NEW YORK — The first time production duo the Neptunes grabbed the skate-rock-fantasy cloak from their style closet to perform as the band N.E.R.D., it took nearly two years for their album, In Search Of ... , to see the light of day. Not only was the group's record label startled by an album that was not the all-star compilation they were hoping for, Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo had gone back to retool their songs using a live band instead of their trademark syncopated digital palette.
There should be no such delays for album number two, Fly or Die, due March 9 (see "Need A Neptunes Beat? You Might Have To Wait Awhile"). The surprise success of In Search Of ... has prepared everyone on the business side of N.E.R.D. for the tandem's rock indulgence and the band has gone into the studio with a clearer idea of what kind of sound it wants.
"It's all over the place but with a little more direction," Hugo said at the Hit Factory studio recently about Fly or Die. "Even in the songwriting, Pharrell wrote songs with more issues involved, more storytelling. Songs that you can really listen to and take apart."
N.E.R.D. aren't just Pharrell and Chad, of course, the group also includes childhood friend Shay, who plays vocalist, idea specialist and, well, all-around good guy. About Fly or Die, Shay said, "This one was a little more thought-out from the beginning. The first album, we didn't really have any direction. We just went in and did what we felt."
The N.E.R.D. rock experience won them at least one fan: Lenny Kravitz. He plays guitar on a song called "Maybe." Aside from Kravitz's presence, N.E.R.D. fans will also notice another tangible difference: the absence of the band Spymob. Originally, Pharrell and Chad recorded the songs of In Search Of ... with programmed beats, making the tunes sound similar to the hit tracks they produced for artists like Kelis and N.O.R.E. Eventually they re-recorded the songs with live instruments courtesy of the Minneapolis funk outfit Spymob (also signed to the Neptunes' Star Trak Records).
"We're the ones playing the instruments live this time," Chad explained. "I just started playing guitar last year so I'm learning as we go. Pharrell's playing drums. [Last time] we didn't have time to learn certain instruments so we got Spymob to help us out."
So why did they go down the path of a live band originally? Chad explained: "At that point in time, people were so used to what we were doing as the Neptunes, we didn't want to just stick with our Neptunes fans. We wanted to do something different, appeal to more types of people."
While Pharrell was in a downstairs studio mixing, Chad and Shay provided a preview of the album, which was close to being finished. Sans Spymob, the new songs are less obtrusively funk-rooted, flaunting decades-old influences of British pop and classic rock. "Don't Worry About It" shakes with a quick-stepping backbeat, accented by swirling keyboard riffs and a bridge that soars with '60s Beatles-esque pop.
"I Love the Way She Dance" takes it to another era — Studio 54. It's an instrumental jam that recalls the last days of disco, but unlike the other N.E.R.D. tracks, it has that familiar Neptunes-sounding shimmy to it. Then there is the title track, which Chad said reminded him specifically of Joe Jackson's "Steppin' Out" because, he said, "It's got a real swing-y feel to it."
Lyrically, Pharrell wrote "Fly or Die" from the perspective of a kid listening to both the devil and the angel sitting on his shoulders. "It's about a kid going through different issues, typical teenage issues you deal with," Shay described. In fact, several of the songs on Fly or Die deal with issues related to adolescence — bullies ("Thrasher"), rebellion ("Drill Sergeant") and awkward first-time love ("Backseat Love").
"The thing with N.E.R.D., I think those were the best years of our lives," Chad said. "We're still stuck in that era in a lot of ways. We've taken on the responsibilities of adults, of course, but those were the years."