The family that plays together, stays together

At least according to Mates of State.


Crocodile, 441-5611, $7 9 p.m. Tues., Jan. 22

THE JOY IN interviewing a couple is intercepting their frivolous bickering, sweetness, and sentence completion. I'd like to think that Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel, the newlyweds that comprise San Francisco's boisterous organ and drums combo Mates of State, possess said zany wife/hubby camaraderie.

Regrettably, the Mates' cellular phone is one uncooperative, self-destructing third party, so I begrudgingly administered the third degree to Hammel first, then Gardner, at their holiday vacation haven in Connecticut. Miraculously, this wack M.O. didn't entirely deprive me of "the good shit."

Example: Anyone who's lent an ear to the tumultuous, hyperactive harmony of their full-lengths, 1999's My Solo Project (Omnibus) and the recently released Our Constant Concern (Polyvinyl), must wonder where the hell these folks get inspiration, aside from maybe the friggin' Ringling Brothers.

"I'm on a kick," Hammel offers. "All I brought out with me was Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave. Kori's irritated with that."

"Well, there's only so much Leonard Cohen you can tolerate, right?" I suggest.

"I don't think so."

Uh-huh. I don't exactly detect a smile on the other end. A few minutes later, Gardner commandeers the line, happy to push the issue.

"That's all he listens to!" she chirps, incredulous. "I mean, he's listened to it probably for like a month straight, three times a day. It gets a little annoy-ing, you know?"

F.Y.I.: Gardner has recently dug on the Langley Schools Music Project, Joni Mitchell, and Seattle's own sainted Death Cab for Cutie. Fun facts, but I can't imagine tossing all that (plus Hammel's junior-high faves Faith No More) into a blender and pouring out Mates of State. This is beside the point. Gardner's rant isn't over.

"I don't get stuck on one thing as much as Jason does. I listen to a lot of things, instead of just two CDs."

OK, the preceding exchange ain't Courtney Love referring to Trent Reznor as "Three Inch Nails," and it's not supposed to be. The Mates' love life manifests and resonates in inflating a fast-spoiling indie conceit—dueling male/female vocals—with innovation and heart.

Gardner and Hammel are preternaturally attuned to their instincts on stage. They sing to one another more often than the audience, share knowing nods and even more telling frowns, yet neither cottons to my suggestion that they appear "shy" in doing so.

"We get up there, we play our songs, and we enjoy them," Gardner shrugs. "It's not about us putting on any other type of show except for our music. If that comes off as shyness, then I don't know . . . I guess I'd rather be shy than arrogant."

The Mates met and courted during their final year at the University of Kansas ("It's got a lot of diversity and a huge arts community, believe it or not," Hammel claims). A move to the San Francisco area—and jobs—made their music largely a weekend endeavor, but Mates of State gradually evolved from a "more traditional guitar rock band" into today's block rockin' organ-grinder.

Gardner taught elementary school and Hammel did clinical cancer research to bolster their savings account for tours. Only shortly before their Tahiti honeymoon did they trade the day jobs for the dream jobs for good. Rocking out with your spouse would seem to be a daunting responsibility . . . for other bands.

"There's a lot of security in the fact that we're together, because the band's not gonna break up and we're not gonna break up," Hammel says. "When you're playing with other people, something might take precedence over the band, and then they're gone; the band's over. We don't have to worry about that."

The only personnel obstacle they have today is a welcome one: Gardner's sister, Kelly. My Solo Project opens and closes with priceless recordings of a young Kelly belting out the themes to Cheers and Fame. Gardner unearthed the cassette during a visit home, intending to use it as "blackmail."

"She confessed to me recently that she has another one of all Mariah Carey songs," Gardner says. "The thing is, she has no music behind her. It's just her singing in a room. If I find that one, it's definitely coming out."

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