A friend recently compared Mates of State's new album, Team Boo, to "getting a stomachache from swallowing too much sunshine." After hearing this, Jason Hammel is quiet for a minute, then agrees: "Yeah, I actually like that comparison. Wait, did he mean it made him sick?" Not-so-eloquent statements aside, Mates of State, the San Francisco-based husband-and-wife duo of organist Kori Gardner and drummer Hammel, escape an easy description.
"We met in college in Lawrence, Kansas," Hammel explains. "We ran in the same crowds and played in different bands. One night, I just went up to her and told her I liked her. She said she had a boyfriend but that we could work around that."
"That's not what I said!" Gardner laughs. "Well, we didn't go on a date until three months later. Jason was actually the first person I tried e-mailing through the campus mail system. God, that sounds ancient! But it was more like, 'OK, you dump your girlfriend; I'll dump my boyfriend.'"
One could hear tinges of their songs in conversation. People have remarked that Mates of State's vocals sound like two people arguing, with separate vocals layered over each other, forsaking the call-and-response method. "We were both singers in other bands, and we're both really into harmonies," Hammel says. "Sometimes we sing over each other, but it's never argumentative in nature."
This is understandable, since Gardner and Hammel use body language on-stage as much as organ and drums. They play facing each other, singing to each other, sharing smiles that only two people in love can understand. And they make two people sound like an orchestra. Their 2000 release, My Solo Project, boiled over with robust pop melodies and honey-drenched harmonies that could swim around in your head for days. Once they'd had enough of Kansas, Gardner and Hammel moved to San Francisco in 1998. After three years there, the couple quit their day jobs, got married, and decided to tour full-time. Quitting a day job is any musician's dream, but for Gardner, who was leading a double life of sorts as an elementary-school teacher, it became a necessity.
"My weekends would be spent on tour," she remembers. "I'd come home late from playing a bar, and I wasn't getting sleep. It wasn't fair to the kids. But teaching is definitely inspiring. I have four-track recordings of kids making up songs. A lot of people think the song 'Hoarding It for Home' [from 2002's Our Constant Concern] is a teacher song [Gardner sings, "Everyone settle down, settle down, settle down..."]. But it's really not! I think that phrase is just so ingrained in my mind."
You want to ask Gardner and Hammel the real dirt, like if they do it to their own songs or whether they fart in front of each other or if he leaves the toilet seat up. But let's forgo all the cutesy stuff and just say that if you've had a bad day, Mates of State is the band that makes you so happy, you want to either run through a sprinkler in your underwear or throw a bottle at them. They're just that damn good.