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Mates of State at the Bowery Ballroom, NYC

Mates of State: Music Lovers

story by tim mcmahan



Lazy-i: April 3, 2002

April 5
Mates of State with Neva Dinova and Race for Titles
Friday, April 5
9 p.m.
Sokol Underground

Few 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 a Frosty.

"That's Jason's 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."




Anyone 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 musical pastures.

"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."



Mates of State CD art

"The fact that we met is a coincidence, because we would be doing music even if we had never met."


Mates of State at North Six, Brooklyn NY, 3/20/02, photo by Jasper.

"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."


For 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."

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Published in The Omaha Weekly April 3, 2002. Copyright 2002 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.