A Conversation with Mutemath's Darren King
Mike Ragogna: How are you, Darren?
Darren King: I'm all right, how about yourself?
MR: I'm doing well. Might you be in New Orleans?
DK: Exactly, that's where I am. I think it's a beautiful day here--I just woke up, and I think we're somewhere in the Garden District. I think it's going to be a nice, beautiful day, with which I plan to do absolutely nothing.
MR: Congratulations on getting one of those days.
DK: (laughs) Yeah, I'm thankful for it.
MR: Let's jump right into your new album, Odd Soul. First off, can you tell me what was behind the song "Blood Pressure"?
DK: I was raised in a good home. I was raised in a small town right in the middle of America, but there were these movements. One of these was called Teen Mania, and Acquire The Fire was another one, and we would go to these Christian youth events and there would be a lot of talk about becoming God's army and becoming "world changers," which is a term they used a lot. I felt a lot of pressure, and you feel a lot of pressure as a kid to change the whole world. As a teen, you felt like you had to change the people around you and make everybody else just like me. But what if I'm awful? So, it can wear you out a little bit as a kid, and I guess that's what that song is about--getting worn out with not feeling perfect and trying to make everyone else perfect too.
MR: What is your relationship like these days with religion?
DK: I'm very thankful for and proud of the song "In No Time," which is the last song on the record. I have to say that it, more than anything we've ever done, happens to be a good record of how we feel right now. I'm sure as a band, we're all in different places in ways, but there is this sense of retreat from pessimism. It's certainly a cop out to let somebody do all of your thinking and believing for you, but I've decided at this point in my life that it's also a cop out to just pretend like it's all stupid. You know, when you're a little kid and you lose a game so you just kick the game over and say, "This is stupid"? I can't do that either. Either of those is a cop out, so I'm frustrated right now. If you want me to define myself right now, I'd say that I'm a little bit of a frustrated Christian because I'm 29 now, and I feel like, in some ways, I'm still wrestling with the issues that I dealt with at fourteen. Then, in other ways, I feel like I've had too many important experiences and too many good things happen that certainly feel like more than just coincidence--it shouldn't all come my way to write it all off as coincidence or happenstance. So, there's still a lot of toiling going on. I'm frustrated with church because I loved church growing up, and now I'm maybe a little too cool for it, or I get frustrated with the music or the pop culture of it. That's kind of where I'm at, and I think there are probably a lot of people my age that can relate to that feeling. I was so inundated with Christianity from the time I was 2 til I was 17, and then, even beyond that, and so even though I might try sometimes to see it differently, I still see the world differently from a Christian perspective.
MR: Okay, back to Mutemath.
MR: We talked about "Blood Pressure" already, and now I'd like to go back and talk about one of your earlier singles, "Typical." It ended up being Grammy nominated in '07, the video was the song performed backwards, and the song even was performed on American Idol.
DK: (laughs) The drummer had so many toms on American Idol (Imitates extended drum fill), which I thought was impressive. I have such a tiny drum kit, and it was interesting to hear it reworked with a lot more drums in there. We were in England at that time, playing that song for about 80 or 90 people in a club, and he was playing it for millions on live TV. We really loved the irony of that.
MR: I want to ask you about the sound of your band, and your influences because I came across someone listening to your music the other day who described you as a cross between Steve Miller and ZZ Top. I thought they were crazy, but then I was listening to some of "All Or Nothing" and I could kind of see it. Who are your influences?
DK: Well, it's always changing. My big hobby in life is hunting for new music and record shopping. We're always trying to listen to new music. On this record in particular, it was not intentional that we became so guitar driven and became such a rock band. We talked about how we wanted to do stuff that was more energetic on the front end because we realized that the slow, pretty songs happen a little more naturally, but the intense songs in a studio environment needed work to create. The other thing was that we wanted our album to feel more like a live show, which was really fun. Our live show was more fun than our records, so we wanted to make our records more fun. The way that all came about was just to add more guitar in that kind of bluesy rock feel. We also referenced The Meters, and we would play sort of amped-up covers of Meters grooves, and that was kind of a definitive moment for us.
MR: Now, the video for "Typical" was nominated for Best Short Form Music Video, and that was shot in less than a day?
MR: That's really pretty amazing. What's the creative process like for that?
DK: That was unlike anything we'd ever done. So far for me, making music videos is one of the most fun parts about being in a band. The most fun things would be international travel, getting to hang out with your best buds, playing a live show, and making music videos. Not fun things are setting up and tearing down, file management while recording, picking out a name for your band. The music videos are a lot of fun for me--I love it--but we woke up that day thinking that we just had a day full of interviews. We were at Warner Bros., we had just played a concert at The Troubadour, and we had a day of interviews. In the evening, we were just going to celebrate that our album was coming out and just have a meal. We realized that we weren't going to be together again until we started rehearsing for the tour because we're all from different cities, at which point it would be too late to do a music video. So, we just got all gung-ho and decided that we were going to make a video that night. We called up our friend Claire Vogel, a very talented videographer there at Warner Bros., and she co-directed the video with me. She stayed behind the camera and I wrote out this one page, very rough treatment, which was just these vague descriptions of what would happen at what points. Then, we just filmed it in chronological order. So, we just threw all our gear in a pile in the center of a parking lot and then everything spun out from there. There were moments when we were frozen, talking about what we do next, so some of it was kind of improvised as well. It was just two weeks of editing it all together because it was just a mess--eight or nine hours worth of stuff. I got a new laptop and I just put it together piece by piece, which was fun. It was a cool way to stay productive.
MR: Getting back to Odd Soul, let's talk about the title track. What's behind that song?
DK: That's one of the last songs we wrote. We wrote "Odd Soul, "Walking Paranoia" and "Cavalries" all toward the very end of the record, and they act sort of as a synopsis of how we feel about growing up the way we did, and now, to be at this age and still feel weird, to still feel like these quirky guys. It's one thing to feel that way when you're 13 or 14 because you're still searching for your identity, but when you still feel that way at this point, you start to feel that it must just be who you are--there must be something inside. So, the idea is that we're just weird from deep within.
MR: That's great because I feel that I am an odd soul, but I look at other people and see the odd soul in them too. Darren, I think everybody is an odd soul.
DK: Exactly. It really is incredible. I think of myself as an avid people watcher, and especially when you're in a city like New Orleans, just sit down in the French Quarter sometime and look at all the different types of people, and you'll wonder, "How on Earth did we get this way?"
MR: You brought up "Walking Paranoia" earlier. Could you go into that song a little more?
DK: That song is loosely based on a true story from my own personal life. It is the story of how I first figured out what a naked woman looks like. The very first time I saw a picture of a naked woman was at a gas station in Missouri, and I snuck over to the dirty magazines, cracked the seal on one and looked at it. This giant gas station attendant screamed at me, "Hit the road, Jack!" I threw the magazine and I ran out. Then, a year later, after going to some sort of Christian meeting that had a play where some people go to heaven and some people go to hell, riddled with guilt, I went back to the same gas station to give them money for the magazine that I broke and to apologize for looking at the dirty picture. I wanted to go to that gas station attendant and tell them that I would never do that again a whole year later. By the time I got there, there was a woman behind the counter and the gas station had completely changed owners, but I did it anyway. I told the lady my story. She was sweet and she said, "Hun, we don't carry those magazines anymore. You don't have to worry about that." I said, "Just take it," threw the money at her and ran out. It's about guilt and about that paranoia that I was raised with. A plane would fly over and I'd run and see if my mother was still around because I wondered if the rapture had happened, and I knew that if anybody got raptured, my mom definitely would. I would genuinely be on the lookout for demons and would be really scared sometimes at night as a little kid. I lived in this sort of hyper-intense paranoia. Not to discredit that there is spiritual and supernatural things--I still believe there is spiritual stuff. But at the same time, I obviously took it way too far as a kid, and that's what that song is about.
MR: How does anybody survive childhood. Anyone.
DK: It's true. It's so difficult. I grew up alone a lot--I had this drum set, a cool dog, a cat. I had some friends, but being a kid is tough no matter what. I got picked on a lot because I was pretty hyper. I got set on fire one time in 7th grade.
DK: Yeah, (someone) set me on fire. After football, we were all waiting for our parents to pick us up and he got a cigarette lighter and put it on the back of my neck--just singed the back of my neck.
MR: Do you think kids being cruel to each other is a mimicking of what is going on at home or is it just innate?
DK: Well, I know in some instances from when I was growing up that that is exactly what was happening. I knew about the kids that were the worst about it--they were the kids that I would try to be nice to. Yeah, they would be getting it at home and then taking it to school. Then, there's this other thing...I remember I was mean. I made fun of one kid by calling him Dan, Dan, Muscle Man, thinking that was really hilarious. He was a German exchange student with the blondest hair and the skinniest kid you'll ever see. I pushed him around because he was the only kid I could pick on. I got picked on a lot and then picked on him. So, there's the professional bully, but then there's also the fact that boys--and maybe girls too--we're rotten.
MR: I take a little offense to that, but I think I also have to agree with regards to phases and how ugly they can get. I think maybe there are a lot of chemicals, hormones, myelination, and so much more involved in growing up.
DK: Well, when they're born they're just little angels, but we all have the capacity to be just a little stinker at some point or another. The phase that I laugh about now when I look back on is my junior high years. I became very bitter. I went through this brief period where nobody was more depressed and I just felt like I had the weight of the world on my shoulders. I think about the stuff I was dealing with at the time and it wasn't that bad, you know? (laughs) I didn't have any real problems as a kid, but I was pretending like I had the worst problems in the world. If you've seen Anchorman you'll understand when I say, "I was in a glass case of emotion!"
MR: Great line. But truthfully, I have those moments on a daily basis, and many adults do as well. So, what's the difference between us and kids?
DK: Well, that's a good point. The only difference for me is that now, I actually do have some real problems, and some really scary stuff every now and then to deal with. Maybe I was just pretending I had those problems back then to practice how I would deal with it someday.
MR: Considering the subject matter we just discussed, maybe neither of us should answer this question, but I'm going to ask it anyway. What advice do you have for new artists?
DK: Well, I'm so thankful for the encouragement I got from my church. I will defend my church to the death for this despite any of its flaws. I got to play music for all these people--and I played it horribly and really loudly--but those people just loved on me and encouraged me. I went to a very unique church. One year for Christmas, they let my friend and me set up our drums and do a Buddy Rich versus Gene Krupa style drum battle, loosely based on "The Little Drummer Boy." It was complete showoff--it was very unspiritual and there was nothing worship-y about it at all--but they let us do it. All I mean to say by that is that it doesn't have to be a church, but if there is any community where people have those good vibes and some drums, go for it. (laughs) Music is meant to be shared and celebrated together in a room. I did this right--I hunted out people with similar interests and I clung to them. Whenever people asked me when I was 17 what I wanted to do for a living, I was oddly specific and said, "I know this guy in New Orleans named Paul Meany. I want to be in a band with him." Now, I'm 29 and that is still what I'm doing. I guess if that's helpful at all, it's my advice--find people with common interests and cling to them, and don't listen to people who are discouraging, even if they're right.
MR: So, that begs the story of how you, Paul, and the band got together.
DK: Paul grew up in New Orleans and he had music all around him. His father was a musician. Roy grew up in McAllen, Texas, right on the south border, and his father is also a musician. I grew up in Missouri, and my father was not a musician, but he loved music and had a great cassette tape collection with lots of good instrumental rock that really struck a chord with me. So, my father put me around music a lot. It was at church that I first started playing. They let me play percussion--they didn't put a microphone on me because I wasn't very good, but they let me play percussion. Then, all of a sudden back in '97, a bus with Archangel Michael airbrushed on the side of it pulled up to our church. It was supposed to stay for three days and it ended up staying for ten weeks. It was this ministry team--this sort of evangelistic Partridge Family--Reba Rambo and Dony McGuire. They were these Grammy Award-winning gospel legends who had become preachers. They would travel around, and if they found somebody who was fresh out of high school and a great musician, they would just pluck them out of the church and put them on the bus to play on the road for a year. Paul had just done that. When I saw them for the first time, they had matching lime green suits, and afterward I went to Paul and I was going through puberty and said, "You have a really cool voice." He said, "Thanks man." He was really cool and I was really awkward, and he was my hero instantly.
They ended up staying at the church for ten weeks, and six nights a week they would have service with two extra services on Sunday--that's a total of eight services a week--and I went to most every one of them. So, Paul and I really hit it off. He saw my enthusiasm, how hard I worked at the drums and how badly I wanted to be a musician. Then, in '00, I graduated high school, and I flew down to New Orleans right away to join his band and to tour with a band he had called Earthsuit. But I was a little hyper, and I was just playing percussion--I wasn't the drummer--and they had to send me home because I wasn't quite good enough and I was a little too annoying. I would have done it too, they did the right thing. So, my dream came true and it ended a month and a half later. Then, I moved to Nashville and took drum lessons, went back to Dony and Reba and played drums at their church that they had started there, and I was a waiter. It was just sort of a lost time for me because I didn't know what I wanted to do, though I knew I still wanted to be in a band. I started making little instrumental tracks--I'd make tracks out of samples and stuff. Then, I would mail them to Paul, and we started a side project, which was a little thing we called Math, where he would sing on these little electronic tracks that I'd built. That slowly turned into us creating a project. Then, I moved to New Orleans and I lived at Paul and Deanna's house--it was us and three dogs. They had this studio on the opposite side of the house where I lived, and I worked as a waiter at Macaroni Grill. Then, we became a rock band and Greg joined. Roy had been in the previous band, Earthsuit, quit to go to law school, and then came back because he wasn't enjoying it. When we got Roy, we felt like we were invincible. It was like we were a real band and all we had to do was stick together and it would be great. Then, the hurricane happened, and when hurricane Katrina happened, they kind of kicked us out of New Orleans for a while, so we just hit the road. It kind of coincided with us touring and we just did two hundred shows a year. That was how we became Mutemath.
MR: Wow. Now, you touched on hurricane Katrina, and as frustrated as I was with how that whole situation was handled at the time, I'm sure it was even more heart breaking for you guys.
DK: A while back, Paul watched If God Is Willing And Da Creek Don't Rise, and he said that that summed up how he felt about everything, and what was so awful about the response to that particular tragedy. I've not seen that yet--I want to watch it. I don't even know where to start with all of it. Sometimes, I feel really mad that if it had been a different--not even a different city, but even a different part of the city--it might have been handled differently.
MR: Exactly, that's how I felt too.
DK: I lived in the ninth ward for a short time when I first moved to New Orleans. I've driven out within the last year to see it again, and it is still obliterated. It still looks like apocalypse. Everything else is great--they have twice as many restaurants than they did before the hurricane, apparently, and that's awesome. But that area is still completely obliterated.
MR: Now, you're on tour right now. Where is the tour going to be taking you?
DK: We just played in Memphis last night and had a blast. I believe we're on our way to Birmingham pretty soon. We go to Shreveport, we go down to Florida for a little bit and then we wrap it up in New Orleans. Then I get a couple of weeks at home before we go to Japan again.
MR: Has being on television, performing to millions of people at a clip, had a little effect on you?
DK: It certainly does. When we played those shows, especially the first time, I got really sentimental. For some reason, it caused us to look back on everything we'd done. Yeah, it spoils you a little bit, and you get to play for a lot of people all at once, which is certainly a good feeling. Kimmel is an easy one because they make it like a live show--people buy tickets and there is a crowd there, so you don't even think about the cameras. But yeah, I love all those shows.
MR: Darren, thank you so much for your time. We talked about virtually everything Mutemath.
DK: This has been, by far, the most comprehensive talk I've ever had on the radio. We covered a lot of ground, didn't we.
MR: Yeah, we did, and I do appreciate your time and your candidness.
DK: Thank you, it's been an honor.
1. Odd Soul
3. Blood Pressure
4. Tell Your Heart Heads Up
5. All Or Nothing
6. Sun Ray
9. Walking Paranoia
10. One More
13. In No Time
Transcribed by Ryan Gaffney
A Conversation with fun.'s Andrew Dost
Mike Ragogna: We're talking with a "fun." guy, Andrew Dost. I always loved that lower case "f" and period in the name. Anyway, how are you, sir?
Andrew Dost: I'm great thanks, how are you doing?
MR: You have some interesting news with the group fun. You're working on a new album right now?
AD: Correct, we're almost done.
MR: And you have a new single with Janelle Monae called "We Are Young." How did that come about?
AD: Well, we were such huge fans of her album, and we knew we wanted a female voice on there, and in a dream world, we wanted her to sing on it. Our producer was able to get a hold of her and make it happen.
MR: You guys were all in the studio together?
AD: Not us with Janelle, she did that separately.
MR: Did you end up giving her hints on what to do or did she just free form it?
AD: We had the part laid out for her already, but I think she added her unique twist to it, I guess you could say.
MR: You worked with Jeff Bhasker on this one?
MR: At some point, there was also a decision to do a tour together, right? There's some nice chemistry there, I imagine.
AD: Yeah. The few times we've met her, she's told us that she likes what we do, and that's really nice we're here. We're trying to create art, we're trying to make something different. I feel what that's what she's doing too. She's approaching music in a new, fresh, interesting way. I think anytime people are trying to come at music with that kind of approach, there's an automatic kinship there. We get along great, she's so nice and friendly and generous with us.
MR: Can we go over the roots of the band?
AD: We had all toured together in the past with different bands. I had been playing some horn and doing some keyboard stuff as an auxiliary member of Nate's band when my band was on tour with them. We just kind of hit it off and stayed in touch and had a musical simpatico. Jack was just in another band playing guitar, and we all had such a mutual respect for each other. Nate's band dissolved, and I parted ways with my band and we decided to get together to see if that nice rapport lasted and fortunately it was very strong, and thinks worked out well right away.
MR: We don't have to talk about it beyond casually since its release date is a ways off, but what was the creative process for your upcoming album like?
AD: We took a week and we went to Woodstock, New York, and lived in a beautiful studio in the woods. We all had some scraps of ideas, and Nate had some songs that were pretty well fleshed out. We just all got together and played through them, we all got snowed in and the power went out and we were there for a long time and cranked them out. Maybe half of the album happened that way--I would say the heart of that album during that week.
MR: With your last album, you had Jellyfish's Roger Manning, so you got those cool arrangements, plus you had Steven McDonald in the mix as well. But with Jeff Bhasker, it looks like you've got a whole new sonic set up. I'm excited to see what the new musical translation will be.
AD: I think that translation is very apparent. Steve and Roger both have an awesome pop rock pedigree and now we're getting into more of a hip-hop pedigree. I think that's absolutely reflected in a great way.
MR: Cool. Now, you've been on tour with some great bands like Jack's Mannequin and Paramore. What are these tours like?
AD: Every one is different. You can definitely see how Paramore fans are a very unique group of people, Jack's Mannequin fans are different too, and everybody listens to a band they haven't heard with a different set of ears. It's nice to see everybody be pretty open-minded in general.
MR: Do you find you experiment with songs on the road that you might be recording or do you save them for the studio and tour them out later?
AD: We try to save them until they're recorded or at least until we have a good idea of what they're going to end up as. But sometimes, we get a little excited. We were playing a song on the last tour that hadn't really been fully conceived and it's probably going to end up getting completely scrapped. It's tough to play something that hasn't been fully realized and recorded.
MR: What's your stage act like these days?
AD: Well, that is also undergoing some transformation. We're getting a new light set up for this Fall. In general, we like to play as a band--guitar, piano, and voice. We also tour with a bass player, a drummer, and somebody who plays keyboard and guitar. We try to play all of our parts and flesh it out to get a lush sound, while also keeping the energy of a three-piece punk act. We want to be the best of all possible worlds. Now, we're trying to step up our game even further. We're playing to a click and we're trying to sonically get it perfect.
MR: I want to go back to your first single, "At Least I'm Not As Sad As I Used To Be." You offered that as a free download if people signed up for your mailing list. Your Facebook page exploded because of that, or with that helping a lot, in the very least. When you saw that success, did that make you feel like in the future, it will really be about what other "fun." stuff is going to be offered?
AD: I can't really explain any rationale or take any credit for that. We've just got a good team that tries to give people what they want, keep them interested, and keep them coming back for more. I don't know, at this point, how this will all play out. I know we just want to release songs in the right order, keep existing fans happy, but also give something that will attract new people.
MR: What is the creative process like with you fun.? Who starts it off and who joins in?
AD: Typically, Nate will come in with lyrics and a melody, then Jack and I will build the music around that and set up the chord structure, decide which instruments are going to enter and where, and how best we're going to support that melody. That's usually the way it goes. Other times, Jack or I will bring an instrumental piece and Nate will write lyrics to that. It's one of those starting points, where it's either Nate, Jack, or I. We just build it all together from there. Even when someone has a pretty well defined framework to start with, there's much give and take with the three of us, where the egos pretty much disappear and everybody is happy to work towards the best possible song. It's much give and take and it works really well. We have much trust in each other and our only rule is if someone really believes in something and the other two don't, it's probably best to go with whoever believes in it the strongest.
MR: Do you feel sometimes you're hearing elements of some of your past bands coming into the creative process?
AD: Yeah, I think so. Unfortunately, in my case, it's a little baggage there; but usually, it's for the best and usually, it's really cool. We've learned through the course of our other bands to really listen and to trust each other. Sonically, if you are familiar with our other bands, you can kind of place where things are coming from. I've had people listen to the album and say, "That's an Andrew melody," or "That's clearly a Jack guitar line," or "That's a Nate vocal melody," or even, "This guitar part was influenced by Nate's melodic sense." We all bring our pretty distinct styles together.
MR: What advice might you have for new artists?
AD: I would say that the most important thing is to try to find out what you are, and really believe in that. I spent many years trying to write a lot like Ben Folds or John Lennon or Rivers Cuomo. I think that's healthy when you're learning to write and seeing how chords fit together and how songs take shape. I think of a band like Animal Collective where they really follow their own sound and I think that's a really important thing to do. You can find an audience if you can find your voice.
MR: You're going to be on tour with Janelle Monae on the Campus Consciousness Tour. Maybe it's self-explanatory, but I'll ask anyway, why that title?
AD: It's, along with us, Janelle Monae, Timothy Bloom--there's also Brita the water filter company is out with us; Silk soy milk is out with us; Oxfam, and Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream. It's all about fair trade, and helping people eating locally grown stuff. We're recycling everything. We're trying to tour in the most conscious way possible, environmentally and socially.
MR: Is there anything else we should know about fun.?
AD: I guess just that the album will be out early next year.
MR: I appreciate you spending time with us. You're on a label that dares to have a terrific stable of acts, it's great.
AD: It is, it's a great home.
MR: All the best, Andrew.
AD: Thanks so much for having me.