Recently, I got to talk with Jason Hammel from Mates of State, while they were in the studio in Bridgeport, CT, working on new stuff and recording their very first song since Mountaintops. I first heard about these guys circa 2003, when “Proofs” became my jam. Years later, they’re still going strong, improving, and expanding. Below is my conversation with Jason about what’s new, where they’ve been, and where they’re going.
Kelly Knapp: What else is new in the world of Mates of State?
Jason Hammel: Uh, just that. We got new dates coming up, and we’ve been rehearsing for that and writing a lot. We have a home studio that we’ve been working in a lot too, so we’re trying to get better at producing our own stuff. It’s been good.
KK: Your last record was just this past September – your seventh album.
JH: Well, our sixth original album, but we did that covers album too.
KK: Right. But you guys have really had a nice run so far. Do you ever look back on everything and think, hey we’ve had some great longevity already?
JH: Yeah, I mean, we just think of all of our friend’s bands that don’t exist anymore. We talk about that, and I think a lot of it is that we make this music together, and we kind of keep the train rolling. Our personal lives are so intertwined with the music. A lot of times bands break up because their girlfriends or whatever are like, ‘I don’t want you to go on the tour anymore,’ or ‘we need to move for my job,’ or whatever. For us, it’s all just in one pot.
KK: How do you balance all that? You’re together so much, and keeping it all in the family now. You take your kids on tour too?
JH: Yeah, we do. In general, that’s our rule to keep everyone together. We had kids because we wanted to be available for them. It’s a lot of work. We wanted that to be a part of the whole package.
KK: And most of your music is really positive and happy sounding – it sounds like you’re very positive and happy people all the time.
JH: You know, that always surprises me when people say that, because I think a lot of our lyrics are fairly dark. But I think because of the way the music is, and the fact that we are in a relationship – and we’re happy in that relationship – I think people just automatically think we’re always happy people. I think overall we’re really optimistic positive people, we really try to keep on the up and up of things, but there’s definitely – in the music I feel like we work out a lot of our issues and our dark sides.
KK: Is the music what balances everything out for you guys?
JH: It may be. I never thought about it. Maybe that’s where we work it all out and move on. It always just surprises me when people are like, ‘oh your music is so happy,’ and I’m like, well, not always.
KK: Most of the time though, it feel good to listen to it. It’s always delivered in an uplifting manner.
JH: Yeah, that’s probably it. And I’m glad that it makes people happy and not want to kill themselves.
KK: What keeps inspiring you for new material, and how do you keep it all fresh for yourself?
JH: It’s just general life things. We’re both always seeking new experiences and people in our lives that have fucked up situations, and things that we generally experience on a daily basis. You get inspired by a person you meet or something and you’re like, ‘I wanna write a song,’ or you break up with somebody, or have a fight with your friend or something and then you just put music to it. There’s always something, you know?
KK: What about your evolution as a band – your songwriting and dynamic – how would you say that’s changed over the years?
JH: It’s funny, because every time we would sit down to write a record, we always try to take out a main ingredient from the last process. When we first started, it was just two of us – organ and drums – in a garage, pounding out songs. Then we would go in to record them, and play them live, and that was it. Fast-forward ten years later, I think we’ve gotten to be better players, gotten to be better songwriters. Maybe I’ll put down a drum part on the computer, and then Kori will come up with a chord progression, and then we’ll say oh yeah, we got this cool part, so now let’s play it together and see what kind of vocal melody comes out. It’s just always kind of shifting, and I think that’s the only way to keep it fresh and satisfying. If you just do what you did last time, eventually you just get bored. So for us, that’s kind of rule number one in writing: let’s not repeat ourselves. Let’s not even come close to repeating ourselves. Let’s up-step the process of what we thought it was, and see if we can come up with something cool out of that. I think that’s kind of key.
KK: What about your relationships with your instruments, has that changed?
JH: Yeah, that’s kind of changed a lot too. Before we started in this band, we were both playing guitar. I had taken piano lessons before, and Kori played guitar and bass, so I think as we move along, we kind of start to practice the other instruments more and come up with ideas on piano, and Kori wants to play more guitar. She’s always playing guitar a lot more. I think it’s just, when we first started we were only two people in this band, she played the piano and I played the drums, and we just really focused on that. We had to get that right first. Now we’re a little more comfortable and we can move around across other instruments. Even with recording software and synths, and all that – you can kind of do anything now on the computer, too. You don’t even have to play real instrument hardly anymore, if you don’t want to. So there’s the fine balance of keeping that stuff, but using real acoustic instruments too, because that’s what our first love is.
KK: So in your shows, are you starting to incorporate more of that, instead of just drums and organ?
JH: Well, I don’t know when the last time you saw us, if you’ve ever seen us live, but now we bring in two other musicians with us too, and one guy plays guitar, and one guy plays a lot of extra keyboard stuff. So the sound is much bigger than two people on stage, like the old days when it was just Kori on the organ, me on the drums, and us both singing. It’s much bigger, and it kind of frees us up a little bit more to focus on the singing, and our drum parts.
KK: Ah, ok. Yeah I think the last time I saw you was in 2005, so it’s been a while.
JH: Yeah, it was probably just the two of us on stage, right?
JH: Yeah, it’s different now. I think it’s better now, actually. It’s a bigger experience.
KK: Has touring gotten any easier, with all your experience and figuring out how to deal with things, or is it just still always something?
JH: I think in a way it has gotten easier, because now we know what works and what doesn’t. But, it’s gotten more expensive because we bring our kids, and we bring extra musicians, a tour manager, a nanny, a sound person…we bring a lot more people. Literally, when we first started, it was me and Kori in an Isuzu Rodeo, and we would tour nine months out of the year in that thing. We would just store our amps, drums, and keyboards in the back and go from there. Now, it’s a much bigger process to get the show on the road. You have the bus and the kids, and you have to make sure their school situation is alright, and you have to pay all these other people, and it’s just a lot bigger production. But once it’s actually rolling and you’re on tour, it’s really easy and fun. You know what works, you know all your favorite restaurants, and how to keep it flowing.
KK: What do you do with your downtime when you’re on tour?
JH: There really isn’t any downtime anymore. There used to be a shit load of it, because we would just sound check and then be sitting backstage drinking, waiting for the show to start. Now it’s a really fine balance between doing sound check…well, waking up and hanging out with our kids and taking them to a museum or something, then doing sound check and coming back and having dinner with them, hanging out, maybe watch a movie, get them ready for bed, put them to bed, then go back and do the show, load out…there’s just really not a whole lot of downtime anymore. And sometimes I kind of miss that, because you could just start walking, whatever city you’re in, could just start walking the streets and find some interesting stuff. Sometimes, you just kind of break away and do that now, because that’s where you stumble upon the beauty of all these different cities that you visited.
KK: Where are you most proud of, to date?
JH: I’m just proud that we’re getting better, and that’s been the goal. We want to make music and we want to get better at it, and I think we are. I think it’s been incremental, and as long as we keep improving, then that’s progress, and we’ll keep doing it.
KK: Do you have any words of wisdom for newer bands trying to make it?
JH: Man, it’s such a weird wild west out there in the music industry right now. When we started, we just wanted to play. That was our motto – just play as much as you can to anybody that will listen, and I don’t think that’s necessarily people’s initiative anymore. Now they’re just like, ‘well we gotta get a Facebook page up, and a Twitter account, first thing’s first. Get our name out there.’ And it’s like, just play your music. And if it’s any good, people will find out about it. That’s really the only advice I have. If you really want to be in a band, then just start playing music, and play it as much as you can. That’s the only way you’re gonna get any good, and if it’s good, people are gonna hear about it.
KK: Very good advice. And what does the future hold for Mates of State? You have this new song that you’re just now working on, and what else?
JH: We’re gonna write a hit song.
KK: The 20th one?
JH: Yeah, then finally everybody’s gonna know about Mates of State.