Mutemath maybe the hottest band in the world and Getintothis’ Christian Bragg had a chinwag with frontman Paul Meany taking in all things New Orleans gumbo and a lot more besides.
The Experimental Evolution Continues.
With a new album ‘Play Dead‘ completed, and a major tour of Europe and the States booked and being described as the “Hottest band in the world” after finishing the year on a high with a collaboration with Twenty One Pilots, 2017 showed all the promise that this would be the year that Mutemath would be catapulted in to the Major League.
With a release date of September 9 confirmed and two new singles premiering across radio, the distorted prog fuelled lead single ‘Hit Parade‘ a track that takes you on deep psychological journey into the world of Mutemath and the mesmerising trip hot cut ‘Stroll On‘ which builds on the sounds of the band’s 2015 album Vitals, and their 2016 remix project Changes.
You could be forgiven for thinking Everything seemed perfect, anticipation building for ‘Play Dead‘ and all the hard work put in over the past two years was paying off. Then a few weeks back news broke, arguably, one of the finest drummers to grace our generation, and Darren King’s timing appeared to be well and truly off, as it was announced he had left his band-mate of 15 years, a month before the tour and release of the album Play Dead.
The official statement from lead singer Paul Meany, left many shocked and confused, the excitement of a new release and tour now turning into anxious time’s for the band and its fans.
I’m en route to the Islington O2 Academy to see the band on the first night of the ‘Play Dead‘ tour. It’s the first show with the new line up. It’s been 3 weeks since the departure of drummer Darren King was announced and his replacement David ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson being drafted in.
Hutch and bass player Jonathan Allen have worked together previously in the band Club Of Son’s and Paul’s first band Earthsuite, so i’m positive the chemistry will be good between the band as my knowledge of New Orleans musicians is they always come up with the goods especially in the face of adversity.
My first encounter with Mutemath Goes back to summer 2008. I was on a trip to the USA and ventured over to Tamper Bay for meeting with Matchbox Twenty frontman Rob Thomas. His Band where playing the arena with support from Alanis Morissette and a new band to me at the time.
One I’d not heard. Mutemath. The band took to the stage to a pretty full arena and within minutes I was captivated by the charisma of a young keyboardist and drummer filling the venue with excitement and energy, and then came a riff that really caught my attention.
This was Typical. From that moment I was hooked.
A few years later I was in New Orleans at a bar called The Maple Leaf. I’d just come from a gig watching Rebirth Brass Band and was in need of a drink, so headed in to quench my thirst and Papa Grows Funk were having a break in their set, when a track came on the Jukebox and it stopped me in my tracks.
What was it? I needed to know. There was no Shazam. I rushed over to the jukebox to see what track was playing and to my surprise it was Mutemath.
It was the title track from a new album ‘Armistice‘. It was very different to the sound of the debut, they had gone more left-field. I got up early the next morning and found the local record store ‘Louisiana Music Factory’ and bought myself the CD, went straight back to the hotel and instead of heading to Jazz Fest, put the CD into my laptop and started to listen.
Again to my surprise in reading the album notes the brass band I’d been to see the night before Rebirth, they appeared on the track I’d heard on the Jukebox.
Mutemath have always been rooted in experimenting. From their self-title debut, featuring ‘Spotlight‘ a track that found its way onto the blockbuster movie ‘Twilight‘ to the 2009 follow up Armistice we have seen the band indulge their experimental side a little more. Heavy distorted bass and analogue synths hard at play across the album and features the beautifully haunting track ‘Pins and Needles’.
Album 3 appeared in 2011 – Odd Soul – it’s the fan favourite, more blues influenced than its predecessor and it has a jam band quality to it. After leaving Warner Brothers the band plotted a new direction and forming a new record label. Released in 2015 ‘Vitals‘ is my favourite album ahead of Play Dead.
It reinvigorated my love for playing an album from start to finish. It’s a masterclass in production, I ended up buying the cassette, vinyl, CD and import CD for the bonus tracks!
Last week single War premiered with a video to complement the track. Meany’s voice is engaging as he repeatedly sings, “War is in my nature.”
This leads me to where I am now. Currently sat in Paul’s dressing room at the O2 Academy, I’m still buzzing with excitement after hearing ‘Play Dead’ and in walks Paul.
CB – New album Play Dead is on its way and opening night of european tour, Paul, what can we expect?
I think there’s definitely this new excitement going into this , it’s the Hutch the drummers first show, one of the exciting moments was bringing this opportunity to him around a month ago, as Hutch has been a paramedic for past 15 years, I’d played in one of my first bands with him and always knew he was a fantastic drummer, it was a long shot, and not sure if he would be interested and there was some pretty big shoes to fill in on the drums, it was a very redemptive moment to where he was able to step into a moment he’d regrettably walked away from a long time ago .This was his chance to do shows again as he’d been doing shows with Jonathan ( Bass Player ) and had always hoped maybe there be one more chapter in his life where he could hit the road and make some music , so the culmination of a month of this redemptive intense rehearsals trying to save a tour , it kind of starts tonight where scared to death but very very excited a sort of subconscious energy brewing that I’m really excited to unleash
You’ve pretty much answered my next question, so right now it’s scared or excitement your feeling?
There’s a bit of fear as this is the first show I’m doing without my band brother the other side of the stage, so there’s some nerves in there, but at the end of the day I’m really confident in the guys that are there, I’m really grateful more ever than before, just hope for the best, but were not holding back at all.
He has that knack of making you feel comfortable in his presence, he’s so engaging a very positive energy fills the room when he’s speaking .I stop using my notes and just ask questions that have been running through my mind. “Will the set tonight be fundamentally songs from Play Dead or a mixture of all the albums”
Yes a mixture, we’re doing a lot from ‘play dead’, but we have 5 albums now, so trying to take a taste of each and make something new.
Backtracking a little now, Vitals, your last studio album, was a masterclass in production and I believe Play Dead was started before Vitals. How did you come to separate tracks for what has become Play Dead from the tracks from the Vitals sessions, was it difficult to separate the tracks, this is for Vitals’ or this is for Play Dead in say 5 years’ time …
Good question I’ve wondered that , looking back it wasn’t a conscious decision thinking we going to hold these tracks back for album 5 ( Play Dead ) it just kind of happened that way. The songs we were writhing straight after Odd Soul that wound up being for ‘play dead’, at the time felt like ‘odd soul’ b sides, it was like we hadn’t quite cut open a new artery of creativity for ourselves and felt like we were kind of rehashing some left overs,,, And we Knew they were good ideas … but where outta gas on how to develop them. The only thing we were moved by was trying something completely different , and on reflection ‘odd soul ‘ was a very indulgent album ,very blues riffy, a 60 min jam session for drum and Bass ( He laughs at his description ) and we wanted to do something very opposite to that , a more disciplined approach to groove ,and to see how many notes we could get away with not playing that’s what vitals was about.
I Think Roy was coming into a particular voice as a guitar player and the idea of the guitar becoming the rhythm section with the drums appose to the base which we had always done , was a very inspiring idea for us , then it gave room for Synth bass and Todd is a great synth player and found so much inspiration and started writhing and that became Vitals and at the time that’s what we were more moved by ,so after Vitals we were craving something a little more reminiscent , now we wanted to see how many notes we could actually get away with playing , that’s what was inspiring us , throwing every fill or chord or melody into the mix nothing left behind .As s result of this ‘i think play dead’ represents a lot of what we have tried over the past four albums ,and as we’ve come into our own as producers and songwriters the culmination of it became play dead”
That’s what i was thinking it like the love child of Odd Soul and Armistice with Vitals being the baby sitter , ( Paul gives me a Nod of approval ) I’m blown away by it, I’ve listened to it twice today, and without being disrespectful to previous albums , it feels like Mutemath have taken another step up and well and truly found a sound that is undeniably Mutemath and say’s “exactly how I feel ” back to the album the track Break The Fever is like Space Disco, I’m thinking this is possibly my favourite Mutemath song ever (It’s gotta be a single !! As I tell him of my disappointment that Best of Intentions from Vitals should have been a single but wasn’t one) Paul seemingly surprised by my love for Best of Intentions reassures me my ears are good! And says “Yep it’s the next single before Play Dead is Released” this time it’s my turn to nod with approval! I guess you’re feeling proud about Play Dead?
“I really do, it’s like you said, everyone was firing on all cylinders, everyone was stepping up their A Game, the best they’ve ever done. It’s like some of Darren’s best drumming, Roy’s best playing and production and Todd his best writing contribution. It finally felt like the band was firing on all cylinders, which was really exciting. It made the process less laborious than it had been, there wasn’t a lot of don’t do this, don’t do that in the production. This was the only album we didn’t have an outside collaborator on, we did everything for every song, from engineering, mixing, writing, producing, so everyone felt quite a degree of ownership and responsibility to bring in their best, as we had to and wanted to and it really resulted in an album were all extremely proud of so it’s important to me to give this thing a chance to live on stage ”
Where did you record Play Dead was it in New Orleans?
“Half was done in New Orleans and the other half was done remotely, we took a lot of the demos (30 in total) and each of us in the band just picked our favourite three or four that we feel we can make work and produce out to a degree. So what that did was free us up from the democratic process of band’s arguing over the selections and waiting for all four of us to get behind a demo and we gave each other space, and I didn’t think that would have worked on album 3 or 4, I think it worked because of the trust we’d built on working on so many albums together and it helped us get it to at least a place where we could each make an argument. And it worked. The tracks we picked ended up being the foundation of Play Dead with the exception of a few that got cut . The 10 songs we recorded there was no left overs. We got together one more time in Nashville with the final 10 ideas, put the pieces together and finished it up, it was a really fun process“.
It feels to me the album has come very quickly, since Vitals was 2015 and Changes 2016 not forgetting the 21 Pilots collaborations, not that I’m complaining, we’ve been spoilt, was that because it felt easy and pressure was off, and i guess you were just doing your thing?
That’s really how it was. We didn’t second guess ourselves to much, all we wanted to do was make a record that we thought sounded sick to us, no rules, no check list from other people who had to sign off on it, as long as the four of us were moved by what we were hearing we were done, I’ve spent a lot of time over the years second guessing and lyric writing, what exactly should the vocals do, and then we’d over criticise too much within the band, and we would just get into rewrite after rewrite, which Vitals was an example of. This time let’s just not do that, let’s just trust our instincts, maybe the first thing that comes up is the best thing.
So Play Dead has 10 songs, and, I notice no instrumental, although a lot of the songs have long endings and instrumental twists and turns within them, was that a conscious decision for this album?
“It was, I felt like I had a lot to say and I wanted to say it in a concise way, a 10 song manner, we wanted the instrumental part of our band to be more part of the structures of the songs, a lot of the songs go over 5 minutes and we stretch out the ideas and will stretch them out even more tonight, and that was part of the fun for Play dead, we didn’t really have one that we felt excited about to put on”
Some interesting themes on the album: war, immortality, afterlife. Tell me a little about Pixie Oaks the riff gives me a vibe of late Stone Temple Pilots but I’m thinking it’s about Oak Street in New Orleans and maybe your past meeting your Daughter’s Future as in your revisiting places together from your youth through each other’s eyes
“Exactly what it is. Good observation. The song went through the process, it started about 5 years ago as Jam , Roy came in one morning and started laying down a riff and it felt really special, I started doing some “La La ‘s” and then put a melody over it and that was it, we thought it was good but what do we do with it, reminded us of The Pixies and we were recording on Oak Street so we called it Pixie Oaks, and that was as far as the song went. It hit a ceiling right there so we shelved it. As fate would have it that song as you said would become about my daughter, who had just been born at that time, but it was the journey of me learning how to step into this new role in my life and what I would observe, so Pixie Oaks became the setting I would take my daughter to a park I would go to as a kid (city park story-land) so experiencing these childhood memories through her eyes became and alluring thing to write a song about”
Another song that struck me lyrically and in mood is the albums final Marching to the End. Definitely on par with Safe If We Don’t Look Down, lyrically it seems like your questing life and everything you know and trying to find the good in the darkest moments.
“Ha-ha in light of things and current situation, it definitely felt like the wright way to end this album, I mean this whole album is throwing the idea of life after death on the table, and i wanted to look at it from all, well ten, different angles, you know whether it be the literal, religious things we’re programmed to believe in the concept of life after death, to the metaphorical parts of it, and how we really experience the end of chapters in our lives and how to cope to keep moving on, and all those parts of it have been more relevant to me in recent years than ever before, maybe it’s midlife crisis, maybe that’s what it is (with a laugh and smile) a good old fashioned midlife crisis album, and so Marching to the End that’s what became the mantra for this album to find the sliver of light in the darkest of places, where is that opportunity for new begining when everything seems its crashing down”
There’s some fantastic synth sounds and stellar production on Play Dead at times it’s a sonic assault with more twists and turns that the spaghetti junction. How did you find producing it yourself, was there ever a moment when you thought ahh we need outside help or was it more plain sailing and why didn’t we does this a long time ago?
“We never second guessed the four of us where capable of getting where we wanted, and if any of us hit a wall I always felt like I could call Darren or Roy and say what you thinking and everyone always had a positive idea to help break it through. I really cherished that we had gotten to that point as a band and it might be the last time, the last time we create like that, I don’t know but I’m super appreciative of the product that we’ve wound up with
Play Dead we touched on earlier for myself is like a New Orleans Gumbo. It’s a mix of all your albums rolled into one big melting pot but coming out with a new recipe, a definitive taste of Mutemath, so I’m going to put you on the spot what is your favourite track from the album ?
“It’s going to be Stroll On, I really dig that song, and it was the first time I heard it finished – ohh this one’s special for me, a part of it is the way we found to tap into some of those original influences of why I was drawn to music, the first time I heard Tribe Called Quest , Beastie Boys and that 90’s boom bap thing that was going on that I hold near and dear to my heart and that Darren is really good at playing that stuff and Roy came from that same school of thought, so us getting to explore that and putting it into a song like Stroll On – its my favourite moment on Play Dead”
Play Dead is a monster of an album and one that 2017 needed by a band free of any restrictions. It’s not one style in particular or one sound it’s just band at their peak, a band that has discovered their true identity.
The biggest surprise on the album is the track On Hold for the first time I’m hearing an acoustic guitar on a Mutemath album track, it has a Parisian cinematic quality to it that takes you on a whimsical journey.
So its show time The wait is over and the American fans are eagerly awaiting posts on Facebook from those attending to see how the show went with the new line up. The set doesn’t disappoint: 19 songs, opening with new single ‘War’, Paul with keytar and Hutch playing like he’s been in the band all his life.
Paul is a livewire, standing on top of his keyboards, overcome with adrenaline and embracing the energy from the crowd, he gives a fantastic tribute to previous band members. There is no animosity, only gratitude for what they have created and are about to perform.
Paul introduces ‘Changes‘ with a tongue in cheek ‘I have no idea what these lyrics are about‘. The crowd responds to every call to action. Todd is in sonic overdrive on synths and guitar and Jonathan is like a machine. His bass playing is so tight. What had seemed impossible a few weeks back had become real, as Paul surfs the audience on his LED mattress, the band finish gig with the beautiful ‘Clipping’.
Job done. Let’s hope this unique band keep on marching till the end