As breaking news of the day goes, it’s not exactly groundbreaking. Still, there it was, in multiple variations, splattered across the online pages of E!, Us Weekly, Entertainment Weekly (which called it a hair break-over), People magazine and so many other websites devoted, in large and small part, to such trivialities. You’d think Samson had risen from the dead and taken up guitar.
But wait! Shouldn’t Delilah ” I mean, Katy Perry ” have been the star of this life (and a new ˜do)-after-love story? Traditionally, the celebrity tabloids and gossip websites pursue female celebrities about whom they date, whom they marry, whom they divorce, to search for baby bumps, and fashion dos and don’ts. Guys generally get in only when they’re dating one of them. (Why do you think Nickelback singer Chad Kroeger, who once went from long to short without causing so much as a media ripple and is now engaged to Avril Lavigne, is suddenly “newsworthy”?)
By those standards, John Mayer must be some kind of publicity-baiting genius. In the last several years, he’s made himself as much of a tabloid fixture as an A-list starlet by dating a succession of them: Jessica Simpson, Jennifer Aniston, Taylor Swift, and most recently, Katy Perry, his pop-star paramour of a few months. (more…)
When I first heard the news about Amy Winehouse‘s passing (on Twitter, naturally), the comment that stood out most was one by Winehouse herself in an interview that the singer had done a few years ago with my former Entertainment Weekly colleague Chris Willman. In it, Winehouse jokingly made a prediction that, in hindsight, isn’t very funny at all.
In 10 years, she said, “I’ll be dead in a ditch, on fire.” Sadly, for her many fans who had rode shotgun as she drove down the path of self-destruction, the “dead” part of her premonition was no joking matter. It was a distinct possibility, if not a certain probability, and one that came to pass on July 23, when Winehouse, who had infamously battled drug and alcohol addiction and had been in and out of rehab in recent years, was found dead in her London home.
The first thing I thought, after spending a moment to grieve for her family and loved ones, was that the world would be cheated out of so much great music. With Back to Black, her 2006 breakthrough album, Winehouse did so much more than show great promise. Hers already was a talent in full bloom. Back to Black was destined to go down as one of the all-time masterpieces. I was living in Buenos Aires at the time of its release, and I knew people who didn’t speak a word of English who could recite every line from every song.
It’s better to burn out than fade away. Live fast, die young. Leave a beautiful corpse. We’ve also all heard the one about how dying (especially before one’s time) is the best career move. I don’t know how beautiful Winehouse’s corpse will be, but she is guaranteed a spot in the pantheon of musical greats who left the party too soon.
Chillingly, she’ll be right beside the musical icons that she seemed to want to emulate most: Janis Joplin, a blue-eyed soulful precursor to whom she was often compared; Jimi Hendrix; Jim Morrison; and Kurt Cobain, all of whom died when they were the same age as Winehouse. If ever there were an unlucky number, it would have to be 27.
Unlike the legends who preceded Winehouse to an early grave and left behind so much incredible, indelible music, Winehouse bequeathed us with relatively few musical gifts. There are her two albums, 2003’s Frank and Back to Black, as well as a handful of one-off guest appearances on other people’s songs (Mark Ronson, Quincy Jones, and Tony Bennett, whose Duets II album in September will feature Winehouse). Sadly, her final impression will be a June concert in Belgrade, Serbia in which the apparently bombed singer stumbled and slurred her way through a few songs before being booed off the stage.
She had reportedly been working on new music for years, and at one point, was said to be on the verge of working with Roots drummer ?uestlove and producer/performer Raphael Saadiq on a project that had been delayed because of Winehouse’s trouble securing a U.S. travel visa due to her 2007 drug arrest for marijuana possession in Norway. So from here to eternity, all we’ll have to remember Winehouse by will be masterpieces of melancholy like “Love Is a Losing Game” and “Tears Dry on Their Own.” We’ll sing along, we’ll cry, we’ll look for clues to what was going on inside her troubled mind, to figure out why she was such a lost soul.
For you I was a flame
Love is a losing game
Five story fire as you came
Love is a losing game
From this day forth, Winehouse’s world-weary look of love will make Adele’s 21 sound like feel-good music. Speaking of Adele, Winehouse should have been where the “Rolling in the Deep” singer is now, reaping continued financial and critical benefits after a first rush of success. Now who’s going to fill her f**k me pumps (to quote the title of one of her early songs)?
Surprisingly, for all of her Grammys, accolades and albums sold, Winehouse only had one single resembling a hit in the U.S., “Rehab,” which went to No. 10 on Billboard’s Hot 100. I’ll never again be able to listen to the song in quite the same way, as a statement of bad-ass defiance. Now it will just sound like the words of a sad, desperate woman in denial and on the brink of collapse. If only she’d taken their advice.
In 2004, after meeting while pursuing art school degrees at the Pratt Institute, friends Matt and Kim decided to form a band” even though Matt had never played keyboard and Kim had never played drums. Surprisingly, the indie pop duo was able to self-release their first EP a year later. Matt & Kim continued to tirelessly practice, write, record and tour”which eventually earned them thousands of new fans, sets at massive festivals, a gold single (“Daylight”) and a VMA for their “Lessons Learned” music video.
Earlier this month, Matt & Kim released their highly-anticipated new album, Sidewalks, and received rave reviews from Spin, Entertainment Weekly, Billboard and more. Though these two hardly take a break from their work, we got the chance to catch up with Matt Johnson about the new record, the group’s influences and life on the road.
OS: Your last album, Grand, was recorded in your childhood bedroom, and you mixed it on your own. How was the recording process different for Sidewalks?
MJ: Well, the recording process was different because we didn’t do this one on our own. We had some people who knew what they were doing helping us, which was nice. While we were very proud of Grand and we’re very happy with what came out, we didn’t know what the hell we were doing. We were just guessing about, “I think this is how you mic a kick drum…” but there’s all these techniques that have worked for years and years that the guys we worked with on this latest one knew. But basically, what this came down to, was that Kim and I could concentrate more on the actual songs than the technical aspects of having to know what the fuck you’re doing.
OS: When the band first started, you didn’t even play your respective instruments. Did you start taking lessons and learning theory or did you just learn by ear?
MJ: We’re still figuring it out (laughs), just going by ear. Yeah, Kim had never played drums, I didn’t play keyboard. I played guitar and bass in bands, I sort of sang in other bands, but it wasn’t so much singing as screaming in punk and hardcore bands. I never tried to hit actual notes. Really, the only thing that has expanded our ability of playing is that we’ll write something that’s kind of harder than what we can actually play and then we just have to practice it enough to be good enough to play it. But singing was the one thing that I took a couple lessons for, mostly because I was really singing from all the wrong places and screwing my voice up super bad. When you have to sing every single night, it gets to be a lot. Also, I’m not opposed to singing on key, that wouldn’t be so bad (laughs).
OS: You and Kim started with, and still have, a very DIY approach to this band… how did you get the band to grow in terms of doing your own promotion?
MJ: We have a machine that does a lot of things, and that machine is Kim. For all the beginning years of this band when we did so much for ourselves, Kim booked all our own tours, she answered every e-mail about everything, she handled this and that….she doesn’t need to sleep. Her last name’s Schifino but I like to call her “Machine-o,” I think it might fit better! So it was a lot to take care of. Even now, we want to be so involved in so many things, but we have to give things away because there’s just so much and we’re on the road so much. Thankfully, we have a great team that takes care of a lot, but we still stay involved with everything and approve everything and put our input in.
OS: The two of you met at the Pratt Institute and continue to use your art skills for the aesthetic elements of the band. Where do you draw your artistic influences from?
MJ: Kim has had a style she’s worked in and you can notice from the album covers that they stay in a similar style, which is typical among artists that work in a wave rather than changing everything up. We like keeping things in that style. The fact of the matter is, through the last few years of this band, there’s been no time for anything non-band related. So whenever Kim works on art, it’s related to the band. Whenever an opportunity comes up that we need something for the band, it gives her a chance to work on art stuff again. But for me, I’m really involved with the videos. I have a lot of ideas on what makes a good video and a bad video. People have definitely appreciated our videos and they’ve had such a reach. We have one we’re shooting in a couple weeks that I’m excited about, it will definitely make some people angry.
OS: You won a VMA for Best Breakthrough Video for “Lessons Learned” and developed the concept for it yourself…which has you and Kim taking all your clothes off in Times Square. Do you have any crazy ideas for things you’d like to try in future music videos?
MJ: Yeah, it never hurts to get naked! We definitely have a dumb idea we’re going to do, coming up. We were supposed to shoot it before the tour started, but things got a little too hectic so we had to push it back. But it will be fun and it will be very much another Matt & Kim video.
OS: Even though you’re an indie pop act, you seem to be influenced by a lot of hip hop. Which hip hop artists influence you the most?
MJ: We’re big fans of whatever is fun. But I think a lot of who I find inspirational in the hip hop world are different producers, because I key really into beat and melody and composition, even more than to lyrics, for any sort of music. I think there’s producers like Swizz Beatz and Pharrell and the Neptunes and Timbaland, who make really creative, awesome, energetic music that can be very bizarre but still have such a reach. I think that’s very inspirational.
OS: You were on tour for most of 2010 playing both club shows and festivals. How were the two types of shows different from each other and how did the fans react to the new material?
MJ: Well, we’re not playing anything off Sidewalks yet. When people go and see a band and the band’s like, “Who wants to hear some new songs?” The general feeling in the crowd is sort of, “Well, I’d rather just hear the things I know and can sing along to,” and that’s my feeling when I go and see a band. So, being that the album wasn’t really out, people didn’t have a chance to study up yet. We decided that we’re really going to make this the last tour of Grand and we added some other little bits and pieces of new stuff and kept it fresh, but we’re waiting on Sidewalks for what will probably be a late spring, early summer trip. But as far as clubs and festivals, I love doing both, for similar and different reasons. Kim and I give every show we play 110%. There’s no point to doing it if you’re not going to give 110%. We love it and if I can squeeze 112% out, I totally do. But this year, with Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits and places where you’re playing in front of 30,000 people…it’s pretty wild, because you can feel all of that from so many people. But then when you’re in a tighter atmosphere, playing for 1,000 people or 1,500 people, everyone’s so close and they’ve paid just to see you and they know all your songs and they can sing along really loudly. That can harness that same energy that all those people can as well, but whoever’s willing to go wilder is usually my favorite. We love doing both.
OS: You and Kim live together in Brooklyn when you’re not on the road. How do you like to spend your time when not working on your music?
MJ: It sounds almost like it’s impossible, but Kim and I don’t ever really do things that aren’t really related to Matt & Kim. This last year, we never took more than one consecutive day off. But we’re happy working really hard on everything band-related. After shows sometimes, we’ll come back to the bus and we have a lot of things on Hulu, TV shows that we keep up to date with”Modern Family, How I Met Your Mother, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”that’s sort of a good downtime for us, to take an hour and just chill. But we don’t usually take more than hour at a time!
Be sure to pick up Sidewalks, in stores and on iTunes now. Check out the band’s award-winning video for “Lessons Learned” below!