Cross to bear
Mute Math fights to transcend the “Christian rock” label
While he was working on the book Body Piercing Saved My Life: Inside the Phenomenon of Christian Rock, in 2004, writer Andrew Beaujon stumbled upon an up-and-coming band that had formed from the ashes of a semi-obscure Christian-rock outfit called Earthsuit. It was Mute Math, and Beaujon called the group “the rare Christian rock band that doesn’t settle for simply not sucking, but actually reaches for greatness.”
To say that the term “Christian rock” has become an unwanted albatross around the necks of hundreds of young bands would almost be an understatement. For all save the handful of huge Christian-rock acts making a comfortable living off record sales from Christian bookstores, it is the most heinously cred-destroying epithet any rock band can be burdened with. Christian rock is the art of trying, very hard, to be cool. And usually failing.
“Man, Christian rock,” said Paul Meany, Mute Math’s dapper frontman. “Whoever came up with that term should be shot.”
Whether Mute Math is a Christian rock band or not—and the group probably would take issue with that statement, considering that it recently sued Warner Bros. for marketing the band as such, and settled the suit on its own terms—two things are certain: First, it is effortlessly cool, both in the GQ sense and in the DIY indie-rock sense; and second, it does reach for greatness. The band’s self-titled debut is that rare conventional rock album that manages to feel exciting. The sound lies somewhere between the song craft and vigor of the Police and the audiophile tinkering of Kid A-era Radiohead. Meany’s smooth tenor is a dead ringer for early-’80s Sting.
“It’s no secret that the Police have been a huge influence on our band in terms of arrangements, melodies, rhythm,” said Meany. When people compare Meany to Mr. Sumner, “I take it as a compliment,” he said. “I say ‘thank you’ and ‘next question.’”
The band, which includes drummer Darren King, guitarist Greg Hill and bass player Roy Mitchell-Cárdenas, is simply bursting with energy. A listen to its self-titled debut (out next Tuesday on Mute Math’s own Teleprompt label, still distributed by Warner Bros.) reveals a confident band full of musical ideas, reaching many directions at once but never confused.
“We like to push things more over the edge,” Meany said of the band’s upcoming tour. “We’re creating more chaos. It’s what we love.”
Ah, yes, “Chaos,” the would-be single from Mute Math. It’s difficult to recall a more urgent rock single in recent years, from its stuttering bassline to a driving chorus to the controlled anarchy of the bridge, propelled by King’s relentless pounding. And it’s better live.
As solid as the band’s record is, Mute Math is a live band before anything else. In one of dozens of video clips making the rounds on YouTube and MySpace, King leads the band in a frenzied percussion orgy, and the mood is electric. In fact, YouTube clips and the band’s live following have created something of a feedback loop: Fans hear about the band online, go to a show, make a video and post it on the Web. Repeat this a few thousand times, and you’ve got a serious grassroots fan base.
“The Internet is really all we had,” Meany said. Mute Math has no Web site besides a MySpace page, yet it sold more than 10,000 copies of its album before its official release. “Ten, 15 years ago, what would we have been doing? I guess we would have been sending out letters. Obviously, if no one was coming out to the shows, nothing would have happened.”
If Mute Math is a Christian band, a tag Meany says he hopes will “blow away in the wind someday,” it’s not the crassly corporate, Jesus-and-Mom-approved kind. It’s the good kind: the serious, dangerous kind. The lyrics, on the surface, remain vague enough to be God-related or not, depending on the listener’s own proclivities, like: “I know you stay true when my world is false / everything around’s breaking down to chaos.” Is that “You” or “you”? Does it matter?