Seeing Mates of State, whether its performing or sitting down for a chat, one cannot help but think that Kori Gardner (keyboards, vocals) and Jason Hammel (drums, vocals) are just about the most perfect advertisement for a happy, healthy marriage.
Western society has established that marriage be the natural conclusion of a mutual love and sexual attraction. And when it comes down to it, most rock ‘n’ roll is about love and sex. But since so much music focuses on either provoking lust or on the wounded artist with a broken heart, it’s a rarity to hear anyone sing openly and honestly about actually being in love and the efforts required to make a relationship work. This makes Mates of State a welcome breath of fresh air.
Musically, they’re like no one else around. Forget guitars and bass - it’s been done before. Mates of State make totally valid and essential pop using just a drum kit, an organ and intertwining male/female vocals, which alternately harmonize and battle it out, punch for punch.
Hammel thrashes away on his drum kit, beating the skins into submission, and his vocal parts sound more jagged. Gardner provides melody and sweet relief. Together their vocals intertwine like the two strands of a double helix, never the same but always heading in the same direction. The vocals, like the instrumentation, are distinct and individual, but working toward the same goals. Their songs often present a dialogue, two distinct voices discussing a topic or riffing on a thought. The separate voices and opinions come together on harmonies, always eventually presenting a united front. This technique is used to devastating effect in tonight’s opening song, “Everyone Needs an Editor”. The tune builds from a one-sided vocal part, entering a riotous middle section. After some verse/chorus back and forth, the music shifts as the drums and organ and voices begin to coalesce, finding a common ground. And all this in space of a three minute pop song!
PopMatters: So how did the drums/organ set-up come about?
Kori Gardner: It just came about by chance. We were playing in a guitar band at the time. We had rented practice space and that band wasn’t practicing. We left our drum set and my organ that I bought two years prior to that up there. We just sat behind the instruments and played and it grew into something that we liked.
Jason Hammel: We didn’t even think about writing songs. We just started fiddling about. Maybe that’s a song? And then one song turned into seven songs.
KG: We’ve been in tons of bands before, and [in those bands] it’s always been a conscious effort. Let’s write this song, let’s have it be this long, it’ll have this many parts in it.
JH: We’ll have this many songs, we’ll have a set.
KG: Yeah, and with this band [Mates of State] it was never like that. I think that’s why we both feel a little more laid-back about the songwriting process with this band. I think it’s just because of the way we look at music, and I don’t mean to sound pretentious at all, I think we just go about it and whatever sounds good to us is what we play.
JH: We see the value in all of the music we like, but we certainly don’t want to set up to rip somebody off.
KG: You can’t help not to be influenced by bands. Everybody is. But the difference with us is that we don’t set out to sound like anything. We just go to practice and if we like a part, I don’t know what it sounds like, it just sounds good to us. I hope we can always stick by that. I like it that way.
PM: So what does influence you?
KG: It’s not just music that influences us, it’s film, it’s books, it’s friends, it’s things that happen in our lives. It’s stories that people tell us. Music is the peak of it all because those are people being influenced by stories and books and all that too. I can’t imagine a band that’s only influenced by music. Maybe they just say that, but there are many other experiences in my life hopefully . . .
JH: That you think about, or can express through music.
PM: Musicians often seem reluctant to discuss non-musical influences, scared even.
KG: We went to this independent documentary festival in San Francisco was going on a couple of weeks ago and I’m still talking about that, it was so much fun. We saw this one called Spellbound about following these kids around in the national spelling bee. The fact that I’ve been talking about it constantly—it was just a great idea. Anything that is really human, and you see true emotion in this documentary.
JH: Being in California too, there is such a wide variety of people. It seems like every day we meet somebody and we can’t believe their story. A couple of weeks ago we went out to see a concert and I started talking to this guy about a book and the next thing I know I’m talking to the leader of the Satanic church in Berkeley. The book was about 19th century Satanism and I was talking about the book, wondering if it was still going on in the Bay Area, or whatever. And the next thing I know he’s like “One of the guys you need to talk to is here.”
KG: Next thing we know there’s like 15 people in the place who are satanic worshippers!
The band seems to have shaken off this element of the local crowd. At the Great American Music Hall there are no pentagrams or sacrificial lambs, just a packed audience eager for fun. Mates of State give a glimpse of this newly discovered local color in one of the new songs they play, which has a refrain that sounds like its built around an old haunted house at an amusement fair. The song is not trying to be scary and it does not come across as cheesy. That Mates of State can test such new material out a live audience and make it work shows how several months of touring behind their latest album Our Constant Concern has only perfected the band. They are confident and capable, the songs given life by the band’s performance. If the songs sound great on record, they shine when played live, positively brimming with life. The simple drums and organ arrangement is devastatingly effective, sounding rich and full.
Over the next hour, Mates of State play a triumphant set. It’s their biggest headline show yet in their adopted home town of San Francisco (the duo met while at studying in Lawrence, Kansas, and moved out west soon after graduating) and they band are cheered and applauded like they’ve been given the keys to the city. The atmosphere is one of such jubilation it feels as if we’re watching the band through a ticker-tape parade, confetti raining from the skies and ribbons streaming down the lampposts.
With such a deceptively simple framework, it is tempting to draw comparisons to other rock ‘n’ roll duos. It might seem particularly lazy to make comparisons to that other couple on the alternative scene, but the White Stripes serve as a good counterpoint to Mates of State. While the White Stripes present a risqué sexual chemistry, an illicit thrill, Mates of State are the exact opposite, being open and honest. Watching Mates of State perform doesn’t feel like voyeurism but like a celebration. They create a tremendous energy just by virtue of playing so intimately both with and for each other. The bond between Jason and Kori is readily apparent and is wonderfully joyful instead of painfully cathartic.
The two positively glow in each other’s company; in conversation, just like in their music, they perfectly complement each other. Watching that curious intensely personal dynamic at play one sees how together they form something greater than the sum of their parts. Musically, their simple twin person set-up with the unorthodox arrangement of drums and keyboards creates a sound far greater in its scope and far more complete than the majority of guitar/bass/drums set-ups. Off-stage, they finish each other’s thoughts and sentences, chiming in together with their individual opinions and mapping them out until they’re on the same page. It becomes evident that their solid relationship provides such an important grounding on the inspiration and methods behind their music, that the two are inextricably linked.
PM: Much is made of the fact that you’re married and the only members of your band, so I’d like to talk about that if you don’t mind. On one hand it is certainly private but you’re also putting it on the stage, making it very public.
KG: We’re at this point where we draw the line on certain things. People were saying to us “put your wedding pictures on your website, your fans would love it!” And we were like, “no we want to keep something back for us.”
JH: This one guy too wanted to do this interview, “Mates of State wedding tips.”
KG: And I can understand the humor in it but . . .
JH: They wanted to get details of our wedding and then what kind of advice we had for others.
KG: At the same time, I don’t expect people not to ask about that. I know it’s not everyday you see a married couple playing together and staying together, that’s unusual. I don’t mind people asking us about that.
JH: We have to draw a line about what we want to reveal.
KG: I don’t want it to sound like I’m not excited about being a couple, but the other side is that we are individuals too, and no one has ever approached us like that. If you were a band with four people and two songwriters, people approach them as two separate people and not as a single unit. And that never happens.
JH: Would you want them to?
KG: Well we’re different people. We have different perspectives on things, but we share our ideas. So, of course, people are going to have to approach us like that.
PM: With your non-traditional setup, one of you isn’t the front person.
KG: Yeah, and I wouldn’t want that at all.
PM: Because of that there isn’t one identity to hone in on.
KG: We’re going to become this one big blob.
JH: This gray ball.
KG: A sexless ball.
JH: No fine edges.
PM: Was there any hesitancy to be public about your relationship?
KG: No, people just asked us. They wanted to know if we were brother and sister or what. I’m not going to lie, not like some people. I want to be honest with people! We don’t have this amazing story. We’re just two people who got married.
JH: We’re bad liars too. Sometimes I’m like, “okay, we’re going to start saying this,” and then when it comes down to it, we just tell the truth.
PM: Although marriage isn’t becoming a thing of the past, it is fascinating because it’s no longer a necessity. It’s not considered cool or particularly rock ‘n’ roll to be married. More and more people are just living together.
KG: We’ve been the same couple for five years. We decided it would be really great to have a ceremony and a celebration and have a fun time. We never looked at it like we needed god’s blessing or anything. On the girls’ side I hear so many arguments about how it’s so against being an independent woman or so against feminist ideals. You do what works for you. Some people never get married and that’s fine. I would never judge anybody because they were not married.
JH: I didn’t force you to marry me.
KG: Not at all. Maybe I forced you a little bit. I’m just kidding!
JH: We would have stayed together regardless so we just had a celebration for it. And our relationship has not changed in the slightest since we got married.
PM: I’m wary of focusing too much on your relationship, but your lyrics do seem a product of that. They have the effect of sounding intensely personal. But when I try to listen more closely and get an entire verse, the lyrics seem much more oblique. How does your songwriting method come out of your relationship?
KG: We definitely take what we first come up with in the construction of words and then talk to each other about what its about.
JH: Then we determine a subject matter of the song. And then we give our individual takes as well as our . . .
KG: I think that’s why it so hard for people, kind of obscure sometimes for people to understand it. I think it’s because of two different perspectives on the same subject. It may not seem like the two things go together, but if you looking at it as a conversation, I think it would make a lot more sense.
PM: You keep it that way, each vocalizing separate sides of the dialogue.
KG: And then we come together.
JH: If we want to do harmony we stick on part where “okay, we’re together on this.”
KG: We always know exactly what the song is about. For the most part when I’m singing alone and he’s singing alone, we’ve written those separate parts.
JH: And then we come together and more than likely we’ve written those lines together.
KG: And not all the songs are about our relationship, let’s clear that up (giggles).
JH: I guess it must just be subconsciously, that we interject hints of it. We know that nothing is overtly, “okay, this is about my love for you.” I don’t think we’ve never written a song like that. But there must be hints of it somewhere because people are always commenting. Or maybe it’s other things, like we perform looking at each other and write the songs together . . .
KG: . . . It’s two really good friends who can finish each other’s sentences having a conversation. So when there are parts that seem finished, it’s like when we’re having a conversation and he knows what I’m getting at before I finish it. That’s how the lyrics are, too, I think.
JH: And then you move on. So you don’t need a beginning, a middle, and an end. You just need a beginning, somewhat of a middle and then “oh yeah I gotcha . . . Let’s start the next subject!” (Both laugh.)
KG: Next subject!