Matt Johnson — the Matt half of Matt & Kim — knows that the indie dance duo's live shows are one of its biggest assets. The concerts have become legendary for the inclusive, participatory vibe that he and Kim Schifino create on stage, so much so that their new album, Lightning, was intentionally crafted in the studio for easy translation to the concert stage.
That definitely was not the case with 2010's Sidewalks. "We love that album, but it really had to be adapted to get the live energy that we have on stage," says Johnson. "With this album, we looked at how we adapted those songs from Sidewalks, and we just made the original versions like that."
But even as they stripped back instrumentally, keyboardist Johnson and drummer Schifino still managed to create a bigger sound. "On Sidewalks, I feel like we layered a lot," says Johnson, noting that studio logs would indicate as many as 80 different tracks being recorded for a single song. This time, the group's "less is more" approach incorporated fatter and sometimes faster beats, thicker keyboard tones, and more overtly striking melodies.
The approach worked: Lightning supersizes the Matt & Kim sound while also embracing today's pop trends. The sugary hooks of earlier albums are still there, but songs like "Now," "Overexposed" and "Much Too Late" have more frenetic rhythms. Meanwhile, more deliberately paced songs like "Not That Bad" and "It's Alright" achieve an epic sound by using simple, ascending notes to build into — then hammer home — their catchy choruses.
The duo has also borrowed a page from many of today's Top 40 pop anthems, with simple sing-along choruses. Sometimes it's simply an "oh-oh-oh-oh" stretched out like a refrain over a number of bars. Or, in the case of tracks like "Now" and "Let's Go," it's the song titles that are sung repeatedly like stadium chants, which should inspire even more crowd participation on this tour.
All of which makes the new material well-suited for Top 40 and pop radio, where party-starting anthems are the norm. The duo even flirts with electronic dance music elements here and there.
But the way Johnson sees it, it's more a case of pop radio shifting closer to Matt & Kim's keyboard-centered sound than it is the reverse. In fact, he says, they consciously resisted the urge to go even further in pushing their sound in an electronic dance pop direction.
"I felt we really could jump completely on the bandwagon of this electronic dance music thing," says the musician. "In the end, I felt what's more true is keeping with the live drum sound. If we had just decided we were going to completely go into the digital domain, I think it would definitely not been true to what Matt & Kim is all about."
So even after graduating from small clubs to venues that can hold a couple thousand people, Johnson says they'll still be connecting with the crowds and creating the back-and-forth exchange of celebratory energy that has always characterized their concerts.
"We want as much light shooting out into the audience as there is coming onto the stage," Johnson says. "Because this isn't about the two people here on stage. It's about the two thousand and two people that are all in this room together."