MUSIC | Matt Johnson of Matt and Kim: “Playing music is the most steady job I’ve ever had”


Last seen in the Twin Cities at a jubilant Triple Rock show last September, Brooklyn indie rockers Matt and Kim return this week for their first headlining gig at First Avenue’s Mainroom. Refreshed and enthusiastic (“If I could sleep 12 hours every night, like I did last night, I think I’d live forever”), the duo’s keyboardist/vocalist Matt Johnson talked with me by phone about their new album Sidewalks (slated for a November release), Natalie Portman’s Shaved Head, and his favorite t-shirt. 

You’re back on tour, playing bigger venues and longer sets than you ever have before. How’s the transition been going?
Good! Last night was the second show of the tour, and I was worn out by the end of the set. We’re used to putting every ounce into our shows, playing 45 minutes tops. We started out playing shows with only three songs, then we eventually went up to five, and now we’re playing for over an hour. I have to figure out a way to balance my energy—or else I just have to drink a bunch of Red Bulls.

Have you changed your approach for the bigger crowds who are seeing you now?
When we started out, we were playing basements and warehouses and loft parties. We were nervous when we started doing festivals, but we just kept doing what we do. We embarrass ourselves and joke around, and the response feels the same: really positive. We love playing bigger and bigger places. We just want everyone in the world to hear Matt and Kim, and to have fun. It feels good.

At your last show, you seemed to be excited about Kim doing more singing. Can you talk about how the songs take shape between the two of you?
Generally I have a whole bunch of little bits and pieces of melodies. When it comes time to make songs, we’ll come up with the beat together and I’ll try different pieces with it. Then Kim will say we should play it faster, and then we’ll write the lyrics. It’s funny—with most bands, lyrics are the part that are not collaborative, but we write them together. We just let the songs tell us what they’re about.

Will your new album have a different sound than your first two discs?
To me, it feels very much in the same vein. We used songs from Grand [2009] like “Daylight” and “Good Ol’ Fashion Nightmare” as a starting point, and to me the new album sounds very Matt and Kim. To me, it makes sense. But when we released “Cameras,” the first single from Sidewalks, we got a lot of feedback that was even more positive than I expected, and a lot of people commented on how different it sounds. I was like, really? But I’ve been living with the songs for over a year. This album does have more production—we recorded Grand at my parents’ house, in the bedroom I grew up in, but Sidewalks was recorded in studios in Atlanta and New York. We had a little more time to think about how we wanted the music to sound, rather than worrying about how to mic a snare drum.

Last time you were in Minneapolis, your opening act was the incendiary MC Amanda Blank. Can you talk about some of your most memorable experiences with opening acts?
I can think of some memorable experiences we’ve had when playing as an opening act. We’ve actually played First Ave before, when we were on tour with the Go! Team, CSS, and a band called Natalie Portman’s Shaved Head. That night we were the second band to go on, and we maybe made it through three songs before a keyboard broke. Our openers have included a band called Best Fwends—they reminded me of my youth, because I could never say my Rs right—and they’re an incredible band. They would bring two inflatable gargoyles on stage with them, and they’d go crowdsurfing along with the gargoyles. Right now we’re touring with the So So Glos, an awesome band from New York.

Do you choose your own opening acts, or is it a record label thing?
It’s all Kim and me. It’s a hard process to find bands who are available and are a good fit, and we spend a long time searching. We have four or five different bands joining us on different legs of this tour, and we’re excited about every one. There’s Fang Island, Big Freedia—who Kim is especially excited about—Sissy Bounce, and an Atlanta rapper named Donnis. We selected all of those. We just want stuff that we would go to see, because we want to play shows that we’d want to go to. We also have a local opener at every gig; we had the promoters send suggestions, and it was mostly Kim who listened and made the picks. [At First Avenue, Birthday Suits will open.]

Over the past few years, you’ve made the transition from beloved indie cult band to an act that’s on the mainstream radar. What are your career goals at this point?
I definitely never imagined being at this point, making a living by playing music. In fact, it’s now the most steady job I’ve ever had. Something we’ve done is to never create any expectations for where we wanted to get to. We started playing because it was fun, and we’ve continued because it’s fun. Some bands set goals early on, say that they’ll only be successful if they sell this many records or whatever, but that’s setting yourself up for disappointment. Instead, we enjoy every little success—every radio play, every TV appearance, every time we come back to a city and play to more people than we did before.

Do you have any particular impressions of the Twin Cities and the music scene here?
I love it. I spent a while in the Twin Cities when I was 20—my brother and a friend and I went and hung out for a while. We had a bunch of friends who worked at the Seward Cafe, and we hung out there. I had a great impression. Unfortunately, when we’re on tour we only get to stop for a minute at any given place.

Ever since a friend suggested I ask Sara Quin what her favorite t-shirt was, it’s been something I’ve asked many of the people I’ve interviewed. So…what’s your favorite t-shirt to wear?
It’s probably a shirt I have that advertises Dewar’s. I don’t even drink Dewar’s, but the shirt is super comfortable and black with some bleach stains or something. We were at SXSW, and some guy who knew our band was like, you should have a couple of these shirts. It has a cool black and white logo, and it looked really good with a Ramones sweatshirt I had if I unzipped the sweatshirt. The only problem now is that there was some bizarre reaction with my deodorant, and the armpits are hard and plastic and uncomfortable. I still wear it for gigs, but I don’t even know what kind of shirt it is—the tag’s been taken out. That’s my favorite t-shirt.