Q&A With Pharrell Williams of N.E.R.D.

Pharrell Williams, the subject of an April 24 Westword profile, is as busy a producer as any on the planet; among his most recent projects was Madonna’s Hard Candy, which reaches retailers on April 29. Still, he managed to squeeze in an interview to promote an upcoming appearance by N.E.R.D., a passion project that teams him with Chad Hugo, his partner in the Neptunes production clique, and old friend Sheldon “Shay” Haley, who makes a brief appearance in the following Q&A.

Because Haley’s inclusion on the phoner wasn’t planned in advance, I prepared my questions with Williams in mind – and that’s just as well, since Shay got disconnected very early in the conversation and didn’t return until near the end. In between, Williams spoke smoothly but succinctly, like a man for whom time is money, about a slew of topics: his claim several years ago that N.E.R.D. was dead; the trio’s pledge to participate in all of the dates on the group’s current tour, unlike a circuit in 2003 (see this item for details); the Child Rebel Soldier project that will reportedly team Williams with Kanye West and Lupe Fiasco, and Williams’ mild irritation that Fiasco talked to yours truly about it back in January; the Madonna recording, and his friendly competition with Timbaland, another superstar dial-twister who contributed to the disc; upcoming releases on his Star Trak imprint; a South By Southwest appearance at which Britney Spears turned out to be a no-show; the chances of him producing tracks for Lindsay Lohan, who guests in the video for “Everybody Nose,” the lead single from Seeing Sounds; new lines of jewelry and chairs he designed; and his insistence that he doesn’t need to be in the public eye to feel fulfilled as a creative artist, despite the buzz he gets from crowds at his show.

Please pay attention to the man in front of the curtain.

Westword (Michael Roberts): Back in 2005, you announced that N.E.R.D. was dead because of disagreements with Virgin – and the group is obviously back now. Why is this the right time for a return?

Pharrell Williams: Well, we never really went away. We were still touring at the time. We just said that because we didn’t want to deal with the company we were signed to at that time.

WW: And those problems have been resolved?

PW: Yeah. We’re no longer with the company. It took some years, but we finally shook that away. We finally did what we needed to do. But the most important part was, we felt like there was a void of, like, energy out there. We felt like now was the best time to come back with a record.

WW: You’ve got so many projects going all the time. What is it about N.E.R.D. that keeps drawing you back?

PW: I would say more than anything, there’s no better rush than being onstage, with all of those people down there.

WW: The live performance focus of N.E.R.D. is different from a lot of other hip-hop acts – and prior to your current show, you completed a tour of smaller venues. Is it important to you that people know this is a band, as opposed to some kind of in-studio project?

PW: Right, that’s very important to us – that everybody understands that. And even more so, that this is basically an experience. The songs are basically like a soundtrack to people’s experience in those venues.

WW: Back in 2003, I interviewed Chad Hugo prior to a N.E.R.D. appearance in our area, and he admitted that he was so busy, he wasn’t even going to be able to make it to most of the tour dates. Are all three of you guys going to be on all the dates of this tour.

PW: Yeah, we have been, and it’s been so cool.

WW: Tell me about how the three of you interact live.

PW: Shay, are you there? (Pause.) We lost Shay. It’s just been crazy, man. Chad’s on a Moog. Shay and I are on vocals. We also have, like, a five-piece band. Two drummers, a bass guitarist, a lead and rhythm guitarist, and also a keyboardist. It’s really a fun set.

WW: The lineup of the tour includes Kanye and Lupe Fiasco, and when I interviewed Lupe about three months ago, I asked him about the Child Rebel Soldier project.

PW: Right…

WW: He said it was something the three of you wanted to do, but it was hard to get all of you in the same place at the same time. Is this tour going to allow you to do that and move forward with it.

PW: Well, Child Rebel… we’re not supposed to talk about it.

WW: No hints at all?

PW: I think Lupe’s done all the hinting and leaking (laughs).

WW: Among the other projects you’ve worked on lately is the upcoming Madonna album, which is getting a lot of attention. Is this going to be one of those rare superstar albums that actually lives up to the hype?

PW: Her album is pretty impressive, I’ve got to say.

WW: What track that you worked on are you most proud of?

PW: I’m happy with all of them, man. And I was happy to be on another project with Tim – with Timbaland, where you both wind up doing records on the same artist. It’s pretty cool. It’s such an honor.

WW: You’re so on demand as a producer that when you go out as an artist, it probably costs you money. Do you allow yourself to think that way? Or for you, does the rush you talked about earlier offer a different kind of compensation?

PW: I can’t even explain how surreal it feels – and it’s such a pleasure, man – to see this army of kids who know you and love what it is you represent. And they understand what you go through, they understand that you’re not perfect. You make music for them because they’re not perfect, but we agree on just having a good time and getting lost in music. There’s no better feeling than that.

WW: You mentioned Timbaland. For you, is it nice having someone from your hometown who’s pushing you to be your best just as you’re pushing him to be your best?

PW: Absolutely. He put the heat on me on the Madonna album. His songs are brilliant. I had to really, really dig in, you know?

WW: Tell me about some of the upcoming Star Trak albums.

PW: We’ve got Chester French, which is incredible.

WW: How would you describe that?

PW: Chester French is as if Brian Wilson were to sing over Motown tracks. Guitar licks. Rockapelics.

WW: How about Teyana Taylor and FAM-LAY?

PW: Teyana has a lot of energy. She’s got that dance energy about her, that dancing spirit about her. It’s pretty interesting. And FAM, FAM is working on his project. He ended up doing, like, a whole other album. Pretty interesting seeing what it is he’s coming up with.

WW: Everybody talks about this being such a tough time for the record industry. How difficult is it for you? Or do you prefer to focus more on the creative aspects than the business challenges?

PW: Yeah, I’m more creative. And at the end of the day, things have been good. Robin Thicke’s done tremendous. He’s about to put out another album, and that’s also on Star Trak. So it’s a wonderful thing. I can’t complain.

WW: Your last solo album as well received by critics as I’m sure you probably would have liked. Do you think reviewers were kind of laying for you, eager to take you down a notch because you’ve been so successful as a producer?

PW: Well, the last album – that solo record should have been a production compilation. And instead, I didn’t have the foresight to see that it wouldn’t be the easiest thing to go out and perform all of those records. So I didn’t do that. Like, I did a few shows and I went, “Oops. I get it.” I think the material was good. But I think me being on all those records just didn’t make sense. Me as a performer in N.E.R.D., that makes sense, because that’s my world, that’s my capacity. That other thing should have just been featured artists, and it just took going out there and rapping on one song and having to sing on the next. And I was like, “Wait. How do you I do this.” And then I got it. I understood.

WW: You guys recently played at South By Southwest, and the day before, there were these crazy rumors that Britney Spears was going to appear on that show. Was that ever going to happen? Or was it just gossip getting out of control?

PW: I didn’t hear about it until I got to the venue.

WW: Was everyone asking where she was?

PW: No, I didn’t even hear it like that. Someone told us she was there – that she was at the venue.

WW: Well, she may not have showed up, but for your new N.E.R.D. video, for “Everybody Nose,” Lindsay Lohan took part. Is that right?

Shay Haley: Yeah, and Kanye. They both made guest appearances in the video.

PW: That’s Shay speaking, by the way.

WW: I figured that out. Welcome back, Shay.

SH: My phone cut out.

WW: What do the two of them do in the video?

SH: Lindsay is trying to get into a VIP area, and Chad is playing the security guard – the velvet-rope man. And he refuses to let her in. There’s some interaction there between her and Chad. We were really happy that she came out and played a part in the video. And Kanye came through. We have this character in the video that this artist created, and he’s pretty much interacting with the character.

WW: Pharrell, are you going to be recording with Lindsay Lohan?

PW: You know what it is? You know what I find interesting about her? She had a record out a few years ago. I forget the name of it. That “Daughter to Father” song or something like that. [The title is actually “Confessions of a Broken Heart (Daughter to Father).”] I thought her vocal was good. I thought it was interesting, and I found it interesting that she’d want to sing about a subject like that. The perspective, I found it interesting at that time. But I don’t know what the future holds. You know me. I’m always trying to go against the grain.

WW: In addition to all of your musical projects, you’ve got some non-musical projects in motion, including a jewelry line. Can you tell me about that?

PW: That’s been fun. It’s a collaboration with Louis Vuitton and some of their constituents. It’s been a wonderful ride. They’ve been great to me and I’ve been very gracious about my involvement with them. It was like being paid to learn from the biggest and most prestigious fashion house in the industry.

WW: You’ve talked about getting into the furniture business as well.

PW: I designed some chairs, which will be debuting in October in Paris.

WW: All these outside-the-music projects: Are they a hedge against the music industry getting worse? Or is it more that you’re interested in seeing how your creativity translates to other areas?

PW: I would say that they’re all just blessings, man. The opportunity to do what you want to do is a blessing. It’s truly a blessing.

WW: Can you imagine always being behind the scenes? Or for you, will there always be a desire to get on stage and share your music with an audience?

PW: Through N.E.R.D., and through everything else, I’m cool behind the curtain.

WW: So for you, the attention doesn’t matter that much?

PW: Yeah. At the very beginning, I kind of needed to do it to get the notoriety and the stamp of approval to get people to want to do things with us. And then once I had that, it’s not necessary to be everywhere. Be ubiquitous like that. But I’m very proud of what it is that we’ve done. The album comes out on June 10. It’s called Seeing Sounds, and it’s our best work.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts