The indie rock band Mutemath doesn’t fit the textbook definition of a Christian rock group. The songs don’t make vague references to a higher power and our need to live according to a moral code. And each song isn’t an over-the-top anthem that just oozes with righteousness.
But the church did play a significant role in the band’s formation.
“I met [singer-keyboardist] Paul [Meany] in April of 1997 at this church that was my whole life,” says drummer Darren King during a recent phone conversation from his Nashville home. He brings the band, which has just released its first studio effort in four years, to House of Blues on March 29. “It was the most important place in the world to me. He was passing through. He was interning with his band. It was an eccentric, unique group. They played for ten weeks at eight church services a week. For ten weeks of my life, I saw Paul every single day.”
Kings says he and his mother would drive 30 miles to go to the church where Meany and Co. were stationed.
“And then he was gone,” says King. “He was my hero. I emulated him and we kept in touch. I wanted to do what they did. I joined their band and then their band broke up.”
In the wake of that band’s dissolution, King lived with Meany and his wife and their three dogs while holding down a day job at Macaroni Grill as a waiter.
“We made tracks for other people,” he says. “We had a lot of fun just starting out with no pressure.”
The two would eventually form the artsy indie rock group Mutemath in 2002. In 2006, Warner Bros. would re-release their self-titled debut and then issue their next two albums, helping the band develop its small but rabid fanbase. But the group left Warner Bros. four years ago. After taking a short break, the band starting write songs for what would become last year’s Vitals
, its first studio effort in four years. With its vintage guitars, Rhodes keyboards, synthesizers and other electronic instruments and soulful vocals, the songs on the album have a retro-feel to them.
“We never stopped writing songs,” says King. “It’s like the hair growing out of your head. You create for the fun of it. When Paul and I first started writing, I was in Nashville and he was in New Orleans. I would send him CDs in the mail. Now it’s easy to share files and create works in different cities. You can experiment. That was the one thing about this fourth record; it was like a reset button. As sad as it was to part ways with Warner Bros. because there were lots of people there that we liked and had a meaningful relationship with, it was a good thing that happened. It’s for the best.”
When they started writing the songs for Vitals, King was living in the basement of a print shop. He and Meany would meet there, close the metal vault door and “lose all track of time” as they worked on writing and recording.
“There was one time when the door closed and I couldn’t get it open,” King says with a laugh. “We were in there for a little bit. We should have stayed in there until we had a record. We need those parameters because we would go on forever without having someone telling us to stop.”
While “outside people” mixed a couple of songs, King says the band has “never done a record with as little outside input as this one.”
“That requires a certain level of confidence and trust in each other,” he says. “Someone has to be the bearer of bad news when things don’t go well. Someone has to be the objective person and someone has to be the inspirational person. You have to have thick skin. You have to trust each other. We’re old enough that we were able to do that. I understand why most bands hire a producer, mostly to act as a scapegoat, to give an objective viewpoint or to break the tie when two people feel one way and two feel the opposite.”
The jittery, synth-heavy opening song “Joy Rides” has a great energy to it and sounds like something the Pet Shop Boys might have recorded during their prime.
“That one started with Paul,” says King when asked about the song. “He got together with a buddy of his and they made a beat. I think he was intentionally trying to not to be a bummer. He wanted to write positive music. Anytime we would bring a song with good vibes to the table it was what everyone liked. It wasn’t a lack of trying to come up with songs that had a lot of testosterone or were tough. For whatever reason, those ideas weren’t something we were as excited about. The optimistic songs were the ones we went with for the record.”
The somber, Coldplay-like “All I See” features a terrific vocal performance that finds Meany adopting a soulful falsetto.
“That’s just Paul crushing it,” says King. “We wanted to focus less on the drums showing off and we didn’t want to get overindulgent in the studio. We wanted it to be about the vocals and we wanted it to be a great vocal record. It’s crazy to be in the same room with him. It’s really special to hear people who can sing that way. I was 14 the first time I met Paul and I said, ‘You have a really nice voice.’ My voice cracked as I said that. We always laugh at that. He’s great but he’s hard on himself. He’ll do take after take. If you leave him alone, he’ll do three days of takes. To me, it all sounds the same. It sounds like him singing awesome.”
“Bulletproof” has ricocheting synths and emphasizes texture over melody. It seems like the type of song that would translate particularly well live as its echoing percussion packs a real punch.
“We intentionally saved that one for this tour,” says King. “[Bassist] Roy [Mitchell-Cárdenas] started with that. He had the idea of it and it’s one of the more aggressive ones on the record. It’s so fun to play. It’s so good.”
King says the band has always enjoyed its visits to Cleveland and says he’s determined to finally visit the Rock Hall when the band comes to town this time.
“One time instead of going to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, I went to the [Great Lakes] Science Center instead, just to see what it was like. They had an exhibit called Boogers, Burps and Farts. I don’t know why thought that would be cool. It was just for children. I should have gone to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. This time I’m going to go.”
Mutemath, Paper Route, 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 29. House of Blues, 308 Euclid Ave., 216-523-2583. Tickets: $22, houseofblues.com.