Matt Martians is the Funk Whisperer of Right Now
With 'The Drum Chord Theory,' The Internet keyboardist takes his turn at a solo project—but it's still a jam session among friends.
"I always say: I want people to realise how unfair it is that we're in a band together," Matt Martians told me on a recent afternoon before that band, The Internet, was scheduled to play the New York date of its "The Internet Presents The Internet Tour." What awaited was a different show than usual. When the group's frontwoman, Syd—i.e. Syd Bennett, Syd tha Kid—took the stage, she began by crooning "Special Affair," off the 2015 Internet album Ego Death, backed by Matt Martians on keys, Steve Lacy on guitar, Patrick Paige II on bass, and Chris Smith on drums. Then she explained why they were all there.
"This is the first time we're performing our solo songs," she said with a laugh. "We nervous as shit." The camaraderie, though, was palpable, and the encouragement among band members was endless as each launched into his or her material.
The solo songs played included the entirety of Lacy's new six-track EP Steve Lacy's Demo, along with cuts from Syd's album Fin, released February 3, and Martians's own debut, The Drum Chord Theory, which came out January 26. Featuring guest verses from Syd, Lacy, and Kari Faux, along with additional production from Tyler, the Creator, Lacy, and Faux, it's a lush and full-bodied funk and neo-soul exploration with the casual feel of a late-night jam session among friends.
"We respect what each other does, and we're smart enough to realise that if we support each other, it only makes the Internet that much bigger," Martians explained to me. "It makes your own stuff bigger. It feeds into each other."
Matt Martians, whose real name is Matt Martin, grew up in East Point, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta. His mother is a nurse practitioner, and his father is an entrepreneur, but it was really his eldest brother Mitch who developed Matt's ear for music. An A&R at OutKast's Aquemini Records—and later for Janelle Monae—Mitch would regularly bring home unreleased OutKast music for his little brother. "It was things that didn't make the radio, like the weirdest shit," Matt recalls. "If you listen to Idlewild, [my brother's] actually the voice at the beginning of the album—the British voice, that's him."
Martin enrolled at Auburn University when he was 17, and it was around that time that he both began to make beats and that he met Tyler, the Creator—who was in Los Angeles—on MySpace. "Tyler always had a following," Martin said. "When I found him, he blew my mind 'cause again, it was like damn, I think he gets it how I get it. So I message him out of the blue, but Tyler was still Tyler. I was like, 'He not gonna respond.' And he responded."
After two years, Martin transferred to the Atlanta design school Creative Circus, but he was subsequently kicked out, at which point he moved to LA to really cut his teeth with Odd Future. He released music as part of the subgroup The Super 3, and in 2011, he and Syd created The Internet, which has gone on to release three studio albums and three EPs, including their latest, the Grammy-nominated Ego Death.
"We're smart enough to realise that if we support each other, it only makes the Internet that much bigger."
The Internet's live sets feel like basement or garage jam sessions with friends, and that's the message that The Internet—both as a group and individually—is trying to send. "We're friends at the end of the day," Martin said. "It doesn't have anything to do with music—our friendship is bigger than that."
On The Drum Chord Theory, Matt Martians takes the energy from Ego Death and channels it in a new direction, introducing a continuous throughline of his pursuit of love. The theme appears on the opening track "Spend the Night / If You Were My GF," and follows throughout, like on the Faux-supported, kaleidoscopic cut "Lotta Women / Useless" or the Syd-featured R&B track "Dent Jusay." He calls these tracks, which roll multiple songs into one, "hidden songs." Other standout moments include "Where Are Yo Friends?" and "Southern Isolation." Loose and rambling, the lyrics are almost like a game of free association.
In person, Martin is enthusiastic and personable, his presence a quiet force. When asked what other themes drive the album, he said, "Psychedelics, but you know I don't want to go too much in that because that's a tricky subject for a lot of people. But I learned a lot from those things." Though he's always preferred to remain behind the scenes, there is no escaping Martin's obvious talent on The Drum Chord Theory. But he's not stepping out alone, exactly: He's still doing it with friends, just trying to make some sweet jams.
Noisey: You started making beats when you were 17. Now you sing, you're a songwriter—when did you make that transition?
Matt Martians: I've always sung little weird shit on my songs because I always felt like I was the only person who heard certain things in the music. I was always doing that type of shit, but what got me into making beats was, I was listening to this group called Fantastic Plastic Machine from Japan. It's actually not a group, it's actually one dude. I can't remember what the song's called, but it's a song from a Louis Vuitton ad. It just blew my mind.
It was Takashi Murakami mixed with like music that I wish I would made. It was art I wish I could make with music I wish I could make, and I was just like, there's somebody doing what I think I want to do. That's why I started The Super 3. I used to draw and then do the music. It was like I realised that visuals are just as important as the music.
Do you still draw and illustrate?
I designed Syd's logo for her merch. I mean, I design all the Internet's merch, all our album covers, everything you see with the Internet, I designed that. I'm just more silent with it.
So you created Odd Future with Tyler when you weren't even in LA?
I was in Atlanta. I was a part of it when we did the first project, and I was just sending beats to LA. I would fly to LA on these little standby tickets, when I could scrape up some money back and forth, and I would stay at Syd's, or I would stay at my homeboy's house. So when I finally moved out there, it was just like—I have a good knack when I take risks and kind of jump, so I was on some like fuck it shit. The Odd Future thing is popping off right now, it may not happen again, I might as well go now, as opposed to just waiting to see what could happen and missing something that could be. I just left and I was like fuck it, I'm young, I can make mistakes.
"Odd Future, to me, we were people who had similar interests. We were kind of friends at the moment, then when the moment was over, we became real friends."
Did you think Odd Future would take off like it did?
Nah, I knew Tyler would, but I didn't think the whole thing would. I knew Tyler was special when I met him, like everybody. You can tell. It's kind of how I feel about Steve, the guitar player in The Internet. When you meet him, you just know. I always knew Tyler was going to be like a household name, like people know him. I just didn't think it was gonna be the whole Odd Future thing.
Have you left Odd Future or are you still part of it?
I mean, to me Odd Future is not like you're in or out. I was literally with Earl all day the other day. I was supposed to go to Trampoline World with Tyler. Hodgy was hanging out with Syd the other day at Syd's—if anything, we're closer than before because there's not the pressure of having to have that name attached to you. So now it's like we can actually be friends, as opposed to like, oh Odd Future's hanging out! It's like, "Nah, we're friends." So to me, it's funny. It's actually ironic that we're closer when the name is not attached to it, as opposed to when it was like, you guys have to be Odd Future.
How did The Internet initially happen?
With Tyler, they signed everybody in Odd Future, 'cause they wanted to get Tyler. So Syd had a record deal. Syd never intended to do music, but me and Syd were hanging out everyday and listening to cool music, and we started making music. It got to a point where we were just like, "Okay, let's just start making beats." And it didn't have a name to it, throughout half the first album. It was just me and Syd.
What ended up happening was we just ended up making an Internet album by accident. We called ourselves The Internet as a joke. It just became something that stuck because we kept saying it: "We're The Internet." And it snowballed; we just kept making albums. We have another opportunity to make another album, why not? It was almost like a "why not" situation because a lot of people kill for the opportunity to put out albums on that level. We pretty much stumbled into it.
Did you set out to do something different than "Odd Future" with The Internet, or did it just happen?
I did set out to do something different. I realised Syd was different, period. Syd is one of the most independent people I know, period. Like she's not gonna wait too long for you to do something for her. She's not gonna tell you, she's going to do it.
That's often how women have to be.
Yeah, it is. And to me, I feel like that's why our band works because we do have a woman at the lead. So we trust that it's not necessarily an ego behind that. With males, if a male's the lead, he's trying to tell you what to do. Especially with all of us growing up with black mothers and black women, it's a certain respect we have for Syd that's sort of reminiscent of our mothers and our aunts and our sisters.
Our band is really deeply rooted. Odd Future, to me, we were people who had similar interests. We were kind of friends at the moment, then when the moment was over, we became real friends. It's weird. Whereas The Internet, we were real friends before and the Internet was just like a branch off of our friendship, not necessarily the meat and bones of it. I think that's why we're able to keep doing this, because we don't place so much pressure on the Internet. It's like we're friends and that's what we do. It's not necessarily who we are.
Obviously you've been in music for a while, but now you're really coming into the forefront with your album The Drum Chord Theory. Why is now the right moment?
To be honest with you, people don't care after a certain point. But people care at a certain point. Think about a lot of artists that were in groups that everybody cared about their solo album and they never put it out. And then when they did, nobody cared. Timing and windows are very important: I've always had a knack for knowing timing and windows and when to strike, just in general.
But now it's a time when people are very curious. The best time to explain your band and the guts of it are when people are curious about what goes on. That's why we pushed Steve to do a solo. We pushed our drummer, our bass player, Syd. We're like this is the time for people to really understand us and understand how crazy it is that we're in a band together. That's what I always say, I want people to realise how unfair it is that we're in a band together.
Also, I feel like when you give people their individual space, they'll respect the thing that originally gave them that opportunity. But when you make it seem like they have to be restricted to that name, and you don't allow them to grow, that's when they have resentment towards it, as opposed to having respect and appreciation. Those are the things I've noticed with my band and how I try to treat our band. Go out and do your own thing—it's not always about The Internet. But we'll always support you, and it works.
All of you are such amazing musicians in your own right.
And to that, I remember after our second album, Purple Naked Ladies, I realised, "OK, we have to make Syd the spearhead for it."
She sets y'all apart.
She's just a polarising character, period. Nobody is like Syd. There hasn't been an artist like Syd yet. And I knew that. I realised I had to be behind the scenes — the duo shit was cool, but the people who were original fans of us know that. But I realised that I can be the silent partner. It fit me perfect, because I always wanted to be somebody that was like a strong arm in it but silently the strong arm. That's always been my thing; I always liked being unsuspecting. It's always been something since I was a kid, but knowing that if I do reveal my cards, I know what I'm doing.
Why did you choose to record the album in your childhood bedroom?
Because it's something special about working in a place where you can just go knock out literally feet away. It's like the ease of those two things and just being in your house—my house, it's nobody. My neighbours are very far away. I can literally yell and sing at the top of my lungs. And as a musician—and you know how it is as a writer, everything we do. The stuff that you do when nobody sees, it's like the moulding of it. A lot of people don't see the moulding of it.
Some tracks heavily feature the theme of love, particularly with "Spend the Night / If You Were My GF" and "Lotta Women / Useless." Is that part of the narrative arc?
I'm a very private person as far as my dealings with the opposite sex, because even with my friends I don't really say nothing. I believe your relationships are between you and that person. So I like to keep those things very locked in. My outlet is music. These songs aren't necessarily about one girl. Some of them aren't about any girl. Some of them are from knowing the experiences that happen within relationships. It's basically the only place I really get to talk about these things, so that's why they're all about that. Because it's like everything I talk about in real life is stupid. On the album it's talking about things I would never talk about in real life. But things that really happen to me.
The Drum Chord Theory feels like one long jam session with friends. Is that something that happened naturally or off the cuff?
Honestly, like, those are my friends. I'm glad that it sounds like that. Those are literally the people I hang with. A lot of albums are too polished or too serious, or too pretentious, and I didn't want it to be one of those. I wanted it to be one of those albums where it's just like fun and like, you can relate to it. It's not super like, "What is he trying to say? Like the water's deep but I'm high and I'm low?" No.
Does your project feel like a branch off Ego Death for you?
Not really a branch off—to me it just shows what's under the hood of the car, man. Even looking at our album covers. Like Steve's album cover he has two guitars—or a bass and a guitar. I got mad keys on my cover. Like Syd, it's just her because she's the lead singer. And we didn't do that on purpose, but it's just showing the guts of how this works. I think people have never done it before. I always tell Syd, see we're writing in a blank book, so let's not act like we're tracing over somebody else's words, just slightly changing it. We're writing new words in a blank book.
How did working with Odd Future and The Internet help your solo artistry?
I realised how to promote it the right way, like just as far as the best, most effective way. I realised what made those guys really special, what made things pop for them was really realising that you are who you are and really accepting that and really like being unapologetic about it. Tyler is unapologetically Tyler. Syd is the same way. So I realised with my solo album, I have to just own who I am and stop being afraid to show my face and like talk about things. Even though I don't like to talk about the stuff that I do, I do want people to know what I do to some extent. Just for my legacy. Not necessarily for right now, but just to say I did it. When it's all said and done, they look back at our band like, "OK, how did this work?"
The kind of friendship y'all have is not often found in the music industry.
It's because we stay away from it. We stay away from these niggas. When we're not here, we're at our mom and dad's house. Me and Syd, we can afford to live where we want, but I stay at my parents'. I see my parents every morning. I get yelled at about the dumbest shit every morning. I don't have to be there, but I like it because it's humbling. I can fly out and do all this other stuff, but at the same time, I'm understanding the true essence of, like, this doesn't matter and these are still the people that I care about, and these are still the values. The little things still matter. I think that's important.
Photos by Quinton Boudwin. Follow him on Instagram.
Tara Mahadevan is a fan of The Internet and also the internet. Follow her on Twitter.