It's just past 11:30 a.m. when a groggy but friendly Matt Johnson answers the phone in the Brooklyn apartment he shares with his longtime musical and romantic partner, Kim Schifino. On this day, at least, he has managed to stick to one of his goals for 2010.
"Awake before noon!" He laughs. "Not that lazy Kim, though." A murmur of disapproval can be heard in the background (maybe even a kick).
It's not unusual for rock stars to roll out of bed around the same time that the rest of us wrap up our workdays. But for all of their recent successes, Johnson and Schifino are hardly rock stars. For starters, they're nice. Their faces are permanently stuck in smile positions. They're punctual. They personally maintain their Facebook page instead of having some lackey do it. They don't trash hotel rooms. They haven't been to rehab.
Sleeping in might be singer and keyboardist Johnson's and drummer and singer Schifino's only real indulgence. Just a couple of years ago, they were waking up in the twin bed they shared. Skinny as both may be (they were skinny and naked in last year's mega-popular "Lessons Learned" video), that couldn't have been comfortable. Not long after their 2006 self-titled debut came out, Johnson and Schifino upgraded to a double mattress. Everything else got a little bigger, too: the tours, the venues, the crowds, the fanbase, the payday. They're not wealthy, but after paying their dues on the house-party, basement and warehouse circuit, they turned Matt & Kim into a full-time endeavor and earned enough resources to give their forthcoming third album, Sidewalks (the anticipated follow-up to their 2009 breakthrough, Grand) enough time and attention to make it a worthy successor.
"It was a long process, and I'm just super-psyched," Johnson says, yawning and apologizing. The prior late night, he explains, was spent approving the final mixes of Sidewalks (due out in November). "We could have said things were good six months ago, after the initial recording of the album happened. But we just went through and refined it more and more. There's no room for things that are just good. There's plenty of shit out there that's good. It's gotta be awesome."
Aside from the first single, "Cameras," Matt & Kim have kept the new album tightly under wraps. (Things are about to soften, with listening parties set up at each show on the tour. Get to the venue early and you'll hear the album in its entirety right after the doors open.) "Cameras" demonstrates the duo's move away from the giddy, minimalist punk-pop that characterized the first album, instead pushing into thicker sonics, slower tempos, and the more complicated moods explored on Grand. Wobbly keyboards and tuba-sounding synth bleats meet up with multilayered rhythms and countermelodies. But remarkably, the song never feels overstuffed. Johnson's nasal croon nudges a slight funk groove forward until it bursts into the soaring chorus: No time for cameras/We'll use our eyes instead. It's an ode to the now-quaint notion of simply living in the moment rather than trying to document it.
"Maybe half of Sidewalks has that kind of sound," Johnson says. "We wanted to put out something that seemed a little different." But he's quick to mollify those Matt & Kim fans happily stuck on the spunky, neophyte charm of the pair's earliest material — back when they could barely play their instruments and they recorded their entire first album in one week. "You'll still hear some stuff with the faster Kim Schifino beat, where I can't fuckin' slow her down, no matter how hard I try."
Johnson says that even with more time, money and studio tricks at their disposal, they aren't about to start crafting epic prog symphonies. The pair's creative philosophy essentially remains the same. "The simplest version of something that's still effective and potent tends to be the best version, in my mind," he says. "We tracked all kinds of crazy stuff, and then at the end, we were trying to get rid of as much of it as possible. It's really, really easy to keep just stacking things on. But in the end, the mix is boring when it's not as focused," he says. "It's funny, a lot of people see making simpler things as easier, but in my mind, it's way harder because the main idea has to be much stronger."
Matt & Kim's most impressive trick, however, may be the fact that they've managed to retain much of the exhilarating, we're-all-in-on-a-big-wonderful-secret spirit of the old house-party shows. Back then, they played in the center of packed rooms as flailing, sweaty bodies tumbled all around them. Now, at the bigger, more traditional spaces they play, they still pummel their instruments like prizefighters and climb like acrobats on things onstage, and they're pros at pulling everyone in the room into the experience. A Matt & Kim show repels bad moods like garlic repels vampires.
"We haven't changed the way we put our personality into everything we do," Johnson says. "I think there are those bands that are very distant and standoffish and make it very clear that they're onstage and you're in the crowd. With us, we wanna get as much light in the crowd as possible so everyone can see everyone — so we can see everyone. I think we're just human about the whole thing rather than putting up that wall."
Afterward, when the crowd — still high off that Matt & Kim buzz — inevitably swarms the band for autographs, photos and hugs, the band members happily oblige, even when they would really like to go to bed. "Eh, it's OK," Johnson says and laughs. "I'll sleep plenty when I'm dead."