There’s a triumphant quality that runs throughout My Morning Jacket’s (MMJ) Circuital. And it’s no wonder why. Not since its 2005 success, Z, has the band crafted a record so spot on, so vibrant, and so quintessentially them. Since forming in 1998, MMJ has been hard to pin down, getting lumped in with everything from jam bands to classic rockers to folk artists before carving out a niche all its own. Today, the band (made up of frontman Jim James, bassist “Two-Tone” Tommy, drummer Patrick Hallahan, keyboardist Bo Koster, and guitarist Carl Broemel) is undeniably at the top of its game, headlining festivals and amphitheatres around the globe and, just recently, scoring a top-five charting record.
For its sixth full-length (released this May for ATO), the band chose to turn its back on the big studio setting. Instead, the group took to an abandoned church in their hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, and there, with James and producer Tucker Martine at the helm, the guys worked for two months: no technicians, no timelines, no sound booths. The result, Circuital, brims with the immediacy and energy fans have come to know from My Morning Jacket’s live sets. “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)” finds James at his folkiest, high-register vocals and quietly plucked guitar firmly in place, while “First Light” climbs aggressively via fuzzy, washed-out keys and jangly tambourines. And midway through it all, “Holdin’ On to Black Metal” provides the necessary MMJ curveball: a bombastic, choir-backed, funk-tinged ode to that oft-misunderstood and hard-hitting musical subgenre.
This Saturday, July 2, My Morning Jacket makes a stop at the Santa Barbara Bowl in support of Circuital. I recently spoke with guitarist Carl Broemel about the album, the tour, and the joys of MMJ band camp.
I’m curious to know a little bit about your musical upbringing. My dad, he’s now retired, but he’s a professional musician, so I was kind of raised in a musical house. He was a bassoon player, so I was exposed to classical music first off. I played the violin and piano since I was a little guy. Then I was exposed to classic rock radio — I had an older brother who was into rock ‘n’ roll — and I eventually migrated to the guitar in junior high school. Music was just always around, it was part of my world, so I didn’t really try to become a musician until going from high school to college. People started asking me, ‘what are you going to do?’ and I figured, well, I guess I’ll get a music degree.
You joined My Morning Jacket in 2004 alongside keyboardist Bo Koster. How did you hook up with the band? I was living in Los Angeles — I moved from Indiana to Los Angeles a couple years after school was done — and I was playing in bands out here and touring around with whoever and doing a little bit of session work. I got integrated with people that were looking to fill spots in bands and they knew who I was, which was a good thing. So when John [Quaid] and Dan [Cash] decided to leave they came out here looking for new people and I caught wind of it through a mutual friend of ours. So I became familiar with the band and went in and played with them and did a little trial run just to meet everybody. I hadn’t really heard the band, but my good friend Cameron was always freaking out about My Morning Jacket, so he played me some music and I thought it was really interesting. But I had heard a song on KCRW maybe a month or two before the audition, and I didn’t know who the band was, and I was kind of frustrated with my present musical position at the time and I remember hearing that and being like, ‘man, I wish I could do something like that’ and kind of getting misty. So, when I was preparing to go in and learn the songs that song came up. I was already excited about the music, but when that happened I felt like the universe had heard me somehow. So I met everybody and they were all great people. I felt like I got pulled out of a bad situation into an unbelievable situation.
I imagine walking to an audition like that must have been kind of daunting. It was. Auditions and stuff like that are stressful. You want to be like ‘Pick me! Pick me! Pick me!’ but you don’t want to be annoying. I don’t think anybody in the band at that point had played with anybody they didn’t know, so it was an awkward situation for them and an awkward situation for us.
You guys tend to hit the road pretty hard. What was the collective headspace of the band after the tour for your last record, Evil Urges, ended? I think we were pretty tired and needed a little break. There wasn’t bad blood or anything; we were just all worn out. So we took a break, and everyone jumped off and did a little head clearing, worked on some other projects—Bo’s been producing, and Tom and Jim and Patrick and I all did some playing with other people, recording and stuff. The little breaks really give you a nice perspective to dig back in. You can just hammer and hammer and hammer, and it starts to get kind of numb if you’re not careful. I feel like we were all really fresh when we reconvened. We eased ourselves back into it. This was the first time we really took our time with it.
How would you compare the recording process for Circuital to the past few My Morning Jacket records? Well, we didn’t go to a proper recording studio. We kind of set up on location in this church. We made a studio ourselves and loaded all this gear into this big gymnasium. It was kind of like building a fort, trying to figure out how things were going to work and how to record music and utilize the assets and limitations of that space because it was not meant to be a recording studio. It was more of an exploratory journey, getting our hands dirty and moving things around and running cables everywhere and trying to troubleshoot problems. We didn’t have any technicians. There was nobody to just hand the mike off to. It was like a fun Boy Scout camping trip in a church.
We also skipped a step. For the last two records we did a separate full band demo session, prior to Z and prior to Evil Urges. This time we just went straight into the studio. Jim had songs and we tracked the demos very rough for the most part. He sent us all ideas, so we were all ready. We hammered out all the parts and the arranging in the studio this time, instead of doing it prior to getting in there. We also worked with a new producer — Jim and Tucker Martine produced the record together. Tucker was great. He was a subtle yet important force throughout the whole process and we all felt really close to him after making the record. He was very integral. We were all kind of in it together.
Do you feel like the setting made a big difference to the outcome? Yeah. It was nice to feel like we weren’t under the gun in New York at an expensive studio. I think that was refreshing for us. A lot of the guys were sleeping in their own beds and able to see their wives and girlfriends. It was comfortable; it was fun. It was hard work, of course, but we managed to create a situation that we all felt happy with.
In the middle of recording, you guys took a break to play the full-album shows at Terminal Five in New York. How did playing all the old records in their entirety fit into the making of Circuital? It was intense. We booked it and put in the future, like, ‘of yeah, we’ll play all the records,’ but when it came down to do it we were all like, ‘oh man, we should probably get together and figure this out.’ But the actual shows were so much fun. It was refreshing, especially for me and Butch, to be doing something totally new again. We were forced to go back through all those records. And we were allowed to. Sometime you feel like a show has to have a certain arch to it and variety, but for those shows it was nice to have no consequences. The crowd was prepared for that and it was really neat.
The My Morning Jacket live show has kind of become this other entity, and something that critics tend to compare your studio work to more often than a lot of other bands. How do you guys balance studio playing to playing shows? You really can’t agonize over one or the other. We played live in the studio — that’s us playing — and the majority of the sounds and the songs on this record are us standing in that gymnasium with each other. The live show is always going to be different. That’s something I enjoyed about the first two My Morning Jacket records that I wasn’t a part of. The live shows were a little amped up and the songs evolved over time into something slightly different, but still true to their origins. … But that’s what I loved about bands like Guided By Voices back in the day. Their records sounded like shit; but you’d get to the show, and it was like this hurdle you had to get over. But they’d just sound so massive, and all of a sudden, you’d get that satisfaction. I don’t know. Making records is such a different trip than being onstage, and it always will be.
My Morning Jacket plays the Santa Barbara Bowl this Saturday, July 2, at 7:30 p.m. Call 962-7411 or visit sbbowl.com for tickets and info.