Bigger isn’t always better. True, you might get an argument from Arcade Fire admirers, they of the “everything-but-the-kitchen-sink show” – or perhaps a dispute from devotees of The Gorillaz’ “everything-and-the-kitchen-sink show.”
But as for me and my musical house, give us a small group with a big sound any time. Like say, a dynamic duo with a creative keyboardist and a lunatic drummer.
And just for good measure, let’s name them Matt and Kim. And for even better measure, let’s have them play this year’s Arizona Fall Frenzy Sep. 30 at Tempe Beach Park with blink-182 and Jimmy Eat World.
Kim Schifino (drums and vocals) and Matt Johnson (keyboards and vocals) launched the dance pop pair in 2004, after meeting at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute. Astoundingly, neither played their respective instruments prior to forming the band. Ah, what the mind can conceive, the mind can achieve.
They recently released their third full length album, Sidewalks. “Cameras,” the first single from the record, hit the airwaves on Aug. 31, jumping to the #14 spot on the iTunes Alternative Chart within the first hour of its release. Matt and Kim just appeared on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon to perform their current hit single from the album, “Block After Block.”
Sidewalks is the follow up to 2009’s Grand, which produced iTunes Top 10 single and album placements. The music video for “Lessons Learned” from Grand won an MTV VMA for Breakthrough Video and an mtvU Woodie Award for Best Video.
This spring, M and K took home the mtvU Woodie Award for Best Live Performance, beating out Girl Talk, The National, Mumford & Sons, and Robyn.
That’s a heck of a lot of noise for just a tuneful twosome. But after chatting with Johnson in between shows on their current tour, it certainly fits right in with their “less is more” perspective.
Take their name for example. At first glance, the lack of flash mistakenly conveys a lack of creativity. But Johnson indicated that nothing is that simple with the creative set of two.
“I think in a way, it makes sense. In the end, it was a deliberate decision. It started out that we literally couldn’t think of a name. We were listed for a show and someone just listed us as our names, who was a friend of ours who was putting the show on.”
“And then the more we thought about it, and the more our band developed, we continued to try to think of a name even after that. We didn’t really accept it as the name. And then we just realized that what we’re all about was just being the two people who are Matt and Kim.”
“And the idea of being on a first name basis with everyone who knows our band seemed pretty accurate how we handle ourselves.”
Schifino and Johnson both graduated from Pratt Institute with art school degrees, providing them with unique tools that prove useful with the band’s visual elements, from album covers to music video concepts. The artistic training affords them musical insights as well.
“I remember the first time I tried to put this into words. We were playing – this was years and years ago at an art camp for eight to twelve years olds. I tried to explain the concept to them and it totally went over their heads.”
“But, I do believe when it comes to creativity, it’s like being smarter about it is just being smarter about it. Like the better I learned what made a photo feel balanced – feel complete and feel like it was working – the more I could tell what made a song feel balanced and complete and like it was working.”
“I just have this one thought that if you can tell when something isn’t working – whether you wrote a novel or you took a photo or wrote a song or whatnot – if you can tell that it’s not working, you can keep reworking it until it’s not not working anymore or aka is working.”
“But, if you can’t tell if something’s not working, then you’ll end up putting out stuff that isn’t your best work.”
The band’s desire to put out great work and do everything just right is evident in everything that they do. That much was clear after speaking with Johnson for just a few minutes.
“Yeah. And I think we have strong opinions on what we like. We now, after however many years, have a great team that works with us from our management to our label to Sheila here doing our press and all of that, and people who understand what we’re looking for and all of that.”
“But we’re still so particular about things that we do try to be involved in everything all the time – I think to the annoyance of people (laughing). But we know what we like and we just wanna make sure that we put out stuff that we really like. Then, luckily we’ve had the acceptance – that other people have liked it too.”
M and K’s loyal fanbase particularly likes the small band’s incredible ability to sound big. Johnson feels the same way.
“I do feel the same way. I’ll say it’s a lot to do with Kim’s biceps. Have you seen her crush those girls? (Laughing). You know, she makes me feel weak, even though I’m half a foot taller than her or more.”
“But, I feel sometimes people will see us – I’m up there with the keyboard and Kim’s this petite sized woman – and people are gonna think that, ‘Oh, they’re just gonna go up there and be like a little xylophone and drummer.’”
“And then we come out and we just wanna be The Ramones and be like a wall of noise, you know? I mean, it depends. And we’ll do that attitude on one song. And another song, we’ll have more of a pop mentality beat to it. But in the end, we do want to be able to fill that whole venue.”
One of the best things about Matt and Kim is their subtle humor, from their music, to their shows, to their videos, and really all phases of their reality.
“I always say, while we take what we do very seriously, we don’t take ourselves very seriously. And I think that helps because you don’t fear taking chances – because you don’t fear being judged for things like that all the time you know?”
“We will take chances and make something that might sound a little different. But, I feel somewhere deep down we’re not worried about what people are gonna think. We want everyone to enjoy and like our music, but the bottom line is we wanna have fun doing it.”
“We’ve had success with making ourselves happy and that’s making other people happy. And I think that’s been something we’ve been very lucky about.”
“Because I do know people who are great songwriters that are inspired and love music that have a very narrow audience. And there’s been frustration that they can’t break out of their narrow audience. And they’re like, ‘Should I change my music?’ And it’s like, ‘No, you’ve gotta make the music you love.’ But maybe the music you love is very particular and you’ve gotta figure how to make that work for you.”
“So I feel very fortunate that we seem to be able to find a wide audience with making music that we will put on while we’re in the van or in the bus and jam to our own tunes.”
Given the demands of the recording industry, there may be a certain inevitability to rushing a record to meet a contract deadline – and putting out a record that you’re not satisfied with. Fortunately for Matt and Kim, they’ve managed to avoid the unavoidable so far.
“No. And the way we’ve built what we do and the people we work with, we’re far from that position of having anyone that’s trying to put in input and stuff like that.”
“Our closest thing was we worked with a producer for our first time between our most recent album Sidewalks. And like I said, we’re very particular about what we like and we’re a very creative opinion in the room.”
“It was someone who did shows. It was a decision we made that we wanted to work with another person, ‘cause I thought, ‘Oh, it might be nice to have a different angle.’ And it was in a number of ways and we’re really happy with that album.”
But also, Kim and I are just too opinionated that there definitely was some head butting going on. But I think it helps you expand your taste a little. Because in the end, we made the album we wanted to make.”
“But, to have a little bit of resistance and try to have someone say, ‘Maybe think about this. Maybe think about that.’ Maybe you don’t go to exactly that thing but it might bring you around to something you wouldn’t have tried in the first place. I mean, it was definitely a learning experience.”
And lucky for us, Matt and Kim have used that learning experience to teach us about great music.
See you at the Frenzy!