It's true, Matthew Koma doesn't necessarily fit the bill of a typical dance music artist. For one thing, in most of his live photos, you're more likely to see him strumming a guitar than riding the fader. And yet his music bares almost no resemblance to the world of moshpits, guyliner and throat-shredding vocals from whence he came.
As a kid growing up in Long Island in the late '90s and early '00s, Koma (born Matthew Blair) was destined to be a part of the hardcore scene. Yet his transition into first becoming a songwriter and then a collaborator with the likes of Dillon Francis, Tiesto, Steve Aoki and Zedd (co-writing the mega-hit “Clarity”) couldn't have felt more seamless in his eyes. While guys like Skrillex may have opened the door, Koma has definitely found his own lane as a hardcore ex-pat. Judging by his string of No. 1 hits on Beatport and Billboard — including the ubiquitous tune “Cheap Sunglasses” with RAC — he's apparently not the only one who feels that way.
For Koma, the mission merge the words of pop, EDM, rock and hardcore is a reality that's not far off, one that may only require the release of his long-awaited debut album. But while we're waiting, Coachella-goers can see for themselves what Koma has brought to the table in the dance music world this Saturday afternoon at 1:20 p.m. in the Sahara Tent. We recently spoke with Koma about his career, his hardcore connection and his undying love for Kurt Cobain.
You've said before that Kurt Cobain played a major role in your development as an artist. How so? And how did Nirvana go on to influence your career?
My whole family was really into music. My dad's a songwriter, my brother's a drummer, my mother sings. I was always surrounded by music from a super young age, growing up in New York. When I was a kid the most prominent thing happening locally was the hardcore scene and my brother played drums in a lot of hardcore bands and he'd take me out to shows.
But Nirvana was the first band that meant something to me. It's where I learned what songs were. I can still remember to this exact day the time and place I was when my dad told me Kurt died. It devastated me for so long, so the point where I remember being in second or third grade and writing like papers about it and teachers would be like, “Why is he obsessed with this Kurt Cobain committing suicide?”
It was such a different time in music to be affected by a band, there was such a wall between the fan and the artist, not like now where there's this constant communication. With something like Nirvana, you had to dig and wait for records to come out, go to record stores or buy bootlegs to hear them live. Kurt taught me a lot about writing songs and being a sincere artist no matter what genre.
And how did you transition from hardcore to dance music?
In the city you'd have all the punk rock clubs, the Continental and CBGBs and all that, and in Long Island it was the hardcore scene and bands like Brand New and Taking Back Sunday. And at the same time you'd have all these nightclubs where dance music was prominent before the scene was really commercially viable in New York. And I had friends that were going to all of it. We could all coexist at the time and it wasn't until the past couple of years when I did what I already did naturally — which was write songs and make music — and married dance music and it became acceptable to be a part of it.
It wasn't as typical to hear my type of songs in the context of a dance music sort of production style. I was always a fan of it, but it hadn't really been done. So I started becoming friends with more people in the electronic world who wanted to collaborate. And the only way I said yes was to do it on my terms and just do what I do naturally and merge that in the genre. And since then I've been addicted to it because I felt like I found my voice. Not literally as far as how I sing, but also my perspective and seeing what people are responding to.
Do you have any mentors in the electronic scene as a result of all the collaborations you do?
I think with every experience, I take something away from it. Everybody is so different so I take a page out of the notebook of everybody I work with. It's constantly changing how I approach my craft. It's a rare thing to be able to work with so many different kinds of people. In a typical band environment you have your bandmates and your producer and that's your team. But I have the ability to work with so many different people and see so many different processes that I can't help but incorporate it into my work.
Talk about your long awaited debut album. What's been a few of the highs and lows of trying to get that out?
I think in general when you're making a record, you're taking a snapshot of where you are in the moment. For me, I write so frequently, and I like writing up until the finish line of a release. I'm always pushing forward and always trying to write the best songs possible. I think the hardest thing is just waiting to get this record out because I'm so excited to continue the conversation with the fans through a cohesive body of work that really represents me. I know once we put the first record out it's going to snowball and will set off a lot more releases at a much faster pace.
At this point is the record done and coming out this year?
It's absolutely coming out this year. Very, very soon.
Any artists in particular that you're interested in seeing at Coachella?
I'm really stoked to see Jenny Lewis, Caribou, Ryan Adams. Me and my brother have always grown up being big Bad Religion fans as well, so we're definitely gonna have to check out their set.
Matthew Koma plays the Sahara Tent at Coachella on Saturday, April 18 at 1:20 p.m. Visit coachella.com for full set times and more info.