It is not often that a band produces something truly unique. Almost every successful indie group today somehow derives its sound from Morrissey or Bowie or even Byrne. Mates of State are the exception.
Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel met in Kansas in 1997 and quickly developed what is today their signature sound: complex harmonies and dueling vocals backed primarily by the layered use of an organ and drum kit.
After forming Mates of State, the duo moved out west, put out a record, and began touring relentlessly. The last nine years have included production in San Francisco, work alongside Jim Eno of Spoon, a European tour and a stint opening for the Strokes. Now, after three full-length albums, a handful of EPs and a DVD, they have returned with the much-anticipated Bring It Back.
This past December, the band signed with Barsuk Records, former home of big names Rilo Kiley and Death Cab for Cutie, and is excited about the move. They actually completed the album last August, but drummer Hammel says it was worth the wait to release it because "it's about having the whole package." The uncharacteristically bold artwork, photographs and lyrics all add to the experience, and the band is very proud of the final product.
Bring It Back marks a departure from Mates of States' usual writing system. "We had a daughter," Hammel says, "and obviously, we [couldn't] be playing loud rock music in the house." The album was thus born in those stolen moments between day care and play dates, and often, tracks were laid down individually on the computer and were added to in bits and pieces. "It just gave us a different look [to write in this way, and] maybe we were getting sort of bored with the old way. We really became inspired."
The end result is romance-infused indie rock, consistently uplifting and dense with melody. Mates of State continue to defy form, this time utilizing a multitude of electric pianos to add depth to tracks like "What it Means" and "Beautiful Dreamer." This doesn't mean that they will be departing from their standard, though. "We just wanted to use the sound that sounded best, and not limit ourselves," explains Hammel. "Live," he adds, "it's always going to be just that organ."
This is good news, for it is that unconventional absence of guitar riffs and the space-saturating sound that Gardner's organ produces which make Mates of State so unique and uplifting. While each of the previous albums has exhibited a consistent style, Bring It Back takes it a step further. Hammel's drumming is more complex, Gardner's vocals are featured more prominently; songs are simply bolder. The couple continues to produce intricate and dueling harmonies -- songs that are unmistakably theirs -- yet refrains from falling into the sort of redundancy that just two instruments might afford a less talented duo.
The Bring It Back tour began in early March, and will culminate this summer at Coachella, where Mates of State will be playing alongside Madonna and Depeche Mode -- although shows aren't quite as crazy as they used to be, now that the couple stays busy chasing daughter Magnolia around backstage. "It sort of cuts out a lot of the party time," Hammel says, "which is fine by me."
Fewer rock and roll antics afford the band a greater focus on the music, though, and with Bring It Back, Mates of State deliver an energetic, upbeat and contagious performance.