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At Peace

music MatesOfStateHow to cleanse the mind and body with Kori Gardner of Mates of State

Cayenne pepper, lemon juice, maple syrup, and water sounds like a recipe for disaster, but for Kori Gardner—singer/synth and organ player for Mates of State—it’s all she can think about.

On day four of a 10-day Master Cleanse juice fast, Gardner and her husband, Jason Hammel (drums and vocals), are trying hard to avoid solid food—and not just for nutrition purposes.

“Jason started, and then 12 hours later he’s like, ‘I’m eating!’” Gardner recalls with a laugh. “We’ve done raw food diets before, but this is a little more extreme,” she says. While she admits that it’s been difficult to stay on track, she believes the rewards are too good to pass up.

“You get these rare moments of clarity that I’ve never felt before,” Gardner says of the diet. “Your mind is so clear because of all the toxins that have left your body.” This lucid mindset has aided her in writing music. “I felt like my ideas were completely concise and clear,” she says.

In 1997, long before reaching Master Cleanse nirvana, Gardner and her husband crafted their own sweet and sour cocktail in the form of Mates of State. The band first established itself in 2000 with My Solo Project, an indie pop LP oozing with 12 delightfully discordant duets.

The duo has come a long way since then, and their seventh album, 2011’s Mountaintops, is a reflection of that growth. Inspired by a Buddhist story involving a monk whose maxim is “Aim for Cold Mountain”—or maintain high hopes while traveling—the album is rooted in Zen philosophy.

“We originally were going to call it Aim for Cold Mountain, but then it sounds like that movie,” says Gardner, who is unable to recall much about the 2003 war drama (Cold Mountain) besides Nicole Kidman and Jack White.

Elements of the Buddhist tale weave throughout the album, beginning with the first track, “Palomino,” and its beautifully crafted music video, which features rotoscope animation. The opening lyrics, “you know you’re not in hell,” are visibly depicted as Gardner and Hammel roam through a jungle and up a steep staircase, only to come across another point of ascension: an alluring white staircase guarded by their angelic daughters, Magnolia and June, ages 7 and 4.

Track two, “Maracas,” also alludes to the story, as Hammel brings his drumming down to a light tapping and silences the maracas, in order to join Gardner in singing, “I shoulda noticed that your mind was getting clearer/I woulda noticed that cold summit drawing nearer.” During the song’s climax, Gardner and Hammel encourage one another to take the journey: “Let’s just try to climb/you might not like it when I call you on it.”            

In an effort to explain this outerspace-like track, as well as the rest of the heavily synthesized album, Gardner reveals that Mountaintops, “Made me go explore the synth world a bit more.”

“I use the Juno-G a lot. … People kept saying we’re organ and drums, we’re organ and drums,” she says, referring to every track on Team Boo (2003), besides piano-heavy “Parachutes (Funeral Song).” “Now, songs might not be defined by just that organ.”

This week, the duo returns to California to play at The Catalyst Atrium on July 4, after moving to Connecticut nine years ago to raise their family. “It always felt like we left a bit prematurely,” says Gardner, whose feelings are prevalent on track No. 7, “At Least I Have You.”

“It’s one of those rare songs about each other … when we left San Francisco and were adapting to the East Coast,” she confesses.

The couple—along with John Panos (trumpet/tambourine/keys) and Kenji Shinagawa (guitar)—hopes Santa Cruzans will come down to the show and help them celebrate Independence Day pre-fireworks. But don’t expect Gardner to belt out the national anthem. “The national anthem at a big event can destroy your career or bolster your career,” she says, comparing The Fray’s unconventional folk version at this year’s NCAA men’s basketball championship to Whitney Houston’s beloved rendition at the 1991 Super Bowl. “Hers is the all-time best,” says Gardner.            

Though she adores Houston’s vocals, she prefers duets when it comes to Mates of State. “Vocal harmonies … real staple of what we do,” says Gardner. “We’re more powerful together.”   Photo: Glynis Arban

Mates of State plays at 9 p.m. Wednesday, July 4, at The Catalyst Atrium, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $15/adv, $18/door. Call 423-1338.

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