story by Jeffrey Thrope photos by Dorothy Hong
Mates Of State consist of a drummer and an organ player. The drummer's name is Jason Hammel and the organ player's name is Kori Gardner. I know what you're thinking. Oh, Mates Of State, they're the husband and wife band. Well you're right, but you need to forget that they're married and know that their marriage is not a gimmick. Of course this isn't the last time I'll mention the husband/wife relationship, but the less you know, the better. While sitting down with the band for an interview before their show at The Bowery Ballroom in New York on Wednesday, they talked as a band, not as a couple. I expected to walk in on the cover of Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson's Star Is Born but instead, we discussed the Midwest, screwing up on stage, Barsuk, and of course, blogs.
The first thing that I thought of as soon as Mates Of State started performing was how awesome it was that one of these "cute" bands literally had their muse on stage with them.
Mates Of State started playing a little before 11 and unsurprisingly played "Think Long," the first song off of their Barsuk debut, Bring It Back. According to Kori, Bring It Back is Barsuk's 50th release: "They're very picky about what they put out," she said, "and that makes me feel okay, that they believe in what we did." "Think Long" was the first, but by no means the last, song that the band played that is drenched with vocal rounds between the two singers. I could not stop thinking about music class in elementary school where section A would start singing "Row Row Row Your Boat" and after a line of the song, section B would start. This whole vocal technique is the core of the Mates Of State's sound. The technique would have sounded perfect as the last song of the set, because it makes for an extremely climatic musical moment, but when done on every song, the climatic aspect of the songs ends up sounding, at times, confused and cluttered. There were not many points throughout the show where Kori was singing and Jason was not and vice versa.
Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes, Ben Gibbard of Death Cab, and Colin Meloy of Decemberists are three indie rock heartthrobs whose lyrics can sometimes get on the "cute" side of things, and as a result, turn off a lot of listeners. The problem I sometimes have with these types of acts is that their "cuteness" isn't always believable. Do these people really feel what they're singing about in such dramatic terms? Have they really felt the heartbreak, love, and anguish that they're singing about? Does Ben Gibbard really care about what they call the glove compartment? The first thing that I thought of as soon as Mates Of State started performing was how awesome it was that one of these "cute" bands literally had their muse on stage with them. There was no mystery - no guessing games as to what the band was feeling, who they were feeling these things about, and/or if they actually were feeling any feelings at all. I know a lot of people might think that's a turn off, but it would be so easy for a band like Mates Of State to get on stage and sing about their love for one another. Instead, they just play pretty pop songs. They're catchy, they're quirky, but most importantly, they're void of the dramatic implications that some bands on Barsuk tend to lean to. They might as well not be married. If you didn't know, you could never tell by watching them interact on stage.
They have an incredibly loyal fan base who like to call them out by first name as if they grew up together, and they write incredibly catchy pop songs.
"Fraud In The '80s," one of my favorite tracks off their new record, was the highlight of the set. Although Kori plays organ on virtually every song, "Fraud" reminds me of the Farfisa organ that Elvis Costello used so perfectly on albums like My Aim Is True and This Year's Model. Kori and Jason are both incredibly gifted musicians and singers and it wasn't until "Fraud" that it really sunk in that there were only two of them on stage. They do an incredible job of projecting the sound of a full band to the audience. Unlike other duos such as the White Stripes or the Black Keys, Mates Of States do not play off of each other as freely. Jack White and Dan Auerbach solo and make sure you know that there are only two people on stage. Mates Of Stage are a pop band, not a blues band, and they make you believe it. There was not one time throughout the show that the music sounded empty. I never once said to myself, "Damn, this is good, but would sound great with a guitar player." They just didn't need it.
While talking about their Kansas University roots in Lawrence and now living in Connecticut, Jason and Kori thought it would be perfect to have a house in the Midwest and an apartment in New York. "You always want what you can't have," explained Jason. But it seems as though the Mates have exactly what they want and need. They're in a band on a great label. They're married to their band mate. They have an incredibly loyal fan base who like to call them out by first name as if they grew up together, and they write incredibly catchy pop songs.