Progress Report: My Morning Jacket
NAME: My Morning Jacket
PROGRESS REPORT: Kentucky’s greatest space-rock barn band converges in NYC to talk about their forthcoming full-length Circuital.
As a music writer, it’s very rare that you get the opportunity to sit down with an entire band for a lengthy interview. Most of the time you are lucky to get one person to talk to you and even then it’s often simply a 15 minute phone interview on a day when the musician in question is doing a dozen or so similar interviews with people who, in all likelihood, will be asking them a set of nearly identical questions. So, it’s a nice surprise when all five members of My Morning Jacket turn up to talk about Circuital, the band’s forthcoming sixth studio album. They have assembled in NYC to give a handful of interviews, submit to photographs (the only thing they grumble about in my presence), and tape an episode Storytellers for VH1. Given the band’s relaxed mood, one immediately gets the impression that this is a very happy and kind of surreal time to be a member of My Morning Jacket.
“We’ve always been a pretty comfortable band,” says front man Jim James, “I think that’s always been one of our greatest strengths, just that we’re so comfy with each other. We’ve never really had weird power struggles in the band or weird mind games between us. I feel like this record was a lot looser for us — I tried to give us less fully formed songs to work with, so we could all really flesh out the songs together and everyone could bring their own thing to it. We’ve been doing this for a while, so I think we’ve all figured out how to function together and also not drive ourselves crazy. This record kind of shows that, I think.”
Circuital is arguably the most cohesive My Morning Jacket album to date, neatly expanding on the country-rock-meets-experimental-spaced-out-barn-band aesthetic that has, over the course of the past 13 years, provided them such an expansive fanbase. The record is the shortest the band has ever made (10 songs in 45 minutes), but stylistically Circuital manages to cover plenty of territory — from epic, slow-building jams (the nearly seven-minute “Circuital”, “Outta My System”), pensive ballads (“Wonderful (the way I feel),” “Movin’ Away”), and the nearly inexplicable wild-card rocker (“Holdin’ On To Black Metal”). If the record feels warmer and, in some ways, a much simpler affair than the somewhat schizophrenic vibe of the bands last album — 2008’s Evil Urges — it’s because that’s absolutely what they intended.
“We made the record in a gymnasium back home in Louisville,” says James, “It’s part of a church that was built in the 1800s, so it’s this really old, wooden building with 50 foot ceilings. We set up a control room on the stage and then played out on the floor, on the basketball court. We recorded everything to tape right there in the gymnasium. The record really feels more circular in nature, mostly because we played just standing in a circle there on the floor. There is this cool thing that happens when you are all playing live in one room and everyone’s sound is bleeding together in all of the mics. It’s like all these points being connected in time, unlike most recording where everything is isolated and then blended together later in a machine. That’s kind of where the title of the record came from — it was like we were all connected in this one continuous circuit. There was a little bit of overdubbing that happened on a couple of the songs, but for the most part things were recorded live in one or two takes … and that’s what you hear on the record.”
“The fun part this time was that we had all of these Boy Scout kinds of challenges while making the record,” explains James, “If something fucked up, we’d just have to figure out how to fix it with bubble gum and duct tape. Like, we literally had to pitch a tent around the drum kit at one point…which, oddly, none of us knew how to do.”
“The live recording aspect really affects the way you play,” says drummer Patrick Hallahan, “It really changes the performances and makes everyone better. Everyone has to play perfectly together in order to make that take. You never want to be the one who screws it up.”
“It was literally like kids building forts,” says guitarist Carl Broemel, “We be moving around big piles of sound baffling and stacking them up around us to get different sounds. It was ridiculous … but also really fun. Going in, we honestly had no idea if it would work or not.”
“Going back to a regular studio to mix things was such a buzz kill after recording in that gym,” says keyboardist Bo Koster, “It was going back to a doctor’s office or something.”
For James, the back-to-basics approach was a nice fit for Circuital, but he doesn’t particularly fancy the idea of simply working in an old-fashioned way just for the hell of it. “I can appreciate both aspects,” he says, “I also really love to work in Pro-Tools and just fuck with shit for hours and hours. You know, it’s not the ’60s anymore and I think, like it or not, most of the innovations that are happening now with the way people make music involve something that happens inside a computer. That being said, we are a band and I really wanted to capture that. It was really about finding the best way to document us being a band and playing together live.”
On the day of our meeting, the five members of the band are holding court in the midtown offices of their management company. It’s a weirdly formal setting to talk to a bunch of guys who still seem as if they’d be more comfortable meeting in a bar or, maybe, sitting around a campfire in the woods. Still, the posters on the office walls — including a giant framed ad for the band’s sold out 2009 New Year’s Eve show at Madison Square Garden — are evidence of what has been a long and steady upward career trajectory. Still, the subject of their own success seems to still humble and mystify the band. It’s a little funny that such conversation would still be so weird for them, especially considering they will spend the rest of the day rehearsing for their “Storytellers” taping the next night — a sure sign that you’ve officially moved into the ranks of bona fide rock stardom, right?
“I don’t know about that,” says James, “We were kinda surprised they asked us, but we are excited. I’m also a little scared because I have no idea what I’m gonna say about our songs. I hate talking, actually. Also, I kind of deal in these abstract shapes and concepts that I really want people to be able to interpret in their own way. Sometimes I finish a song and I’m not even exactly sure what it’s about … so, this will be interesting. I guess we’ll just show up and play songs and I’ll surprise myself with whatever happens to come out of my mouth.”
“It sounds like such a cliché to say this — and I’m not just saying this to be nice or whatever — but when we are playing a show, we don’t really think about the size of the room,” says James, “We just always go into each show and face every opportunity with the best of intentions. We’ve also had the chance to open for people like Tom Petty and Pearl Jam, so we’ve seen how you can do this a certain way without things being too weird. Big arena shows can be great or they can be awful, but so can small club shows. I feel like we’ve been on this nice upward incline for years now, slowly moving up, but we’ve never had any giant hit song or anything that would cause our popularity to take a giant leap upwards. Mostly, I think we’re just really glad that we’re not working at Starbucks or something. We’re really happy to just be making music. Honestly. We are.”
Circuital is due by early summer. The band will give away one track from the album that week; for the five weeks leading up until then, MMJ is offering a live song taped from the run at NYC’s Terminal 5 where they played one of their albums in its entirety each night. First up is “Butch Cassidy” from their 1999 LP The Tennessee Fire:
The remaining release schedule
03/14 – A track from At Dawn
03/21 – A song from It Still Moves
03/28 – One from Zs
04/04 – A selection from Evil Urges
[Photo by Roderick Trestrail]