What began as a side-project of Odd Future members Syd and Matt Martians has since blossomed into one of the most prominent bands on the funk and R&B scenes today. After taking a three-year break to focus on solo projects, The Internet returned earlier this year with Hive Mind, an infectiously smooth, funky, and surprisingly subtle album.
In October, The Internet visited Minneapolis for a show at the Varsity Theater. Before going on stage, the band talked with Sean McPherson about their latest album, Hive Mind; their origins in Los Angeles and Atlanta; collaborating with hip-hop legend Big Rube, and more.
Sean McPherson: My first question is about the production for The Internet in general, but in particular the production on Hive Mind. Compared to a lot of funk-oriented groups, it’s a lot more spare — it doesn’t seem to be one of those things of, we have to have horns on every song, we have to have congas in every song. It seems a lot more, whatever is needed for the track; if it’s going to get by just a guitar, simple bass, drums, and vocals, you’ll do that. That’s kind of rare nowadays — I feel like things are wildly produced. Could anybody talk about the sparseness of the sound of the Internet throughout these records?
Matt Martians: Syd has a very soft voice, so a lot of times we want to give her a space to be able to sing and be able to hear what she’s saying. If we had a bunch of stuff going on, I think it would drown out what she’s trying to do. Plus, we listen to a lot of the music that has a lot going on, but a lot of times the casual music listener can’t really understand it because it’s a little too much going on. What we try to do is have a happy medium of giving people the chords and instruments, but also giving it a little bit more space for people to comprehend it. So that’s what we try to do with production, especially on Hive Mind I think.
That brings up a good point. Compared to a lot of funk-oriented groups — I keep saying funk-oriented because it seems like funk is slightly limiting, even though I absolutely love funk — but it just seems like you guys bring in more elements than just that. You do seem to let the lyrics win in a way that doesn’t always happen in productions, which you’re alluding to partially, like the volume of Syd’s voice. But it also seems like prioritizing the stories Syd is telling, and also you guys effortlessly switch lead vocals on this record, more so than before, where I hear half a verse from one person, and then jump into another person. So can you tell me how you let lyrics win, and how that goes into the writing process?
Syd Martians: We typically start with the production, and from there we’ll just fill it in with lyrics. I just freestyle most of the time, and we just fill it in. I don’t even know if it’s a conscious thing that we do — the space is definitely a conscious thing, producing and leaving space for me. I know a lot of other artists tend to, when they “finish” a song, they send it back to the producer to add more stuff. Usually, when I’m finished, I’m actually finished; I don’t want anybody to add anything else after I’ve done the vocals and the backgrounds. That’s the other thing too — I’ve been trying to use my vocals as an instrument as well. So if there’s something missing, maybe I can just fill it in with background vocals instead of another instrument. But yeah, when we’re done we just leave it.
I’ve been hearing about your group in particular, independent of Odd Future, since the show you guys did at the Triple Rock Social Club in Minneapolis back in 2014. It was a Monday night, it was a school night, I did not make it out. But I play in a lot of bands in town and you guys captured the imagination of a whole bunch of folks in Minneapolis who said, “That’s one of the best shows I’ve seen in years.” Can you tell me what’s different about an Internet show today? For folks who caught you in 2014 at the Triple Rock, what’s the difference in the live show now?
Syd Martians: I think, speaking for myself, I have a lot more fun. I make it a point to perform more for myself these days and just have a good time. When I’m in rehearsal, bouncing around, telling jokes, saying stupid stuff, I just try to bring that to the audience these days.
I actually got to review this record, Hive Mind, for The Current; we made it our album of the week and we played a bunch of tracks over it. It’s a lovely record, and part of my thesis statement in interviewing you guys today — not that, you don’t need a thesis statement for a quick interview — but there is this skeletal element to what you guys do that I find really notable and really praiseworthy.
On top of that, I have to admit that there have been so many times where I’ve loved what’s happened on hip-hop records and haven’t been as drawn to what’s happened on R&B records. Some of that has to do with blind spots in my own, what I was raised listening to. I was already going, “This is cool because this is a funk record that deserves headphones,” which is a rarity. Again, that has to do with the subtlety of the production in my opinion. But as a hip-hop person I was already going, “Oh, they do a lot of minor-moody stuff that reminds me of ATLiens, and then suddenly I hear Big Rube on a track. I’m 37, I think I’m a solid decade older than some of the individuals in the group if I’m not mistaken. And the minute I heard it, I didn’t know the guys name, but I was just like, “Oh ok, I know this guy from ATLiens right away.” Can you walk me through how you made that connection, how you became aware of Big Rube? To me, that song, “It Gets Better (With Time)” — that’s the song on the record. I know it’s not the single, it’s not even the one we play on the radio that much, that’s “La Di Da” and “Roll (Burbank Funk),” and I think that makes sense for the radio to be honest with you. But as a listener, it’s that tune. Can you tell me about that song, and about Big Rube and that connection in particular?
Matt Martians: Well, we’re all huge fans of OutKast. I was born and raised in Atlanta, so they’re engulfed in Big Rube society. Even before OutKast was even a group, he had a group with Sleepy Brown called Society of Soul, which is still to this day, if you’ve never heard of the Society of Soul album called Brainchild, bro, please get it, it’s amazing. I feel like with that song, it was a certain type of feeling we were trying to capture, and it reminded me of this group named Mista, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Mista, it’s this boy group produced by Organized Noize. But the beat sort of gave me that— it doesn’t sound like one of the beats, but it sort of gave me — like “Blackberry Molasses” [by Mista], that song, it kind of made me feel like that sort of feeling. And if you hear that album, Big Rube is on that album. He’s on a lot of albums from that era, so I felt like it was just fitting.
Originally Syd wanted me to say something, and I was like, “I’m going to sound cheesy, I’m too goofy; I can’t be that serious that long.” So I was like, we have to get somebody with a little bit more wisdom, with more stripes in those areas, and somebody who people would recognize his voice, even if they didn’t know who he was, they would be like “I’ve heard this voice before.” I don’t know, Big Rube is amazing; OutKast, all those super influencers.
Who made the phone call; who reached out?
Matt Martians: We already wanted to talk about it here and there, just sparingly, and Syd was like, “I want you to talk on the song.” I was like, “Oh, I don’t know.” I couldn’t do it, so I was like, maybe we should just get Big Rube; we’ve been talking about doing it. My brother used to work for OutKast, and he knows Big Rube, so he made the connection. Plus Big Rube is on Twitter like, “Who needs features?” I don’t know why nobody ever does it.
Syd Martians: That’s how it started. Matt was like, “Yo, I just found Big Rube on Twitter. He’s selling features for…” I was like, “Oh snap.”
It’s interesting to me, Matt, that you were raised in Atlanta, so maybe I’ll point this question to you. As a person who’s only ever been to Los Angeles as a tourist or on tour, I actually never got to [venues] the Low End Theory, never got to the Good Life. There are tons of groups I love out of Los Angeles; we’re talking about Aceyalone and that group, the recent jazz folks who have really come out in a big way — Kamasi Washington — Odd Future, again, something that I felt five years too old for for about three years and then I was like, “Oh, no, this is spectacular stuff.” Can you walk me through how some of those scenes connect? I know it’s not a two-word answer, I know there’s a lot to understand just from living in Los Angeles.
Matt Martians: Oh, it’s easy. Being outsiders, being in Atlanta— Atlanta is similar with rap, with trap-rap, they all help each other, you see each other. But with other genres it’s not like that in Atlanta. When you go to L.A., no matter what genre you try to do, there is a pool of people that do it, and that want to work with other people. And in LA you see everybody everywhere; Atlanta is very spread out, L.A. is all in one valley. There are only so many places you are going to see people, so everybody knows each other. And everyone in L.A. just wants to make the best music possible. I feel like when you go to L.A. it’s just easy to connect because everyone is just wanting to be better. There is just something about L.A. that seems like everybody wants to help each other make the best product. It doesn’t feel like that in other cities to me; it feels very sectioned off.
Syd Martians: That, and competitive.
Matt Martians: Yeah, it’s competitive too.
Syd Martians: L.A. is pretty collaborative.
So L.A. feels more collaborative, less competitive, you’re saying?
MATT MARTIANS: Yeah. I’d say that. In LA, everyone is like, “We’ve been supposed to work [together] for a year.”
PATRICK PAIGE II: Everybody wants to work with each other, they’re all excited about working with each other, and it’s tight. Everybody is like, “Let’s collab, let’s work.” It’s cool, it’s supportive.
That is beautiful. This is one of my last questions; and I’m speaking to Steve, I know you primarily play guitar in the group, and my question is a little bit built around guitar. Is it fair to say that the Internet is uniquely built around guitar, compared to— a lot of funk groups, a lot of the driving thing will often be keyboard, and the keyboard is beautiful on it. But i just wanted to ask, especially being from Minneapolis and having Prince, who is an undeniable master at every instrument— [Steve Lacy reveals a tattoo on his forearm of Prince’s Love Symbol] oh, what do we have, a little Prince ink there? Steve Lacy has got some Prince ink. He led with guitar in a lot of ways, and I hear some similarities in the work from the Internet, and I was just wondering if you could speak on centering a funk band somewhat around the guitar sound. It’s not totally unique, but it does make it stand out compared to some other artists. Do you mind speaking on that?
STEVE LACY: I guess it’s just a natural thing of our process, where Matt will make a drum, and then it’ll be a baseline or a guitar. So I guess it just kind of happened naturally, where the guitar became one of the main components. But yeah, it’s pretty supernatural. It’s fun.
MATT MARTIANS: And to add to that, to be honest with you, we didn’t have a real guitar player until Steve came into the band. When he came we were like, “We finally have—”
All that pent-up guitar energy.
MATT MARTIANS: Yeah we were using keyboards, guitars, we would get the homies to add guitars. It was always a certain place that we couldn’t go past. We felt that we were like, “Damn, if we had a guitar player we could really f—k some s—t up.” So I feel like when Steve got in the band it was just like, definitely for me as a producer it opened up so many avenues of just being like, “Damn, we can really take the sound to a whole new level.” It was almost a gift for us not to have guitar on the first two albums.
Yeah if you figure out how to survive without it—
MATT MARTIANS: Yeah, then when you get it it’s like it’s like, “Yo, that’s not fair.” So that was tight about having Steve; we can go more avenues with it now.