A Family Affair

Indie darlings Mates of State hit the road

By Christopher Werner April 10, 2009

Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel’s harmonies as Mates of State are irresistibly sunny—perfect music to scream happily at the top of your lungs on a road trip. The East Coast pop rock couple usually make their own cross-country travels with tots Magnolia and June in tow. The two girls are regular fixtures on the tour circuit; “Mags” the oldest, is sometimes even seen bopping backstage. (Okay, let’s hear it: awwwww.)

Yet the 2008 album Re-Arrange Us on Seattle label Barsuk Records proves that having kids hasn’t cramped the Mates’s cool. It also signals a new artistic direction. Past albums have been defined simply by Gardner jamming on the organ while Hammel plays the drums; Re-Arrange Us incorporates pronounced piano, guitar, and string instrumentation.

Hammel spoke with me about music, marriage, and family life just as he and Gardner kicked off their monthlong American tour.

How’s it feel to be back on tour? We’ve been off for five months or so, and it’s been nice being at home working on music. But it’s always a nice balance to get back on the road. I’m pretty excited about it. I feel like our show this time around is maybe the best show we’ve ever done.

Did you bring your children? Sure did.

Do they come with you every time? Yeah, for the most part. Magnolia is sometimes in school, so she’ll stay at her grandmother’s. But we have a rule that she’s not without us for more than a week at a time. Actually, she’s finishing this week of school and then she’ll come with us next week for the rest of the tour.

So how do you snap out of parent mode and into concert mode? That’s gotta be tough. It’s just like when you go to work. You have these different roles you play that you step in and out of. It’s sort of like having two lives—which is fun. It makes life interesting.

Do you ever get tired of all the play the husband-and-wife thing gets? Does it overshadow your music at all? I think it can. Some people that are maybe more uptight will be like, “Well, I’m a rock-and-roller, and that has nothing to do with domesticity, so I’m not even going to give this band a chance.” That’s the one thing that irks me, because I really do believe that if you’re a fan of music you could like Mates of State.

Sometimes it’s boring to talk about just because we’ve talked it into the ground, but at the same time it is a fact, and I realize that is unique to our situation. I would probably be the same way if there was a band that was married and I was into them. I’d want to know about it.

I’m sure you’re sick of hearing this question, but where’s the organ on Re-Arrange Us? That was such a staple on your previous albums. We wanted to upset the whole writing and recording process, and we thought in order to do that you have to take away something that’s seemingly crucial to the mix. For some reason for this last record we were not inspired to write on that thing. We sort of ditched it, and said, “Yeah, let’s make a record without it and see what happens.” We still tour with it; we still play a lot of it on the road.

Do you and Kori see yourselves going back to the organ in the future? We could, we definitely could. We’ve already been playing around with it writing some stuff. I don’t think it’s gone forever.

Was the point of this record to showcase your other qualities? When we’re conceptually starting to write, we think, “Wel, what are the underlying themes here?” and that ultimately leads to “Well, what are the ultimate themes of why we make music in this band?” There’s harmony and we have lots of melodies and we really sing out. I think that’s the crutch of the band; I think that’s the one thing we couldn’t do with out. I don’t think Mates of State could make an instrumental record—even on the organ—and still get away with it. We can take away everything else except the singing and still be Mates of State. [Chuckles] Maybe I should put that to the test and do an a cappella record as well.

Re-Arrange Us garnered a ton of attention last year. Have you seen your fan base grow since then? For us, I always feel like we do baby steps. That’s our goal. As long as we continue to progress and not downslide, then we’re happy. You can measure [success] in record sales, you can measure it in how many sold-out nights you have in a tour—and those are great, but ultimately that is all just an ego feed and overshadows your real purpose: to make better songs each time.

You moved from San Francisco—where there’s such creative flow—to the East Coast a couple years back, and now you live in Stratford, Connecticut. Where do you look for creative inspiration? You know, that’s a good question. We used to draw our inspiration from people and artists around us, and California is perfect for that—there’s so much energy. Now we’re more reflective in trying to find creative energy within ourselves, which has been fun to explore: to dig inside yourself and find out where you’re coming from and then create something from that.

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