Photo by James Coreas
2017 is not the year that Paul Meany expected. The front man of New Orleans quartet MUTEMATH was completing work on their fifth studio album “Play Dead” when bass player Roy Mitchell-Cardenas announced his plans to stop touring with the group in March. Jonathan Allen was brought in as a perm touring bassist and the band began to plan the album release and accompanying tour when another unexpected departure would threaten to derail everything.
Four weeks before they were set to embark on a 38 city fall tour, Meany was shocked by a phone call from drummer and founding member Darren King to reveal that he had also decided to leave MUTEMATH. Struggling with the decision to either cancel the album release and tour or take on the near impossible task of finding a replacement for King, Meany called upon an old friend. Fellow New Orleans native David “Hutch” Hutchinson agreed to join the “Play Dead Live” tour and learn King’s parts with just three weeks to rehearse. The resulting show is a frantic sensory overload utilizing slickly produced video projections to transform the stage and the band in to moving pieces of art.
Meany called me while in route to Salt Lake City to discuss the tour and its unique video concept, how he feels about his daughter’s musical aspirations, the challenging themes of the new album and how they relate to the future of MUTEMATH.
Patrick Donalson: What city are you in today?
Paul Meany: We’re in Boise, Idaho.
PD: Boise, Idaho? Is this a day off or are y’all doing a show today?
PM: Yeah, it’s crazy. You would think we’re doing a show on Friday. It’s not, it’s a day off. We just played Seattle yesterday and we are on our way to Salt Lake City, so we have a day off. This is the middle point.
PD: You guys are getting near the end of the tour, how has it been so far?
PM: It’s been great, man. My heart’s starting to get a little heavy now that I know we are nearing the end. There’s only seven shows left. It’s been really special, certainly considering the situation and the stakes that were involved going in to this. Being on the road again with Hutch has been an incredible experience. I’m so glad we got to share this time, it’s been fun. We are hitting a real stride now, in the show. When we first got the show going, we were trying to get all the glitches worked out and everything was very fresh and new, especially for Hutch and Jonathan. In recent weeks it’s really felt like we’ve broke through to that place you want to be as a performer, where you can just kind of be at that subconscious auto-pilot level and the music is just kind of playing you as opposed to you trying to play the music. That’s when it’s really fun. We’ve been able to feel that rush for the past few weeks. It’s been really fun. It’s made the shows really exciting.
PD: Any stand out moments so far?
PM: Yeah. I felt, when we got to Florida, that’s when things started to happen. Once we reached the West Coast, it kind of went to this fresh place as well. I guess that was the middle point of the tour. We just finished the West Coast run but we started in San Diego and went all the way up to Seattle and it just felt like each one of those shows the bonds were just getting stronger on stage. So, it’s been really nice. The chemistry is thicker.
PD: I was at your show in Houston and I was really impressed with the overall visual element of the production this time around. Can you tell me about the origin of where this projector concept came from?
PM: Absolutely. One of the bands we were playing in when we were starting MUTEMATH was Macrosick. It was around ’03, with Adam LaClave. That was more his project that he was doing with Jonathan. Darren and I were helping out and they were helping us out with MUTEMATH. The Macrosick concept was that for every show: everyone dressed in white and then we had this projected show. There was actually a projectionist on stage, part of the show. It was a really fun thing to do. But that concept just kind of went away. Macrosick eventually became a different band. As we were looking for a visual concept for this particular album, that one just kind of came back to mind. We were like what if we renovated that idea and just see what we could do with it now. We wanted to do something that we hadn’t done before. The idea of everyone on stage, dressing up in sort of a uniform and all serving this art installment that we were wanting to put together got really fun sounding. So, that’s what we did. But, originally it was Adam LaClave’s brainchild. He came up with that idea for Macrosick, so we borrowed it from him for this one.
PD: I hope you thank him for letting you borrow it!
PM: Of course! He actually came out and performed with us in LA. It was a really fun moment to have him come out and we did a little bit of a Club of the Sons song, and then we did a Beck cover, and then we did “Spotlight”. It was fun. It was a special night.
PD: Another big part of the show is when [your daughter] Amelia comes out and joins you on stage. How does she feel about what you do and getting to be on an album and on stage?
PM: She loves it. I am not twisting her arm to be a part of this. She’s a performer at heart, we started realizing that probably around three. It was on the Vitals Tour when we started. She was hanging out backstage and before we would go on, it became sort of a tradition that she would perform for all of us backstage to pump us all up. Kind of give us our locker room speech. She would make up a song and kind of improv. She wanted to play a show for us and it was really exciting. She was doing a really good job. She would come on the side of the stage while we were performing and she would just be dancing. I remember when we got on the tour with Twentyone Pilots, there were some shows where she was on the side of the stage dancing and I noticed there were a lot of people in the front row looking that way like, “What is going on?” So, I decided to invite her up and she came out on the stage and lit it up. Ever since then, it was no looking back. It was always like, “How can I get my own band daddy? When do I get to replace you?”. It’s been that kind of dynamic. Once we wrote a song dedicated to her, it became a no brainer that she was going to come out and at least perform that one with us. It has been a really fun part of this tour.
PD: How much negotiation with her mom did you have to do to make that happen?
PM: Yeah, mom has to deal with the after effects of that as far as keeping her attitude in check, that she’s not entitled to it. She’s got to do her school work still, do her responsible things, then she gets to go and perform.
PD: Would you encourage her if she wanted to go in to this business when she gets older?
PM: Absolutely. As long I felt like it was definitely a passion of hers. I don’t want to be that particular parent that’s pushing her to take up the family business. I think as long as I have been observing her, she definitely has a genuine interest in it, so I’ll do whatever I can to help nurture that.
PD: You brought up the Twentyone Pilots tour and I know that you guys collaborated with them last year as well. Do you have any more plans for collaborations in the future?
PM: There are no plans currently, but we had an amazing time working with those guys. I hope our paths will cross again soon.
PD: Other than Twentyone Pilots, is there anyone else that you would like to work with if you could have a dream collaboration?
PM: You know, I think of this scene in a sitcom. I think it was ‘King of Queens’ or something. You get your free pass person that you get to have an affair with. The wife’s free pass was Brad Pitt. And who does the guy get? The guy is like, “I’ll just take that cute secretary that works with you.” You kind of create a realistic dream, one that might be achievable. So, when you start talking about collaborations, there’s the dream level of probably what will never happen and then something that might happen. But, I am going to go ahead and dream big for a second. It would be a dream come true for me to get to collaborate with someone like Steve Winwood or Phil Collins, or some of the guys that I really looked up to as I was becoming an aspiring musician [such as] Sting. I have huge respect for they way they write songs and just them as performers, how they put together shows and arrange things. They are definitely some of my heroes.
PD: Your new album is “Play Dead”. It seems to be a good mashup of your previous albums. I noticed on past albums that you found a way to make the tracks play seamless. On this one, they are a little more broken up. I was curious if that was intentional or happened by circumstance? Was there a thought process to that?
PM: It was intentional. We didn’t think it sounded as good with them being seamlessly connected. A lot of the songs are a bit more indulgent, they kind of reach over the five-minute mark at times. This is probably one of our shortest albums as far as track numbers go. We usually do albums that are around 50 minutes. This one is pretty close to that but, because there were fewer track numbers, it felt like those breaths were nice to have. Sometimes we really get in to the whole transition building, which we have on other albums where songs connect, but it just didn’t feel right on this one.
PD: Listening to it on vinyl, the breaks almost seem like it was made to be heard on vinyl.
PM: That’s the other thing too. It really gets messed up on vinyl whenever we’ve done the transitions in the past. You usually have to break it up anyway.
PD: Given recent events with the band, the themes of the record seem especially significant. Can you tell me a little bit about the writing process? What drew you to this life and death theme, not necessarily knowing what was going to happen?
PM: I think the writing process for this record and “Vitals” were very connected. It was all out of us becoming fathers and what we were observing at that time. It all started about five or six years ago, when we were coming out of “Odd Soul”. We just went into writing non-stop and those life and death themes were the only thing that seemed to interest us. I remember right when my daughter was born, the thought that crossed my mind first was “OK, now I am going to die. Now it’s time for me to go.” Which was a strange thing and I kind of shook that thought out of my head because I was like “Oh my God. I am looking at my daughter for the first time, this is amazing.” What I realized was that I was confronting this changing of the guard aspect of life. When your replacement is here, and when you’ve worked so hard to get to a certain place and now it’s time for you to bow out. That’s what my daughter represented in a way. I began to observe that more, not just in the parent aspect of it, but in the changing of the times and what that all means: coming of age, the things you have to let go of along the way, and the things you cling on to and hope to find new meaning in around the corner. Those things that keep you living, keep you full of hope. That substance has really been the fuel for “Vitals” and “Play Dead”. “Vitals” looked at it more from a relationship aspect and the efforts of making things last, making it to the end with someone. I think “Play Dead” is more about confronting things that are out of your control and how you don’t get to choose how things are going to end for you. How life decides to twist fate, but finding this determination to choose how you process it and how you react to it and still finding happiness along the way. That was a really challenging notion. I think, especially this year and what it’s become, it’s been an unexpected illustration of what we’ve been writing about for the past five years. This is not an ending I would have ever scripted for this band or a transition that I would have ever imagined would have happened for MUTEMATH. But it is one that we decided to do our best to confront and make the most of, and still scrounge for elements of life in the whole thing. Believing that, what may seem like chaos, that strange twist of fate, is for a reason. In some hopeful way that we’ll figure it out as the days go forward and just try to appreciate each day as we are doing it.
PD: Wow. You’ve got me speechless.
PM: It’s been a profound time. You know what? I am proud of the music that we’ve made along the way. If it all ends now and MUTEMATH has only become a five-album band, and this is what it was meant to be, and we all go on to do other things after this, I am super proud of what we’ve uncovered and documented along the way and I’m thankful for it. Thankful for all the years that Darren, Roy, and Greg put in to make a body of work. Todd as well, and now Jonathan and Hutch who are helping to bring it to life. It’s been an amazing journey.
PD: It sounds like you’ve come to terms with it a little bit, no matter what it is. That at least it’s been good while you had it. What’s next on the horizon for you guys after the tour wraps up?
PM: There aren’t really definitive plans. I feel like what’s going to happen now is that we are going to go in to a hibernating, creative time. More than ever, I really don’t know what the future holds. I think everything has been rattled so much. In all of that uncertainty, I am more compelled than ever to pull out the keyboards and get in headphones and make some music. Just see what’s there. I think we will be spending some time doing that going in to the new year. Hopefully let whatever is next reveal itself. We’ll stay in touch and we’ll proudly embark on the next step of the journey.