You’ve heard Mutemath, you just may not have known you heard them. For a decade they have been a familiar name on the scene, putting out critically praised albums; including their last album, Odd Soul. Their mix of electronic, soul, and rock continues to evolve as the band grows. From one of their most popular tracks “Typical” to one of their new songs “Used To,” they have a way of staying on the pulse of music without letting what’s “hot” cloud their vision.
Over the years, Mutemath have lost and gained band members, played countless shows, released a number of studio and live albums, fought with their record label, and made it through. Now they seem to have found their groove. No longer seen as that kind of sort of Christian band, they have carved out a place and name for themselves,
The alt-rock band recently wrapped a sold out tour, that included a stop at the Austin City Limits Festival. They will be back in Austin for their spring tour in support of their fourth studio album, Vitals, out today. Ahead of their album release, lead singer Paul Meany talked to atombash.com about the journey the band has taken, the importance of the first row at concerts, his affinity for cassette tapes, and that Stephanie Tanner vine.
Folashade Oyegbola: You were crowd surfing in Nashville on this UFO like raft. You seem to actually enjoy the experience of connecting with your fans and putting on the show. Has it always been like that, or have you had any bad experiences?
Paul Meany: You’re asking me if I’ve ever resented the people who’ve shown up to our shows? [laughs]
FO: Yes and no. Artists like Justin Bieber have kind of gotten some flack for the treatment of their fans. After a while maybe you get fed up with some of the more rowdier fans. Or the ones who are not exactly respectful.
PM: Interesting, that’s a very interesting question. I can’t say I’ve ever been asked that. Do we have fans that act up? Let me ask myself that for a second. Yes, there have been a few times where I’ve had to go into the crowd and calm someone down. Most of the time I’m pretty oblivious to what’s going on in the audience. I can’t really see with the flashing lights or whatever. So it’s usually a pretty big deal if I happen to see it. Whether it’s some kind of disagreement, it’s usually a drunk dude who’s gotten out of hand, causing problems. Every now and then, there’s that guy that shows up. I’ve escorted one out one time. And there’s the thing that happens, especially on this tour. We hadn’t played the smaller venues in a while. I think we were reminded that with playing the small venues that we did, you can really see the front row. And I don’t think they realize sometimes, how important that can be for us. As far as totally killing our vibe, or they can push the show to a whole other level. Having the right front row is important. I remember there was this one show we did, I remember there was this particular girl there who I’ve never seen more disinterested in anything. And right in front of Darren [King], that’s like a splash zone spot. That’s right in my line of sight the whole time. Just kind of killing Darren’s vibe too, he’s kind of staring at her the whole time. And I don’t think she’s realizing that we can see you [laughs]. We can see you wishing your were somewhere else right now. Please go to the back. And I was so close to saying something because we were feeling the affect on stage. Me, Roy, and Darren. I didn’t say anything, I tried to give the situation the benefit of the doubt. In the end I’m glad I did. Because Roy did end up talking to her afterwards, and she was just praising the show. She was having the greatest time ever. But her face couldn’t be more disconnected from what she was feeling, and her body language. But I guess she had an amazing time, and that’s why she never left. And I guess if she was having a bummer of a time she would have left. I’m glad I didn’t call her out.
FO: I see that when I go to show’s. The audience notices it to. You’re just have the time of your life, you’re jumping and you’re screaming, but the person next to you is just straight faced.
PM: Right. You gotta try to give everyone the benefit of the doubt and enjoy the show the way they enjoy shows. The only time I ever stop it is when it’s physical. Someone is hurting someone, or really impeding on someone else’s space. But that happens not very often.
FO: You’ve grown and evolved in your sound to now, with the latest Vitals. How would you describe the journey that you’ve been on? And what have you learned as musicians and as a band?
PM: When we made the first record there was a lot of unbridled optimism, and I feel like that really came through the first record. Like the spirit of the songs, what they were about, the vibe. And we were excited to be a band, and get an opportunity to do it. And it started happening. It was absolutely unreal when it started happening. People started coming to the shows and more people would show up the next time we would come through a city. It was really unreal. And then I think we hit the second record and we got in our own heads a bit. Lot of self doubt, lot of wondering if we deserved to make a second record. We were just questioning the things that had worked. Whatever the cliche sophomore feelings, slump if you want to call it, we were right in the middle of it. All that stuff, it was happening [laughs]. There was certainly tension in the band and I think the record reflected that. I will say we made a record that was true to exactly what we were feeling. Maybe we didn’t handle the pressure very well. Doing a follow up, being on a major, and the expectations that come with that. All of a sudden we have this big record budget. We hired a big producer. And how do you navigate through all of that, we didn’t really know. We got through it. By the time we hit the third record, our guitar player had left. So our band had sort of fallen apart a little bit during the second record. We hit the third record, and there was just three of us. I don’t think the record label really cared that much, there wasn’t really and great expectations. It was just like okay, yeah, whatever, just go make a record, let us know when you’re done. We were happy. There was a big turnover at our label too, so a lot of people were let go. So it was kind of becoming a new label while we recording our third record. So we were being left alone, and it was great. And I think we locked up in my house for like six months, it was just the three of us. The third record was all about working off of what we had discovered about ourselves live, and that type of energy. We tried to make a stage ready album. And I think we wanted to tell a little bit about our story, how we grew up. I think me and Darren certainly had a lot of shared experiences growing up in sort of bible belt America, in youth group culture. And we sort of just wanted to tell our story, and get that out in musical form. And that’s what Odd Soul was about. I think of that as a very autobiographical record. And it was, it was a really fun record to play live. Why kind of took the sound to a rootsier place, kind of more of a concept record, a little more pastiche. It was unlike anything we had done up to that point. Which we felt like creatively we had to do. And then we hit this record. We had a new band member, who came in and joined us on tour for the last record. This was a record we were trying to construct from the ground up with a new guy. We’d been a band 10 years and we needed to find a way to feel fresh again. I think as we were writing songs, it was easy to start judging them too quickly. Oh we’ve already done that song, I’ve already sung about that, I’ve already used those chords. So whatever it was, it was like salt. Everything’s horrible. We had to get out of that head space, to uncover whatever we wanted to say. In this particular point in our lives, just trying to let life happen. Me and Darren became fathers over the course of the last four years. Kind of letting that happen in this particular transition in life, wrapping our heads around it. I think trying to find a way to put all of that into musical form. We wanted to make a record that felt very now. That was the flag we were flying from the very beginning. We wanted to discover something that felt now. Odd Soul was kind of throwbacky for us, it was something we wanted to see if we could do something that sounded like then. Right now, we wanted to see what does now feel like; the possible future we’re going in to. Writing a record that was sort of what does it feel like being in my late thirties, writing something that sounds exciting to me and full of life. I think of the idea of what started the first record, the sort of unbridled optimism. Now I’m at a particular point in life when it can sound canned. I didn’t want it to sound like canned optimism. It had to be grounded in something that felt real. And I did not want to make a record that sounded jaded. Sounded angry, regretful. So trying to find this thing that sounded still full of life, still felt like something I wanted to sing, and connect with when I was 18. But still finding a real way to address it in my late thirties was important to me. I think when we stumbled upon the song idea “Used To,” and the song idea “Remain,”–which was the end of 2013 and we had done a ton of writing up until that point–when we got those two songs we began to realize we were uncovering what we wanted the album to sound like. And it was ideas that felt very connected to why and how we started, but it was pushing it to this new place. It was rooted in a reality that had been years behind it. That it had been kicked in the teeth a bunch, and somehow we were still trying to find a way to believe that tomorrow is still going to be better than today. The cliche thing of what is hope. And I think that is something that this band as a mantra, has always looked for. I’ve always described Mutemath songs at it’s best, is a picture of something dark, but it’s framed in light. I think whatever we’re focusing in on a particular song idea, I’m always inclined to write it or try to find how does this inspire me, make me want to improve my life tomorrow. And if it doesn’t then I wasn’t interested. And we have a bunch of ideas on this record, when we were writing for this record, that the overall effect was depressing. It was just too dark, and we didn’t want that. We just needed some time. Like I said, we got those two songs, then we started writing. At the beginning of 2014, we forced ourselves to write a new song every day. That was the sort of energy that we were in. That’s when we uncovered what would be Vitals.
FO: A song every day?
PM: That’s what we did. We did a song every day for a month. And then we had to go to a trip in Australia. The whole January 2014 we did a song every day. And everyone was at home. We did it remotely. What the challenge was to create something new every day. And we’d send it to each other, so we had a lot of new ideas every day floating around between us. And I was trying to create something myself new. Then I’d feel the track come down from Roy, trying to put a vocal on that. So we end up having a lot of song ideas quickly. And it was very exciting. And we weren’t overthinking anything. It was just kind of happy. And we were just seizing this moment of energy that we had going into the new year. And that’s when the majority of that album happened. After we had all those ideas things got away from us for awhile. Then we went back and started picking out what the good ones were, and developing them. So we spent the rest of the year doing that.
FO: When you say you created this album, Vitals, that’s perfect for the band and now, are you saying that for who you are as people now or for music now? So for as the people who you have become and the music landscape now?
PM: I don’t see a difference. It had to be both. Something that musically feels like something we enjoy listening to. It feels like something we love. When you start your band, you’re creating music that you love. Then it becomes this thing, then you ask yourself are you just feeding like a certain kind of rehash, just kind of keep that machine going of what you think it’s become in the eyes of an audience. Or are you trying to keep it as this life form that keeps growing, and you’re kind of in this not sure what’s going to happen head-space. That’s where we had to get, something that felt fresh for us. The good songs they remind you of something that you liked from the past, yet you never heard it before. I feel like that’s the mark of a good song. At least the start of it. If you can feel that. Every song that I love it usually has that going on in it. It reminds me of something, but I’ve never heard it before. That’s what we had to figure out again for Vitals.
FO: So it’s like deja vu, but music?
PM: [laughs] Exactly. I don’t know what it is, but I think I’ve seen it before. But I like it. As long as you like it in the end.
FO: You’re going back on tour next year. Do you plan on doing a lot of touring then going back to new music, or do you plan on getting back to new music as soon as possible?
PM: I feel like me and the voice memo section of my phone have become really good friends over the past few years. And I don’t think that really ever goes away. Song writing is a 24/7 on call thing. So if someone ask me what am I doing with my life, I’m feeling up my voice memo section of my phone with cringey song ideas. That I will probably one day revisit, and figure out if they are any good or not. But I don’t think that part of the process ever stops. We’ll definitely be touring all next year. And in the cracks I think that you just try to figure out if the songs that are rolling around in your head and voice memo section are any good [laughs]. And if you have enough of the good ones, then we’ll have another record at some point . But for the most part, next year is going to be all about touring.
FO: You’re doing a special pressing and cassette for indie record stores. Were vinyls and cassettes a big thing for you, do they hold a special place? What made you want to do this?
PM: [laughs] Well yes, I do love cassettes. But that’s not exactly why we did them. I think the reason we did cassettes, was to be an immediate physical things besides the CD. To kind of be the placeholder for a vinyl. Obviously most people who are going to record stores to buy a version of a record, it’s usually vinyl. We had to wait forever to get a vinyl. We couldn’t have a vinyl ready for Nov. 13th, but we could have cassettes ready. So we just decided let’s print the record up on cassettes. Now, it’s very sentimental for me. I love having a record on cassette. To me it’s the best way to listen to a record. So I’m going to cherish my cassette of this particular record [laughs]. And take out my cassette deck again, and listen to it. And see how much better it got. I love that. But for the most part, it was just to be kind of a placeholder for when the vinyl will come out early next year. And we didn’t want to hold off the whole record release until next year.
FO: It does seem like a lot more people are putting out vinyls. Why do you think that has become a big push? Is it that the audiences are asking for more vinyls?
PM: The audience. It started where it was a fun thing to do as an artist. We have so many of our own favorite records that are on vinyl, wouldn’t it be great to have one like that. And so it became this sort of novelty to do that. And that’s why we did it on our first record. I feel like the audience of the past ten years, it’s really grown; for people who enjoy having that as either the way they like to listen to a whole album, or for keepsakes as a monument of that particular album. It’s kind of the thing to do. I’m kind of glad, I hope that never goes away, I hope it intensifies over the years. It takes four months, it takes four months to get vinyl back. It’s so backed up, the manufactures are just slammed.
FO: I had no idea.
PM: For cassette, it takes 3 days [laughs]. And it’s in the air for two of those
FO: Speaking of cassettes, I just saw the vine of Stephanie Tanner [Full House], dancing to “Joyrides.”
PM: I love it [laughs].
FO: Was that done by one of you guys or just some random person on the internet.
PM: [laughs] No, it was a random person who put it together. They got it. That’s the only way I could describe it. They understood that those two were meant to go together [laughs].
Mutemath returns to Austin on Feb. 25, 2016, at Emo’s. Purchase tickets here.