With all the chaos that can inundate itself into the music of My Morning Jacket, guitarist Carl Broemel has found tranquility and idyllic harmony in his solo music. His latest endeavor, 4th Of July, out this week, is like lounging on a passing cloud, rays of sun on your face and thoughts about life and the universe passing through your inner sanctum. It can be an enlightening way to spend an hour, having songs like “Rockingchair Dancer,” “Crawlspace,” “In The Dark” and “Snowflake” swirling around you. With Broemel’s sophisticated guitar playing and talent for an engaging turn of phrase, the 4th Of July ride is smooth sailing and more enjoyable than you’d imagine if you were waiting for the wildness of an MMJ tune.
This is Broemel’s third go-round with a solo project and he has enlisted some fine musicians to help him along: Neko Case, Laura Veirs and Richard Medek, as well as MMJ bandmates Bo Koster and Tom Blankenship. But it’s the subject matter of these eight compositions that simmer to the top. “In some ways, I found myself being very disconnected from friends and family,” Broemel stated recently. “I have to miss weddings and, unfortunately, I have to miss funerals too. So when I missed one that I should’ve been at, I was like, ‘What am I doing? I’m in a town car coming home from the airport and my friend just died. Fuck! What’s really important to me at this moment?’ I was just trying to figure that out.” He said the song “Landing Gear” was “just me wondering, ‘What am I doing? What’s important to me? And where is everybody?’”
With so many thoughts going on in his head, you’d think he’d have produced a record sooner – All Birds Say came out in 2010 – but he’s been a busy man. Between family and MMJ, he’s also currently on tour with Ray LaMontagne as part of the singer-songwriter’s band. It was on a day off recently that Broemel gave Glide a few minutes of his time to talk about 4th Of July, writing songs, joining MMJ and how Preservation Hall in New Orleans could be one of the most important things he’s encountered.
How is the tour going with Ray LaMontagne?
It’s been really, really fun. We’re like halfway through the second leg right now. But it’s been a great experience, been really enjoyable. We feel really lucky to be involved with helping him get the word out about his new record.
How long have you known him?
I have not known him for a really long time. He met the My Morning Jacket guys before I was in the band so he met Patrick [Hallahan], Jim [James] and Tom, I don’t know, twelve years ago or something like that; maybe thirteen years ago. So they’ve been pals for a really long time. I have to admit I haven’t known him as long as everybody else but we’re becoming pals as we go along on this journey together.
Did you have to make any adjustments to your sound or your tone to play with Ray on this tour?
Yeah, we had to turn everything down (laughs). You know his approach, his dynamic range, is much wider than what we have done in the past and the way he approaches singing, we needed to make some adjustments to make him comfortable cause we’re used to kind of blasting it. But I’ve been really happy that we’ve been able to fit into his zone, you know, coming from being on the road with Jacket in the spring and then to come down to his dynamic level has been a really good challenge. And also just really fun. I keep saying, I feel like for all of us it’s about getting new perspectives on music and life and everything and hopefully bringing that kind of stuff back to the table when My Morning Jacket gets back together. And just being able to adjust to play music with someone totally new, that’s a perspective builder for sure. He’s an inspiring person to be around and an incredible singer so all that kind of wrapped up together has been really fun and who knows how it will affect us in the future. But I’m feeling like we all learned a little bit about playing with a little bit more dynamics confidently and that has been really cool for us.
How much longer will you be on this tour?
I think we have another twenty-six shows or something, twenty-five shows.
And then what happens for you?
My solo album comes out August 19th and I’ll still be on the road with Ray when that comes out. But the weekend my album comes out I’m going to play in Nashville and Louisville, kind of my two home bases, and then go back out with Ray. Then in October I’m going to do a tour, a solo tour, with my friend Daniel Martin Moore and we’re going to go play about ten shows in the Southeast. Then in November I’m going to go out on tour with another friend and play kind of the Northeast and the Midwest and promote the 4th Of July album. Then in the New Year we’ll probably start talking about recording some more music for My Morning Jacket.
Why did you choose 4th Of July as the title instead of say Sleepy Lagoon or Crawlspace?
(laughs) It was going to be called Sleepy Lagoon at one point so you’re not far off. But I found that photograph on the front cover in an old family album and since it has the Statue Of Liberty and like a silhouette, I thought 4th Of July kind of made more sense; even though I think the story of the Statue Of Liberty is that France was trying to deliver it on time for the 4th of July for the centennial or bicentennial of the United States, I can’t remember. But they were a little late, which is kind of cool cause my record is a little late too (laughs). It didn’t come out on the 4th of July. It’s coming out August 19th. Oh well (laughs).
You did this record over time. What song kind of got the process going?
I can’t remember what song we did first but it was either “Landing Gear,” no that was the second session. I think it was “Sleepy Lagoon.” We did “Sleepy Lagoon” and “In The Dark” and “Best Of,” I think, in the first session. I ended up recording like eleven songs and once I kind of finished, and “Snowflake” was the last song, and once I finished that one I looked back at the eleven and whittled it down to the eight. Then I was like, okay, this is enough for an album.
I noticed there is a lot of harmony on this record and by that I mean peacefulness and symmetry. Was that intentional or did the songs that you had been writing just sort of fall into place like that?
That’s nice to hear and yeah, I’m not exactly sure where that comes from. I mean, I did study Classical music in college so sometimes when I’m writing a piece of music, like “Rockingchair Dancer” or something, it kind of goes by a Classical guitar technique. There’s a lot of really short, easy guitar pieces that I used to play in school that I loved and they are real simple and have like a simple form, like an A-B-A form. So maybe that’s part of it. But I’m trying to push myself to be less mellow and less peaceful in the studio but I think that’s part of who I am as a songwriter at the moment. It’s a reflective sort of thing. When I come home from touring, I’m up late at night after everyone in my house is asleep and I’ll be messing around with songs. So coming from that kind of quiet nighttime or early in the morning time before anyone else is awake, that’s sort of when a lot of the songs get created.
You mentioned “Rockingchair Dancer.” What can you tell us about it?
That one was kind of influenced by Harry Nilsson. I did a Harry Nilsson tribute and I did “The Moonbeam Song.” I just love that song so I kind of lifted a little bit of inspiration from that. I remember I kind of wrote the music for that as I was standing over my son’s crib. He’s seven now so I probably wrote that song five years ago and didn’t record it for a long time. So just kind of playing for him as he was kind of dozing off, sitting in his room with all his stuff, you know, stuffed animals and his toys, and I started to remember when I was a kid having a room full of awesome stuff that you fantasized about and created these stories in your mind. So that song came from being around him. There’s three verses, kind of a symmetrical beginning, middle and end song, like of a life or something of your dreams and then what really happens, which is sort of what you thought but always feels like an alternate universe version of what you thought. Then the last verse is just like being okay with it all, finding peace with what actually happened in life.
“Crawlspace” is a lovely instrumental. How do you know when a song doesn’t need words?
That’s a good question. I love short things. Like it’s so short that it does stand on it’s own I feel like. I did try to sing along to it and come up with something but it didn’t seem to enhance it at all. It was sort of distracting from the piano parts that Bo came up with and just the mood of it. I kind of think of it as an introduction to the last song. I think it kind of combines with “Best Of” and sets up “Best Of” and it’s sort of a jazzy thing. Also, one of my favorite albums of all-time is Thelonious Monk Alone In San Francisco. It’s just him in the studio, just him and a piano, and it’s just fascinating to listen to someone completely by themselves playing. That’s one of my favorite records. Nick Drake’s Pink Moon is one of my favorite records that has an instrumental on it. So that’s in my mind of things that I enjoy listening to myself. So that kind of factors in, like, well, I haven’t come up with anything good for this and it’s feeling good so I’m going to leave it (laughs).
How did Neko Case get involved with the record?
We’ve toured with her in the past so we’re pals and she worked with Tucker on her last album, Tucker Martine, who has done the last couple My Morning Jacket records. Tucker emailed me and sent me one of the songs they were working on and I added some guitar to it, just at my house, and sent it back. When that happened I texted her and was like, “I hope you like it. I might hit you up for a favor later.” And she was like, “Sure.” A year later I sent her a song and had her sing on “4th Of July.” The guy who helped me produce this record, it was sort of his idea to branch out and try to find some people to sing, so I had like five different guest singers spread out across the record.
Which guitar did you predominately use on this record?
I have an old Gibson acoustic, a little small Gibson acoustic, and I have a new electric guitar that I really like made by this company called Duesenberg. It’s a German guitar company. I think I used that mostly.
When you write a song, how do you know which entity it goes to? Do you keep it for yourself or take it to MMJ?
You know, primarily when we’re doing My Morning Jacket, the initial ideas come from Jim. So he’ll send us demos and we’ll take those and run with them. So it’s never really been a moment where I’m like, “Hey guys, here’s a new song. Jim, you sing this.” (laughs). It’s more about enhancing his initial ideas – and it’s not that we’re excluded, just sort of not the way it’s happening.
But I think we have a really good thing going and it’s sort of, yeah, we’re open, but it’s sort of strange. Like I’ve always written songs and I’ve always kind of done this on my own throughout my whole life. In all my other bands I’ve always been writing songs but the solo project for me is an extension of who I was before and just trying to build on it and expand upon it and, like I said before, the perspective building is so important for me. Doing stuff on my own, which is not what I do a lot, so it’s like building that skill of okay, now I’m sitting here, now I have to go on tour, now I have to do interviews talking about the songs. So it’s good, a good challenge. Being in the dressing room all by myself always wakes me up and I’m like, I can’t wait for us to get back together and do our thing. So it’s kind of one of the reasons I do it.
When you first joined My Morning Jacket, what was the atmosphere like in the band?
I think it was an experimental atmosphere, because two people had left and they weren’t quite sure how to proceed and if they should proceed or if they should bring new people in or not. I think they were just sort of open. Bo and I had not met until we were both kind of brought on to finish, cause they had tour dates booked and those guys, John and Dan, had left the band. So they needed to fulfill their obligations so they brought us on just initially to fulfill the tour they had already booked. And I’ll never forget, we rehearsed actually at Johnny’s parents’ farm out in the country and we stood there and rehearsed the songs. I mean, I knew the songs cause I had learned them before I got there obviously. And they’re just calmly standing there playing to the song and they looked kind of bored, the veterans looked a little bored. It was fun, you know, we were getting through it and then we got to the first show in Birmingham, Alabama, and we played this club called Workplay and I’ll never forget it. I had never seen the band play before I was in the band, so that was my first show, literally, in the band or not in the band. So I remember looking at Bo and like Tom and Patrick and Jim just started going insane – the energy and the jumping around – and I remember catching eyes with Bo and we were like, holy shit, what is happening! (laughs). It was like the super calm rehearsal and then the show was like a storm or something. So it was an interesting thing, a really interesting time, and we all kind of figured it out together.
What is the most complicated guitar work or guitar piece you’ve done on one of the My Morning Jacket records?
That’s a good question. I think on The Waterfall it was interesting to do “Tropics.” I don’t really consider it difficult but it is sort of complicated, if that makes sense. It’s hard to remember all the little intricacies of it. That took some practice to get it ready to go on tour. But I’m really proud of that song, the way we created that song and all the little weird parts. It’s a strange tuning too, the guitars are tuned in a really strange way, like an open minor chord. And I’m really proud of the song “Lay Low.” That has really intricate two guitar parts that kind of flow in and out and complement each other.
I’ve read that you are an admirer of e.e. cummings. What attracts you to his words over all the other great poets?
(laughs) Yeah, I happened to stumble upon him. I started reading him in like high school and I’ve always carried my tattered copy of The Complete Works around from house to house and occasionally get it out. I have it on my Kindle too. But it’s like a tradition for me to read his poems in the springtime and just enjoy his take on it, you know. I think my favorite poem is “O Sweet Spontaneous, Earth;” I mean, that’s the first line and that’s how he titles his poems. I could pull it up but he basically says like, all your scientists and philosophers poke and prod you and your answer is spring, you know. It’s pretty fantastic stuff.
Who was the first real rock star you ever met?
You know, it’s going back and back and back but maybe the first like bonafide rock & roll person that I actually got to know is a guitar player named Mike Wanchic and he played guitar with John Mellencamp for decades. I met him in Bloomington and I went to school in Bloomington, Indiana, and he owned a really nice studio in town. So he became kind of a mentor to me and my band guys at the time. I was in a band called Old Pike and Wanchic was definitely the biggest rock star that I got to know well. His perspective on what we were doing at the time, cause we were just like college kids and we finally had a record deal, and he was very sobering. He was like, “Alright guys, now the nightmare begins. Now you have to really double-down your efforts.” And we were like, what! (laughs) “I’ve got a couple grand in the bank. I’m fine.” And he’s like, “You’ve got to wake up and get to work.” And I was like, Oh man (laughs). So he had some valuable advice for us. I’ll never forget that. He was a great guy.
You guys played at Jazz Fest this year. How was that?
I think that was only the second time. But yeah, I remember the first time being there and seeing Bonnie Raitt the first time and thinking she was fantastic. It’s always been so hot and I remember my son was with us the first time and we were walking around together and enjoying Jazz Fest and that was cool. Walking around the French Quarter with him was hilarious. But I think the most important thing that happened to me and my band in New Orleans was getting to know the people that are involved with Preservation Hall. Ben Jaffe and everybody there, they’ve really taken us in. We were just at Ben’s house last week swimming in his pool and hanging out. But we just feel lucky that they’ve been able to show us the deeper parts of New Orleans and the actual real deal music that is happening and the tradition that they are involved in and preserving is so inspiring. So just being around those guys is like a big time mutual admiration society there, where we’re just in awe of them and what they do, like all their outreach stuff and all the music and how many people have played there. It’s like our magnet when we get there. We feel like we’ve got to go hang with Ben and go to the Pres Hall and spend time there. I’m playing at the Preservation Hall actually on my solo tour, towards the end of October [October 14].
Live photographs by Leslie Michele Derrough; portrait by Brian Stowell