Thursday, May 10, 2012

"We’re just acing what we do live" Interview: Mutemath

This interview was originally conducted for, and published by, Tone Deaf
The regional music festival Groovin’ The Moo has been growing steadily for over half-a-decade now, it’s line-up now swelling to regularly ensnare international acts. This year is no exception, bringing Mutemath to Australia for the first time. “This is it” chuffs Paul Meany, “this is our big excuse to come out,” the band’s keys man and de-facto leader, Meany is the face and soul-studded voice of the New Orleans fusion quartet. A band whose reputation is built on their exhilarating live show.

They’ve come a long way since their virgin festival appearance, back in 2006 at Tennesee’s four-day shindig, Bonnaroo. “We got to squeak in. It was totally last-minute, somebody dropped off the bill and someone pulled a favour and got us in. We had to play in the coffee house tent, which was only set up for singer-songwriters… with a small sound system, it held about 200 people… and we just bring all this gear in there.”

It’s humorous to imagine their ballistic aural assault in such an intimate space, but as Meany recalls fondly, they walked away with 200 new fans in one fell swoop; “It was quite a rush, we got in there by the seat of our pants, and then got invited back next year to play on the bigger stage in the night-time slot – it was wonderful.”

His anecdote reflects just how large a part the live show makes up Mutemath’s identity. Four musicians who can really play, not just individually but also collectively. A taut unit barrelling around the searing corners of their whip-tight riffs and electronic-abetted synergy. Something the band have truly captured with their latest album, last year’s Odd Soul (one of AMR's top 20 albums of last year), a culmination of the band’s powers channelled with all of the velocity of their live performance.

Surprisingly, the genesis of its energy was somewhat of a gamble explains Meany, “we didn’t road-test [the album] at all, we were in the studio trusting our intuition that it was going to work live.” Work for the record began immediately following Armistice Live, a document of the band’s touring show but also of their sophomore effort of the same name, an album who’s creation was a difficult time in the band, after which, their guitar player walked.

Reduced to a three-piece, Meany along with his bandmates, drummer Darren King and bassist Roy Mitchell-Cárdenas, made the decision to retreat, telling their label “consider us dropped,” while they holed up in Meany’s apartment to begin what was to become their third album. “We had a lot of residual energy from mixing and working on Armistice Live, feeling the show. We thought ‘let’s just make a record of songs that’s a continuation of that, which is what we did, locked up in my house for six months and followed that until we had something we were proud of.”

The result was a searing hybridisation of styles and influences, with references to more indulgent genres like prog, afrobeat and psychedelia, but filtered with the upright attack of rock, blues and soul.  Cuts like “Blood Pressure” and “Prytania” seem to merge these seemingly alien spheres of influence, “Allies” crackles with the intensity of Jamiroquai crooning over Led Zeppelin, while the title track sounds like The Black Keys would if raised on a love of kaleidoscopic keys.

It’s fascinating to learn that the band’s listening habits are inherently random, quite literally in some instances. “One thing we used to do in the morning when we got stuck,” confesses Meany, “was use Pandora’s radio [a streaming digital service of music recommendations], type in old school blues, afrobeat, classical soul, whatever it was. Usually stuff from the fifties and sixties, and we didn’t know what we were listening to half the time but the mix of it, hearing this new stuff and not paying attention to who it is or if it’s cool or recognisable, it’s just following the vibe. It was our creative morning cup of coffee.”

Odd Soul
also found the group embracing their collective religious background for the first time. Meany, raised in a heavily proto-Christian environment in New Orleans calls it an uprbinging that “all of us in the band share in common, Darren grew up in Missouri and Roy down in Texas, so all of us to some degree had experienced that bible belt culture… to different levels of severity.” How severe did it get? “I remember going to these big rallies and they’d get everyone fired up about the city, especially down in New Orleans, going down Bourbon street was ‘going to hell’. ‘Everyone, we’ve got to tell them and convert them to our way of life.’ Then we go on a bus… to the streets and…” he’s interrupted by his own exasperated laughter, remembering his evangelistic exploits. “to put it mildly, it was a very humbling time in my life. I got beer thrown at me and cursed out in public, completely humiliated… because there’s nothing people want to hear least, while they’re partying and having a good time, than to have someone bring religious subject matter. That’s what we did. We thought we were doing a good thing. This quest – as a young person – that you were actually going to save the world.”

Drummer Darren King has even remarked previously about his own attempts to “out-Jesus even Jesus.” Meany, still giggling from humility remarks, “It gave us something to do, it kept us out of trouble, looking back it certainly gives a lot of cringe-worthy moments.”

Where previously this embarrassment meant the group kept their upbringing in their back pocket, Odd Soul found the band internalising their collective background into the music. “I think we’ve always kind of wondered ‘what do we do with this?’” ponders Meany “It’s a big part of how our minds and perspectives are shaped, whether we like it or not. Maybe it has been a bit of a challenge, I think this record we decided to have fun with it, not overthink it.”

The key lyric from “Blood Pressure” goes “Why can’t you do/a little more for Jesus?”a line that emerged from Meany and King collaborating on many of the album’s lyrics, “we’d end up discussing it and telling stories. There is a certain autobiographical quality to this record, perhaps making our peace with what we weren’t sure about with ourselves, that weren’t previously articulated.” Unlike U2’s undertones of Christianity, or worse, Creed’s dour preaching, Mutemath’s beliefs aren’t a preoccupation but simply another texture to their character, or as Meany jokes “let’s just put in the songs and see how it goes.”  

‘Rather well’ would be the critical response, Odd Soul refines their unique alchemy, while its subsequent tour translates its electric fusion naturally to the stage. Or as Meany puts it, “as far as something that was stage-ready. We’re just acing what we do live.”

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