State Secrets

Husband-and-wife duo make a great team.

Teamwork is a beautiful thing. Especially when, in a band, the people involved work together so well that their music becomes the audible embodiment of a good working relationship. San Francisco's Mates of State are what teamwork sounds like.

Husband and wife Jason Hammel and Kori Gardner Hammel's organ and drums duo is a testament to the idea that a good team can do just about anything. Even the name represents teamwork: "We picked words that we thought describe a sense of teamwork, partnership, comradeship and equality in a partnership--and it rhymed," wrote Kori over e-mail.

"Like the title of a book, it should describe the work," wrote Jason.

But the fact that the members of Mates of State are married isn't entirely what makes their music; it's more of a building block. "We do not overtly sing about our relationship, but it is in there," wrote Jason. "We sing about our personal experiences--many are shared, some are individual. Our relationship does play a major role in our creative expressions. I don't know how to describe how. Writing a song with someone is very intimate to begin with. Maybe, since we both write songs and we're intimate anyway, the song writing together comes logically and naturally."

"Being extremely close and open with another person makes me feel more comfortable and therefore excited about making ideas into real things--songs in this case," Kori wrote. "There is this myth that we write all love songs and that's unfortunately not true. (I think it takes a certain amount of heartbreak to write the best love songs and well, our hearts aren't broken very much.) But we do sing about our lives together. More specifically, we sing about the conversations we have, the things we see together and when we're apart, emotions we have about different aspects of life, sometimes disappointment, sometimes love, sometimes stories people have told us, etc."

Gardner and Hammel met while they were both students at the University of Kansas, in Lawrence, and after graduation, they packed up and moved to California to play music and work at those crazy post-college real jobs we've all heard so much about but didn't think actually existed. Jason was a cancer researcher; Kori was a teacher. And then, after a show in the Bay Area, they were approached by a fellow local musician who asked them if they wanted to release a seven-inch. They did. Mates of State's first record, My Solo Project, followed soon after, and then, at the beginning of 2002, Polyvinvyl Records, out of Danville, Ill., released Our Constant Concern. Jason and Kori are now full-time mates of their own state.

Mates of State's signature sound comes from Kori's multi-faceted organ and Jason's expertly played drums. The songs may have an occasional bass line or another instrument, say a trumpet, added in, but for the most part, it's just drums and organ, battling it out for who has the most interesting part in the song. (It's usually a draw.) Above this are Jason and Kori's voices, loud, smooth and singing harmonies that bounce off each other; there is a tension present in the songs, but a good tension, the kind that generates energy.

This line-up was, actually, an accident, says Jason. "We already played in a guitar band together. Once, the drummer and bass player didn't show for practice. Kori had this monster organ and I sat behind the drums, which I hadn't played in awhile. Soon, parts turned into a song, and a song turned into a set of them."

"We had never seen a band comprised of just an organ and drums before," explained Kori. "But it made sense to us. More and more, with all the traveling/touring we've seen tons of duos some with the same instrument make up as us. It's nice to know people don't feel like in order to be in a real band, you must have two guitars, bass and drums."

While My Solo Project sounds at times a bit uneasy with the drums and organ set-up, every track on Our Constant Concern attests to Mates of State's mastery of their medium. The varying organ sounds melt into each other; the song structures are more surprising and cleaner. It's anthemic organ pop, with some silly noises and a song that ends with the word "boom." The songs usually begin with each voice singing separate lyrics and then, by the end of the song, both voices are working together. The lyrics are loosely related phrases sung in an overlapping conversation, and questions and answers. Kori and Jason will sing a question together and then sing a response: "What if the sun is right?" they ask in "Über Legitimate," answering, "You can't change that source in a day."

"Usually, we'll base the lyrics on an agreed upon topic, idea, experience, etc." wrote Jason. "Since we don't share the exact same experiences, maybe we're asking one another questions about the others interpretation of that experience. Really though, I just think we have a lot to learn and the quickest way is to ask questions."

"Maybe we ask a lot of questions in normal, day to day conversations and it's just carried over into the music," offered Kori.

There's the sense that something is being worked through, and by the end of the song, it's been resolved: "I trust into the order of things," they sing, and "Über Legitimate" ends with a perfect pop call to action: "Come on everybody it's your last stand, come on everybody and stand."

The songs on Our Constant Concern are "Decisions for the whole, a reading and response, parables that act out" ("A Duel Will Settle This"). Each song has at least one line that flashes and resonates; the songs are thoughtful and intoxicating. There's something about the combination of lyrical tension, vocal harmonies, melodies carried by an organ and sparse drums that would make the part of your brain just behind your forehead (the part that registers music) light up all red on a brain activity map. Everything just works together perfectly.