I couldn’t have been more excited to speak to Paul Meany and Darren King from Mutemath, one of my favorite bands of all time. After three critically claimed albums, it seemed like they could do no wrong, so when they’re PR team gave me a chance to get on the phone with them, I made sure to ask as many questions as I could fit into our 20 minute call. Enjoy.
– Hi guys. It’s great to be speaking with you. Can you tell me how the band came about and how you guys met each other?
Darren: Sure. I met Paul in 1997 when I was fourteen and living in Missouri. I joined a band after college, but things didn’t work out because they didn’t have enough money to keep me on. So I went to Nashville for a couple of years and made my own instrumental tracks which I later sent to Paul. We made a song which eventually turned into “Typical“, Mutemath’s first single. So the band started out as a two-man collaboration, and when Paul’s other band broke up, we played some shows and made music under the name “Mutemath” just for the fun of it. We later toured with an old guitarist friend of ours called Greg Hill, who eventually left and was replaced by Todd Gummerman. Once Roy Mitchell-Cardenas joined, we became a four-piece band.
– What’s been the skill set you’ve acquired over the years that allow you to make such an eclectic form of music?
Paul: Darren and I first bonded over our love of sampled music. The records we liked at the time were by DJ Shadow, and we used our samplers to make tracks that were inspired by music from the late 90′s and early 2000′s. Darren would send me tracks that he made on a friend’s computer until we later got an ASR-10. Then I started singing on our records, and tried to figure out how to play them live.
The DNA of our band started with Darren creating these instrumental tracks on a computer or sampler, and we just built off there. That plays a big part in how we ended up sounding like we did.
– Has Darren ever produced music on his computer as a solo act?
Darren: No, not really. I’ve done only a couple of remixes for people that asked, but I haven’t ventured into the world of solo EDM or anything like that. If my tracks don’t end up on a Mutemath album, we’ll keep them around to use on something else. At this point, I have a big stockpile of tracks, though they’re quite fragmented.
For every song we make, we make even more ideas, and we don’t just write a full verse or chorus in one sitting. We write a verse, vibe off of it, and realize that we can do better. It’s a weird blend of depressing and exhilarating (laughs). For every song we’ve ever done, we have multiple other verses, choruses and instrumental parts that didn’t make the cut.
Paul: Every past album produces a pile of music that we rummage through for the next album, and there’s usually something we made years ago that we now know what to make of.
Darren: It’s good to not throw music away. You may have thought that you made a song, but all you made was a life support system for one idea. All that effort you put into it, whilst dreaming of the Grammy you’re going to get, turns into only one idea.
The initial puppy love for the track is great for getting you going, but then reality sets in when you hear a song that just came out from a band that you love, and you realize that you’re not close. But the key is to be patient.
– Are there any tracks off your previous releases that came about as a result of trial and error with different ideas?
Darren: I don’t think it’s happened any other way. That’s the case with every song we’ve ever done. It’s easier for me to think of the rare exception, like with the track “In No Time“. I remember going away for lunch break and Paul made an initial demo. Everything else was built around it. That was a track where the recorded version and final album version aren’t that different. I think that’s more likely to happen with ballads and slow songs.
– Last year, you guys performed at the Moog Sound Lab. How did that come about and what did you think of the experience?
Paul: That was a really fun day. We felt pretty lucky that they let us in to mess with everything. They give you the entire day to do that. But I wish they would’ve told us sooner so we could practice (laughs). We had to learn how all the gear worked before starting to riff on stuff. So we just rehearsed a bit and pressed record. There’s a lot of things that we learnt in that one performance that propelled us into this current record, creatively speaking.
– What was the biggest challenge in using only synthesizers and Moog gear? Was it something you felt familiar with given your history of playing keys and electronic instruments?
Paul: A bit, yeah, especially since everyone in the band is a fairly capable keyboard player. “Odd Soul” was written on guitar and is the most guitar-driven album we’ve ever done, so we were trying to find a bridge between the original and the Moog performance by not just playing the original parts. That was the challenge, but it was a lot of fun.
– Are there any synth gurus among you?
Darren: Paul is a great engineer in terms of having the patience to take whatever gear we’ve got and get something to sound good with it. People would probably laugh to see what our drum mic setup is, or what my tuning is, but I think it sounds great. As far as modular synthesis, none of us grew up in a world that taught us much about that. I’ve dabbled in circuit-bending a bit, but that’s it.
Paul: A joke in our band is that if we’re trying to record a part that’s not working, regardless of the instrument, and Darren comes up and says “May I?”, you always say “yes“. He just has this gift – he starts twiddling knobs and probably does some stuff he shouldn’t, but all of a sudden the same thing you were playing starts to sound amazing. I assume it’s probably accidental, and he has no idea what he’s doing, but he’s following a ghost on his shoulder (laughs).
Darren: I just get psyched up by creating cool sounds. When I was in my last semester in college, I didn’t have any instruments, but I did have some effect pedals. I used to create feedback loops using cassette tape adapters. I’d tweak the effects a bit, record it, and listen to it in my car like I’d made a great track. I’d really get into that kind of stuff. That played over well into Mutemath. One guy cares about the sound design, and the other focuses on the music.
– It’s interesting to hear Darren talk about sound design and melody when he’s actually the band’s drummer. Arguably, Mutemath has one of the most unique drum sounds in today’s rock music scene. What’s the source of that?
Darren: Paul’s the reason that the drums sound good. Every time we’ve ever recorded without an engineer, I play the drums, and Paul manages all the gear it’s being run through. I might muffle the drums or adjust my tuning, but Paul’s the one who instructs me to play softer or louder. So what I’ve learned about getting good drum sounds has been from watching Paul. He’s the drum engineer because I can’t do that. I get frustrated when I try to record things, so I tweak it and record again. When I’m playing alone, I just record crappy sounding drums so we can make it sound good afterwards. It’s much better to team up on that kind of stuff.
– Paul, how do you play a part in the drum sound in terms of your FX chains and the mix process?
Paul: This is going to sound completely contradictory, but I think you could sit Darren down at any drum kit and he’d make it sound like his drums, whether it be live or in the studio. He does this thing where he tunes it up and it’ll sound great. I wish I could take credit, but for me, it’s always been about not screwing up the initial sound that he starts with, and it’s really hard to screw up (laughs).
Darren: We just have a kick and snare mic, two SM57′s, running through a 2-track tape machine, but we’re not even using the tape. We’re just hitting the pre-amp of the tape machine hard and using the gentle distortion, which gives quite a pleasant sound. Also, when I’m tracking drums, I don’t play hard. Most of the time I’m playing a lot softer than I would like, just to let the sound of the drum kit create the energy.
– The music scene is ever-changing in terms of popularity and we’ve seen a shift to where EDM acts are now doing major tours. As a rock band, do you feel the effects of that shift on your touring and commercial performance?
Paul: I’ve noticed how certain genres come and go, but I don’t think it’s affected anything that we’re doing. We just do what we do. I think rock music is a lot more broad than guitar-driven 4-piece bands. I think it’s more of a drive and energy that you bring to whatever instrument you play and music you make, which is what we’re doing constantly.
– Now that the festival scene has opened things up for such a plethora of artists, with bands like Phoenix headlining Coachella, will you guys be aiming to get on any major festival lineups?
Darren: We actually played at Coachella in 2010 and Phoenix was playing that same day. They were having trouble getting over to California and they didn’t have their lighting guy, so they did a headlining set without their lighting cues, and they were still great.
I love it whenever electronic music tries to sound human and vice versa. I get excited when bands take either approach. It’s cool because when you see a DJ, you’re really depending on the energy of the crowd, the light show, and the sound. But if you see a band, there’s a whole different aspect to the energy than just the performance. I love all that.
– What do you guys think of how today’s youth prefer to use laptops and software to make their music?
Paul: If you put anything into the hands of a talented person, they’re going to find a way to do something with it. What a laptop is to today’s youth is what Jimmy Hendrix’s guitar was to him. Some people just know how to get something out of it that others don’t. I would never rule out a medium just because it’s in fashion or not.
Think of the money you’d have to spend to have an analog setup – it’s seldom people can have that, but everyone can get started on a computer program. So if that’s the starting point for these kids that find their way into other setups, then it’s great.
– Thanks for talking to me guys. Last question: by looking at your “Break The Same” live video, it seems like things get pretty crazy at your shows. What’s the craziest thing that’s happened to you at a show?
Darren: I’ve been sent to the hospital just one time and it was entirely my own doing. It was in Seattle, and I banged a cymbal into my head by accident whilst drumming. I missed my eyeball by an inch, so I lucked out. Paul’s never split his forehead, but he’s split many pairs of pants (laughs). Thankfully, I’ve only got into one physical brawl in all my years.
Paul: There’s always some initial moment in a show where the crowd pushes you into action. That time standing on the kick drum in the “Break The Same” video was spontaneous. For whatever reason Darren just went to the crowd and threw the drum. It became an exciting moment, and we’ve done it a few more times. There’s always these things that happen when we feed off the crowd’s energy, and then they become a regular thing for us.