story by tim mcmahan
Lazy-i: April 3, 2002
of State with Neva Dinova
and Race for Titles
Friday, April 5
modern-day indie bands have garnered as much national press as Mates
of State, appearing in dozens of music magazines from Magnet
to SPIN to Nylon, as well as a myriad of regional
newspapers and online 'zines. But in just about every article, the
focus has been on the duo's marriage, not their music.
You think it would become
annoying, but apparently it hasn't. But before we get to the meat
of the interview, more pressing needs must to be met.
"You'll have to
hold on a minute, we're ordering lunch," says Kori Gardner,
one mate of the Mates of State along with hubbie, Jason Hammel,
who happens to be driving the van. Today's cuisine comes courtesy
of a Wendy's drive-thru, and though Gardner's order can't be made
out over the cell phone squawks, she assures me she didn't order
territory," she says. The couple is spending a few days with
Hammel's family in Minneapolis before they return to the tour that
brings them to Sokol Underground April 5.
"I suppose it's
the obvious angle for writers," Gardner says of their marriage.
"I think it's been said so many times that people wouldn't
just focus on that anymore. But we're fine with it. At the same
time, the fact that we met is a coincidence, because we would be
doing music even if we had never met. It was coincidental and lucky
that we did meet."
who knows anything about the '90s Lawrence, Kansas, music scene
knows that their meeting was anything but coincidental. Both Gardner
and Hammel were in a number of bands while they attended the University
of Kansas -- Gardner pursuing a career in teaching while Hammel's
focus was cancer research. With their separate bands crisscrossing
the insular scene, it was only a matter of time before the two met,
formed Mates of State, and then blew out of Lawrence for greener
"Lawrence was great
because there were so many good musicians there. I guess growing
up in the Midwest, there's not a lot else to do but play music,"
said Gardner, who's originally from Connecticut. "But it was
also limiting to us because there were so many bands around, doing
the same thing. Things were repeating themselves so much, and people
were coming out to shows less and less. We left in '98 but were
ready to go in '97."
Gardner said she and
Hammel weren't sure that Lawrence was quite ready for a keyboard-and-drum-based
indie rock duo, anyway. But one listen to Mates of State's debut
full-length, 2000's My Solo Project, and the just-released
Our Constant Concern on Polyvinyl Records, and you realize
the project is more than just a hip version of Saturday Night Live's
Marty Culp and wife Bobbi.
Gardner's keyboards run
the spectrum from quiet, lilting chimes to circus-like shrills.
Hammel's drums are syncopated rock bombasts. But the real fireworks
come from the couple's tightly interwoven harmonies and melody/countermelody
interplay that have the charm of best friends arguing over an order
of Biggie Fries only to agree that, yes, they really do love each
other. Cute, but with a decisive edge.
Part of the charm comes
from not quite knowing where the music is headed. Though the melodies
can be slightly reminiscent of stuff by Suddenly, Tammy! or Tsunami,
the intricate compositions, which abruptly jump from one melody
and time sequence to another without warning, have a definite prog/art
rock feel to them, as if the couple's songs naturally progress out
of assorted keyboard riffs.
"That's a pretty
accurate description, actually," Gardner says. "We usually
work off an organ part, and the words come last. To quote Jason,
it's a piecemeal approach. We'll stay in one part, but then add
other strange parts together. We keep adding and adding until we
think it's done. We never write with structure in mind."
It's that spontaneity,
Gardner says, that ultimately drives their music. "We both
love to sing and harmonize, that's always a part of it," she
said. "But we don't want to get bored with what we're playing.
When we listen to songs, it's the bands that have surprises in their
music that we love. I like the idea of strange, unexpected change."
fact that we met is a coincidence, because we would be doing
music even if we had never met."
we listen to songs, it's the bands that have surprises in
their music that we love. I like the idea of strange, unexpected
their latest CD, the duo hooked up with Chicago-based Dave Trumfio
of the electronic pop duo The Pulsars, who has become one of the
hottest producers in the country, having worked with such acts as
Handsome Family, Billy Bragg & Wilco (both Mermaid Avenue
CDs) and Tsunami, as well as smaller indie bands like Evil Beaver,
Entertainment and Butterglory.
"We found out about
him from friends in Lawrence," Gardner said. "I knew he
liked keyboards and was interested in trying to get different sounds
out of them. The fact that he had just opened a new studio in Los
Angeles made it easy for us. Dave does these huge projects for major-label
bands, then turns around and works with complete unknowns."
With the CD released
in January, Gardner says these days the couple is spending their
lives almost entirely on tour. "We'll be home for a few weeks,
then go back on the road," she said. "We spend the majority
of time playing live. Occasionally I miss the routine of having
a quote-unquote 'normal job.' And I miss working with kids, but
not enough to stop doing this and going back to work."
Speaking of kids, what
about the couple's own future family? Gardner says that having children
some day doesn't have to mean the end of Mates of State. "We're
going to try to avoid that," she said. "We want to have
kids some day, and still be able to do this. There have been other
bands that have done it successfully, and others that given into
it. There will be sacrifices, we know that, but we think we can
still pull it off."
Published in The Omaha Weekly April 3, 2002. Copyright © 2002 Tim
McMahan. All rights reserved.