Dwarfed by skyscrapers and distracting glittering billboards while surrounded by throngs of international tourists in the middle of New York’s Times Square, drummer Darren King of Mutemath experienced a profound, if not surreal, moment that reflected the electronic-rock group’s burgeoning music career.
The date was July 17, 2007, and he and his band, which at the time included frontman Paul Meany, bassist Roy Mitchell-Cárdenas and guitarist Greg Hill (who left the band in 2011 and was replaced by Todd Gummerman) had recently emerged from a hotel bar where they’d been viewing their performance on The Late Show With David Letterman, recorded earlier that evening. At the end of the track, the studio audience cheered wildly—matching the band’s own enthusiasm—with Letterman offering his commentary: “How about that drummer!? Look at that guy!”
The host’s longtime band director and sidekick, Paul Shaffer, drummed up his own praise: “He’s a monster!” he bellowed affectionately.
In the band’s breakout song “Typical,” from their self-titled debut album, Paul Meany sings earnestly, almost wistfully: “But how long should it take somebody/ Before they can be someone?/ ’Cause I know there’s got to be another level/ Somewhere closer to the other side/ And I’m feeling like it’s now or never/ Can I break the spell of the typical?”
That performance—and the band’s rapid ascension of the charts that summer—answered the question. The song was penned by Meany and King in 2003, who were essentially just two music geeks interested in new methods; four years later, it became a hit.
As they strolled with a newfound swagger through Times Square back to their tour bus, MTV serendipitously chose that moment to broadcast their “Typical” music video—which would later earn them a Grammy nomination—for the throngs of visitors and partygoers.
Nine years later that moment, like so many others they would experience on the road, brings back fond memories. “That was a crazy night where we felt really on top of the world,” says King, a small-town Missouri native who was barely 25 years old at the time. “That will always stand out.”
Frontman Paul Meany grew up in Kenner. The Brother Martin graduate, who also studied at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (where Jason Marsalis and Irvin Mayfield were among his peers) developed a love for music early on.
“My dad was very musical. He was a guitar player, singer, bass player … I grew up backing him in church. I played drums or whatever my dad needed. He reminded me a lot of the guy from Blood, Sweat and Tears [David Clayton-Thomas]. He had a gruffy voice and was a groovy base player. He taught me a lot about getting started.”
The radio also influenced Meany in his formative years:
“I remember being in the carpool every day driving in from Kenner, listening to B97 FM, and I just remember fantasizing about being on the radio. I wanted to figure out how to make songs to get there.” At the time, he especially admired hits by Paula Abdul and Fine Young Cannibals.
As a sophomore in high school, Meany, now 40, obtained his first keyboard and began to experiment with samples. “I heard that’s how Beastie Boys were making their beats,” he says. “So I spent the whole summer making tracks like that.” He describes the summer of discovery as a “chase to make my own beats… I never pictured myself as a traditional musician. I studied all that. I really enjoyed it because it was an eye-opening experience learning theory [at NOCCA]—what makes music—and that laid the foundation.”
Drummer King, 34, wasn’t too far behind, and the pair eventually met in the early aughts while playing in a Christian band called Earthsuit. Raised in Marshfield, Missouri, King’s early introduction to music also came from his father.
“I had a strange taste in music because of my dad’s cassette collection,” he muses. “So whatever was in his cassette collection influenced me: Beastie Boys, Surf Rock, Mozart… There was Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa.”
King learned how to play drums in his high school marching band. “I was pretty self-taught, but I just did a lot of watching and standing over someone’s shoulders. It was pretty much all drums, and I didn’t mess around with melodic instruments until my early twenties.”
The day after King graduated high school, he packed his bags for New Orleans, an experience he likens to Dorothy arriving in Oz. But his career and family life have also brought him through Texas and Tennessee (where he is now based).
He and Meany had carried on their long-distance collaboration, eventually, officially forming Mutemath in 2003. King tells a story that illustrates their inception:
“The other day my daughter got my CD wallet out and she asked, ‘What’s this?” he says. “I explained ‘that plays music, like a record.’ She knew what a record was but she had never dealt with a CD. It was a blank disk and she pulled it out and it turns out it was the first demo I ever did. I used to go to the library so I’d get like, 20 vinyl records, take them home, sample them on this archaic little sampler. I made a disk and mailed it to Paul; he sang on it and mailed it back to me.” Thinking that maybe this would turn into a side project, the pair continued to collaborate. “From the very beginning there’s been a long-distance collaborative process,” explains King, who is now based in Nashville, while Meany still makes his home in the Greater New Orleans area.
“I discovered Roy’s record collection: Bjork, Beastie Boys and Beck [records were] waiting for me, along with a lot of other great records, like Asian Dub Foundation, Portishead. I learned what a sampler was.” Another pivotal moment in his life came when he discovered DJ Shadow, whom he refers to as more of a “composer” than a disc jockey.
After recording an EP—and performing at New Orleans’ One Eyed Jacks, the now-gone TwiRoPa and other various local music venues, the band’s aforementioned debut LP helped them establish a fan base outside of New Orleans.
Mutemath has always been rooted in experimentation—even its own inception was the outcome of trial, error and collaboration. The band’s latest release, Changes, is a spinoff of last year’s Vitals. The group draws influences from a wide range of musical genres— psychedelic, alternative, jam bands—and they go heavy on the synthesizers that they developed a fondness for so long ago, along with other electronic instruments like the keytar.
“It seemed like an interesting idea,” says Meany regarding the release of Changes. “For us it was something new… We’ve done a lot of remixes over the years so we thought it would be fun to challenge ourselves. We kind of end up remixing albums live anyways so we just decided to make a record of it, so we called up some friends. It was a monumental task so we included our own remixes and it was fun to reimagine the album and it gave us a new excuse to put out a record.”
These days, the group is entirely independent, using their own label, New York–based Wojtek Records, to release their music. Vitals was the first album that they released on the record label last year. Mutemath also own their publishing and have an administrative partnership with Kobalt, the largest independent music publisher in the world.
“I love it,” says Meany. “I’ve really been enjoying this part of our career. We were all a bit shook and unsure; we didn’t know what to do. We had identified as being a part of Warner Brothers, so you know, after a few days we mourned the loss of that era. We moved into this independent part of it, but we quickly began to be invigorated by the new circumstance. We do whatever we want. We wanted a remix album, we did it, we made it, we put it out.”
Meany’s advice to younger musicians is: “The one thing you can control is the songs you write, and the songs you make, so enjoy that, do it well, because no one can take that away from you.”
King knows not to take anything for granted. “Whenever I look back on a decade’s worth of being in the band, there are moments where I’ve thought to myself, ‘It might not get better than this,’” says King. “It might not need to. I’ve certainly learned that whatever your situation is, it’ll change.”
Nine years after their pivotal moment in Times Square, the group experienced another iconic summer of touring, with 21 Pilots. “It’s so fun to get to do that type of tour and play those types of venues,” King says, referring to the arenas and giant music halls. “Their tour sold out before they even announced we were going to be a part of it. They had a meteoric rise; it’s been incredible to watch.”
Still, he admits he was daunted by the experience of opening for such a popular group. “You have to work really hard; you feel like you’re the new kid,” he says. “I couldn’t believe how fun their fans were, how fun the band was. I was astounded by how well it went! It was a good match-up.”
It was a humbling experience for both bands, though. Says Meany, “I learned from them that they had been to so many of our shows. They had been genuine fans; we were some start of their inspiration. That was pretty flattering and it was important to us.” The mutually beneficial tour, he says, was “an amazing thing for us to be a part of. There were moments where I watched them playing, soaking it in—I’ve never seen a crowd more engaged. I realized this was a really special moment in music… We’re at a game-changing moment.”
The group now looks forward to getting back to their New Orleans roots at the Voodoo Music Experience, where they will perform on Friday, October 28 at the Altar Stage. It signifies an important homecoming for them, as well as a chance to show their fans what they’ve been doing and how they’ve evolved.
“Voodoo Fest is the best possible time of year,” says King. “The weather is so nice. The location is absurd… It’s always been one of my favorite festivals. I’m going to eat a lot, drink a little. At that point I’ll be celebrating the birth of my second daughter. That’s the last show of the year before I get a bit of a paternity leave. I’m pretty pumped and excited to do this show. I might have to bring out the old T-rex [Halloween] costume,” he teases.
The group will also play a show at House of Blues on October 27.
After a hard-earned break, the band will work on a new album, which they hope to release by the end of the year. Always inventive and experimental, each member—Meany, King, Gummerman and Cárdenas—will be in charge of producing three tracks for it. According to Meany, it will reveal how each member perceives making a record. “Everyone in the band is a stand-up producer,” he says.
And as they expand their repertoire and new methods of making music, Meany says the group’s mission will remain the same: “We intend to be authentic.”