Music News & Reviews

Losing an organ, gaining a piano

Let's address the seemingly biggest shift in Mates of State's music right off the bat. Since the duo's inception more than a decade ago, Jason Hammel and Kori Gardner constructed their luminously bright indie-pop songs almost exclusively on drums and keyboards. And not just any keyboards, but a 1970s organ with a huge, swelling and marvelously organic sound.

The husband and wife wrote songs on it. They recorded with it. They dragged the thing out on the road. As the duo's popularity grew, the organ became viewed as one of the most recognizable, distinctive and ultimately essential components of the Mates of State sound.

So why is it, then, that the instrument's presence on the San Francisco-based band's new album, Re-Arrange Us, has been so severely downsized? The reason boils down to an age-old artistic urge: the desire for change.

"We had been writing songs on that big, vintage organ for over four albums now," Hammel said. "And we were like, 'You know what? We're getting kind of bored with this sound. Let's use a bunch of other sounds and see if we can still maintain the energy of Mates of State.

"That was our biggest concern. Was the organ — or the lack of it, really — detrimental to that energy? Thankfully, we found out that it wasn't."

That explains why the first thing you hear as Re-Arrange Us comes to life isn't organ but a gentle, solitary hammering of piano. But when Gardner's soothing vocals and the equally evocative pop melody of the album's lead-off tune, Get Better, kick in, you realize what really rules Mates of State's sunny, though sometimes bittersweet sound: vocals and truckloads of alert pop hooks.

In short, the real change on Re-Arrange Us isn't in the band's overall sound but in the choice of tools employed to create it.

"We found out it was the vocals that really explained what we are," Hammel said.

Unexpected influences

And the pop sensibility in the band's music? Hammel says that evolved over time, with a few fairly unexpected influences.

"You would be surprised," he said. "I listened to a lot of metal when I was in junior high. Then I got into skateboarding, so I got into skate punk. When I got into college, I started listening more to college indie rock. Once I got out, that's when I started to get into the more classic music by Leonard Cohen, The Beatles, Pink Floyd and Nick Cave. Right now, I'd say they are my biggest influences. But at an early age, it was metal and punk rock."

Another unexpected inspiration that played a major role in the evolution of Mates of State's music was Ira Glass, host and producer of public radio's This American Life. When Glass mounted a touring production of his show in 2007, he invited Hammel and Gardner along. But instead of organ, Gardner found herself playing piano.

"We really felt a sense of accomplishment as a band being able to play alongside Ira and the caliber of his writers," Hammel said.

"We were playing big, sit-down, 3,000-seat-capacity theaters in cities like Boston, New York, Seattle and Chicago. For the shows, we played maybe five or six songs, just piano and drums. That kind of gave us the impetus to start mixing up our own tours a little bit. We could still have tours where it would just be straight-up rock with the two of us. But there could also be tours where there might be various configurations of instruments to portray our sound in ways that would be different and fun."

Satisfied but wanting more

An example of the latter came when Mates of State toured during the summer. For newer songs from Re-Arrange Us, the duo became a quartet with the addition of brothers Anton and Lewis Patzner, the cellist and the violinist from the California "string metal" band Judgement Day. When Hammel and Gardner play Friday at The Dame, multi-instrumentalist (and Mates of State tour manager) Chris Cosgrove will sit in for roughly half of the performance.

Truth to tell, Hammel and Gardner have two permanent additions to their touring entourages that most audiences never get to see: their daughters Magnolia and June. It seems the family that plays together does indeed stay together.

"We definitely have an untraditional lifestyle," Hammel said. "But it's not that odd or strange, really. We are able to do what we love and still have a family. That's not to say we don't go through a lot of the same tribulations of anyone else who works, is an artist or has a family.

"It's really the only way we can make things work. If Kori and I were in different bands, it would be very difficult. I know we wouldn't want to be away from each other for the amount of time it would take to properly work with those bands. So we feel fortunate. We feel satisfied. But we're never complacent. We want more."