After recording and releasing It Still Moves, the most commercially successful record of their band’s career, founding My Morning Jacket members Danny Cash and Johnny Quaid threw their lifelong friends’ future to the wolves when they decided to leave the rock and roll life behind. The added pressure of a follow-up might have crumpled the confidence of a lot of bands just beginning to taste success, but instead of a post-victory flop, the Kentucky quintet recorded the most ambitious album yet.
Combining frontman Jim James’ ethereal vocals with a tighter, more spacious pop sophistication, thanks in large part to the addition of keyboardist Bo Koster, Z shows just how much was hiding up My Morning Jacket’s sleeves. The eerie, big top irony of “Into the Woods” and the cavernous echoes of “Wordless Chorus” show a band that’s not willing to rest on formula, but instead reminds fans and press alike on “Off the Record,” they have “got to want to rearrange,” and takes every opportunity to do so.
Days before their current tour supporting their new opus, drummer Patrick Hallahan discussed dealing with loss and finding new treasures, kittens on fire and babies in a blender, staying true to mystery, pushing through, and understanding the value of both sonic and physical space.
Now that Z has finally been released, are you looking forward to the upcoming tour?
Of course. It’s been pretty dormant here with recording the album. We’ve done a little one-off here and there, but we’re really looking forward to taking the whole album out and seeing how it translates into a live performance.
Were you working new songs into the shows you recently played with Wilco?
Well, with any of the shows, we picked maybe three songs off the album to kind of ease people into it. We wanted to save plenty of surprises until they actually got it in their hands.
Z is obliviously a change in direction from your previous work, but was it a conscious effort?
Sure, I think it was an effort, consciously, and I think it’s a product of a lot of variables being changed as well. For the most part, we took a less-is-more approach to this whole album-making process and left plenty of room between the layers for breathing. I think that there’s a million and one reasons why the album sounds like it does.
Well, you’ve got two new members.
Yeah, and we’ve recorded at the farm and we’ve worked with the producer John Leckie. You know, there’s just a lot of newness.
For this collection, how long was the songwriting process from start to finish? And at what point do you decide a song is done?
Well, Jim started working on some of these demos. Every album that’s done starts off with some demos that Jim comes up with, always on acoustic guitar. And he brought them to us about late November, early December of last year. And me and Jim and [Two-Tone] Tom[my] started hammering them out and seeing how they work in a full-band form, and you know, kind of edited and changed things here and there. Then we had Bo [Koster] and Carl [Broemel] come in and add the icing on the cake and their input. It was a building process from about early December until we left to record the album throughout the entire month of March. So the whole thing from start to finish once we got the demos and started working on them probably took about four or five months to complete. The songs just kind of…the songs will tell you when they’re done. When there doesn’t need to be anything else added, or if you don’t feel like there’s something lacking—the work itself lends that information.
Did you know from the beginning this was not going to be such a guitar-driven record?
I think…yeah. You know, some of them, we backed off a little bit more with the guitar. We kind of came to the conclusion that, with It Still Moves, we hit the record button and everybody would count one-two-three-go and everybody would play at once and stop at once and it was full-on all the time. I don’t know. Like I was saying before, we adopted a less-is-more anthem to this. We wanted simplicity and space, and I think we wanted to make something a little more danceable and something that’ll make you think at the same time and just try something new and something different. We don’t want to write the same album every time. I feel like a lot of us grew as musicians over this process, just pushing our boundaries back a little bit and exploring other territories without compromising the core of the sound itself.
There’s a lot less of the typical rock, 4/4, drumbeats on the record. A lot them are almost exotic. Is that something you were trying to do from the get-go or was it something the songs lent themselves to?
I think the songs called for that. I think all of us as musicians, not just myself, were looking to push through some things that I think we were getting pigeon-holed for. I think these songs, if they had just a straight four-four beat and standard rock and roll drumming, it would have overshadowed all the intricate details of everything else. It was just a different mood for this album. I think there’s a place for full-on rock and roll and I think sometimes it’s great to just try some other things and see how you can work it all in to one piece of work such as an album and make it make sense.
Was that starting to get to you after a while, while It Still Moves was getting all the press and y’all were kind of lumped in with the southern rock revival?
I think that we were definitely tired of it because…I guess we’re from the south, but some of that I feel like was lazy journalism in a way—in terms of just going on physical aspects of the band and not listening to the actual songs themselves. Yeah, I think that that’s all part of it. We didn’t write this album to say that, “Hey, we’re not a Southern rock band,” but when we were making it, we were thinking that, if they call us a Southern rock band this time, they need a new job.
The whole reverb thing has become one of your trademarks, but I hear less of it on this record.
Well, there’s still plenty of reverb (laughs). Well there were different types of reverb. On the last album, we had the converted grain silo. We had this huge plate reverb. We had all of this reverb. The album is just baked and bathed in reverb, and that’s great for that stuff, but I think that some of these songs called for a little bit of a tighter sound. Like in “Wordless Chorus,” for instance, I feel like during the verses, it’s very tight. There’s not a whole lot of reverb going on there, but when the chorus kicks in, I think again, the less-is-more approach. The chorus kicks in with all this reverb and then all of a sudden, it’s this out of body experience. If anything, we just learned some lessons. (laughs) That you can have a lot of reverb, but you can also use it to your advantage as well.
Were you listening to anything in particular that really influenced the record as you were recording it?
Well, I mean, yeah. We’re definitely not a band, though, that jumps in the van and pops in a tape and everybody jams out to it. We’re all listening to our own stuff all the time. I don’t know. I know Jim’s been listening to a lot more hip-hop and R&B; and classic soul and stuff like that. And that definitely leaked into the album a little bit—the grooves and the bounciness of it. I was listening—because we were recording right outside of Woodstock, where all that incredible music was made—I was listening to a lot of the Band and a lot of Bob Dylan. It wasn’t a conscious decision, they kind of were just hand in hand, but once I realized that, “Oh my God, all the music I’m listening to formed around here,” it just kind of made sense, because you get that feeling up there. There’s a certain eerie spirituality to that area.
Was there a definitive reason why you chose to record up there?
Well, recording at the farm was no longer an option, because it belonged to John [Quaid]’s grandparents, and once he left, it wasn’t even an issue. So, we were looking for other places and definitely wanted to do something in a rural setting. We don’t want the distractions of an urban setting and things like that to interfere with the flow that’s going on or kill the vibe of anything, so we were definitely looking for something far removed. And one of our dear friends suggested Allaire studios, and Jim went and visited a bunch of different places and came across Allaire when he finally went up there, and it was perfect. It’s up on top of a mountain and it’s surrounded by forest. Hell, it takes ten minutes to get down the mountain itself, so we were very much far removed.
I think we function much better in some place that’s rural and scenic and spiritual in that regard. There’s so many things going on in a city that would just take away from it all. There’d be too many temptations—hanging out and going out and people bothering you. I think when we’re there to write an album…it was really nice. This was a month-long retreat. We only left the mountain like four or five times. We kind of like the lock-in approach to it. It’s intimate.
Do you all get much writing done while you’re on tour?
Not usually, not at all. It’s usually on the down times that Jim sits at home and doodles around on a four-track or something like that and comes up with an idea. You know, then we might start kicking it around at soundcheck a little bit, but it’s primarily something done off of the road.
Did Jim take anything away from the tour that he did with Connor Oberst and M. Ward that he brought back to the record? Did he speak about that or was there anything that you noticed that had a direct connection?
Well, I think if anything—which was awesome because it’s something that I’ve always wanted to do—but I feel like he was definitely introduced to the thrills of a collaboration done well. And since then we’ve gone out with M. Ward on the road and been his back up band for his set practically, and he’d come out and sing with us, and it was just a non-stop switching of the guards kind of thing. As far as musically, I think he probably pulls from everything around him, just like the rest of us do, not just that particular instance. But obviously he gained something from it.
Ironically, in some ways, the record sounds more like some of the earlier material, there’s a little bit more space, and it’s a little more spare. Do you feel things have come full circle?
I don’t know if they’ve come full circle or not, but I know that it’s just a product of the evolution of the band and all the changes that have gone on and how we’ve coped with those changes and grown and maybe taken a side road instead of maybe taking that straight path for a while. I think that it’s all a very natural, organic part of it.
Jim brings the songs to the table. How much influence does the rest of the band have on the lyrics?
In terms of the lyrics, that’s pretty much Jim’s department. He brings like a structure of the song and an idea of the song in. I think, in terms of lyrics, that’s always Jim, but I think we definitely add our little flavors in here and there with the whole writing process. When he came in with the demos, Tom and I were able to process that and come up with some things on the side that would meld parts together. Then Carl and Bo would just come in and add this huge thick layer of icing on the cake. But yeah, as far as lyrics are concerned, that’s all Jim.
On the more cryptic songs, does he share his thoughts about them with you guys or does he sort of leave you in the dark, too?
I think if we asked…I ask sometimes, but I just know him, so they kind of make sense to me. Since we’re around each other practically every second of our lives, I can tell what he’s probably writing about. A lot of it is—he’ll say this a lot—he has ideas of what he’s writing, but until he’s actually written it and changed it around…he kind of learns what he’s written about.
In the last issue of Spin, Jim talks about the “baby in a blender” lyric [in “Into the Woods”] and he mentions something about psychedelic drugs, but I’m just curious to know what the song’s about. The juxtaposition of the innocent, childish circus music with these violent images is really interesting.
If you really pay attention to lines of it, it’s a comparison. He’s saying that “a kitten on fire, a baby in a blender, sounds about as sweet as a night of surrender.” Obviously a night of surrender isn’t that wonderful. He’s just trying to drive home a point. I don’t think it’s really anything…I don’t know, some things I like to leave alone, because I still like the mystery with it as well.
Is “Off the Record” an open letter to music press or the fans?
That’s kind of a hard one to answer. I think it means a lot of things. There’s a lot of things going on in that song. I think the basis of it is just sort of…I think he wrote it for all of us, just to say that we’re going to do the things the way we want to do them and that’s really about it. We don’t want to be completely exposed all the time, so we have to keep it off the record. Yeah, it’s a pretty easy interpretation.