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Trying to describe the sound of the New Orleans quartet Mute Math can bring to mind that music-writing adage — it's like dancing about architecture, i.e., inaccurate and silly. But here's an attempt anyway to translate Mute Math's beautiful squall into words: Lush, synth-driven rhythms churn insistently alongside rock riffs, sounding a little reminiscent at times of Depeche Mode, only on Prozac and minus the British.
That will have to do, because even frontman Paul Meany can't do much better. "I can't, especially after this record," he says by phone about the group's fifth studio album, Armistice, released in August. "In Mute Math, our ideal is just, 'Let's write the music that feels right to us when we listen to it and we want to play it.' So it's been a headache for our marketing people."
Admittedly, that's better than a half-assed quip calling them Erasure and Nine Inch Nails' illegitimate love child. But it certainly doesn't cover the spread. Neither is Mute Math "electronica." Or "new wave." Or "post-rock." Or whatever the hell the latest label du jour is. And that lack of a clearly defined style could be because the band members themselves have never been able to come to an accord.
"When we started this band, it was kind of an experiment," Meany says, "where we were trying not to precondition the music or what kind of band we wanted to be — which we could never really agree on anyway." And it's not something about which Meany or his bandmates — guitarist Greg Hill, bassist Roy Mitchell-Cardenas, and drummer Darren King — are apologetic.
That doesn't mean the unique sonic brew on Armistice came easily, though. The title of the disc, actually, becomes more meaningful when one learns the record's backstory of tension, trauma, and strife. The recording sessions came in the wake of a nearly three-year touring stint during which the band members found themselves reexamining songs they'd written on the road. At the time, they seemed good, but now, they weren't clicking. At all.
And all this, eventually, found the guys of Mute Math locked in a shouting match on the porch of their New Orleans home, teetering on the brink of a momentous decision: throw in the towel or carry on. They chose to carry on, obviously. But those songs wouldn't make it onto the new record and now sit shelved indefinitely.
"I think it was really just all about trying to decide what this record was not," says Meany. "We thought we'd written this record on the road, and we'd put a lot of time and energy into it. But we slowly realized that that was not to be our second record."
With that material in the circular file, the band decided to follow the advice of producer Dennis Herring, known for his work with Elvis Costello and Modest Mouse. Herring was one of a number of producers the band auditioned once they'd decided they couldn't produce the record themselves. But he was the only one who told them what they needed to hear.
"He was the one producer who really seemed to click with us," says Meany, "the one guy who said, 'Maybe you just need to start over.' "
Meany and company duly swallowed their pride and accepted Herring's guidance. "We stopped trying to record our record and started writing it. That's what we did for the remainder of our time in New Orleans, and it wound up being Armistice. That liberated us and helped us find what we really wanted this record to be in the first place."