Over the years N*E*R*D has constantly evolved their sound, each album sounding slightly different from the last. With the new album, Nothing, that trend continues, going more in a hiphop/rnb/dance direction while still retaining some guitar sounds, but adding horns on some of the tracks. Overall it’s an interesting progression and in speaking with them they’re comfortable with not pleasing everybody, as they know their core fans will always support the band. On November 3rd we had a chance to sit down with Pharrell and Shay to talk about the album, and the state of our world. Shit got deep.
You guys are known for dipping into different genres and mixing it up. Now do you see your growth in music making as a destination or a journey? In other words are you guys getting closer to finding your true identity or are you guys happily free venturing into different directions.
Shay: I think we…well I know we love the fact that there is no boundaries. There’s no expectations, you know what I mean? Like our core fans understand that they’re gonna get something completely different with each album and I think you know that relieves a lot of stress off of us because it gives us the freedom to have fun and jam out. If it resonates with us then we know its earned a place on the album. That’s just my personal opinion.
Pharrell: I agree.
What was it about the original 25+ songs that the group ended up scraping that just didn’t feel right?
Shay: I feel like the sound. The sound on those particular records just didn’t feel like a true representation of what N*E*R*D is about. I thought a few of the records were good, a lot of them I didn’t really care for, I personally hated and we would literally have some cold heated battles with him (pointing at Pharrell) about how we should take a different direction and during that time it was really frustrating time for us. We weren’t necessarily in sync.
Once we took some time and stepped away from the record, those particular records, Pharrell was off scoring the music film and I was off doing my thing and then he called me out of the blue one day with a dope idea and what he describe was…I couldn’t necessarily hear it but it sounded dope. Then a few weeks later he played the track in Miami, I was like yo, this is it. He hit the nail right on the head and I seen the light and that’s how the Nothing album all started.
So staying in line with that question, will fans eventually get to hear some of the stuff or will you guys go back and re-work some of it…
Pharrell: I sold some of the records already.
Shay: I wanna leak some it though. I think some are just worth of being leaked, but I think that might be the demise of our friendship. [Laughter in the room]
Pharrell: Well, it’s because I think they’re real songs. I mean like two of them just went to Jared Evans. He’s got a sick album, so we did “Show me Some Love” and another record called “Black Clouds” and he murdered them. Also it wouldn’t be the demise of our friendship but I would definitely fight him back. [laughter in the room]
I was listening to your new album and it seemed to me overall to be quite upbeat and optimistic. Is that something that was intentional?
Pharrell: Content wise?
I think a mix of the sound and lyrics. I found it to be empowering and there seemed to be an optimistic feel, maybe I was in that mood.
Pharrell: There’s just so much negativity in the air right now and I feel like that album just came out, we wanted it to be like a flower to a sweet girl, to the world. Because there’s so much negativity in the air, so much war…and by the way you know I think since mankind has just embraced technology period. Since the industrial revolution there’s been so many things, politics has always played such a huge part in the demise of a certain population of people but then all of a sudden we have technology and pollutants and all these things spawn other things to happen. They’re sorta like the catalyst in the other issues and I think we’re confused as a species for the most part.
Look at the politics in America right now, everyone is going back and forth for their man right now and I think they’re forgetting that they’re all Americans. It’s just crazy and I feel like people have so many things coming at them at once they’re just tired of thinking. You turn on the news, it’s just tumult across the board. Think about it, how many times do you read something positive going across the ticker?
Pharrell: When do you see, “Lady saves her baby”, it’s always, “Lady just killed two kids”. It’s the wildest shit and we’re killing our kids and the other kids we don’t kill are killing themselves because they’re being bullied. I just felt like, man the world just needed a Hallmark card. So we opted to make music for people not necessarily to compete on the charts and to go on radio, it’s a nice have, but that’s what Chad (Hugo) and I do as producers.
More importantly though when Shay, Chad and I were in the studio, we surrendered to the music and what the music dictated and a lot of that music just feels right. I know “Life as a Fish” is kinda like a…it’s not a bummer but it’s a social commentary based on what we’ve done with existence since our forefathers, the fish…I mean if you believe in evolution. I think those fishes are looking up going “you guys are a little nuts”, so we just wrote about everything.
In the song “It’s in the Air” there’s a short clipping of a speech that points out peace and war – which is also reflected in the album cover including the feathers and helmet. And then in the song that you were just talking about “Life as a Fish” to me as you said, is about God’s original creations and what we, as people and as a society, has made of it instead. And then you end the song with “we learn nothing”. Is that where the album title came from and is that the underlying theme of the album?
Pharrell: That’s not where it came from and it was actually a…huge coincidence. So much so that I’ll never be able to convince anybody that it wasn’t on purpose. Like “ohhhh he thought he was so smart, he ended the song with “Nothing””. He’ll tell ya [points at Shay], we were there and somebody pointed it out.
It’s called Nothing because we had amassed all these records and opted to start all over with nothing and second of all there’s the big bang and what comes before the big bang? Nothing. What are we without women? Nothing. Even if we’re just talking on the level of existence, we’re nothing, there is no mankind if there’s no woman. Also a lot of eastern philosophies all celebrate nothingness as a state of nirvana, so that’s where the title came from.
Despite your success one recent quote I read said that “you’re always hungry to prove yourselves”, where does that humility and drive come from?
Pharrell: Constantly being doubted by yourself. There’s nothing wrong with a little bit of insecurity. Insecurity is a very strong thing, when people can’t handle it, it makes them want to take themselves out. Insecurity makes people go postal. We don’t need that much, just a little bit [of insecurity] to keep you on your toes and makes you realize you can do better. Just a little bit.
Also it’s for the sport of making music, to make it the best it can be and I personally at this point in my life, when I make these N*E*R*D albums, I do them because I want Amir from The Roots to tell me “well done”. Q-Tip to tell me “well done” and Jay-Z to call me and tell me “well done”. I do them for the people that I look up to musically. When they say that to me I feel like that’s when I’ve…done it.
So on the album, one of the tracks “Hypnotize U” is produced by Daft Punk, it’s basically the only track that’s produced by an outsider. What was that creative process like letting go and letting somebody else come in and manage that?
Pharrell: It was just like any other session.
How long did it take from the creative process of meeting to sitting down and banging something out?
Pharrell: Well I wrote the hook that night when they played the track. Then the next night I was in the studio and it took me like an hour. But that’s because I didn’t feel stumped.
Well that concludes our time. Thanks again guys.
Both: Thank you.
Interview by Sandy Wei and David Thai