He Said, She Said

Mates of State fashion new sounds from age-old conversations

Oftentimes, being in a band is like being in a relationship. There are moments onstage that run comfortably and naturally enough to make verbal communication seem obsolete, and then there are screaming matches over missed rehearsals and long nights wondering whether it's time to break up. Mutual adoration is often just a step away from blind hatred.

Now imagine what it would be like if you were romantically involved with a bandmate. It may sound like a nightmare, but not to Mates of State.

The Mates of State are Kori Gardner, 26, and Jason Hammel, 24. Gardner plays the organ and Hammel plays the drums. They both sing. They sing to each other, and they sing to each other loudly. It is a rare moment during a Mates of State song that Gardner or Hammel is not singing very, very enthusiastically. They are in love.

Mates of State: Captivating instead of nauseating.
Jason Hammel
Mates of State: Captivating instead of nauseating.

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Thursday, Nov. 2, at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $6; call 621-4455.


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Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St. (at Texas), S.F.

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The closeness of Gardner and Hammel's relationship is evident when Mates of State perform. The duo watch each other intently, navigating through sudden stops and complicated changes; there are giggles and dirty looks when Gardner misses a note or Hammel flubs a fill. Anyone watching might get the sense that his or her presence is an intrusion into something intimate. This certainly isn't the first time two starry-eyed lovers have made music together: John and Yoko did it, and so did Paul and Linda, each with mixed results. But if a rabid live following and a rapidly selling debut album are any indication, Mates of State offer a love that is wholly captivating instead of vaguely nauseating.


Gardner and Hammel met while attending the University of Kansas in 1997.

"We were both involved in the music scene out there. Our bands actually played at some shows together," Gardner says. "I met everyone in his band, and he met everyone in my band, but we never met [each other]. It was two years before we ever talked."

"The story behind how we met is fairly sappy," Hammel continues. "It undoubtedly was one of those things where when it happened we both became obsessive about finding a way so we could meet up again. We knew we had to be together, and it worked. I swear, not a week after we actually did say "screw the gossips,' we agreed that we would be leaving the Midwest together."

In the meantime, Gardner and Hammel began playing guitar and singing together in a band called Vosotros.

"[Mates of State] just started as something we did for fun," Hammel says, stretching his arm over Gardner's shoulder. "It was just something we would do when band practice fell through."

"I had bought this organ from a friend for a hundred bucks three years before," Gardner says. "Nobody could carry it. There were so many injuries trying to carry that thing." Soon, the pair began writing new songs, with Hammel on the drum kit and Gardner playing the oversized, antiquated Yamaha organ.

Even with only two instruments, the band's songs are surprisingly full. Much of this is due to Hammel and Gardner's inspired harmonies, which have drawn comparisons to everyone from the Jackson 5 to Kansas emo band Boy's Life. The sound is a unique combination of Hammel's punk rock roots and Gardner's love of "pretty, harmony stuff."

"When we started [playing together], we liked completely different music," says Hammel.

"I used to be a very wimpy singer," Gardner says. "I would try to bury the vocals, keep it quiet, and [Hammel] came from a background where you just belt that shit out. He really taught me how to sing."

"And she helped me a lot with harmony," Hammel says. "We taught each other tons. It's a give and take."

Mates of State played only a handful of shows in Kansas before job opportunities and a desire to get the hell out of the Midwest brought the band to San Francisco.

"My mom was a little freaked out," Gardner says. "Here I am moving to San Francisco with a boy I just met to be in a band."

After finding work and settling into a small Mountain View apartment, Gardner and Hammel played one of their first shows in San Francisco at the Cocodrie with local rock band Little Deaths. Deaths guitarist Claire Walsh was about to put out a 7-inch with her other band, Fighter D, and asked the Mates to be on the other side of the single.

Released by San Francisco label Omnibus in the fall of 1999, the split record caused a small commotion in the indie scene. Word spread that a duo from Kansas was making a unique new sound in the midst of the then-stagnating San Francisco pop scene. Revered British DJ John Peel even played the Mates' side of the single, "Leave Me at the Tree," on his BBC program. The attention earned the still young band a number of high-profile local shows opening for Magnetic Fields, Stereo Total, and Death Cab for Cutie.

This past spring, Omnibus released the band's first solo single; this summer saw the release of its debut full-length.

Recorded in May with John Croslin at San Francisco's Tiny Telephone studio, My Solo Project features Mates of State's best recordings to date. Bookended by childhood boombox recordings of Gardner's sister Kelly singing TV theme songs, the album features 10 near-flawless pop songs in just over a half an hour. The arrangements and song structures are tighter and more mature than the singles, and the lyrics -- although still highly personal at times -- are closer to letting the listener in on the secret language of Gardner and Hammel's relationship.

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