Frontman Paul Meany explains the band’s fundamental creativity, including their explosive live shows, the making of the backwards video for “Typical,” and the writing process for their upcoming sophomore album.
So you guys are on tour right now with Matchbox Twenty and Alanis Morissette. How did you manage to pull that one off?
How did we manage to pull that one off? What’s your angle? What are you trying to get at, man [laughs]? We have a fierce staff of hustlers, sort of the MUTEMATH mafia. They trap big celebrity stars before they go out on their big tours and muscle them into bringing us along. They make them sign the contract, kind of hang them out the window upside down. Very inspired tactics we like to employ, and that’s how we keep scoring these gigs, man. You got to play dirty [laughs].
These are some of the biggest audiences you guys have played for. How have they been going so far and how have you been able to make that transition to the arena setting?
It’s a little strange because we’re sort of the welcoming committee of the night, so people are still coming in. No one really knows who we are. We’re hustling to capture people’s attention and get them to listen to us, but the response has been good. I think that one thing we figured out pretty quick is to turn it into a club show. We started setting up a lot closer because you know it’s a huge stage. We’re not used to playing on a huge stage. We were kind of spreading out things, and that wasn’t really happening. So we just had to squeeze in a little more. I don’t know how it looks and stuff, but it feels a lot better and seems to work. So, we’re having a good time. It’s just another club show for us.
Everyone raves about your live show – it’s all over the place. What’s your outlook on performing live and how do you think you’ve been able to captivate audiences so well?
You know, I’m not really sure. The only thing we were hell-bent on doing when we started playing shows was to just push ourselves and push the songs. I think that’s important, and a lot of my favorite bands have done that over the years. The recording of a song is just the beginning. It’s not the end all, be all. What I think you can do after the recording is really the best part about being in a band for me. I think when you genuinely are enjoying what’s happening onstage and the connection that’s happening with the musicians, there’s an electricity that happens. I think it becomes something exciting for the audience to witness.
So we try not to limit ourselves from letting moments happen onstage within the music. It’s kind of worked for us. I’m really fortunate that I’m in that kind of band that goes for it and does those kinds of things. Sometimes you lose big. Sometimes it’s huge failure. It’s a train wreck of a song. You try something, but it’s usually worth the risk when something electric happens. So yeah, you got to be willing to push yourselves, I think. Anyways, next question. Enough of that ramble.
MUTEMATH originally started kind of as an offshoot from your first band, Earthsuit. What led to that happening?
Well, Earthsuit broke up. It was a failed attempt at trying to be a band. I guess I was trying to figure out what to do next. Of course, I had met Darren through that whole experience. He was a fan, and actually had joined the band in its very last stage right as we were breaking up. We like to credit Darren for breaking us up, which was very necessary at the time [laughs]. I think once that was all done and over, I was kind of bummed out on the whole experience, really.
Darren, kind of being the new guy around, had been sending me CDs and music. I knew he was good and he was onto something. He was a great programmer and had electronic music ideas, and we started just working off that. It was kind of just a side project at first. We didn’t really have any grand ambitions on what we were going to do. MUTEMATH really just started as a two-piece between Darren and myself. As we were making songs and making demos and letting friends hear it, it kind of just evolved from there. One of those friends was Greg, who decided to join us, of course. I guess over the course of the past five years, it’s become what it is.
When you first signed to Warner, they initially marketed you to the Christian audience.
What’s wrong with them [laughs]?
Yeah, and then there was that whole controversial thing that happened afterwards. What’s the story behind that?
There’s no story behind it. I think a lot of people have made up stories. The basic gist of it was I didn’t want to be forced to work with a Christian record company, which I had experienced in the past and did not want to go down that road. But when you’re a nobody with no influence, they can kind of force and coerce you to do things. We were kind of getting forced and coerced into doing things that we didn’t want to do in the beginning until we said, “No more.” Until I watched Braveheart and William Wallace inspired us [laughs].
Thankfully, we had started our own label. We had our own label that was a part of the riff raff at the beginning, and were able to go out and put our music out ourselves through the Internet and touring. Finally, once I guess we had earned their ear, earned their time to listen to what we were saying by just doing it ourselves, that opened up a line of communication. The deal we have now is great, you know? The people we’re working with are wonderful. We just had to take the scenic route, I guess.
It was really a developmental deal in the beginning, and I guess those things can get squary. But we learned. That’s been the story of my life. It’s learning by trail and fire, you know? You just go. A new person comes into the industry, and unless you’ve been able to take a college course on how it all works and what to expect, you’re just in it figuring it out as you go. You make your mistakes. You luck out and make good choices sometimes, and you just hope in the end you’re able to make music, enjoy it, and make some kind of living at it, which we are. We consider ourselves very fortunate that we have the situation we have now.
Even though MUTEMATH isn’t really a Christian band, there’s still some spiritual undertones to the lyrics. Where does that come from and is that intentional at all?
I don’t know if I’d say intentional, but I think it’s inevitable. I grew up as a church kid. I learned how to play music by playing in church. My dad was the music guy and I’d be the kid that he would throw on the drums. “Here, play the bass tonight,” or “I need you on the keyboards.” And I was always happy to oblige. It was a very small church, so of course you could do those kinds of things. Just have the five-year-old kid jump up on whatever they needed, and I’d just bang along and I caught on quickly. That’s how I learned how to play music, and I fell in love with it.
Growing up in that atmosphere, I think those things get inside of you. I’m intrigued by the idea of God. I always have been. I think when I start to sit down and write songs, even to this day those ideas inevitably will surface. There’s no rules in this band that don’t allow for that. We create whatever we feel in a moment. Sometimes they’re spiritual, sometimes they’re not.
Going along with that, is there any particular theme you try to convey to listeners?
Any theme that I’m conveying to listeners?
Like what do you want someone to take away after listening to one of your songs?
That completely depends on the song. Hopefully, they’re just moved. If you’re trying to get a theme out of a song, you’re listening to it all wrong. The reason you should listen to songs and listen to music…
Maybe that’s what you’re trying to convey to people. How does it make you feel? Sometimes it is how the words marry into the melodies and whatever’s happening, but sometimes you’re completely oblivious to the words. Some of our music that I think is the most powerful is the instrumental stuff. It’s about how does it make you feel?
I do think there’s a feeling that happens when these four guys begin to make music. That’s the thing that I love about this band and that I’m drawn to in music. Also, that continues. As long as you’re feeling something, then we’re making something that’s important, and that’s what I hope we continue to do.
You gained a lot of attention last year with the video for “Typical,” which I thought was a phenomenal video. How did that crazy idea originate and how were you then able to execute it?
The idea came about after failed attempts at other ideas. We had a director for the first time. He was just doing documentary work with us, an 18-year-old right out of high school, and of course we wanted to do our first music video and weren’t sure what to do. Of course we had a shoestring budget, so we decided to give this 18-year-old kid a chance in coming up with something.
His idea in the beginning was very disheartening and it sucked. The original idea was we were just going to perform the whole video under Christmas lights, and that was it. We were going to play our song covered in Christmas lights. We were all like, “I don’t know about that. It might get a little boring. I’m not really feeling that.” He kind of got his heart broken, poor little thing, so we were like, “Hey look, let’s try and build off of that. Maybe that could just a part of something. There’s a better idea around the corner.”
So we just kept throwing ideas around. We got in a think tank with just the band and the director guy, and then all of a sudden the idea popped up to just run it all in reverse. A lot of my favorite videos throughout music video history have been some reverse videos. It’s a really interesting medium, so we were intrigued by that. We hadn’t really seen it done as a band performance, you know?
We just set up like we do. Everyone learns their part in reverse, and then we just kind of built off of that. All the little eye candy things that happened around it just made it more fun. We had an exhilarating time making the video, and I’m very proud of it. Then it got Grammy nominated. What do you know? Our first video, the director’s first video, and it culminated in us getting to go to the Grammys. It was a good day.
Then you also did that recreation thing on Kimmel a while back. How was that?
I think as we turned in the video and had played the song a few times on late night TV, with “Typical” being the single, Kimmel wanted to have us back. I don’t know if they wanted to move onto the next single or not. We felt like we had already played “Typical” the last time we were there, so we didn’t want to play it again the same way.
So the idea came up, “Let’s recreate the video. Let’s do something different for TV.” We were definitely intrigued by that, and kudos to the Kimmel guys for putting in the work to pull that thing off. It wasn’t just, “Yeah, let’s do it when we show up.” It took a bit of preparation and the production guys had to map this thing out. But yeah, that was a great time. I thought it made for interesting TV. Like Kimmel said himself, “It was going to be weird.” And he was right. It was definitely weird.
Recently I heard that your video for “Control” won’t be released. What’s the deal with that?
Well, we’re not talking about that yet, but I can tell you we’re putting together a short film that will explain the whole story and then the world will know.
Is the video ever going to end up getting released in some form?
I think people will see it at some point. I don’t know how it’s going to be released or how exactly it’s going to happen, but we’re going to let the story lead us up to it.
Last summer, you recorded the new Transformers theme song, which got a pretty positive response back from the fans. How was that experience?
That was a great experience. If someone could have told eight-year-old little Paul Meany that one day he was going to get to sing the Transformers theme song on the soundtrack for the movie, that would have been a good day in that little kid’s life. So yeah, we locked up in the studio once we got the call to give it a shot, got in touch with our inner Transformer child, and then we started writing music around it. It’s not every day you get to sing about Autobots and Decepticons [laughs].
As far as your musical style goes, it’s not so easy to pinpoint or define and really sticks out in today’s music scene. What do you think allows you guys to be so different?
Really, we did not place many parameters on what we were doing from the very beginning. That’s actually why we started doing it. We genuinely started this band on the premise of, man, let’s just create and see what happens. The thing is that we share a lot of common interests and a lot of the music that we like individually in this band, and then there’s a lot of stuff that we don’t share interest in. A lot of us do have different musical backgrounds, but the goal, which is actually a little time consuming and takes a little extra effort, is to just create music that we all on some level relate to.
It wasn’t about being any particular kind of band or fitting into, “oh, we want to be in this genre,” or “we don’t want to be in that genre.” We didn’t really think that through. I don’t know if maybe that was part of our problem, but whatever it was, it inspired us and caused us to create music that we were really digging, looked forward to playing, and actually enjoyed listening back to. It was unfortunate, I guess, for the record company people who would later get in business with us [laughs], to try and figure out how to market it or what to do with it. I don’t know. But that’s all right. We’re just a challenge. We’re helping them to expand their whole routine way of thinking about music.
It seems to be working so far.
A lot of the bands that I like and have been listening to in the beginning were ones that actually at the time were difficult to categorize. So when someone tells us that, it makes me feel like maybe we’re onto something. I take that as a compliment, that we’re hard to peg.
You personally have experienced your fair share of ups and downs in the music industry. What have you been able to learn throughout that whole ordeal?
That the worst thing that can happen is when you stop enjoying what you’re doing, especially when it’s music. I would have never fathomed being a youngster learning to play music. You have all these big dreams that one day you’ll be able to play in a band, travel the world and all that stuff. That would just be the greatest thing ever, and then you get a chance to start doing that and somehow it feels like the worst thing ever. It seems like an impossibility, but that actually happened.
In some former bands that I played in, it’s like, “Man, how did this start to suck?” So I was pretty hell-bent on not letting that happen in this band. It was really a lot of the groundwork that was laid up front on the approach and the rules, which there really aren’t many in this band. It really is about creating. Especially as we’re going into this second record, it’s about the feeling that anything goes. The sky is still the limit. I think as soon as you feel like you’ve locked in, you’re ruined. As soon as you think you’ve reached the ceiling of what you can accomplish creatively, or what you can sing about, or what kind of music you can make, it takes the zing out of it.
It’s strange. It’s kind of like I’m parallel talking about some kind of relationship, like how to keep your marriage long or something. In a lot of ways, I think being in a band is sort of a marriage. You got to keep finding ways to reinvent it and keep it inspiring.
With the music industry right now in so much turmoil and a state of flux, in your opinion where do you see that progressing in the future?
It seems like everybody and their grandma is definitely touring, and it’s great for people who love to go to shows. It seems that we’re in a time at this point where you can see just about any band you had hoped to ever see. They’re touring somewhere. You can go find them playing somewhere. Shows are becoming more and more competitive. Maybe that’s a good thing, I don’t know, but it’ll raise the bar on shows.
But yeah, I’m not too concerned on what it’s going to do to the industry. I guess I never really have been. We’ve always just kind of used the hell out of whatever is at our disposal at any given time. We’re one of the bands that really got to benefit, I think, from the time when MySpace was on the cusp of popularity. At the time, it was all we really had as a networking tool to let people know about our music. All the initial means of record promotion were not at our disposal while we were in turmoil. So, MySpace was really our safety net. Thankfully, people gave us a chance and were showing up at our shows, and the word spread through that. That’s how we’re able to keep this band alive and keep touring, and we’re extremely grateful for it.
What’s the next thing that’s going to happen? I enjoy the hell out of YouTube. I’m glad that’s happening. What’s interesting is how when we’ve played new songs on the tour, on our past couple tours… I remember debating within the band on whether we wanted to start playing new songs yet before they were finished because of them being on YouTube. We don’t want these kind of primal versions of the songs to get out before they’re ready. You want to feel like when you start playing in front of people, it’s all some sort of potential at this point. You’re not still working out the kinks.
But actually in retrospect, as we’re getting ready to go into the second record, we find ourselves referencing YouTube a lot because there’s like all these different versions of this song we’re playing. It’s funny because it’s almost like the progression of the demo. You can kind of see, “Oh, we did something great that night. That night it sucked. This night something really happens.” It’s almost been a better reference of demoing purposes of new songs as we’re going into the next record than actually our demos, our real demos. I think we need to do that more often. So as long as our fans will be forgiving of us working out kinks on the road, and trying new things and not freaking out on us, I think it’ll help make these versions fun for our audience and entertain a lot better.
With the second album, how’s the writing process going so far. Do you have everything pretty much written already?
I’m extremely looking forward to the second record. It feels like we’ve been playing a lot of our current songs forever, so we definitely feel like we’re well over due to put some new stuff together. We’ve been writing feverishly on this tour and the whole past year to get as many song ideas. Usually for every four or five mediocre or bad ones, there’s just one that’ll pop out that’s really good. You just got to write through a bunch of ideas.
One thing that really inspired us, I think out of necessity of just being on tour, is a great instrument that we’ve never used before. It wasn’t on the first record. You might have heard of this instrument. It’s called the acoustic guitar. We’ve got four acoustic guitars that are traveling with us right now, and we’re all kind of obsessed with it.
It’s really our only means of writing songs. That’s the thing, it’s probably the easiest instrument to pick up and try to put together a song on. With keyboards and samplers, that’s so impractical when you’re on the road and trying to stay creative. But we’ve really been vibing into it, rediscovering what one guy – you know, like Bob Dylan, and James Taylor, and a great guy from England, Nick Drake – what one guy can achieve with an acoustic guitar and his voice, and finding a lot of inspiration in that for what we do. I think that’s really kind of driven the creativity on this next record.
How would you compare this new stuff you’re working on to your old material?
I think it’s more grown up. I think it’s better. I mean, I’m really stoked on it. I think people are going to enjoy it. Our goal is to embarrass the first record, that’s what we’re trying to do here, and I think we’re on point to pull it off.
Do you have a date yet for when you’re going to head into the studio?
As soon as this tour is over. So when would that be? That would be the very end of March. We’re going to truck on down to New Orleans. We got a house that we’re going to rent out and set up for a couple months and record it.
Are you going to be self-producing this?
Yeah, we’re just going to co-produce it and work with a lot of the same people we did the first time through.
So it’s probably going to come out this fall then?
You know, I don’t know. Don’t hold me to that. There’s rumors that it might come out in the fall, but I’m not too sure about that.
But hopefully before the end of the year, right?
Yeah, hopefully. We’ll see how it goes. The thing is that we’re not really too keen on talking about a release until the record’s done. I hate trying to create something… You know, we got it get it right. It’s got to be great, and we’re not going to put it out until it is. So, we’ll work the release date around that.
Yeah, you can’t rush it.
Looking towards the future of MUTEMATH, what do you think is going to be the next step in your evolution and where would you like to see the band end up?
We’ll hopefully end up continuing to make records. I dream to be able to have four or five records on our band’s belt, still being able to tour, and feel like we’re still creating something that feels important, not only to us but for the people that we play for. If we can just continue this and remain friends throughout the whole thing, that’d be quite an achievement. But first, we got to get a second record. I don’t want to think too lofty. Thinking about record four and five doesn’t mean anything if we can’t get our second one done.
Originally appeared on Mammoth Press