Darren King of MUTEMATH

by Dan MacIntosh

With a kind of Alterna-Christian-Pop-Rock sound, MUTEMATH began as the electronic duo of Darren King and Paul Meany. Based in New Orleans, they released their debut, self-titled album in 2006, which was followed by a few years of high-tension band dynamics as they struggled to find the right songs for their 2009 Armistice album. They scrapped what they had, found a producer on their wavelength (Dennis Herring) and got to work with a new perspective, resulting in songs like "Spotlight" and "The Nerve."

Darren is the band's drummer and writes their songs with Meany. He gave us the kind of unfiltered interview that is a lot like MUTEMATH's music: authentic, intriguing and enlightening. The band has reached the point where producers see them as family-friendly catnip for the teen demographic, which led to contributions to the Transformers and Twilight soundtracks. MUTEMATH's brutal honesty didn't mesh well with this corporate sludge, but the exposure had some advantages, as Darren explains.

For their 2011 album Odd Soul, Darren and Paul wrote the songs by gathering bits and pieces from a distance and then bringing it all together in the studio. As for song inspiration, much of that comes from Darren's upbringing, which includes a time when he literally tried to be Jesus, thinking he would someday raise the dead. A confusing religious upbringing can make for great material.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): Hi, Darren.

Darren King: Hey, Dan, how's it going?

Songfacts: It's going great. How are you doing today?

King: I'm well. I woke up about 30 minutes ago (noon). I'm feeling good. Got some sleep.

Songfacts: Good for you. That's always important. I'm wondering what the method is for you guys as far as writing songs. It seems like a lot of songs come out of jams, just because the way the arrangements come off on the albums.

King: The way the band started influences how we still write songs. This band started in a long-distance collaboration back in 2000 through 2003, where Paul (Meany) and I were living in different cities: he in New Orleans, me in Nashville. I would make these instrumental tracks mainly out of samples from records that I would get either at the record store or check out at the library, and I would mail a CD to Paul, and he would sing on top of it.

So this sample-based songwriting still is a part of what we do now. On my own time, I'll make very elaborate lengthy tracks, sometimes complete in and of themselves, other times just little 30-second, 1-minute ideas out of either samples, or I'll make them out of recordings of stuff that we've done. Just our backlog of studio stuff. I'm always trying to collect sounds, and those electronic tracks will serve as starting places for our jams, so they'll often give us at least a chord progression or a BPM and a key, so that we're not just jamming in G. Oftentimes we start with these tracks - they actually have lines - and we can play along with them and that gives us a little more inspiration to have some meanings out of them.

And then there's this process of reconstructing and building it back up again over and over again in the studio. That's how we arrive with a song. There's only one song on this record that was written in that classic songwriter way where Paul sat down at the organ and didn't leave until he had all the chords and the lyrics and melody. And that's the last song on the record called "In No Time."

Songfacts: That's kind of quieter song.

King: Everything else was deliberated over and worked together. We really did from start to finish on every part of it, from the initial jams through the lyrics on to the mixing and mastering. It was a fun process.

Songfacts: I always like it when the song that I really like is also one that's released as a single. And the song "Blood Pressure" really struck me as a great song title, and then to tie together the idea of blood pressure and the strain that's put on family relationships. Can you tell me a little bit about that song and how that one was put together?

King: Yeah. That one started with me. I wrote the "why can't you be more like your older brother" and the chorus of "Blood Pressure," but I had very few lyrics. I don't consider myself a lyricist. I just try. I'll write pages and pages and all I'll get from it is one little line. Paul's much, much more capable as a lyricist. But I still try. And so I had one verse and a two-word chorus. And Paul really elaborated on that idea and turned it into something that was not just about family pressure and pressure to live up to your parents' expectations or to compare yourself to your siblings' success, but it also became about the blood that the church talks about, and the pressure of living up to the verse in the bible where Jesus says, "Greater works than me shall you do."

And as a teenager, I took it literally. I put a lot of self-imposed pressure to become Christ-like, literally. And not just ask myself what Jesus would do when I get in a sticky situation, but wonder when I was finally going to raise the dead or cast the demons out of a person, or do something greater than the guy that did those things. And that's a lot of pressure for a 14-year-old guy to deal with. A 14-year-old should just be worrying about his acne and treating girls with respect and good grades and being a good kid. Instead I was thinking about when I was going to prophesize for the first time for real. And so that's part of that, too. It's that blood, as well.

Songfacts: When did you come to realization that maybe you had set your expectations too high?

King: Well, there was this trippy thing that happened in my church where the worship leader had got into a bit of a scandal - there was a bit of a sex scandal in my church. And that just threw my world into a tailspin. That happened in my senior year of high school in 1999 and 2000. And that was my first major depression in that regard. I had all the expectations built up from my leadership, and I felt so confused. I myself went through a very dark time in that. And then I rebounded from that, again, back into a more hopeful – again – church-going, optimistic kid in my mid-20s, but still very different. From that point on, I was very different. I felt that was one step towards me being a bit more reasonable and not being so intense. And in many ways the picture just became a little bit clearer at that time, that the world is more nuanced and complex than I was going to get credit for. You can't just be with character, you can't just oversimplify the purpose of your life. All these little tasks, these little menial parts of life, like being a good friend, are great works in and of themselves. Just picking one person and treating them nice and treating them great, that's sometimes better for me than trying to change the world. It's out of my hands. I'm too small. But that was it. Around 18 or 19 I started to see that I was small (laughing).

Songfacts: Tell me about another one of the songs. I noticed that you did the Transformers theme, and yet it wasn't used in the film. There's got to be a story behind that.

King: There is. What happened was Michael Bay or whoever did those movies liked this Linkin Park-ish sounding version. But I think the record label, Warner Brothers, didn't like it, didn't think it sounded good enough for the album. So they asked us, "Would you just do a version for the album?" It was a weird situation. Paul and I talked about it and we thought, There's a good chance we'll get made fun of for this. And sure enough, we did. I think the Transformers fans were really not into something like what we did. It wasn't heavy enough. And I think if we can do it over again, we could have done it better. But I still enjoyed it. I had a blast doing that. The thing we agreed on is that if a 12-year-old Paul and Darren had heard that we had a chance to do a Transformers theme and we passed on it, we would have been so angry at ourselves. We would have been, "What? We've become so stupid!" So we thought we owed it to a younger version of ourselves to do it.

The story behind that song is really that Paul walked into the studio and heard me trying to make fake Transformer noises in headphones – into a microphone, and he just lost it laughing. He was just completely rolling on the ground at me, a grown man, in headphones, being very serious, going (makes Transformer noises).

Songfacts: (Laughing) So do I take it that you're a fan of the Transformers toys?

King: As a kid. As a kid, I had a Transformer as a bath toy that you could keep your soap in and squirt the soap, and it could float. I was much more into GI Joe, Cabbage Patch Kid, Teddy Ruxpin. Teddy Ruxpin was my man more than anything.

Songfacts: I think it's interesting that the one time you were nominated for a Grammy was for a video (for "Typical").

King: Yeah, which isn't the most prestigious Grammy, I believe, if I'm not mistaken, right?

Songfacts: (Laughing) I don't know.

King: (Laughing) Right up there with "Best Liner Notes."

Songfacts: Any time that you can say the name of your band and associate it with the Grammys, it can't be a bad thing, right?

King: Isn't that great? Yeah, for the rest of our career, we get to say "Grammy nominated band." We don't have to say what it was for. (Laughing.)

Songfacts: Of course not.

King: It had nothing to do with the music, actually, yeah. I love it.

Songfacts: Did it put any extra pressure on you when you make videos after that to try to up the ante?

King: No, I don't feel the pressure to one-up every time we make a music video. But I do feel like there's a certain quality standard. We want to just make good music videos. I want us to always be known for making good music videos. And we've made a couple of bad ones and we scrapped them. There was this really frustrating experience: there was this director out of New York who did this video for "Spotlight," and he had drawn up all these ideas and drawings. The idea was that we were going to be playing machines that were going to be playing the music. And they were going to sort of take over – it was this really exciting idea. And we got there and we filmed it. And the end product was just crap. It was so awkward and it was a bad video.

And that dude, that director – I couldn't believe he did this – leaked it. He leaked the video without our permission. That's completely not cool. He definitely had no right to do that. So out there there's this version of "Spotlight" that I can't stand. But if you search for it, you'll find it, this alternate video. (We found it >>)

But I like the one we did in the van. I think that's pretty fun, that's pretty special. So far all of our music videos, they're the same thing. All we do is we come up with a camera trick, whether it's reverse or fast speed or stop motion, and we exhaust it in the form of a band performance, and we usually throw the drums around. So for our next video, I don't feel a need to outdo. I'd love it if we did a video that either did one thing different, whether it's a band performance and there's dancing, or there's a narrative to it, a story, or something like that. That's my goal for the next video is to at least progress a little bit in that regard.

Songfacts: Well, the song "Spotlight," was on the Twilight soundtrack. Did you get any guff for being a part of that from your fans?

King: Funny, initially I thought that didn't matter at all. But in retrospect, I think that that could have saved us in regards to that album. Because that song was not a hit at radio. And I think it getting on that soundtrack gave that album enough of a life that we were able to get opportunities to play on Leno, to play Letterman again, to get to tour and reach a new audience, a younger audience, and I'm thankful for that now.

I wonder, though, don't you get a platinum record if you're on a soundtrack that sells a million copies?

Songfacts: I would think so, yeah. You haven't gotten yours yet?

King: No.

Songfacts: That's not right.

King: Not that it matters. But it just occurred to me. Anyhow.

Songfacts: Well, let's wind things up by talking about the new album. It's called Odd Soul. When I first read that I thought it said "Old Soul." Can you tell me a little about why you call it that and what that means?

King: Well, to me, it represents the idea that I'm strange. I mean, I remember growing up as a kid thinking that to be me, to be a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant teen, growing up in Missouri, was sort of the absence of culture. I thought that I was raised with a blank canvas regarding culture and that I had nothing in that regard. And then as I get older, I do start to see it differently. And I bear both this pride and also embarrassment for who I am culturally and religiously. And I feel strange. I feel like a weird person. And I feel like it comes from within me. I feel like, from inside out, I'm a bit odd. I see things weird and I think weird and I do weird things. And I'm even weird to myself. I'll do something and I'll think, That's just so weird. That's a weird way to go about that. Whether it be in a relationship or just in everyday life trying to solve a problem. Even the way we record a record, with songwriting, sometimes I feel like we go about it the most backwards way.

Songfacts: Is that a theme that just kind of carries on throughout the album, or is that just that particular song?

King: I think it does carry out throughout the album. A good example is "Walking Paranoia." That song is all about how we were raised. You're raised in this scene where there's a lot of talk of demons and you just talk of the Rapture, and as a kid, when a little airplane would fly overhead and you'd hear the sound, I would literally run and go check to see if my mom was still there, because I wanted to make sure that that sonic boom wasn't the Rapture. And if it was, I knew my mom would be gone for sure, because she was the best person I knew. So if Mom got raptured, and I'm still around, then I'm in trouble. So it was this paranoia. Or if you look at a dirty magazine for the first time when you're 11 or 12, and then for the rest of that year you wonder if you're going to go to hell – that's a true story of mine – and then toil over that. And then I went back to the gas station and I tried to apologize to the gas station attention for looking at the dirty magazine, and it was a completely different person that owned the place, they didn't have dirty magazines anymore. Weird stuff like that.

And so, weird kid. I'm trying to think of some other examples in the songs. "Blood Pressure" is that same kid. Even if it doesn't deal with oddness, I think that all of the songs do carry a biographical place, because even a song like "Tell Your Heart Heads Up." I know Paul very well and I know that that song's just him basically apologizing to his wife for his weird way of handling conflict and for handling situations. If you could just meet somebody and tell them all the weird things about you at the get-go.

Songfacts: Now that we've talked, I'm going to go back and listen to the album and listen more closely and think about what you've said. Because that really does shed a lot of light on the album. It's funky in places, it's really soulful and it's just fascinating. So I congratulate you on putting together a great album.

King: Thank you. I appreciate that. It's been encouraging.

Songfacts: My only wish is that one day I could wake up past 12 in the afternoon.

King: Yeah, it's awesome. But then in another way, you do feel like your day is gone. You wake up when the day is half over. Everybody else has already done all their stuff. But for songwriting it comes in handy, because at nighttime, that's when you're least distracted. That's when it's great. On tour, that's the battle, to try and wake up at a decent hour. But whenever we get into studio life, that's when I love staying up late. I feel like I'm most productive.

But yeah, I hope that you're able to someday. It's fun. I mean, on tour that's the secret, though, for me, is to sleep nine or ten hours a day and not feel bad about it.

We spoke with Darren King on November 1, 2011. Get more at mutemath.com.
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Comments: 2

  • Petronio from GuatemalaThank you very much for the interview; had been looking for the story behind ODD SOUL for a while. I am off to another wonderful listening session of Mutemath albums, cheers!
  • Kevin from Melbourne, FlLove Mute Math! Thanks for the interview! Will be seeing them for the 4th time this coming March.
see more comments

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