The Mates of State story is one of collaboration—in life as well as together as members of a band since 1997. The husband-wife duo of Jason Hammel and Kori Gardner released a new CD of covers called Crushes (The Covers Mixtape) on June 15th. Before setting off on a tour of over 25 dates with a traveling show of magic, sword swallowers, contortionists and the like, Hammel took the time to talk to PopMatters. With the sounds of a toddler and kids playing in the yard in the background, the conversation started by discussing how the Connecticut suburbs can be a great place to raise a family whether you’re in a band or just a fan.
You met in Kansas, moved together to San Francisco and then settled in the Connecticut suburbs. Why here?
Kori actually grew up in Connecticut so her family is here. When we were living in San Francisco, we were like, “Man, we love it here, but are we staying here forever or are we going to try to move around a bit more? Well, let’s go to the East Coast and try to get as close to New York City as we can and be close to Kori’s family”, since we thought we were going to have a kid or two and that would be helpful.
Before you formed Mates of State, you were both guitarists in another band yet enjoyed jamming on other instruments. What made you decide to take it to the next level?
We were both in a bunch of bands in college but not playing our primary instruments; mine was the drums and hers was the piano. We were in this other band, a rock band, but we got bored of it. We didn’t feel like it was really progressing, doing anything that dangerous or that exciting. Kori had this gorgeous organ (that we still have) so we decided take it down to the rehearsal space and started messing around. Before we knew it we had a few bars, then a few songs. We thought, it kind of sounds like a band but it’s so weird, really untraditional. So we lug this organ down to an open mic one night and as soon as we start playing live, the songs actually sounded real on the stage. Basically from that point forward we put the guitars down and kept playing only in that new configuration.
Did you instantly realize that your vocals mesh so effortlessly?
That kind of took awhile. The band I was in before was punk or a screaming kind of band so it took a while for us to work out our vocals. At first I couldn’t really play the drums and sing that well which I think was kind of the same for Kori, so we just worked on it a lot the first couple of years. I still feel like we’re working on it, always trying to get better, especially with the harmonies.
When did the idea of doing a whole CD of covers come about and why did you decide to produce it yourselves and put it out on your own label—seems like a very personal project.
We’d be hanging out and think how we love this band and we should cover this song—we’ve been doing that for years and were compiling a list. We almost did it in between the last two albums, before we put out Re-Arranger. But every time you hear the word ‘covers’ you think it’s a cop-out or how you didn’t have the inspiration to write your own songs. But this time we were really inspired to expound upon songs that we really love and add our energy to it. So finally we just started recording some of them in our home studio: some really worked and others didn’t. Before we knew it we started having a real album, not just a cop-out covers album but a Mates album that happens to be a covers album. I like to reference Cat Power’s cover album or Johnny Cash’s cover album where it’s definitely the artist that’s making the album happen and it’s not just the original album anymore. You can definitely tell the difference.
The typical Mates of States song is upbeat, quirky fun in a sparse setting, and this covers album seems to have so many more levels of emotions to explore—did you realize that going into the project?
It was fair game to do that. We have this jovial, upbeat, uplifting way of writing songs—it’s sort of inherent in the way that we do it—and with other’s people’s songs we thought it’s just a cover so we sort of let down our guard. We still wanted to keep our energy but we did let down our normal process of writing and do whatever emotion that comes when you think of that song, or what the original artist was doing with that song.
The video for Nick Cave’s “Love Letter” (directed by Daniel Garcia of My Active Driveway) is especially lovely. Where was it filmed and who came up with the concept?
Let me tell you, I love that video. I had nothing to do with the making of that video so it’s not like I’m really tooting my own horn, you know? It’s the same guys that made the video for “Get Better” and they said they wanted to make another video and we said, “Oh in a heartbeat, you guys are the best”. So we sent them the covers album and told them if you hear something you like we can make a video, if you don’t we can wait for the next Mates originals comes out. We had given them the Daniel Johnston song or the Girls song since we wanted to start the record off with one of the uptempo songs. But they said they like those songs but they wanted to do a video for the Nick Cave song because it’s so beautiful and moody plus he [Daniel Garcia of My Active Driveway] had this idea. He sent us this treatment and we said yes immediately, whatever you want to do, let’s make this happen, set a date and we’re there. One of the producers of the video has a house in upstate New York down a long graveled road in the forest so that’s where we shot it from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. one night. It was 35 to 40 degrees, super-cold but it was enchanting because everyone was into it. It was fun and it came out really beautiful.
With photography in this era, it’s so hard to get people to watch videos because there’s so many fucking videos out there. If anybody has my attention, all I want to do is get people to watch this video because I think it’s like a movie, so cinematic. It’s not even a Mates song or our idea but I just think it’s so beautiful the way it turned out. People need to see it; if they did, I think they would like it.
Also there’s a mother/daughter duet on the song “Pink Sugar Elephants” by Vashti Bunyan. How did that come about?
I don’t know, [daughter] Magnolia is just always around or in the studio. She hangs out with us a lot. Sometimes we’ll be recording stuff and she’ll be singing along and say, “I want to sing on this part”. One time we were at this theater getting ready to play and that happened so we set up a mike and said OK, here you go. So she made it on the album.
Take me through the creation of a new Mates of State song: is it lyrics first or melody? Who’s in charge of what—the arrangements for example?
It’s totally a 50/50 collaboration for all of those things. Both of us will arrange stuff, both of us will have melodies, both of us will have lyrics and both of us will write parts. Especially since we’ve been recording a lot more at home, we’ll just pass stuff back and forth. Someone will lay something down on the computer, pass it to the other person and vice versa. It’s really a joint effort across the board. We will write stuff individually sometimes but I think it’s just way better when we write together. I think we agree on that. We’re both musicians and we’ll do stuff on our own but somehow the chemistry makes it better when both of us are working on something.
In your concert videos online that you and Kori are both on the same side of the stage almost like sleeping on the same side of the bed. How did you come to choose your side originally?
It was random now that I think about it. I was going to say it was conducive for us to see each other, but my mic is actually on the wrong side to be able to look at her. I think we just felt comfortable and did it that way one time so we just thought OK, that’s the way we set up.
I hear there’s another collection of original songs in the works. What’s the update on that?
We have about ten or eleven songs written and we have about half of them recorded. Once we get back from this tour, we’ll get serious about finishing that next Mates album. Hopefully, we will finish it up next fall.
As you head out on the road, where is your favorite place to play?
I love San Francisco, but I love all the major cities like Chicago and others. Really it’s wherever people come out for the shows and get loose. I like Austin, Texas, and I like Sweden. New York is always great and so is Los Angeles.
I read on Kori’s blog “Band on the (Diaper) Run” on Babble.com that it’s been “10 years/2 kids/2 moves/a million tours and a pretty good life so far.” Do you want to keep on doing what you’re doing as a band, or are there any other side projects in the back of the brain?
We don’t ever want to get stagnant. We’re always trying to come up with new creative endeavors. For example with the touring, we’re doing this Mates tour spectacular kind of thing. We didn’t want it to be just a traditional tour with an opening band you don’t really care about, then 30 minutes changeover, and then a second band you don’t really care about, then another 30 minutes. We’d rather have a 7 p.m. to midnight show with something exciting always happening on the stage. I think that’s indicative of how we want our creative music career to go, we always want to be doing something new. We’re working on a book about the first ten years of the band, how we did it and what we’ve done, all the crazy shit. And we’re talking to people about making a TV show—there’s always cool stuff to do if you want to do all the work.
Mates of State
SUMMER CRUSHES TOUR
6/15 Northampton, MA - The Iron Horse
6/16 Rochester, NY - Water Street
6/17 Philadelphia, PA - First Unitarian Church
6/18 Pittsburgh, PA - Mr. Small’s
6/19 Cleveland, OH - Grog Shop
6/21 Cincinnati, OH - 20th Century
6/22 Chicago, IL - Lincoln Hall
6/23 Minneapolis, MN - 400 Bar
6/24 Minneapolis, MN - 400 Bar
6/25 Omaha, NE - Slowdown
6/26 Denver, CO - Bluebird
6/28 Salt Lake City, UT - In the Venue
6/30 San Francisco, CA - Great American Music Hall
7/1 San Francisco, CA - Great American Music Hall
7/2 Los Angeles, CA - The Echo
7/3 Los Angeles, CA - The Echo
7/4 Tucson, AZ - Club Congress
7/6 Lubbock, TX - Jake’s
7/7 Dallas, TX - Granada Theatre
7/8 Houston, TX - Warehouse Live
7/9 Baton Rouge - Spanish Moon
7/10 Birmingham - Workplay
7/12 Athens, GA - 40 Watt
7/13 Asheville, NC - Orange Peel
7/14 Baltimore, MD - Ottobar
7/15 Brooklyn, NY - Music Hall
7/16 New York, NY - Bowery Ballroom