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Thursday, Sept. 25, 2008

N.E.R.D.

Rap stardom, club culture and alternative rock

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   Our conversation is painful, marked by enough long pauses to fill an entire season of "The Office." Pharrell Williams, the singer and public face of N.E.R.D., is normally the chatty one, but right now he's so disinterested in my questions that he's making his less talkative bandmate Shay answer them from a third phone line. Though he struggles to be polite, Shay prefaces many of his short answers with a barely disguised sigh.

  "Hey, P, you still there?" Shay calls out, looking to pass off a particularly dry question. He sounds crushed when Pharrell doesn't respond. "His line must have cut out."

  And so for several minutes Shay and I continue our labored chat, until I mention that I've never seen N.E.R.D. before and Pharrell reappears on the line. He'd been there all along, apparently, so bored he couldn't bring himself to talk, but he's real excited now.

  "You haven't been to the live show?" he interjects. To him this is both a great injustice and an explanation for my dullness. "See, that's why I let you just go on like that! You have to come to our show. We're going to melt it!

  "A lot of fire!" Pharrell boasts of his live show. "A lot of energy. Very Red Bull. And the girls! Especially in Milwaukee-y'all got beautiful girls! The female N.E.R.D. fans are all firecrackers! They're just hot, and they explode down there. Did you hear that part? They EXPLODE down there!"

  Pharrell came to fame as a producer, forming The Neptunes with with Chad Hugo and helming dozens of singles at the turn of the century, including many of the era's defining hits by artists like Ludacris, Gwen Stefani, Justin Timberlake, Mystikal, Snoop Dogg, Nelly and Britney Spears. But it was clear from his many camera-mugging music-video appearances that Pharrell pined for the spotlight. With N.E.R.D., his band with childhood friends Hugo and Shay, he gets to live out his rock-star fantasies.

  N.E.R.D. has grown into more of a traditional rock band over time. The trio's 2002 debut, In Search Of…, was infamously crafted with the extraterrestrial synths and disembodied percussion of The Neptunes' early hits before the group remade it with a live band, recording one of the highlights (and last gasps) of the short-lived rap-rock movement. By 2004's Fly or Die, N.E.R.D. had become its own live band, and with their latest album, Seeing Sounds, they're touring as one.

  The band blames "politics" for the four-year delay between N.E.R.D. albums. During that acrimonious time, Pharrell and Hugo reportedly stopped speaking, and Pharrell attempted a stunted solo career, but he says he always knew N.E.R.D. would return.

  "You've got to understand, before all the music, before all the money, before all the mayhem, we were always friends," Pharrell says. "The music? The money? The mayhem? It's all bonus after the music. It's like buying a DVD: It's just bonus material for us."

  Though the jazzy, Steely Dan breakdowns are as prominent as ever-Pharrell is an unabashed Steely Dan fan, almost as excited to talk about Donald Fagen as he is women-Seeing Sounds bears the stamp of the band's run-ins with money and fame. The album's trippy title and its swollen, throbbing bass-lines allude to the upscale club scene, as does its lead single, "Everyone Nose," which paints the cutting image of "all the girls standing in line for the bathroom," waiting to snort cocaine with hundred-dollar bills. It's a satire of club culture, of course, but one delivered by insiders, as the music video's Lindsay Lohan cameo makes clear.

  "Buy it for everyone and put it under your Christmas tree this year," Pharrell says in his closing pitch for Seeing Sounds. "It's good shit. Seriously. It's perfect if you don't know how to tell your girlfriend you want her to be a little more risky in bed."

  So Seeing Sounds is baby-making music?

  "Baby-making music on the more conservative side, if that's how you want to say it," Pharrell says. "But, to be honest, it's just straight titty action.

  N.E.R.D. shares an 8 p.m. concert with Common at the Rave on Thursday, Sept. 25.