by Nick Koch

Mates of State

w/Hawnay Troof, Rogue Wave, Grand Buffet

Thurs Jan 29, Chop Suey, 8 pm, $10 (all ages).

It requires a particularly patient temperament to be an indie musician and to be labeled, however begrudgingly, as the Happiest Band on Earth. But for Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel--the real-life boy-meets-girl pop darlings behind Mates of State, and the present holders of the inglorious title--the distinction, though not entirely a blessing, isn't exactly inaccurate.

"Well, overall we're pretty happy with our lives right now," says Gardner, the band's vocalist-slash-virtuoso organist, from the couple's new Connecticut home. "I mean, you can't fight it."

In their seven years as a band, the Mates have harmonized their way into the hearts and iPods of pop enthusiasts around the world, weathering gag-inducing Quasi comparisons and quitting their day jobs to arrive as Polyvinyl Record Company's premiere musical act. The band's beginnings are by now almost common knowledge among the gossiping, Magnet-subscribing hipster set: Hammel and Gardner met while schooling at the University of Kansas and began playing music together after playing separately in other bands. Their duo formed, love followed soon thereafter, and now, three albums, eight national tours, one wedding, and a couple years later, they have established two separate but inextricably linked reputations: as composers of fiercely catchy, undeniably jubilant songs, and as indie music's most endearing couple. That undue public emphasis on their marital status, though, can sometimes be the source of mild frustration.

"People sometimes think it's a gimmick," says Gardner. "We never advertised. We never started a band thinking, 'We're going to be the married band! We'll totally sell records and it'll be great!'"

But sell records they did. The end of last year saw the release of the group's third full-length, Team Boo, which, with over 10,000 copies SoundScanning in its first week, became Polyvinyl Record's fastest-selling album in the label's short history.

"[Team Boo] is the record we are the most proud of," says Hammel, the band's drummer/vocalist/husband. "We kind of knew what we were doing every step of the way, whereas with the other two records, that wasn't necessarily the case." The band spent twice as much time in the studio for this album than for either of the previous two, giving us a sugary, soaring indie pop record that pulsates with upbeat energy, a calculated labor of musical and spousal love. Hammel and Gardner harmoniously knit their dueling vocals together with skill and tenderness, singing over frolicsome, intricate organ and drum arrangements that result in richly textured, exuberant music. Which is not to say that Mates of State's songs are necessarily chipper; Hammel and Gardner often evoke the poignant and the poetic with their sometimes nebulous lyrics, making their songs somehow delicate despite their lighthearted delivery. And perhaps this adeptly orchestrated dialogue between the sentimental and the playful is exactly what makes their music so pleasant, so patently likable.

"We're not always happy people," Hammel says after a stunningly random conversation about the untold virtues of birth order. "But I think that is the goal. I think we believe in happiness and that happiness is attainable in our lifetime, and I think we just want to get there. And it's great to have one other person to go there with."

Perhaps, then, their reputation as being the Happiest Band on Earth isn't without its merits, which, for me, was surprising. I had envisioned some glorious exposé--I wanted to uncover the character-debasing details that would make this duo seem less like the idealized epitome of wholesomeness and more like the poorly mannered, bad-mouthed, filthy-minded rock personae that we have come to expect of our successful musical acts. I wanted, in a word, dirt. And, after nearly an hour of prodding them both--perhaps a bit rudely--for all the scandalous tidbits that they were willing to divulge about one another, I found that these two halves of this irresistible band are just really wonderful people. Not because they are the spokesmodels for the family-friendly, not because they feel their lives must imitate the tone of their music. They are just two genuine people playing genuine music who genuinely want Dennis Kucinich to win the Democratic nomination. And for those reasons, Mates of State are more deserving of their minor celebrity than most other bands out there.

As to the lack of dirt, though, Hammel says coyly, "We keep a lot of secrets. We have a really bad dark side."

editor@thestranger.com

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