Wednesday, June 04, 2008

15 Minutes with Pharrell Williams

“We know that our fan base is different than fans of Kanye West, Lupe Fiasco or Rihanna,” admits Pharrell Williams on the phone from New York during a rare break before embarking on this summer’s highly anticipated “Glow in the Dark” tour. “We’re going to introduce ourselves to that audience, even though there is a lot of crossover there. But the N.E.R.D. energy is different. We’re there to literally rock the party.”

The iconic producer, fashion designer and cultural flash point is excited to talk about the forthcoming third album from his eclectic rock outfit, N.E.R.D., titled “Seeing Sounds” and tentatively scheduled for a June 10 release.

“The title is in reference to a phenomenon called synesthesia, which is when one of your senses sends electric impulses to unintended parts of the brain,” he explains in his raspy drawl. “So for some people, when they hear music, it also stimulates them visually. We wanted people to recognize that and see the sounds of this album.”

“We’ve always had a hybrid sound, so there are a lot of different things going on,” he says of the band’s new record. Williams speaks of drum-and-bass influences, citing the mosh-pit-ready tune “Spazz” as an example. He continues: “The album is definitely hard, guitar-driven and angst-ridden. We recorded the record with the live show in mind. We want people to be up and having a good time at our concerts. If you interview any of the kids that were at any of our warm-up shows in secondary markets like Pittsburgh, they’ll tell you how crazy it’s been. I’d bet those parking lots are littered with empty Red Bull and Monster energy-drink cans everywhere. The shows have been filled with intelligent kids letting go and having fun.”

N.E.R.D. made a huge splash at this year’s SXSW festival in Austin, playing high-profile shows such as the controversial Perez Hilton showcase.

“It was incredible,” Williams raves about the trip. “Our fan base has really grown. It’s wonderful to see how culturally diverse our crowd has become. Our fans are intelligent, have a strong individuality and distinctive opinions about life. At our shows, the skaters don’t mind hanging with the hipsters, who don’t mind hanging with the fashion students, who are cool with the b-boys and the punks. They’re all there, and it’s all love. It’s this patchwork army of kids that are all on a similar wavelength. It’s incredible the energy they send us onstage. I promise not to abuse this position that they’ve put me in.”

That position includes helming the Star Trak record label, which recently signed R&B upstart Tayanna Taylor and preppy pop outfit Chester French.

“I think Chester French are geniuses. To me, they sound like Brian Wilson singing over Motown tracks,” Williams enthuses about the recent Harvard graduates. “We’re so lucky to have them on our label.”

There’s also his successful run in the fashion industry, with Williams behind the Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream clothing lines, creating limited editions that command top dollar from obsessive streetwear collectors around the globe.

“The fashion has been fun,” he says casually. “I’ve been studying under Marc Jacobs over at Louis Vuitton for the past couple of years, which has been invaluable.

“It’s all about establishing a relationship with our audience,” he stresses finally. “I want to give them things they really want, be it a pair of shoes, a sweatshirt or a record.”

(Originally published on