Matt Johnson explains how planning not to plan can sometimes be the best plan.
Matt Johnson and Kim Schifino didn't plan any of this. After starting to date as students at Pratt Institute, the pair decided to start a band—even though Kim had never played drums and Matt was new to keyboards. But 12 years after Matt and Kim’s self-titled debut, they're still playing to enthusiastic audiences and making vibrant, body-moving indie-pop anthems.
Along with amazing chemistry and a unique attitude toward success, one key to their longevity has been getting their music featured in television shows such as Community, The Mindy Project, Chuck, and Man Seeking Woman, and in commercials for Bacardi and Google. As Matt recently explained, the exposure these syncs gained the band was at times as valuable as the money, and it’s one of the reasons they’ve been able to continue playing sold-out shows and putting out new music, including last May’s Almost Everyday. Here, we talk to Matt about navigating commercial syncs, playing music with your significant other, and the value of having no expectations.
Spotify for Artists: Matt and Kim released your debut in 2006. Did you ever imagine you'd be doing this 12 years later?
Matt Johnson: Oh, no way. Not at all. I guess we never had any real plans. We didn't expect to ever make a living off playing music. We always took it one step at a time. Here's something your parents don't tell you: Don't have goals. That was really helpful to the band. Then you're just enjoying things in the moment that you're doing them. It's not about trying to do things in steps to get other places. I remember discussing that I never want to play a show that I wouldn't go to. I think there are a lot of times where you're encouraged to play a show because it's the proper stepping-stone to get you somewhere else.
I remember the first time we played Bowery Ballroom, here in New York City. Having come from only really playing in warehouses and stuff in Brooklyn, we made them make the ticket price six dollars, because that's what our fans wanted to pay. It was the lowest ticket price they've ever done at Bowery Ballroom.
In the years that you've been doing this, there've been other artists who’ve been, say, "cooler" or more "buzzed about." And many of them have faded away, and here you are here, still doing it. What do you attribute your longevity to?
I find that sometimes bands decide what it would take for them to be successful. Say, like, "We gotta win a Grammy. That's when we're successful." Imagine the burden of that. It's like how rarely does that happen for a band? So, you're spending your entire career failing, if that's your beacon of success. But, if you're like me and Kim, you're just happy every time you come back to town and there are a few more people there. Or you're happy every time you put out a song and people seem excited about it. Then you're just constantly a success. Every day you get to celebrate.
You’ve had a lot of commercial syncs over the years, both for advertisements and television shows. What was the first one you ever had?
The first one was for a Virgin Mobile commercial in Canada with "Yea Yeah." I remember being very nervous about—I put these in finger quotes—the "sell-out potential" of it. Coming from a punk background and, especially, growing up and listening to punk music, it was such a concern.
It happened and it was fine. But we were nervous about it. Then, the next one that came was a Bacardi commercial with "Daylight." The thing about this was A: it was the most amount of money we'd ever seen before, and B: it was this very cinematic commercial. I'm sure it could be looked up online. It didn't have any talking over our song. It was just this beautiful commercial of people dancing through different eras. It was as much a Matt and Kim commercial as it was a Bacardi commercial.
I still remember at that moment being like, "Hopefully, not a lot of people will see it and we'll just get this great check." We couldn't turn it down. When I was working freelance film jobs, at the beginning of this band, it would have taken me literally a year to make that much. But ... when it came out, it really broke our band. It broke it in the good way. Broke us to the public. The money was nothing in comparison to the exposure and how many people learned about our band through that commercial. It was one of the best things that ever happened to our band.
It totally changed my perspective on working with brands in advertising. Especially being [a] band that [was] not on a lot of radio stations, the exposure was incredible. All the feedback was positive. Maybe, at that point, [for] the people who are so concerned about what was the newest coolest thing—we were not that anymore. We were too aboveground anyway. I don't remember any hate coming off that.
For a younger artist, who's maybe a bit wary of syncs or is maybe open to the idea but doesn't know what to do, what advice do you have?
It does have to fit in your brand. We've never done fast food or tobacco. There's a couple things we don't mess with. So, I think you have to look at your brand and where it makes sense. Sorry to use the term brand too many times here.
My outlook is—speaking of having the lowest ticket price—even now we still try to keep our ticket prices affordable. We try to keep merch prices affordable. If you can kind of balance that out with income from other places, I think that's really doing your fans a service, rather than having to only make all your money from their pocket. I don't think fans should get mad about bands doing [commercial syncs]. Exposure can be so helpful. Again, I'm so thankful to all the brands who've taken chances on us.
You've always just been the two of you. What's it been like working with one other person that you also live with, and spend all this time around? How do you guys manage to not kill each other?
On paper, the amount of time we spend together—we should have murdered each other many years ago. But, this is an answer I've tried to give before, but I think it comes down to the two people.
My thing that I might almost tell bands is that rather than finding people who are really good at their instruments and you get in the band because of that, find the people you want to spend all your time with and have them learn how to play their instruments. Because me and Kim, we were interested in each other enough to start dating, and then we saw eye-to-eye creatively even before we made music.
In the history of rock ‘n’ roll there are a lot of bands where the members were dating and then there was chaos. What advice do you have for how you can date your bandmate without the whole thing imploding?
I think it is easier when it's two people. Financial aspects have never come in to debase the band. Since we've started the band, we've had one bank account. Any money we earn or spend goes and comes from one place. I think what causes a lot of problems for a lot of bands is money. How it's divided, how's it used, how it's spent.
I also think there is a lot of just shitty people who cheat on their significant others and there can be temptation on the road for a lot of people. Again, coming down to just the two people, me and Kim are very content with each other. I don't know if that sounds sappy or if it just sounds right. But that's just how it is.