It's not easy getting attention as a new band, but sometimes it just takes one good idea. In the case of New Orleans' Mute Math, it was a video for the song "Typical," which besides being a particularly vibrant performance that captures the acrobatic nature of its live performances, was filmed in reverse.
"(It's) not an original idea by any means " a lot of my favorite videos have used the reverse medium, but I hadn't seen it done as a complete band performance," said singer/keytarist Paul Meany. "So we just saw the opportunity there to try to do something neat, and it ended up being a big experiment."
Indeed, the four-piece spent several weeks learning how to play the entire song backward, from the words to the guitar chords. More than once, the musicians wondered if they'd bitten off more than they could chew, but the video proved a minor sensation and helped spark interest in the group's 2006's self-titled debut.
Blending electronics-abetted atmospheres with a pop vibe channeling '80s artists such as The Police, Steve Winwood and U2, Mute Math is both cinematic and uncommonly catchy, veering from spacey soundscapes to beguiling melodies. The group supported its major-label effort with two solid years of touring before heading into the studio with a batch of songs the members wrote together while on the road. This is where their troubles began.
"When we started recording it, we couldn't make our peace with it," Meany said. "Half of us loved it and the other half hated it. So there was a lot of tension trying to figure out why these songs weren't working."
The uneasiness escalated to a point where a breakup seemed imminent. After six weeks in the studio found them still at square one, it was clear to the guys that they needed a producer. While they hoped to find someone that might offer a few suggestions and unlock the secret to the songs, Mute Math's members instead met Dennis Herring, who suggested they nix everything and start anew.
"It was a tough pill to swallow at first, considering all the energy we had put into those songs. But when we started going into the studio every day, just letting whatever happened happen, it was very liberating," Meany said.
The first song assembled was "Spotlight" (also featured on the blockbuster "Twilight" soundtrack), which pares a chugging riff and bustling rhythm with several dreamy breaks and Meany's sonorous, swooping tenor.
"It was quite an epiphany for the band," he said. "The song came together pretty fast and felt inspired."
He immediately called Herring, who agreed, and encouraged the group to write more. Re-energized, Mute Math got to work, and officially enlisted Herring as the album's producer.
"Since this was our first project as a band recording from start to finish, the process of trying to sort through what was good and what was bad, was difficult. It was hard to not take things personal and get your ego completely involved," Meany said.
The resulting album, August's "Armistice," attempts to move beyond the '80s influences and incorporate more elements. The members wanted to move beyond what felt natural and expand " like they do live " into new directions. The album debuted in the Top 20 of the Billboard charts and boasts a strong questioning element, which runs like a thread through the album, from "No Response" to "Clipping," where Meany pleads, "I don't know what's right anymore." It's a bold lyrical note to be struck by an act that was initially marginalized as a Christian band.
Meany suggests the whole religious angle may be a little overplayed by now.
"But I wouldn't say it's completely irrelevant," he said. "I think it's unavoidable when you come up like I did, which was in a very overt strict religious home of evangelical Christians. It's going to mess with your head a bit. And at some point, it comes out in songs. And not in a resentful way. I think that sometimes it's good. I think I used this record as an exorcism in some ways."
But in the end, Mute Math's members came through the fire, burnished and polished with a hard-won "Armistice" in hand, and a bright future ahead.
Mute Math with As Tall as Lions perform at 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Diamond Ballroom, 8001 S. Eastern. "Chris Parker