You could call Pharrell Williams a mogul. As one half of Grammy-winning production duo The Neptunes, he certainly oversees an empire: When not cutting tracks with superstars like Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake and Snoop Dogg, he’s collaborating on clothing line Billionaire Boys Club, designing tank chairs and scoring Despicable Me. He can also be found rocking out with his band N*E*R*D, currently promoting a new album, Nothing.
Chicago Timeout: You’re opening for Gorillaz on Saturday, followed by a show with Deadmau5 next weekend. That’s a diverse pair of bookings.
Pharrell Williams: N*E*R*D has always been alternative. We never tour with just rock acts or just hip-hop acts. We keep it fresh and keep people on their toes.
CT: You guys enlisted Daft Punk to produce “Hypnotize U.” As prolific producers in your own right, it must’ve been interesting to let someone else do the job.
PW: It was just a spur-of-the-moment thing. I was just like, man, we gotta put this on. That song is kind of like the future. The album serves as a kind of timeless thing, and that’s something that lives in the future.
CT: Listening to other tracks on Nothing, I do hear a futuristic twist on ’50s rock & roll, jazz and even gospel. Is that a nostalgia thing?
PW: We definitely wanted to use a lot of vintage sounds to make new songs—Crosby, Stills & Nash, America, the Moody Blues, the Doors. We tried to make songs that feel like they should have been on some of their albums, but with the N*E*R*D twist, with like an 808 under it and shit.
CT: One person it recalls is Mark Ronson. He has a similar style.
PW: He heard it, and he was really kind. He sang it a lot of cool praises.
CT: Other praise that often comes your way is the media’s portrayal of you as a modern-day renaissance man.
PW: I don’t pay attention to that. I know it’s a compliment, but it’s not who you are, man, it’s what you do. What you do makes you who you are. Who you think you are, you’re not.
CT: You’re more inclined to describe yourself as a big kid. Is Toy Story 2 still your favorite movie?
PW: Listen, without a doubt I love all Pixar stuff. I gotta tell you, it’s an exhilarating feeling to know that as a child I was obsessed with cartoons and growing up I still get to do them.
CT: Where else do you look to get your creative juices flowing?
PW: I draw inspiration from different things, not necessarily musicians, mostly just life, television, movies and experiences. It’s not one-dimensional. I’m just trying to change the world, man.