“It literally took an armistice to finish our record,” Mutemath’s Paul Meany says to explain the title of the band’s new album. The process of making Armistice—the second album for Warner Brothers—turned into an ordeal when the band settled into a house near Carrollton to record it and discovered no one was happy with the 16 songs they had. Things came to a head on the porch one afternoon, where they aired their musical dirty laundry for the neighborhood in a grand, cathartic shout-out. “Some pretty offensive things were said to each other.”
Finally, the band—Meany, drummer Darren King, guitarist Greg Hill and bassist Roy Mitchell-Cárdenas—agreed that they needed a producer to break the stalemate and settled with Dennis Herring, whose suggestion was to pitch the songs that weren’t working and start over.
Herring became part of the drama when the recording moved to Oxford, Mississippi, but the strain of its creation isn’t obvious on the album. Perhaps lyrics that reflect feelings of uneasiness and anxiety address it indirectly, but they could simply be lines apropos for anyone living in America in the 21st Century. They’re not finding much love or shelter, but songs have reliable hooks that often emerge organically from the melodies, particularly on “Goodbye,” “Spotlight” and “Backfire.” They still draw from new wave circa the 1980s, but not so much that Armistice sounds retro.
Their House of Blues show on August 18 coincides with the album’s release date and starts a national tour, but fans have had a chance to hear Armistice over the last month. Band members have taken turn on the road taking it to fans in a bus specially tricked out with listening stations.
How many people hear the album per night?
Every city is different. They can let 20 people into the bus. They set up a headphone system in the bus, for people to come. In some of the cities where there’s an actual venue that’s hosting it, they set up a small room in a club. If 100 people or so show up, we go ahead and play the record for everybody.
It’s really good for the type of record this is. We were all scratching our heads going, “What is the first single to put out? We don’t really know.” There’s not a unanimous best song that everyone could agree on; everyone was really vibing on the record. So instead of sending out a lead single, we’re sending out the record for people to hear before it comes out. It’s worked out well.
It makes it possible to find out what people are responding to?
Yeah, absolutely. I saw a sign that they put outside of the bus where they can Tweet their thoughts as they’re listening.
What have you found out about your audience?
Well, they have great taste in music. Keep your eye out on them.
Have you learned anything that surprised you?
No. It’s sort of true to form. When it comes down to picking that one song or that little group of songs that the record company can rally around and go forward with, we don’t have that. We didn’t on the last record; we don’t seem to on this record. It seems like the whole plan as far as the record company is concerned is halted. They’re in a reactionary mode to watch us as we’re doing this listening party thing, and then we’ll go out and tour this fall. They’ll begin to form another plan based on which ones the people will sing the loudest, I guess.
Has it surprised you, the degree to which you’ve had to become a businessman to make music?
Absolutely. It was nothing you could really prepare for. I mean, you hear the story, or you’ll see the Behind the Music, and everybody says it. You think you have a grasp on what they mean, like, “Okay, I need to watch where the checks go,” but these intricacies of how that all plays out—it can be much more overwhelming than I guess I gave it credit for.
To change subjects a bit, there were three years between your last album and this one. How did it end up that no one was happy with the songs you’d written?
That is an excellent question and one that still perplexes me now. When we realized that, which was a very tough pill to swallow, we had been on the road trying to be as productive as possible between playing shows and knew that we’d have to do a record coming up at some point, so we kept writing. Finally, we got off the road in Spring of 2008, got a little house in New Orleans which was a plan that we had for awhile, and we thought we were going to go record the record. We were going to do it guerilla style, and we seemed like we were on the same page. We were trying to entertain everyone’s point of view and everyone’s opinion which, when it came down to it, we weren’t on the same page creatively. What one guy wanted for the course of one song, another guy hated.
After about a month, we had nothing we were happy with so we decided to get a producer, someone to help us do this. We met with a few of them and wound up going with one who said, “Just start over.” Instead of recording what we had, we’re going to be writing from scratch, but we realized for the sake of making a record that we were all proud of, we knew it was the right thing.
We spent the rest of our time in New Orleans writing, and that’s all we did for the next two months. We’d go in every day and hope that a song would drop out of the air. We’d pick a key, start playing, and I would just sit in the control room most of the time listening to the other three guys jam and wait until I heard something that sounded like a fragment of a song. We’d record it, we’d work on it, I’d throw down a vocal idea, and it either was good or it wasn’t and then we’d move on.
When we finally had all that, we went to Oxford, Mississippi to work on finishing with Dennis and that became a whole new challenge. The good thing was that the band became unified and instead of fighting internally, we directed all that venom towards the producer and we began to butt heads with him about how the song should be finished.
So you ended up fighting with the producer? I hadn’t heard that part of the story.
It took us a year to finish this record. Three months to write it, and then we spent the back half of the summer and through the fall in Oxford trying to finish what was really just 12 songs, and it felt like we’d go weeks and weeks without any progress. I wish we had filmed that part of it because I’m not sure how that happened, but for some reason the intricacies of making the song—take a song like “Pins and Needles” on the record, which is a fairly stripped-down song. Our producer fought for it to be a stripped-down song, which was a great fight and I love the way that song turned out. But for us as a band, to make our peace with that, we had to run a couple experiments to make sure that was the right route to go with that song. We had to record all kinds of drum tracks and all types of symphonies because we weren’t convinced that that was the right way to go with that song. We spent a lot of time doing that.
Was the first record more reflective of person’s voice?
The first record leaned more heavily on me and Darren. I think Darren is a great talent. He brings so much good ideas to the table. He’s constantly cooking up useful music. On the first record, he was a little more disconnected from it, and it made the decision process a little less confrontational. On this record, Darren was way more checked in, which I think was good to a degree, but he was coming into his own and being a little more obstinate on what he was going to let us change in his part, or listen to what I thought should happen. Then you put that in the mix with Greg and Roy really stepping out with their voice on this record, yeah it made for some tense times. I think we knew that if we could somehow get to the end, we really believed we could have something special. And a year later, we’re feeling pretty good about it.
Do you drink more in the middle of that?
Getting lubricated definitely did help, many a night. There were certain times where I had to leave the studio. We wound up employing the guy who helped us on the first record, Tedd T., who—him and Dennis—would go in the room, mix and finish a song, and me and Darren had to make ourselves our leave. We created a paralyzing atmosphere, so we’d leave. We left, we’d come back and listen to something finished and just give it a thumbs up or a thumbs down. The producers would say, “You only get two things.” Because in your mind, you begin to formulate the menu of corrections or something that got missed. Thinking back, a lot of the concerns on what was destroying a song probably weren’t that big of a deal. It was the hardest for Darren, and I don’t think he’d mind me putting that on him, because he’d always have the biggest menu of small little intricacies that needed to be addressed. But it usually averaged out to about two of them were addressed; the other 43 of them, it was okay we could let them go. Drink up, buddy.
Did you ever imagine that you’d be one of those people having a screaming match on the front porch?
No, absolutely not. It’s amazing. You can’t help but be in a band and fall into the cliché that inevitably has to happen. It’s almost like there’s a script that was written long before the idea of a band even started. They just hand out the parts: “Lead singer you’ll be doing that part; drummer you’ll be saying this part.” And you wind up playing the part. You fall into the argument that every band falls into, that you see in every documentary. It’s amazing to me how that happens: “Oh, we’re not that bad; we’re definitely not that kind of band.” But it happens.
Does it take something to put the band back together again after that kind of shout out?
No, not like you would think. We laugh about it now, but it seemed like a fairly heated argument was going on that day on the porch. All of that disappeared as soon as we went back inside and started playing music. It was weird. I don’t know if it was a guy thing or a musician thing, but there was no “We have to sit down and talk about it,” and then you end with the handshake and the hug and “We’re going to be alright.” It never came to that. When we started making music again and were liking what was resulting from us four collaborating, all that other stuff didn’t matter.
Did anyone come close to quitting?
There are probably a few times I came close to quitting. If it wasn’t for my sheer addiction to music and some blind belief in this band’s potential, I probably would have. But I would often get shaken out of it by a new song that would drop out the sky. I think that’s what keeps us going, a certain new song, and using that as the avenue to work it all out somehow.