My Morning Jacket’s Tom Blankenship Talks ‘The Waterfall’ (INTERVIEW)

If there’s one thing to say about My Morning Jacket it’s that they have never stagnated throughout their nearly twenty years as a band. Each of the band’s six studio albums has been a departure from the last, an impressive feat regardless of whether you like them all or not. This – along with their always-changing live shows – is precisely why MMJ is still capable of not only engaging their fans, but gaining new ones all the time. With each album the band seems to have graduated to larger venues, yet has never fully sold their souls to the mainstream.

The Waterfall, MMJ’s first studio album since 2011’s Circuital, follows in the same vein as previous work in that it sounds different than anything they’ve done up until now. On the one hand, the more dance and disco oriented sounds that have become a favorite of frontman and primary songwriter Jim James in his recent solo work shine through, but the band also cultivates more retro influences of funk and soul music which, if you’ve followed them as of late, know they are particularly fond of. Fans who have missed the band while they’ve taken a break from the road over the last few years can also take solace in the fact that the album release will be followed by a lengthy tour. Recently, MMJ’s bassist and founding member Tom Blankenship took time to talk about The Waterfall and reflect on his years in the band.

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Does it ever feel weird thinking of yourselves as veterans as far as being a big band goes? 

I joined the band a couple weeks before my 21st birthday and I’m 37 now. The majority of my adult life has been spent in this band, which is surreal for sure. I feel extremely grateful to have such patient and understanding bandmates that make staying together this long so easy. After a show we still want to hang out and listen to and geek out about music on the bus. The fact that fans still want to take this journey with us, show to show and album to album, is still astonishing to me.

Given the success of the band’s solo projects and side projects, were there challenges to getting everyone in the room in the MMJ mindset when it came to recording this new album? 

I didn’t get the feeling that it was challenging at all. The great thing about this group of guys is that we have an open relationship, and we’re encouraging of each other’s side projects, studio work, etc. Anytime we work with other artists it strengthens us individually as musicians. You have to learn to perform in unknown surroundings, work with different personalities that you’re not used to and therefore speak a different musical language altogether. Coming back to the MMJ world with those experiences in hand only makes us appreciate our dynamic that much more. It helps us be better prepared for the unknown that we’re sure to face as each album presents crazy challenges we’ve never faced before.

The band recorded in a fairly isolated place and it sounds like it was sort of a reunion. What kind of activities do you guys do to pass the time when you’re not recording? 

Definitely our longstanding tradition (since the Z-era recording session) of late night DJ party/Nintendo Ice Hockey tournament. At least on those nights when we weren’t completely spent from tracking. One of the amazing things about being in Stinson Beach was the opportunity to walk along the beach, through the little town and up the hills through the woods to the studio. It was a magical experience and no better way to defragment your mind than to let it wander off in the air, up in the treetops and gliding along the waves.

This album took longer to record than all of your previous work. Did the band set out to stretch the process and how do you think that influenced the final product? 

Jim had something like 30 or so demos for this record, most were rough sketches and not completely fleshed out tunes. We went in with the goal of tackling every one of them. No stone unturned. When we got a year into tracking, at about 21 songs, we felt like it was a good stopping point. This is the first time we’d had SO many songs to choose for just one record. That undoubtedly helped making a cohesive album, not just a collection of songs, easier than before. And luckily the songs left over didn’t feel like leftovers at all. We felt like they were fitting together as another record themselves.

image50682MMJ perform in Brooklyn in 2012 

The band has said that this album “continues to honor its influences without aping any of them”. What kind of stuff were you listening going into it?

Too much to even list. Seriously. So many different genres, eras etc that I can’t recall what I was specifically listening to at the time. I feel we’re all like that, listening and exploring everything out there, all the time. That probably informs how we make music collectively. And why it’s hard for us to pinpoint precise influences or even explain our sound.

Your album cover for The Waterfall looks very Sierra Club if I must admit and the nature portrait might not be something fans expect from you guys versus the more ominous covers of Z, Evil Urges and Circuital. Why such a peaceful sounding album title and cover image? 

Right, the image could almost be a companion to the At Dawn album cover. I had never thought about it that way. For me personally, it’s related to our time in Stinson Beach. Like those walks to and from the studio. Being connected to nature. Literally being surrounded by trees and creatures every time we walked out of the studio doors. Every evening around sunset we would stop what we were doing and walk outside to watch the sun descend, like an enormous egg yolk slowly smashing down in a psychedelic wash of color, much like the colors of the waterfall on the album cover. Those images, the smell of ocean air and the openness of it all, seeped into every aspect of this record.

My Morning Jacket’s first-ever destination event, One Big Holiday, took place a couple years after your last record. Has staging such a big event all under your name given the band a we-can-do-something-huge without any outside industry influence confidence that only certain acts like Phish, Zappa and The Grateful Dead have done with success?  

The fan response and support was certainly greater than I could’ve imagined. We always go into a huge event like that thinking “can we really pull this off?”. I mean, we believe in us, but you can’t do anything more than hope that other people will as well. It’s kinda scary. It’s not like a fan buying a ticket to a single show when we’re rolling through their hometown. So we don’t take it for granted that it was a huge commitment both financially and time spent away from work and/or family. That so many sweet fans took a chance on the inaugural year meant the world to us. It’s a huge chance to take. But the faith that Cloud 9, Bowery Presents and, of course, the fans put in our little band makes us feel like we could take on the world. At least a baby step at a time. An event like that wouldn’t even be possible without the love and support of our fans.

Of all My Morning Jacket’s vast influence, soul music has played a dominant part in the past decade or so. With that there’s been a whole revival of soul via bands you have been proud fans of like Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. Why does soul music seem to hold the backbone for a lot of your sound versus the more ragged? 

It’s timeless. In the way that Superman and comic books are modern American mythology, I believe soul, jazz and the blues are this country’s modern musical mythology. It would be impossible not to be influenced or emotionally touched by the music growing up here. At the end of the day it’s where we return musically, rhythmically. It’s the gospel. It’s home.

Your albums are all held in such regard and usually bring a response from a fan by the title alone – can you give us one word that comes to mind for each of your album titles?

The Tennessee Fire – Twilight

At Dawn – Proud

It Still Moves – Clementines

Z – Lock-in

Evil Urges – City

Circuital – Passing

The Waterfall – Sunset

Is there a process to rehearsing for a tour and how much time does the band spend doing it? 

Every time we’re prepping the first run of shows with a new record the challenge is to remember, or in most cases learn, what you played on that record. Sometimes the songs were recorded a year or more before the tour prepping begins, so it takes some time at home to figure everything out. We typically spend at least a week as a band and crew working out how all the musical pieces are gonna fit together. It’s a fun challenge, [and] in all honesty I prefer it to be one.

Does the band have a big hand in preparing visuals for a tour, and if so can you maybe talk about what fans can expect as far as production goes for the tour? 

We’re still in the early creative stages of tour lighting and production. But we’re lucky on that front. We’ve been working with LD extraordinaire Marc Janowitz for several years now. It’s a really collaborative process and he always comes to the table with lots of options and is super open to brainstorming sessions.

With such a large catalogue at this point, how does the band go about selecting what material to play on a huge tour? 

At this point every song in the catalog is out on the countertop ready to go in the setlist stew. We had a lot of fun doing the Spontaneous Curation thing on the road a few years ago, where fans were encouraged to submit songs they’d love to hear and then we’d build our setlist around those tunes. That’s something that we’d love to keep up with these upcoming tours.

Considering the size of the venues you often play these days, are you conscious of building a bigger sound that can fill a room when you’re putting new material together? 

We’re not really conscious of how the songs will translate live while we’re in the studio. Which is why it makes it a fun challenge later down the line.

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MMJ’s One Big Holiday 2015 (Photo: Dave Vann)

You’ve gotten married in the time the band spent apart. Has that changed your outlook on life and touring, and if so, how? 

Absolutely. This point four years ago, right before Circuital came out, was a dark time for me personally. My dad had just passed away while we were making the album and I felt lost, like my place in world, or even my role in every relationship had completely changed and I wasn’t too sure how to navigate it. There’s that unexplainable role reversal that occurs when a parent becomes really sick and the child is the one taking care of them. And it drastically changed how I viewed the world around me. It opened up my eyes wider than they’d ever been capable of before. Everything came into perspective almost all at once. I immediately knew what was worth expending energy on, the real priorities of life and it was incredibly overwhelming. But out of that darkness came this light, this courageous beautiful woman, and that saved me. Just by her being herself she showed me what it was to love simply and without judgement. So having that knowledge, sharing my life with her, has changed how I feel about leaving home and going on the road. Doing this in part to support our home life but also because I’ve found a renewed joy and love in what I do for a living. Rediscovering my inner 8th grade self that would air guitar to my favorite metal record while jumping around my bedroom.

Jim James and Patrick Hallahan did really well with their side projects. Do you have anything like that in the works, or is there something you’d like to pursue? 

In the Marvel Comics of the 1980s this character called Scourge killed off something like two dozen cheesy b-list “super” villains. I’d love to write a mini-series that shows how sad and hilariously awkward their final days were. Like they’re just meeting up to play Atari in each other’s shabby apartments, arguing over what toppings would be on the pizza their mom’s ordering for them later in the night. Or I could release a pizza picture disc of my instrumental funk band from high school, Gummy Spoon. Or I could sit at home and eat a pizza.

The Waterfall officially drops May 4th. For more info check out mymorningjacket.com. 

My Morning Jacket Tour Dates:

May 15 at Georgia Theatre in Athens, GA
May 16 at Tennessee Theatre in Knoxville, TN
May 17 at Hangout Festival in Gulf Shores, AL
May 23 at Boston Calling Festival in Boston, MA
June 3 at State Theatre in Cleveland, OH w/ Floating Action
June 4 at Stage AE in Pittsburgh, PA w/ Floating Action
June 5 at Governors Ball Music Festival in New York, NY
June 7 at Field Trip Festival in Toronto, ON
June 9 at Chicago Theatre in Chicago, IL w/ Hiss Golden Messenger
June 10 at Chicago Theatre in Chicago, IL w/ Hiss Golden Messenger
June 11 at Chicago Theatre in Chicago, IL w/ Hiss Golden Messenger
June 12-14 at Bonnaroo in Manchester, TN
June 16 at The Fillmore in Detroit, MI w/ Hiss Golden Messenger
June 17 at The Fillmore in Detroit, MI w/ Hiss Golden Messenger
June 19 at Gentlemen of the Road Stopover in Waverly, IA
June 20 at Riverside Theater in Milwaukee, WI w/ Floating Action
June 23 at Palace Theatre in Columbus, OH w/ Floating Action
June 24 at Palace Theatre in Columbus, OH w/ Floating Action
June 26 at Northrup Auditorium in Minneapolis, MN w/ Hippo Campus
June 27 at Northrup Auditorium in Minneapolis, MN w/ Lizzo
July 17-19 at Forecastle Festival in Louisville, KY
July 21 at nTelos Wireless Pavilion in Charlottesville, VA w/ Lizzo
July 22 at Artpark Series in Lewiston, NY w/ Lizzo
July 26 at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, MD w/ Jason Isbell
July 28 at Red Hat Amphitheatre in Raleigh, NC w/ Lucius
July 29 at Uptown Amphitheatre in Charlotte, NC w/ Lucius
July 31 at Champions Square in New Orleans, LA w/ Lucius
August 1 at Amphitheatre in St. Augustine, FL w/ Mini Mansions
August 3 at The Fillmore in Miami, FL w/ Mini Mansions
August 4 at Hard Rock Live in Orlando, FL w/ Mini Mansions
August 7 at Fox Theatre in Atlanta, GA w/ Mini Mansions
August 8 at Fox Theatre in Atlanta, GA w/ Mini Mansions
August 10 at BJCC Concert Hall in Birmingham, AL w/ Mini Mansions
August 12 at The Peabody Opera House in St. Louis, MO w/ Hippo Campus
August 13 at Starlight Theatre in Kansas City, MO w/ Hippo Campus
August 14 at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Denver, CO w/ Sylvan Esso
August 28-30 at Rock en Seine Festival in Paris, FR
September 1 at Rivierenhof Amphitheatre in Antwerp, BEL
September 2 at Gloria in Koln, GER
September 4 at Electric Picnic Festival in Dublin, IRE
September 5 at End of the Road Festival in Larmer Tree Gardens, UK
September 6 at The Ritz in Manchester, UK
September 8 at Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London, UK
September 10 at Paradiso in Amsterdam, HOL
September 12 at Take Root Festival in Groningen, HOL
September 13 at Lollapalooza in Berlin, GER

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