Aww, indie-rockers in love. Married, actually, with a brand new baby daughter. Ten years and four full-length albums since this Lawrence, Kansas duo – Kori Gardner (organ) and Jason Hammel (drums) – consummated their love … for music. Yin to each other’s Yang, they tour like they haven’t got a home, harmonize like dueling banjos and always, always seem to have a trail of sunshine beaming along their path.
But the journey kicked off in a somewhat cloudy fashion. Out in the Midwest, the two Mates locked hearts as guitar players in a band dubbed Vosotros, where a practice session led to a little instrumentation experimentation and the birth of the keyboard/drum/vocal equation that’s held strong to this day. Yet, the rain started to patter when the two took to the streets with their newfound love-meets-art. Not because they were a seemingly perfect item, but rather because their sugary, anthemic indie-pop won the crowds, and neighboring musicians had a “possessive, who-was-there-first” attitude that soured-up their sweet demeanor.
So on a “whim”, says Kori, they randomly up and left for San Francisco, neither of them having been there before. They would quickly determine that, “the music itself was a lot more light-hearted, a lot more positive than in Lawrence,” and that, “it’s basically beautiful, you can’t really be unhappy there.”
The bohemian aura came to perfectly spark the connections they needed – a contract with Sacramento, CA based Omnibus (The Shins, Fighter D) and then Polyvinyl (Of Montreal, Matt Pond PA).
“[That] simply didn’t exist in Kansas – the whole support system of friends helping each other put out records,” Kori vented.
Like emo on ecstasy, MoS draw fans with a devoted elation of precisely placed overdubs, cathedral-thick, yet playful organ fills, follow-the-leader drumming and mysteriously full-choir driven harmonies. Live shows see dancing shoes and sing-alongs as Jason and Kori play into each other’s eyes. You can’t help but be connected to their connection.
Bring it Back, their new record, is the perfect embodiment of all that they’ve become. Originally titled “Like U Crazy” – scrapped due to a disinterest in title tracks – the Mates explain their motive, “We’re taking something negative that we’re feeling and making it positive.” It’s not a political statement, but it subtly alludes to the “fear that our president is basically going to destroy the world.” Summed up in one, easily digestible phrase – “Bring back truth; bring back honesty and what makes you feel good.”
The album marks a couple career altering moves. For one, they made the decision to detach themselves from Polyvinyl, leaving them with rights to all vinyl sales as a kind of parting-gift, and side with Barsuk (Death Cab For Cutie, Rilo Kiley); which has done wonders for exposure. And, two, their daughter Magnolia was conceived during recording sessions, which has been both an emotional and physical incentive to write songs apart from one another. Up to this point, the two literally finished each other’s sentences when they attacked lyrics, applying an equal share policy – “We’ve always had each other as a crutch … the gist of this band always has to be the both of us.” It was a completely foreign experience, but luckily it’s worked to their advantage; “Nature And The Wreck” is a fragile, yet deeply endearing piano & viola ode to their child that Kori cut next to the crib with a pair of headphones so not to wake her. And Jason’s “What it Means” works ProTools/overdub magic with lush echoing vocals and an epic cymbal-crashing chorus, tapping into his fiction interests with a sarcastic, government undertone, “I know what it means/it’s a king on his feet with a cavalier face, such a funny place/he’s exhausted and shrewd, not a man on the move.”
As for the rest of the album, technically, it’s an innovative step for the Mates. It blends purposefully simplified chord changes and tamed vocals, only to lay down Sonic Youth-like experimentation – singing into paper towel rolls & walkie-talkies, fiddling with twenty different keyboards, muffling drum equipment – that makes prior albums feel like demo sessions. The off-kilter harmonies aren’t so off-kilter anymore, and choruses are charged with airtight precision, that still keep those dancin’ shoes hot, but not too hot.
Though the Mates of State are limited to a two-man line-up, the most refreshing thing about the couple is not their unabashed love for one another – even though that’s just so damn cute, isn’t it? – but rather how they kick out more textures than JoAnn Fabrics with just two instruments; well, that and the sunshiny optimism doesn’t hurt either.
Check out Mates of State Monday, April 3 at The Canopy Club at 9 p.m. Tickets are $12 in advance, $14 at the door.