Pharrell Williams / Gravitational Pull  0%

G R A V I T A T I O N A L   P U L L


Interview by Joe La Puma • Photography by Timothy Saccenti

In 2013, mystery is a rare quality.

Undermined by the privacy-obliterating nature of technology, pop culture is largely devoid of mystique, and the mystics have all left the building—with the exception of Pharrell Williams. Exactly what makes Skateboard P tick is an open question. How is it that this seemingly ageless creative force has never been more in demand than he is right now, at age 40, newly married, with a five-year-old son to look after? We can’t tell you. Nobody can. But everyone can tell you this: Whether you’re trying to build out an album of undeniable hits, or a sartorial statement piece that’s guaranteed to fly off shelves, you want Pharrell (and whatever it is that makes him tick) involved. Maybe he’s simply built differently. After all, this is a guy who claims to have synesthesia, a neurological condition that allows him to see sounds as colors. Is it all about his brain wiring? Or perhaps—as the extraterrestrial themes in his branding (The Neptunes production team, the Star Trak label, the Billionaire Boys Club astronaut logo) would suggest—something not of this Earth?

When I first met with Pharrell in early June, he was in SoHo, doing press for the 10th anniversary of his Billionaire Boys Club/Icecream brand, a line that’s provided the cool-guy uniform for everyone from forward-thinking style students to Jay Z. A parade of reporters and cameramen moved in waves through the spaceship-meets-ice-cream-shop-themed retail store, and dressed in cutoff denim shorts, a green army jacket, and a Comme des Garçons tee, Pharrell dabbed away the excess oil from his pizza. After conducting back-to-back interviews in the back office for a few hours, he told his publicist he wanted to switch up the energy and field Complex’s questions outside. Coming from someone else, this might seem a fussy demand from a high-maintenance artist. Coming from Pharrell, it’s assumed that his attention to tiny details will lead to something better. Call it instinct, or just a whim—Pharrell’s impulses aren’t something you parse or ponder. Just trust it. In other words: When a mystic talks, you listen. So we did, settling in on a West Broadway stoop across from the store, trying our best to crack the Pharrell Williams code. Easier said than done.

How important is it to you to constantly reinvent yourself?
I try to do it every day. We all evolve. That’s not specific to me. It’s something I don’t fight—like, “Oh well, that might be too much.” And then you look up and a dude walks past and he’s done it. The universe is going to continue to evolve, and the ultimate feat in that experience is the perspective of awareness. It’s only when you deny yourself those gut feelings that the universe taps you on the shoulder like, “Yo, told you….”

People do reinvent themselves, but your reinvention seems so methodical.
It’s totally not. I just listen. I watch the signs and I listen. Other than that, this is not engineered—maybe by God, maybe by the universe, but not me. I was having a conversation with Justin Bieber about zodiac signs, and he was like, “I don’t get it. I don’t get why just because I’m a Pisces it means that all Pisces think like me?” And I said, “The zodiac signs only tell you what your tendencies may be, but if you look, most of them are there.” He was like, “So this person is a Gemini, and they complain about getting up in the morning, too.” And I was like, “It’s a little more subtle than that.”

I used to say, “I’m super lucky.” Teddy Riley built his studio five minutes from my high school, and now when I go to New York I’m like, “Who the fuck goes to Virginia?” I know who goes to Virginia. He went to Virginia, and he went for a specific reason. I’m not going to say what that reason is for me. But I know I was meant to be affected by his decision. So I know it wasn’t an accident and it wasn’t a mistake. He built a studio a five-minute walk from me. I could be completely wrong. God could be upstairs high-fiving E.T. and Tupac and they’re all laughing at it with a drink in their hands. But you asked me that question, now I’m going to ask you: Do you think there’s a method?

I do. I think that most people think about it more than you do. And it’s hard for them to understand how you don’t think about it.
That’s right. That’s completely right.

People want to know the exact moment when you’re like, “I’m going to pick this marker up and draw on my Timbs and it’s going to be a thing.”
I don’t question it. I sketched all over my boots like we did when we were kids—there was nothing smart or clever about it. You didn’t do that in high school? Of course you wrote on your pants. I’m a kid! So I just keep doing the shit I feel like I can do. By the way, there are times where I’m wrong as shit, and we all laugh together. You laugh having no idea that I’m somewhere else rolling around on the floor like, “Oh, my God, what a fucking mistake, it was hilarious….” But, you gotta be willing to do that. That’s the only thing you gotta do: Be unafraid to fail. You’ll be so thankful when you win. I make music and I make my decisions the same way. It’s all malleable for that one second that you’re able to have it, and then that second’s gone. You can go back and touch it in your mind. But in the physical, in the third dimension, you cannot.

Even that explanation is not how most people think.
I realized that the more opportunities I was being given the more I was setting myself free. In high school, as fun as it is, it’s like captivity. It’s where you got to choose your uniform. You’re either going to be a jock, a techie, a skater, a hustler, a ho, a music enthusiast—but you had to choose, and I never did. And I paid for it. That’s when you get called weird. I got called “Oreo” as a kid because I was black, but I hung with white boys and skated. I had black friends, and I noticed they were into the same things but a lot of them still chose a lane. You can’t fault me because my friends were teaching me what an ollie was and I was dropping in on a mini half-pipe, listening to Suicidal Tendencies and Dead Kennedys. It went from English punk into metal and then we watched it go into the Seattle sound. Hair bands to the Seattle sound and then it just kept going. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “The Benjamins” were the shit to me. Puffy was a rock star. He was a black rock star. He was liberating himself and setting himself free and didn’t give a fuck what anybody thought about it and you can feel that in the music. You feel that Kurt was going through some shit, and literally centered in on something and found his fulcrum when he put out “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It was two different times, those were moments where two different groups of people from different cultures liberated themselves and did not give a fuck what anyone else had to say. The universe responded accordingly. So as a teenager, that’s what I was.

Those worlds collided for you.
I was a maverick. I never belonged to anything, and while I would love to sit here and act like it was all on purpose, the only way I could ever make sense of that is because I continued to be like, “Fuck it.” Nobody fucked with me anyway. I had friends, I wasn’t hated or anything, and I wasn’t totally picked on. Like, I wasn’t getting bullied and shit—I got my ass beat a couple of times, but that’s because I joked. That was the only thing I could do. We didn’t have all the money in the world, so that was my defense, to joke. Sometimes that shit landed me with my ass getting beat. I always had this “I ain’t got nothing to lose” attitude. Because I didn’t have much. The confidence to go out and march to the beat of my own drum was a lot. But as a child, I didn’t know that was a lot. No matter what my mom told me about being different and special, you go to high school and realize you got to pick a team. And because I didn’t belong to one, it was, “I’m going to do this, fuck it.” So when I was given the opportunity to write Teddy’s verse for “Rump Shaker,” it was like, “Alright, fuck it.” And then as we continued, continued, and continued, it just kept going. I’m basically operating like I did in high school, but in high school when I was given these opportunities, I was like, “Certainly this isn’t going to last forever.” Chad and I just continued and it’s landed me here.

The lobby of the Four Seasons Atlanta is quiet at noon on an early fall day.

I’ve been summoned down South to finish the interview, and given a strict time limit: 30 minutes only. Before he emerges from a long staircase, Pharrell’s arrival is preceded by a faint jingle, the music of three gold chains (including a custom Chanel rosary piece) and six diamond bracelets rattling against each other. As anonymous business people come and go, we sit on a maroon couch to talk about Pharrell’s frustration at not being able to go back in time. He’s in Atlanta for the next few days working with Usher, looking to continue what has been a dominant 2013. In June, Pharrell became just the 12th artist in Billboard history to claim the number one and two positions at the same time—with Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” respectively. Although his handlers won’t budge on extending the 30-minute interview window, P’s demeanor is loose and freewheeling, befitting someone who’s been juggling multiple cultural spheres for more than 20 years.

Did you ever imagine you would end up where you are now?
What’s ahead, you don’t know. So, fuck it. Remember they didn’t like tight pants? They were laughing at me. We were jumping around in the N.E.R.D video, “Everyone Nose.” We were bringing light to what the party scene had become. We were moshin’ at a time where niggas were like, “What’s that?” And I’m like, “What do you mean? Y’all don’t remember when Onyx was moshin’?” They were the first to do that shit.

Most people wouldn’t connect those dots, Onyx and tight pants.
I took inspiration from that movement last year when I went to Japan. I dressed like a black skinhead. I was wearing a flight jacket, and instead of red suspenders I had Chanel suspenders. I’m living in the moment. I’m dancing in that light. Because I know that at some point, either the light burns out or the projector stops turning. So, is there a method? That’s my method. My method is to know I can’t control everything. I can’t make everybody like me. And there’s a small bunch of people that fuck with me, right? So, I’m cool with my soldiers.

Kanye had an interview where he said, “Hip-hop artists are the new rock stars.” Do you agree with that?
Jimmy Iovine said it first. He said Dre is the Jimi Hendrix of hip-hop. He heard N.W.A. and he didn’t understand what the fuck he was listening to. He thought it was the most radical, punk, rock-star-minded shit ever. It was bigger than punk, because punk was always too cool to ever become huge, but rock ’n’ roll, the entire genre did rise to the occasion of being big.

You had green hair, and a sort of hip-hop grunge thing going on at one time. Are there any looks you regret?
That’s a funny question. Often I see people going crazy over people who wear furs. And just recently I tried on something from Moncler. This crazy jacket. And I regret it because I sympathize with the people who are animal activists. I sympathize with their movement and I recognize that people could be impressionable. But at the same time, I like fashion. And I don’t like being told what to do. I especially don’t like people who judge because those people who sit around like they’re purists on every level, I’m sure you can find a sin there somewhere. Don’t point the finger. Like, I hope there’s nothing leather in your whole entire house. And if there isn’t, that’s cool, but what about what you’re driving? Oh, you’re not putting any emissions in the air? Oh, OK, cool. Alright, so are you feeding any people? What are you doing with your life? So, while I sympathize with their movement, I’ma take on a challenge.

“The universe is going to continue to evolve,
and the ultimate feat in that experience
is the perspective of awareness.”

Does it get frustrating?
You know, the last time this happened to me was when I did the 777 thing in Rio. We did a concert, Lenny Kravitz and N.E.R.D. The event was called Live Earth, I think, and we were trying to bring awareness to Earth Day or whatever. And Rush Limbaugh was like, “Here’s a guy who probably owns about 20 or 30 cars, probably came there by way of a private jet, landed his jet on top of the tent.” So I was like, “Yo, why you fuckin’ with me? By the way, I’m a producer, dude. I’m in this little niche band called N.E.R.D. Why you fuckin’ with me?” But you know what? Instead of getting really mad, I rose to the challenge, and I joined forces with [the eco-couture line] Bionic Yarn, and we’ve been doing really great collaborations ever since. I think the humanitarian in me always tries to rise to the occasion of how I can better myself. I try to see positivity in other people’s negativity. It’s one thing to be upset, and it’s another to be mean and evil-spirited.

You had “Blurred Lines” and “Get Lucky” this summer. You were literally competing with yourself. What was that like?
Unbelievable, unbelievable. I couldn’t explain it. Imagine all your life you go to school to study fashion, and you find out the one thing you really like is the sock. So you’re not gonna be greedy. There’s a lot of designers out there: streetwear, high-end fashion. And you decide, “You know what? My niche is the sock.” So you become decent at it. People start to recognize you for your socks, your little designs and stuff. And all of a sudden, God or the universe taps you on the shoulder and goes, “Hey, reach on the inside, squeeze it, and pull it out.” And you realize that there is a reverse inside the sock. That’s what this is for me. I’ve never been on the forefront of such a huge thing—done by the people, by the way. The people vote for the songs, they pay for the songs, they stream the songs, they look at the videos. So my point is that my understanding of what I was supposed to do, what I could do, had been turned inside out. That’s my life.

And it’s the same object.
That’s right. That’s why I chose the sock, because it’s the same thing, but turn it inside out and it’s the complete reverse when you never knew there could be. It’s humbling.

Thirty minutes is just not enough.

Later that night, Pharrell invites me to Silent Sound studios to sit in on a session with Usher. At the door, Pharrell’s assistant explains that the team is on a socks-only kick in the studio. Sure enough, P’s at the mixing board with thick beige socks on his feet, air-drumming to a song he produced for Usher a few nights ago featuring T.I. It sounds like a radio program director’s wet dream. Coincidentally, Fuse’s “Top 100 Pop Breakthroughs” is playing on the studio’s TV, and the list is strewn with artists Pharrell has made hits with.

Pharrell’s creative process evolves organically, so much so that sometimes you don’t even notice it’s happening. He starts talking about the genius of Timbaland’s voice, referencing a specific interview Tim did with Revolt TV. At first it seems like idle conversation, until Pharrell pulls up a recording of that very interview and begins to chop it up, adding effects to Timbaland’s voice, transforming it into a beat for Usher. Over the next 45 minutes, a gospel-flavored vocal line, some electronic guitar riffs, and an unexplainable horse sound are added to the beat. The people in the room chuckle, including Pharrell’s soon-to-be wife, Helen, who’s clad in a Billionaire Girls Club hoodie. P goes on about his business. Ten minutes later, Usher walks in the room, running a pick through his well-shaped afro. Pharrell plays the Timbo x Gospel x Horse beat for him and the megastars begin to dance in unison. When Usher hears the horse sound for the first time, he falls out. It’s only after someone on Pharrell’s team tells the room, “Bet you didn’t know, Usher was born in the year of the horse,” that the meaning behind the equine sonic reference comes into focus.

There isn’t really a code to crack: Plenty of musicians can make a hit song. What’s impossible to mimic are the various connecting threads that weave through Pharrell’s mind, and the awareness that tells him these disparate strands add up to a good idea. An hour or so later the continuous mixing comes to a halt when Usher starts talking about his favorite ATL burger joint. “I’ve been everywhere in the world, and this place has the best burger, trust me.” The room clears for a dinner break, and an hour later Pharrell posts a self-portrait with burger to his Instagram with the caption, “Holeman & Finch Public House…whewww.” For a second, the mystique is gone, revealing a grown-up kid who just loves a good burger.

Your verse on the “Pretty Flacko” Remix was one of the best of 2012. Do you still enjoy rapping?
Sure. I love rapping. But—something’s coming, and I’m not rapping on it.

No? A full body of work with no rapping?
No rapping. It’s focused. Like I told you, that’s the difference between 30 and 40. ’Cause I was 30, now I’m 40—and I’m not rapping.

Are you talking about a solo album?

You’ve taken a step back from performing your own music over the last few years, and your stock as the go-to producer for other artists has never been higher. Is the process different for every artist? Or do you approach working with Jay Z and Miley in the same way.
It’s always going to be different, because the artists are different. There isn’t a set formula for anything. I don’t paint the Mona Lisa, I just build the backdrops for the painting. I don’t make Jay Z.

How do you create different visions for different people?
I go off the personality and what’s there. You just get a feeling, something comes to you. It’s like conversation. That’s really what it is. It’s an exchange of conversation. It’s just that it’s chords instead of sentences. Sometimes there are words instead of conversations.

You did four tracks for Miley Cyrus’ album, and after the VMAs it was reported that you sent her a supportive text. Do you think she’s transitioning the right way? You mentioned earlier about the conversation with Bieber. It’s a tough thing to transition from child star to adult.
Yeah, it’s tough to be that age, and to have to make all those decisions yourself. And it’s the people you’re surrounded by, too. I’m not worried about Miley. I’ve seen her soul in action. I know her voice, her voice is crazy. I keep saying it to everybody: You gotta remember, she’s 20 years old and enjoying her life. She’s enjoying her freedom. When you see her, when you read her words and you listen to her musical choices, and you look at what she’s wearing—I’m not talking about when she goes on stage, I’m talking about her everyday dressing—she shuts it the fuck down. Not too many people really understand the Chanel vocabulary like her. Like, she’s a problem.

Yeah, I read that she’s getting crazy vintage high-fashion clothing.
Oh, forget it. She’s a problem. Now, when she goes on stage, she’s expressing something else. You know, when she’s making her music she’s expressing something else. She’s expressing where she is in her life and her freedom. So while everybody else is being judgmental, they’re not taking into account that she’s been basically locked behind a camera all her life. And by the way, for good reason. All them years with Disney, and all them years with Billy Ray Cyrus as her dad and Dolly Parton as her godmother, did some good on that voice. But, you know, people are just watching her evolution of a young mind, but an old soul.

You said, “Fashion always boils down to women, and really everything boils down to women.” What do you mean by that?
On a fundamental level, it’s their opinion that society is concerned with. Man’s getting dressed for what? Other dudes? Sometimes, sometimes. And that’s OK. To each his own. But for the most part, whose opinion matters at the end of the day? And again, that’s a matter of opinion. That’s my opinion. But then, on a practical level, where do we all come from? Every living human being, regardless of what their orientation is, or what they’re into, we all come here via the conduit of a woman’s body. And a woman’s decision. You know what I’m sayin’?

Is there anybody that you have especially good chemistry with? Anybody you immediately click with outside of N.E.R.D?
No, but to answer that question differently, there are people who are difficult sometimes.

What does it take to get beyond that?
My persistence in pushing them forward and letting them know that they could do more. Sometimes that’s a lot.

Is it more gratifying for you when the chemistry isn’t there?
I could see why you might assume that. But more than anything else, it’s a better feeling when the music just feels fucking incredible. When you look up and go, “What the fuck is that? Play that shit again.” That’s the most gratifying feeling ever, when we discover something new.

Speaking of gratification, you’re immersed in so many worlds, you’ve developed so many products and sounds, what are you most proud of?
My son. Our son. It’s like, that’s our world. Helen and I having Rocket, it’s been awesome. It’s the best song that I’ve ever co-written. But it’s a song that keeps co-writing itself, too. Like, he changes his bridge all the time, but as you hear each version of his bridge, you keep seeing the rhythm. Remember I told you, the rhythm and people’s way when you look over your shoulder? We’re starting to see his way. It’s crazy. And his voice is amazing, and the chords that he chooses to become himself. That’s like the craziest thing ever. Ever. Ever.