Songs in the key of one couple’s life


By Rachel Fershleiser

Don’t hate Jason Hammel because he’s happy.

“Every article is like ‘hey, they’re so happy,” he complained to me recently over the phone. “It becomes a problem — always ‘aw, this happy-go-lucky couple with a kid plays rock music.’ I wouldn’t want the stigma of that to stop people from giving us a chance.”

Still, it’s hard to blame the media (me included) for being so fixated on his rosy home life. Together with wife Kori Gardner, Hummel has a one-an-half-year-old girl, Magnolia, and a small indie pop band, Mates of State, which is getting bigger every day. Their fourth full-length album, “Bring It Back,” has just been released on Barsuk Records, former home to indie heavyweights like Death Cab for Cutie.

“It’s not all cupcakes and lollipops all the time,” Hammel says. “Overall, though, I guess it’s not a bad plight to be considered happy—we are.”

Judging from the packed crowd at the 14th Street Virgin Megastore for their CD release show, Mates of State make their fans pretty happy as well. Despite a cold, Kori belted out powerful vocals as she swung her faux-blond hair and played her circa-1970 Yamaha organ. Jason, exuding nerdy-hip, big-nosed sexiness, slammed his drums and harmonized, gazing at his wife or out into the bouncing masses. There were no back up musicians and no guitars, but the duo’s voices and their unique, layered sound was large enough to fill the room.

Perhaps the proximity to NYU dorms skewed the crowd’s median age, but at 26, I felt like the oldest one there. Then I spotted a balding 50-something in a dark suit taking cameraphone pictures.

“There were lots of young kids,” Hammel told me the next day, “but there were also some parents who were like ‘my kid got me into you.’ And then there were some random rocker dudes. So you can’t really say we only appeal to one type of person, and I think that’s a good thing.”

Gardner murmured her agreement, as she rested her sore vocal chords before their next gig.

The two met at the University of Kansas in 1997 while performing with two different bands. They soon began playing together, and shortly afterward, fled the Midwest for San Francisco, where they found jobs that would finance their band’s touring. Gardner taught elementary school and Hammel researched treatments for cancer patients. You can hear the influence of Hammel’s day job on their debut album, “My Solo Project,” which contains a song called “A Control Group” and a lyrical request to “unravel the edge of time/ where proofs and postulations rise.”

Music was relegated largely to the weekends until 2001, when the two quit their jobs to tour for more than a few weeks at a time. Both say they never miss their old careers, and plan to play music professionally for as long as they can. They recently bought a house in Connecticut where they write, rehearse, and raise their daughter, Magnolia, whom they always bring along on tour.

Live performance has long been at the heart of Mates of State’s repertoire. In the beginning, even their songwriting was geared toward what could be recreated on stage, and their albums sounded just like their shows. “I think when we first started this band we were very staunchly against sounding any different than we did live,” Hammel says. “Now we’ve got recording devices at home and we’re on the mindset we should just add and add layers depending on what the song requires.”

This technical experimentation has been an asset to “Bring It Back.” Hammel credits the new sound to “lots more overdubbing, effecting, compressing, singing into walkie talkies and paper towel rolls, too.” The besotted couple’s lyrics remain ambivalent, however. Juxtaposed against their trademark, cheery melodies and beautiful vocals, they combine real-world concerns with an optimistic outlook. Perhaps it’s this duality that makes their happiness endearing instead of off-putting. As the duo sings on Bring it Back, “We’re the dreamer in the beautiful mess.”

Mates of State plays Bowery Ballroom on April 12. For tickets, call 212.533.2111 or visit www.boweryballroom.com.

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