Darren King of MuteMath on Music Videos, Japan, and Being "Chrish"

We're legit bummed that X103.9's Bush and MuteMath show was cancelled, but since it would have been tonight, we decided that our interview with MuteMath is definitely still worth a read.

Mutemath drummer Darren King had a lot to say about stop motion photography, comparisons to the Black Keys, what it was like to film a music video backwards, and the role religion plays in the band.

Read on for our conversation.

Up On The Sun: What's the story behind the new album being called Odd Soul? Who's the odd soul? Is there an odd soul within the band, or is it a fictional character?

Darren King: That's meant to be a bit autobiographical, I suppose. I just turned 29 a couple of months ago. I'm the youngest in the band. There comes a point at which you admit you're wrestling with the same issues and carrying the same doubts and interests and all of that as when you were 13 or 14. And then you realize that whatever it is about you that is so strange must be intrinsic and incurable. You just realize that you're stuck this way. Do you remember that old Adam Ant song "Goody Two Shoes," where he's like, "There must be something inside"? It's like that.

You had lost your guitarist not long before you started this album, so naturally you guys were going for a sort of rebirth by making a funky, upbeat, high-spirited album this time around. However, you told everyone you work with in the music industry that you wanted to be left alone and didn't want any help! How come?

Because of how horribly we made the second record. I'm still thankful for the second record, and I'm thankful for it as a document of our self-doubting, trying too hard, pressure cooker lifestyle that we were in at the time. But I don't think we would have survived another six-or eight-month process as mostly debilitating as that one. We've learned from our mistakes and created an environment where we couldn't psych ourselves out and where other people couldn't psych us out either. We also created a situation where money wasn't going to psych us out.

It was really sad losing Greg. We grew up together. I certainly didn't expect him to leave. I thought things were going better than ever, but I think what was really happening was that he was resigning and distancing himself. Things had often been tense all throughout our band's career. Greg struggled with the way we ran business and the way we made music, and all sorts of stuff like that. At the same time, it was always good enough to keep everyone around. But Greg leaving certainly made me grateful because I didn't see it coming. Anyhow, I miss him dearly and wish him well, but I was shocked the day that he left and closed the door. And in that same day, Paul and Roy both announced to me that they were expecting children! So we had a very eventful day. You never know what's going to happen in a day, do you?

Tell me about how the interactive audio/visual remix board came to be. Where did the idea for that come from? It's great for mixing and editing junkies.

It's a marriage of two ideas, one that our friend in the management, Jordan, had. The management company is called Teleprompt. It's comprised of two dear friends, Kevin and Jordan. Jordan had this idea that we do something where you're able to solo each individual member. He remembers that when he went to the first few MuteMath shows, he would focus on an individual member and watch them through the whole show, so he thought it would be cool to do that in conjunction with the debut of the new song. And then I had been doing this editing style where I chop everything up and try to match each note with the video clip. We decided to put those together, and we realized that the easiest way to allow people to have control over us would be some sort of little video mixer where they can solo us. I wish somebody would do a record where I could solo it, mute it, and change the volumes while listening to it. I would love it if someone would go through the trouble of making a mixable record.

There are certain things about your new material that remind me of other bands, in a good way. The vocals on the song "Odd Soul" are reminiscent of the Black Keys, and the music video for "Blood Pressure" uses the same stop motion photography effect as OK Go in their video for "End Love." What artists do you get inspiration from, and in what ways do they inspire you?

Well, I hadn't listened to the Black Keys much. During the recording of our record though, I did find out about their most recent album, Brothers. I think it's a great record. But I think the band that inspired us more on this album, at least the one that subconsciously steered us in this more riff-heavy blues rock, Led Zeppelin kind of thing, it was The Dead Weather. I think that's one of the best new bands, although of course Jack White hasn't been around for a while. That was one that really inspired us. The Black Keys, yeah, you hear that on "Odd Soul" too. Sometimes I wonder if we hadn't done the "da da da," if we had picked a different syllable other than "da da da," I wonder if we would get as many Black Keys references as we do for "Odd Soul." But that distorted vocal sound is from running the vocals through a pre-amp and amping it up a little bit is certainly is something that the Black Keys do too.

And in regards to the music video, I think that if you look at the White Stripes video "The Hardest Button to Button," it's similar to what Michel Gondry did to that. I think honestly that the White Stripes' video is a little bit better; they've got, like, 20 drum sets in it and stuff. 

But, of course, the Black Keys one is the one that has been the most consistent and prevalent. Although on the next record, I'll have to do something to try and deliberately avoid sounding like the Black Keys. We certainly didn't try to sound like them on this record. I just want everything to always sound original.

You entirely edited the video for the new single "Blood Pressure." "Drums Plus Bass" is another good one. It seems like you're really into stop motion photography.

Well the editing took a couple of weeks. I have a dear friend named Brandon Goodwin, and he directed the "Spotlight" music video and also the "Backfire" video. The first stop motion video I ever did was with him, which was just for fun. I started to learn a lot through hanging out with him. It's always so fun whenever you find a friend that's generous with information and enjoys teaching you stuff. That's how it was for me with Paull. I got the sense that he enjoyed teaching me what he knew about in the studio and about working a studio and recording and using the equipment. So I've got a phone-a-friend. I've got somebody that, anytime I get stuck or confused with Final Cut, I can call up and he helps me out. Also, those video editing programs are not too different from the audio programs that I'll use to make music when we produce a record.

One thing you're starting to be known for is your great music videos. How was the music video for "Typical" filmed? Since everything moves backwards except Paul's lips, did he have to memorize the lyrics backwards? Was the rest of it filmed regularly and then just played backwards?

Yeah, actually Paul learned not just how to sing the lyrics backwards, but he taught himself the whole melody backwards. We worked for a long time on that, and I was really impressed him in particular for doing that because he had to learn pretty much the whole song. For me the sounds were tricky. I had to film myself and reverse it and practice it until I got it right. I spent most of the time running around like a chicken with its head cut off, whereas Paul had to sing the whole thing. So I only had to learn about a chorus and a verse worth of the drums, but he had to do the whole thing. We didn't get it right the first time. We watched a clip of it while we were in Europe, and we were not quite content with the first version because we knew it had to be all on one camera. That was what made it look cool. So we had to redo it. I'm glad we did that, because it was really the difference between it being just okay and being memorable.

But I'll never forget to this day, every time I get Paul's backwards version stuck in my head, it really sounds like some kind of creepy Russian. All of his "hey's" turned into "aaaaah!" [hilarious Russian yelling]

How does religion influence the band's music?

Our stories come from growing up in the middle of the country in the '80s and '90s, in a time where the churches were realizing that they had to try and focus on the teenagers of that time if they were going to have the next generation of Christians. So there were all of these programs and festivals and giant conferences with pyrotechnics, laser shows, and rock bands. They were held in the Superdome or the Pontiac Dome. It was very influential.

I wanted to be a great kid. I wanted to be special and I wanted to be a world-changer, as they say. Church was my identity. It was where everything stemmed from for me. The fact that I'm a drummer and also the way that I see the world is sort of Christian. So there's this one way that I'm forever Christian, even without Christ. I consider myself a believer still, but there's this other side of it that I call "Chrish," which refers to all of the baggage that comes along with being this American kid. It's more about the culture and not about the actual faith. In some of these ways, I feel like I'm Chrish for life. Even if I go through a time where I'm angry or I hate God or I'm bitter, I'm still using all this Christian terminology. At best, I'm only a doubting Thomas. I've seen things through all these years in a Midwestern Biblical influenced way.

On the tour bus we'll often watch the Christian channels and laugh just at how much we can relate to it and how ridiculous it often is. Once it was entirely normal to us. Once it was our scene and our lifestyle. But now I look back on it and see how off-putting it can often be. And not to say that it isn't also undiluted and full of love for one's neighbor, but in this album we try to tell that story a little bit. "Walking Paranoia," "Blood Pressure," those all deal with that stuff.

You guys played at the Summer Sonic Festival back in August. What is it like playing for a crowd where English is not the country's first language? The fans must be crazy about your music if they want you to come all the way to Japan! And it's interesting how music knows no language barriers.

You're entirely right. It's the weirdest thing to walk to around the city, and after being in Tokyo or Osaka for hours or days, you feel like an outsider. I feel like I go very unnoticed. Nobody talks to me. Everyone's polite and very kind, but I don't have a conversation with anybody. I feel kind of isolated. And then the next day we go and play this show, and there is this intense connection with 5,000 people, and there's all this love and eye contact and excitement. Afterwards they want to meet me and talk. It's this really weird thing to feel, and it's very strange, but it makes me love music for that very reason. I would encourage any American to vacation in Japan. I think it's geared towards being really impressive and exciting to us.

Now that 2011 is winding down, what has been your favorite record of the year and why?

The new Feist record is great. I love it. I haven't given the new Bjork record a chance. I'm going to give it to Son Lux. He's a friend of mine, but it really is my favorite record this year. It's the one I've listened to the most. It's called We Are Rising. NPR did this thing where they challenged him to make a record in a month, so he gathered together all of his friends and had them send tracks to him. I did a little percussion on one song.

What's next for you guys?

Right now we're trying to brainstorm crazy ways to make the spring tour exciting. We just announced this two-month tour coming up in bigger venues. We're also trying to come up with a really exciting production, just something people haven't seen from us before and wouldn't expect. I wouldn't be surprised if we try to make another music video. I'm in the mood. Just last night I was in the mood to start making new songs again just to try and stay in the habit. Usually after a record I feel so spent that it's usually quite a while before I try to think of music. But I didn't feel that way this time. I felt more encouraged at the end of this record.

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Lenni Rosenblum