New York in July was miserable. Garbage piled on curbs was stinking up downtown and the subways threatened to roast anyone wearing more than a T-shirt. Nothing but a cold drink and some shade could make the afternoons bearable.
There were two kids the heat couldn’t touch: the lovable, endlessly smiling Mates of State — Kori Gardner on keys and Jason Hammel on drums, both singing with abandon. Gardner and Hammel, who wed in 2001, formed in Lawrence, Kan. in 1997 and moved to San Francisco soon thereafter. They’ve pretty much been on tour since.
It’s just two of them, but their sound is full and free, bantering back and forth with their instruments and voices. With their third album, Team Boo, released by Polyvinyl in September, Gardner and Hammel called in Jim Eno and John Croslin to help with production. Even with outside influences, the Mates didn’t sacrifice any of the playful, honest pop of previous efforts. Living up to their reputation as the sweetheart duo of indie rock, the Mates of State sat down with us pre-show at New York’s venerable Knitting Factory to discuss Willie Nelson’s pot stash, touring Europe and their seemingly endless life on the road.
Prefix Magazine: What’s with the title of the new record?
Mates of State: Jason Hammel (drums/vocals): Obviously when you name a record like that, you know you’re going to be asked questions like that right off the bat, and you’re the first person to ask us that.
Kori Gardner (keyboard/vocals): We went at this record differently than we did the other ones. I guess we took more input from the people working on it with us. We had two or three engineers working with us at a time. We had different people playing on the record and our friends doing the artwork rather than just randomly picking something, and we sort of started feeling like a team. So … Team Boo, which is also kind of a personal joke.
Jason: It kind of encompasses everything we’ve always been about, kind of keeping your friends and utilizing your friends for everything you do. I guess it’s just an extension of that.
Kori: We’ve always felt that everyone in the band should really be sort of equals, like there’s not one person that’s kind of a front person. That’s how we felt about the name of our record too.
PM: So you ended up working with John Croslin and Jim Eno by being friends with them?
Mates of State: Kori: We knew John Croslin because he helped us out with our first record [My Solo Project; 2000]; Jim we basically just met at a show. We didn’t want to have just John working on the record. We wanted someone who was really into drum sounds and getting good drum sounds recorded, and he’s all over that.
Jason: It kind of just worked out with all of us being in Austin. We figured out which studio we could use and it just fell into place. The time was right. I was really into the drum sounds Jim’s had on his own records, so like she said, we just wanted to have someone who focused on the drums. But he ended up being a lot more than that. He ended up giving input in a lot of other areas.
Kori: We worked well as a team because when one person wasn’t coming up with a ton of ideas, the other person was right there. It was cool. We wondered at first if having more than one engineer working on it would be a bad thing, but we ended up having an advantage by having more minds working on it.
PM: It ended up almost acting like having a larger band?
Mates of State: Kori: Yeah, we actually felt like they were actually in the band. It wasn’t like going in and sitting on the couch and them recording us playing. Everyone’s ideas were used or at least tried, and everyone was really positive and open minded. I think that’s why everything worked out.
PM: I saw that you recorded at Willie Nelson’s studio [Pedernales Studio in Texas] and that maybe he’d played some part in the album.
Mates of State: Kori: Yeah, he didn’t …
Jason: Maybe …
Kori: We got the studio lead. We got to get it half price because through a friend we met Willie’s nephew, and he was like, "Oh, record at my uncle’s studio for half price." And at the time we really didn’t know where we were going to record. We decided to check out the studio, not knowing his uncle was Willie Nelson. We were like, "That’s great, a lot of good records have been recorded there." On a whim we left some tracks there, and his nephew gave them to him. I don’t know if he’s going to play on them or not.
Jason: Supposedly he played over them. We haven’t gotten the tapes back so we’re not really sure yet.
Kori: We’re kind of keeping that hush-hush because we don’t want everyone to be like, "Yeah! Willie’s playing on it," ’cause it could just be sitting in his pot garden or something.
PM: Would you say the album has a new sound or anything in particular that puts it above your other two records?
Mates of State: Kori: This may sound conceited, but on this record there’s not really one song that I dislike. I like all the songs the same. On the other records I definitely had favorites. As far as the sound goes, being in the band, I don’t really think you can answer that.
Jason: We worked a lot harder on this record than we did the previous ones. We like the songs a lot better, and we also had more time in the studio, so we could get the exact sounds that we were trying to achieve. I think that shows through.
Kori: We experiment a little bit; we added some instruments here and there. We never could before because we were working with such a short span of time.
Jason: Nothing too drastic. Enhancements, subtleties, vocal over-dubs and that sort of thing.
PM: Which new instruments?
Mates of State: Kori: There’s some trumpet and viola and lot of backing vocals. We did a lot of group singing.
Jason: But it still has a very basic structure — organ and drums.
Kori: That will always be the basic structure, but we’re not afraid to experiment like we used to be.
PM: When touring overseas, what’s been your favorite stop?
Mates of State: Kori: We really like Austin, that’s why we recorded there.
Jason: I really like Sweden.
Kori: Oh, did you say Europe? Didn’t you know there’s an Austin, Germany? I’m sorry.
PM: Touring with so many different bands, has one emerged as a favorite tour mate?
Mates of State: Jason: Go ahead.
Kori: No you go ahead. I was just correcting myself ’cause I thought he meant the US.
Jason: What was the question?
Prefix: Touring with so many different bands, has one emerged as a favorite tour mate?
Jason: Do we? [To Kori.]
Kori: We like all the bands we’ve toured with. We’ve never had a really horrible experience. I think it’s good to mix it up a lot.
Jason: I’m really excited to go on tour with the Thermals. We’re doing our US tour with them.
PM: In every review I’ve read about you guys, there’s a mention about how great you are live? Do you find the constant touring helps or hinders the tightness of the show?
Mates of State: Kori: I think that’s exactly how. The more you play, the better you get at it. If we were just a studio band, we’d suck live. It’s one thing to play in your basement and sound great. It’s another thing to play at a different place every night and still sound good.
Jason: Plus it’s a lot more fun than practicing or recording. You’re loose and you’re just there to play the songs and have fun, feeding off the energy of the place. When recording, you’re just trying to play perfect so it comes to tape. We just want to continue playing music. If we can play at this show and play next week, we’re going to do it.
PM: Now that you album’s finished, you guys going to take a break after the tour?
Mates of State: Kori: No vacation.
Jason: No, because as soon as it comes out we’re going to tour the US for all of October and November. We’re pretty much not taking a break ’til December.
Kori: We won’t have a vacation till Christmas, I guess.
PM: You prefer being in a band to being a teacher …
Mates of State: Kori: Most of the time.
Jason: I’ve always wanted to play music and being able to be on our own schedule …
Kori: Have the freedom. There is something to be said about a stable 9 to 5 job, and I really like kids, so I miss that part of it. But the freedom is a way better feeling than stability.