Music is a lot more fun than cancer. While most touring rock bands administer themselves carcinogens at terrifyingly steady pace, drummer Jason Hammel must be conscious of his lifestyle. This indie rocker used to make his living as a cancer researcher. Hammel and his wife/bandmate, Kori Gardner (a former elementary school teacher), both had “normal” lives before they matriculated into the world of rock ’n’ roll, recording and touring. Bit these days, they comprise the musical duo Mates of State.
On the phone, it sounds as though they’ve found a little piece of suburban heaven in their new blue-collar digs.
“We needed a place to settle down to write the new record,” says Hammel. “This is perfect. We are away from all the distractions, but we are just an hour’s ride away from New York. ... In fact, we were just in the city last night.”
Formed in 1997, both members of the Mates of State had been playing guitar in separate bands in their college town of Lawrence, Kan. Almost immediately after meeting, an enduring love affair and a soon-to-be-adored musical merger commenced.
“Since we met, we really haven’t been apart from each other for even a day,” says Hammel.
In 2000, MOS’s debut album, My Solo Project (Omnibus Records), was an instant underground classic, a must-have for indie rockers everywhere. The New York Times dubbed it, “one of the best albums you probably didn’t hear in 2000.” For a first attempt, My Solo Project was incredibly powerful. Not only did it establish the duo as honest songwriters and musicians, but their unsettling harmonies, sometimes-sappy vocals and distinctive call-and-response style carved out a unique niche.
“We don’t really like our second album,” says Hammel. No surprise, really — few others liked 2002’s Our Constant Concern (Polyvinyl), either. “It was rushed,” admits Hammel. “We had the totally wrong producer on that one.”
For a time, it looked as if the curse of the one-album-wonder was to be their fate.
But with last week’s release of their latest album, Team Boo (Polyvinyl) it looks as though the curse has been lifted.
“This new album is much more like our first album,” Hammel assures. And it is.
The first song “Ha Ha,” is an olive branch. It is clever, fluid and rich — much like the adored song “Proofs” off My Solo Project.
Produced by Jim Eno (Spoon) and John Croslin (who worked on the first MOS first album and has worked with Beulah and Guided by Voices), Team Boo may just be the album that saves their future as rock stars.
How ironic. Being rock stars (even indie rock stars) seems to be the last thing on their minds.
What’s most impressive about Gardner and Hammel is their utter apathy about stardom. Maybe it’s the sort of surety that comes from being in love, or maybe it comes from a genuine underlying sense of detachment, but they both express interest in revisiting their former lives. They both refer to their music careers as “this experience.”
When the decision was made to quit their so-called “day jobs” and earnestly pursue a music career, Gardner and Hammel were pragmatic about it.
“We made a decision, and we were going to stick with it,” says Gardner. “I soon realized that to ensure my freedom, I had to lose some of my stability.”
Hammel adds, “At first, our families couldn’t quite understand what we were doing, and how we were going to support ourselves. … but now that they see that we can make a living … and we are not asking them for money, they are cool with it.”
And nowadays, as the Mates of State stay afloat in a music business that almost always homes in on shtick, they represent much more than a lovey-dovey state of affairs — they are not a novelty. This duo is proof that a little passion and a taking a chance or two just might help to make an ordinary life, extraordinary.
“We’re lucky,” says Gardner. I can’t help but wonder however, how much of that luck they helped to create.