Some bands, with their interpersonal dynamic, give the impression of cold efficiency. Others seem to be just barely holding it all together. My Morning Jacket embodies a preferable third option: nothing but warmth, and a conviction that music-making still largely comes out of a hang. Last month I visited the band’s hometown of Louisville, Ky., on business, and plugged into their vibe firsthand. We talked a lot about Circuital, their intensely cohesive new album, and how it came to be.
As you may have heard -- or, bless your heart, maybe read in the piece -- Circuital was recorded in a church facility in Louisville, not far from the sprawling Cave Hill Cemetery, which the band urged me to visit on my own time. (I did. The dogwoods were in bloom.) Jim James, My Morning Jacket’s lead singer and songwriter, discovered the church through a close friend, Kevin Ratterman. A drummer in the Louisville band Wax Fang, Ratterman had been using the old church to record small-scale projects; he earned an assistant engineer credit on the album, serving alongside producer Tucker Martine. For space reasons, his name was unfortunately excised from the piece.
The liners to Circuital include some beautifully moody shots of the band’s guerilla studio, centered in the church gymnasium. During my visit, the instruments were set up for rehearsal purposes -- the band hadn’t played some of the new songs since recording them last year -- but otherwise things were stripped down. The sanctuary, with its concentric arrangement of pews, emanated a sense of vacancy. Apparently the congregation has dwindled to the point where services are now held in a room adjoining the kitchen. James pointed out the odd tribute mounted on one wall, pictured above; it seems to be a commemoration of members who have shuffled off this mortal coil.
Lyrically Circuital is striking for its meditations on maturity. You might notice songs about aging itself (“Wonderful”), or the memory of youthful indulgences (“Outta My System”), or the forsaking of childish things (“Holding on to Black Metal”). This is hardly new subject matter for Jim James as a songwriter -- see “I Needed it Most,” from the band’s 1999 debut -- but he allowed that at 33, he was feeling its poignancy. On “Wonderful (The Way I Feel),” a sweetly radiant ballad, he assumes the perspective of an old man peacefully approaching the final threshold.
At one point in the song, though, James steps back to offer an aside -- “I can learn from way back when / And still live right now” -- that could almost be the mantra of the new album. Its straight-to-tape recording method meant that the bulk of every song, including the main vocal, had to be captured live. I asked the band about this, and James had an interesting response. Here is the audio (and I hasten to add that I rarely include my own halting question, but it made sense in this case):
In case you missed that: yes, Jim James did say (and I quote), “This version of ‘In a Sentimental Mood’ is just fucking fucked up, how good it is.” I doubt you’d listen to Circuital and take away “Duke Ellington,” but the inspiration is clearly there. (I can’t seem to find an online clip of the right version of the song, so just go out and buy it. If you’re really obsessive, Mosaic Records has the goods, for real.)
At another point in this conversation -- just minutes later, actually -- we talked about one of the procedural byproducts of recording live to tape. Which would be the need to record take after take in pursuit of the magic performance. Everyone in the band had fascinating things to say about this. Here’s a brief exchange involving James, guitarist Carl Broemel and drummer Patrick Hallahan.
As I met with the band, they were in the process of adapting these recorded results to live performance, in a process much like reverse engineering. (Koster, with his synths and samples, is key in this effort; so is Broemel.) Circuital releases on Tuesday, and there’ll be an immediate way to gauge the success of this adaptation: YouTube and VEVO are airing a live feed from the band’s album-kickoff concert at the Louisville Palace Theater, 9PM EST. (A while back I interviewed Todd Haynes, who’ll direct the stream; read the Q&A here and here.)
And of course there’ll be other opportunities, pretty much throughout the rest of summer. Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, Austin City Limits. Here in New York at Hunter Mountain Jam. In the meantime, since you’re most likely at your computer right now, I’ll leave you with the version of “Circuital” that will air on VHI Storytellers on Friday, June 3. I was there at the taping; you’re going to want to watch the whole thing.