Jason Hammel and Kori Gardner are tolerating the second day without electricity in their Stratford, Connecticut home. “Hurricane Irene knocked out our power and it might take a week to get it back,” Hammel explains. “It’s kind of nice actually. It’s fun trying to find regular shit to do, to just kick some stuff around the house. Yesterday we just played music in the living room all day on the piano. We’re living like pioneers out here!”
Hammel and Gardner are no strangers to the art of being resourceful, having played together as the self-sufficient keyboard-and-drum duo Mates Of State for 14 years. Masters of their minimal instrumentation, they’ve turned limitations into trademarks by infusing exuberant indie pop tunes with multitasking organ hooks, limber beats and endearing co-ed harmonies.
Had the Mates been rendered powerless while supporting 2008’s Re-Arrange Us, the twosome would have little difficulty forging through the organic, piano-driven album’s songs. Their sixth record Mountaintops is a different animal, an electrified collection perfectly tailored to a night at a roller rink. The album features disco-ball raves (“Maracas,” “At Least I Have You”), limbo-worthy bounce house jams (“Total Serendipity,” “Mistakes”) and, naturally, couple-skate ballads (“Unless I’m Led,” “Desire”).
“Most of Re-Arrange Us was on piano because we were trying to get away from the organ we’d used for our other records,” Hammel says. “We want to do something different each record, so a lot of times we change up the process in a substantial way. This time, we didn’t want to use the piano. We already did that.”
The absence of piano was far from the only change in procedure for Mountaintops. “We decided to leave our basement and rent a practice space to get a new perspective.” Kori Gardner says. “We’d spend five or six hours a day writing, which we’d never done before. Our space was in this skate park with no heat, no anything. We started in winter, so we would practice in scarves and hats, sometimes even gloves. By the end of writing all the songs, an entire year had passed. I hear a lot of seasonal change in the record.”
Another source of inspiration came from a new toy in Mates’ arsenal. “Kori got this [Roland] Juno-G synthesizer,” Jason says. “We fell in love with it.”
Kori concurs, “There are a few songs that wouldn’t exist without the Juno.” The album’s lead-off single “Maracas” may be one such song, its keyboard lines warbling like a warped ELO record spinning underwater.
“There’s this excitement of having a new piece of gear and saying ‘I’m writing everything on this now’” Jason says. “I’m sure on the next album we’ll totally betray the Juno and say, ‘That thing is horseshit! No more Juno!’”
Despite the disparity between the largely acoustic Re-Arrange Us and the plugged-in Mountaintops, both records are undeniably Mates Of State. Hammel and Gardner are not just one of indie rock’s cutest couples, they’re also one of the most distinct groups in rock ’n’ roll. The duo’s 2000 album My Solo Project was a fragmented debut that compensated for its imperfections with enthusiasm. Songs featured elastic tempos and oddball wordplay (“I am not your yellow knot”), but it still showed an originality and focus that most bands take a lifetime to develop.
“When people would say our lyrics were cryptic before, we’d be like ‘You don’t know what we’re talking about? It’s so obvious!’” Kori says. “We just have two people and we know each other so well. We don’t really realize that we’re on the same wavelength all the time and that the outsiders have no idea what the hell we’re talking about. To make a progression, we had to actually realize that you can’t understand our songs.”
“Writing has always been frantic for us, because we also didn’t like the idea of making a verse just to have a verse,” Kori continues. “We thought if it didn’t sound like a chorus it was thrown away, so songs would just have four or five choruses in them. I think now we understand the whole idea of building up to something, making a chorus better by having less of a part before it. I think we’ve had to make a conscious effort to be more concise and get our point across in the songs. Otherwise, people assume we are just singing about how much we love each other.”
For Kori and Jason, their signature—married couple who plays music together—can easily become a stigma. “We have two kids now, and people always ask what it’s like having kids and being in a band,” Jason says. “Lots of artists have kids. Nick Cave has four kids, but people don’t ask him about them all the time. They ask him what it was like to be a junkie. I guess it’s different because Kori and I have been in a relationship since the beginning and starting a family is part of that relationship. But everybody wears different hats. We wake up and we have to go to work. We’re like co-workers that happen to sleep together.”
“I think we get pigeonholed in a lot of ways,” Kori says. “When you’re in a band for a long time, that’s inevitable. But when we put out a record, people are like, ‘Heard ’em. They’re a family, they’re cutesy, they’re twee.’ I hate that! I wish people didn’t think they’ve already figured us out. I hope we have a lot more in us.”
Mountaintops is the best evidence yet that the Mates Of State pony show is capable of more than one trick. Luckily, the band spends little energy battling those too willing to write them off. They prefer to enjoy the fans they’ve earned after six albums, countless headlining tours and prime support slots for the likes of Death Cab For Cutie and Spoon.
Fourteen years after inception, Mates Of State have mastered their middle-ground niche: too obscure for the dwindling possibility of mainstream crossover but not hip enough for the tastemaking elite. “From day one, we’ve always felt that we don’t fit in,” Kori Gardner says. “We’re in our own little crack, and I’m happy with that. At the end of everything, I think people will at least have to say we were unique. It’s limiting, and we’ve made some effort to make people relate more to us. But at the end of the day, we are what we are.”