Words by Sean Moeller , Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound engineering by Patrick Stolley
Bars and rock saloons all have beer. You can distinguish the okay from the better based on what they have on tap. Most often it's just a different form of domestic disappointment, though it's outright snobbery when a man or woman can't just be happy with a Bud heavy or its nearest ale competitor. It's not the most scientific way to judge a barroom. That's done through touch games, those contraptions that typically sit at the ends of bars, where for a handful of quarters, you can stare at side-by-side photographs of topless women or debriefed broncos and in a race against the clock distinguish the differences between the left and the right. For instance, possibly look for an apple missing from the bowl of fruit, the drapes hanging lower in one frame or the sudden disappearance of a bracelet or hair ribbon. Only your choicest bars have these time passers. One such bar that I'm familiar with has such a titillating, coin-operated machine and sitting in front of it was where I first spied Mates of State drummer Jason Hammel years ago, when the band was touring in support of Our Constant Concern, the group's sophomore disc. There he was in a winter parka in the lower bar area of the late, great, filthy Gabe's Oasis – where the local dead-enders and scary old men had swivel stools with their names on them – spotting these oddities on and off the bodies of women hiding only the parts beneath a bikini bottom. That's mildly scandalous, right? That's not cute or adorable.
It's not 2 Live Crew or Marilyn Manson nasty, but it's a start in the right direction for some of that scary street cred. You can't help but feel that all Hammel and his wife/Mates vocalist and organist Kori Gardner would like for Christmas is a dark rumor to spread through the indie ranks that linked them to associations with the seedy rock and roll underbelly – anything to spring them free from the gag-inducing label of being a little bunny rabbit band, something plush and inoculate. It's so not so. Just because they gaze dazzlingly into each other's eyes when they're playing on stage doesn't mean a blasted thing. The next time you're catching The Shins in action, tell me that James Mercer isn't shooting those same looks at his bandmates. He does and you know it.
So, where does this idea that Mates of State are so fucking cute come from? It's a lovely story that they're both very attractive people, sure. It's great that they formed their band in Lawrence, Kansas (see below Hammel's account of the first day the two met – it's heartwarming and, well, counterproductive to the argument at hand) and then moved out to San Francisco where they befriended and were befriended by every single one of the coolest operating indie rock bands in the Bay Area and elsewhere. Then it was darling when they got married. It's great storybook-esque hearing that they gave up careers as a teacher and a cancer researcher to continue the good fight for their music. And there's a special place in the "Awww" chamber when you learn that when the band toured while Kori was pregnant with the couple's first child – a now two-year-old daughter named Magnolia, whom they call Mags – they demanded that all the shows be non-smoking, winning over even the jerkiest, most chimney of all club patrons and employees. One scene from "Two of Us," documentary film about the group, does more damage than good when some concert footage from Madison, Wisc., starts by showing this couple nauseatingly spooning by the right side of the stage. The cameras, zoomed in to the profile of this young lad and lass, show the dude mouthing along to the words of a particularly romantic number and at one point goes so far as to shut his eyes and gently shake his head with the emotion. Later in the film, there was Kori talking about how she thinks she can be an asshole sometimes and she doesn't really care that she gets like that. Yes, more of that. More of the bad assedness is what it's going to take to scare all of the cliché makers and believers in the rock and roll press straight. Fake blood would be helpful. Real blood would freak people out exponentially more.
Reality is, Mates of State are NOT cute. They are married, yes, but look around you and you'll see that all over the place. Is it really such a phenomenon that two married people choose to be in a band together? Certainly not. Immediately, Viva Voce (Kevin and Anita Robinson), the late The Like Young (Amanda and Joe Ziemba ), Casper & the Cookies (Jason MeSmith and Kay Stanton), Frog Eyes (Carey Mercer and Melanie Campbell) and Starlight Mints' (Marian Love Nunez and Andy Nunez) come to mind as doing similar things. And yet, the Mates monopolize the wagering of cutes and the things that make people sick with envy. A normal review for one of their records or shows starts with a requisite overstating of the whole marriage thing – "…it's like eating a jillion bags of marshmallows, melting 400 sugar cubes in your mouth and then flossing with licorice, but you can't help but fall madly for them even so…" If you read something like that, it translates to, "I have the wrong impression of this band's music and who they are as people." There is a mild case of adorability to what Mates of State do, but their love is no novelty or commodity. These are songs that showcase real depth and some of the most roaring and transcendent melodies being produced today. You can take your cutes and shove them.
The Daytrotter interview:
*My personal favorite moment of any Daytrotter session we've recorded (and we've done 80 now) is of your daughter Magnolia making her studio debut. What was that like for you -- getting her involved? It was also the first diaper changed in the Daytrotter control room.*
Jason Hammel: It was fantastic. We want her with us for everything and many times it isn't appropriate for her to be involved. That day it was perfect...the setting being such that whoever is in the room gets sucked up into the song. It was certainly a unique moment where she seemed to feel the music, like the rest of us, and I think the recording is a perfect documentation of that.
*You seem to have a group of amazing people out on the road with you, not just helping with typical touring, but also helping raise your little girl. Do you feel pretty fortunate how everything's been able to work out for you three?*
JH: Yes, so far. We are lucky to have many great friends who are skilled in rock and roll. We mos def treat it like a big traveling circus family.
*Was there ever a thought that once Magnolia was born that the band would have to come to an end or become just a studio project, simply because someone had to be with her and you weren't willing to leave her in the care of others while you were on the road?*
JH: Well, we often have doubts, but then we just ask ourselves, "Wait, who's making the rules?" It's us, so we can do whatever we want. Our main concern is that she receives love, attention, and direction that allows her to develop normally and to her full potential. After much consideration, at this point, we're able to give her all of those and still make the muzak.
*She's already got red Chuck Taylors. How old were you when you got your first pair?*
JH: Sixth grade. They were the extra tall ones that folded down and snapped if you weren't feeling the boot look. Mos def a crucial fashion stage of life.
*Are you working on a follow-up to "Bring It Back?" If you are, where are you recording and with whom?*
JH: We just started working on some songs. We may record much of it ourselves, and then have someone produce and mix it. We did that with that California cover song and liked working in that way. We also may try and get some serious producer like Timbaland or Rick Rubin so the shit would sound huge. Skies are the limit at this point. We want it to sound better and bettah.
*Do you remember the first day you two met? How did it happen?*
JH: Magic. Kori had just played a show and I went straight up to her and professed my love. She said, "Sounds legit, take me out and I'll see!" I moved in with her the next day, and we haven't spent a day apart since.
*Is there a part of you both that has a desire to just go black metal on the next record so that writers don't have the opportunity to call you cutesy things? Does that impulse to call you and your records sweet and adorable torque you a tad -- because it's pretty relentless?*
JH: Yes, that cutesy shit is getting tedious and limiting. We are definitely gonna throw a wrench in the machine on the next record in order to get peoples' attention. The only thing we're going to keep is the high quality of songwriting. Wawa-watch out!
*How do you stay less than bored when you're on the road? Maybe Magnolia helps a lot with that? Has there been a band that you've toured with that either really latched onto her or she latched onto and loved them?*
JH: Boredom was a problem before Mags came along. Since her, it hasn't been a problem because she's always ready with a plan. Kids are good like that, ideas abound. She loved touring with the Starlight Mints, because they brought along their 2-year-old daughter, Penny. Instant best friends.
*If you were forced to only love one band, who would it be and why the hell would you pick them?*
JH: Beatles. You can be a student for life studying The Beatles.
* You live in the east now. When and why did you make that move?*
JH: 2002. We wanted to hit up NYC and expand East. It's been great. We'll always love and covet Cali, but the East side is growing on us.
*What did you learn today that you didn't know yesterday?*
JH: How to juggle. My cousin taught me.
*Has anything astonished you lately?*
JH: Franz Ferdinand is played on NFL Sunday night football. I wonder how much they got paid for that!?
*What are some keys to healthy marriages that aren't so widely known?*
JH: Chill-out, allow space, communicate everything and deal with the truth.