Pharrell Williams on N.E.R.D., touring and future collaborations with Beyonce, Kanye West and Pitbull
Pharrell Williams insists his rock outfit, N.E.R.D., still isn't concerned with achieving blockbuster commercial success.
As one-half of production duo the Neptunes, his outer-space aesthetics and genre-fusing beats have helped yield plenty of hits (and a few Grammys) for practically every bold-face name in today's pop landscape. But as frontman of the rap-rock leaning N.E.R.D, he and the band have remained a commercial underdog, despite being led by one of the biggest hit-makers in music.
The trio -– comprised of Williams, fellow Neptunes member Chad Hugo and Shay Haley –- are back with their fourth album, "Nothing," after adding -- and dropping -- a new member.
Late last year, the group announced it was were recording a new disc, originally titled “Instant Gratification,” the follow-up to 2008's "Seeing Sounds," with female singer Rhea. They toured with the spunky vocalist, her presence adding a strong, sexy girl-power edge to balance Williams’ trademark raspy falsetto. It was assumed she'd do for the band what Fergie did for the Black Eyed Peas: shift its cult following to pop gold.
But the idea didn't last too long.
“We were taking a chance on having a girl as like a fourth member for a second. It was fun. We did a really great album. But it was good and for us good isn’t good enough,” Williams, 37, says in his usual cool demeanor. “So we stopped, took a break and started over.”
The scrapped project led to the creation of “Nothing,” released last week (check out Pop & Hiss’ review of the record) and debuted at No. 20 on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart, after logging first-week sales of 20,000 copies.
The record, led by the Nelly Furtado assisted “Hot n’ Fun,” has the same brand of funk, rock, R&B and electropop from the group that make them favorites among the festival circuit; at the moment they are touring with the Gorillaz. Williams said the influences for the album came in a few unlikely places.
Inspired by the spaghetti western he flirted with more different sounds and kept a mental roster of inspiration locked away.
“I started thinking, this song reminds me of the Doors. Then once I had the 808s, it felt like something RZA would like. And then by choosing a western sound for some of the songs it felt like Quentin Tarantino would like it," explaining his eureka moment. "Those guys became like my invisible A&R [artist and repertoire]. One record felt like America, another felt like Neil Young ... I just started feeling like we really got it.”
Williams said the band comes out of hibernation whenever he feels people need to hear something that makes them go, “What the hell?”.
“See, its gotta be different,” Williams said. “I don’t want to do the same thing over and over again. I’m an Aries, unfortunately. I like the new, the different and the sticky. That’s what its gotta be. [Music that] gets stuck in your head and you can’t get over it. That’s my knockout punch. It’s not the biggest commercial punch in the world. But I’m a producer for commerciality.”
Treading that line of commercial pop producer by day, rock star at night has been a juggling act Williams has seemingly mastered. He said he’s amazed that nine years after N.E.R.D.'s debut album he's still able to do both -- though lately the hit-making has taken a backseat.
“We’re catering to a whole different audience that appreciates what we do, but that’s not what they look towards us for. They look to me and Chad to produce Jay-Z, T.I., or Britney, Beyonce and Ciara. They are looking for that,” Williams said. “I’ve been relentless for N.E.R.D. and a lot of times not doing a lot of producing because I’ve dedicated the last two and a half years of my life just touring these albums because I believe in what we do as a band.”
After N.E.R.D finishes touring, Williams will put his producer cap back on and go into the studio with Rick Ross, Pitbull, Shakira, Fabulous, Ciara and Beyonce. He also said the band plans on releasing music videos for each of the 10 tracks on the album -- a few of the politically charged visuals, as well as the clip for the Daft Punk produced single “Hypnotize U,” have already hit the Web.
There is also that long brewing full-length album of Child Rebel Soldier, another side group -- this one comprised of Williams, Kanye West and Lupe Fiasco (recently the track “Don't Stop” surfaced as part of West’s G.O.O.D. Friday leaks). Williams promises the trio is “cooking.”
Williams said he hopes “Nothing” connects with listeners, even if it isn’t “meant for radio so much.”
“I make records for the masses. But this record is not for the mass or minimal of human beings,” Williams said. “If it connects with you and resonates with a value or core belief or feeling you have about life, that’s what this album represents. If you’re human you’ll get it.”
-- Gerrick D. Kennedy
Photo: N.E.R.D. members Pharrell Williams, left, Chad Hugo and Shay Haley. Credit: Jam Sutton