In Gimme Songs, musician Mark Mallman talks songwriting with his peers and heroes. This week, a conversation with Matt Johnson of Matt & Kim before their performance at Rock the Garden on Saturday.
Matt and Kim have a lot of good karma coming back to them. The indie punk duo have been whipping crowds into wild dance parties since 2004. But at the root of this frenzy is a raw backbeat and constant earworm melodies. Matt and I talked about their pattern based technique in writing, what I've been calling, "happiness anthems."
Rock the Garden 2014 lineup
Mark Mallman: I've been trying to figure out where songs come from, how they form, and why they work the way they do. What inspires you? How does your process work?
Matt Johnson: It's really all in the computer these days, where it used to be in the practice space. There are basically three elements: a chord structure, a beat, and some sort of melodic hook on top. I'll mess around on the keyboard 'til there's a progression that sounds cool, and then me and Kim will talk about if the vibe is right. With melodies, I could write an infinite amount, but then I walk away for a little bit. Things become a little clearer when I walk back.
Your songs operate on simplicity and repetition. So creation is a matter of creating patterns, stepping away, then returning to see which patterns speak to you?
Yeah, I guess so. The ability to have any option to do anything in the world is kind of intimidating when you start thinking about it. Why is a certain melody the best possible melody? When do you ever know when the right one is? Who knows! Sometimes when your doing it, they all sound great.
Maybe a killer melody is more about commitment and repetition. Say you put three separate but awesome melodies in a row, it doesn't have the same power as one melody repeated three times.
And sometimes loops that feel unfinished, are actually what keep you caught in. It's like the horn loop in the song, "Thrift Shop." Maybe if you'd written that, you'd think "This doesn't even complete itself." But that's kind of what makes you want to hear it happen again ...and again and again!
Our lives are loops. Every day repeats, and our patterns of living, eating, and sleeping are loops. Also, the history of melody, coming from tribal worship music, is repeating patterns over and over as well.
You know, instinctually, as humans, what we probably have liked for who knows how many years is a beat to bob our head to, and a melody which we can hum along to. Everything else is intellectual. But I want what we do, songs and videos too, to hit on this instinctual level.
Can a lyric be instinctual? I would lean toward saying it's more intellectual.
I think very much in beat and melody. Lyrics are the one thing for me, that isn't natural. Yet they are still very important. Lyrics are really a joined effort between me and Kim. We write about our surroundings, people we know, a lot of it is about our life. In the past we've liked to make things so clear, you can take the lyrics in your way. There are plenty of huge pop songs, like a Taylor Swift song, where you never don't know what she's talking about. People find comfort in that.
Brian Eno says a mix should always have a center of interest. So, if melody is your primary center, lyrics that are too specific will obscure it. In that situation, a subtle lyric is what the song wants anyways.
For us, it's about a feeling, and what that song was trying to tell us it's going to be about because of the music. What becomes more and more clear to me is a lot of people consume music by saying, "What's this song about? What are you saying?"
How do you balance a song that you know will work in a live setting versus what you know will work in on an album?
I do think it's important on an album to put some details that you can notice your 50th time listening. On a recording, something like a shaker could change the whole sound of a song, but in a live show that's not going to work -- some guy just taking an egg shaker out on stage. For our show, it's gotta be loud. People are going to be jumping around, maybe drinking. You know, there's plenty of situations other than just listening in your car or on your couch. I think it's better to strip out anything that would clutter up the beat and the melody. I know some bands are very caught up on recreating all those details, but I find that we want to go with the broad stroke.
Rock the Garden 2014. Matt & Kim perform Saturday, June 21 at Walker Art Center. Check out the full lineup and schedule.
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