Back to the Campfire: Relaxing with My Morning Jacket

Back To the Campfire: Relaxing With My Morning Jacket
originally appeared in Hyperactive Music Magazine, Number 8, Jan/Feb 2006

Patrick Hallahan is riding out a cold Kentucky afternoon in his “fuzzy pants.” So christened by his brother’s girlfriend, the old pajama bottoms say a lot about his approach to My Morning Jacket’s impending stardom. For a band that’s creating buzz from Bonnaroo to Hollywood—having rocked both that flagship of summer festivals and Cameron Crowe’s last picture, Elizabethtown—the Jackets are emphatically anti-celebrity. Famously shunning photo shoots, recording new album Z’s making-of video with blurry face shots and garbled voice effects, and generally just down-playing their increasing notoriety, the Louisville-based band is doing its best to keep the focus on the music and off the musicians.

It’s a difficult attitude to maintain—when a goosebump-inspiring voice like frontman Jim James’ wail runs its fingers up your spine, when a complex arrangement leaves you stunned & breathless, it’s natural to translate music-worship into band-worship. Ironically enough, the Jackets’ regular-guy approach compounds the problem—these guys could be your neighbors. You could bake them cookies right now and maybe be lucky enough to catch a jam session when you dropped them off, still warm from the oven. It’s a tantalizing prospect.

But since these boys don’t live next door (unless you’re very, very lucky), your next best option is to slip Z into your CD player and find a comfy flat surface. Your bed, your couch, even the floor—any of these will do. Just don’t try to venture into Jackets’ territory while operating heavy equipment—your resulting distraction could spell disaster for anything in your path.

For example, Listening to the Z track “Wordless Chorus”, I get the feeling that I should be horizontal, as if the miniscule amount of energy I’m using simply to hold myself upright is energy that would be better focused on soaking up the complex, layered sound swirling through my speakers. This richness is what makes My Morning Jacket so compelling: these five guys manage to sound like an entire orchestra. It’s difficult to believe that Z was recorded live, with very little overdubbing.

The band jokes about having a sixth, invisible member: Reverb. Member or instrument, reverb is an astonishingly rich and versatile implement in the hands of James, Hallahan, and company. With arrangements both soaring and deep, the big, layered sound of the Jackets is the musical equivalent of the Notre Dame cathedral: open and airy, yet chock full of detail and depth; thought-provoking and awe-inspiring, it’s a sound that words can’t quite get all the way around. I still haven’t found an adequate descriptor. “Let me just play you the CD,” is usually where I give up.

But as I discovered in our interview, the cathedral metaphor is apt. James has a tendency to talk about his music in quasi-religious terms, talking about the force of God moving through him when he plays (interestingly enough, the Catholic-raised James gave up religion right about the time he started playing music, as though the two filled the same need in him). James declares that rock-n-roll isn’t about globetrotting and non-stop partying; rather, it’s “a way to bring meaning to the world.” This attitude seems to be shared by the rest of the band. “I wouldn’t necessarily pinpoint God or a god,” Hallahan elaborated, “but just a force, music itself … we really are just vehicles for the whole thing. You try to control the music and you end up taking the feeling away from it.”

Feeling and instinct are recurring themes for My Morning Jacket. An abiding faith in ultimate goodness runs through many of the Jackets’ songs, a sense that humanity just might turn itself back around if it remembers how to trust itself. It’s hopeful without being saccharine, confident without being naïve. It’s a world-wise singer, not a starry-eyed idealist, who reminds us on Z, “So much goin’ on these days / Forget about instinct / It’s not what pays.” But jaded observations sit comfortably beside happier predictions: “But you know / All of this can change / Remember the promise as a kid you made.” Like their sound, My Morning Jacket’s lyrics are also complex and intelligent, multifaceted gems that glitter with contradiction.

With Z, the band’s fourth full-length release, that trademark complexity has reached new levels. A broader range of influences—particularly hip-hop and classic soul—have filtered into the new record, and two new band members—keyboardist Bo Koster and guitarist Carl Broemel—have brought a new energy. Additionally, Z is the first recording the band has done away from the Kentucky farmland that shaped previous releases, and it’s the first project with an outside producer. “To make a long story short,” explained Hallahan, “this album was definitely a change. Like anything, if you work at the same craft … you learn so much and you grow so much as a musician and as a person and as a band. It really comes full circle. And we have a long, long, long way to go, but I think we’ve come quite far in our journey. We’ve grown as people and musicians. We just really tried a different approach to it and had a lot of fun with it.”

Z is a decidedly more mature record—more reserved and yet wilder, pared down yet more expansive than earlier albums. Under the direction of producer John Leckie (Pink Floyd, Radiohead, Stone Roses), the band reeled in the record’s playing time from their usual epic lengths. They recorded live in a secluded New York state studio, maintaining the member’s penchant for isolation while adding the subtle influence of a new environment. The result is a striking distillation of the band’s signature sound. It isn’t exactly new, but it’s definitely not the same old Jacket.

“We didn’t really think about things too terribly much,” recalls Hallahan, “This album wanted to be this way, in a strange sort of way. We didn’t sit around and have a board meeting and say, ‘This album’s gonna sound like this, and we’re gonna make this dramatic change now.’ It was pretty organic.”

“Organic” describes the Jackets’ approach to just about everything they do. These guys make even their raucous stage presence look natural. Widely recognized as a jaw-droppingly good live band, the Jackets enthralled festival goers with last year’s Bonnaroo puppet extravaganza (yep, you read that right) and have blistered the stage at such venerable venues as the Fillmore in San Francisco, where they recently recorded a live DVD (“one of the most magical experiences of my musical career,” enthused Hallahan). Despite a grueling tour schedule (the stress of which led to the departure of both Koster and Broemel’s predecessors), the band sees value in getting out there and learning the business from the road, classic-rock style: “I think we fashioned our band around that old ideology where we started off touring … I think that if bands don’t get out there and start touring right away, I don’t know how they’re ever really gonna learn every aspect of the music business, and I think a lot of bands are gonna start getting screwed if they don’t get out there and make mistakes and feel it for themselves,” Hallahan asserted.

But even the learning experience takes a back seat to what is, for My Morning Jacket, one of the best reasons to play music at all: connecting with other people. And that’s an undertaking grown all the more important given the state of the world today: “I think our attempts on this album were to take what’s going on and look at the positive side of things … and [with our live shows] I think we try to make a vacation from all that, because there’s so much mud-throwing,” Hallahan explained. “People aren’t thinking about the stars anymore, people aren’t thinking about how wonderful a campfire looks at night. When people come to our shows, we definitely want them to come home with a message about what’s going on around them, but also to take a breather from all of it and relax and enjoy the simple things.”

Not content to settle for superficial hits, My Morning Jacket clearly expects a great deal from their music. And so they seek out artists of a similar mien for collaboration and inspiration: James toured last year with M. Ward and Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst; the band is slated to ring in 2006 at a special New Year’s Eve show with The Black Crowes and the North Mississippi Allstars, and their website links to the likes of Ron Whitehead, VHS or Beta, and The Pennies. Beyond the glittery surface of pop radio, Hallahan asserts that there’s “fantastic stuff” afoot in the music world: “I feel like there’s this huge undercurrent going right now, pushing through it,” he asserted. “All these musicians have been working their asses off and really honing their craft. There’s still bands like the Flaming Lips that are still pushing boundaries. I think we’re all fighting the same battle.”

Win or lose, My Morning Jacket remain on the front lines, walking softly but carrying a big sound. And in typical fashion, they’ll do their best to remind us that the struggle is for the music, not for red carpets and name branding. The Jackets remain a group of regular guys who have a way with reverb and a hypnotic hold over those who care to take a listen. Are they ready for the spotlight and the hype that comes with it? Will their ever-increasing fame draw them out of the fuzzy pants and into the bling? “Well, look at us,” laughs Hallahan. “Just take one look at us and that will answer your question. The way you see us on stage is the way we walk around every day. I look like that right now.” We’d expect no less from our boys next door.