with any bands right now?

Matt: We have Amanda Blank with us, who is a rapper. She rapped with Spank Rock. She’s from Philly! It’s nice having someone you really like go on before you to get everyone excited.

SP: If there is one band you’d pay with, who would it be?

Well, again, I love Against Me! We also love Girl Talk a lot and we’ve played with him a few times. One band that I have loved from 7th grade on is Weezer. We’re playing with them tomorrow, actually.

SP: Where’s Kim right now?

Matt: I don’t know where she went. She might have gone over to the tour manager’s room or something. I don’t know where she is. We have it worked where I take care everything phone related and she takes care of everything emo related.

SP: Emo related? Elaborate.

Matt: Well there’s so much to take care of every single day. Sometimes I don’t believe it. Stuff like shows, licensing. It goes on and on and on. She tries to make an effort to respond to everyone’s myspace message but yesterday she was 1500 messages behind. She’s trying cut down on that.

SP: We will see you guys next week!

Matt: Yeah! No doubt!

Photos by Cody Bralts from Pitchfork Music Festival 2009.

Related Articles