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He Said, She Said 

Mates of State fashion new sounds from age-old conversations

Wednesday, Oct 11 2000
Oftentimes, being in a band is like being in a relationship. There are moments onstage that run comfortably and naturally enough to make verbal communication seem obsolete, and then there are screaming matches over missed rehearsals and long nights wondering whether it's time to break up. Mutual adoration is often just a step away from blind hatred.

Now imagine what it would be like if you were romantically involved with a bandmate. It may sound like a nightmare, but not to Mates of State.

The Mates of State are Kori Gardner, 26, and Jason Hammel, 24. Gardner plays the organ and Hammel plays the drums. They both sing. They sing to each other, and they sing to each other loudly. It is a rare moment during a Mates of State song that Gardner or Hammel is not singing very, very enthusiastically. They are in love.

The closeness of Gardner and Hammel's relationship is evident when Mates of State perform. The duo watch each other intently, navigating through sudden stops and complicated changes; there are giggles and dirty looks when Gardner misses a note or Hammel flubs a fill. Anyone watching might get the sense that his or her presence is an intrusion into something intimate. This certainly isn't the first time two starry-eyed lovers have made music together: John and Yoko did it, and so did Paul and Linda, each with mixed results. But if a rabid live following and a rapidly selling debut album are any indication, Mates of State offer a love that is wholly captivating instead of vaguely nauseating.

Gardner and Hammel met while attending the University of Kansas in 1997.

"We were both involved in the music scene out there. Our bands actually played at some shows together," Gardner says. "I met everyone in his band, and he met everyone in my band, but we never met [each other]. It was two years before we ever talked."

"The story behind how we met is fairly sappy," Hammel continues. "It undoubtedly was one of those things where when it happened we both became obsessive about finding a way so we could meet up again. We knew we had to be together, and it worked. I swear, not a week after we actually did say "screw the gossips,' we agreed that we would be leaving the Midwest together."

In the meantime, Gardner and Hammel began playing guitar and singing together in a band called Vosotros.

"[Mates of State] just started as something we did for fun," Hammel says, stretching his arm over Gardner's shoulder. "It was just something we would do when band practice fell through."

"I had bought this organ from a friend for a hundred bucks three years before," Gardner says. "Nobody could carry it. There were so many injuries trying to carry that thing." Soon, the pair began writing new songs, with Hammel on the drum kit and Gardner playing the oversized, antiquated Yamaha organ.

Even with only two instruments, the band's songs are surprisingly full. Much of this is due to Hammel and Gardner's inspired harmonies, which have drawn comparisons to everyone from the Jackson 5 to Kansas emo band Boy's Life. The sound is a unique combination of Hammel's punk rock roots and Gardner's love of "pretty, harmony stuff."

"When we started [playing together], we liked completely different music," says Hammel.

"I used to be a very wimpy singer," Gardner says. "I would try to bury the vocals, keep it quiet, and [Hammel] came from a background where you just belt that shit out. He really taught me how to sing."

"And she helped me a lot with harmony," Hammel says. "We taught each other tons. It's a give and take."

Mates of State played only a handful of shows in Kansas before job opportunities and a desire to get the hell out of the Midwest brought the band to San Francisco.

"My mom was a little freaked out," Gardner says. "Here I am moving to San Francisco with a boy I just met to be in a band."

After finding work and settling into a small Mountain View apartment, Gardner and Hammel played one of their first shows in San Francisco at the Cocodrie with local rock band Little Deaths. Deaths guitarist Claire Walsh was about to put out a 7-inch with her other band, Fighter D, and asked the Mates to be on the other side of the single.

Released by San Francisco label Omnibus in the fall of 1999, the split record caused a small commotion in the indie scene. Word spread that a duo from Kansas was making a unique new sound in the midst of the then-stagnating San Francisco pop scene. Revered British DJ John Peel even played the Mates' side of the single, "Leave Me at the Tree," on his BBC program. The attention earned the still young band a number of high-profile local shows opening for Magnetic Fields, Stereo Total, and Death Cab for Cutie.

This past spring, Omnibus released the band's first solo single; this summer saw the release of its debut full-length.

Recorded in May with John Croslin at San Francisco's Tiny Telephone studio, My Solo Project features Mates of State's best recordings to date. Bookended by childhood boombox recordings of Gardner's sister Kelly singing TV theme songs, the album features 10 near-flawless pop songs in just over a half an hour. The arrangements and song structures are tighter and more mature than the singles, and the lyrics -- although still highly personal at times -- are closer to letting the listener in on the secret language of Gardner and Hammel's relationship.

"When it came time to record the album, we wanted to be really clear on every word we sang. We drove out to the beach -- it was really foggy -- and we just sat in this parking lot and started writing lyrics together. One of us would start [a song] and the other would finish it," Hammel says.

"We had ideas about what we wanted the songs to be about," Gardner remembers. "[Often] we'll be singing about the same thing and not realize it till later. Lyrics will relate to conversations we had before."

Hammel says, "It's hard to explain how our relationship ties into the band and the music, because they're so involved."

"They're the same thing," shrugs Gardner. "We go right to practice from work and then home to dinner."

My Solo Project explores a newfound dynamic complexity and emotional depth. "I Have Space" is a gentle piano and drum duet, tucked in between the aggression of "Throw Down" and "Tan/Black." In "Everyone Needs an Editor," Gardner and Hammel shout back and forth at each other, "Let's call it quits/ Cut me some slack/ It's my side of the mountain/ It's my side of the bed," and then come together like kisses after an argument. The album's centerpiece, however, is "Nice Things That Look Good." The song starts as a quiet ballad based on the interplay of Gardner's chirping, bubbly organ tones and Hammel's toy accordion. Soon the drums sneak in and out as the song grows louder and louder. Gardner has come to master her instrument, and here her organ twitters and growls until it reaches a bombastic climax. Analog sound effects and two-handed chords race alongside Hammel's stop-and-start drumming, as if tracing the path of the emotional seesaw of two people sharing their every moment together.

The album has received a phenomenal reception since its release. In its first week -- with no press at all -- the record sold 40 copies at San Francisco's Aquarius Records and notched the third highest debut (behind Willie Nelson and Nick Drake) on the College Music Journal's charts. Just a few months after its release, My Solo Project is nearly sold out of its first pressing. The duo's accompanying live shows have been consistently filled to capacity, making it only a matter of time before some national act picks the pair to open for it.

A year and a half after moving to the Bay Area, Gardner and Hammel have an apartment with a Murphy bed and two cats in the Sunset District of San Francisco. Gardner teaches first and second grade, and Hammel researches treatments for cancer patients. Next summer, they will be married in Connecticut, where Gardner grew up. They're in love and they don't care who knows it.

About The Author

Owen Ashworth


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