First off a note of warning: Matt and Kim aren’t a typical band and this isn’t going to read like your average biography. For example, although Matt and Kim know they met while taking classes at Pratt Institute in New York, Kim’s not sure what year she graduated, let alone when they decided to start playing music as a two-piece. What they do know is that when Matt and Kim started out approximately four years ago, they had no idea how to play their respective instruments—a fact that makes the band’s success story almost as unique as their distinctive brand of synth-and-drums dance punk.
After being forced to play their first show by a friend months after picking up their instruments, keyboardist/vocalist Matt Johnson and drummer/vocalist Kim Schifino played their first show as Matthew and Kimberly in October of 2004—and after slightly altering their name they spent the next year playing every chance they could get in their home base of Brooklyn. Along the way they also released an EP called To/From and started touring the United States non-stop, burning CDs in the van on the way to their self-booked shows and seemingly playing every art space and basement in the country.
In 2006 the band released their self-titled debut—which was instantly embraced by critics and fans alike—and stayed on the road, performing at high profile events such as The Siren Music Festival and Lollapalooza. Okay, so now that the timeline is out of the way, let’s talk about the new album. For starters, Grand was recorded at Matt’s parents’ house in Vermont that Kim describes as “being near nothing and surrounded by three cow pastures.” Or as Matt says, “I had a friend from New York come up once and he was like ‘How did you even find out about college?’” In other words, it’s pretty desolate.
However, Matt’s childhood bedroom—which was still covered with skateboarding posters and show flyers—ultimately turned out to be the ideal environment to record Grand. “While our album is different from our things in the past, it’s what I would have always done if we had the time and means to do it, which we did this time around,” Matt explains, adding that the band sporadically spent nine months on their new record as opposed to the nine days in which they recorded their debut. After the tracks were laid to tape the band returned to Brooklyn where Matt spent his summer sweating, stressing out and mixing Grand in the duo’s apartment.” “I would never record our whole album ourselves again,” he adds, “but it came out exactly how I wanted it to.”
The result is an album that takes the band’s musicianship and songwriting to the next level and also serves as a glowing representation of how far Matt and Kim have come since their debut. From the anthemic opener “Daylight” to the harmony-rich, atmospheric ballad “Turn This Boat Around” and demented pop of “I Wanna,” Grand is quite literally the sound of the collective discovering their voice. “All of the songs on the last album we wrote the first year we learned how to play our instruments,” Matt acknowledges, “but this one is much more diverse and instead of thinking about the songs we thought of the album as a whole, too.”
Then there are the band’s legendary live shows, which look more like dance parties than traditional concerts and blur the line between musician and listener. “I really believe that a band should be honest when they play,” Matt explains. “Kim and I are generally just excited to play; I mean I cannot believe that I can make a living off playing music, which is what I get to do now; it’s just so incredible,” he continues. “We’re excited just to be able to play and we show it, as dorky as that can look.”
Lyrically, the band’s writing process is just as idiosyncratic, with Kim writing random lines of text and Matt going through them and putting them together until they start to mean something to the duo. Understandably the band’s debut admittedly tended to be about “figuring your life out,” but this time around the duo have experienced enough to feel comfortable writing about different topics and have expanded their vision into something that’s metaphor-rich and a little harder to nail down with one or two sentences on tracks like “Lessons Learned.”
In fact, that last statement can be applied not only to Grand as a whole, but to Matt and Kim as a unit—and, amazingly, it seems like they’re still just getting started. “Even though we eat rice and beans a lot and live in an eight-foot wide apartment, we’re doing what we want to do,” Matt summarizes. “It’s like when you’re watching a movie, you don’t want to just see people being content—you need a struggle to make it exciting and fun,” he adds. “If you can just enjoy all the little things, that’s ultimately what makes for a satisfying experience.”
Rock for Riley 2011: The annual concert benefit with proceeds going to Riley Children’s Hospital