Name: Mates of State
Progress Report: Indie-rock’s most reliable pop twosome readies the release of Mountaintops.
Jason Hammel and Kori Gardner have been making beautiful music together — both as a band and as a real-life married couple — since 1997. As far as partnerships go, theirs has been a pretty fruitful one, so far yielding three EPs, six studio albums, and two children. Fourteen years deep into their career the band can now rightly consider themselves bonafide veterans of the music industry, having forged a career solidly on the back of over a decade of nearly non-stop touring.
The band’s soon to be released seventh album, Mountaintops, is the result of nearly two year’s worth of recording in over six different studios. As hooky and catchy as anything the band has ever done, Mountaintops is also the sound of a band taking a minute to stop and look around at just how far they’ve come.
STEREOGUM: What can you tell me about how Mountaintops was made and where it was made and what the experience was like?
JASON: This one kind of took a while for some reason. We started writing about a year and a half ago. We needed some isolated writing time, so we rented this rehearsal space from some friends of ours who are in a band that was above this skatepark, but it was upstairs and it didn’t have any heat. So we brought our instruments up there and we were up there writing in our winter jackets and hats. I think initially, we wrote four or five songs up there and we were kind of happy with half of those, but then we were like, “This is miserable and cold. Let’s find a different vibe to finish this.” So then we went back to our house and then I think we took a month off because we were like, “We don’t know where these songs are going. We don’t see a common thread here.” When you make a record, at least for us, we start writing and then we see what is just naturally occurring and what the themes are and that sort of thing. So then we took a couple of months off and we were like, “Where is this going?” Eventually we found a spark with another writing thread. So we felt like recording some of these. It’s kind of indicative of the whole writing process being pretty convoluted. We’d go to Brooklyn and record some of it in our friend’s studio and then we’d go home and overdub a bunch of it in our home studio and finally we had eleven or twelve songs and we could really see what this was all about. They really started to all come together and be this big thing, and thematically pointed in the same direction. So then we took all these songs that we recorded and we took them with Chris Coady over to New York and we mixed them over the course of three weeks. Finally after throwing everything in the pot, we felt that we had a really good stew. We felt like, “Alright, we’ve got a really good record here.” It took a long time.
STEREOGUM: All told, how long was that process?
JASON: I think we started writing in January of 2010, so it was a year and a half ago. Then we didn’t really mix them until December 2010. It seems like it was even longer than that. It took forever.
STEREOGUM: Were you guys touring and playing shows intermittently during that time also?
JASON: Kind of. We knew it was taking a long time, so that’s when we did the covers album. We felt we needed something to show for all this time that was wasted. We also wanted to start producing our records mostly ourselves. So we decided to make a covers record and do it all ourselves, except the mixing. So we recorded that all ourselves in our home studio. So we released that and did a month tour. The rest of the time we were just writing for Mountaintops.
STEREOGUM: I’ve always been amazed with how much you guys tour. How do you deal with downtime? Your kids are getting older, so you must need to be home a lot more now.
JASON: Yeah. When we first started we would tour nine months out of the year for the first few years, so I think people kind of know us like that. Now, depending on the record cycle, we’ll do one month out of the year touring just because it’s fun and we like to play live and then the rest of the time we really like to focus on writing and aside from making music, there’s a million things we like to do.
STEREOGUM: Where do you live?
JASON: Connecticut. We’re just like 50 miles up I-95 from New York.
STEREOGUM: How do you guys typically work when you’re writing songs? Do you try to mix it up whenever you start a new record or do things differently in some way?
JASON: Yes, we try to mix up the process in a big way for each record, otherwise we feel like we could get stuck in a rut. That’s partly the reason we love Peter Katis and he made Re-Arrange Us and he mixed the covers album and we actually started to record Mountaintops with him, but we just started to feel like it was the same process and it would be much more similar to Re-Arrange Us than we would like it to be. So then, we were like, “We’re not doing it like this. We’re just gonna go home and work on this ourselves.” A lot of it had to do with just being really self sufficient in the recording process. I think that kind of affected the writing process a lot too. We would end up writing directly on the computer rather then the way we used to do it, which was just sitting down at our instruments. We would come up with a part and put it together with another part and then the song was done. But for this one, we would write maybe a part or two, put it down and record and then add a vocal to it or add some other kind of keyboards. We would maybe add some percussion to it or have a friend come in and play trumpet on it. It would take on a life of its own. Then we’d go back and re-edit that and change the part that way, internally rather than on the instruments.
STEREOGUM: That keeps it interesting. It’s important to do that. I love duos and I love the idea that two people can produce this really big sound and play around with how much dynamic music two people can create. For the last record you guys did some shows with a full band setup, right?
JASON: We did it on Re-Arrange Us. We brought a string section and then for the covers album we had a trumpet player and guitar player, and we’re actually doing that again on this tour, with those same two people to build up the live show. We’ll be able to pull off a lot of the overdubs that we did on the record live. Our thing live is to always sound like the record. We don’t want the live show to be any lesser than the albums.
STEREOGUM: Well that must also be kind of fun. After touring for so long with just the two of you, it must be fun to play with more people and play around with the arrangements and stuff.
JASON: It frees us up. Sometimes I just want to grab the microphone and sing a song, and when there are only two people in the band you can’t do that. You can’t even hardly move. You’re glued to the microphone and the drum kit and if you move in any direction you could be away from the floor tom, you know? By the way, Kori is here to so if you want to ask her any questions as well, it’s totally cool.
STEREOGUM: I think the last time I talked to you guys was when you played at that Visionaire party in NYC, which was a long time ago. I remember talking then about how you were trying to figure out how to still tour and do all the band stuff with also being able to bring your kids with you. How does that work for you now?
JASON: Really at the end of the day it just comes down to scheduling. It’s not any different than going to class and holding a part time job at a coffee shop, ya know? Now one of our kids is in second grade, so we have to work out our tour schedule with her school schedule. Our hard and fast rule is that we’re never away from our kids for more than a week. So there’s that, and she can’t miss school that much. So we usually tour two weeks on, three weeks off, two weeks on, and she’ll come on and off the tour depending on what’s going on with school. It’s just scheduling really and if you want to make it happen you can.
STEREOGUM: I’ve been cleaning out my record collection and I was looking at all of your old albums in my wall of CDs. It got me thinking about all these bands that emerged around the time you guys started and how many of those bands don’t exist anymore.
JASON: Most of them. About 99% of them don’t.
STEREOGUM: What do you think has been the key to your longevity or being able to do this as your career? Do you have any sense of how or why that’s happened?
JASON: We just insist. This is what we want to do. This is what we choose to do and we’re not going to give up on it ever. Not to say that the other people didn’t want that too, but I guess they just didn’t want it as bad as us, because we’re not stopping. This is what we want to do and what we’re going to do. That’s pretty much it.
STEREOGUM: That’s a good approach to take to it. It’s been many, many years of hard work with a lot of traveling too. It’s interesting you said it took a while for the thread of this record to reveal itself. Now that it’s done and it’s about to be released, do you have a better sense of what this record is really about?
JASON: Definitely. I think it’s kind of how you described it, how most of these people aren’t still here, where with us it’s more about resilience and perseverance. It’s not just as a band, but as a person, and the theme of Mountaintops, we both started doing martial arts and meditating and a lot of those themes and philosophies — about how you manage to keep on keeping on — kept coming up. You’re climbing and climbing and trying to get to this peak and you get there, and you’re at the top of this peak, and you enjoy it for a little while. Then you look out and you see 500 more peaks that you want to get to so you start back down and climbing up again. It’s just about living and redemption, and having perseverance to keep on doing what you want to do.
STEREOGUM: That’s nice. It’s very much in keeping with how you’ve worked as a band, so it’s very appropriate. The record comes out in September. What will the rest of the year be like for you guys?
JASON: Well, we’re pretty much going to be touring for a year. We want to work this record harder than we’ve worked any record before it. We feel like it’s really good and people will really respond to it; so we’re going to try our hardest and do it right.
STEREOGUM: So you’re in the middle of planning a video right now?
JASON: We shot part of it. It’s animated. That’s what is being worked on now.
STEREOGUM: Cool. So do you have a sense when that will be done and when it will be out?
JASON: It’s a lot of work, but we’re shooting for the release date of the record. It’s going to be for the first single, “Palomino.” Hey, do you want to talk to Kori for a minute? She’s right here.
JASON: I’ll put her on. Good to talk to you.
STEREOGUM: I know you guys are really busy now. I know you’re working on this video and sort of gearing up to getting back into the swing of doing a lot of press. Are you freaking out?
KORI: Yeah. I have these sort of strange little panic attacks, like, “Oh my god! Our life is about to go crazy.” This is the longest we’ve had being at home. The good thing about it is I’m very excited about it. I’m not dreading anything. I’m not dreading being on the road. When we were touring all the time with little breaks it was kind of like, “When are we going to be normal?” I’m definitely excited it’s happening soon.
STEREOGUM: You guys have seemed to figure it out pretty nicely, but is it hard to strike a balance between the two? Home with the kids and being on the road. I know so many bands that kindof wig out when they come back from tour because they’re not used to being at home or they know they’re not going to be at home for very long.
KORI: I think that’s very hard to figure out. It’s been long enough for us. You know, we could probably play more shows. We could probably tour for eight months straight and come home with double the amount of money and probably play to double the amount of people by the end of it, but we’ve found out that you can’t really put a price on that sanity you get from being at home a little longer. Especially with kids and stuff. I hate to bring that into it, but we’re trying. As crazy and inconsistent as it is, I think you have to realize what the actual number of days that makes you sane is on a break. I mean if it’s only five, then you’re doing pretty well. If you need two weeks at home, fine, take the two weeks. After doing this for this long, we know what our limits are. We know we can do three weeks on the road, and then we need a break. It’s a hard balance. I feel like we re-evaluate after everything and if everybody is happy still we’re like, “Ok. That worked,” — but if it didn’t work for someone in the family, if it was hard on them, then we can’t do it that way again.
STEREOGUM: Well he was explaining to me the ark of this record and how it was made and how it was written. In comparison to your back catalogue, do you think of this as being a difficult record to make?
KORI: I don’t think it was difficult. I think it took a lot longer, but I think we have a lot more invested in this somehow. I feel like this one we took the reigns in a lot of the situations. I feel like for the first time in a long time, that made pretty much every decision about this record was ours. It sounds like it should always be that way but in reality, you’re in the studio and you trust the producer to be like, “Fine, that idea is good.” We were very much like, “No.” We’re going to record this at home and then we’re going to bring it to someone else, and then we’re going to tell them what we want to do with it, and if it doesn’t work out we’re re-doing it. It’s difficult in the sense that I have no idea what the end result is. I’m so immersed in it. That’s the only reason it’s difficult, I think. Otherwise, its kind of fun being so involved for so long with this record.
STEREOGUM: I often find it difficult to call something done and walk away from it. Is it hard to know when to stop?
KORI: Yea, especially when you’re recording your own stuff. I think you can add too much and I think that’s the worst position to be in. You have too much and then what do you pull out? Then you have to just scrap it and start over. This is also the first time we didn’t put every song we recorded on the record. That was hard for me. The one song that got left off the record, I felt had the most heart for me. It didn’t work. It didn’t come out the way I wanted it to. It’s definitely a hard part of the process I think.
STEREOGUM: I was asking Jason this very same question: What do you think has been the key to your success as a band? Is it just a matter of working hard and not stopping?
KORI: I think people think that, “I’m a great musician and I write great songs and that’s all it is.” It’s not. You have to have perseverance. You have to have the drive. There are two things that I think happened with us, with the whole Lawrence, Kansas thing and how we kept going. I think one of them is that we left. It’s really easy to get stuck in that small pond and there are so many musicians that are still making music, but they’re not really pushing it anywhere. So, we left. San Francisco was an entirely different scene and people were so supportive and everyone was doing stuff, more so than a smaller town. The other thing was, I’ve always felt if this was just me, just my songs, my vision was the one driving it, then I wouldn’t be doing it. There’s no way I would have had the drive alone. It’s Jason’s personality. He’s really one of those people that has to finish everything to completion. I’ll have twenty ideas all half finished at one time. I think it’s either his personality, or the combination of two people, being like, “Hey, we started this thing. Why would we stop half way.”? I think when people are making amazing music and they hear that they’re great or they’re supported by a couple other bands in their town, I think the hardest thing is to go somewhere else and see if I can continue, you know?
STEREOGUM: Yeah. I’m always amazed by bands here in New York that manage to make a go of it because it’s so difficult, so expensive, and so competitive. You have to really want to do it.
KORI: Yeah. That’s the drive. You’re not just doing it because you want to play a song for your own ears. You really want to make this your life. New York would be a lot harder. I mean, we started in a place where we could practice in a basement and our rent was $200 a month. I don’t know how New York bands start. I couldn’t do it.
STEREOGUM: The idea of getting back on the press train, having your picture taken, and all of that business; has that side of it gotten easier and less weird for you over the years?
KORI: I guess interviews are easier because it’s just, like, be real. It’s just weird sometimes when people are asking strange questions and it’s obvious that they know nothing about the music or who you are. I don’t know. I really didn’t come into this to be on the stage and perform. My favorite part is writing and creating and the way to keep that going is to do the other stuff. Its just sort of par for the course. It’s easy to get very critical when you see pictures of yourself and all that. What I think we’ve really tried to change this time around is that everything visually comes out of, we’re not visual artists, but teaming with visual artists, people that take pictures, or people that take films. Really keeping the art alive in this project, even when it comes down to press photos, we pick people that we think offer something different then just a photographer. For the video, this guy we’re working with, he’s an insane artist. He works in a way that I’ve never really seen anybody work and we would use him for everything we do if we could. This time around we’re making sure that we pay attention to that and not let anything fly.
STEREOGUM: It’s harder to do than people realize.
KORI: Yeah. It takes the right people. It took us twelve years to find the right people.
STEREOGUM: Well, the record sounds great. Congrats.
KORI: Thanks. We’re stuck in the middle of it. Some days I think it sounds like crap and some days I think it’s the best we’ve done. Lately I think it’s the best thing we’ve ever done.
Here’s the clip for “Maracas,” the second track off of Mountaintops.
Mountaintops is out 9/13 via Barsuk.