Mutemath: Father Knows Best

By • Nov 1st, 2009 • Category: Featured articles, Features

Photo courtesy of Randy Cremean / Soundcheck Magazine

For a moment, Paul Meany is speechless. The Mute Math front man had been talking at a steady clip since hopping on the phone one afternoon in early September. But now, almost a half-hour into the conversation, the verbose singer is at a loss for words.

It was a simple inquiry: What’s in store for him, personally, aside from the band?

Yet, it was a question that caught the 33-year-old off guard. After all, this was a man whose latest album, Armistice, had been released for less than a month. Between the news media blitz for that sophomore LP and rehearsing in the band’s Nashville, Tenn., space for a first leg of the subsequent tour, Meany hasn’t thought much about life outside of his quartet.

“I’d like to have a baby, to start a family,” he said after collecting his thoughts. “I’ve been married for 11 years, and it’s something I think about a lot. One member of our band just became a father. … I think this record would have been a heck of a lot easier if we all were. With kids, we wouldn’t have been able to be around each other all the time.”

That’s right, the Grammy Award-nominated songwriter, who spent the better part of the past three years on the road and who is gearing up to do so again, who already splits his time between Tennessee and Louisiana, and who fronts a relatively new ensemble amid the death rattle of record industry stability, thinks that fatherhood would have made the Armistice sessions easier.

They were that difficult.

“I’ve often said, ‘making this record was the hardest music experience of my life,’ ” said Meany. “It’s something that I couldn’t do again. I wouldn’t want to do it again.”

If he were to try and remake the album, it would be Mute Math’s third attempt at its 2009 release, the one that all but broke up the group. After the success of 2006’s self-titled debut, which garnered a Grammy nod for Best Short Form Music Video, the band retreated to its studio to make its follow up. Yet 16 songs in to those sessions – and without any standout tracks – the infighting reached its most heated.

Although there never was a “fuck you” moment, the band didn’t officially call it quits, drummer Darren King suggested doing so during one particularly exhausting exchange on the group’s front porch. A breakup was something the four members each had considered, but this was the first time any had expressed it to the whole.

“It’s so strange that you can spend every minute for a few years with these other people, and have completely different ideas on where the band should go,” said Meany. “You’d think that spending all that time together would mean you’d have similar ideas because you all had the same experiences. But that wasn’t the case. Somehow, we all wanted the band to go in different ways.”

The direction on which the foursome settled meant relinquishing control of the album and soliciting an outside producer. One by one, the band flew in candidates to hear their ideas, to find out how they might help the disintegrating friendships, and listen to suggestions of how those 16 songs could be salvaged.

But Dennis Herring didn’t think the tracks were worth saving. If an adequate sophomore was going to happen, the producer behind albums from The Hives, Ben Folds and Modest Mouse, was explicit in what he thought Meany and his band mates needed to do.

They needed to start over. And to finish – or rather, restart – Armistice, Mute Math would need to relocate to Herring’s Mississippi studio and write the album over.

“He basically told us that we had to stop worry about recording our album and worry about writing it,” Meany said. “He put the focus on songwriting and making the album would just happen as a result. ”

It was Herring’s brash, direct demeanor and confidence in his criticism that ultimately would spark Mute Math’s singular creativity and lead to the completion of the embattled LP.

“We had been plagued by the past,” said Meany. “We were so invested in those first batch of music, that once we let go of them, songs just started popping out of thin air.”

What came about were a dozen of the quartet’s strongest tracks. Armistice is a calculated, driving album of swirling percussion under Meany’s smooth, R&B-style vocals. It’s a record laced with Herring’s influence. Opener “The Nerve” questions, “Can you believe this world’s got the nerve to insist it won’t trade for a better one? / Can you believe this world’s yelling out in the dark it wants to be left alone?” You almost can imagine the producer asking the same of the band’s one-time stubbornness. And much like Meany and his mates decided, the song’s solution is to “set it on fire” and start fresh.

“Backfire” is a tale of old habits dying hard, “Spotlight” muses about making decisions under scrutiny, and “Clipping Path” tells of the singer’s helplessness. Titles such as “Pins and Needles,” “Burden,” “Goodbye” and “Lost Year” hint at Mute Math’s tumultuous recording that left the band members at their wits’ ends. Despite those tracks’ innuendo, “Odds” spells it out more directly, with Meany singing, “Back and forth the same / Be careful how you frame / Your argument, your argument / We’ve been given all we can / And it finally show the end / Of our tolerance, our tolerance.”

“It’s really humbling – and kind of embarrassing – to say that we had to bring in someone else to help us get along and finish this album. It’s like we weren’t grown up or professional enough to do it on our own,” said Meany. “It’s really eye opening, and we learned a lot of what this band needs to make music. I don’t think we’ll ever again get into a situation like that. It’s funny, but [Herring] had to pull all these little mind tricks to get us to get along so we could finish the album. It’s almost like he was our dad.”

Hopefully for Meany, he was taking notes – both on how to relate to his mates the next time they hit the recording studio, and on the subtleties of fatherhood. Who knows which advice he’ll need first.

Soundcheck Magazine, November 2009

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