It's not that Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel were in love—though they most definitely were—it's just that it seemed like they wanted to rub our faces in it. For years, every Mates of State recording felt like a dateless Valentine's Day spent home alone, while everyone else was exchanging phone numbers, boxed chocolates, and worse. Of course, no one wanted to broach this topic, because to rain hate down upon Mates of State would be to hate on love, and who wants to do that?
But thinking back on my first experience witnessing Mates of State in 2001, I don't so much remember the set list, or what was surely a fire code-violating crowd packed tight inside the long-defunct Meow Meow—but what I do remember most is the way Hammel looked at Gardner while they played. It's a common Mates of State reference, that intense loving glance (or, put more crudely, "eye-fucking") between the two members; it permeates their live show. You would catch yourself fixating on that stare—from Hammel on drums, to Gardner on organ—and it felt like you were interrupting something really important. It was akin to reading a stranger's diary, knowing some deep personal truth you had no business knowing.
Mates of State never played along with the other duo bands that peaked around the same time—they didn't have the irreconcilable differences of Quasi, or the murky past of the White Stripes. Instead they offered themselves as they were: young, happy, and crazy in love. Or as Hammel puts it, "We've never seen any reason to be anything but honest, and don't really understand why anybody ever would."
Mates of State's music mirrored this simple honesty: Their music was about love, because they were completely in it—you write what you know. But despite their bouncy pop sound, the band's staying power seemed as temporary and fleeting as the first few moments of youthful lust. Sure, they could fill the Meow Meow in the honeymoon stage of longing stares and wondrous songs composed of gorgeous intertwined vocals and breezy melodies, but good luck keeping us interested eight years later.
We're still interested. As Hammel and Gardner evolved as a couple—raising a pair of children, both of which tour with their musical parents—their music followed suit: 2003's Team Boo explored new melodies, 2006's Bring it Back balanced arrangements both complex and lighthearted, and last year's Re-Arrange Us might be their most complete work to date. The clunky organ notes that used to be the staple of the Mates of State sound have departed, replaced by the rich sound of a piano, or the gradual swell of a synthesizer. The smitten vocals will never go away, but now the pair sings with a newfound confidence, armed with songs that take advantage of their call-and-response vocals ("The Re-Arranger," "Great Dane," and the flawless "Jigsaw" all fall under this category).
In addition to their growth on record, the duo has managed to do the seemingly impossible: normalize the indie rock lifestyle. Good luck trying to justify an existence of sleeping on floors, five dollar per diems, and playing to half-empty rooms to anyone unfamiliar with the romanticized life of a struggling musician. But by functioning as a family unit—kids and all—Mates of State have made the gritty process of releasing albums and touring into something downright wholesome. And like their entire career, we'll credit that as another victory for love.