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MKTO Interview: Duo Talk Ne-Yo Collaboration, Recording Studio Staples + Album Influences [EXCLUSIVE]

MKTO
Frazer Harrison, Getty Images

It’s 10AM on April 1, 2014. The duo behind MKTO, Malcolm Kelley and Tony Oller, are jet-lagged and exhausted, but really, really, excited.

“We were up like little kids last night, watching the charts,” Tony explains. “To see your record at No. 7, debuting in the Top 10 is incredible.”

The guys don’t let so much as a yawn slip out as they enthusiastically talk about the self-titled album, which includes an appearance from Ne-Yo. But positivity tends to be a running theme with MKTO, who take the business of promoting happiness very seriously.

(Despite waking up early this morning, Tony cheerfully adds that the album’s strong opening made it worth it. “That was definitely a good way to wake up. Better than any alarm clock ever.”)

Amidst the whirlwind of their album release day, Malcolm and Tony sat down to chat with PopCrush about the project’s influences, setting the mood in the recording studio and how they maintain a positive attitude.

There are so many different sounds on the album. What were your inspirations, both musical and otherwise?

Tony: I think the whole thing we enjoyed about creating what we did, kind of organically coming about this, was we always compared ourselves to B.o.B. and Hayley Williams’ ‘Airplanes.’ Just kind of bringing two different worlds together, bringing [Malcolm’s] influences with mine and meshing them together. I mean, influences range from everything from Elvis Presley to –

Malcolm: Michael Jackson, Prince

T: — Marvin Gaye. I don’t feel like there’s one type of music you can listen to. I feel like you can listen to as much as … and that’s your job as an artist, to explore those sounds. We try to bring each of those sounds to the table and explore them and mesh them.

Do you guys listen to music when you’re in the process of recording or do you like to isolate yourselves?

M: Sometimes we might happen to listen to what’s on the top 10 on the iTunes or whatever, but we like to stay in the moment. [Set] the mood with some candles.

T: Definitely a lot of candles. Literally, turn off all of the lights.

M: We’ll be in the zone. Sometimes we take a break and listen to what’s new, what’s hot.

T: It’s always good to know. It definitely influences us.

That was actually one thing I wanted to ask you guys. Can you set the scene for what it’s like when you’re in the recording studio? 

T: We usually have our amazing producers that we signed with, Eman [Emanuel Kiriakou] and Evan [Bogart] and Goldie — Andrew Goldstein, we call him “Goldie.” But our team, I think it’s such an important thing, whether it’s management or your record label or the people you work with on a constant basis, it’s important to have good chemistry. Every time we come into the studio, it’s always fun enough to be able to go to the studio and record music every day, but to go there and be with your second family, it’s really an incredible feeling.

To set it up, basically we come in and everyone has usually about an hour of relaxing and everyone talking and catching up, seeing how everyone’s doing. Maybe have a coffee or two. Maybe order some food. But we definitely turn off all the lights, depending on what kind of song we’re doing. If it’s a ballad, we’ll turn off all the lights and get a lot of candles in there and just vibe off of each other. But if it’s a rock song, we’ll get out a lot of electric guitars and see what happens with sounds. It’s really cool, man. It’s an incredible thing we get to do and we get to work with our friends every day. I get to work with my best friend every day, too. So very cool.

Awww! What kind of food do you order in? Do you have a staple?

T: Tomato Pie.

M: We’ll change it up. Chik-Fil-A. There’s so much stuff. Chipotle. We do everything.

Did you say “Tomato Pie”?

M: It’s a great pizza place.

T: It’s a good pizza spot. You guys, obviously, New York has way better pizza. But Tomato Pie is a spot in L.A.

M: One of the very few we have in L.A.

I was looking at the song credits and the majority of the tracks are penned by just you guys. What’s that collaboration process like?

M: It meshes well together, real organic. We just work on the chorus or the singing and then we have the rap. It just goes so well together. We’re all in the studio, are producers. We have a great team. Like you said, it’s fun to just do. We all vibe off of each other and it’s a great process. Since this year, making this album, we kind of found our flow. It’s great and real easy, man. I just love it. Sometimes it’ll be the rapping first or sometimes it’ll be the singing first, or we might come with the chorus first and just fill in the rest of the song. It’s like a puzzle piece. We just put it together.

T: We have a studio at home, so it’ll be at any point of the hour we have and we usually take it everywhere we go, so we have the availability too — if we have an idea or usually just a topic. I don’t like lyrics, I like melodies. If we have an idea and we’re going somewhere, we’ll just lay down melodies and we’ll have a rough draft of a rap and we’ll just kind of break it down and bring it to the studio. If we like it, it’s stuck in our heads for awhile, we know we can go ahead with it. If not, start fresh and start a new one.

As far as the album goes, I loved ‘Could Be Me.’ How did that collaboration with Ne-Yo come about?

M: Our producers have worked with a lot of people in the game and Ne-Yo was one of them, so it was like a phone call away. It was really inspiring to get in the studio with him and watch him write. Just be on the song with him. We look up to him as artists, as well. He just came in, old school, with the pen and pad, and was just writing the song for an hour, just listening to the beat. We came up with ‘Could Be Me.’ I think the rough we recorded was what we kept on the album. He’s just a great vocalist. Yeah, man, that was pretty cool. That’s one of my favorite tracks as well.

Listen to MKTO’s ‘Could Be Me’ Feat. Ne-Yo

Another one of my favorite tracks is ‘God Only Knows.’ Of course, that title is synonymous with a famous Beach Boys song. Was that title intentional?

T: No, it’s really weird how that song came about. We’re always writing for other people and we’re always having writing sessions and figuring out where we go. Sometimes it’s for MKTO, sometimes for other people. That song in particular, we were pitching it to two different artists and at the time, it was just the chorus and they’d given it to me to lay down the melodies for the rest of it. We came out with something we wanted to keep for ourselves. [The title] wasn’t intentional. They’ve paved the way for many pop artists, the Beach Boys.

Watch MKTO’s ‘God Only Knows’ Video

And then you guys make a reference to John Mellencamp’s ‘Jack and Diane,’ right?

T: That’s the cool thing. That’s what I like too. You’ll perform these songs and some of the kids will get it and some won’t, but you’ll have the parents come up and be like. “I really got those references,” and I’ll be like, “Yay! Thank you!” That’s just one thing we always try to be about, so hats off to our producers. But always trying to make everything as clever as possible and catchy as well.

You guys have a lot of positivity in your music and the things you say. How do you pick yourselves up when you’re having a bad day?

M: Listen to some good music, man. There’s a lot of great music that can make you feel a certain type of way. Like it might be an album that makes you feel good and some of the songs on there. But ‘Happy’ from Pharrell Willliams puts me in a good mood, but ‘Classic’ also does that too. There’s certain songs for me. I could just listen to a song and it’ll change my mood and change the way you think.

It’s powerful. I imagine that must be pretty cool to put out a song like ‘Classic’ and to know that you can have that positive effect on people’s moods.

T: It’s the coolest thing ever. That’s one of the most amazing parts of this “job.” It’s incredible to see that.

Next: 20 Things You Didn't Know About MKTO

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