“It reminded me what the magic was”: My Morning Jacket on their triumphant return that almost never happened
My Morning Jacket’s Jim James on their six-year hiatus, getting back in the saddle, playing guitar like it’s a Ouija board, and why they love the smell of burning amps in the morning.
Portraits: Austin Nelson
Both guitarists remember the moment as if it were yesterday, the connection so innate and immediate it felt as if fate had drawn them together. It was 2004, and My Morning Jacket were on the brink of dissolving after the departures of keyboardist Danny Cash and guitar player Johnny Quaid. Bandleader Jim James began the search for a new guitarist, but no one felt right – until Carl Broemel walked into the room. “It was so funny,” James recalls. “Everyone else that came to the audition, there was no way in hell it would work, but Carl was absolutely perfect. It was divine intervention.”
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For Broemel, a classically trained player raised in Indiana, the story began months earlier. After a decade spent with bands that “got record deals, fell apart and ran their course”, he found himself in Los Angeles “playing in a band to make money. It wasn’t really a heart and soul-filling thing.” One night, driving through the City Of Angels, listening to KCRW, he heard a song that brought tears to his eyes. “It was what I now know is I Will Sing You Songs by My Morning Jacket, that beautiful guitar part,” he recalls. “I remember thinking, ‘I would do anything to play that versus what I do now’. Months later, I got called to the audition. I didn’t have many of their songs, so started learning all the records, and then that song came on. I was like ‘Holy shit, this is the song I heard in the car’.”
Needless to say, Broemel got the gig. Since then, the synergistic bond between the duo has strengthened with each album, the latest released this month after a four-year hiatus that nearly proved fatal. Broemel’s classical roots and James’ visceral firepower hang in thrilling equilibrium across 11 stylistically diverse tracks that sound both fresh and familiar. My Morning Jacket’s eponymous return is a definitive history of one of the most vital American guitar bands of the past 20 years.
“Carl’s fully schooled and knows how to read and talk about music in this very educated way that I don’t,” James tells us on the afternoon of a show in Portland, Oregon, “but he plays with such soul. Sometimes it’s one or the other, but Carl has the magic ability of having both worlds.”
The admiration for Louisville, Kentucky-born James is mutual. “Jim’s like a lightning rod in a way I can’t be, maybe because the training’s in the way or I’m thinking about what note I’m playing,” says Broemel. “He just channels it, and I try to channel it too after being with him. Sometimes when we’re playing, it’s like a musical ouija board, where you can’t figure out who’s playing what.”
After signing to major label ATO and making their commercial breakthrough with 2005’s Z, by the release of seventh album The Waterfall in 2015 (a second batch of songs from the sessions was released as The Waterfall II in 2020), My Morning Jacket were exhausted. James wondered whether it was all over.
“I was so fried and tired of the rigmarole,” he recalls. “We’re lucky we’ve never had any drama and in-fighting, but the stress of touring, not managing my schedule right and living too hard bit me and took me down a couple of times.”
Time proved an effective healer. Within minutes of regrouping in August 2019 for shows to mark the 20th anniversary of debut album The Tennessee Fire at Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre, it was clear My Morning Jacket had more songs in them.
“It was beautiful, sweet and powerful,” recalls James, who busied himself recording five solo albums in the intervening years. “It reminded me what the magic was and how out of balance things can get.”
By November, the band were booked in to LA studio 64 Sound. James sought to free the sessions of pressure, asking his bandmates to bring minimal gear and producing everything himself. “Once we started playing, it felt so good that we just started working on songs in a really fun, open way,” he recalls.
“It clicked pretty quick,” adds Broemel, who released two solo albums and played on Strand Of Oaks’ Eraserland during the break. “A lot of the time when you step into the studio, you have a release date or a producer with a schedule. We tried to eliminate all that and just go in fresh and see what happens.”
Back in the saddle
More sessions followed in February 2020, with the world teetering on the brink of a pandemic. Surprisingly, given the myriad tones that grace the album, both guitarists kept their setups simple. “I only used two [electric] guitars,” says James, “One was a Telecaster Chris Fleming at the Fender Custom Shop made me out of Home Depot plywood, that we put a Fender neck on. That thing just rips. There’s literally nothing in it but a humbucker in the bridge, no volume knobs, no anything, it weighs like 2lbs.
“I’ve also been working on a signature 335 with Gibson, and I have a prototype, it’s really beautiful. I’ve been having carpal tunnel issues, so it’s got a nice thin neck. I just wanted it to feel classic, like something a tree gave you, so natural that it almost disappears, it becomes part of you. I’m pinching myself that I’m getting to do a signature guitar, it’s such a cool feeling.”
Alongside his number one guitar, a Bigsby-equipped 1988 Les Paul Standard, Broemel deployed two contrasting weapons of choice. “My new favourite thing in the studio is a Silvertone U1 with the lipstick pickup. I used that and my Duesenberg Starplayer TV – a low-brow guitar and a real fancy guitar, going back and forth, whichever one works. The Duesenberg sounds like a Les Paul, but a little more pristine, and the way it’s built means I can rely on it. It’s like a hammer and the Silvertone is like a brush.”
When it came to amps, the heady aroma of cranked golden-era Fenders filled the studio. “I like old guitars that smell good and I like it when I walk into the amp closet and I can smell a vintage amp burning,” says Broemel. “I had the guitars in the tape vault, where I could smell the old mouldy tapes and my amp was hot, that’s where I want to be. I didn’t like the amps that were in the studio, so I hit up a friend in LA and grabbed his late-60s Princeton and late-50s Tweed. For the next sessions, I brought my ’68 blackface Princeton and my ’57 Tweed.”
James was less selective, opting to use whatever he encountered at 64 Sound: “This incredible Fender Bassman head that went into this shitty 2×12 cabinet that didn’t even have a logo, that thing sounded insane, it just blew up. I used a Fender reverb tank, an EarthQuaker Devices Ghost Echo and a Devi Ever fuzz for all my solos.”
On Least Expected, Broemel’s illusory finery hovers above the central acoustic rhythm as he uses an EBow to tease blissful sounds from his GFI pedal steel guitar. “I did two passes of the EBow that are harmonies through the Hudson Electronics Blackbird, that crazy sound that kind of floats like a saw. Other than that, I used real simple things – an Analogman compressor, a Fulltone tape echo, a spring reverb tank and a POG.”
All the while, the playing on My Morning Jacket crackles with expertly marshalled intensity, transcending traditional lead and rhythm paradigms. Love Love Love’s technicolour funk is threaded with a screaming fuzz solo, Never In The Real World is whipped up to a towering classic-rock coda, while the brooding seven-minute In Color becomes an expansive masterclass of audacious bends and lacerating one-note flurries before dissolving into a roiling fuzz-drenched tempest. The duo’s intuitive interplay reaches a peak on the elegiac closer I Never Could Get Enough, and what’s most impressive is that most of the lead work on the album was improvised.
“I really like playing songs in a circle repetitively, taking a solo when the inspiration strikes,” says James. “It’s crazy how it works, it all comes out in that moment. It’s just a really beautiful ego-less exchange.”
“It’s pretty fluid,” Carl adds. “Out Of Range, those crazy stacked guitars at the end, that’s all Jim. I was like, ‘It’s so pretty, I don’t want to step on this’ and then he plugged in his guitar and ripped four different passes over the end of that song, and I was like ‘Wow!’ It was so fun to watch, and it took no time at all.”
On the day of our interview, My Morning Jacket are eight dates into a US run that will stretch through autumn. The shows so far have been “incredible and healing” for James, and the band are learning how to tour in a way that doesn’t tear them apart.
“We’re playing really well right now, I’m enjoying it more than ever,” says Broemel. “I think we’re trying to figure out what works for us, versus what you’re ‘supposed to do’, which is go fucking full throttle the whole way. We’ve finally learned that it doesn’t work for us.”
Joining them on the road are some 22 guitars, an indulgence Broemel blames on his bandmate’s penchant for unusual tunings. “Jim likes to tune a guitar real crazy and write a song and I’ll be like ‘this is a great song, but now I need another guitar’. The low string’s down to C♯ and the A string’s up to C♯, what are you going to do?
“I have 12 guitars out. I mainly play the Duesenberg and the Les Paul, I have another Les Paul that I use for capo’d songs and a Goldtop with P-90s. Jim just gave me one of the prototypes for his new 335, it sounds amazing, really aggressive. I’ve got a TV Les Paul Junior, a Duesenberg Caribou in a special tuning and a Telecaster that Fender made for me.
“I use a 3 Monkeys Grease Monkey and my main amp is a Carr Slant 6V, which sounds like a beefed-up Princeton. You can make it sound vintage, you can make it sound like ridiculous metal with pedals, and everything in between. It’s a blank slate, a super-solid amp.”
James estimates he has 10 guitars on tour, running through his 3 Monkeys Orangutan and a pair of cabs. “I’ve been using my new 335, and I’ve got several other 335s, a 1962 Barney Kessel and a really cool guitar that Scott Baxendale rebuilt for me. I’ve got a Strat Chris Fleming made for me. I’d always wanted a Strat with a Tele tray near the bridge pickup, and I fucking love that thing, it’s just wild. The neck and middle pickup sound like a Strat, but when you flip it to the bridge, it sounds fantastic. I’ve never heard a Strat sound like that, but it doesn’t sound like anything else either.”
Despite the bleary-eyed effects of touring, the energy emanating from both guitarists is infectious. Having feared they’d made their final album, My Morning Jacket’s ninth feels all the more precious. The “weirdness” that’s steered the band’s journey, and the enduring connection sparked at that LA audition 17 years ago look certain to extend into new chapters.
“Oh man, I just feel so excited about it,” enthuses James. “I feel so blessed we got to do another record. Every record, when you get to hold it, it’s like another lifetime you got to live, another gift. Tomorrow is never promised, we never know how long we’re gonna get and just the fact that we got another one makes me so happy. I’m really proud of it and I feel it fits in perfectly to the weirdness of the catalogue with all its weird brothers and sisters.”
My Morning Jacket is out now on ATO Records.
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