Paul Meany’s life and career permanently pivoted this past summer with a single phone call. Drummer-producer Darren King – his Mutemath bandmate of 15 years and a crucial architect of the group’s soulful, psychedelic alt-rock – rang up and blindsided the singer with his plans to leave the group. They’d just finished recording their fifth album, Play Dead, and were prepping for a massive headlining tour set to launch in three weeks. But instead of celebrating, Meany found himself frantically trying to cope.
“It stopped me in my tracks,” he says of King’s departure. “It’s certainly nothing I was prepared for. I went through a full range of emotions this whole summer, just trying to figure out if there was a solution. What could we do? We’d already announced a tour. We had the album. So I was shocked. I was panicked. I was angry. I was sad, confused. I was trying to sort through it all. And the biggest thing was just trying to figure out if everything needed to stop.”
Meany almost pulled the plug on Mutemath altogether. He was faced with the daunting task of replacing King, a distinctive beat-maker who, in recent years, has collaborated with both rap gods (co-writing and co-producing Kanye West’s Life of Pablo track “Real Friends”) and indie-rock/emo stalwarts (co-producing brother-in-law Max Bemis’ 2016 Say Anything LP, I Don’t Think It Is). But another jarring phone call opened an unexpected new door.
“On a long-shot, I called an old friend [former Earthsuit bandmate David “Hutch” Hutchison], probably the only other drummer I’ve taken a real stage with in my life,” Meany says. “He’s been a paramedic for the last 15 years. I knew he had the ability if he wanted to do it – if he wanted to have this sudden shift in his life. I had no idea. But it just so happened he was completely taken back and completely interested, and it was something he’d been hoping for for a long time, another chance to play music. And this was it. And he immediately threw himself in. He had three weeks to learn all the music. Three weeks to try to grasp a great drummer’s 15 years of playing is no easy task. But he was up for the challenge. And he’s had an amazing attitude and work ethic to save this album.”
The version of Mutemath now touring the country is only 50 percent the same band who recorded Play Dead. Original bassist Roy Mitchell-Cárdenas, who contributed to the LP, bowed out of the touring line up in May, though he hopes to continue as a studio collaborator; to replace him, Mutemath recruited another figure from their past, Jonathan Allen, who played on their debut EP, 2004’s Reset. Meany, for good reason, feels like the band has something to prove – both to their fans and to themselves – on their current trek. Ironically, his inspiration for that task is waiting in the album, which is fueled by themes of rebirth, redemption and “life after death.”
“It’s been, not to get too metaphorical, an illustration of what Play Dead itself is about,” he says. “That was the strange thing. I was writing about how to celebrate within the moments that seem dire and what to do and when you’re pressed how to find life in these dark places. And here I was, all the sudden faced with it.
“In Mutemath, that’s where I’ve been most comfortable – talking about those kinds of things. Especially the past five years is when [2015’s] Vitals and Play Dead were really written, and that was all during a time when everyone in the band became fathers and went to this new place in life. And we all felt the burn of getting older and everything shifting. Those themes came to the forefront: What does an ending mean? What does mortality mean? In the religious sense of it, the poetic sense of it. That’s really what Play Dead ended up becoming about: looking at it from 10 different angles.”
Viewed in this bittersweet light, Play Dead feels like equal parts climax and coda – both an epitaph for the Meany-King era and a summation of their zig-zagging musical evolution over the past decade. Some moments, like the progressive electro-rock deep-dive of lead single “Hit Parade,” find the band revved up “with the governor off” (as Meany puts it in go-kart terminology). Elsewhere, the quartet slides into sleek, funky synth-pop (“Break the Fever”) and symphonic ambience (“Marching to the End”).
Mutemath – then Meany, King, Mitchell-Cárdenas and multi-instrumentalist Todd Gummerman – assembled the track list in an unconventional way. Instead of arguing endlessly over what songs to pull from their massive pile of 30 demos, the musicians each hand-picked three and assembled the basic framework himself before bringing the other back into the process.
“We just trusted each of us to go into our corners and materialize a vision for that particular song and bring it back to the band to finish the puzzle together,” Meany says. “And it was exciting to watch everyone in the band firing on all cylinders. The mantra was just ‘indulge,’ and we trusted each other to do that. And we wouldn’t have been able to do that a few albums ago. If you just get into ‘indulge’ mode, that’s usually the recipe for garbage. Every person in the band should always feel that – someone’s gotta to create some parameters at some point. But I think we’ve worked together long enough now and have developed the trust within that creative space to just say ‘go.’ This was the culmination of all that.”
Even before the personnel conundrum, Mutemath have consistently faced another challenge: battling misconceptions about their religious beliefs. Meany and King grew up in the quirky world of “youth-group culture,” but even if many of their songs hint at spiritual themes, they also explore existential angst and earthly frustration. In short, they’ve never been a “Christian band”– a term they resisted so strongly that they sued former label Warner Bros. in 2006 for breach of contract and negligent misrepresentation. That early branding may have shoved Mutemath into a box that the general public may never let them escape, but Meany’s “made peace” with that part of the band’s story – though he refuses to shy away from his roots.
“Darren and I were always pretty open about the fact that we grew up in church,” he says. “We were church kids. It’s all we knew. It’s a lot of how we bonded, how we met. … That was our culture, our life, our identity. As I got older, I started realizing what this whole subculture was. As we started making music, we wanted to start expressing ideas that weren’t necessarily down the straight and narrow of what we were taught or expected [to do]. That’s what Mutemath became. It became our miseducated, spastic attempt at trying to find our way into a more grand experience of life than just the subculture. And it came with its share of ridicule and people not getting it.”
As he’s grown, Meany has made peace with the challenge of maturing while standing up for his beliefs. “In the end, we’ve been truly honest about ourselves and what matters to us and our questions, mistakes, doubts, fears – about wanting to hang onto some semblance of faith and the comfort of what that brought to us,” he explains. “How do we translate when we have kids what that [faith] evens means to us anymore? That whole journey of the past 15 years of Mutemath has been at the forefront. If there were casualties to be had, we [still] just had to do that.”
Mutemath, of course, are now reeling from their own internal casualties, and Meany is faced with the daunting task of rebuilding the band that’s defined his entire adult life. But there’s a silver lining of synchronicity: “I had the chance to reconnect with [Hutch], and I think there was a lot of things we’d never had the chance to say to each other,” he says. “It just felt right. It felt like the stars had smiled in a strange way on our lives and brought us together in the most improbable way to play music together when the stakes were especially high.”
“”Marching to the end, I thought/Then I found a place to start,” Meany sings at one point on Play Dead, in a moment of prescient acceptance. “To the guys who rallied around us to bring this album on tour,” he says, “I feel so appreciative right now.”