Mute Math [Voodoo ’07]

The soundtrack to Transformers: The Movie is about what you’d expect from a Michael Bay movie: plenty of heavy pop-metal, rap-rock, and a new Smashing Pumpkins song.  But tucked away at the very end of the CD is a reinterpretation of the classic cartoon’s theme song.  The cover is so out of place with its wispy synths, polished vocals, and stop-time drumming that Bay didn’t even include it in the movie itself.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is Mute Math.  The New Orleans four-piece have consistently found themselves barely inside the major label party, balancing deftly on the line between experimentation and pop success.  This juxtaposition is found not only in the band’s status on Warner Brothers Records, but in their music as well.  A typical Mute Math song will begin with cacophonous guitar wails and sampled feedback before falling into verses that suggest Sting fronting a DJ Shadow cover band.  It’s envelope-pushing radio rock, really, and it’s beginning to find a national audience.  This fall finds Mute Math embarking with Eisley on a co-headlining club tour, including a sold-out night in Boston and appearances on Kimmel and Conan, not to mention a solid mid-day slot at Voodoo Fest.
And though Mute Math’s music is good enough to stand on its own, it is the live show that has forced the national spotlight to turn towards them.  Singer/keyboardist Paul Meany suggests Jerry Lee Lewis, jumping over his Rhodes piano and smashing keytars like Pete Townshend.  Drummer Darren King defies conventional wisdom that tells drummers to remain seated while playing.  It is King’s polyrhythmic off-drumming that drives this band creatively, providing the complex beats of a drum machine with all the soul of a living, sweating human being.
In other words, Mute Math are the perfect band for a big rock festival.  They’re anthemic without being preachy, energetic without being immature, introspective without being boring.  They make their stock and trade in challenging the stereotype of fey synth-rockers wearing white gloves.  It’s no wonder they’re just as at home in the punk scene as they are on late-night talk show couches.
ANTIGRAVITY caught up with the nomadic King over the phone in the Pacific Northwest two days after Mute Math became the first band in television history to perform live backwards (check YouTube) to talk success, New Orleans, and prison.

ANTIGRAVITY: Where are you these days?
Darren King: I’m in Portland and it’s gorgeous here; just a beautiful drive.
AG: You’re from Springfield, right?
DK: Springfield, Missouri, yes sir.
AG: So how did you first come down to New Orleans and get hooked up with Paul?
DK: First met Paul when I was fourteen years old and he was passing through Springfield [on tour] and I just thought he was about the coolest thing I’d ever seen.  He had a little band that he was just putting together and he let me play percussion with them.  The very day that I graduated from high school in 2000, I flew down to New Orleans, still seventeen years of age, and joined his band as percussionist.  It was called Earthsuit.  We toured around.  The album came out on June 20th, 2000, five days before I turned eighteen.  And we had a blast, playing these little festivals with Paul doing his thing.  My dream had come true.  And then, a month and a half later, every bit as quickly as the dream came true it was crushed when they told me that I wasn’t going to get to be in the band.  They kicked me out because I was hyper, because I wasn’t really contributing anything musically to the band, and because they couldn’t even afford to have me around.  They weren’t even paying me and they couldn’t afford to have me around!  They were starting a new band, which is a costly venture.  So that was a big disappointment.  That made it all the more meaningful and special when, two years later, I joined Paul’s band again as the drummer and slowly we built this new project.  To watch it take shape and become what it has has been so fulfilling and so fun.  That’s how it started; it started in April of ’97, when I first met him.
AG: Did you guys keep in touch in those off-years?
DK: We did correspond occasionally in the time between Earthsuit and Mute Math.  We crossed paths, sometimes in the strangest places.  One day, I was in Tulsa, looking at this college.  And all of a sudden, while I’m touring this college, I look to my right and it was Paul.  We had a couple of strange instances like that, little accidental meetings.  And then, I began to piece together songs using records that I would check out from the library and a sampler that I borrowed from my boss and a computer that I borrowed from a neighbor.  It was all really messy electronic music that I was trying to put together.  I’d send those tracks to Paul and he liked them, and we’d work on them together and had a great time doing it.
AG: Where do you live these days?
DK: All of my possessions are in storage.  I’m as nomadic as I can be.  My car is parked in a grocery store parking lot.  Greg [Hill, guitarist] lives in Kenner and Paul is temporarily stationed in Tennessee.  Him being a New Orleans native, I often hear it in his voice and see it in his eyes that he’s anxious to return and hopes that we can record our next album in New Orleans.  The last time we were there was when we played the House of Blues, and prior to that the last time I was there was when we played Voodoo Fest [last year].  I’m very anxious to return, I really am.
AG: Are you excited to be playing Voodoo this year?
DK: I love it.  I love Voodoo Fest.  Last year’s Voodoo show was one of the most memorable of the year, for several reasons.  We had a great slot during the day on the main stage.  And every time we go to New Orleans it’s a reunion, a homecoming of sorts wih countless friends and family members who we miss when we’re on the road.  So oftentimes it’s a very tiring date because we’re just hanging out with people we haven’t seen in forever.  You see all these people you don’t see otherwise and don’t expect to see again for some time.  And the show just went well.  I remember we were so excited.  The weather was perfect.  I fell off my drum stool twice, I flipped over backwards off of my riser.  This happens to me when I’m on a drum riser; if I jump back I fly off of it.  Paul’s grandfather – one of the best-dressed men in the city – helped us.  We performed with Papa G.  You might expect a little bit more of Papa G at this next performance.  Papa G is also known as the Dancing Santa at the Clearview Mall.  I believe it’s the Clearview Mall, maybe the Lake Front, not sure.  He’s a great character.  A real Metairie Italian ‘yat.
AG: You guys have this really interesting thing going where you’re this excellent dance party band, playing big and fun and noisy music, but then you turn very quiet and introspective, often in the same song.  Where did that aesthetic come from?
DK: First of all, thank you for saying that.  I appreciate the compliment.  And I have to admit that the band that we are is not what I expected we would become when we first started experimenting with all of this music together.  I remember seeing a band called múm at the Parish Room – they were from Iceland – and I thought, “Oh I want to make something like that.”  Something quiet and maybe electronic and beautiful.  And as we played together I kept getting excited, and that excitement made us louder and louder and louder and we turned into a rock band.  And it feels good because it didn’t feel forced; we followed what excited us.  I will admit that after years of touring and a couple years of playing these songs, sometimes I have to try and work to find [ways to get excited] to play these songs, but even then it’s not that hard.  That being said, I couldn’t tell you exactly how it all came about and I couldn’t tell you quite where we’re going.  Even as we’re writing new songs, the style and sound of the next record hasn’t taken shape yet.  It could go anywhere.  Some of the songs we’ve been writing are quieter.  On the last album we took the approach of starting with samples and electronics and adding our live instrumentation.  With the next album it seems like we’re taking the opposite approach, at least in the writing process.  We’ve been writing with guitars and we’ll add samples later.  I guess we’ll do that for some of it, it’s still too soon to tell.  I’ve been trying to work harder to write on the road.  When you’re in a band there are any number of things that you can concern yourself with, whether it’s a video or the business, or a show or any little thing that might come up.  I want to focus on writing songs because I feel like that’s the only thing we can do.  We can write our songs.  Someone else can direct a great video, someone else can help us pick out our clothes, but no one else can write our songs for us.  So, realizing that lately, I’ve been trying to make that more of a priority.  Sorry, I realize that’s light years from the question you asked [laughs].
AG: I know exactly what you mean.  I know that as a writer, there are so many other, less-important things that I often focus on instead of simply sitting down and writing, which is all I’m any good at anyway.
DK: Yes, exactly, that’s it.  There has to be some point where you stop taking in information and you take whatever tools you have and you just create.  I watched the Daniel Johnston documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, which I think is the best music documentary I’ve ever seen.  I saw him perform live a couple of weeks ago right before we left for this tour.  And I remember at some point in the documentary someone said, “The thing that made Daniel different from us art kids was that wherever he was, he just sat down and created with whatever he had around him.”  He didn’t tell himself that it wasn’t right or enough or adequate.  He couldn’t help it, he just created.  I admire that.  I want to be more like that.  We get comfortable with certain resources and tools and think that’s the only way we can work, but who knows, maybe there’s more.
AG: Is it hard for you to build up this wild energy every night when you go out on tour.
DK: [laughs] At the beginning of the tour, if we’ve had a month or two off, I really feel the burn.  I get so sore.  Just two days ago we performed our music video [backwards] on live television for Jimmy Kimmel Live, then the next day we went to Boise and did a concert.  The night prior we did a concert in Vancouver.  So that was a tough one and yesterday I took one of the most fulfilling and productive naps of my life.  I awoke born anew.  I think that’s the secret.  You can only do so much.  To want every single thing right now is to burn yourself out.  I’ve learned the importance of a good nap, of a good meal, of just sitting down in a park somewhere or doing something fun.  And that’s the trick is to space it out.  I don’t know what it is, what the difference is between a concert that feels electric and one that feels stifled.  I’ve had concerts that didn’t feel great to me where people said it was the best they’d ever seen us and I’ve had some where I felt like every note was meaningful and we played well and some people come up to us and tell us we sounded like we were struggling a little bit.  I don’t know what the difference is.  I try not to worry about it and enjoy it.  I want to do it well.   I want to be remembered as someone who did what they did well.  So we do kind of reach a place eventually where we forget that we could play otherwise.  We play hard on our instruments and with a lot of energy, and at some point you begin to think of that as the norm.  You forget to be quiet.
AG: I read an article from some British blogger who prophesied that June 2007 was going to be a “defining moment” for Mute Math.  I don’t want to pin you down specifically to June, but how have the last few months treated you guys?
DK: How have things been since June 2007?  It’s felt different and it’s been wonderful.  To play on the David Letterman show, to tour Europe in the manner that we have, to receive some of the compliments that we’ve gotten lately, it’s been near-overwhelming and were it to happen any faster, we’d have a hard time keeping up with it and getting acclimated to it.  It really has been one of the more rewarding summers of my life.  When I think of all the things that we did this year and compare it to the year that I spent working at the Macaroni Grill in Mandeville, it’s easy.  It’s amazing how much has happened and I’m really thankful for it.  And the pinnacle of it might have been the day we performed on Letterman, went to eat at Carmine’s, this really amazing restaurant in Times Square, and then when we’re heading back to the hotel to watch the Letterman show we saw our music video playing on this giant screen in Times Square.  It was a wonderful day and sort of a picture of what this year’s felt like.  So, yeah, it’s been really nice and we want more.  We want to have another single on radio and we want to sell a lot of albums and we want to continue to tour and we want to write meaningful music.  Even after we’ve accomplished these things, it’s easy for us to grow anxious and frustrated and the trick is to beat that down as best as possible.  You work towards it, but pace yourself.  I hope that it’s possible to have popularity and success without going crazy; I really hope that.
AG: That’s interesting because I just interviewed Curt Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets and he was saying similar things.  He’s very wary of success and all of the pressures that it brings, having been so close to Nirvana and Kurt Cobain.
DK:  I look at it and I want to see an example.  I want to find the example of people who didn’t allow it to change them or harm them or their family and their lives, and I don’t know what the trick is.  One thing that happens to you if you’re not careful is that your opinion of you can become so tied up in what other people think of you.  When you can go online and people whom you’ve never met are praising or condemning you for something that you’ve done, it can mess with you and your opinion of life and of yourself.  I know that people take different routs.  Some people dive into other people’s opinions and analyze them and consider them.  Other people ignore it.  I don’t know which is best, but I do know that there comes a point when you have to disregard it.
AG: I also read somewhere that you guys want to play in Eastern Europe, India, American prisons, all of these other exotic locations.  Why do you want to play there?
DK: You really easily get spoiled to these really big cities.  You play on Letterman and get treated so well, and that’s nice, but something happens when you play somewhere and you get the impression that they don’t get bands playing every day.  Take for example Londoners: they’re pummeled with bands.  There’s a new cool band every day, and they’re hard to impress.  But if you go somewhere where there’s not a thousand bands beating down the door, there’s a certain gratitude that you feel.  We just assume that that would be more true in places like Eastern Europe and places like that.  And for me, getting to travel to other countries is one of the more fulfilling parts of being in a band.  While that’s an expensive and difficult venture, we talk about it and we hope to do it some day.  We have some friends in Bulgaria and places like this and we talk about going over there.  We have a couple of little things like that coming up over here in the States.  We’re playing in a home for the disabled.  Not much of that yet.  It’s just one of those things that we want to do and we just have to pick and choose at some point, but someday.

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