Every so often, just when you thought the zeitgeist might have passed him by, Pharrell Williams has a new move. Since first arriving on the scene to dominate pop in the early aughts—at some crazy moment in 2003, over 40 percent of the songs on the radio were estimated to have been produced by the Neptunes, Williams’s production team with Chad Hugo—Williams has remained in the spotlight for over two decades with his fashion choices (the streetwear lines, the countless collaborations, The Hat) and his on-air persona hosting The Voice and, most of all, his music. Whether it was helping Daft Punk take over an entire summer (and countless weddings thereafter) with “Get Lucky” or fashioning himself as a kind of ubiquitous Peter Pan with “Happy,” the ageless Williams is still reinventing what he sounds like (even if he looks the same as he did when we first met him). This week, in fact, will see the release of the first album since 2005 by N.E.R.D., the groundbreaking group of Williams, Hugo, and Shay Haley, and No_One Ever Really Dies, featuring Rihanna on the lead single “Lemon,” promises to be like nothing else you’ve heard from them. Here, Williams tells W editor at large Lynn Hirschberg where he gets his next great idea, and why he wants to act—but only in a Wes Anderson film.
Tell me about your new record. It’s, like, synth punk with 808’s, and then each song kind of comes apart with the same sounds and same notes, and reassembles to make a different shape. It turns into an aggressive, electronic kind of rap. So imagine if you were looking at a house made of Legos. And in the middle of a song, it just kind of exploded and then reassembled using the same parts to make a rocket. That’s kind of what the songs do. It’s really aggressive. It’s like listening to Red Bull.
Wow. A lot of screaming, a lot of angst, but it feels really good. So instead of just doing what synth punk would usually do, I would use chord progression that wouldn’t be associated with it.
Was this in your head for a while or did it come to you in the studio? I just kept chomping away, and what I really like about it is that I didn’t make any of the songs based off of, Oh, I know what I’ll do, you know, like when we get dressed every day. Once an era changes, our wardrobe sort of changes a little bit and then we start to know, Okay, this is my look. This s the fit of the jeans I’m going to wear probably for the next four or five years. Music’s the same way. Once you feel like you’ve found your way into a new era, then you start to lean on those things. And I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to just continue to explore. So this whole entire thing, I went chipping away at each point. I never did anything that I felt was even temporarily formulaic. It’s really a mosaic of a lot of things that influenced me.
Was the album easier to make with guys that you’ve known a really long time? Yeah, yeah, I pretty much took the lead. But that’s because I was just around more, and I didn’t want to get comfortable, you know. I didn’t want to get comfortable in doing what it is that I usually do. So I feel like this record is, like, pleasantly shocking.
But that’s very brave because you could keep making “Happy” and people would go crazy forever. Yeah, well, I still want to feel that high of, you know, “What’s that?”. There’s nothing like going to a restaurant, and over everyone talking, you can kind of hear a melody, something that sounds foreign, but you like it. There’s nothing like getting up, calling the waiter over—and they don’t know, so they go to the back and you kind of go to the back to go see what it is that they’re playing. There’s nothing like that. That notion of wanting to know what something is. And I can only get to that if I do something I’ve never done before.
I love that spirit of invention. Do you get ideas in the shower? Do you have a place where these things come to you? The shower’s a frequent place. I mean, actually it’s near any kind of running water, whether it’s the faucet or being in the shower. That’s the main place. Sometimes I get ideas on the plane because of the sound depravation there, too.
And do you usually record it on your phone or do you just write notes, or a combination of things? You just hold onto it.
Really, you can do that? Yeah. You do, too.
I do, but I often cross my fingers and then wait till I’m someplace I can write something down. Yeah, but I find that the best way to remember something is if you hone in on the excitement. That you don’t forget. The excitement makes you remember every detail and that’s what’s pertinent in my process.
Do you like touring? Yeah. I prefer it with my wife, and my family. But yeah, I like it.
You’re not being convincing. [Laughs.] I mean, I like it because you just can’t wait to get out there and see how the people react to something that you’ve made, you know. That’s exciting.
Do you have any music right now that makes you cry, in general? It’s been quite a while. Maybe 10 years since I heard something that made me cry. Donny Hathaway has an old song called “Take a Love Song” and it would make me emotional, but I think I was eating, like, a lot of weed candy at the time. [Laughter.] So that could be kind of the thing that just knocked it over the other side.
Do you and Helen [Lasichanh, Williams’s wife] have a song? Did you have a song at your wedding? Yeah, yeah, yeah, it was a couple of songs. We, we walked to a Tribe Called Quest’s “Bonita Applebum.” And we danced to Don Blackman’s “Holding You, Loving You.”
So who’s someone who’s really original and unique and interesting to you? Oh, there’s so many, but Wes Anderson is one of the most consistent. I love what he does.
Do you have a favorite Wes Anderson movie? All of ‘em.
What was your gateway drug, your first Wes Anderson movie? Probably Rushmore. Yeah, Bill Murray running across that field made me very happy. He’s just funny, man. I mean, [Anderson’s] composition is amazing, his color, the way that he uses the music that he uses. I’m not an actor, but in a heartbeat, I would just walk by [in a scene]. Or whatever he asked me to do in his film, I would do it.
Have you ever been in a movie as an actor? No.
Have you said no a million times? Yeah. [Laughter.]