Sketching In Rabbit Trails

20 March 2013 | 5:45 am | Brendan Telford

“I guess that [electronic music] has always been our MO to this day, even on Odd Soul, which ended up sounding very organic and jammed out.”

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Mutemath have never been a band that is easy to tie down and pigeonhole, the band steadily building a fervent fanbase over the past ten years due to their schizophrenic sonic explorations and effusive instrumentation. While original guitarist Greg Hill left the band in 2010, the New Orleans four-piece regrouped and came away with 2011's Odd Soul, their strongest collective effort yet. The album has been critically lauded, and frontman Paul Meany admits it's opened up a few more doors for them over the past year.

“We have been able to tour a lot more, and go to some pretty amazing places, Australia being one of them,” Meany states. “We got to play in Mexico, and we are travelling to Singapore before coming back to Australia, and these are the types of things that sort of drip feed down from something like Odd Soul. In fact, and this is more of a personal milestone for me, but we are getting to play the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival this year. It's an old festival, it's been around for I don't know how long, and I remember going to it as a kid, and it's kind of mind-blowing that I am now getting to play and be a part of something like that.”

That said, Mutemath have never been a band to stand still, with their seismic shifts in mood, tempo and genre being one of the defining elements of the band's oeuvre. This extends to their physical musicianship, whereby the stage is kept busy from multiple changes of instruments between band members. Meany admits that it is difficult to tie down what drives the band musically, but it's best not to overthink things either.

“We are definitely wanting to consolidate some of the ideas we had on the last record, but we are always changing the process of how we do things, just that little bit, to keep it fresh. It's not really a conscious decision rather than something we have to do. Plus life doesn't stand still – we have a new band member now, we have kids now, too – the dynamic changes when you have kids running around, needing to be fed. The best way to describe how we are travelling creatively right now is that we're sketching, there is a lot of sketching going on, flinging down as many ideas as possible when we can. In fact we will be airing many of those ideas for the first time when we get to Australia, it's the perfect time to pick and choose what we think works best and really bang them out so that they are suitable for an audience, for a crowd to take in. We're turning these sketches into an understandable or relatable picture.”

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With the band encompassing so many variants of musical genres – math rock, free jazz, prog, funk – it's hard to fathom Mutemath wanting to straddle further sonic frontiers.

“Well, we are constantly looking for things that we haven't heard before,” Meany muses. “I think on the last album we were listening to some records that were our first time in experiencing them, they were our original memories, so we built on those new sounds, at least new to us. A lot of albums from the '70s, rediscovering albums from Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin that we hadn't ever taken in before. It threw us back to past memories, like when Dad taught me my first Hendrix song, or hearing the Beatles… We had a lot of fun allowing ourselves to go back there, culling from that era. Right now, for the time being at least, we are starting from a very now place; we are searching for things that none of us have literally heard before. We've been messing a lot with synths, seeing what we can cook up with iPads and computers. The process is like rabbit trails to us, so I never have an idea where we are going to end up. The things we do are we try to change locations; we are in a different house than we were last time. These places usually inform the sound of the instruments and the sound of the drums – even my own vocals – and anything goes. I'm just trying to chase down melodies and lyrics as they come to me; you can't forsake that.”

When Meany and drummer Darren King formed almost a decade ago, their musical focus was much more electronically oriented, where the foraging for new sounds first bore fruit. The opportunities and advancements that electronica can provide has always been at the core of the duo's creativity, thus a constant source of inspiration for Mutemath, regardless of whether it's prevalent or not.

“I guess that [electronic music] has always been our MO to this day, even on Odd Soul, which ended up sounding very organic and jammed out,” Meany states. “All of our ideas start out on a sampler, with Darren usually creating this electronic bass-driven instrumental track. Darren brings it to us, then we strike up as a band and reinterpret what this track is doing, and depending where that energy is bringing us will decide where a Mutemath song ends up. It can remain quite similar, or like on Odd Soul it becomes something completely different – it's wherever the core of the song takes us. Very seldom will I sit down and write a song in classical songwriting terms whereby it'll make the cut as a Mutemath song. There are so many sounds, we try all these different instruments – it's much more of an intuitive process.”

The sinuous nature that the disparate elements of Mutemath interweave and coalesce into these hybrid monsters belies the notion that these are meticulously timed and rehearsed jams – nothing is left to chance. While the conception and gestation periods of their songs holds a modicum of spontaneity, Meany admits that it takes an incredible amount of work and exertion to muscle the songs into the structures they hold, yet the boundaries are never set in stone.

“When we start out with our sketches and are rehearsing, those rabbit trails are definitely a part of it. Chasing those rabbit trails is enjoyable. When it comes to the live interpretations, we still allow ourselves some of those rabbit trails; it's an important part of making music for us. It can be a blessing and a curse at the same time, I admit – when we get an idea and there isn't a particular direction that we can just plug into, there is no blueprint and we just vibe off each other and end up wherever we end up. However I'm blessed to be playing with amazing musicians to the point that moments when playing these songs can be wholly new and exciting. And while we mould the songs into something manageable, it's something that will always be a part of our DNA.”

Mutemath will be playing the following dates:

Thursday 21 March - Fowlers Live, Adelaide SA
Friday 22 March - Billboard, Melbourne VIC
Saturday 23 March - The Hi-Fi, Brisbane QLD
Sunday 24 March - The Hi-Fi, Sydney NSW