They’re a New Orleans band, and they’re in the studio on Mardi Gras: That should tell you all you need to know about Mutemath’s work ethic. It’s a moment of truth for the anthemic rockers, whose debut album was largely recorded four years ago: the single and Rock Band track “Typical” soon went nationwide. Following up a hit is never easy, and the band’s spent much time in the studio with producer Dennis Herring (of Modest Mouse fame)—and as singer/keyboardist Paul Meany reveals, the producer wasn’t always easy on the band. Holed away in the studio while the rest of his city goes wild, Meany sheds light on where Mutemath have been and where the new album will take them.
Brett Milano: Are you in town at the moment? Are you in New Orleans?
Paul Meany: Yes, I am actually working on the finishing touches of our record. Our deadline is Monday.
BM: You’re kidding.
PM: So we’re cramming for the exam.
BM: What’s left to do at this point?
PM: It’s the little mix things here and there, singing a line or two that’s still missing. It’s the bells and whistles really.
BM: How much can you tell me about the record? You’ve had all this time to do it. I assume it’s going to be fairly epic, right?
PM: You would think. [laughs] It’s really been a gigantic experiment for this band. I think in a lot of ways we’ve pushed ourselves beyond what we thought Mutemath sounded like. And it doesn’t mean more. In a lot of cases, it’s less. I think there’s a lot of songs on here that you’d think might have taken us five minutes to put together. In actuality it probably took five months. I think a lot of times what we do when we make music [is] we just throw a million ideas at something, hundreds of tracks. And then just try to figure out, you know, maybe it only needed eight. It takes time to figure out the other ninety-six were garbage or whatever. But that’s what it’s been. We’ve taken as much time as we can. We’ve stretched every dollar we’ve had for this record to write as many songs and try as many things as possible until we found something that all four of us were vibing on.
BM: From what you’re saying, was there a move underway not to do a typical part two in this, and to make it a little less anthemic or more bare bones?
PM: It’s not like the whole record is either or. I think it’s all of the above, actually. We’re just trying to find the songs that really moved us. I think we definitely hooked up with the right producer. When we played all our new stuff for him a year ago, he was like, “I really like you guys as a band, more than I like your songs. It’s potentially a lot greater than what you’ve got so far.” And we really scrapped pretty much everything we had last year and started actually writing it.
BM: How did you react to that?
PM: My reaction was, “I love this guy.” We’ve gotta work with him. [laughs] But that’s what we wanted. We wanted to get in a situation that was challenging, and for the most part, [with] a lot of our ideas, there was still something missing. And we all knew it. Not all of us were really that excited. [We’d say], “I think this is good, but I don’t really know.” It sounds like a noble idea, and I have to be honest, once we got into it over this past year, it’s probably the most painful music-making experience I can think of.
BM: Oh, now the honesty comes out. Why so?
PM: When you have someone constantly telling you “That idea’s not really that good. Try again,” it starts to wear you down. Now that I’m in the final stages, which is a lot easier to talk about because I’m hearing a lot of things that we would not have achieved otherwise had we not had someone really pushing us. Or really telling us, “Stop. The song is fine. You’re breaking it. You’re putting too much crap on it.” I’m really proud of the record.
BM: Did you have to get rid of anything you really loved?
PM: Yes. But I’m getting over it. In the end, I think it did make a better song. In hindsight, you get hung up on little things that at the time just seem so important. Whether it be an effect or the way something’s panned, or just an intro to a song. We fought a lot. That’s probably why it’s taking so long. We fight. Everyone’s got very strong opinions on why their ideas are the best ones. Including the producer. There was a lot of fighting. There were a lot of nights where you really felt like you had to prepare your speech for the next day in the studio to address congress. It’s like you’re trying to get a law passed here. You have to come up with a very compelling argument of why your idea should not be cut out. It was all good fun. I think for the most part, we’ve ultimately made some good music.
BM: I always wondered about the second album. You’ve been living in the musical whirlwind for the past couple of years and the life of the band. Was there a temptation to write about that and to make a record about what the life of the band has been like for the past three or four years?
PM: Yeah, absolutely. And I wrote a lot of that. Most of which didn’t make the cut. One thing we threw ourselves into was just writing and writing and writing. To be quite honest the way I feel right now, I couldn’t write a song. I just feel completely spent. I feel like I’ve laid it all on the line. All the songs that we tried to get on this record.
BM: That’s where you should be at the end of an album, right?
PM: I’d like to think so. But the things that I think surfaced to the top and finally made the cut, are the things that speak universally. A lot of things that were inspired by very personal, possibly cliché things but the good stuff made it.
BM: What would you say is your relationship with “Typical” now? When bands have that first big hit, sometimes they wind up hating it, sometimes they wind up loving it. How do you stand with that song at the moment?
PM: I like that song. I always have. I don’t know if I’d classify it as a big hit. It definitely did something for us. It helped sustain a good year of touring. And we have a great time playing it.
BM: If you’re out on the road, say, ten years from now, and people are still expecting to hear that song at the end of the show, is that going to happen, do you think?
PM: We’ll play it gleefully. We like that song. We don’t have a hate relationship with that song. You know, the songs we didn’t like from the first record are the songs that naturally got whittled away and no one really cared about anyway. I don’t see why we wouldn’t continue to play “Typical.” Especially if people want to hear it.
BM: Great. Let’s talk a bit about Mardi Gras, since you are in town and it is Mardi Gras. What do you expect to see when you walk out the door of the studio today?
PM: [laughs] A lot of beads and plastic toys. Beer bottles and cups – it’s everywhere. It is an absolute mess. It’s actually amazing how quickly they clean it up. It’ll be beautiful tomorrow.
BM: It’ll be like it never happened, right?
PM: It will. They’re on it.
BM: People have always pointed out that what you do isn’t what is considered typical, so to speak, of New Orleans. Did any of the city’s grooves find its way into your music? Is it there subliminally?
PM: Absolutely. New Orleans is one of the cities that art is just in the air. If you’re an artist, and especially a musician, if you’re in the city, man, you just can’t help [it]. That’s why we’re very fortunate that that’s where we did this record. Especially with trying to push ourselves and write as many songs as we did. I don’t think it could’ve happened any other place for us. But there is something electric about the air in New Orleans, which I love. It’s addictive. I wouldn’t want to make music anywhere else.
BM: Do you think the spirit is fully back yet?
PM: Yeah, absolutely. It’s not really where it was, right before Katrina. But slowly it is coming back. There’s a lot of people coming to the city and helping the city from all over the country. Moving there, setting up shop there. I’m glad we have our band based there. It’ll take a little time, but the city’s doing well. Don’t give up on it yet.
BM: No, we’re not gonna do that.
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