Matt Johnson got his start in music by playing the sax in middle school band and guitar in punk bands on the side. While at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, he met Kim Schifino (drums) and they formed Matt & Kim to produce indie electronic music. Renier Fee, director of marketing at Music & Arts, caught up with Matt about his early music career and his advice for beginners. Let’s go!
I believe you played the tenor sax in middle and high school band. How did you land on the tenor sax?
I remember in fifth grade you got to choose an instrument to play. I went to a small public school and they provided you with the instrument you desired. I wanted to learn trombone but my parents thought that the saxophone would be more diverse so I actually started with the alto sax in fifth grade and moved to the tenor around 7th grade.
Kids love the camaraderie of band. Traveling to competitions. Learning new songs. What are your fondest memories of band class?
We never traveled much, or at all, ha, but I did think that just being on the stage, rehearsing and playing with 15 other students was something I never even experienced again after that. It was cool to get a chance to just play music with so many people, playing a part.
You’ve talked about playing guitar and bass in high school bands too. Where did the interest in music come from?
So much my life was following my older brother. We were pretty close in age. We’re only a grade apart. He got a guitar. I don’t know what made him want to play the guitar but now I had to get a bass so that we could play music together. That was when I was around 14. We were into playing pop-punk music. The songs are so simple. They weren’t intimidating to learn so that immediately, especially for me on bass, I could start playing the three chord Ramones songs that I was into.
Did your music skills come from school alone or did you take private lessons too?
I never took private lessons. I learned the sax in school and I started playing bass with tablature I was getting off the internet and eventually I started playing bass in the high school jazz band.
Looking back, do you think that private lessons would be helpful?
I wish I had started even earlier than fifth grade with piano or something like that when your brain is really malleable and you can soak this stuff up fast.
I wish in elementary school I had started lessons. Surely it would have been helpful but the tough thing is that when you’re so young, putting your priorities in check. I was just into skateboarding and snowboarding. I always played music and I still do because it’s so fun and enjoyable but it never occurred to me that I’d make a living off doing it.
You were in a bunch of bands before Matt & Kim. How did they inform the music you play today?
I think there’s a certain energy about the bands I played in. Kim and I fall into what is considered the “indie” or “alternative” spectrum but we still have these shows with crowd surfing and mosh pits and dancing around. I think my history playing in punk and hardcore bands translated over into what we do now.
Also, I still believe in simplicity when it comes to music. The most simple solution, the most impactful, is probably the best solution when it comes to songwriting. A lot of people, who are very educated in music, sometimes over-complicate things because their understanding is on some crazy level. They know all these chords. But, every now and then, the drum beat to “We Will Rock” <Matt simulates the beat here> is the best beat you could have.
I agree with that! Music by Matt & Kim has been labeled indie electronic, dance-pop, dance-punk, alternative. It must be fun to play across those many genres.
We’re fans of different types of music, especially with hip-hop and dance music and things like that so, again, I come back to the word energy. Where the energy makes sense, is where it makes sense. We’ve done a tour with Blink-182 and we’ve done a tour with Major Lazer, which would be considered two very different styles of music but our energies fit. When it comes to writing music, I think we live in a great time where your genre doesn’t have to be super defined. Even 15 years ago people were much more concerned, or they listened to one style of music. The youth of today just like what they like.
People probably tell you this a lot but your hooks are like earworms. They get inside my head and I scream them all day. Do you start with the hook first in your songwriting process?
Generally, we start with a beat or a chord progression. Then a lot of the times I’ll write melodies, singing gibberish. Sometimes I’ll write on the piano the vocal melody, which I don’t always want to do because it’s a little limiting to do what your vocal would do on a piano. Some people really start in the lyrical department. To me, great lyrics are really important, but my instinct is just writing melodies and progression.
What gear are you playing on now?
I’m a software user. I’m using Ableton Live and Logic, mostly MIDI controllers on stage. We find the most consistent way to do our shows on stage was to take all the stuff I did on old synths and sample them and make them patches in Ableton Live. We were having trouble with analog keyboards going out of tune and breaking. Practicality is important for me.
Do you have any instruments on your Christmas wish list?
Just yesterday, I went to the Moog Factory when I was in Asheville, North Carolina.
I’ve been there! That place is awesome.
Totally awesome! They have a synth they came out with in the last year or so called Grandmother. It’s not overly complicated. They’ve got stuff with really deep menus. But this is very one-to-one; what-you-see-is-what-you-get. I think it’s a great way to do synthesis.
What would you would recommend any parent shopping for stocking stuffers?
For a long time I had a baritone ukulele and I tuned it like the first four strings of a guitar. I thought it was a really great instrument to play on and it felt good and it could transport easy.
A melodica is an underrated instrument. For those not familiar with a melodica, it’s like a small piano that you blow into. On our early songs, like “Daylight,” throughout all the choruses, there’s melodica. It’s a nice sound.
If you’ve never played the thumb piano, an Mbria, those things make a magical tone.
I also just got a stocking stuffer in the last year or two; it’s like a music box but it comes these little slips of paper where you can punch holes and you can make your own tunes. They are like paper that would go through an old player piano but it runs through a little music box that you crank.
Matt & Kim released a new album, called “Almost Everyday,” in May and are currently touring to promote it. That puts you at 6 studio albums deep! What advice do you have for the newly formed bands out there working on album number 1?
Just make what you want to hear. If you find yourself in the studio, saying such things as, “I think other people will really like this” or “I think these people will sing along to this,” that’s where things get a little untrue. It doesn’t feel as truthful. The most truthful thing you do is make music that satisfies you. That will resonate with other people.
At Music & Arts, we love interviewing artists to learn more about what inspires them to create music. Check out more interviews here.