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Since their formation in Louisville, Kentucky in 1998, My Morning Jacket have made a career out of subverting expectations. From their haunting debut The Tennessee Fire to the career-defining Z to the band’s latest work The Waterfall, the band is never one to stay anchored to one idea or sound very long. Even the group’s name is seemingly a fly in the face of logic that elicits confused looks when a telling a person unfamiliar about the band. Both Jim James and My Morning Jacket’s ethos can seemingly be summed up with a line from their classic “Wordless Chorus”: “Tell me Spirit, what has not been done? / I’ll rush out and do it / Or are we doing it now?”
James, Tom Blankenship (bass), Patrick Hallahan (drums), Carl Broemel (guitar) and Bo Koster (keys) are restless spirits exploring the musical landscape via James’ soul searching lyrics that often find him pondering life’s existential questions, and a musical identity that has changed with almost every new record. After initially (and over-simplistically) being labeled a “Southern Rock Band” after their first three stunning albums, My Morning Jacket proved themselves capable of much more with the wide-ranging masterpiece Z in 2005. An album where every song sounds different and yet flows perfectly, Z saw the band exploring a much more experimental sound than thought previously possible by most listeners.
2008’s Evil Urges would show that MMJ had barely dipped into their reserves of exploration, proving the band was willing to try whatever weirdness their hearts desired and putting the band on a new level. By this time the group’s live shows had become legendary events that often saw people leaving dazed and mumbling about how their life had just changed. One such show was the band’s 2008 four-hour, thirty five song late night marathon at Bonnaroo that saw the band bring out Kirk Hammett of Metallica and Zack Galifianakis, who appeared around 3:50 AM dressed as Lil’ Orphan Annie for some reason while the band covered Motey Crue’s “Home Sweet Home” (probably because it was 3:50 in the morning at Bonnaroo). I was lucky enough to be at that show, and I remember thinking I was seeing something special, the rare concert that transcends being just another gathering of like-minded people and turns it into a truly unforgettable and spiritual experience. I’m not the only one who felt that way; American Dad co-creator Mike Barker called the show “life-changing” and dedicated an entire episode of the show to the band (the episode also featured Galifianakis).
With The Waterfall, the band has once again evolved, this time producing its most collaborative record to date. As with their last album Circuital, the band sought out Portland-based producer and engineer Tucker Martine, and holed up with him in the beyond-idyllic Panoramic House Studio in Northern California’s Stinson Beach (James and Martine put the finishing touches on the record here in Portland at Martine’s Flora Recording & Playback Studio). Also similarly to Circuital, James showed up with less fully formed songs and sought out his bandmate’s input on his musical sketches. As such, The Waterfall is awash in layers of sound throughout the record, flourishes and tweaks that sound like a band truly collaborating. Lush without sounding overblown and featuring some classic “Where do we go from here?” lyrics from James, it’s a step back from some of the wilder moments of the last two albums (no “peanut butter puddin’ surprises” on this one), without losing the energy that made much of those albums so vital sounding.
Last week I spoke with bassist Tom “Two-Tone Tommy” Blakenship, the band’s only member other than James who has been there from the start, about the band’s desire to remain constantly evolving, their attempts to never treat albums as sequels to each other, recording with Martine, that rainy night/morning in Tennessee and about the band’s already busy future plans.
ELEVEN: To me, one of My Morning Jacket’s biggest strengths and part of what makes you guys such an intriguing act is that the band has always subverted expectations. Is there a conscience effort by the band to do that?
Tom Blankenship: Something that we’ve always done, or I guess not done, is talk about what’s going to happen [when we record]. I mean we don’t go in with a concrete plan of what direction we’re going to take, or what we’ve been listening to. Usually Jim has some songs or some sketches, and then whatever Jim’s vision for the song is gets filtered through the other four guys’ individual perspective on what they think the end product is going to be. That’s kind of a simple explanation of what we do.
11: I read that for The Waterfall recording sessions, Jim came into the studio with the songs a little less formed than they usually are. Did that change the process at all, having the songs presented at the “sketch” stage of their formation?
TB: Yeah, yeah for sure. Circuital definitely had some moments like that, on that record there were definitely some songs where Jim, Patrick and I would get together in Louisville (I was still living there at the time) and flesh songs out as a three piece, and then a couple of those songs ended up on the record. The Waterfall was similar to that in terms of songs as sketches, and the good thing about that is it makes the prep time easy because basically you’re not learning the structure of a song, you’re just trying to make sure you know what key a song is in and things like chord progression. It’s nice because it becomes a more collaborative thing, and you’re also not worrying about, “I need to write a part before we all get together.” In that sense it’s similar to Circuital too, where we all just came in and Jim would play the song for us, we’d hear the song once, play through it a couple of times and then start pressing record. The Waterfall was a very similar process.
11: Going back to my first question, you guys have had so many amazing peaks, it seems like every time I think My Morning Jacket can’t get any bigger, the band reaches a new level. For instance, I remember being at the Bonnaroo 2008 four hour late night set in the pouring rain and thinking how are they going to top this? Was the band aware at the time how amazing the show was and what a big deal it would become?
TB: I think the only thing that we knew is that we were biting off a lot… maybe not more than we could chew, but we were definitely taking a huge bite. I mean, that’s the longest show we’ve ever played… But I don’t think at the time we thought it was going to be this huge epic thing, it just kept escalating. I think the year before we had played a three-hour show… it just escalated until we just decided play for four hours. I know a bunch of people that went to bed and missed most of it.
But yeah I don’t think at the time we thought it was going to be this huge epic thing, because two or three years before we had done a show in the rain where the rain came onstage and the amps quit working and it was kinda like “How can we ever top that?!” ya know. And again, that kind of goes back to the first question you asked where it’s not something we think about or something where we have any expectations like that other than: it’s Bonnaroo, let’s do our best. We’re kinda home… it’s a home game for us.
11: With all the success not hampering the band’s hunger or creativity, I’m wondering what you think about the train of thought that says happiness and contentment make for ineffective art. Is that something the band is aware of and talks about at all? Because obviously that sense of complacency doesn’t ring true for My Morning Jacket.
TB: I think for me personally I do think about it every once and a while because like you said it’s one of those things that’s always out there, and if you’re doing this for a living it can be hard not to think about it. But then I think about the fact that this isn’t the same band that made the first two or three records, it’s not the same personnel. And I guess a big thing is the albums have never felt like sequels. We put out The Tennessee Fire and then At Dawn doesn’t sound like The Tennessee Fire Part 2. Then we put out It Still Moves and it doesn’t sound like At Dawn Part 2. And it’s that way with a lot of successful bands I think; you could keep asking Led Zeppelin to put out another Led Zeppelin IV, but then you’d never have Physical Graffiti. While there have certainly been some themes we’ve repeated, I feel like we definitely haven’t made the same record over and over again.
11: Tell me about working with Tucker Martine.
TB: Tucker and our friend Kevin Ratterman, who owns a studio in Louisville, have been our team these past two records. Jim met Tucker through some friends and they worked together on Jim’s solo record [2013’s Regions of Light and Sound] and he loved working with him. Then we all met Tucker and just felt really good about it, and Circuital was such a great experience with this core of seven dudes locked in this weird space, it just seemed liked a no-brainer to keep that going, and that’s something we never thought of doing before.
11: Things must have gone well since you guys have another entire album of songs already completed. What’s the plan going forward? Are you guys going to go straight into the studio after the tour? Or are you going to take some time between records? It seems like an awful lot considering you’re about to tour the world.
TB: Yeah it’s a lot. We’ll take off Thanksgiving through New Year’s… but yeah we’ve definitely got another album’s worth of material to sort through. And I’m sure we’ll have another recording session where we throw some new ones in there.
11: Since we’re Portland-based I know folks will want to know if some dates near us are coming soon.
TB: Absolutely. There will be a bunch of West Coast stuff, we’re just figuring out the routing for it now.
11: That’s great news. Thanks so much for doing this Tom!
TB: You’re very welcome. »