State of the Mates

When bands and relationships mix, there's usually a divorce lawyer lurking behind the drum riser. Consider the romantic dysfunction that made Fleetwood Mac everyone's favorite arena-rock soap opera of the late '70s. What about the "I'm leaving you, what time is Thursday's gig?" dynamics of the White Stripes and Quasi? And let's not get started on Ike and Tina Turner.

With Mates of State, however, you get the feeling that the mutual attraction came first and the musical connection came later, and that might explain why indie-pop's favorite married couple continues to successfully juggle the personal and the professional. Keyboardist-singer Kori Gardner and drummer-singer Jason Hammel met in 1997 while both were students at the University of Kansas, and after relocating to San Francisco, they exchanged wedding vows in 2001. On March 21, the band issues Bring It Back, their fourth and finest album of meticulously crafted New Wave bliss. According to Hammel, the making of the album represented a breakthrough in the couple's working relationship.

"We've finally figured out how to criticize each other tactfully," Hammel says by phone, on the eve of the duo's national tour. "On our first couple of records, we had fairly significant arguments, but it never really carried into our [personal] relationship. On this album, I think it was the first time we didn't have any serious fights. We've found common ground and learned to accept each other's individual visions."

When Hammel and Gardner met, they each played guitar and fronted rock bands on the Lawrence, Kansas, club scene. Hammel gravitated toward skate-punk intensity, while Gardner leaned toward lighter, melodic fare. They had mutual friends and had even shared the bill at one gig, but they never spoke until Hammel decided to approach her at one of her shows. "Ever since our first conversation, we realized we were supposed to be together," he says. "We were actually dating other people and sort of got rid of our significant others so we could be together. But at the same time, we were getting to know each other secretly the whole time."

Until 2001, when they quit their day jobs, Gardner worked as a teacher and Hammel helped administer experimental treatments at Stanford University for women with reproductive cancer. While he found the work gratifying, he says, "Playing music has always been my dream. Even as a kid, I knew this was what I wanted to do."

Bring It Back represents Hammel and Gardner's first music offering since becoming parents. Their daughter was born a year and a half ago, and the couple approached both her birth and the writing of their album with a careful, disciplined game plan.

"We knew we'd be able to give her the first three months of her life, so we didn't work on any music, because it was nearly impossible. We were trying to figure out how to take care of her," Hammel says. "So before and after that, we went to work.

"When you have a kid, it's so time-consuming and deservedly so. But eventually you've got to get back to taking some of your own time and making music is something that we do because we love to do it. We just made sure that we find the right balance of being able to be individuals and being really good parents."

One of the chief pleasures of Bring It Back is the way it simplifies the group's intricate song structures and puts a dance groove behind several tracks, most notably the New Order-ish "Fraud in the '80s." Hammel says that after years of constructing songs with eight or nine parts, he and Gardner asked each other, "'Why do we have to make it that difficult for ourselves and for the listener?' It's hard to dance to something when you don't know what's coming next. Part of that is fun, because we want to sort of keep people guessing. But we decided for this record, 'Why don't we try to write a good song that has three parts?'"

Gardner's giddy, girlish warble is the group's primary selling point, and it's always abetted by Hammel's careening backing vocals, which leap from harmony lines to overlapping counterpoint to unison phrases of encouragement. Their lyrics can get oblique, but the key lines express a hunger for vibrant experience, as opposed to drab existence. "You should really try to be more alive," Gardner implores at one point on the album. Even more telling is this line from "For the Actor": "I just want to feel/The taste of the meal/And not the routine of dining here."

That sort of unabashed embrace of life's possibilities frequently results in Mates of State being pegged as the happiest band in America, and their audiences customarily include an inordinate number of swooning couples. While Hammel is philosophical about the group's image, he finds it one-dimensional.

"Too much of anything sort of gets tiring," he says. "There's a lot worse things that could be said about us. Yeah, we are happy, or we try to be optimistic people, but obviously we're not always like that. Maybe when we're having a bad day and that's all we read, then it's like, 'Oh, come on, man, we're not that flat.' We have ups and downs, pretty severe ups and pretty severe downs, just like anybody."

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Gilbert Garcia