Mates of State Embrace Sonic Interference

“We’re kind of racing against the clock at this point,” says producer/engineer Peter Katis, two days into the mixing stage of the latest Mates of State record. Mindful of an end date that could arrive at any moment, a very pregnant Kori Gardner—one half of Mates of State—echoes anxiously, “We’d love to finish the record by Friday.”
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For the most part—and, understandably, with a toddler at home and a baby on the way—Mates of State stayed local for the production of their self-titled fifth studio album, producing six of their ten new songs start-to-finish with Katis at Tarquin, his home studio in Bridgeport, CT. Though they worked on songs with Death Cab For Cutie’s Chris Walla and Spoon’s Jim Eno in San Francisco and Austin, respectively, the record truly came together at Targuin.

For the uninitiated, Mates of State makes super-catchy indie-pop music, with infectious vocal duets, and rousing keys and drums. Since the band’s 2000 debut, the husband-and-wife team of Gardner and Jason Hammel has written and recorded songs in a format they could recreate live as a duo. To fill out the sonic space, Gardner plays Yamaha Electone and Hammond B-3 organs, while Hammel handles the drum kit. The act’s studio recordings have generally reflected its live show, but, for the new album, the duo jettisoned one of their signature sounds.

“This is the first record we wrote and recorded without the organ,” says Gardner. “We started writing songs on piano, and a couple of new keyboards, and we became inspired by some of these different sounds. When we went back to play them on the organ, we just didn’t like them as much.”

“Also, we wanted a change, and the easiest way to change is to remove one of your main ingredients,” adds Hammel.

“But,” interjects Gardner, “one of our fears was that basing the songs around the piano would sound too fruity—too mainstream pop.”

However, Katis’ natural aversion to cloying poppy sounds kept the Mates “sweetness” levels under control.

“You have no idea how roomy and/or distorted you can make a piano, and it will still sound good,” says Katis. “In fact, that’s usually what it takes for me to like the sound of it. I like a roomier, honky-tonk, sort of trashy-sounding piano. I generally don’t use close-miked piano sounds. When you’re just getting up the sound, close mics always sound great, but when you put the track in the mix, it’s just a mess.”

Recording Gardner on piano, Katis and assistant engineer Greg Giorgio followed their time-tested piano miking setup: Switching between RCA 44 or Altec 639 ribbon mics positioned three or four feet in front of the bass side of the piano, and a Neumann U47 or Telefunken ELAM-251 set to omni mode placed approximately six to eight feet away from the treble side.

To further ensure the piano tracks weren’t too pretty, the crew layered various synths, organs, and other sonic toys into the mix.

“When you’re trying to make things sound less nice, it’s sometimes just a matter of running some sort of sonic interference—adding something more distorted,” say Katis.

“For example, we had a song that was really ballad-y sounding,” says Gardner. “It was just piano and lots of harmonies and strings, and it was just too pretty. But I turned on my Mattel Optigan—a ’70s keyboard that plays optical discs of samples—and it was like, ‘Yes!’ It transformed the song into something haunting and mysterious.”

“The Optigan sounds pretty much like a rattling train wreck,” adds Katis, “but it can add something really cool. We also used an old ARP string synth that has a razor-sharp sound that cuts through anything.”

To record Hammel’s drums, Katis placed the Altec 639 in front of the kit, and used either RCA 44s, RCA 77s, or Coles 4038s as overheads. This was another instance where the band departed from its live approach.

“Jason is used to carrying a lot of weight and filling space with a lot of cymbal action,” explains Katis. “And it’s hard to get exciting drum tones with excessive cymbal bashing—it limits your sonic options. Luckily, Jason was willing to experiment with different kits and drumming ideas. For example, the last two songs were pretty unformed when we started tracking them, and just to get cooler sounds, Jason played them less rocking. On ‘Lullabye Haze’ instead of playing an open hi-hat for this one part, he played just toms, and he didn’t even touch a cymbal during the instrumental choruses. On every part of the song, a different drumming element takes the lead. It’s really dynamic and cool.”

“I think after five years, we’ve finally realized that this is the studio and that is the live show,” admits Hammel. “In the studio, you’re playing with totally different parameters, so you shouldn’t be worrying about how you’ll play it live.”

The differences of live and studio approaches was also applied when recording Gardner’s and Hammel’s dynamic vocals, which, on previous albums, have sounded a bit belted-out.

“Their voices are pretty bright, so we went with the U47—which isn’t dark, but it’s not nearly as bright as my usual vocal microphone, the Telefunken ELAM 251,” notes Katis. “I never use any kind of vocal booth, and I have the singer step back a little from the mic to get even more ambience. On background vocals, I have them stand further away from the mic so the sounds kind of mix themselves. You can only set the mic level so hot, and on songs such as ‘Get Better,’ where Kori starts out singing softly, I have to accommodate the vocal dynamics. So we made a point of doing a vocal pass where she sang the whole song quietly and delicately, and I jacked up the gain on the Thermionic Culture Early Bird mic preamp so that her voice has a hugeness that you wouldn’t get otherwise.”

On the tentatively titled “Rearranger”—one of several songs featuring Katis on a 6-string Rickenbacher played through a Vox AC30 amp miked with a Shure SM57)—Hammel wanted a really thin vocal, like “in the beginning of the Beatles’ ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.’”

“From verse to chorus, we wanted to make a significant sonic shift, so that when the chorus comes in, it sounds—all of a sudden—like it’s right there,” says Katis. “So, I made the verse vocals sound thinner and farther away using the Waves Renaissance EQ plug-in. The verse vocals are doubled, and they also have a little EMT 140 plate reverb on them. When the chorus hits, all the low-end in the vocals returns, the reverb and vocals doubles go away, and the music breaks down to just piano, bass, and a very dry drum sound. These changes aren’t overwhelmingly apparent, but they make the transitions more dynamic, and when that chorus comes in, it’s like ‘Whoa!’”