Brooklyn couple Matt Johnson and Kim Schifino are dance-punk duo Matt & Kim, a highly touted act often described as "cute." Though that description annoys them, it's hard to deny; their enthusiastic personalities and contrasting physical features make one want to draw them into a bear hug. He's tall and pale and wears Asics, she's short and olive-complexioned and wears big hoop earrings. Even when they disagree it's adorable.
"Matt's pretty good at convincing me to do shit I don't want to do," imparts Kim, the duo's drummer. "In the 'Yea Yeah' video he was like, 'We're going to have food thrown at us.' I was like, 'That does not sound fun.'" (Rest assured that watching the pair splattered with cream pies, pizza and ketchup was fun for the viewer, however.)
Matt's proposal for the video for their recent single "Lessons Learned" — off their second album, Grand, released in January on the Fader label — held even less appeal to her. The idea was that they would walk through Times Square while stripping down to the buff.
"I thought taking our clothes off in the most public place in the United States was the perfect video for the song, which is about not giving a fuck anymore," says Matt, who plays keyboards and does the bulk of the singing. "Because we get put in the 'cute' category a lot, I thought it was important to create layers so that we weren't seen as one tone. If someone told me that we should see a band because they were 'cute,' I would not go."
As usual, Matt talked Kim into the idea. But there was one condition — he had to promise they wouldn't get arrested. "I promised," Matt says. "I had no idea, but I promised."
As if the possibility of incarceration and Indiana tourists gawking at them in their birthday suits wasn't daunting enough, the taping just so happened to fall in February, on one of the coldest days of the year. "You know that cold where you can't feel the bottom of your feet anymore, that numb feeling?" Kim relates. "That was like your whole body." Her one concession? She got to wear her socks. "I was like, 'It's New York City. I'm not taking my socks off!'"
In the end they didn't get lockjaw, didn't freeze and weren't arrested, and the video helped generate buzz for the act — despite their privates being artfully blurred. But even before employing this libertine gimmick they were well on their way, packing venues from Boston to Buenos Aires largely on the strength of positive reviews from their wildly energetic yet thoughtfully composed sophomore work. Unlike their 2006 self-titled debut — which failed to live up to the band's rowdy live sound — Grand is a burst of pure energy, highlighted by the stomping piano jams "Daylight" and "Good Ol' Fashion Nightmare."
They essentially tried to record their live songs onto CD without changing them for Matt & Kim, says Matt, but took a different approach this time around. "People always talk about getting that live energy on an album, but it doesn't exist," he says. "You can't play faster and have that energy come through, you can't play louder, you can't be drunker, you literally have to write your songs different for recording than for a live show."
While songs played in concert often need little more than a strong beat and a good melody, studio tracks favor complexity, he says. "Diverse instrumentation doesn't matter much for live music, but on recorded music it's nice to have an interesting string sweep here, or synth hit there. We wrote [Grand] to be just a little more diverse."
For that task, the couple, who met while studying at the Brooklyn art school Pratt Institute, journeyed to Matt's childhood home in southern Vermont. They bunkered down for six weeks in almost total solitude. "To get there from the bus station, you have to drive for about 45 minutes into the mountains," Kim recalls. "I was like, 'Really, are we not there yet?' Their house is surrounded by three cow pastures and a road. There's nothing out there."
The recording went well, but Kim slowly began losing her mind. "I can handle some drug addict in the city trying to mug me, but there are weirdos in the woods, and they've got an axe and they're going to chop you up!" she complains, adding that there were other inconveniences: "His parents only had the dial-up Internet."
In any case, despite being recorded in a bucolic setting, the album's insatiable energy has won the duo placement in a Bacardi ad and huge swaths of new fans. In fact, their recent iTunes numbers have dwarfed those of popular performers like Beyonce and Katy Perry. "It's like, what the fuck are we doing above these people?" Matt wonders.
Whether it's his wife or his group's fans, it seems Matt can talk just about anyone into coming along with him for the ride.
Corrected: An earlier version of this story misstated the status of the couple Matt and Kim. They are not married.
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