Mutant League: Why So Serious?
By Jordan Lawrence
Mutant League is playing Slim’s Downtown Distillery in Raleigh, and it’s Shark Week. If anyone wasn’t aware of the Discovery Channel carnage, they certainly were by the end of the set. “Shark Week!” bassist Joey Doak exclaims after every song, tying his band’s sound to the inexplicably popular TV phenomenon in a way that felt ironic, but really wasn’t. Towards the end of the show, many in the audience were anticipating the outburst and shouting happily along with him. Others cringed and shook their heads.
The way Mutant League carries itself can be polarizing. The band dives into slacker rock with equal relish for the genre’s strung-out guitar architecture and the fuck-all attitude with which its 90s progenitors played it. The bands they’re often compared to, namely Pavement and Dinosaur, Jr, started as irreverent indie rockers, but are now seen as serious musicians. That must be taken seriously. Mutant League approaches tones and riffs purposefully, but lives for the tomfoolery its members see as intrinsic to rock & roll.
“We have kind of a rep for being slacker party boys,” Doak says between sips of Miller High Life on the bar’s dimly lit patio. “We recorded at (Greensboro venue) Legitimate Business and we play there all the time, and the guy who was recording us just jokingly said something like, ‘I’m surprised you guys don’t have beers in your hands,’ because every time we play, we all have a couple beers lined up beside us. I mean, most bands do that. I think people see that we’re having a good time with it.”
Mutant League formed as a quartet of Outer Banks high school buds, but didn’t get going in earnest until they relocated to Greensboro in 2008. After the move, life shuffled the deck. Their first drummer had a baby and had to bow out, and second guitarist Matt Northrup quit the band shortly after to focus on his solo recordings. They re-formed as a trio with singer Tyler Byers taking on all guitar responsibilities and Patrick Sheehan coming on to play drums.
The music on Mutant League’s energetic and exiting debut EP Landmarks began as Byers’ bedroom recordings. Blowing up the meager textures and simple drum machines of those early demos, the band builds a catchy but deceptive four-song blast of party-rock enthusiasm that also meanders through ever-shifting tones that offer cerebral satisfaction.
The record opens with “Aloha,” a wordless demonstration of the band’s instrumental powers. Byers says the song resulted from a bunch of great riffs he had that just wouldn’t fit anywhere else. Placed together, his different melodic ideas build seamlessly to an explosive crescendo, veering madly into livewire fills several times along the way. It’s a quick rock pick-me-up, but it also satisfies on an intellectual level by way of its complex arrangement and adventurous use of tone.
“The new stuff we’re writing is getting more intricate,” Byers says. “It’s definitely more serious music.”
Mutant League plans to head back into the studio soon, hoping to expand their palate on an eight or nine-song tape. They’re flush with new ideas and giddy about the different ways they can execute them. But, as Doak’s on-stage antics demonstrate, this is still a band that lives for a good time.
They refuse to choose between the seriousness of their well-manicured tones and the frivolity of their snark. Like the sharks on the bar’s TVs, Mutant Leage isn’t afraid to bite off more than they can chew. So far, it’s all gone down just fine.