Mates of State make music their therapy

Who needs couples therapy when you're in a rock band together? Jason Hammel and Kori Gardner get their issues out in the open as Mates of State. Or at least that's what it sounds like on their latest, Team Boo, where the two often seem to be engaging in an argument from separate rooms. So what kinds of things do they fight about while on the road? "Mostly Jason's driving," says Gardner, reached at home in Connecticut.

Since forming the band six years ago after meeting at the University of Kansas, the married Mates have nurtured a sound based on Gardner's keyboards, Hammel's drums, and an intimately combative singing style. Now on its third disc, the duo--formerly of San Francisco--mash together disparate sonic textures, resulting in unrestrained, rollicking mini dramas. "Haha", the Team Boo opener, is a mixture of sugar and spice that begins with a pretty piano intro, dives into a snare-bashing rhythm, slows down for a swirling organ line, reintroduces the beat, brings in a shout-y vocal duet, and goes into a little bit of circus-type music--all in the first couple of minutes. The icing, though, is the exuberant chorus, wherein Gardner and Hammel join voices for the lines "Who's dancing all around?/We're dancing all around."

Team Boo may be the most fully realized distillation of the duo's musical identity yet, although Gardner maintains that the stage is the thing for her and Hammel.

"The live show has always been the most important thing to us," she says. "We're trying to balance it out by learning more about being in the studio. That's our weaker point. Not that it's a problem. I like our records, but we want to learn to record our own albums. We just have the basics down."

Though Gardner says she'd rather talk about the music than the distracting topic of her and Hammel's marriage, the keyboardist admits that their union is an integral part of the band. One noticeable effect of the Mates' relationship is on the lyrics, which often seem like a collection of in-jokes: references to last night's burnt dinner and cryptic biographical details. For instance, in "Open Book" Gardner mentions "the Federman's tale". She agrees that unless you're privy to her work history, this reference is somewhat mysterious.

"It's like we know each other's lives so well, and we have all these conversations and we put them into songs, and we don't really think about whether or not people can understand them," Gardner says. Mr. Federman, it turns out, was the owner of a card shop where the singer once worked. An outwardly jolly soul, the businessman revealed his dark side when, to pay off gambling debts, he burned down the store for the insurance money and killed himself.

"Sometimes I think it can be a little selfish," Gardner says of her and Hammel's attitude toward their lyrics. "But on this album there were some songs where we consciously made an effort to make it easier for the listener to understand the story--if we felt the story was important."

Besides retail, Gardner's résumé includes a stint as an elementary-school teacher. Hammel, meanwhile, gave up working at a women's-cancer centre to play music at places like the Brickyard, where the group touches down Saturday (January 31).

"I guess that work was a little more humanitarian, and teaching too," she says. "But we try to rationalize it, like, 'We're doing some good, aren't we?' Who knows? I think part of me thinks we're better at this than we were at those jobs. And your happiness is pretty important, right?"