Words by Keith Nelson, Jr. (@Jusaire)
At one point in the 1960s, the internet** was known as ARPANET, an obscure web of networks and servers primarily used by the military and Al Gore. For months in 2011 The Internet existed as obscure snippets of songs disparately spread through YouTube clips and Tumblr reposts. By the 1980s, commercial internet service providers such as America Online appeared and presently over 45 percent of the world is online. The Internet, alternative R&B band from California made up of members ( Syd Tha Kyd and Matt Martians, along with touring members Patrick Paige, Christopher Smith, and Jameel Bruner), is not as ubiquitous as the network they borrow their name from, but the collective does hope their third album Ego Death spreads like the most viral video.
At the A.C.E. Hotel in Manhattan, hours before the band performed their newly released Ego Death in its entirety at Baby’s All Right in Brooklyn, lead singer Syd and producer Matt Martians spoke exclusively with WatchLoud.com. The two are students of the game, meeting on Myspace through an appreciation of each other’s work, and are super aware of their place in history. In this extensive interview the pair discuss why there aren’t any love songs on Ego Death, what was missing from their previous album Feel Good, how the internet lifted the curtain on secrets, their definition of a “classic” and so much more in what will prove to be the group’s most in-depth interview ever.
WatchLOUD:You performed your third album, Ego Death for the first time ever, at Madiba in Harlem last night. How was the show?
Syd: It was cool. We were really rusty. [Laughs]. Pretty rusty but the audience was really paying attention and really understanding.
Matt: But it was dope.
Syd: I had a great time.
Matt: The lighting was cool. A lot of people came out and I was very surprised, because apparently in Harlem a lot of people don’t come up there for shows.
What songs were early favorites at that show?
Matt: “Penthouse Cloud.” So far, “Penthouse Cloud” is the song I hear everybody really talking about or really resonating with a lot people. Everybody can relate to “Penthouse Cloud.” It ain’t just about being in a relationship. Wondering if your existence is worth anything.
What did the events that happened recently do to inspire “Penthouse Cloud”?
Syd: I wrote that song right after the Michael Brown verdict.
It just came pouring out?
Syd: Yeah, it just wrote itself. I just locked myself in my basement.
Matt: I remember she was like she didn’t want to tweet about it. Everybody want to say something, but what CAN you say —
Syd: That hasn’t been said.
Matt: Everyone is tweeting the articles. Retweeting the same retweets. Saying the same catchphrases.
Syd: I think that stuff matters. The awareness. But, being an artist it’s a double-edged sword. People are either going to love you for it or they going to hate you. They might like your music but hate what you said. You can’t please anyone making a statement so I just decided to let it out in an artistic way and people can interpret it however they want.
The main thing I’ve noticed on that song, besides the social commentary, is it may be your best vocal performance ever. That’s unique about this album compared to your others. The first thing you hear is you singing. These are the least vocal features you’ve had on an album, was that a conscious thing to make it all Syd?
Matt: Yup. Yeah, Not really JUST Syd, but moreso like…if you notice, most of the songs start with her singing. There’s no intro, there’s no beat. To be honest, we didn’t have time for that. We had to come correct this album, so we realized…it wasn’t a super purposeful thing but I definitely studied Biggie albums, mad hip-hop albums. I remember we were in the car that day, I’ll never forget that day, we were in the car that day and we were listening to [Ready to Die]. And I was like “Yo how does he have this many like back-to-back”…it just hits you in the face every track. One, two, three, four, five. Like, so you can’t cut it off. You know when you listen to certain albums and you’re like this is the real good song and then the kind of weak songs are next and you’re like ‘okay, alright.’ It takes away from the album. But there’s certain albums, like Thundercat has albums where like, you can’t just play one song.
Syd: A lot of that had to do with the mixing. Having harder drums. That was the main priority. We wanted harder drums, and I wanted to write songs that I could just lose my shit to a little bit on stage.
So, what’s your writing process like?
Syd: The songs that I tend to write by myself are usually I’m in the right place at the right time I’m feeling the right way or a certain way. It just kind of flow out. But, aside from that. When we needed to get shit done, I have a guy, his name is Nick Green, he’s in a band called Nicky Davey back at home. He wrote “Dontcha” with me. Nicky Davey performs all around L.A. and I saw them live once and was like “Wow that’s kind of what I want to sound like. I wanted to sound like that on Feel Good. So, linked up with them, wrote “Dontcha” and after that I was like, yo we got to keep writing.
Matt: He’s like family. He’s a really cool guy. He’s like the silent member of the Internet [Laughs].
Syd: For a lot of the songs I just set some sessions like “come through, we’re going to write to this.”
The great thing about The Internet is how unorthodox the band is. Not just instrumentation-wise, but conceptually. You cover love, but not in a traditional manner. There’s almost no love songs on Ego Death, you’re telling her to not be with you. I think Feel Good was the only album where there was nothing but love songs. Why has that fluctuated over the years?
Syd: You’re the first one to notice that actually, because I noticed that. I noticed that after that fact like “Damn, ain’t no love songs on here.” [Laughs] They’re all about love, but they’re not “Oh I love you.”
Matt: To be honest with you, it’s real. A song like “Gabby,” that was a situation I really went through. At the end of the song it’s like “I’m leaving you.” Like “The situation is cool, but I have to leave you. Something’s missing. Yeah we cool but…” [Laughs]. “Special Affair” is like “Look, you better act like you know what it is.” [Laughs] It’s confidence. You got to exude a certain amount of confidence. We definitely didn’t have that before, in the lyrics. I feel that instrumentation-wise, last album, we had the confidence. But, I feel like lyrically we were very ambiguous. That’s what I say about the last album we were very floaty. Just like the instruments. I feel like that was our experimental album. Purple Naked Ladies was us just making a bunch of songs together and them just being really cool and they kind of have a little, they go together.
Syd: And I was in a relationship.
Matt: [Laughs] For both of the first two albums. This is the first album where she’s been single. That’s what you can hear in the lyrics.
How soon did you know the album was going to be named Ego Death?
Syd: That was when we started mixing. We had everything done and we didn’t know what we wanted to call it for the longest. [Matt] came up with the title. He had texted it to me a week decided on it. First thing I saw when I woke up, “What do you think about Ego Death?” I was like “Death? Awww.” [Laughs]. I was like “I don’t know how I feel about the word death in the album title.” Then he brought it up a week later, we were sitting on my patio just like brainstorming, just looking out at the sun like “Damn, what we going to call this shit.” Then [Matt] was like “Man, Ego Death could’ve been cool, but I feel you.” I was like “Wait, no, that’s it.” [Laughs]
What were other potential names for the album?
Matt: Three. The Internet. But “Three” is very ambiguous. “The Internet,” no one’s going to find that album. [Laughs]. [Fake infomercial Voice- Our new album The Internet is out.]
How is it Googling your group?
Matt: It’s not that bad because we’re the first thing that pops up now. When we first started it was kind of like —
Syd: It was impossible.
Matt: But now when you put “The Internet” in Google we come up. It’s not too much of a hassle anymore.
You guys are children of the internet.
Syd: We met on Myspace.
Matt: We’re children, but we’re kind of not. We’re on the cusp. I remember when there wasn’t the internet. I just missed that. I was like 11, 12 when the internet started to really come into play. I do remember when it was like Saturday, or the middle of the day and you’re bored out of your mind. I think that’s a reason why our band carries ourselves. We have a sort of old-fashionness to us I feel. We did grow up a little before EVERYTHING was the internet. Back when you had to wait to get your report card. Now your report card probably gets emailed to the teacher the day of. You ain’t got no grace period to prep yourself.
Now the internet has become bigger than just a culture. It IS what is happening in the world.
Matt: It’s a historical shift, bro. When you look back in time the internet is going to be a huge historical shift. That’s when the curtains of the world were taken back. Think about this, you would never know what a lot of these racist company emails. There’s repercussions to it, because now other nasty things are seen, but that’s real.
Have y’all been following the cybercrime in the news? Now the nerds are the criminals.
Matt: Yeah. I’m into that. I’m into all facets of the internet. I’ve be seeing on For— never mind. You not supposed to talk about it. [Laughs] That’s a rule of the website, you’re not supposed to talk about it.
Do you feel the internet is being used against people now?
Matt: Everything is going to be used against you. The internet is powerful, man. The power of a click is money, so it’s definitely going to be used against people. For instance, when you have headlines that are click-bait, you read it and it’s like “such and such did this” and you read the article and it’s completely different. They’re making money off those clicks for stories that are being worded where someone is going to click it and think some way. The thing is, people don’t read articles anymore. They just read the headlines. So everybody’s like “You heard about so and so” and it’s like did you actually read? Even with the Akon thing. This is a great thing, by the way, the whole giving electricity to 600 million people. That’s a great thing, but when you read it, he’s actually starting a school for dudes who are able to do that. So it’s little things where people don’t read the details and I feel like that’s a big problem with our generation now. Everybody knows on the surface, no one goes below it because of Wikipedia. [Mock voice- “What’s this about? Ok, I know everything.”] When really, no you don’t. You know there’s artists we grew up on, you go on their wikipedia page and it is nothing about nothing. It says “They did this and have this album” and you’re like “But what about when they did this with this person? What about when they went through this phase? What about this little mixtape they did?” It’s not on there.
You guys are students of the game and history. Was there a little Aaliyah “More Than A Woman” on “Girl” from Ego Death?
Syd: Nah, but I’m very inspired by Aaliyah. Actually, the main inspiration behind “Girl” was a song by Tee Flii called “Change Your World.” I honestly bit the whole cadence for the chorus, I gave them writing credit. But, yeah, check that song out. Tee Flii “Change Your World.”
Me and my friend were up all night thinking that part was Aaliyah “More Than A Woman.”
Matt: Well, to be honest, one of my top three influences is Timbaland. I definitely base a lot of my sounds and a lot of my drums off of him. “Special Affairs” is a Timbaland snare. We’re definitely influenced. It’s going to sound like some Aaliyah. And some Janet and some Bob Marley. That’s how my production sounds like Neptunes sometimes.
As students of the game I know you guys were big into neo-soul. I know [Syd] loved Baduizm and that whole movement of the late 90s/early 2000s.
Matt: Soulquarians, man.
Do you feel like that’s happening now with all the new music coming-out from young artists with Thundercats, Kamasi Washington, Phony PPL and the like?
Matt: [Flying Lotus] in it too. Hiatus Coyote. It’s a whole resurgence of instruments. Everything is based on balance. Things can go this far away but it always has to come back at some point.
Syd: D’angelo too.
Matt: D’angelo is a part of that resurgence as well. Things are getting so disposable on another spectrum that it’s going to be some people that’s like “okay we got to”— and I tell Thundercat this all the time. I’m very grateful for Thundercat just as a person. The lessons I’ve learned from him from just talking to him. We are really carrying a torch for a lot of artists that aren’t being heard that WE know are dope. Like Bobby Earth, Mika Freeman. Artists that are coming up that a lot of people might not know about, but just as dope and have just as much potential as we do. It’s very important just like Sa-Ra was very important to me coming up. I needed Sa-Ra. If it wasn’t for Sa-Ra I wouldn’t be talking to you right now.
Syd: Yeah, when I discovered Sa-Ra, that’s when I realized anything is possible in music. You know what I mean? You can do anything in music if it sounds good.
Yeah, Sa-Ra’s influence runs deep. I read he was working with Kendrick Lamar on To Pimp A Butterfly.
Matt: Because Kendrick grew up on him too. When Kendrick got on he probably was like “I got to get Sa-Ra.” You know what I’m saying? Because when you grow up on artists and you get that chance it ain’t about where he at fame-wise. It’s about I KNOW what they can do. Kendrick’s like us, bro. I don’t know Kendrick personally but I can get the sense he grew up in the same type of mindset that we did. Respecting music and always giving it the utmost respect because you HAVE to. People can say what they want about the direction Kendrick went on his album, but it’s brilliant and it’s true to himself and it’s true to music. So, but he’s in a genre that’s very disposable and everything is I need you to make me jump right now. Not later. Not over a long period of time. But that’s with people in general. Very instant gratification society where they want everything *snaps finger* instead of waiting for quality.
You dropped Feel Good in September 2013, went on tour and now Ego Death is out. What is the recording process like? When did you start recording for this album and when did you know you was recording for an album?
Syd: I did it very structured this time. So, I did all the writing sessions. I linked up with Nick Green, Taylor Parks. James Fauntleroy wrote all of “For The World” except the bridge. A couple more people that I’m probably forgetting. I linked up with them and got all of the songs written first. I recorded the references for them. Some time later I got with Nick Green, because he’s an amazing singer and his dad is my voice coach. So I had him come in and I had him be my vocal producer. I brought in one of my interns from my old studio to engineer for me and I got Duran Bernard, who’s one of Erykah Badu’s background singers to do background vocals. I just booked them out for a full three weeks. I said ‘Yo, can we spend, for three weeks, Monday through Friday, in the studio from this time to this time and knock these songs out?’ We DID IT. That’s how this one went. The last one wasn’t like that.
When is the next album coming out?
Syd: We’re going to take a break. I mean, our guitar player Steve and Jemele our keyboard player always making stuff. Patrick’s always making stuff. We’re probably working on it now and we don’t even know it.
Matt: We’re made to order. I don’t just make shit.
Syd: Yeah, I don’t just make stuff all year round.
Matt: I kind of like to make things as they feel right to me. Because I don’t just like to throw a lot of things out there. That’s why I feel like this album really what it is. We really focused on these songs we had and chipped away and really made them perfect. Whether it be switching the end of “Gabby” three times. “Gabby” was a different instrumental at the end. There were three instrumentals we put at the end until we got to the final point. Whether it be deciding to put the guitar ending in “Penthouse Clouds” as a little outro. Just really focusing on how to make the best sounding album that, I wanted the album that nobody can say anything bad about. “Oh you don’t like it? Where’s the bad part at?”
You mention how we live in a society of instant gratification. What is the current state of the term “classic” in this society and what is your definition of a “classic”?
Syd: My definition of a “classic album” is one where every song is like untouchable. You know? I don’t know, I think a lot of Top 40 kind of artists maybe or people with really big deals end up pressured to make a song for everybody and a lot of albums in those genre, pop genre end up having one song in this genre, one song in this genre. So I can’t really get anybody’s ALBUM. So to me a classic album is one where every song speaks to me. I’m sure that’s how it is for everybody. If you’re into Country music then a classic country album is one where every song is a bomb ass country song.
Matt: For me, I think about the way I feel about albums I consider classic. [N.E.R.D.] In Search Of…,
Matt: Progression and timelessness make a classic. Because In Search Of… was a very progressive album when it came out to the point that nobody didn’t even like it when it came out. Now it’s … [cartoonishly deep voice- YO THIS IS A CLASSIC! THIS IS A CLASSIC ALBUM!] Now, you put a 12 year old onto N.E.R.D. he may be like “What is this?” That’s how I was when I heard Jamiroquai. When I head Jamiroquai I heard songs made in 1992, for the first time in 2010 and thought they were made THAT year. Blew my mind that they were made in 1992. How can somebody make this in 1992? So for me a classic is progression times timelessness. There are classics that have songs that I don’t like, but then again they’re true to the album. They’re true to the theme of the album. You can’t tell an artist what he’s feeling but he gives you that and you’re like “Oh that song makes this song make WAYYYY much more sense” then you got to give it to him. Progression and timelessness.
**Editor’s Note: In the U.S. it is common to capitalize the word ‘Internet’ but for sake of clarity we went with the non-US convention and kept it lowercase for this article. Thanks.