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Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012

Staying True to Matt & Kim

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Matt & Kim keyboardist Matt Johnson knows the duo’s live shows are one of its biggest assets. The concerts have become legendary for the inclusive, participatory vibe he and drummer Kim Schifino create on stage, making audiences feel they’re as much a part of the experience as the performers. It makes sense, then, that the duo’s latest album, Lightning, was crafted in the studio to enable the songs to translate easily to the concert stage. That wasn’t the case with the duo’s previous album, 2010’s Sidewalks.

“We love that album,” Johnson says of Sidewalks, “but it really had to be adapted to get the live energy that we have on stage. A lot of the songs got pushed up in tempo a lot or had a different drum beat to kind of bring the feel we wanted. I think on this album, Lightning, we took some of that stuff of how we adapted those songs from Sidewalks live and we just made the original versions like that.”

Looking back at Sidewalks, Johnson says the layers of instrumentation could have been stripped back further. So on Lightning, the idea was to record fewer instrumental tracks but create a bigger sound with fatter, and sometimes faster, beats and bigger keyboard tones and melodies. That approach super-sized Matt & Kim’s sound, while nudging them closer to contemporary pop trends.

The sugary hooks of the earlier albums are still there, but songs like “Now,” “Overexposed” and “Much Too Late” have some of the duo’s most frenetic beats yet. Meanwhile, other more deliberately paced songs, like ‘Not That Bad” and “It’s Alright,” achieve an epic sound by using simple, ascending notes to build into and hammer home their catchy choruses.

The duo has also borrowed a page from many modern Top 40 pop anthems, keeping the choruses simple and injecting sing-along vocal parts into many of the songs. Sometimes it’s simply an “oh-oh-oh-oh” stretched out like a refrain over a number of bars. In the case of songs like “Now” and “Let’s Go,” those very titles are sung repeatedly like stadium chants in the songs—something that should stir plenty of crowd participation and vocalizing when they are performed live.

Such devices bring Matt & Kim closer to the realm of pop radio, where fun, party-starting anthems are the norm, and there are a few moments on Lightning that verge on the electronic dance music sound that now dominates Top 40 radio.

Johnson was aware that pop radio had shifted closer to the Matt & Kim keyboard-centered sound, but says he and Schifino resisted the urge to go even further in pushing their sound in an electronic/dance pop direction.

“I felt we really could jump completely on the bandwagon of this electronic dance music thing,” he says. “In the end, we were going to do whatever felt true to Matt & Kim, and I felt what’s more true is keeping with the live drum sound.”

“If we had just decided we were going to completely go into the digital domain, I think it would definitely not be true to what Matt & Kim is all about,” he says.

That makes sense considering Johnson thinks one of the keys to Matt & Kim’s success has been their willingness to be themselves, especially on the live stage. And even though the duo has graduated from small clubs to venues holding 2,000-3,000 people, Johnson feels he and Schifino will still be able to connect with the crowds and create the back-and-forth exchange of celebratory energy that has always characterized their concerts.

“I remember doing our first festival and being concerned,” Johnson recalls. “‘Wait, there’s going to be a press barricade? People are going to be 20 feet away? How is this going to ever work?’ But we realized sort of moving into the theater-size venues and things like that, I feel like as long as we still do what we do, which is we talk a lot to the audience between songs and just be our same embarrassing selves, and we figure out the lighting even in [whatever size room we are playing, it should work]. We want sort of as much light shooting out into the audience as there is coming onto the stage, because this room isn’t about the two people here on stage. It’s about the 2,002 people that are all in this room together.”

Matt & Kim headline the Rave on Thursday, Nov. 8, at 8 p.m. with opener Oberhofer.