Mutemath mixes up the music
Ryan Summerlin January 24, 2013
ASPEN – Growing up around New Orleans, Paul Meany did most everything a music-obsessed kid from that music-rich area does. At the age of 5 he began playing drums, getting an early handle on the syncopated rhythms that underlie the unique sounds of Southern Louisiana. He looked to the older generation – in Meany’s case, his father, a guitarist. He marveled at the younger generation of jazz players carrying on the New Orleans traditions. He yearned to attend the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, where Harry Connick Jr., and several Marsalis brothers trained. And there were the records by the Meters, the pillars of New Orleans funk. “We all knew those records, listened to them a million times,” the 36-year-old Meany said from his home in New Orleans’ Uptown district.
It takes a keen ear to hear any of those influences in Mutemath, the band Meany formed a decade ago. Mutemath specializes in a psychedelic brand of rock, with elements of electronica, prog-rock and metal easily discernible. And while New Orleans is a place where the atmosphere is thick with tradition – and the history of Louis Armstrong, Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, the Neville Brothers, Dr. John, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and on and on is difficult to ignore – Mutemath’s sound urgently pushes into the future.
There are moments when you hear an echo of familiar New Orleans style: “Quarantine,” a song from the band’s marvelous 2010 album “Odd Soul,” features a quick vocal bit that sounds lifted from the Meters’ “Cissy Strut.” Drummer Darren King, when he’s not channeling Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham, can demonstrate flourishes of Louisiana-style funk. A series of Youtube videos of the band playing live in a radio studio, in acoustic mode, capture the band’s rootsier side. But for the most part, the sound is many streetcar stops away from Bourbon Street.
“We’re a very distant, probably double-digit cousins” to traditional New Orleans styles, Meany said. “It’s not a thick bloodline there. We pull from a whole bunch of kinds of music.”
Mutemath, which has played the Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo festivals in the U.S., and the Reading Festival in the U.K. – as well as the Voodoo Music Experience in their own hometown – makes its local debut today, with a free show on the Gondola Plaza as part of the Aspen Skiing Company’s Hi-Fi Concert Series. Meany says live performance is where the band’s New Orleans roots might become most evident.
“We’ve got the spirit of New Orleans music, because it thrives on being in the moment,” he said. “When we’re creating stuff, or on the stage, you’re not afraid to just cut loose. What may happen from night to night, that’s important.”
Meany got a most proper start in music, starting on drums – “as every boy does,” he said – before moving over to guitar and bass. He got plenty of training in religious music. Meany’s father was the music director of a small, nondenominational church in Arabi, La. “Whenever they needed someone on bass, drums, I backed him up,” said Meany, whose lyrics still often lean toward spiritual themes.
The strongest early attraction was his sister’s keyboard. “I really gravitated toward that, spent all my time on that,” said Meany, whose signature instrument in Mutemath remains keyboards – including a keytar, a keyboard worn over the shoulder, like a guitar. At the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, where he spent his senior year of high school, he studied classical piano and voice. He wasn’t especially interested in classical music, and he wasn’t particularly good at jazz, which was abundant in the curriculum; Meany didn’t make the cut for the jazz band. Still, it was a monumental experience.
“I had a blast my senior year, the year I got in,” he said. “To this day I think of it as my most coveted time, sponging up music, just an invaluable time.” Probably the most memorable part of it were the Friday performance classes, in which everyone had to appear before their fellow students. Meany didn’t mention anything about his own turns in the spotlight, but he recalled schoolmates including Jason Marsalis, now a top drummer, and Irvin Mayfield, a prominent trumpeter.
“They were 17-year-old kids, but putting on a master class in performance every Friday,” Meany said. “I think back to that, these young prodigies inspiring the other kids.”
Meany’s path detoured in the late ’80s, when he was a teenager and began hearing the Beastie Boys and A Tribe Called Quest, groups that were putting an artsy spin on hip-hop. “When hip-hop took that turn, I was completely floored. It was so fresh, so addictive,” he said.
What captured his attention most was the odd little electronic device known as the sampler. Meany worked a telemarketing job to earn the money to buy himself one and learn the capabilities of the instrument.
“It’s an empty box – you can’t do anything with it except sample things,” he said. This wasn’t a disappointment; rather it was an excuse to go through the record collections of various acquaintances. “Looking for that perfect drum break, trying to mimic this hip-hop approach to electronic music. I think all that is in my blood. I wrote my share of rip-off tracks, trying to be the Dust Brothers.”
In the late ’90s, Meany met Roy Mitchell-Cardenas, a Texan who had come to New Orleans to soak up the music and attend Loyola University. The two swapped CDs and jammed. Meany had also made the acquaintance of a 14-year-old drummer from Missouri, Darren King, and when King graduated high school, in the early ’00s, he headed to New Orleans. With Greg Hill joining on guitar, the quartet took the name Mutemath and made a debut EP, “Reset,” released in 2004. A self-titled full-length album, from 2006, landed the group on magazine covers and on the bills of major festivals. The single “Typical,” a modest hit, got a boost when it was performed on a 2007 episode of “American Idol.”
“Odd Soul” – which was recorded without Hill, who left the band in 2010 – represented a sharp turn in approach, an effort to get to their roots. Not the roots as in French Quarter brass bands and saxophonist Sidney Bechet, but Mutemath’s own roots.
“We made a conscious effort to journey to the beginning, our first memory of trying to make music – jam sessions in the garage with our dads, the first records that blew our minds,” Meany said. “We explored a rootsier sound, a lot of influences from the ’70s: Led Zeppelin, the Meters. We hadn’t done that before, dug into that part of our DNA.”
The recording, done in Meany’s house, took most of a year. “We locked ourselves in our house for nine months and didn’t come out till we were pleased with what we had,” Meany said.
Following the departure of Hill, Mutemath picked up Todd Gummerman as their new guitarist. The Gummerman era had an inauspicious start; the first gig for the new lineup, an Oklahoma date with the Flaming Lips and Primus, was canceled because of wind storms. “We tried not to take that as a weird omen, God saying, ‘No, no, no, not that direction,'” Meany said.
As much as Mutemath’s sound might part ways with the more familiar sounds of New Orleans, there is still a reverence for the city’s history. Meany mentions that Darren King recently participated in a Guitar Center drum-off competition in Los Angeles. Meany was most impressed that the lineup also included Zigaboo Modeliste of the Meters.
“That was quite a validation for Darren,” Meany said. “Zigaboo – he’s certainly the titan of drumming in our minds.”