Lead singer Paul Meany opens up on the difficulties behind making the band’s sophomore album Armistice, including his own personal uncertainties and why persistency can sometimes be a bad thing, and what the group’s Twilight experience was like.
So I got to say I think I have seen the word MUTEMATH spelled in more ways than any other band name.
I don’t know why that’s all of a sudden an issue. I know a few people bring that up.
It is all caps, one word, correct?
If that’s what works. I don’t know if we’ve abided by that rule. We take liberties. Whatever works. We might even go vertical on the next record. Who knows? They’re just letters, man. Can’t we all get along?
I remember I talked to you last year on the Matchbox Twenty tour and you were saying how your goal on the second record was to embarrass the first one. Do you think you were able to accomplish that goal?
Well, I think we got a blush or two, so maybe to some degree. We were bound to embarrass something, I guess [laughs], even if it was ourselves, which maybe happened. I’m not sure.
No, I’m truly proud of what we were able to finish up with. I was actually surprised that as we’re playing shows now, and putting together songs from the first record and the second record, how well they all work together.
I understand you ended up recording another album before Armistice. What kind of happened there?
We had been on the road writing for the past three years while we were touring, trying ideas out on the road, working out ideas during soundcheck and the back of the bus, or whatever it was. We thought we would get off the road and turn it into our record. Great. It’s going to be wonderful.
Then we got off the road to do just that and realized it wasn’t great or wonderful. The ideas just weren’t happening, which was kind of a head-trip for us. We really couldn’t figure out why. If half of us really liked a certain song, a certain aspect of another song, the other half usually hated it. We found ourselves for the first time not being able to come up with any compromise that seemed like it was benefiting the song or making anything better. It was frustrating, and I think we were paralyzed by that.
So, you know, we started talking to different producers. I think we originally set out to produce it ourselves, but after about a month or so of not getting anywhere we realized we needed to talk to some outsiders to help us figure out what the problems were. We talked to this one guy, Dennis Herring, who we wound up going with, who suggested that maybe, just maybe, the ideas we were trying to make our record weren’t that good to start with.
We were going to keep spinning our wheels, trying to perfect stuff that was really just mediocre, so we shelved all that. He said, “Why don’t you just try starting from scratch and create stuff that you all can be excited about?” Which was a very noble idea, and one that we weren’t immediately attracted to only because we had been so invested in what we had done up to that point and the songs that we had hopes for. We were like, “Really?”
I think once we wrapped our heads around that, it definitely felt like the right thing to do. It felt like the only thing to do, actually. So, all that stuff got shelved and we started writing from scratch. We went into the studio every day and hoped that a song fell out of the sky, and it usually did. We went from what was probably the most frustrating time in our band to what was the most liberating, and ended up with Armistice.
What did the earlier stuff kind of sound like?
First record b-sides. That’s exactly what it sounded like, and that’s exactly what we didn’t want.
Armistice definitely has a different production sound than the first album, with less guitars out center and more beat-driven. What was that process like for you?
It was great. It was extremely educational and liberating. As far as guitars go, I think Greg is probably one of the more inventive guitarists, especially for the kind of songs that we write. Guitars is not an easy gig in this band. He just has a really good knack for articulating the guitars in a way that isn’t always conventional or the obvious thing to do, which is great.
I think it pays huge dividends for what our songs wind up as. It was a conscious effort. I think Greg has pushed himself to lift the ceiling on what a guitar can do, or what it’s supposed to do, and the way you’re supposed to play in a song. So yeah, I think that was an experiment that was waged that worked.
Another thing I noticed is the record seems to be more concise and there’s less instrumental type stuff. Is that something else you set out to do?
It actually wasn’t. It was the first project that we didn’t have an instrumental idea that made the cut. We had written a bunch of instrumentals, and most of the songs start out as instrumentals. Usually, we make some instrumentals in the end if we just don’t hear a vocal line.
Sometimes you listen to an instrumental idea and it sounds complete. It’s like, “Yeah, there’s nothing that needs to be said. That song is saying it all just in the music.” For the first time, we didn’t have one of those because they seemed to be calling for vocals, and the ones that didn’t, the instrumental ideas, really got shelved because they weren’t strong enough. They still needed something, and we couldn’t figure out what. Just by process of elimination, 12 cuts made it.
You just started your new tour. Have you been toying with how to expand these new songs for the live show?
Absolutely. The songs are definitely taking on a new life, which is great. We fully expected them to. That’s kind of been the ammo of this band from the beginning. We’ve never set out to recreate our records. It’s all about letting the song become something more in the live environment, and these songs are definitely no exception. So, it’s going good.
Do you try to record in the studio live?
To some degree, yeah. They’re usually either created live or some live aspect of it does get recorded. Sometimes it isn’t enough in the recorded medium. There’s something missing or something that needs to be flowing around. All of us creatively kind of came up on samplers, so at least for me, Darren and Roy, we think in that arena. We think very cut and paste in a lot of ways.
I think MUTEMATH’s music is usually a hybrid of that, sort of the live aspects with this cut and paste undertone. The drasticness of it probably varies from song to song. We definitely don’t rule that out when we get into a recording environment, at least we haven’t up till now. That’s just part of the creative process for us.
Is there anything specific that influenced the lyrics on this record for you, and how do you think they stack up against what you wrote for the first one?
The lyrics are definitely now for me. It’s definitely shooting from the hip, just the way this record was written, which was very fast. I was writing a song every other day and not overthinking anything, letting the subconscious mind kind of speak, react to the music and move on. I think it resulted in the best songs I’ve written. I think the themes that surface in the songs of dire time are genuine. They’re articulating experiences of what I observed during the process of making the record.
One of the things that stood out to me is there seems to be a large amount of uncertainty on the record. You talk about plans backfiring and not knowing what is real, or right or wrong. Is that what you were feeling, kind of a like philosophical crossroads of some sort?
Yeah. You know, the way I had written in the past, whether you’re dealing with uncertainties or internal affairs, whatever they may be, you kind of go behind closed doors. You sort through some things, and when you figure a few things out you come back out and you write a song about it. I think this record was a little more of an attempt to write the song about what’s going on behind closed doors and some of the things that aren’t necessarily as comfortable to admit about myself that I think are valid and necessary, if not more important.
I think the idea of having it figured out, or having some sort of answers to let shine in a song, to me is a self-imposed obligation, which can sometimes paralyze honesty. I was being pushed a lot through this record by myself, and even by some of the guys in the band, to write stuff that wasn’t necessarily comfortable or I was a little scared of. There was usually something important that needed to be said, or that I at least needed to put into a song form. But yeah, uncertainty is not necessarily a fun thing to write about.
Have you come to any resolution, or is this a continual thing you go through?
I think my resolution is I don’t know. I don’t have many answers. I probably never will, and that’s OK. I think it’s resolution in being cool with uncertainty, really, and that’s all right. There’s nothing wrong with that.
I think there’s ways that we’re programmed, whether it’s by society or culture or religion, whatever it may be, that programs us to think, and this is probably one thing that surfaces in a lot of songs, the idea that persistency is good, quitting is bad. I think there’s a thin line between that persistency and giving up. Knowing when to do either is tricky because we’re programmed to think fighting the fight, persistent, never say die, whatever. That’s all noble. Quitting or giving up is for the losers.
I’ve been in situations where the worst mistake I’ve made has been from being persistent. Some of the best decisions I’ve made have been from knowing when to call it quits and move on to something else. I think there’s nobility in both of those ideas, but it’s tricky knowing when to do either. Sometimes you may not now when. So those kinds of head-trips, I think, definitely found their way into some of the ideas of these songs.
One of the songs that really stood out to me is the last song, “Burden,” where you close the album with the line: “The devil is not the nature that is around us but the nature that is within us all.” How did you come up with that song and what does that line mean to you?
I was reading a book and that idea was surfacing. I think something about it just resounded with what a lot of these songs on the record were flirting with. It just seemed to be the right line for that part, and the right line to close the record off.
It’s easy to look at that stuff, evil or whatever you want to personify as the devil, as something that happens outside of yourself. It’s difficult to take responsibility for that, and realize that maybe a lot of the problems that you’re dealing with are really self-inflicted and rooted in yourself. That realization can be extremely freeing and extremely healthy in how to move forward.
This record was definitely a lot of exploration of some dirt inside myself, and trying to find my own way to move forward and just become a better human being. I think a lot of those ideas were important for me to see.
You had the song “Spotlight” on the Twilight soundtrack last year. I’m curious but what was that whole experience like?
It was good. We had a call from the record company, who was licensing songs on the movie, which we had never even heard of the movie at the time or knew about the books or anything. They just said there’s this new movie coming out, Twilight. Somebody involved is a fan. They were wondering if, while we were writing the new record, we had any scrap parts that might be good for a scene that they’d like to have music in. They’d love for you guys to be a part of it. So, they sent us a scene to look at.
Darren, he’s kind of a cinematic composer anyway, took some musical ideas that we had that were scrapped, and some we were still working on, and made something for the scene. Most of which we used was from the idea of “Spotlight,” which we were just finishing up then. They liked the music for the scene and they said we could include a song on the soundtrack, whichever one we’d like to do. We had just finished “Spotlight,” and that had made the movie bit, so we put that on. No one had any idea that it would become the massive thing it is, so it wound up being a nice job for us.
Are there any differences between the version that was on the soundtrack and the version that made the album?
Yes, there are subtle differences. There’s definitely a difference between the one that’s in the movie, I know, and the one that’s on the soundtrack. I think it was just remixed by the time it got to the album version. That was a mix that we had put together for the soundtrack.
Have you noticed if you’ve gained new fans just because of that one song?
Yeah, every now and then we get signs that some people were turned onto us through that song when people come to the shows now.
So, are you working on a new video right now?
We are. We’re in the final stages of it. It’s a video for “Backfire.” I can say it’s the easiest video we’ve ever done, thankfully. We needed an easy video, but it has been the most difficult one we’ve ever left with a director. Usually, we’ve accepted a lot of the workload on all our videos in the past, a lot of self-made stuff, but we were so busy with trying to get ready for the tour and playing shows that we just could not do that.
So, anyway, all we did was one day and take some pictures, and then the director’s been working feverishly for the past two months trying to animate it. It should be done by this weekend. I’m really excited about it, and hopefully it’ll be out next week.
How would you, in your own words, define MUTEMATH, both what you’ve done so far and what you would still like to do?
I hope that we can get to the next record sooner than later, and finish it sooner than later. Hopefully, we’re not talking five years from now and we’re still working on our third record [laughs]. I think we learned a lot about our band through the making of this record – what works best for us, the roles that we should play and usually how we can get the best results.
It would be an interesting experiment for us, that we’ll probably at least try on the next record, is just making one really quick and see if that’s even possible. Can we be in and out in a month, writing the songs and record them, and it’s good enough to call a MUTEMATH record? I don’t know. It’s definitely at least worth a shot because we know we can always take a year on one. Just for the hell of it, let’s try a month and see what happens.
Originally appeared on Mammoth Press