"It's all about Magnolia," says Kori, holding her hand in the back seat. "We all get in the van when it's time for her nap, and we all stop and eat if she's hungry, even if we're not."
The couple is Mates of State, a Connecticut duo whose storybook romance is more than backstory -- it drives everything about the band. The two met while attending the University of Kansas. They played in bands around town and were aware of each other through mutual friends, but hadn't met until they bumped into each other in a local bar and felt an instant attraction. They were both seeing other people at the time, but exchanged e-mails daily; a few months later, they met again, free of their prior entanglements. They've been inseparable since, and their music bubbles with the palpable energy the two share.
A recent Carolina tour stop offers a glimpse of the Mates' routine: They arrive -- several hours late, thanks to traffic -- directly at Chapel Hill's Cat's Cradle for sound check, without going to the hotel, as they generally prefer. The four of them -- Jason, Kori, her mom, Kathy, and their pal from San Francisco, Suzi Lai -- busy themselves with the gear, merchandise, and, of course, Magnolia. When they've finished, everyone stands in a circle, chatting about the drive and the night ahead, but mostly giggling at Magnolia's cuteness, little lime-green earplugs protruding from each tiny ear.
Sure, musical couples are nothing new. Some are forgettable (Be grateful neither Gwen Stefani and Gavin Rossdale nor Cher & Gregg Allman have made music together), others infamous (Ike and Tina, Whitney and Bobby, Nick and Jessica), and when it comes to country music, they can be career-shaping, from June Carter and Johnny Cash to Tammy Wynette and George Jones to Tim McGraw and Faith Hill.
Rennie Fisk forms the lyrical half of the Handsome Family, Chicago's brilliant Appalachia folk band, creating fatalistic and surrealistic imagery for the songs she makes with her husband, instrumentalist Brett Sparks. "We have these huge things -- songwriting, playing music -- that keep us together besides just being in love," Fisk says. "People always seem to think it's a hard thing to do, but I can't imagine a better person to make music with."
Not every couple-band writes about what it means to be a couple, as she is quick to point out. But Mates of State -- without any irony or inhibition -- open their lives and hearts to their fans. Every night they set up at the edge of the stage, Kori stage left, Jason stage right. They look at each other as they play, the connection as important for the harmonies as the aesthetic -- two striking people, singing about their relationship to a roomful of people that knows them in no other context.
Their songs -- big, complex, harmony-rich, and rhythmically textured pop gems that sound full despite the band's minimal membership -- deal with their relationship: the highs, the lows, and in-betweens. In the past, people have either loved or hated Mates of State for their happy, two-piece love songs; whether that's the justification for approval or apathy, it's a reductionist criterion. Gardner and Hammel almost always sound like they're singing happy songs: big sounds augmented by billowing choruses, careful intonation, and ascending melodies. But, as with any healthy relationship, they've always been more about the joys and foibles of their relationship, no matter how joyous it all sounded.
Nowhere is this more apparent than on their latest album, Bring It Back, their fourth full-length and first for Seattle-based Barsuk Records. Their best yet, it's suffused with contagious, swooning energy. It bubbles forth in ebullient, open-hearted lines such as "There was a time in truth/Let's bring it back," or "What have you done for me?/Nothing and everything," on the swelling finale of "So Many Ways." The infectious excitability of the so-into-you anthem "Like U Crazy" is like emotional onomatopoeia.
If Kurt Cobain's mom eyed his career choice skeptically, then Kori's parents are the polar opposite. Describing them as supportive is an understatement. On this, her third tour, Kathy is dropped off at the hotel with Magnolia before the gig. She spends all night with her and takes care of her in the morning. Tonight, she gets her own room, but she's sometimes not as fortunate. In Europe, she shared a bed with a male friend of the band because she pitied him after a long train ride; stateside, the band's former tour manager had phone sex in the bed next to hers, thinking she was asleep.
"She thought, just because I'm sleeping, I'm deaf. She goes on for about 15 minutes, and I pretended I was dead. I didn't move a muscle," Kathy says, noting it was that manager's last tour. "Yeah, Grandma's seasoned now."
One week earlier, she had Magnolia to herself at home in Connecticut while Jason and Kori played South by Southwest, the massive music conference in Austin, Texas. "I didn't realize how crazy it was down there, a nonstop indie-rock party," Kathy says. "She would have had fun, but it isn't really a place for kids. Not that touring is either."
Kathy says she and Magnolia wanted "to stay home and get the flu together anyway." Lately, Kori has been sick too; her voice is slowly returning, but still a little raspy. At one of the earlier shows this tour, several fans came to the stage and helped sing her parts: an apt metaphor for the teamwork that allows Mates of State to maintain their nearly nonstop touring regimen. Of course, it's clear that touring is well woven into the fabric of their life. Leaving Kori, Kathy, and Magnolia behind at the hotel for a quick nap, Jason plots with Suzi to wean Magnolia from her pacifier. "That's the goal for this tour," Jason laughs on his way back to the club. Your dreams don't have to be big, the Mates' lifestyle suggests, if your heart's in it.
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