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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Gleefully Consistent World of Matt and Kim

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Matt Johnson has never had milk in his cereal.

“I’m not vegan or lactose intolerant or anything, and cereal is pretty much my favorite food—or has been for many years,” says Johnson, the Matt half of indie-dance outfit Matt and Kim. “But at one point I realized I had never tried the two together, and I was like, ‘Well, it’s no time to start that now.’”

Johnson has also never seen Star Wars.

This is especially odd, because Matt met Kim as a film major at the Pratt Institute in New York.

“How did I make it this long?” he wonders. “How did I make it through my childhood? Shouldn’t my parents have made me watch it?”

And Johnson has also never written a funeral dirge. For all of the acclaim garnered by Matt and Kim’s adolescent, hip-hop-tinged, joyous wares, the one thing the band has been chided for is a general stagnancy of sound. Johnson has always produced goofball synthesizer sounds, Kim Schifino has always drummed with surprising ability for a band designed to sound flimsy and the duo has never reached too far away from a style entirely of their own. They’ve cornered the market on Matt and Kim music. But talk to Johnson, and he seems to be on the cusp of trying something new.

Trying something new doesn’t seem to be a real strong point for Johnson, whether it’s changing a song structure, adding milk to cereal or finally putting the Star Wars tape into his VCR. He’s found a good sound and a good breakfast strategy and has ridden it out for better or worse. It works so well for the band it’s become impossible to escape.

“Sometimes you get surprises out of trying something different,” says Johnson. “That’s why I want to get into a discomfort zone. We love our music but feel like there are certain things I find I do consistently. Chords I go to, stuff like that. It would be nice to just stir that pot.

“Every time I try to be, like, mega ‘song-in-a-minor-key’ or try to ignore a key altogether and be more tonal, it always comes back to Matt and Kim,” he adds.

The compulsive Matt and Kim-ness goes beyond the band’s music. The duo has produced three albums, each with a one-word name and an exactly 10-song roster. Some of the habits are unconscious. Johnson has no idea why a second word hasn’t slipped into a title. Some of it is wholly intentional. When Johnson was in sixth grade, he bought Weezer’s 10-track Blue Album.

It was perfect.

“It was always important to me with an album that you could listen to it from start to end without having to stop it,” he said, “and I remember, that was the one.”

The band wrote 25 songs to trim into 10 for their latest, 2012’s Lightning. And, while it’s an album you can listen to in one sitting, it’s also an album you can listen to seamlessly after 2009’s Grand or 2010’s Sidewalks. To call the constancy stale would be to put a limit on Matt and Kim’s ever-welcome, ever-infectious, youthful glee—something akin to killing a Care Bear or telling Peter Pan you didn’t believe in fairies. Still, there are undeniable similarities between the melodies and pacing of the chorus from Grand’s breakthrough hit, “Daylight,” and the hook from Lightning’s infectious first single, “Let’s Go.”

So is there a way for someone routine-driven enough to never know the joys of Luke, Leia, Wookies or dampened cereal to break out of a rut? Well, he’s done it once before.

“I had never had root beer until I was say 17,” he says, “and then a friend asked ‘Oh, you want a sip of my soda?’ I thought it was Coke or something. But when I tried it, I was like ‘What is this strange taste that I'm experiencing now?’ ‘Oh, it’s root beer.’ And I said ‘Noooooo!’”

And now: “Root beer’s great. Now I'm really into it.”

The antidote to Johnson’s inertia is when someone else pulls him out of a rut. That’s why he hopes collaborations between Matt and Kim and other musicians will “stir things up.” They recorded an extremely party-able track for Converse with the unlikely duo of Andrew W.K. and Soulja Boy. They worked on a track with Rivers Cuomo from Weezer (“I should have told him about the 10-song thing,” he says).

Johnson is tight-lipped about upcoming partnerships between Matt and Kim and someone new. He doesn’t want to jinx something that may fall through. But he’s looking forward to stirring things up, a phrase he uses over and over again.

For now he’ll just have to except that sometimes consistency means consistently producing his Matt and Kim-genre indie-dance earworms. Expected, but pretty great nonetheless. 

Matt and Kim play the U.S. Cellular Connection Stage at Summerfest on Friday, June 28 at 10 p.m.

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