Matt Johnson and Kim Schifino met at Brooklyn's Pratt Institute — they dated for two years before kicking off their last-name-free free dance punk duo Matt and Kim — but, at least at first, they steadfastly refused to be excessively cute. With Schifino's enthusiastic drumming and Johnson's giddy keyboard lines, their self-titled debut was a 29-minute blast of furious, lo-fi, high-energy synthpop. It was Mates of State sans the twee.
But the two chilled out with last year's ‘Grand,' a smoother affair that kept the energy but packed more textures and more moments of contemplation — and ample references to the duo's much-beloved home borough of Brooklyn. The lead single off ‘Grand,' ‘Daylight,' went gold and cropped everywhere from the TV series ‘Community' to ‘The Sims 3,' while the band's video for ‘Lessons Learned' — which featured real footage of the duo running through Times Square naked, with Schifino eventually getting tackled by an NYPD officer — won a Video Music Award. Matt and Kim's third album ‘Sidewalks,' due Nov. 2, will keep the duo moving toward increasing levels of polish, as their first recorded in a studio with the aid of producer Ben Allen, known for his work with Gnarls Barkley and Animal Collective. Ahead of their Austin City Limits performance, Johnson talked about the difficulty of inventing album titles and the importance of living in the now, among other subjects.
American-Statesman: This tour, you've elected to play ‘Sidewalks' over the PA before your shows and stick to old material during the live set, aside from the single ‘Camera.' Is that choice informed by your own experience as an audience member at shows?
Matt Johnson: Totally. I just know that when I go to shows of bands I like where I know their stuff — and there's certain bands for me that fall out of this category — but for the most part when they say ‘Next we've got a new song for ya'll' I would really rather just sing along to what I know. We decided, since the next album isn't out, that we would do ‘Sidewalks' songs in our next spin. We still give people a chance to hear the new songs if they come out early, but it doesn't have to eat up the show. And it's not that I don't like those songs. I'm more proud of these songs than anything I've written hence thus far. But when you're out to dance and sing along, you want what you know.
Your self-titled debut was very much a snapshot of your live performance — fast and messy. ‘Grand' was a little bit more polished. What direction has ‘Sidewalks' taken?
‘Sidewalks' is sort of moving in the same progression. We recorded our first album in a week and it was just sort of what we were doing live at the time. We recorded ‘Grand' over the course of nine months, and we did it on our own terms. We did it in the bedroom I grew up in and recorded it ourselves as we went along. But the main thing is we wanted that kind of time to work things out because I don't think good things come quickly. So with ‘Sidewalks' it was kind of the same process. We spent the same amount of time, nine months. I'm no doctor but I hear that's the amount the amount of time it takes to have a baby. So this is child number two.
A few lyrical themes emerged on ‘Grand' — particularly your love for Brooklyn. Did you find yourself coming back to any certain ideas on ‘Sidewalks'?
I'm starting to see them now that I have some distance from it. I remember our first album, when that was released in Japan they asked for a one sentence description for what every song was about, and we decided every song on that album was about figuring your life out in one way or another. And ‘Grand,' I think we were on the road so much, getting used to never being home, so you see a lot of references to New York. I think one thing that does come up in ‘Sidewalks' quite a bit is the idea that life is happening right now. Because we're so busy and we sometimes get overwhelmed, it's always tempting to think ‘Oh, things are really tough right now but we're just going to bunker down and push through it to whenever things quiet down again.' Because things never quiet down. That slow time, that vacation never really comes. So we have to live it all right now, constantly evolving at whatever we're doing.
You've said before that choosing album titles is difficult for you — harder than picking a band name, and not made any easier by the way you never name your albums for a song on them. So where'd the ‘Sidewalks' name come from?
Finding names is always a long process for sure, going all the way back to the band name — that why we named it after ourselves, because we couldn't think of anything else. It just sort of happened, although I felt it was very fitting because we did end up being so much about the people Matt and Kim and being on a first name basis with our fans. For this album we were about to go with ‘Deluxe,' which our distributor told us was basically the most confusing thing we could possibly release. So we just brainstormed and ‘Sidewalks' came out and it was simple and low-key. It seemed to fit. Kim and I have a term we use called ‘art-schooling,' which is doing something for no particular reason and then coming up with a reason afterward. I don't think there's any need to art-school this one.
I remember once reading an interview with, I can't recall if it was you or Kim, but you mentioned that part of the reason your song ‘5K' had such a bloody video was that you were worried about being perceived as overly cute. Is that something that concerns you anymore?
Well, we're going to be ourselves no matter what, is something that's worth keeping in mind. We enjoy playing and when we're performing Kim couldn't wipe off that smile off her face if she tried. And some people perceive that as something that's cute, and if someone enjoys that, that's great. But I do feel like if somebody told me ‘You have to see this band, they're so cute!' I'd likely say ‘Uh, no thanks.' So with a video like ‘5K,' and ‘Lessons Learned,' too, we'll be ourselves but we'll balance it out with maybe a darker sort of thing to keep it in check. We won't do a video that involves swing sets or lollipops. I mean, we're going to be a bit cute because we are cute, but we try to balance it out.
Matt and Kim play at 7:30 p.m. Saturday on the Honda Stage.