Mates of State have lived up to the promise of their surprise indie debut hit with a bigger, badder sophomore effort. But not without a little stress along the way.
Kori Gardner, 27, and Jason Hammel, 25, went to Tahiti after their wedding this summer, but their real honeymoon didn’t start until they got back to San Francisco. That was when the duo, better known as Mates of State, loaded their Yamaha Electone organs and drum kit into their van and headed into that full-time music-making paradise. It’s a voyage they’d been working towards for over four years. When Mates of State first formed in Lawrence, Kansas, in ’97, Gardner and Hammel decided that the key to success lay in being willing to play anytime, anywhere. They were determined to adhere to their motto when they moved to the Bay Area a year later.
It wasn’t always an easy schedule to maintain. “We were basically working two jobs,” Gardner says of their busy first three years in the Bay Area. “We’d go play places all weekend long, we’d practice every night after work.”
The pace was exhausting, but it soon paid off. Their sound — an exuberant, bewitching mix of punk rock shouts, raw organ riffs, and origami-delicate melodies — got tighter with each late-night practice. And their micro-tours up and down the West Coast were steadily drawing larger and larger crowds.
Then came My Solo Project. The buzz around the Mates of State debut CD in 2000 was immediate. It sold out of record stores as fast as local label Omnibus could press them up. The New York Times put My Solo Project on its year-end bests list.
For the band, the sudden rise to the top of the Bay Area’s indie ranks was intoxicating. The rabid reaction from newfound fans also helped them take stock of their priorities: Nothing, they realized, felt as good as putting out records and playing music. And if music was their main love, why not do it full-time? They’d have to sacrifice their careers — his as a cancer researcher, hers as an elementary schoolteacher — and be willing to live out of a van for most of the year. There were drawbacks and risks, but both Gardner and Hammel were ready. Their July 2001 wedding, they decided, would be the threshold into their new lives as 24/7 rockers.
“It was a ‘Friday we’re done with work, Monday we start touring’ kind of thing,” says Hammel. “And that’s what happened.”
The most important order of business for Mates of State, Inc., though, was to get a second album recorded. From cranking out My Solo Project in a couple days, they knew they could capture the surging magic of their live shows on tape. But in the two years since recording their debut, the bar had been raised. The band now had fans. And critics. And as much as Gardner and Hammel tried to keep their own expectations reined in, their hopes for creating something mind-blowing on their sophomore CD were also running high. With all that on their newlywed shoulders, Gardner and Hammel loaded up the van and drove down to Los Angeles for their studio date. The rock and roll honeymoon was about to take a turn for the stressful.
“I don’t know if it’s because it was the second record or because we were in a different studio with a different engineer, but there was just a whole different mindset,” says Gardner of the recording sessions for Our Constant Concern. “I just remember feeling a lot more stressed out.” The Los Angeles studio — Kingsize — belonged to Dave Trumfio, a Chicago keyboardist best known for producing bands like Wilco, Tsunami, and the Anniversary. Gardner and Hammel had liked what Trumfio had done for other bands, and were excited to use his technical know-how and newly-built studio. The band booked Kingsize for what felt like a huge amount of time — a full week — and hired Trumfio to handle the technical aspects of recording. When they arrived in Los Angeles in August, though, they discovered that Trumfio had also appointed himself producer.
Having to wrestle for control of the project was an uncomfortable surprise for the band. Trumfio pushed the band to experiment with new keyboard and organ sounds, and add lusher layers to the stripped-down, drum-‘n’-organ sound the band had come to see as its hallmark. “We didn’t expect to go in there and have any sort of problem with deciding what should go on each song,” says Gardner. “And there were definitely little tiny battles…. We come in the day that I’m mixing, and he’s set up ten keyboards all around me. I’m like ‘Wait a second, I like this one — mine.’ “
As Gardner and Hammel learned to let go of their preconceptions of what the recording should sound like, though, they started to appreciate the new dimensions and nuances Trumfio brought to the songs. Keyboard overdubs added arcing, twinkling life to parts that had sounded flat before. And the doubled organ parts enhanced the rumbly bottom, deepening the propulsive Mates of State sound without muddying it. Listening to the good results now, Gardner shakes her head at the stress she’d felt working with Trumfio in Los Angeles. “I’m so happy with it now,” she says. “I don’t know why I had such a problem with it then. I think it was just because I never experimented with adding things.”
“We were both from the school of thought that you set up a microphone and you play,” says Hammel. “And that’s it, you’ve got a record. Now actually when we compare the two, and listen to the first one, the first one sounds like ass, kind of — recording-wise. It’s just on one level.”
Trumfio’s engineering also helped sweeten the vocal sounds from the first record, adding a crystalline ring to Gardner and Hammel’s gut-punch duets and intertwined, tag-team singing.
The improved mix on Our Constant Concern highlights more than just Gardner and Hammel’s vocal chops. Lyrically, the new record is a cut above its predecessor, the narrow allusions from My Solo Project jelling into more expansive stories and subject matter. It’s something the band is especially proud of.
“I remember sitting in places together like for hours writing and talking,” says Gardner of the lyrics on the new album. “We never did that before in any band. That felt good.”
Songs on Our Constant Concern dip in and out of light and dark moments of being in a relationship — the comfort, the joy, the envy, the self-doubt. The Mates of State’s braided hollers offer a shorthand for the thoughts, conversations, and emotions that make up their daily lives together. Fans looking for a juicy weather report on their marriage, though, will probably end up disappointed. “It’s funny,” says Gardner, “because some people think we fight a lot because of the lyrics. We don’t fight. We’ve never had a vicious fight about anything.”
In the case of Our Constant Concern, the topics range from medicine and sickness (Hammel applied unsuccessfully to medical school in 2001, and Gardner experienced persistent health problems), to the catty competitiveness that sometimes mars the relationships between female musicians. But flickering around the periphery of Our Constant Concerns lyrics is the hushed fear that the dream that they’ve spent the last four years building may just fall apart some day. Even though both Gardner and Hammel are devoutly optimistic about their coming years of music-making, they do know enough about the music business to be realistic. They’ll be embarking on a four-month tour starting this January, and they’ve pretty well mapped out their schedule for the year after their return. But after that, who knows?
“We could find out a year from now that this has totally bombed and nothing’s worked out and that would be fine,” says Gardner, smiling. “At least we had a good two years.”