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"I can't even explain how surreal it feels — and it's such a pleasure, man — to see this army of kids who know you and love what it is you represent," he says. "And they understand what you go through; they understand that you're not perfect. You make music for them because they're not perfect, but we agree on just having a good time and getting lost in music. There's no better feeling than that."
Past N.E.R.D. outings weren't always rigorous affairs. During a 2003 jaunt, for example, N.E.R.D. member Chad Hugo, Williams' partner in the mega-successful production team known as the Neptunes, didn't even appear on most of the dates alongside Pharrell and rapper/fellow N.E.R.D. Shay Haley, declaring himself too busy to do so. This time around, though, all three are dedicated to acting as a real band — even completing a small-venue circuit months before the scheduled June 10 release of their next recording, Seeing Sounds.
Still, N.E.R.D. won't be confused with a typical combo. When the trio played at Austin's South by Southwest festival in March, rumors ran rampant that Britney Spears would make a surprise appearance. "Someone told us she was there — that she was at the venue," says Williams, who's known Brit since the Neptunes produced tunes such as the 2001 smash "I'm a Slave 4 U." And on the forthcoming video version of "Everybody Nose," Sounds' entertainingly oddball first single, guests include Kanye West and another tabloid favorite, Lindsay Lohan. When asked if he plans to assist on a new Lohan album that's reportedly in its germinal phase, Williams is cautious about over-committing. "I don't know what the future holds," he says. "You know me — I'm always trying to go against the grain."
In the meantime, Williams is broadening his business portfolio. His current enterprises include Star Trak, his own label (he touts upcoming releases by performers such as Chester French, Teyana Taylor, and FAM-LAY); a new jewelry line he oversaw under the auspices of Louis Vuitton ("It was like being paid to learn from the biggest and most prestigious fashion house in the industry," he enthuses); and even a venture into home furnishings (he notes that he "designed some chairs, which will be debuting in October in Paris"). But all that will have to wait until he's off N.E.R.D. duty. "There's no better rush than being on stage," he says.
His accountant won't be happy to hear that.