My Morning Jacket return from a formal hiatus and a crippling global pandemic with perhaps the most live-sounding studio LP of their career.
A few years ago, Jim James’ mind started drifting back to the mall.
“For me, and my generation, the mall used to be the center of communal life,” the My Morning Jacket frontman says, as he thinks about his teenage days in Louisville, Ky. “It was where you would go to hang out, but it was all based around buying shit—and that made me think about the horrors of capitalism and the horrors of this world that we live in. As I get older and grow more, I’m starting to realize how important nature is, how important eating organic food is and how important it is to just spend time with family—what’s truly important.”
His musings on those sparkling, sprawling, commercial epicenters—that once put countless mom-and-pop stores out of business but are now slowly marching toward extinction themselves in the digital age—are now the basis of “Devil’s in the Details,” the epic, nine-minute centerpiece of My Morning Jacket’s forthcoming, self-titled LP. The 11-song set is MMJ’s first album of new original material since 2015 and their second release in just over a year, after the Kentucky-bred rockers dropped their long-shelved The Waterfall II sessions last July. My Morning Jacket is also the quintet’s most live-sounding studio project since their club days and possibly ever, capturing the unbridled energy and adventurous, journeyman spirit that made them the rare act to hold dual-citizenship at Coachella and Bonnaroo back when those festivals felt worlds apart.
“We’ve been sold this bullshit that buying things makes you happy,” James adds. “And now even that is fading away into the internet. In some ways, that’s even more horrific because at least at the mall you saw people. We are all being duped into thinking that the internet can be a substitute for real life. With the end of ‘Devil’s in the Details,’ we just let go; it was this really beautiful moment in the studio. One of my favorite things to do is start with an idea and let it go where it wants to. What you hear on the album is the first or second time we played that song. And, so far, those are the only times we have played that song.”
As he tracks the genesis of My Morning Jacket’s latest effort, James is calling from Louisville in early August. The singer/ guitarist has divided his time between Los Angeles and his hometown as of late, after previously putting down roots in a few other corners of the country. While back in the Bluegrass State, he’s been rehearsing with MMJ’s two Kentucky residents, bassist Tom Blankenship and drummer Patrick Hallahan. Keyboardist Bo Koster, who lives in Los Angeles, and guitarist Carl Broemel, who currently resides in Nashville, are scheduled to join the proceedings soon, as the band starts looking toward their longest run of shows in about five years. They’re all excited to start whipping the My Morning Jacket songs and The Waterfall II material—most of which has still not been played live— into shape and to celebrate their seven other studio releases.
Despite its live feel, My Morning Jacket was actually tracked between two of the indie-Americana outfit’s longest pauses from the road since forming in 1998. The first was a formal hiatus from March 2018-August 2019 initiated by James. The second was the less-expected break brought on by the global pandemic, which hit the U.S. just as MMJ were finishing up their studio sessions.
“We got to a point after The Waterfall I where taking an extended, indefinite hiatus was the best thing for the band’s health and ethos—people had come to a grinding halt,” Hallahan says. “So [the self-titled record] is the sound of five guys coming together to see what it’s like being in a band again.”
My Morning Jacket originally entered LA’s 64 Sound—where they had planned to record a pre-break album that never came to fruition—shortly after their 2019 return to the stage. As is customary, James brought in a slew of songs and then the band helped flesh them out. However, in a sharp departure from their other recent sessions, they entered the studio without a producer—or really anyone else at all.
“The studio helped us set up and then they let it just be the five of us, which was the first time we’ve ever done anything like that,” James admits. “We didn’t have any plans or expectations. We just wanted to see if we had fun together. We had some live-improv time to help us get cooking and we started burning through songs. We had so much fun at those four reunion shows; we wanted to capture that. A certain atmosphere was created—our onstage energy.”
Koster says that James did a lot of the heavy lifting on his laptop, using ProTools and seamlessly shifting between performer and producer. “We tend to work really well—make good decisions and communicate—when it’s just the five of us because we’ve been together for so long,” he says. “It’s like when we’re playing music onstage; everyone listens. Everybody plays an important part in the whole.”
The sessions also stood in stark contrast to The Waterfall I and II, where the group’s drummer says that they brought all the equipment they owned out to Marin County, Calif. “It was the complete opposite of that—not just physically but also metaphysically,” he says. “We let whatever was meant to be, in that moment, happen.”
At first, the musicians admit that they weren’t even sure they were making a proper record; they were just more concerned with experimenting. “We were playing so much that we got lost in space, like we do onstage—it sounds like us not being self-conscious or not really caring,” Broemel says. “Sometimes, when we are in the studio, a song demands an accurate execution; other times, you’ve got to find the improv that works.”
To borrow modern pandemic parlance, Broemel says that the members of My Morning Jacket simply “bubbled up and got to work.”
In certain cases, they completed four songs in a single day; on occasion, they’d tinker with one idea for half a week. James says, with a laugh, that tunes that he thought would crush “fell flat on their faces” and other little nuggets he “didn’t think were worth anything” would turn out to be a really fun idea that everybody loved.
“We picked up right where he left off,” Blankenship says. “[The break] didn’t seep into the recordings. There was no animosity; it was like seeing an old friend.”
The results hit all MMJ’s high marks. “Love Love Love” is a groove-driven mid-set rocker. The spacey album opener “Regularly Scheduled Programming” seems to forsee the pandmeic with its lyrical content and themes of numbess and isolation. Swan song “I Could Never Get Enough” could easy arrive at the climax of a main-stage festival set. “In Color” started as a pretty, melodic quasi-pop song but quickly unfolded into a potential jam vehicle akin to live staple “Dondante.” “It took this turn where it got dark and intense while we were goofing around,” Broemel admits. “It just evolved.”
The members of My Morning Jacket say that they ended up laying down well more than an album’s worth of tunes, and then James spent time figuring out which ones worked best as a unified statement. But while singers Briana Lee and Maiya Sykes—veterans of James’ extracurricular work—ended up lending their voices to a few songs, the ensemble kept things unusually insular.
“When another person comes into the room, that whole dynamic gets distorted—it doesn’t flow well and we don’t communicate as well,” Koster says. “A lot of us are people pleasers, and we’re sensitive to energy. With this record, we stuck to our own ways of communicating and relating to one another, personally.”
“I didn’t have a particular solo project going on at the same time so I just had a big well of songs,” James adds. “We tried tons of songs—maybe a couple I had thought of for different solo things, but I wasn’t attached to anything in particular. It’s just so fascinating to me how the songs talk to each other. They all start to decide that they want to be this thing called a record.”
The frontman was also the one who suggested they simply title this set My Morning Jacket.
“Jim asked us how we felt about that— it was something we, collectively, never thought about before,” Blankenship says. “But the recording process reaffirmed the magic that the five of us have. I don’t think any other title would be more appropriate.”
James’ journey from bandleader to solo performer and back again has been circuitous, to say the least. When he originally stepped out under the name My Morning Jacket in the late ‘90s, the musician—who had performed as part of the local combo Month of Sundays— considered MMJ to be, in essence, a nom de plum vehicle for his non-band ideas.
“At first, it was me, acoustic, doing things on my own, and then my cousin Johnny [Quaid] came on board and helped me start recording,” James says, looking back on his early coffee-shop gigs. “He started playing guitar with me [live]. And then we kept adding people from there.”
Quaid and early My Morning Jacket drummer J. Glenn concurrently played in the emo-punk band Winter Death Club with Blankenship, who eventually joined them on bass as they were working toward their first album, 1999’s The Tennessee Fire.
“After we had Winter Death Club practice, Jim would be there, and they would start My Morning Jacket rehearsals,” Blankenship says. “It was a three-piece band; they didn’t have a bass. player and they played a few shows like that in Lexington and throughout the Northern Kentucky/Cincinnati area.”
The bassist also just missed out on contributing to the Jacket’s debut, though he appears in the release’s liner notes.
“I was a fan before I joined—when I first started coming out to the farm where we always recorded and had rehearsal, the album was already done,” he says. “The demos that I had were basically The Tennessee Fire. They were going to rerecord ‘I Think I’m Going to Hell,’ ‘Evelyn,’ ‘Heartbreakin Man’ and ‘The Bear’ at Ultrasuede Studios in Cincinnati, and they invited me along to play on those four songs so that I could be on the record, which I didn’t do. But, I was just excited that it was going to be a band, not just a side project.”
The Tennessee Fire and 2001’s At Dawn both generated strong underground buzz and, thanks to assists from acts like Foo Fighters and Doves, MMJ started to tour far outside of the Southeast. Their early years were marked by a few personnel changes, notably keyboardist Danny Cash joining in 2000 and Hallahan, who was already in the group’s orbit, coming aboard in 2002. After inking a deal with ATO, MMJ released their early definitive record It Still Moves, which included signature selections like “One Big Holiday” and “Mahgeetah.” They also became favorites on the festival scene, capable of bouncing between beautiful, woodsy country nuggets and free-flowing jams that drifted into the ether with Neil Young-like ease.
But, just as things started heating up, both Quad and Cash left the band and MMJ found themselves at a crossroads. Blankenship says they considered changing their name but, ultimately, kept their moniker, adding Koster and Broemel to complete what would become the project’s longest-running configuration. 2005’s experimental Z was their true breakthrough, opening up their indieleaning country-rock sound to include more modern and space-rock influences; 2008’s genre-jumping Evil Urges expanded on that eclecticism even more, with James describing the tracks like moving between levels of a video game.
Throughout, My Morning Jacket remained an unparalleled live band, graduating to large theaters and arenas in certain parts of the country and diversifying their setlists to include selections from each of their albums on any given run. The five musicians also jelled as a true band, both onstage and offstage.
“It’s like we’re a group of middle or high school kids who have their own vernacular,” Koster says. “We are playful and that’s where the improv comes from.”
“It’s just been a gradual thing—time tells the truth because we all know what it’s like to be in the honeymoon phase of something,” James adds. “We all know what it’s like to think something is gonna last forever and then it falls apart. But as time rolled on, people continued to show up in this really beautiful, egoless way and they continued to put the music first. At some point over the years, somebody could have showed up with a big chip on their shoulder or somebody could have gotten terribly mixed up in drugs.”
After an onstage injury in 2008, James started working on a solo album while continuing to steer a parallel career with the Jacket; his own LPs, by and large, maintained a more produced studio vibe that felt separate from MMJ, though some songs drifted between projects. He also found time to collaborate with everyone from Preservation Hall Jazz Band to The Roots and a few indie-folk supergroups, as well as lend his name to a variety of righteous causes.
My Morning Jacket maintained a busy tour schedule despite James’ increased profile, releasing the well-received rock album Circuital in 2011 and The Waterfall in 2015, but their output eventually started to slow. James says that he started to feel “burnt out” and, after performing at the Electric Forest festival in 2017, he gathered the band together on the bus and had what he describes as “this really hard conversation.”
“I said, ‘Listen, I gotta step away. And I don’t know what it means—maybe we will keep playing, maybe we won’t. I know that I love you all; nobody’s done anything wrong. There’s been no interpersonal drama. But, physically and psychologically, I don’t know if I can handle this anymore,’” he says. “They’re all such amazing and sweet people. We all care about each other so much more than this idea of ‘a band’ or ‘the music business.’ If something comes up or something happens—if you have a family emergency—that comes first. They were really understanding and respectful.”
Noting that he felt a break coming, Koster says that the conversation felt surprisingly natural.
“We’d been hitting it really hard for a long time—people were growing up, having babies,” the keyboardist says. “We had a bit of a midlife crisis as a band. We needed some space to come back and see things fresh. Jim also had back surgery in the middle of all this; there was just a lot of stress on him around My Morning Jacket.”
The group made good on their live commitments, playing a few emotional shows before wrapping things up with their annual One Big Holiday destination event in early 2018. In what felt like a fitting summation of their career, the musicians ran through all of their studio albums in sequential order, before closing with “Magic Bullet” and an encore rendition of the song that gave the event its name. Then, they each went their own ways.
“Part of the consideration was, ‘Maybe we won’t do it anymore,’” James says. “I didn’t really know; I just needed that time to feel things out. I’m trying to just be more open to that in life in general. I’m trying not to make up my mind about things until time and experience have had their say because all this shit fills up your mind—life, injuries and illnesses had just burnt me out on the Jacket. In a lot of ways, I wasn’t thinking clearly. I didn’t have any processing power in my brain because it was fucking fried. It’s almost like you’re on heavy drugs or something; you need to give yourself time for the drugs to wear off and time for reality to come in and see how you’re feeling. We’re all guilty of making a decision from that place of fatigue or from that place of burnout; we all get sucked in or burt out and are like, ‘Fuck this and fuck you’ and we want to write it off.
“But time is the ultimate healer and time is also the ultimate truth-teller,” he continues. “Time removed that feeling of being burnt out. It wasn’t that we didn’t enjoy playing together or that we didn’t love each other. It was just that we had done too much, and we had just taken on too much. So it was a really fascinating moment and it made me really glad that I didn’t make any proclamations or any declarations that the band was over. I really didn’t know.”
Koster echoes his thoughts, adding: “Jim had gone through a lot of life stuff around that time, physically and emotionally. I’m not saying that’s the whole thing, but he just wanted to step away from it creatively, which is totally understandable. He’s an immensely creative person, and he’s always had the edge to be creative. And for him to be to put in a box—and told that he can only work with these four guys under the My Morning Jacket moniker—is a lot to ask of somebody like that. Historically, that’s been the case with a lot of songwriters in that situation.”
Hallahan admits that he had plateaued himself emotionally around 2013-2014 and could sense his old friend was going through a similar experience. He also wasn’t sure if the band would ever regroup. “I was prepared for it to go either way,” he says. “Being in a band for this long is like being married to four other people. We all have peaks and valleys through all of this.”
While on break from MMJ, James dove back into his solo career, releasing two proper studio records, lending his services to different voting initiatives, collaborating with the Louisville Orchestra, touring in a few stripped-down configurations, playing some full-band shows and engaging in a flurry of other activities. Some of the tunes he explored had originally been earmarked for MMJ; other cuts felt more conducive to either his singer-songwriter side or the studio experimentation that had previously defined his solo output. Most important, James felt that he could finally float freely.
“It’s just all about balance, and it’s taken me a long time to learn that—I’m still learning it,” he admits. “When things get out of balance, that’s when things go to hell. We were just doing too much for too long, and it would just throw me into a tailspin—literally. Three or four times, it put me in the hospital. So, physically and mentally, it was destroying me. You’re trying to hold on to some sense of normalcy in your life—with your friends and your family—and it’s so hard. I just get sucked into the vortex of it all. The energy it takes to put on a My Morning Jacket show is a different kind of energy for me. We’re lucky to have been around for a long time and to have put out a lot of records over that span of time. I still love connecting with those records, and with those younger versions of myself that wrote those records, but I had this realization that it takes a lot to summon those different versions of myself and to feel these different things. Eventually, we just did too much, and it wore me out.”
As MMJ’s one constant member and lyricist, the 43-year-old James has been tracking his romantic relationships, inner struggles, friendships and personal ups and downs in song form since his teens. Earlier on, he shielded himself by growing his hair long and using a ton of reverb; before the hiatus, he says that he hid on stage by wearing capes and sunglasses. Yet, as the group started playing larger venues and hosting longer multi-night runs, James actually started digging deeper into his songbook, crafting dynamic setlists that often touched each of MMJ’s LPs.
“[When I play an older song], the feelings that I have now come into play but there’s also certain older emotions that those songs just automatically trigger,” James says. “In order to get in there, to the emotion of the song, it does require me to find something that I felt when I wrote it—that I might not be feeling now, even on a subconscious level. So even if something might not make me wail now like it did back then, I somehow need to find that person again in that moment. Sometimes it’s easy and it’s fun but, other times, it can be really emotional and really difficult. So there’s a lot of weight that has to be sifted through.”
Meanwhile, the rest of My Morning Jacket remained active, both together and on their own. The four musicians toured with Ray LaMontagne, who had previously enlisted James as a producer, and contributed to Strand of Oaks’ 2019 set, Eraserland. Hallahan, long the band’s foodie, explored his interests in the hospitality and restaurant worlds. Broemel continued to develop his solo career, releasing an LP, an EP and touring with former Band of Horses member Tyler Ramsey. He also delt with his own health issues while he was on the road with LaMontagne. (“I barely made it through the show and, thankfully, walked to this brand-new hospital across the parking lot. And they were like, ‘You need your appendix removed, you dummy,’” he quips. “‘I can’t believe you played a show.’”)
Koster spent much of MMJ’s break circling the world with Roger Waters, which gave him a fresh perspective on the inner workings of an arena-level touring combo. The keyboardist first connected with Waters in 2012 when MMJ backed him at a tribute to Levon Helm in New Jersey; they supported the Pink Floyd bassist once again at Newport Folk a few years later. When Waters’ keyboardist dropped out suddenly, Koster stepped in and received some Jedi training from the masters.
“Bo came back with a fresh set of eyes on what touring life should look like,” Broemel says. “He’s on the path of mastering his instruments. He’s constantly practicing.”
Blankenship says that he used his vacation from the band to reconnect with life outside of music, but had to make peace with the fact that MMJ was possibly over. “It’s really tough, when you tour as much as we do, to stay connected with everyone—I’ve missed so many really important events that people would take for granted when you’re just working a regular job, so I take it pretty seriously,” he says. “I can’t deal well with living in limbo so I just had to assume that it wasn’t coming back. I had to let myself go through the emotions of ‘This is never going to happen again. What do I do now?’ And I never figured that out. I never finished college. What do I put on a résumé?”
While the Jacket’s future remained very much in question, eventually, James realized that he had to make a call. He spoke with the group, and they agreed to play two shows at Morrison, Colo.’s Red Rocks and one at Queens, N.Y.’s Forest Hills during the summer of 2019, eventually adding a more intimate night at Port Chester, N.Y.’s The Capitol Theatre where they played their first album in its entirety.
“Someone will give us an offer and say, ‘Do you want to play this show three years from now? You gotta let me know tomorrow,’” James says with a laugh. “So we had committed to Red Rocks and Forest Hills a while back, and they had come up again. We were all like, ‘Shit. What do we do?’ And, ultimately, we said, ‘Let’s just do them and see how it feels and let that determine what path we should go forward on.’ We just had such a great time and enjoyed them, and that started everything back up again.”
The shows were a huge success, both musically and financially. James has described them as some of his favorite gigs ever, noting that—having made peace with the band—he didn’t feel like he had to hide behind his shades and costumes. A few weeks later, the group took those warmand-fuzzy feelings into the studio and got back to work.
“When we got onstage at Red Rocks and felt that energy together, it really made everyone take a step back and say, ‘Wow, even the most precious things in life can be taken for granted and compromised if you’re not responsible with the situation,’” Hallahan says with a sense of awe.
James has mentioned that the current MMJ lineup is the lineup and, if one member of the group was to walk away, then he isn’t sure if they could recover. The recent My Morning Jacket sessions only affirmed that.
“There’s just something about the peaceful resonance, combined with the work ethic that we all have, where we just got so fortunate with this lineup,” he says. “And there is this harmony where there is never any fucked-up energy. Everyone shows up to serve the song, the spirit of universe. I just feel really lucky.”
He also realizes that being in a band, as hokey as it sounds, is just special. “It is about playing together and completing that circle—making a My Morning Jacket record is about us being together in a room,” he admits. “We’ve done records with more overdubs and stuff, but there are just some things you can’t replicate on a computer.”
As MMJ’s longest tenured member after James, Blankenship feels that the band’s story is tethered to his own spiritual journey, too. “I’ve felt, for many years, that if any one of us could no longer do it anymore, then it’s just not going to be the same band,” the bassist says, agreeing with James. “And it felt like that with the It Still Moves lineup, which was the same as the At Dawn touring lineup, even though we were kids at that point. I was 20 years old when I joined the band. Fundamentally, I’m the same person that I was when I was 20, but I’ve changed so much as well. The band is kind of the same way, too. The spirit is the same, but it evolves and changes.”
My Morning Jacket had finished laying down the meat of what would become their ninth full-length effort when the novel coronavirus threw their plans up in the air, like pretty much every other musician. James worked on the cuts and passed them off to Kevin Ratterman for mixing, but quickly made the decision, given the live feel of the album, to hold off on releasing the project until the band could properly tour behind it. Instead, they decided to finally put out The Waterfall II, a companion piece to The Waterfall that many fans thought may have been lost in time.
“Waterfall II had been pushed back indefinitely, so that was one good thing about the last year,” Blankenship says. “If things had not worked out how they did in 2020, then it may have been years before those songs were actually released.”
The members of the Jacket mostly hunkered down and did the occational local session. James supported a few causes through the livestream world; Broemel recorded an EP with Athens, Ga. post-jam rockers Futurebirds; and the band’s rhythm section laid down some tracks with Cash.
Like many who used the pandemic to relocate, Blankenship and his wife—a music manager—moved from Nashville, where they had lived for years, back to Kentucky to be closer to family. “The band coming back stronger than it was before [in 2019] helped me have some healthy boundaries with it all,” he says. “If something happens and this doesn’t continue, it’s OK because I’ve already lived through the worst of it.”
Looking ahead, James hopes to tour smarter, making room for family and other projects while maximizing time on the road—it’s a tactic that many other road-dog bands have adopted as they have entered the second act of their careers. That includes multi-night runs that allow the group to stretch out and dig in, and pairings with musicians like Brittany Howard, who James is already discussing some collaborations with for this fall.
“We’ve planned these next tours in a really conscious way. It’ll be just enough shows to have fun but not enough to burn us out,” James says. “The last year or so has been about trying to spend as much time as I can with the people that I love. One of the greatest teachings of COVID, for me, is that there’s no more time for any bullshit. There’s only time for the things that really matter, the relationships that really matter. As we review our lives, COVID has taught me that it is important to spend time with my friends and my family and develop the relationships that mean a lot to me. Communicating with the Jacket guys and working on all this music has been a real joy.”
“The exclusive album-centric tour for this band is over,” Hallahan boasts. “We’re just gonna have a lot of fun with all these new possibilities—all these new segues and page turns. I think our happy place is multiples where everybody gets comfortable with their little temporary homes for a few days.”
While in Kentucky, James has been hashing out a few ideas with some old friends for an all-improv psych band, Unblown Balloon. He’s also been brushing up on The Waterfall II cuts.
“There is always this hilarious period where I pick up a guitar, and I’ve forgotten how to play all the songs,” he says with a laugh. “It is fun to go back and [relearn things]. As time bends, I fall in love with certain songs or start to hate other things.”
Especially after watching all his commitments vanish instantaneously during the pandemic, Broemel—who says that it was hard for him and James to release albums in the shadow of MMJ’s absence— hopes that even his next solo album will involve other people. “I love that feeling of being in a band where you’re like, ‘There’s no way I could have done this by myself,” he admits. “I’m not the kind of person that needs all the credit or control. That just makes me insecure. I’d much rather share the control and credit with other people who I love. And I hope that doesn’t get taken away again.”
Of course—especially with the Delta variant raising new concerns—the members of the group do have some jitters about getting back on the road, even if they take all the proper precautions. “You’re in a new hotel, you’re in a van with some stranger, you’re backstage at a weird venue,” Koster says while scanning life on tour. “We get coffee. Is that safe? I don’t know…”
More than anything, James says that the Jacket’s reunion run, their new record and the rollercoaster of 2020-2021 has affirmed why he wants to front a band.
“It is just about feeling this spirit of fun—the looseness and freedom of it,” he admits. “The whole reason we’re doing this is to spread love and to have fun. That’s the heart of it all. So I say, ‘Let’s try and all echo that for each other, as audience members and as band members. Let’s try and let go of some of this preciousness and some of these concerns and just be vehicles of love for each other.’ We are just trying to cultivate as much good energy as we can.”