States of the Union
Traversing the Mates of State Microverse, One Red Roof Inn at a Time
Christopher R. Weingarten
Talking to Jason Hammel and Kori Gardner Hammel is like being an extra in some improvised post-modern play. You start in a freewheeling scene, and by the end of the night, you end up in the audience. Sure, they answer your questions, but not to you, only to each other; using each query as an excuse to bounce back and forth in some private utopia. At a Red Roof Inn in Gainesville, Florida, Kori and Jason sit on opposite ends of an unmade bed. Although there are two beds in the room, only this one appears rumpled. Kori is the straight-(wo)man, sitting up, blonde ponytail at attention. Jason, the comic foil, usually stays prone, his coiffure as disheveled as the bed he lays upon.
“The best thing about Captain and Tennille is, I saw this clip of them, they’re riding this paddleboat together, like, ‘Yes! We’re still together, we’re still recording music,'” says Kori, miming the actions of paddling a boat, further ruffling the bed sheets. “That’s where I want to be. I want to be riding in a paddleboat when we’re 60 going, ‘Yes, it’s been great!’ Their music wasn’t that great but their relationship obviously was.”
“Was it just the two of ’em?” asks Jason.
“Yeah, she was like the singer.”
“If I had a song like that, I could get up there.”
“Yeah, we need a gimmick. …The Captain!”
“You can call me Captain.”
Both giggle openly as Kori points a running video camera at Jason
“You want me to call you Captain,” inquires Kori, “don’t you?”
“You do call me Captain.”
“Cut out the sexual innuendo.”
“You’re the one that said, ‘I’m gonna call you captain.'”
Here Kori and Jason — lost in the lens of the camera, their love for each other, or possibly both — appear as to have forgotten there’s anybody else in the room, as well as their world or their plane of existence. The tone of voice becomes a blushing intimacy.
“I’m not calling you Captain,” half-gushes Kori.
“You’re calling me Captain.”
“Why should I call you Captain?”
“‘Cause I am Captain.”
“No you’re not, I’m Captain!”
“You’re the skipper.”
Both laugh — followed quickly by uncomfortable silence and a re-positioning of the video camera. End scene.
Kori, 27, and Jason, a-just-turned 26, are The Mates of State. Like Captain and Tennille, they are a married couple who happily plays music together. Unlike Captain and Tennille, they don’t suck. Their sound is lush mix of indie-pop hooks, sparse intimacy, and the type of harmonies that can only come from two folks who are, well, so damn harmonious together. All played out on spare-only-in-theory instrumentation of drums and organ.
The Mates of State legally became mates on July 7, 2001. After quitting their jobs in San Francisco, they tied the knot at a wedding ceremony held in Trumbull, Connecticut. Although Kori’s Catholic mother urged them to have the ceremony a church, it ended up in the backyard of Kori’s parents. It was a sunny Saturday, 78 degrees, book-ended by three days of rain.
Kori and Jason had been playing together for over three years at this point — meeting and forming at the University of Kansas in ’97, moving to California in ’99, and playing shows practically every weekend — so the collaborative process came easy for the duo. In this spirit, they wrote their own vows and sermons for the secular ceremony and culled the hippest handful of music to ever grace an indie-rock matrimony.
Kori walked in, on an aisle covered with 1,500 rose petals, to the ever-melancholy Cat Power’s spare cover of The Velvet Underground’s “I Found a Reason.” The rest of the procession followed to Nick Cave’s brooding “(Are You) The One That I’ve Been Waiting For?” Later in the ceremony, guests were treated to a piano rendition of “Über Legitimate,” a transcendent track off the Mates’ latest release, Our Constant Concern. Kori and Jason entered the reception to the strains of delicate indie-poppers Pinback, played some Bright Eyes on acoustic guitars, and did their first dance to Olympia lo-fi-songstress Mirah.
Kori’s Catholic mom, whom she is very close to, had problems with the no-church ceremony, the female justice of the peace presiding over the service, and of course, the grave melancholia used as wedding music.
“She was like, ‘You can’t walk in to that! It’s depressing!'” Kori says. “Now she’s like, ‘You had the best music at your ceremony!'”
The Mates honeymooned in Tahiti, and three days later, were travelling in their bulky Astro Van, lugging around Kori’s 175-pound Yamaha Electone Organ in a massive trek across the U.S.
“Our last year or two was like a complete whirlwind,” Kori — the more vocal of the two, both on stage and off — says whilst twirling a coffee straw around her finger. “We were working those jobs [Kori as an elementary school teacher, Jason as a cancer researcher]. The kind of jobs where you don’t just leave your work at the office, you have more to do when you get home. Then we’d play all the time. Almost every weekend we were playing in a different place. We were planing a wedding. June came, we quit our jobs, got married, we went on tour. It was all consecutive events happening at once.
“We honestly thought we were gonna be completely starving or poor if we didn’t jump right into the tour, ’cause we spent a good month on the wedding and the honeymoon. We weren’t getting paid. It was all about making enough money to pay rent.”
Since then, they’ve gone nonstop. Their most recent tour brings them to Florida. Although the erratic chills of the February night leaves Gainesvillians opting for warm clothing, the big furry neck on Jason’s parka still makes him stand out, especially when attached to the top of the same lanky frame that towers over his drum set. Kori keeps warm in blue scarf, framing her grinning visage, a dead-ringer for a young Julianne Moore. At the Barnes and Noble, Kori and Jason finally purchase the latest issue of Spin, which features a small feature on the duo. While both are exited by the coverage, they seem preoccupied with the cover, and soon drift off into another one-act play.
“That’s pretty cool,” Kori says, peering at the cover. “Jimmy Fallon! Isn’t that the guy that plays Corky Romano?”
“No it’s not. I was hoping it was,” says Jason.
“He calls me Corky Romano, so we were hoping that was who was on the cover.”
Why does he call you Corky Romano?
“‘Cause I hate it,” Kori says without hesitation.
“That’s not why! I don’t do things that you hate.”
“Remember that show Life Goes On? They used to call me Corky just because of that guy on Life Goes On, which I thought wasn’t very cool. So when Jason said ‘Corky,’ it immediately brought back childhood scars. And then he hasn’t stopped since.”
“You make it sound a lot worse than it is. I think I called you that once.”
The Astro Van with the broken side handle and black-haired-n’-beady-eyed hula girl hood ornament burns toward the Red Roof Inn. Like a true couple, they slept in today, watching TV until two. Like a true band, they collected addresses on their immaculate white iBook, printed them on a series of manila envelopes stacked in a pile on the dresser and stuffed them with CDs. The band has national distribution from Polyvinyl and Omnibus Records, yet still end up stuffing envelopes themselves, possibly in an attempt to further shrink the Mates of State microverse.
“The ideal situation for me would be to have enough time to actually do every single aspect of the band by ourselves,” Kori says. “If I could have a home studio and the engineering knowledge that could get us a good sounding record and space to store merchandise and a printing press…”
The Red Roof Inn is a $50 stay, pricey by Motel 6-frequenting Mates standards, but they need a good two nights of sleep. Jason lays out on the bed, skinny hands reaching for red velvet cake.
The lyrics of Mates songs may seem rather bleak, especially when spilled through their austere boy-girl harmonies (“The robe fits tight/My hands were wide with spots unworn.”). But it doesn’t take more than a simple lull in conversation and the comforts of a familiar hotel room for the Mates to get a little goofy.
“So, we rented a porn last night,” Jason intones.
“Oh, why did you have to tell him that! [smacks him] God! It was his idea!” yells Kori, twitching uncomfortably.
“Yeah, it was”
“Illicit Sex on the pay-per-view porn.”
Well, how was it?
“Porn,” jokes Jason.
“It was OK,” Kori says, fidgeting with hair, visibly unnerved by where the conversation is going. “We watch it, maybe, like once every six months together. I mean he might watch it alone on his own.”
“Yeah! I watch it every day! [laughs]”
“But that’s how much I can handle it. [dramatic pause] So this is the article our parents won’t read, right?”
Do your parents read Ink 19?
After another pause Kori shouts, “You know, actually, we’re married now! We can watch porn together! …Well, we didn’t get married in a church.”
They are indeed married. The proof: The preceding conversation is just one example of the endless playful banter that seems to permeate every conversation they’re in. They have the rings to prove it — Kori’s a glimmering rock that dances across the organ when she plays, Jason’s a subdued “white gold.” They, um, do some other things that married couples do, too. Maybe the über-relaxed confines of the Red Roof Inn relaxes the Mates too much — they readily spill the beans about some, um, cheeky sexual exploits. And although these anecdotes wormed their way onto the spinning wheels of my tape recorder, the Mates prefer to leave ’em private, thank-you-very-much. Let’s just say everything seems healthy and all videos have been promptly erased.
Yep. Those crazy kids are in love. On stage, Jason and Kori are notorious for exchanging glances, humorous asides, and quite possibly, telekinetic bonds. They’re so damn close that their live show is a virtual macrocosm of the tiny back-and-forth nuances visible in the hotel room — an unspoken bond, a chemistry, an intimate performance staged only for the two of them.
“It’s true,” says Kori. “Sometimes we’re not sharing an inside joke, sometimes we’re talking about fixing the sound. But most of the time, yeah, that’s accurate. We’re so close that it wouldn’t make sense to play a show and have us just play the songs and not even look or talk to each other. That wouldn’t feel right. …We’re just there to have fun and enjoy that 30 minutes of playing music together. That’s what it is.”
“We’re a close relationship when we’re not onstage, why would we fake it when we are onstage?” says Jason “We’re still a close relationship and I think, obviously, it shines through. Whether we intend for it or not.”
And unlike other revered minimalist couple bands (The White Stripes ended their marriage in 2000, Quasi has been famously divorced since 1995), they plan keep that relationship alive. For the Mates, their love and music are inseparable.
“Our relationship and the band are so one-in-the-same that if one ends, the other ends.” Kori says. “We’ll always play music together, we might not be doing it to this extent, but we’re not ever gonna stop playing music together, we’re not ever gonna stop being together.
“I think if you’re not with the absolute right person and you’re spending all of your time together, you’re doomed. But somehow we got lucky. We get along really well, yeah, we argue, but…”
“We do?” Jason adds, sarcasm duly noted.
Once again the Mates answer a question with personal asides. Once again it kicks off another play for two characters who could care less if there’s an audience or not.
As friendly and warm as these individuals are, there’s just no room for anyone else in the Mates of State microverse. It’s a world created solely for the two of them. As they leave room 224 of the Red Roof Inn, they hang a sign on the doorknob that reads “Do Not Disturb.” As if anyone could.