An indie pop duo that has managed to eke out an existence for close to 20 years now, Mates of State plays poppy, synth-driven music that features male and female vocals that bounce back and forth. It’s a unique blend of sounds and since the whole synth-pop thing has been popular at various times in the past couple of decades, it only makes sense that major labels would have offered the band a contract at some point during its career.
“We had some of that, but all that’s bullshit,” says singer-drummer Jason Hammel during a phone interview from his Trumbull, Conn. home. “The only thing the labels want to know is ‘can you make me a lot of money? I have nothing against business people, but if they’re just saying, ‘hey you can make me a lot of money,’ usually you want to go a little bit deeper than that. There’s a lot of ways to make money. Money can always be had, but you shouldn’t do it by exploitation. I think that’s a bad idea.”
Hammel and wife Kori Gardner, a multi-instrumentalist who sings and plays organ, synthesizer, piano, electric piano, and occasional guitar, first met back in the ’90s at the University of Kansas. You couldn’t script a better first encounter.
“We had known of each other because we were in different bands at the time,” says Hammel. “There was a pretty close musical community in Lawrence. Friends’ bands would open for each other all the time, but we didn’t really know each other. One night she was playing a solo show and after her show, I walked up to her and basically told her I was in love with her. I told her I was in love with her voice and she was like ‘oh really, that’s cool. You should email me.’”
They were both in relationships with other people. But once those relationships ended, they began dating and eventually married. They're still married to this day. Though they initially played together in a hard rock outfit, they started working on their own music together and found themselves embracing pop music with pristine vocal harmonies.
“We would find ourselves, just the two of us, at the rehearsal space without the rest of the band a lot of times,” says Hammel. “I had played drums prior to that, so one night I just decided to be behind the drums and she had this crazy old Yamaha vintage organ, and she just decided to play that because she had played piano previous to guitar. So, we just kind of started fooling around on these other instruments and we kind of wrote what we thought was a silly song and not even knowing if it was a really a song because it wasn’t a guitar thing. It was just like us singing. Before we knew it, we had like five or six songs. We decided to play an open mic just to see how it went and it went really well, so after that, we just decided to make that our focus.”
Hammel says their vocal interplay, a trademark for the group, was part of the plan from the start.
“The way it happened was that we were both the primary singers in our previous bands and the primary songwriters,” he says. “So, we both just loved to sing and when we started the band together, we just found ourselves both coming up with melodies and Kori loved to sing harmonies. So, she kind of taught me how to do it. I had never really sang harmonies before Mates of State. Then, we would start singing together and separately and in unison, but also in separate melodies and a lot of harmonies of course too. It just sort of developed over time.”
The band's new EP, You’re Going to Make It
, commences with “Beautiful Kids,” a moody track about the way we communicate in a postmodern world. “You should stare into my eyes more,” the duo sings to a swirl of static-y synthesizer riffs and pounding drums. The other three songs aren’t as dark but the music shows the range of acts who have had an influence on the group (on a covers album the band released a few years back, it played songs by Fleetwood Mac, Death Cab for Cutie and Nick Cave).
“We wrote a full soundtrack for a movie and then we would write Mates of State songs in between time too, so we had probably written 20 to 30 songs or started some and didn’t finish others,” says Hammel when asked about the writing process for the EP. “When we finished the movie, we started to comb through some of the stuff we had made and picked out our favorite songs and kind of tried to figure out a new interesting process of making music too. In the past, we’ve always just kind of sat behind our instruments and jammed out parts but we didn’t really feel inspired to work in that manner. We started to find out new ways to do it and a lot of it was starting with beats and that sort of thing and using MIDI and some keyboards and stuff and just kind of constructing songs using those elements rather than live instruments.”
Hammel says he likes the EP format and the band plans to put out more EPs than LPs.
“Nobody’s buying LPs,” he says. “All they want is the two or three best songs on a record anyway, looking through the whole thing once just to get those nuggets and then pull those out and that’s it. So, we’re like we already have what we feel are five hit songs and put those on an EP and let’s give people that. The thinking is we’ll do an EP every year or year and a half with five songs rather than a full length every three years. It’s really exciting for us right now because there’s no in between stuff. It’s like all good stuff right on the record. So, we’re really excited about the songs. I love every song on that EP.”
The band’s been together for almost 20 years now, no easy feat in a world where making music gets less and less lucrative each year. Hammel says the band’s pure love of touring and recording is what keeps it going.
“We just like making music together, and I think we’re real,” he says. “You can’t get wrapped up in that industry bullshit. It changes all the time and there’s different reasons for people being in it and a lot of it has to do with cash, fame, or a combination of the two, or their egos. So, we try to keep all that shit in check and just remember that what’s important is the relationship with the people that like your music and then obviously being true and honest and we just want to write good songs. That’s all we want to do. We can find a way to do that within the confines of a shitty music industry. You can do it. It is possible.”
Mates of State, Good Graeff, 9 p.m. Tuesday, June 23, Grog Shop, 2785 Euclid Heights Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-5588. Tickets: $12 ADV, $14 DOS, grogshop.gs.