“We can keep doing this forever”

Mates of State is not your ordinary rock band. From their highly energetic, quirky keyboard/drum arrangements to their family-friendly touring entourage, the married duo is redefining the sound and face of rock ‘n’ roll—and they’re bringing the kids along for the ride.

We’re all mates: The spunky duo have an Asheville connection: Harvest Records co-owner Mark Capon (floating in the sky, above). Photo by Ghynis Arban, with Xpress alteration

It shouldn’t surprise, then, that Jason Hammel and Kori Gardner have again strayed from the beaten path, opting to self-record and digitally release a full-length covers record that reinvents tracks from artists as diverse as Tom Waits, Belle and Sebastian, Fleetwood Mac and The Mars Volta.

It’s not completely unfamiliar territory — since 2003, they’ve covered singles from Jackson Browne, David Bowie and Phantom Planet — but Crushes: The Covers Mixtape is Mates of State through-and-through, an extraordinarily cohesive marriage of artists and genres that are anything but, a patchwork sewn with the soaring male/female vocal harmonies, bright and fuzzy keys, inventive percussion and unflagging optimism that have defined Mates of State’s sound for more than a decade.

“We’ve been talking about doing it for a while, but a covers album is a hard sell a lot of times,” Hammel explains from the tour bus in Minneapolis, where he’s just put his two daughters down to nap. “People are like, ‘Whoo hoo, you did a lame ol’ covers record. Who wants to hear you butcher some songs that I love?’”

With that in mind, Hammel and Gardner took their time on this project, narrowing down tracks and reworking them with “Mates of State energy” for several years before going ahead with the project.

“We didn’t want it to be a throwaway record,” he says. “We wanted it to be a Mates of State record, but with other people’s songs.”

To support the release, the band is crisscrossing the country with a group of entertainers that more closely resembles a sideshow than a rock tour. Opening acts are slated to include magicians, jugglers, contortionists, sword swallowers and comedians—an unorthodox assembly that suits the eclectic nature of the album.

“We just wanted to do less of a traditional rock-band setup,” Hammel explains. “There’s so much good stuff out there. It doesn’t all have to be exactly the same for you to be able to like it. And it’s all going to be happening one right after the other. There’s no down time, no time to sit around and be bored. It’s a complete three-hour show.”

There’s no down time for the band either. For several years, their two young daughters, Magnolia and June, have accompanied Hammel and Gardner on tour. It seems improbable, but the family manages to lead a remarkably normal life on the road, though not what most consider normal for a rock ‘n’ roll tour. It’s like an extended family road trip in the comfort of a fully furnished tour bus.

“We’ll wake up and hang out and have breakfast with the kids,” Hammel says. “Then we usually do something in the city we’re in, like go to the park or go swimming at the pool or do something fun in that city. And then we’ll do sound check. Then we’ll come put the kids to bed and do the show. We’ll be at the venue the rest of the night hanging out with the crew and doing stuff, and then repeat the next day.”

When the family rolls into town Tuesday, they’ll be joined by one of Asheville’s own. Harvest Record’s Mark Capon is a longtime friend of the band, and is currently working as their tour manager, his fifth outing with the band. It’s been a regular gig since 2003, when he e-mailed a few artists hoping to spend some time on the road.

“Jason wrote back and said they needed a merch seller in the fall of 2003,” Capon remembers. “It was before they had kids. There was just me, Kori and Jason on the road. You know, they’re so awesome. They can fill a room with just the two of them.”

These days, Capon is the go-to guy, responsible for making sure everything goes right on tours that are considerably more complex. Whether that is finding a place to park the enormous bus, keeping the kids happy or handling payment at the end of the gig, he’s expected to be one step ahead. And, if those responsibilities aren’t enough, Capon also serves as the liaison between publicists, record companies, promoters, venues, booking agents, managers and the band itself.

“I’m supposed to have all the answers,” he laughs.

But Capon will be the first to tell you it’s a labor of love.

“I really enjoy losing sleep and working extra hard for these people, because I really think they’re good people. Even when times are tough on the road, which they always are at some point, at least I know that I care about these people and they’re my friends. I like how they have this family, and these girls are great. I want to help make this happen.”

Apparently, he’s been doing a good job. After a decade on the road, Mates of State is showing no signs of tiring. But how long can they really keep it up?

“Forever,” Hammel says without hesitation. “I think that’s the goal. As long as we keep getting better, I think we can keep doing this forever.”

Dane Smith can be reached at rocknrolldane@gmail.com.

who: Mates of State, with Nick Thune, Free Energy & Kurt Eden (and Mark Capon!)

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