“The new record, Circuital, is named after the title song,” explains Jim James, of My Morning Jacket’s sixth studio album. “On that song I sing about ending up in the same place where you started out. And that makes a lot of sense for this album… I hate the phrase ‘going back to our roots’, but for this record we came home and made it in Kentucky. And it just felt a lot like it did when we were first starting out...”
My Morning Jacket formed at the tail-end of the 1990s, when Jim James’ group Month Of Sundays folded, and he began recording new songs with ex-members of local rockers Winter Death Club. At Above The Cadillac Studios – in reality, a shed on the grounds of guitarist Johnny Quaid’s grandparents’ farm – the group took shape, drawing upon their rich knowledge of classic rock, country, soul and psychedelia, and spinning these influences into fresh, life-affirming rock’n’roll and aching, haunting balladry. My Morning Jacket made their early reputation off the three sublime albums they recorded at Above The Cadillac – 1999’s The Tennessee Fire, 2001’s At Dawn and 2003’s It Still Moves – and legendary live shows that proved here was a truly magical group for the ages. It Still Moves marked a move to the major labels for the group, while its heavy touring cycle prompted the amicable exit of Quaid and keyboardist Danny Cash from the ranks.
Album number four, 2004’s Z, was a brave step outside of the group’s comfort zone, recorded in New York’s Catskill Mountains with the aid of respected producer John Leckie (Stone Roses, Spiritualized), and with new members guitarist Carl Broemel and keyboard player Bo Koster making their debut appearances on tape, their skilful performances swiftly proving themselves cut from the same cloth as their bandmates. The album also saw James stretch his song-writing chops beyond the familiar reference points of My Morning Jacket’s earlier work, an impulse he furthered with 2008’s Evil Urges, which scattered the group’s ragged rockers and tender, keening ballads with subtly sensual grooves and tracks that sounded like heavy metal laced with psychedelic soul and feral funk. Both albums helped grow ever-swelling following, a grass-roots movement that’s spread like wildfire in the wake of their many long and glorious tours, and already-legendary shows like their 4-hour 2008 Bonnaroo head-lining performance, which captured one of the world’s greatest rock’n’roll groups at their most masterful and alive.
Circuital is the first album the group have made in Kentucky since It Still Moves, recording it in the gymnasium of a Louisville church under the aegis of producer Tucker Martine. Jim bonded with Martine while recording backing vocals for Laura Veirs’ 2010 album July Flame, which Martine, Veirs’ husband, also produced. “We hit it off right away,” says Martine, who later helped set up a home studio in James’ Louisville home, where he’s working on a future solo album. “As a group, we’ve always been hoping to find ‘our guy’,” says James. “And we’ve worked with some great people, but we’d wanted to find someone who was, like, ‘one of us’. And Tucker fit in perfectly, and he had a whole set of skills we didn’t possess. He’s real smart, and fun to be with.”
Converting the gymnasium into a recording studio wasn’t an easy task, says Martine, but the extra effort yielded unique results. “It’s a big project, to record in a space like that. It has so many limitations, compared to working in a modern studio, but they were limitations we were all drawn to. The focus became on communicating and interacting, and not on what modern trickery we could use later.” At the group’s insistence, the album was recorded live, with few overdubs;
James’ vocals were recorded at the same time as the band’s performances. “We were going for full takes; we wanted everybody running back to the control room afterwards, freaking out and wanting to listen back to the take,”remembers James. “We’re A Band, and so I want our records to be made that way, with us being A Band. Capturing performances, that intangible thing between us, some kind of soul. When friends have been through as much as we have together… It’s not something I could even describe. We wanted to capture the sound of us just playing, being in the same place and just feeding off each other.”
“This is truly a great band, and they play so well together, it would be wrong not to document that,” adds Martine. For James, the new album finds a sweet understanding between the questing creative impulses of Evil Urges and the more familiar feel of My Morning Jacket’s earlier work. “The album’s like a rolling, gentle soundwave,” he says, in comparison to Evil Urges’ jagged edges. “But I don’t feel Circuital sounds like our earlier recordings. We’re always trying to go in new directions.” His memories of the sessions for Circuital are only fond. “There was no AC, no-one had their laptops. We recorded everything on tape. It was like, we’re just who we are, with what we have with us at the moment, and that’s all we have. It was a beautiful thing, and it really cemented what we all mean to each other, as people and as a band. We’ve learned, slowly over the years, how to function more healthily, I guess, so we don’t all combust. Making this record, it felt like our friendship was only strengthened.”
My Morning Jacket is:
Jim James (vocals, guitar)
Tom Blankenship (bass)
Patrick Hallahan (drums)
Bo Koster (keyboards)
Carl Broemel (guitar)
Interview by Roxanne Blanford
What hasn't been said about MY MORNING JACKET?
The Kentucky roots/rock band has been notoriously mis-labeled as "neo/alt-country"; derogatorily called 'backwoods mountain boys'; simultaneously slammed and saluted for their heavy use of reverb; and occasionally ridiculed for recording their music in a country barn.
Yet, despite it all, since the 1999 debut release of Tennessee Fire, MY MORNING JACKET has been on the receiving end of a steady parade of accolades from the music industry, the media, and music fans worldwide.
From becoming the subject of a Dutch documentary in 2000, and getting Foo Fighter Dave Grohl's personal endorsement, to signing onto Dave Matthews' RCA label imprint (ATO Records) for the release of 2003's It Still Moves, the near-neophyte five-piece has gained renown for tearing it up live, going barefoot on stage, and losing themselves in a maelstrom of transcendental guitar rock, flailing hair and eternally atmospheric, reverb-terrific, intensively moving sounds.
The members of MY MORNING JACKET (Jim James-lead vocal, guitar; Danny Cash- keyboards; Johnny Quaid- guitar; Two Tone Tommy-bass and drummer Patrick Hallahan) all recently quit their days jobs to commit themselves full time to the band ("This is it", Hallahan says. "It's all or nothing"). The newest component to this delightful machine, Hallahan describes the work involved in the making of
It Still Moves as a pure "collaborative effort", wherein Jim James came to the band with skeletal ideas and songs in acoustic form, whirring about in his brain. The band then "collectively put meat on the bones", and via a total team effort made it into a real, thriving entity,- transforming it all into MY MORNING JACKET.
Patrick Hallahan spoke with MusicEmissions: recently, calling in from his home in Louisville, Kentucky during a rare respite from touring.
MusicEmissions:: You're the third drummer to come onboard with MY MORNING JACKET, correct?
Hallahan: Yes, I am. Number 3, and proud of it.
MusicEmissions:: Do you believe you'll be the last?
Hallahan: Uhm, yeah. I can't see it turning out any other way. You see, we're all such good friends, always have been. [Jim James and Hallahan met in a fourth grade, church summer camp] I've been in other bands, and had previously vowed never to play in a band with Jim, because I never wanted the uncomfortability of being in a bad band to ruin our friendship. But, he just asked at the right time, I guess, when our lives were at a point where this really met both our needs. And, you know - everybody's so comfortable and happy. We're such a tight knit band, that it's like one big family. [laughter] It's sickening almost. I mean, we've just endured probably one of the most difficult things in our lives â€“ this past tour was brutal, but, it was so much fun. It couldn't have worked if we weren't this close, so Yeah. I think I'll be the last drummer. [laughter] Now, watch him fire me tomorrow. I think they're having a meeting right now, yeah. [laughter]
MusicEmissions:: I've read much about how Jim James is heavily into the Muppets.
Hallahan: Oh, definitely. We all are, yeah, but he's a fanatic.
MusicEmissions: So, you're familiar with Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem?
Hallahan: [knowing laughter] Oh, yeah.
MusicEmissions: And, you know what my next question is going to be, right?
Hallahan: Yeah - which Muppet I would be, right? [laughter]. Definitely "Animal", without a doubt. Yes. See, I'm not like Animal in everyday life, so when I play drums, I just have so much fun, and I enjoy it so much. I really do lose my shit, for lack of a better word. I totally lose it, yeah. I just let myself go. I have a lot of hair, and I make lots of faces, I don't know - I just really get into it.
And Animal looks like he's just having so much fun. He's just way out there.
He doesn't know any better, you know? He's just great. [laughter]
MusicEmissions: Would Animal then be one of your top three drummers?
Hallahan: Definitely. Definitely. It would be: Animal, Keith Moon and Jon Bonham. Animal might tie with Keith Moon, but, there, you have it.
MusicEmissions: So, now that we know what it is that makes Animal such a special drummer, Patrick, what makes YOU special as a drummer?
Hallahan: I like to think of myself as the 'anti-drummer'. I don't think about - I'm not into, like, time signatures-[pause] ... I'm not a very technical drummer.
I started messing around with the guitar and the drums when I was three and four years old, but I learned of the guitar before the drums, so I tend to think about things from a guitarist standpoint more than that of a drummer. I accent the guitar with my arms and keep the bottom end with my feet, and try to pull the band together.
MusicEmissions: Why did you decide to focus on the drums as opposed to the guitar?
Hallahan: I guess I just felt like my soul is there. I don't know how else to really describe it. It's just an extension of me. It really is, and, I didn't feel that with guitar. To tell the truth: I love my instrument to death.
MusicEmissions: What do you play?
Hallahan: I play a Fibes kit, from a little custom company out of Austin, Texas. I got to pick everything that went on to it, and custom ordered everything. It's not something that somebody made for me: It's all mine.
MusicEmissions: Out of all the things have been said and written about MY MORNING JACKET, what comes immediately to mind as something that has struck you as most untrue and completely unfounded?
Hallahan: Oh, I could name a few - like 'hippie, redneck, jam band'; 'stoner band'-these things that people say - I don't know. Just because we're from Kentucky, we have long hair, and we play rock n roll - People look at us and automatically make the Lynyrd Skynyrd/Allman Brothers connection. We're very far from all of that. There are definitely roots there. Definitely. Being from Kentucky, it's hard to escape that comparison, but actually, I think people out there truly underestimate us sometimes.
MusicEmissions:: You mean to say, then, you don't consider yourselves to be a "Southern rock" band?
Hallahan: No. Not at all.
MusicEmissions:: Does that reference have any relevancy to your music and your approach to the craft?
Hallahan: Nothing. None at all.
MusicEmissions: So, MY MORNING JACKET is straight up rock n roll?
Hallahan: Yep. Anytime somebody would ask us what kind of band we are, we say 'rock n roll', just because it encompasses everything. There are no limits and we don't like to limit ourselves to anything.
MusicEmissions: MY MORNING JACKET has developed a reputation for dipping heavily into the nuances of reverb and similar sonic explorations. Let me ask you this: What do you think of the place of experimentation in a band such as yours?
And, do you ever fear of going too far?
Hallahan: Going too far? Wow. That's a good question. Sure, I think there's a point where you can go too far where experimentation overshadows quality.
Then, yeah, I think that's when you've gone too far. When you're experimenting just to be experimental instead of experimenting to grow. I think as long as you're growing and as long as you're following what feels right - and that's the only thing that we do. If we buy a new toy for the studio, we want it to be a toy that takes us to the next level and not just because it's the latest little thing to play with. I love experimenting; I just want to be experimenting for the right reasons.
MusicEmissions: Speaking of the 'right reasons', you all are all dedicated to the Kentucky scene, in a sense, emitting a vibe of genuiness and trueness based on your roots. You're all very loyal to Louisville, almost to a fault. Tell me then, what's so great about Louisville?
Hallahan: I know this sounds cheesy, but 'everything'. It's just so green and so well laid out; there's plenty of parks, and, I like being in a city, in a cosmopolitan atmosphere, and having the option of driving 30-minutes in any direction and being in the middle of nowhere. There's lots of things to love about being here.
Northwest Canada is a great place also. Lots of small towns in the middle of nowhere. I love it.
MusicEmissions: I take it you're simply NOT a city boy, eh?
Hallahan: Well, that's the thing. For instance, I didn't like New York City at first, but I love the big city as well. In fact, I spend more time in New York these days than I do in Louisville. I'm addicted to it. It's like my second home. But, if I'm going to have time to myself to relax, it would definitely have to be in a rural atmosphere.
MusicEmissions: It Still Moves was recorded in the same Shelbyville, Kentucky barn/recording studio, as the previous recordings?
Hallahan: Oh yeah. It wouldn't be anywhere else. It's beautiful there: Green, open fields, a sky that never ends, and the most fresh air ever. It's our little get-away. It's wonderful. Just a nice, beautiful, big Kentucky farmhouse. It really is.
MusicEmissions: And do you feel that the atmosphere somehow textures the final product?, that, if you were to do it any place else, do you think you would get that same feel and sound?
Hallahan: There is no way. It leaks in and permeates through everything. Everything. I don't think we'd ever record anywhere else. We miss it so much on the road; it's such a magical place.
MusicEmissions: Well, maybe you'll get to hitch it up to a trailer one day and take it on the road with you.
Hallahan: That would be unbelievably cool if we could do that. We'd have to get a bigger van, though. [laughter]
MusicEmissions: Well, the way you're going, a bigger van might not be that far away!
MusicEmissions: Up until very recently were working waiting tables, going to school, and working in excess of 35-40 hours a week. What do you miss most about being a 'working stiff", and living that routine life?
Hallahan: I would say "absolutely nothing"! Because, I don't miss the toil, or anything like that. But, one thing I DO miss is seeing my family and being with loved ones whenever I want to and possibly could. Out of everything, I miss that the most. This tour was set up so we'd have it all completed by late November,
Thanksgiving, and have the holidays all to ourselves. Family and friends are truly THAT important to us. In fact, I'm sitting here holding my fiance' right now. We're a very family-oriented band.
MusicEmissions: So, if I were to ask you, Patrick: Fifty years from now, when somebody mentions MY MORNING JACKET, what lasting impression would you hope remains?
Hallahan: Music that makes sense to people.
I want that to always be what remains. I don't know, but people seem to understand what we're doing. It's just really strange. It's just one thing I've just started to notice and realize. Our crowds are so diverse, as far as like, age, and race and gender, and just "I don't know" every kind of person and genre just shows up. So, yeah, fifty years from now, I'd just like for everybody to still remember us, to remember that we're a bunch of good guys and that we really enjoy what we've been doing, and just for people to like what we do."
Patrick, if MY MORNING JACKET keeps on the road its on, you just may get your wish after all.