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N*E*R*D - Seeing Is Believing

Author: Nicole Fossati
Monday, February 16, 2009

3D’s Nicole Fossati eavesdrops on Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo of N*E*R*D on the eve of the Australian tour for Future Music Festival, plugging their latest album, Seeing Sounds. 

John Mayer and Aphex Twin have it, so did Duke Ellington, Franz Liszt and Wassily Kandinsky. There was even a record label in Melbourne that carried the name. Synesthesia is the rare phenomenon of physically seeing sound, and has left humanity a little quirkier for the experience. You don’t actually need to know this to appreciate N*E*R*D’s third studio album, Seeing Sounds, nor to appreciate their live shows, but like everything with this trio it’s another trippy sign that these three are still macking on the universe and still delivering insightful, unfettered, quality goods.

“As a kid, looking up in the sky was always inspirational, you know what I mean-”

It’s 2002 and Chad Hugo is explaining the band’s numerous mystical and spacey references; The Neptunes, Star Trak, ‘No One Ever Really Dies’, ‘In Search Of...’ and now with Fly Or Die and synesthesia.

“When people talk to god, they look up, right- Or when you wish upon a star...” Hugo says. “Music too should take you to a different galaxy. As down to earth and street as our production might be we still like to take the listener to another place when they hear our shit. Even though people are calling the new sound ‘alternative hip hop’ or whatever, all we really wanted was to do something that didn’t have anything to do with radio play.”

Six years on and the manifesto holds firm; N*E*R*D shape trends, they don’t follow them. Pharrell, Chad and Shae are notoriously hard to pin-down for interviews, but that’s not ego, awkwardness or reticence. N*E*R*D are as adept at controlling their image as they are at producing music. As capable of make a line of fashion-forward apparel and footwear as they are at running a label or writing an album for Michael Jackson (which Justin Timberlake got instead). They want to make music, not go on about it.

“We made this album as a pre-cognitive effort to supply music for the live show,” Pharrell tells “An anticipated effort as to what we thought this show [Seeing Sounds] should be like: a lot of energy and a lot of emotional chord progressions.” He stops himself. “We wanted people to hop around and bounce off the walls so we had to make that kind of music, and we think we’ve done that.”

Seeing Sounds has received acclaim and criticism for its diversity. However levelling criticism at a band whose acclaim sprung from such diversity is exactly the sort of pop-nonsense N*E*R*D endeavour to avoid.

“A lot of people think we’re a big band, but we’re not, we’re pretty niche,” Pharrell explains. “We sold over two million on the first album and a little under two on the second. That’s not a lot compared to most of the other artists we produce. But we like it that way. The room is full of just cool people, you know- There’s no whack T-shirts or whack sneakers there. It’s cool stuff for cool people; a cool mentality of like mindeds.” You either get it or you don’t.

It’s said that at any one time 20 per cent of the music played on American radio has been written and/or produced by The Neptunes. Their work with Snoop, Britney, JT, and Nelly et al. is said to have netted upward of $US155million, making them more prolific than Dre and Timberland combined. As The Neptunes they are an integral part of the hit-making machine. As N*E*R*D they don’t want the fickle flash of a popularist appeal; they know big-time success, but they opt for creative freedom.

“It’s tough to be critically-acclaimed and sell millions of albums, but we’re cool with that,” Pharrell says. “We’re cool with the people who support our brand, and that’s enough for us. We don’t need to be this huge, huge band.”

American radio is the toughest nut to crack. In small territories like Australia the sentiment of eschewing mass-popular appeal for artistic integrity is particularly redolent to our psyche.

“You’re put on this earth and you leave a legacy,” Hugo asserts. “So whatever you do in your life, whether people know you from what you do or what kind of person you are, whether you even know it or not, whether you even mean to or not, whether you like it or not, you always leave something behind when you pass on.”

The interview excerpts with Pharrell Williams courtesy of

WHAT: Plays Future Music Festival, Royal Randwick Racecourse / Hordern Pavilion
WHEN: Saturday 28 February / Wednesday 4 March