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Mates of State play Chicago's Metro on Mountaintops tour

Mates of State at Metro in Chicago, September 30, 2011.
Mates of State at Metro in Chicago, September 30, 2011.
Vanessa Pegram

Husband and wife duo Jason Hammel (vocals, drums, percussion) and Kori Gardner (vocals, piano, synthesizer), otherwise known as Mates of State, rocked the Metro Friday night (9/30/2011) to a sing-a-long crowd that never missed a beat.

Loungin with Mates
Vanessa Pegram

The couple, joined by Kenji Shinegawa on guitar and John Panos on trumpet/keys/crazy dance moves, opened with fan favorite "Get Better" which sent the crowd into a frenzy and the energy through the roof. Their cheery and optimistic choruses are only made better by the crowd singing in tandem and believing every word as the duo share almost constant eye contact on stage. Their relationship is part of the draw though. Combine that with their synthy, pop-melodies that are all at once incredibly infectious, silly and smart and add in monstrous talent from both members on multiple instruments, then you get Mates of State. (Seriously, you won't miss any guitars). They have been called "too happy" and their songs have been likened to sugary pieces of candy, but they are the kind of candy you want more of. Their new album has this same Mates of State feel to it but reaches new and more mature heights by touching on issues of conflict and change and highlights a new found bravery of independent sound.

"I've had a lot of coffee tonight and I feel like everything is going really fast. Is everything fast right now?" asks Hammel, who can barely sit still behind his drum kit as the band ends 'Maracas,' their second song of the night and second on the new album 'Mountaintops'. I was lucky enough to sit down with the band before the show to discuss their seventh studio album, producing, parenting and pickle underwear.

VP: How do you go about constructing a song? Is there a process?

Kori Gardner: We don’t follow any sort of rules but this record I think we sat down in an old school Mates of State way where we just sat down and started playing and if we liked a part we’d jam that for awhile and we’d be inspired if it’s a good enough part and come up with a melody. We write lyrics as they happen but also lyrics come last for us. Not to say that they’re not as important but we’re way more of a melody centered writing team.

Jason Hammel: The team part too is important I think because sometimes if you’re writing on your own you get frustrated and then maybe you don’t end up finishing something but for us when we’re doing it together you know one of us will have an idea or a couple of ideas and the other will be like ‘that’s the good part’ and we keep working off of that and then the other person will contribute the second part of the idea and it’s almost like a writing crutch in a way.

KG: A writing crutch but also I don’t know how people can just be a solo artist because you don’t have that constant editor. Who knows, maybe we both write better songs without each other’s editing or editing each other, I don’t know, but I think the feeling is that you don’t know half the time. You know if you have something really good but the stuff that you’re unsure about, to have someone whose as equally invested in what you’re doing telling you ‘yeah that is really good,’ or ‘that’s not that great, move on.’ I don’t know how people go without that at this point.

JH: It’s like a measuring stick. If we both like it then we know it must be good.

KG: We know it’s gotta be great.

JH: But if one of us is way into it and the other is like ‘uh, I don’t know,’ then you’re like ‘ohh really, I thought it was good?’ But if we both like it we’re like ‘Awesome. This is what we’re doing' and then we get excited about it.

VP: So you just tell each other when you suck pretty much?

KG: Yeah, sometimes it comes out that way.

VP: Did you try any new instruments out on Mountaintops?

KG: I pulled the guitar out a couple times, which I haven’t done in awhile and played it on a song or two and then [Jason] played some keyboards but then we brought some musicians in that could really play guitar, they’re actually playing with us tonight.

JH: Self-producing it we were really just kind of like whatever...

KG: Whatever we wanted to do we put on there.

JH: Its kinda fun, I mean we’re not just limited with one instrument so we played around.

KG: And he’s learned a lot more about programming and recording gear and stuff so he did a lot more experimenting with that too.

VP: When I first heard Palomino I thought it sounded sonically bigger than a lot of previous stuff, where did that come from?

KG: That came from producing on our own. That came from us being in our basement and layering stuff and not being afraid. Because we had the time to keep on working on something and not feeling like we had to cram ourselves into a three week studio block. We could do whatever we came up with in that creative space, it was like we got to use those creative moments that just spontaneously occurred to our advantage you know, and I think that just made it bigger. Plus I wasn’t feeling like I had to be tied to the organ this time or the piano (which is what the last two records were) some of the sounds on a lot of the keyboard are just big sounds anyway.

JH: And that song specifically, we recorded the drums [at one place] and then some of the main keyboards then we took it to our house then we had our friend Ryan come in whose more of a technical guy and built it even more on that.

KG: He helped us build it.

JH: and we built it even more on that

KG: That was a very piecemeal recording.

JH: We just kind of kept layering it like brick-brack in different settings and then by the time we were done with it we took it to mix it with this guy named Chris Cody whose very into reverbs and delays and everything so then it just sets it into this whole new stratosphere too.

KG: That song had like ten different versions throughout the process too.

VP: And you said you play sometimes in your basement, does that cause any trouble with your neighbors at all?

KG: Our neighbors are funny. We live in suburbia in Connecticut but we’ve got a great little neighborhood. Our closest neighbors to us are like this seventy year old couple and they know everything that’s going on in the neighborhood and sometimes we see their little grandchildren peeking in the windows and if we make eye contact they run away.

JH: Or he’ll look in the window sometimes and be like ‘Yeah’ (gives thumbs up) “go get em”.

KG: The whole neighborhood is like really supportive actually, even though it’s kind of unusual for this random town in Connecticut to have this band there. Everyone around us has our record so we’re kind of making our own fans.

JH: The bus will pull up on our street to pick us up for the tour and all the neighbors will come out and ask to take a look, they want to see it. We try to be friendly. One of our neighbors watches our cat while we’re gone and ya know, we try to be good neighbors.

KG: We love our neighbors. Actually, we considered moving to Chicago but we were like, ‘we’d really miss our neighbors’.

VP: Is there anything that you always have to have on tour with you?

KG: I have a really great pair of headphones with me, actually, they’re in my bunk next to me at all times. It used to be a pair of brown sweatpants but this is the first tour in like 13 years that I left them at home.

JH: Yes! You’re evolving, you’re evolving right before our eyes.

KG: He’s calls them the brownies because every time I put them on he’s like ‘oh god, it must be a bad day’.

JH: They’re like the nastiest, bedraggled pair of sweatpants…

KG: You know like you have to have your favorite pair of comfy pants.

JH: But they’re brown.

KG: Well what would you bring, your pickle underwear?

JH: I was going to say, it used to be a computer but now all you need is an iPhone. Maybe I’ll do a little banking on the computer or for tour stuff but you can just stream Netflix right there on your phone now, you don’t even need your computer.

KG: Ahh, the modern age of toys.

JH: And our kids.

VP: Speaking of kids, you must have some pretty good nannies on staff?

KG: We have a girl with us that lives in our town, which is really helpful and yeah, we have great nannies.

VP: Did I see on your blog that you’re starting a service for bands and nannies?

KG: Yeah, it’s actually with two of the nannies we’ve had before and I and this other woman are starting a service that basically just pairs up nannies for tours and that kind of family that does the traveling, artistic thing and matching them with nannies that are also in that world.

VP: Any parenting advice?

KG: I think we always come back to the whole idea of don’t stop pursuing what it is that makes you who you are because you have children. I think they end up seeing that you are really passionate about something and then they get passionate about something. That’s how we’ve always lived with our kids, like being in a band and traveling. They see it, they know it’s a little abnormal now because they’ve seen kids at school that don’t have that but I think they see it as “that’s great, they’re doing what they want to do and they’re bringing us along.” I think the idea of stopping what you really want to do in life because you also want to have a family is just crazy dust. You can do both.

JH: Another piece of advice I would say is to actually hang out with your kids. Recently we did this thing at NPR and this guy was talking about being a fan of our music but he also had kids and he said someone gave him the advice that when you have kids you get to make your own friends. You basically-

KG: You create your own friends.

JH: because you give them ideas and then they give that back to you and when they get older you get to hang out with them and they’re like your friends, you created them in a way. I thought that was a really good way to put it and you can actually see it sometimes when you kinda see your kids saying stuff that you might think or say but you didn’t give them that idea specifically but they’re just starting to create those-

KG: Like you’ve molded them to think like you (laughs)

JH: yeah and like creating those sort of circuitries to be like and sort of progressive on it. They’re actually teaching you stuff beyond what you already know. It’s kind of cool, so hang out with your kids.

VP: I think a lot of people definitely miss that because they’re in their 9-5 jobs.

KG: Yeah, we’re lucky that we get to do that.

JH: And when they’re babies it’s hard because they don’t sleep, they cry, they’re figuring out their emotions and they need a constant 24 hour thing and it’s really taxing on you but once they get to about five that starts to lesson, they still rely on you but in a different way that’s less exhausting and it’s just more fun.

KG: That’s the other parenting advice to give. Don’t worry, it is completely true that it gets easier. For the people that have babies, it gets easier, you’re going to get yourself back. For all the moms out there that have babies I know you think your life is changed forever but it’s going to get back to how you lived before.

VP: What are some of your favorite things to do in Chicago, with or without your kids?

KG: The youngest just went to the zoo today, and the Sears tower but Chicago is just one of those cities where you can walk around, you know, you can just hang out, there’s parks and it seems like a really family friendly city. Most of the time we just cruise around and see what’s around.

JH: People are just so cool in the Midwest and there's that sort of friendliness too so you can just like hang out and end up meeting people. It just feels like home to me in a lot of ways.

KG: Yeah, it’s close to where he grew up. [Minnesota]

VP: Have you ever gotten into any fights right before a show?

KG: Yeah.

JH: Never.

KG: Last night.

JH: Kori was having a bad day yesterday and she was taking it out on me.

KG: I had a bad day yesterday and you were contributing.

VP: (to Jason) Well it was probably your fault.

KG: Right!

JH: That’s how it works. But you know what’s funny is then we get on stage and we’re both looking at each other and she’s still like mad I can tell so we just kind of start joking.

KG: We work it out on stage.

JH: By like the third song we’re just like-

KG: I’m still mad at you by song 8.

JH: Yeah but you were still like smiling and laughing and being dramatic.

KG: Because it was a good crowd, good energy and I couldn’t be like all pissed off and playing.

JH: You were at first though, for like the first three songs you were scowling.

KG: Yeah, I’ll look past him like I can’t see him.

Friday night's show was all smiles however as Kori and Jason whipped through a set of new songs interspersed with fan favorites that included a powerful rendition of 'Goods' that had all members of openers 'Yawn' and 'Suckers' on stage with standing toms and two local fans on percussion. Mates ended their encore with the echoey and effervescent 'Palomino,' marking a shift to new territory.

Purchase Mountaintops here or follow the band on Facebook and Twitter.

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