INTERVIEW- Unmuted: Did mother Earthsuit beget Mute Math?
The phenomenon of the "crossover act" has long made legitimate celebrities out of figureheads from unusually disparate genres, with stars like Faith Hill and Sean Paul bringing mainstream acceptance to country and dancehall, respectively. Even religious-tinted music has a place on morning radio shows– acts like Jars of Clay and Sixpence None The Richer have repeatedly proven that top-40 countdowns are not a particularly inhospitable environment for anybody.
More recently, Switchfoot's 2003 major label debut went double-platinum, eclipsing fivefold the gold record they snagged with their previous album in the Contemporary Christian Music niche. But that same year, guitarist Marcos Curiel left Christian crossover rap-metal band P.O.D., bemoaning very publicly the hypocritically un-Christian rock-star lifestyle his bandmates had begun to lead.
Paul Meany's exit from the scene was decidedly more low-key, but he's equally passionate in his disdain for that corner of the music world. When his five-piece CCM band Earthsuit imploded, 60 percent of its members quickly reconvened– this time without a religious agenda– as Mute Math, an energetic electronic rock project that tempers the optimism of Christian pop with the pent-up aggression of a songwriter tired of seeing that optimism manipulated by what he sees as an artistically corrupt industry.
Not that the secular record industry is any better– Mute Math recently filed suit against Warner Brothers Records over the label's insistence on marketing them through a pointedly Christian imprint even though that hadn't been part of the terms of the record deal.
Fan response to their attempt to forge ahead independently was strong enough to force even an industry behemoth like Warner to back down, and the self-titled debut album was finally released last month, gleefully cavorting across a stunningly three-dimensional field of production in celebration of its long-awaited freedom from preachy trappings.
The Hook: Is it fair to say that Earthsuit was the beginning of Mute Math?
Paul Meany: If Earthsuit motivated anything or inspired anything, it was what not to do.
The Hook: How did going secular affect your writing?
Paul Meany: It got a little better. I've never really thought in terms of Christian or not Christian. Maybe in hindsight I should have given that some more thought.
The Hook: How did the conflict with the label develop?
Paul Meany: Maybe Warner Brothers got involved a little prematurely. Mute Math, to their credit, is a difficult sell. It doesn't necessarily fit into a template. I think there was a lot of confusion about, 'What do we do with the band?'
We knew what we wanted to do, and we were going for it. I wanted to forge my way forward into a newer style of presentation for the music. Nothing mattered to anyone until we took the very bold step of saying, 'Wait a minute; we've filed suit. This was not what signed up for.'
Simultaneously we went out and made our own record and put it out the way we wanted to. And people responded– that's the other thing. Had people not been interested and not gone to the shows, this would have been a very different story. It started to make sense to Warner Brothers at that point.
The Hook: I understand that this started as a long-distance collaboration?
Paul Meany: It was between [drummer] Darren King and me. Darren used to send me these demo tapes he was working on– just instrumental tracks. I knew he was making these tracks with his neighbor's PC and an effects pedal, these elaborate tracks that were just incredible considering what he had to use.
In the beginning, I thought it was a little side project, a little creative jaunt that might be fun. He came down to New Orleans, and we wrote a couple of songs. One of the songs we wrote was "Typical." The band I was in broke up in 2002, and Darren moved to New Orleans. Little by little, it just began to evolve.
Then we added Greg Hill and did an EP as a three-piece. When you look at what happened, it was truly building a house from the ground up– adding members, adding shows, adding songs. One day we're renting a car to go jam for 20 people, and pretty soon we're circling the country in a tour bus.
I don't think we had any particular high ambition when we started Mute Math. If there was anything motivating us in the beginning, it was just frustration with what we had become. What was motivating me was frustration with the industry, band politics, all of that. I just wanted to get back in touch with that eight-year-old kid who got a guitar for Christmas– just write songs because I didn't know what else to do.
The Hook: What effect did Hurricane Katrina have on your attempts to get the album out?
Paul Meany: None.The only effect it had was on our touring. We had evacuated, obviously, for the storm, and right after that we went balls-out touring. We were out of New Orleans for a while– a few of our wives had lost their jobs– and we were fortunate enough that opportunities started popping up for us to be touring the country.
The Hook: We hear a lot about how Katrina destroyed the long-term musical heritage of New Orleans, but you guys aren't really from that tradition. Did it affect contemporary rockers differently?
Paul Meany: It's really a shame, because there was a really nice, healthy, progressive rock scene that began to happen in New Orleans. That's been a very tough thing to cultivate, because in New Orleans it's really hard to get a gig if you're not a jazz musician, or Top 40, or blues. When Katrina hit, that really dispersed it all. It's going to take a while to get that back. We had always been on the outside of the New Orleans music scene, but even we outsiders had a scene.
The Hook: I'm surprised to hear you jump so quickly to the term "progressive rock," because that's a term that's as charged as "Christian Rock" in some ways. Are you really that comfortable with it?
Paul Meany: Whoa. I'm surprised to hear that you think that's just as baggaged a term as "Christian Rock." What's your definition of it?
The Hook: The definition might be "rock that pushes the envelope," but as a genre label, it starts to imply wizards and meter changes.
Paul Meany: Sure. Let me clarify that my only motivation in using that term was just "forward-thinking rock." This is not a Rush throwback band or Dream Theater or any of that. There are a ton of different bands from pop-rock to raging electro experimental that were happening in the New Orleans rock scene and innovating in a way that wasn't happening in the jazz scene. But no, it's not a big... [snickers] "Prog scene."
The Hook: Your recorded pieces rely heavily on production and technology. Does that make it more difficult to write on the road?
Paul Meany: No, we definitely don't write because we do or don't have delay pedals. We're always writing– from the back of the bus with an acoustic guitar to when we're in final mixdown, stumbling across something hidden in the track that I didn't realize that spawns a whole new chorus. As you're recording things, you're always letting it spark new ideas that can affect the way the song turns out. Usually when we stop recording, we hear something new, and there's a new left turn somewhere. That's at least what we did on this record– try to be in the moment during the process of making the record.
The Hook: Does that mindset extend into improvising?
Paul Meany:Yeah, absolutely. That's part of the rush. In essence, it's probably almost part of the responsibility. As a songwriter, it's a 24/7 on-call thing. You never know when something's going to strike. It's like breathing. It's just what you do.
Mute Math with Shiny Toy Guns, Jonezetta, and Plain Jane Automobile at Starr Hill, Friday October 20. $12/$10, 9pm.