Mates of State plays July 4 in the Catalyst Atrium.
Mates of State first made a name for itself for being unpolished and incomplete. The duo had only an organist (Kori Gardner) and a drummer (Jason Hammel). They both sang, usually at the same time. Their songs were loosely stitched together, often with one section awkwardly attached to the next. Yet their bubbly songwriting sensibilities and penchant for catchy pop-hooks made them a hit with indie college kids.
Since the band’s critically acclaimed third album, Team Boo (2003), Mates of State has been slowly moving away from that signature sound and maturing as a songwriting outfit. Now living in Lawrence, Kansas and happily married with two kids, Hammel and Gardner made their biggest stylistic departure to date with last year’s Mountaintops.
“We always try to do something different. We think about anything we’ve done in the past and decide, ’Let’s do the exact opposite.’ I hope when people hear a new record, they’re not like, ‘Oh this sounds like Team Boo,’” says Hammel.
Mountaintops isn’t the first album by Mates of State that incorporates a full band, but it is the most subdued in terms of tone. In fact, what is most unique about Mountaintops is the subtlety, something Mates of States never really traded in before. The transitions between sections are seamless. Instead of leaning heavily on complex organ parts, the songs feature lots of Gardner’s synthesizer work. And while there are moments of overtly bubbly pop, they are fewer and farther between.
“We’re trying to simplify it. Now we actually scrutinize how that part goes together with this other part, or we’ll cut out all the fat of the vocal line or just play the chords instead of a bunch of other stuff in between the main chords,” Hammel says.
The two didn’t always put this kind of thought into structuring their music.
“Before, we just started playing sounds and mashed it out, saying, ‘That sounds awesome. Let’s do this.’ Now we’re like, ‘Maybe we can effectively communicate through our music a little better if we talked about how we could tweak that transition from one part to the next without ruining the whole beauty of making art,’” Hammel says.
One reason the songwriting of the early days lacked formal organization is that Mates of State wasn’t a serious project, at least not at first. Hammel and Gardner were in a “normal” band already, both playing guitar and backed by a bassist and drummer. They got together to play this silly keyboard-drum band for fun. Their attitudes changed after their first show, which was at an open mic.
“At first we didn’t think it was a full band because it was only two people. But the first time we actually performed in front of other people, it was like, ‘No, this actually sounds like songs,’” Hammel recalls.
Something else Mates of States are known for is its abstract lyrics. In fact, the reason Mates of State are often misclassified as a happy band is because most people have no idea what they’re singing about. Since their music is upbeat, people assume the lyrics must be upbeat too.
“We have been, some may say, obscure in the past. The lyrics seem random, but to us they’re something specific and personal. Music is communication, and we want to become better communicators. I still think we can improve upon that,” Hammel says.
Currently, Mates of State are working on a new album. How—or even if—it will be differ from Mountaintops is something Gardner and Hammel aren’t talking about just yet. They’ve only revealed that their intention is to reach more people.
“We’ve been fortunate that we have people who understand our music and who continue to understand it. We want to grow beyond that. That’s our next challenge: reach more people, write a hit song. It could happen,” Hammel says.
MATES OF STATE
Wednesday, July 4 at 8:30pm
$15 adv/$18 door