Drummer Darren King discusses Mutemath’s new sound and distinct approach to creating Odd Soul, working with no outside influences for the first time, the importance of trust among bandmates, and his religious upbringing.
How was the Troubadour show on Tuesday?
It was so much fun. We were supposed to have our first show in Tulsa in the States. We were doing a festival with the Flaming Lips, but a 70 mph wind and thunderstorm took the stage five minutes before we were about to play. It took the stage the same time we did except it almost took it away, so we didn’t get to play. I was so excited. We were going to do eight new songs. I was so ready to get to play, but it didn’t work out. So we got to play for two wonderful audiences in Tokyo and then Osaka, Japan, and then we came and played the Troubadour the other night. It was very memorable.
Did you play the whole new album?
No, we played about 80 percent of it. There are a few songs that we’re going to save for the tour we’re about to do.
So on the tour will you be playing the whole album or still only doing the 80 percent?
We’ll do the whole thing. We might leave one or two songs out occasionally from night to night, depending on how they go. I feel that we’ve made our best album, in regards to it translating live. We certainly had our best rehearsals in preparation for this tour, so I’m excited to play these songs.
It’s pretty unusual for both a band and an audience to see an album live that’s not out yet where people are only familiar with maybe one or two songs. What has that been like with the handful of shows you’ve already played, and what are you expecting?
That’s part of why I’m getting really pumped. We’ve tested it on a Japanese audience and also on an L.A. audience. So far, it seems like the music is pretty immediate. We tried to make it really fun right away, and we did that by making it fun for us. The theory is the more fun it is for us, the more fun it is for the audience, too.
That’s an interesting thing that happens. We would go to Tokyo, and I would walk around and go shopping. It’s really frustrating that the only thing I can say is hello and thank you. I can’t hold a conversation with anybody, and I want to because they’re all such interesting, beautiful people. Finally, we get to take the stage, and we click. We were able to get past the fact that we can’t say anything to each other, and for it to still work with songs they had never heard before was very exciting. That was a pretty exhilarating experience.
What is it like over there post-earthquake?
I slept through an earthquake the other day apparently, and apparently it was a considerable tremor. I was so tired after the flight that I didn’t wake up. They’re obviously a wonderfully resilient culture. Being from New Orleans, it felt particularly sympathetic, and maybe like we could relate. We’ve had water do some bad stuff in our life, too. We also lost a lot of gear in the Nashville flood recently. That would be a year or two ago.
We didn’t for a second consider canceling when we found out about the earthquake and the tsunami. I could tell there was that heaviness, but then there’s also that renewed gratefulness. You can see it all over people, all over their faces, and I think they were anxious to have a concert. I don’t for a second want to overemphasize or play up the importance of entertainment, as if it’s changing the world, but sometimes getting to dance and have fun is important. It can be very useful in the midst of things going wrong.
This album is very interesting for you in a couple ways. First off, you secluded yourself in Paul’s New Orleans home studio to make it. How did you arrive at doing that and what was that experience like?
We just got fed up with ourselves. We got so frustrated with how horribly wrong we made the second record. I’m still proud of the second record. I even love that there’s a document of all of our self-doubt and there’s a narrative to that. I’m always going to be thankful to Armistice to point that out to me.
I think that album will always serve as a reminder that I can’t sustain a life the way that I tried to live during that album. We looked back and watched ourselves on video toiling in the studio, and allowing all the money pressure, all the pressure to follow up the first record and also advance, do all these different things and eat away, instead of allowing those pressures to get us pumped up and excited to feel challenged and ambitious.
Our guitar player by the end of that process, and also after touring that record, was fed up with us, fed up with the process and worn out, and he quit. A door slammed, and he was gone. Paul turned around and said, “Well, you guys I was going to tell you today that I’m expecting a little baby girl.” Then Roy said, “Really? Because I was about to tell you guys that I’m expecting a second son.” This all happened in one day, and I had only been married for a few months. We felt our own stripping away of things that we once cared about too much, put too much value in, and then we realized we were very grateful to still be a band and get to work together.
Paul took the risk of telling Warner Bros. that we couldn’t bear to have any outside influence. We told that to our manager, who’s always been very supportive and encouraging. He couldn’t hear it until it was done. We told that to our friends and family too, and we locked ourselves away. It got very lonely at times. It got boring because there’s a lot of editing that goes into self-producing a record. All of the technical stuff can become pretty tedious, and it just takes longer. It’s sort of like fishing. Not a lot happens, and then all of a sudden you’ll get something and it gets really exciting.
So, we did that. We did that all through the winter, and then into the summer. We came out of it with 13 songs that we love. I’ve come out of recording for 13 songs that I was proud of, excited about or thankful to be done with before, but these are the 13 I’m most proud of so far.
Would you say this record was easier or harder to do than the other two?
Easier because we stripped away the unnecessary stuff. We stripped away a lot of bullshit. We didn’t let ourselves think. There’s just a lot of debilitating self-criticism, and sometimes it’s very true. Sometimes you can tell yourself that you’re not allowed to do something, or that you’re not good at doing this particular thing that somebody’s expecting. There’s actually some truth to it, but if you shut it down anyways, then something really special can happen.
We also trusted each other. The three of us are fans of each other. I love when Paul sings, and I become a fangirl whenever Roy plays the guitar. We also allowed each other to be honest about whenever we thought the other was doing something that wasn’t right. Then throughout the album there was always a moment where two of us were completely stuck and the other person, the third person, would come in and get all ambitious, take that song and break through whatever writer’s block we had. That happened for each of us at some point. We came out of it with a lot of renewed admiration for each other.
It got tough. It got boring. We’d get a little pissed or a little frustrated, but it was the right amount of that. It was the work that was causing it and not some kind of whininess, or fear or anything like that, that we were toiling in. It was just good old-fashioned, hands in the dirt.
Now is this process something you would want to do again?
Yeah, I don’t think we’re ever going to hire somebody and pay them a hundred thousand bucks to tell us we suck ever again. I don’t think a producer is quite in the cards for us, though we have learned the value of producer-type people who we can keep at arm’s length and who will challenge us. If someone says, “I think you can take that further,” sometimes it can give you a little bit of an ego ambition to try it and prove to them that you could.
That’s all good, and I think it’s important to have those people come around at the right time. But then you have to protect your stuff, too, and we are. We’re collaborating with a record label, just selling it, and we’re doing it for a living. We’re collaborating with an audience. It’s supposed to be inclusive, but it also has to be honest. We have to love it. We have to feel like it really does represent something about how we feel our story is unique to us.
The idea that we embraced was that if we got more specific, and a little bit more vulnerable about who we are, more people would find that interesting than if we just tried to impress a bunch of people somehow. The analogy I use is if you took a girl on a date and then five minutes into the date you were saying, “Is this good? Did I do a good job? Did I pick a good restaurant? Do you like my tie? Is this a cool jacket? Is the temperature good? Are you comfortable?” Chill out, you know, and I feel like we did that. I feel like we’re guilty of that as a band. There are other bands that do that who annoy me, and I don’t want to be like that.
One thing I found really ironic about the record is that you lose your guitarist and then this record is the most guitar-driven thing that you’ve done so far. What were the guitars like for you to do with just the three of you?
Yep [laughs]. It was a blast. I was curious whenever Greg left, we immediately turned to Roy and Paul said, “Well, Roy, are you in? Are you with us?” Roy was like, “Hell yes! More than ever.” Roy is a great guitar player. He’s always just been throwing down on the bass, so for him to get the chance to finally unleash was a really exciting thing.
I joke that it was out of spite that we made this guitar-ish record after losing our guitar player, but it wasn’t really. It was just because Roy had all this pent-up guitar in him to let loose on everybody and unleash all these great parts. Paul played some, too. We both share guitar duties on “Equals” and various other songs, but it was mostly Roy. It was really fun to watch him record all that stuff.
I believe you have a new guitarist now, Todd Gummerman. Is he an official member, or just for the live band?
He’s an official member. He’s only done three shows with us but I’m amazed at how he clicks. He’s a good Missouri boy, and as far as his upbringing goes, he shares our awkward Christian roots and all the good things that come along with that as well. He’s a great musician. He started out as a keyboardist, and he plays violin. He’s a lover of the organ, and Paul with this record bought a Hammond C-3 organ from the 40s. It just works.
There’s so many things, oddly, that we have in common with Todd. To be honest with you, more than anything I’m scared that he’s going to steal the show from me. By the third song at the Troubadour, people were shouting, “Gummy!” He already had his own chant, so that was unnerving.
Maybe it’s just the name.
Yeah. Gummy, got it. But yeah, we’re having fun. He’s a character, man. The other day we were sitting in the airport and he pulls out his laptop. He had wired an actual old Nintendo controller into his laptop and was playing Mario Bros. with the volume all the way up, forcing all of us to listen to him trying to blaze through Super Mario in seven minutes. He’s a character.
This record definitely has an old school, rock ‘n’ roll feel to it. When you first sat down to talk about the record conceptually was that something that came up?
No, not immediately. That happened slowly over time, that the music got more visceral and guitar/bass/drum heavy. We did intentionally force ourselves to table anything that wasn’t a high dynamic. If it was chill, we’d get away from it because those kinds of songs usually come about more easily and we can do a bunch of them. Those mid to slow tempo ones aren’t as important to us live. You just have to have that one great one, and Paul wrote that with “In No Time” and then “All or Nothing,” which I think is a lovely song as well. We had those and a few others that we thought were great as well.
We imagined almost that the four guys who were going to play these shows were different guys than us, and we were going to do them a big favor by creating music for them that they would have a blast with. We tried to make an album that was instantly fun to play live. That was intentional. But the fact that it took that guitar-ish turn was just because we got excited about it. That sort of happened over time.
It seems to me that the album also has a big jamming vibe to it. Is that how you wrote it? How did that work?
It was a unique blend of jamming and analysis. It’s important to jam because sometimes if you’re just working only on your computer, you won’t realize how much more fun something is if you speed it up a little bit and play it faster. We would stop if we would get too analytical or too zoomed in, and we’d go play the song and hammer it out. It always ends up going through a rigorous editing process, even if it doesn’t sound like it. We do a lot of chopping.
For you with the drums, it seems this is your most energetic record and maybe you felt like you had more of a free reign. Is that kind of how you approached it?
Yeah, there was no producer telling me I couldn’t play that many fills. He just wasn’t there [laughs]. I couldn’t hear him, so I got away with it. Paul, Roy and I respect each other because we’ve been through thick and thin together. So if Paul tells me something I’m doing sucks, I can take it. I might pout for two minutes, but usually I don’t have to pout at all at this point. I can just accept that he’s right because he’s been right a lot.
Unless he’s telling me that I’m crossing a line, I’m just going for it. Same with the two of them. I can tell they respect my opinion as well. That’s my favorite thing about the way this album was made. It was made with respect to each other. The engineer even pointed it out.
I should clarify that we finished the record in Los Angeles. We came to Los Angeles for a couple of weeks, and did some dotting our I’s and crossing our T’s here. It was really fun because in L.A. you can rent a clav, or an organ or a Prophet synthesizer, easily. Or get a gong if you need one real quick, which we did. So we spent a couple weeks here, wrapping it up and getting it ready to be mixed.
Our engineer turned around, his name is Howard Willing and he’s a great guy, and said, “I don’t know if I’ve seen a band that trusts and respects each other quite like you guys do. That’s really cool.” I took that as a great complement.
Since this record is so different musically than what you’ve done before, were there any different influences or inspirations you had for it?
Yeah, but in this day and age where we have big old iTunes, your influences can stretch pretty far pretty quickly. We would snag a little idea from here or there, but all the influences meld together. They don’t resemble the source at all. I was getting into Afrobeat, garage stuff. I’m hesitant to say that because our album doesn’t sound at all like Afrobeat stuff, but there was a lot of energy of that kind of music that I felt like was inspiring me, and pumping me up to try and create this kind of stuff. We were trying to reach into ‘60s and ‘70s references.
As you fans of Black Keys? I hear a little bit of that kind of stuff in there, too.
I am a fan of them, but I’ve only heard one of their records. I’ve only heard their most recent record. I love it. I think I need to go listen to more of their stuff. We’ve gotten a lot of comparisons to them, especially with the song “Odd Soul,” but I don’t know of anybody that can sing like Paul. That’s where I think it gets a bit different. Not to discredit them in any way, because we’re labelmates with them. They’re a great group, but he can’t sing like Paul.
You should tour together next year.
I’d be honored. They’re a little bit cooler than we are, though. We’re not quite that cool.
Well, they’ve been around longer, too.
And they’ve been around longer, yeah.
Speaking of Paul, I think his lyrics are a little bit different than what he’s written in the past. Are there any themes that you picked up on as he was writing?
Yeah, and I wrote with him, too. This is the first record where some of the lyrics actually started with me. The lyrical viewpoint of the album zoomed in more with the song “Blood Pressure.” I initially wrote it more about a family pressure to succeed. Why can’t you be more like your brother? Your sister? All this, but then Paul took the lyrics and turned it into “Why can’t you be more like Jesus?” He started talking about all the pressures that we felt as young kids in church to be perfect. Have you read the Bible much?
Yeah, I have.
Do you remember where Jesus says, “Greater works than me shall you do?” The man who’s saying that raised the dead, healed the sick, turned water into wine, got killed and then came back to life, and he’s saying greater works than me shall you do. As a 13-year-old boy, I took that literally. I really did. I got really intense about it and I did a lot of crazy stuff.
My end goal was eventually I’m going to heal the sick, raise the dead, and maybe get killed and resurrected, I guess, and then something greater. I’ve got to outdo it. So, I was a crazy kid. I did a lot of really weird, ambitious stuff to try and impress people and impress God, and it wore me out at a certain point. That song has to do with that pressure. That’s part of the blood pressure.
Then we started feeling good about getting to talk about that part of it because I feel like it’s unique to us. I feel like a lot of people share that story, and it can be embarrassing. It can be like exposing a strange growth on your body, but I think it’s really exciting, too. There’s something exhilarating about sharing that.
Then in the end, Paul had a baby girl, Roy had another baby son, I’m married, and we’re feeling life happen and we’re feeling hope. In the midst of all this good stuff, too, we realized that we couldn’t be so pissy and so pessimistic. It’s not analytical, but just so bitter. We can’t live bitter. We have to admit there’s some good to the faith and church that we grew up with, even if some people hate that we say that.
Paul arrives at that conclusion with the song “In No Time,” which is a song he wrote completely on his own and which I love. It’s probably one of my favorite statements that we got. It balances perfectly that hope with the frustration that it’s not right yet still. As you can tell, I’m excited to talk about what this record is about because it’s about me. This is the first record that we’ve done that is about me, and that’s a big deal to me.
What other songs did you help write?
Oh, let’s see. Musically, we were all together from beginning to end on all of it. “Blood Pressure.” I remember doing a couple of the lyrics in the bridge of “Heads Up,” but we’d written a whole other version of “Heads Up” that we worked on together and scrapped it. Then Paul went to town on the new version, and that is good. “Allies” I worked on. Roy worked with us on the lyrics for “Allies” as well. “All or Nothing.”
I tried for every song. I wanted the opportunity of trying. I’m not that great of a lyricist. I’ll write pages and pages, and maybe get one thought from it. There’s not a single song on the record where I didn’t try and submit something or help, except for “In No Time.” That one I watched Paul write it. I sat in a room and watched that song come together, and I just cheered him on because I could tell he had it. The only thing I needed to do was not screw it up and keep him from getting discouraged. That one was really cool.
The first introduction of this record that people got was that “Odd Soul” website where people could mix their own version of the song, and then you had that start/stop music video thing. How much thought goes into the presentation and what else do you have in store for this record?
We’re filming a music video for “Blood Pressure” tonight. We woke up today and decided we wanted to. We’re about to hit the road and we want to get it done before we do that, so we’re going to go into a parking lot tonight, stay up all night and make a video. We got some ideas, kind of crazy ideas. It’s really ridiculous how we do things. We called a couple friends up here at the label and said, “Can you get some mattresses, four trampolines and some confetti please by tonight [laughs]?”
In addition to MUTEMATH, you’ve been dabbling with some other music stuff on the side with your wife and with Jeremy Larson. How is that coming along?
Oh, it’s wonderful. That project is gorgeous. It’s come about very slowly, because we’re just doing it whenever we go home to Missouri, and we’ll work on it a little bit or something. Just getting to be able to hear her sing, I am a blessed man. I get to hear her around the house. I’m spoiled. The music they’re making is gorgeous. I’m there helping out. I’ll throw in a beat here or there, or my two cents.
It’s a weird thing for me to say about those two, but they’re a perfect match [laughs]. I mean, musically. Relationally, I don’t think there’s any other woman in the world that can stand me and work with my quirks. Musically, Jeremy makes such gorgeous music, and she sings so beautifully. There’s a really special thing happening there.
How long have you been married now?
A year and a month.
Congratulations! How is that going?
Thank you, it’s going great. It really is, but we had some rough times. There was this month where she was on tour, trapped in the snow, and I was stuck in New Orleans in the thick of working on the record. We were miserable. Four weeks apart was entirely too much. By the time we got back together, we were so depressed. It was just very depressing and lonely. Then the second we were together again I was in heaven. The second I saw her I realized that’s what it means. Now that I’m married, the bads in my life hurt more and the goods are way better, and that’s just it. I’ve created a polarity.
It has caused me to lean on my bandmates, and also on staying busy and being productive. Now if I’m going to be away from her, I better be making it worthwhile. I can’t just piddle around like I used to when I was a kid. It’s got to be meaningful. I think that’s true for my bandmates as well, now having children. It makes our time more meaningful and I think it’ll make our band better. Plus, I think having a family is a very healthy thing. It’ll keep us from getting into all kinds of trouble that we would have otherwise. I think I’d have died pretty young if I hadn’t gotten married. I’d be getting pretty fed up at this point.
Since the other two guys have children now, can we expect some children from you and Stacy at some point in the near future?
Right now, we’re at our limit of responsibility. Stacy and I are as responsible as we can stand to be. She has a lot of dreams musically, and we both want children. I want tons of them. I want a bunch of children. So we know that, but we also now that it is not time yet. So, none right away. But whenever Stacy holds Paul’s daughter, I can see she starts to get that feeling. I have to take her away [laughs].