When Mates of State set out to record their fourth and latest album, Bring It Back, they weren't entirely sure what they wanted outside of one specific goal: sounding different.
The husband-and-wife duo — Kori Gardner (organ, vocals) and Jason Hammel (drums, vocals) — had previously employed a jubilant drum-and-keys attack. But now the couple were sidetracked by other pressing priorities, namely the birth of their first child, Magnolia, and a move from San Francisco to Connecticut to be closer to family.
"When you have a kid, your life is basically over for a few months," Gardner said, clearly relieved to have the first half-year of sleepless nights behind her.
Between diaper changes and 2 a.m. bottle feedings, the twosome looked to outside perspectives and found their man in producer/engineer Bill Racine, a longtime admirer of the Mates eager to force them out of their comfort zone.
"He said, 'I'm a big fan, [but] I don't want you to write the same record. Throw your ideas of recording out the window,' " Gardner said of the passionate pitch that won them over.
Accepting their producer's challenge, they experimented with an armada of keyboards, effects and unorthodox recording techniques. Drums were muffled and miked in unconventional ways, and vocals were sometimes sung into walkie-talkies and paper-towel rolls.
The result is a creative breakthrough, Mates of State's most dynamic and ambitious record to date. Mature and lush, Bring It Back, which hit stores Tuesday, is enhanced with layered vocals, horns, strings, grand pianos and a choir on the epic finale, the seven-minute "Running Out."
"It's a total progression," Gardner said. "We were really ready to make our best record."
She also credits Racine's willingness to take risks. "He definitely pushed us," she said. "It was a little stressful because we already had our [preconceived] ideas of how recording should be, but we ended up so much happier."
Bring It Back is an assuredly versatile record: The swirling "For the Actor" features a Rhodes keyboard made to sound like fuzzy guitars; "Nature and the Wreck" is an emotional ballad penned for their daughter (who can be heard cooing and gurgling at the end of the track); and the effervescent single, "Fraud in the '80s," attacks the disingenuousness of bands that fetishize the new-wave poses of the bygone era.
"It's a total dis on the insincerity that comes along with people trying to re-create other people's ideas. Bring it back to what's true, you know?" Gardner said, echoing the album's recurring motif.
Songwriting inspiration came from many sources, including their new child. "[With a baby] there's no time to worry about, 'That soundman sucks. How come there's not enough people here? Why is that band popular? They suck!' " she laughed.
This new attitude pervades the album. "Things might suck — the state of the world, music is dark, life is dreary — but you have to be the one who soldiers on and tries to keep people happy and bring hope," Gardner said.
Ironically, the album's closing tune, "Running Out," contains the bleakest sentiment, but the elevating sweep of the song eventually trumps the doubts and uncertainty.
"It was in one of our darker hours: 'How long can we be in a band? How long can we last?' " Gardner recalled. "It turned into a general theme of wanting to give up. But [the climactic chant] 'Tired of singing!' built and built, and eventually it counteracts the negativity."
These days the band has little to be pessimistic about. Poised for Bring It Back's success, Mates of State graduated to Barsuk — the indie label that launched Death Cab for Cutie — and they've been tapped to play Lollapalooza and Coachella.
"Madonna's playing!" Gardner exclaimed about Madge's appearance in Coachella's dance tent. "I'm excited, and it's going to be rad to be around good music all day."
Track list for Mates of State's Bring It Back, according to the band's publicist:
- "Think Long"
- "Fraud in the '80s"
- "Like U Crazy"
- "Beautiful Dreamer"
- "What It Means"
- "For the Actor"
- "Nature and the Wreck"
- "So Many Ways"
- "Running Out"
Mates of State tour dates, according to the band's publicist:
- 3/24 - Philadelphia, PA @ First Unitarian Church
- 3/25 - Falls Church, VA @ State Theater
- 3/26 - Carrboro, NC @ Cat's Cradle
- 3/27 - Athens, GA @ 40 Watt Club
- 3/28 - Tallahassee, FL @ Club Downunder
- 3/29 - Orlando, FL @ The Social
- 3/30 - Gainesville, FL @ Common Grounds
- 3/31 - Atlanta, GA @ Variety Playhouse
- 4/1 - Asheville, NC @ Grey Eagle Music Hall
- 4/2 - Nashville, TN @ The End
- 4/3 - Urbana, IL @ Canopy Club
- 4/4 - Des Moines, IA @ Vaudeville Mews
- 4/5 - Minneapolis, MN @ Varsity Theater
- 4/6 - Chicago, IL @ Metro
- 4/7 - Detroit, MI @ Magic Stick
- 4/8 - Notre Dame, IN @ Legends of Notre Dame
- 4/9 - Cleveland, OH @ Beachland Ballroom
- 4/12 - New York, NY @ Bowery Ballroom
- 4/20 - Seattle, WA @ Neumos
- 4/21 - Vancouver, BC @ Plaza Club
- 4/28 - San Francisco, CA @ Great American Music Hall
- 4/30 - Indio, CA @ Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival