From NOCCA to ‘Play Dead’ with MUTEMATH frontman, Paul Meany
March 7, 2012: I finally got the chance to see MUTEMATH live at the House of Blues in Boston. I had always loved the song “Typical”, the first single off their self-titled debut record. In addition to the lighting-infused guitar riff and bursts of melody, it contained a set of lyrics that I felt spoke directly to me. “Can I break the spell of the typical?”
As the lights went down in the venue, I suddenly hear this drum stampede behind me. “But I am looking at the stage, how can this be,” I thought? A dim light shines from over my shoulder. A narrow alley opens to my left. MUTEMATH was making their way to the stage via a drum march from the back of the venue. I was mesmerized. The drumming was incredible, but the New Orleans-style parade through the audience was such a unique way to start a show.
When the “My Hometown” series launched here, MUTEMATH was one of the first artists I thought of. Prior to last week’s tour kick-off — at the House of Blues in Boston, I sat with frontman, Paul Meany who took me into his ever-inspiring New Orleans world.
My Hometown: New Orleans, LA.
Paul Meany, MUTEMATH
First New Orleans Music Memory:
It starts with my Dad. He was a musician — a great guitar player and singer. He would always have instruments around the house. I always wanted to jam with Dad. In a city like New Orleans, it’s easy to grow up around it and take it for granted. You don’t realize what’s happening. As a kid, you go with your school and take a field trip into the French Quarter. The brass bands playing on the corner and music playing everywhere and you think — “Oh that’s nice.” As I’ve gotten older, and really started traveling and getting out of the city, I’ve realized how fortunate I was to be able to grow up in such a culturally dense city with that music that’s so easy to dismiss as noise or Grandpa’s music when you are younger. Now I know, that stuff is amazing. It was extremely pivotal to music all across the world. I appreciate all of that more and more each day as I get older.
I was very fortunate that I got to go to New Orleans Center for Creative Arts — NOCCA. It’s for high school students. At the time, you had to audition to get in. If you do get in, you spend a half day at your school and half day just studying your art. For me it was music, but it also has theater, dancing and all the arts. Now they have multi-media and video production. It’s an incredible thing for New Orleans kids. My dream is that hopefully my kid can go there one day. Growing up around that was incredible. One of things I appreciated most about that school is that they forced you to perform every Friday. You had to perform in front of the whole school. Within the school, there are all these different levels. I was there with Irvin Mayfield and Jason Marsalis. These guys were jazz monsters. Even at 17, they were putting on clinics. Professors were high-fiving watching these guys perform every Friday. And then they’d see me get up and sing some entry-level cantata. It was very intimidating, but it forces you to psychologically get past all that. You have to just perform. You are going to get in front of a crowd and you’re going to make it happen.
I look back at that now and I recognize how it was a real formative time in my life, even as a performer. It was great getting to learn the theory of music and the discipline, but the idea of playing live was incredible — and you’re being graded. You have to stay in the school. There were times where I choked and I had to figure out what to do. I remember I had to learn a Mozart piece and play it on piano. I froze in the middle of it. I hadn’t practiced enough. I’m thinking … “what do I do, what do I do!?” I turned it into a show. I got into survival mode. I stopped and said, “Alright everybody, I sense tension in the room. Let’s loosen up, we’re gonna do this.” I started this comedic improv commentary. I was really giving myself a shot to start at the top and try again. I gathered myself and was like — “Alright Paul, don’t stop this time, you can do it, just go.” And I did. It was sloppy, but I got through it and I did it. I got an “A” for that performance. That’s a good example though, you had these moments where you could run away crying or you fight through it. I owe a lot to those times.
Finding My Voice:
I caught up with an old friend of mine named Edwin last week. He was my first friend from high school who was a tastemaker of music. He was introducing me to more popular music. It wasn’t necessary from the New Orleans scene. I was in NOCCA, I was studying classical music, but my friend was introducing me to The Beastie Boys, Cypress Hill, A Tribe Called Quest and all this other stuff that was happening in the early 90’s. I didn’t know much about any of them, nor was I hearing them on the radio. We bought a sampler together and it ended up being this thing we bonded over, a real love for electronic music. That was my gateway to trying to write songs and be an artist. I always wanted to try and crack the code to see — what does it mean to write a song that people can sing along to? It was my time with Edwin, where we took a whole summer and made beats that sounded like A Tribe Called Quest. I was trying to sing, find a voice and find something that seemed inherently mine. For me it was always about — how do I learn from the culture and get to write songs?
The Influence of Classic New Orleans Venues:
It’s crazy to be sitting in the House of Blues (Boston) right now. The first House of Blues New Orleans show I went to was to see an artist by the name of Yellowman. It was a reggae show actually. I had friends who happened to like that music, I didn’t know who it was. It was the first loud show I’d ever been to and it was amazing. I was in awe by the lights and the entire scene at the House of Blues. It such an amazing place to see a show. That was the first time I thought, “This is what I want to try and create and be a part of. Somehow, to do this….would be the ultimate.” I’d go see shows at House of Blues, Tipitina’s and Howling Wolf. When MUTEMATH was just starting, I got see Arcade Fire at the House of Blues in New Orleans. That all pretty much destroyed me in a good way. We were always on a mission to figure out how to do that in our own way, and here we are at a House of Blues.
How New Orleans Influenced Play Dead:
The first song that comes to mind is “Pixie Oaks”. From a very literal sense, we had rented this house on Oak Street. We started writing there in 2012. One morning our guitar player walks in and starts playing that riff. I immediately loved it and put a melody to it. We recorded it real quick then hit a ceiling with it. I didn’t really have any lyrics so we shelved it and just called it “Pixie Oaks”. It was a riff that reminded us of the Pixies and we were recording on Oak Street. I revisited the song four years later and what the song became about was my journey in becoming a father. It was right when my daughter was born, the “Pixie Oaks” idea happened. That song needed to be about a five-year journey to learning what this whole thing is — living with this brand new sole that reincarnates your sense of life. The song became about a place we would go to in city park called Storyland. I grew up going there, my dad used to bring me, and now I’m bringing my daughter there. It’s a sense of coming full circle. That meaning is what the song became about. The enchanting Oak trees became the canvas.
“Don’t let go of what’s held you together.”
New Orleans Today:
The thing that I’ve come to appreciate most about New Orleans is that it is such a great home base and place to have roots from because it’s a very encouraging town. Since MUTEMATH started happening, we always try to take a time within the creative process where we just set up in New Orleans and be in that atmosphere. Being connected to where a lot of music started was always a life-source that got the wheels turning. We’d rent a house somewhere in the city and record a bunch of songs. The people, the neighborhoods — they are always so welcoming to that. You have the guy across the street who’s practicing drums all day for his band. It’s a very musical town. Whatever neighborhood we’d move into, the neighbors would see us moving our gear in and they’d say, “Oh you guys are a band? That’s great! That’s why I live in this city.”
~ Paul Meany
MUTEMATH’s new record, Play Dead is out now.
Play Dead Live — tour dates:
September 19th — Philadelphia, PA — The Fillmore
September 20th — Brooklyn, NY — Brooklyn Steel
September 22nd — Silver Springs, MD — The Fillmore
September 23rd — Charlottesville, VA — The Jefferson
September 24th — Charlotte, NC — The Fillmore
September 25th — Raleigh, NC — The Ritz
September 29th — Miami Beach, FL — The Fillmore
September 30th — St. Petersburg, FL — Jannus Landing
October 2nd — Atlanta, GA — Tabernacle
October 3rd — Nashville, TN — Ryman Auditorium
October 4th — Birmingham, AL — Iron City
October 7th — Houston, TX — House of Blues
October 8th — Tulsa, OK — Brady Theatre
October 10th — Phoenix, AZ — The Van Buren
October 12th- San Diego, CA — House of Blues
October 13th — Los Angeles, CA — The Wiltern
October 14th — Santa Ana, CA — The Observatory OC
October 15th — San Francisco, CA — The Fillmore
October 18th — Portland, OR — Crystal Ballroom
October 19th — Seattle, MA — Showbox SoDo
October 21st — Salt Lake City, UT — The Complex
October 22nd — Denver ,CO — The Ogden
October 24th — St. Louis, MO — The Pageant
October 25th — Indianapolis, IN — Egyptian Room at Old National Center
October 27th — Detroit, MI — St. Andrew’s Hall
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In collaboration with/produced by Jeff Gorra