D+. That's what A.V. Club writer Joshua Alston gave Mates Of State's Re-Arrange Us in May. So it's undoubtedly surprising for readers to see the album among the staff's favorites for 2008. But reviews aren't written based on staff consensus; they're solely in one writer's hands. So where Alston found a "boring as hell" record "only useful for putting the kids to sleep," others found one of the year's best pop albums. And here, in The A.V. Club's year-end wrap-up, let the word go forth: Re-Arrange Us is a collection of accomplished indie-pop, replete with Mates Of State's signature hooks ("Get Better," "Now"), but also more nuanced songs ("Lullaby Haze," "Blue And Gold Paint"). As the duo—drummer-vocalist Jason Hammel and singer-keyboardist Kori Gardner—completed the current leg of their tour (with their children, Magnolia and June, in tow), they spoke to The A.V. Club about their busy year, traveling with kids, and our slam of Re-Arrange Us.
The A.V. Club: What were some of your highlights and lowlights of this year?
Jason Hammel: It was all pretty positive. I think some of the festivals were really fun for us. Lollapalooza was great. Austin City Limits was again fun, and Pemberton, the one in Vancouver. It was the first year for it, but they had a pretty crazy bill—they had Jay-Z and Coldplay and My Morning Jacket.
AVC: Any lowlights?
JH: When you get exhausted and sick, that's always fun. I mentioned Austin City Limits as being a good show, but literally right before we were going onstage, June had a fever that she'd had for four days. It was low-grade, but it was continued, so we were kind of getting nervous. And literally 10 minutes before we were set to be onstage, I was on the phone with the pediatrician finding out what was going on, what we should do, if we should take her to the emergency room. Ultimately it was just a virus that had to run its course—there was no real danger—but it was just sort of scary. Any time you have a prolonged fever, you have to worry about other things happening. That was just one of those times where we were like, "Should we play, or do we need to run her to the emergency room?" But the doctor was like, "No, it's fine, the fever will spike." And it did, exactly like she suggested it would. But it was just sort of nerve-wracking, like "What are we doing? Our baby's sick! Maybe we should not play this show." Thankfully it didn't come to that.
AVC: Do you have many of those kinds of freak-out moments on the road with the kids?
JH: No, thankfully we have more good times and fun times than we have those kinds of times. But the longer drives we've been on are a nightmare, and everybody's in a bad mood. It just makes you question, "What decision did you make to get in this situation?" But then you always get through it and realize that it's just normal ups and downs of any job or choice that you make.
AVC: Kori keeps a pretty detailed blog about life on the road with the kids. Do you have a line in your mind where you stop from over-sharing?
Kori Gardner: Yeah, there are definitely moments where I am about to post a picture, and I'm like, "No, no, that's a birthday party that no one else gets to see," or Jason gets mad at me and is like, "You need to go change your blog. It's too private." I will erase what I just wrote. Ultimately, I've gotten positive response from it, because people feel like, "Hey, me too. I go to concerts, and I have kids, and you are just like me." I definitely don't put everything up there, and I edit what I'm doing. The stuff I do share is either a really funny story, or me ranting about how chaotic our lives are right now.
AVC: You wrote a post about going to Disneyworld and expecting to hate it, but being surprisingly moved by Magnolia's enthusiasm for it.
KG: Yeah, totally. I wanted to hate that place. It is the same with music: When you are a kid, you either like something or you don't. It is so pure. We played so much music for Magnolia, and it would be some buzzy band that we would be like, "Whatever," and she's like, "I love this!" So you are like, "Oh, there is something intrinsically really interesting about this band. Maybe we need to give it a second chance." Kids can definitely make you open your mind a little.
AVC: What is she into these days, music-wise?
KG: She is obsessed with The Ting Tings right now. Loves them. She loves that song "Electric Feel" by MGMT. One time we were sitting in the kitchen and we heard her singing randomly, "Shock me like an electric eel!" She also is very much into that show Yo Gabba Gabba! and every song on that show, so there are some kid-music things involved.
AVC: What are some things you liked this year?
KG: I actually never liked Kings Of Leon until this new record. I think it's really good. Santogold, I liked that record that came out this year. I'm really into the Avett Brothers. I didn't realize how enormous they are all of the sudden. I saw them about a year ago, and it was literally one of the best shows I've seen, and I didn't know anything about them at the time. That's always the best surprise.
AVC: Obviously, you had a new record this year, which meant doing a lot of press. What are you sick of hearing about with Mates Of State?
KG: I'm in a really good place with not being jaded about stuff. I used to get really bothered by people comparing us, and people saying we were super-saccharine and cutesy. We are who we are, and if that's people's interpretation, like, it used to really get on my nerves. Now I feel like I know we work really hard. I know we are a family. I know we make pop music. If that categorizes as "sweet" or "cutesy," then so be it. At the same time, now I'm finally letting that go and not worrying about it, and I really don't read that much about us in print anymore, because I'm a much happier person that way.
AVC: Reading in print is one thing; reading online, and reading comments from people, is another.
KG: Oh, people can be so cruel when they're anonymous. Someone could be having a bad day, and they're like, "You suck, and you're ugly!" You're like, "Oh my God, I'm totally ugly!" I remember when you could comment on stuff for the first time on bands' websites years ago. I remember a few times writing comments, and they were never nice. I was like, "I can't do that. That is so cruel." [Laughs.]
AVC: A lot of the feedback you've gotten recently was people freaking out about the lack of organ on Re-Arrange Us. Did you anticipate that?
JH: Before we decided to nix it in the recording, we were a little nervous that maybe that's what was appealing about our band, the organ. Finally we were just like, "No, that's not it, it's really the energy of our singing and the harmony that is the main energy of what is Mates Of State." Then once we'd finished the recording and finished the record, we were 100 percent confident that the record we had made still had the energy of Mates Of State, and we were proud of it, and are proud of it. We were just like, "Hell with it. People will come along with us or they won't, and they'll miss the boat. It's their choice." We were proud of the record.
AVC: What do you learn about the audience after you release a record?
JH: It's hard to say. You always hope that you get a positive response. When you get a negative response, it hits you a little harder. But I think with art and music, any strong response is a good response, you know what I mean? It's really all you want people to do, is react. Have a voice on something. "I really liked this," or "I really hate it," okay, that's fine. What makes you human is to be able to say "I love something" or "I hate something," and "It inspires me to puke" or "It inspires me to dance." That's what makes people people.
AVC: We actually gave it one of its worst reviews.
JH: Yeah, what's your problem, man? Pitchfork, too. [Pitchfork gave the album a 5.1. —ed.] I was going to say, "Fuck Pitchfork"—I wasn't about to say, "Fuck The Onion" because of you. But why'd you guys give it a bad review? What's your problem?
AVC: Hey, some of us liked it.
JH: I remember hearing that, or maybe I stumbled upon it or something, but I had forgotten. I try to put that stuff out of my head. You guys will correct yourselves too. History will show that! You'll be like, "Yeah, we messed up." [Laughs.]