Strong on the Horizon

by Dennis Cook


Anyone expecting more of the same from My Morning Jacket’s new release, Z, will be sorely disappointed. Instead, what you’ll find is a band that has let slip any preconceptions about who they are, freeing the music to wander in dub textures, surf tones and a classic pop bent that would fit nicely on a jukebox with Neil Young, Smokey Robinson and the Zombies. It’s a hemp-smoked marvel, doused in dazzling reverb and peppered with truths that reveal themselves in slow, winding ways.

“I think we’ve always tried to progress,” says bandleader/songwriter/singer Jim James. “Each album sounds different—from the recording quality to the songs to the new things we try. I think it’s definitely the most different album we’ve done but not radically so. I think we’ve always tried to do weird things.”

Following 2003’s now classic It Still Moves couldn’t have been easy. That record coalesced all the promise of My Morning Jacket’s early recordings into a fully formed beast capable of going toe-to-toe with anything in rock’s past. But each new album is an act of marshalling forces greater than five guys with long hair and a lot of electricity. Drummer Patrick Hallahan explains, “It’s a process. Jim comes in with the skeletal work, and we put muscle and skin on it and make it a human. The songs are their own beings. We don’t make them. They’re out there, and they channel through us.”

The band’s work does get up and breathe. A pervasive mystery clinging to every note, their whole catalog feels exhilaratingly alive with a sense of engagement, of things wrestled and overcome, but just barely. The result is music that’s never timid even when achingly tender, as it often is. The attitude creates an intimacy that’s rare in these frequently extroverted, bombastic times. That feeling has been there right from the start according to bassist Two Tone Tommy, “I had a demo tape of all the My Morning Jacket stuff before I joined, and I remember listening to ‘Evelyn’ and ‘Cold September Blues’ and ‘I Will Sing You Songs.’ It felt like listening to one of your friends who has come from the same place you did and spoke about heartbreak and things like that. It’s not like a rock star speaking to you. It’s one of your buddies saying the things I’d felt.”

Talking about his influences, Tommy points out how this personal connection has been more important than any outside influence. “I think every teenage boy falls in love with Led Zeppelin at the same time in their life, but it was always the people I grew up with who inspired me most, people like Jim, songwriters that were so amazing,” he says. “It was so weird to be 15 years old and have these guys who were the same age who were into music. That inspired me more than anything I could buy in a record store.”

Asked about his nickname, he laughs. “I really should have a funny story by now. Jake Lemm, the drummer on the first two records, used to leave funny messages on my answering machine all the time and one of them was three minutes long with him giving me all these different monikers—one of them was Two Tone Tommy, which he repeated over and over again. So when Tennessee Fire was being put together I was asked, ‘Do you want to use your real name?’ And I was like, No, not really, so I picked Two Tone Tommy. After a show, if I have my hair up in a ponytail no one knows who I am. Even if they do recognize me, it’s always, ‘Tommy?’ or ‘Two Tone?’ I don’t even respond to it because I’m just not used to it in my everyday life.”

Being from Louisville, Kentucky, and occasionally sounding like Lynyrd Skynyrd (albeit as interpreted by Radiohead), My Morning Jacket is sometimes tagged as a southern-rock band. “The only way that is possibly true is we live below the Mason-Dixon line and we’re a rock band. That’s it,” James says. “We’re influenced by so much it’s hard to say that. I’m sure that because of where we live there’s a little country feel we might throw in there once in a while. We’ve gotten further and further away from it, and the new album is a testament to that. I think it’s just an easy assumption because we’re from Kentucky,”

Hallahan adds, “Look at a picture of us. We have long hair and dueling guitar solos and those are elements of it. But anybody who said that never took the time to listen. There’s nothing wrong with it, we just don’t agree with the comparison. We love southern rock, but we don’t play southern rock.”

To further confound expectations, James recently cut off the bulk of his legendary mane, removing the veil that was part of his trademark stage presence. He says, “I just wanted a haircut. I’m still the same person, singing about the same things. My eyes are closed most of the time anyway, so it doesn’t really change my perspective on stage. It is fun to throw hair around and rock out with it, but it also makes you reevaluate what you do on stage when you don’t have that tool.”

Another change in perspective may have come through James’s solo acoustic tour last year with kindred spirits M. Ward and Conor Oberst. “I met Conor a couple years ago, and we tossed around the idea of a tour that was more collaborative—where you got to know the people you were on tour with and they played with you, more of a communal thing instead of everybody just doing their set,” recalls James. “We all flew out to Omaha and sat in Conor’s basement for a few days and learned some songs and covers. It really helps you understand yourself better to see what other people are great at, watching how other people excel. Since then, it’s really opened up the way we do tours with people. We always try to get somebody from one of the bands to come up and do a song with us or we’ll do a song with them and just kinda open the thing up where everyone is talking and exchanging ideas. It creates more memories.”

On Z new members guitarist Carl Broemel and keyboardist Bo Koster replace Johnny Quaid and Danny Cash respectively. Both have proven the right fish for deep water. Tommy says, “The biggest thing is it’s just a different band altogether really kind of reinventing how we do it all. Carl and Bo are just so talented, it’s challenged me to be a better musician and to think about things musically in a way I hadn’t before instead of just doing it and going by just feel.”

James adds, “They’re really versatile. They can both sing, and that’s something we never had. Carl can play sax and guitar and pedal steel. And Bo is just an amazing keyboard player. But most of all their amazing newness and freshness has re-upped our energy. We’ve been doing it a long time and to have them come in and sock us full of energy again, to see them so excited, just kind of fires up the whole machine. Their ability to take what I’m trying to explain to them and just do it immediately, without thinking about it, is just amazing. We work better. We’re running smoother.”

The new record came together in the pastoral surroundings of upstate New York at Allaire Studios. And for the first time, My Morning Jacket worked with an outside producer, the legendary John Leckie, who got his start as an assistant producer at Abbey Road Studios in the late 1960s and went on to produce Radiohead, the Fall, XTC and a chunk of the post-Beatles solo work of John Lennon and George Harrison. “Leckie came up to Louisville and hung out with us and listened to the songs,” says James. “He didn’t really change anything, he just kind of shepherded the whole process and made sure we were picking the right takes and capturing the sounds as best we could.”

Tommy continues, “We were really apprehensive to work with somebody, having done all the records ourselves before now. But we still wanted it to be recorded out in the middle of nowhere, to really lock ourselves away. That was probably the biggest part of recording at Allaire—being away from everything else.” Leckie’s highly attuned ear caught onto their mysterious nature and played to that, using the studio as another instrument. Tommy explains, “That’s why I think it’s the best-sounding record we’ve done. It does sound like us live, but Leckie was able to capture all the individual performances better than we ever could have on our own or have done in the past.”

“We always look at live and studio as two different things,” says James. “We try to think about all the things you want to happen while you’re listening to a record, to have something that will last a long time. A live show is just a fleeting moment. It all depends on what kind of day we’ve had, how the sound system is, what the crowd is like, what the energy is like, so that’s always gonna change.”

One thing hasn’t changed on Z: When James lets his beautifully cracked, soul stirring voice loose, there’s plenty of juicy reverb to help wash down his near primal rawness. “I just don’t work well without it. I don’t sing without reverb. I think the sound of a dry microphone against the human voice is kinda gross. It works for some other people but I just don’t like it for my voice.” Not they didn’t experiment. “I think we did a good job of messing around with it on the new record,” James offers. “It’s not just all big reverb. We tried different delays and different room sounds. There’s a lot of texture on the vocals on this record, but they’re not all buried in reverb, and they’re not dry either. Some sound like a robot. I’m just obsessed with making things sound weird.”

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