The band, originally from New Orleans but now spread out between Nashville, Miami, and the Crescent City, is known for their extremely high energy live shows, even being named in 2011 by Alternative Press as the “#1 Band To See Live Before You Die”. For example, in one show you might see Meany crowd surf on a light-up inflatable mattress, switch between keys, keytar, and drums, stand on anything imaginable and, in what has become his signature maneuver, do a handstand on his keyboard that often results in an out-of-control somersault over the front of it. That’s just Meany, insane drummer Darren King, and wildly talented multi-instrumentalists Roy Mitchell-Càrdenas and Todd Gummerman each have their own set of mind-blowing stage antics.
But as the members get older, it’s worth wondering whether fans may not experience the same high energy show they’ve been enjoying for a decade.
Meany, 39, wrestles lyrically on Vitals with the idea of aging. Most people wouldn’t consider him to be old, but in “Composed” he declares, “You give this old man hope.”
“This whole record was a journey of coping with my own mortality. When you find yourself in certain transitions in life, you are confronting endings. That’s what this record is about, confronting endings and trying to find meaningful ways to continue and create a new start,” says Meany. “Growing old is a fear that I’ve come to get to know a lot in recent years. I don’t feel like I’m an old man, but going there took some courage to admit. Watching yourself deal with atrophy shakes you a bit. It’s part of the journey. That song came from the first time that I had a panic attack. Anxiety was nothing that was close to my radar when I was younger. When you have those vulnerable moments there are certainly songs to be had from them.”
Making music together for such a long time led to these patterns and ruts that the group needed to get out of, Meany said. So, they took some time and binge-listened to music. For Meany that meant a lot of The Police, Steely Dan, and a first full listen to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.
This new process led to Vitals sounding and feeling like a true follow up to their self-titled debut album. It’s not a sequel or derivative, instead it feels like a kindred spirit. The synth-driven songs are a departure from the blues-rock of Odd Soul. In a way, the relationship between MuteMath (2006) and Vitals (2015) mirrors the relationship between Radiohead’s Ok Computer (1997) and In Rainbows (2007). When I pointed out the comparison to Meany, he chuckled and said, “Well, that’s what you said, not me.”
Meany says the band focused a lot on the groove approach to songs, even taking a minimalist approach in many areas. The most noticeable difference is the lack of the drum fills from King, a signature of every MuteMath album up to this point. It’s part of why they called the album Vitals, as the group wrestled with the important and necessary elements of a song and of life.
“It’s about searching for the substance of what keeps you going forward, and identifying what the essential parts of existing are,” says Meany.
Meany has always taken on darker topics in his lyrics, but the energy of the music around them makes listening to a MuteMath song an altogether exciting experience rather than a depressing one.
“I’ve always described a MuteMath song as a picture of darkness that’s framed in light. Just looking at the darkness is depressing, but I want to feel inspired and believe that tomorrow is going to be better than today,” says Meany. “It’s important for me when I got to those places to talk myself through it and get off the ledge. It’s the only way to make it real for me because otherwise it’s just canned optimism.”
Talking to Meany about these topics a half hour before he hit the stage, it made me wonder if I was going to see a completely different band than the one that blew my mind the previous two times I’d seen them in 2009 and 2012.
I was wrong to have ever thought these thoughts.
The band came out as strong as ever, playing their now decade-old hit “Typical” with as much enthusiasm as they did when they performed it backwards on Jimmy Kimmel Live! in 2006. They played two hours of their hits, some new material (including “Used To”, the best song on their new album), and even reached back to play songs they haven’t played in years to keep the set list fresh as they played two nights in the same city.
Still though, I wondered if Paul could pull off the signature keyboard handstand. After all, it was a small stage, and he had no room to land if he overshot it like he often did. As they walked off stage before their encore I wondered if the handstand would fall into the category of “used to.”
Yeah, back in the day MuteMath was the best live band around. Their lead singer used to surf the crowd on a light up air mattress and do handstands on his keyboard.
The band came back on stage and ripped through a multi-song encore with more energy than they had on any previous song. Out came the light-up mattress, with Meany being held so high in the small room that he was ducking under lights while singing. And when he returned to the stage out came the handstand, a little more composed that it used to be, thankfully or he would have crashed into King’s drum set on the other side.
That’s when I realized it: No matter what Meany may say, these aren’t old men. They still have the same energy that made them famous, but now they have a maturity to know exactly what to do and when to do it.
They’ve found out what’s vital.