It’s 5 pm on a Thursday in Los Angeles, but the die hard My Morning Jacket fans are braving the late summer upswing in heat – may in fact be for the third day in a row – to be right in front of the stage for their favorite live band. Two nights later in Berkeley, the weather may be cooler, but the anticipation remains the same. Why the passion? My Morning Jacket is known for being one of the most versatile and well-polished live bands in music today. Headlining festivals from their hometown in Louisville to Azkena Rock Festival in Spain, MMJ blasts their Southern psychedelic rock with an energetic fervor pouring through each member of the band. On their current worldwide tour, we had a chance to catch up with keyboardist Bo Koster and Two Tone Tommy Blakenship to discuss live performance’s impact on the band and their career. We discussed how they formulate their live shows, musical records and their recent involvement in the Forecastle Festival.
Beats Per Minute: Tonight’s show being the third night in a row at The Wiltern, and at the forthcoming stop at Capitol Theater in New York you’re also doing three consecutive shows, we wondered what is the creative process and difficulty in performing three straight nights with no repeats [the band have promised this, perhaps as a way of hooking in more fans] and having fan requests? Are you nervous or excited about playing some older songs?
My Morning Jacket: For us, we revisit so many of our songs that they sill seem fresh; creating the set lists though, that’s a challenge, it’s way more fun. Deciding how to distribute the hits and the tempo for three straight nights with no repeats, it’s almost like playing game. We need to figure out how to make these elements work: fast stuff, slow stuff, the covers, good opener, strong middle, great closer. Then you need to have your good opener for encore, and of course a killer ender.
(At these two shows, the ender is the epic “One Big Holiday,” it slays just like on Okonokos.)
MMJ: So you’re like, ‘fuck, how do we figure this out and put it altogether and ensure three high quality shows, including all the different records?’ But over the years, we’ve learned you can’t please everybody all the time. It’s like that famous Bill Cosby quote, “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.”
They definitely found ways to make two completely different shows for the LA and Berkeley performances. In LA, they incorporated a live jazz trio, which brought the crowd to euphoria when accompanying the band on covers of Lionel Ritchie’s “All Night Long” and the even more unexpected Curtis Mayfield classic “Move On Up,” which even featured a trombone solo, while in Berkeley they had Shabazz Palaces join them on stage to add a unique hip-hop flavor to the final two songs of the encore.
BPM: At the end of those Capitol Theater shows you’re releasing an instant download for those in attendance. Any chance of another live record forthcoming?
MMJ: Well, we actually recorded our 5 consecutive shows in Terminal 5 in New York. We played all 5 records, one a night for those 5 nights, and the hardcore fans have been dying to have us release those concerts. But we’re talking 99 songs, to mix them together, get high sound quality, put together the art work; we just haven’t had enough time. We’re not releasing anything that isn’t up to our standards.
After noticing the different posters for LA that included a man in a monocle and then a completely new poster of two monkeys in an embrace in Berkeley, it’s safe to say the art is worth the wait.
BPM: Okonokos is considered one of the top live albums of the past decade; a dazzling array of sonic sound and sprawling energy. How did you guys prepare for such a great live album? For example, how did you choose the venue?
MMJ: Some of it was just intuition, we felt a momentum going. We had previous history of good shows in San Francisco, and The Fillmore is a historic venue. We were doing 2 nights in row, which is also conducive; if the first night doesn’t go well, you’re covered. It was our first time ever doing two nights.
It was really cool, looking back, I didn’t realize how rare that was gonna be for our career, might never happen again. People don’t buy DVDs, there’s so much YouTube free stuff, so much free live stuff. The art of a live concert film, live concert record is really changing, and is not as exciting for people. The level of production we had for the DVD and live album wouldn’t have been same if it was just a digital double live album with random YouTube videos, or some live video download. We were really stoked about working with Michael Brauer, he just understood the performance; it felt like a live record but extremely powerful. He really made bass and drums stand out, and did fantastic job even with the crowd noise.
BPM: One of our favorite concert albums of all time is Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense, what are some of your favorite live albums?
MMJ: Oh yeah that’s up there, waaaay up there. Also Mad Dogs and Englishmen by Joe Cocker, The Last Waltz [The Band], The Song Remains the Same [Led Zeppelin].
BPM: Where does the inspiration for your live covers come from?
MMJ: We all have extensive record collections at home. We’ll have listening parties and brainstorming sessions on the bus late at night. We send long email chains about songs we think would be fun to cover. ‘What if’ scenarios, ‘would this be fun or funny?’
We’re the opposite of guys who like the after party. After parties for us are the five of us and some friends passing around iPod, listening to music, and hanging out; always thinking of possible tunes. We’ve been playing music half of our lives, so we’re always digging trying to find new stuff, new music. Jim is very good at finding nuggets, recently it was Syl Johnson. He’s kind of like Rodriguez, in that movie, where he should be famous, but wasn’t [Searching for Sugar Man]. It’s all about digging and trying to find choice things that never quite bubbled up, that didn’t hit the zeitgeist or public consciousness. Even the more famous covers that we do like “Rock the Casbah,” [The Clash], “All Night Long,” [Lionel Richie] or “Tyrone” [Erykah Badu] are usually things that you wouldn’t immediately think this is a song that we would cover. A lot of times after the email chain, we study and learn on our own, then we play together and just kick it around and see how it feels.
On top of the handful of covers mentioned already, the band also performed The Velvet Underground’s “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’,” Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” George Harrison’s “Isn’t It A Pity,” The Band’s “It Makes No Difference” and Prince’s “I Could Never Take The Place of Your Man” across their three night stint at The Wiltern.
BPM: After Evil Urges, a record of studio experimentation, Circuital was something of a return to straightforward live recording, using a church instead of a studio and recording straight to tape. Are you going to continue to use the live approach for your next album, or do you plan on returning to the studio?
MMJ: It’s hard to say at this point other than it will definitely be different – it won’t be the same process as those last records. We’re always trying to explore, refine and find new ways of recording. Everybody in the band loves the feeling of a live moment, that feeling at the time of something happening, feeling that sound in the recording. It’s hard to get that in the ways a lot of people are making recordings with Pro Tools and the ease of being able to perfect things, tune things. It’s too easy to go back and fix mistakes. Lots of recordings are two dimensional, put in the computer you lose that three dimnensional vinyl, analog feeling; but it’s getting better, hopefully keeps getting better. But at the same time, we all love the art and creativity that comes from the computer and some of things you can do with the computer nowadays. We try to do both, find the balance with the computer world and the creative aspects there, and combining it with the live, humanness of it all; finding the mesh between the two.
In the concerts, nowhere is this seen more clearly then when Jim James wears a Roland sampler with orange buttons for “Victory Dance.” It is quite a scene to see this shaggy crooner dawning a technological necklace of the future.
BPM: How do you decide where to record an album?
MMJ: We always want to find a unique space. The most important thing is the feeling of the space how it affects overall vibe of band. If choice is between a weird, unique space vs classic studio that’s been recorded in by all the legendary artists, we’re choosing the unique space. The beauty nowadays is you can make a record in so many different ways. With the technology that’s come out, you can be more mobile. Back in the day, there were only 50 studios in the world that had state of art gear and you had to go to those places. But now, you can be more liquid about how you can record, you can set up anywhere.
BPM: What are some of the dream spots you have thought of recording?
MMJ: Recording on the beach, or a far out place like Singapore, Alaska, or Norway. We’ve talked about recording on a boat. It’d be crazy; we could have ambient noises of puking and getting sea sick between takes.
BPM: What is the difference between playing with My Morning Jacket vs other bands?
MMJ (Bo): I play with Neko Case and Delta Spirit and the process of communication when playing live is definitely different. In My Morning Jacket, there is so much non-verbal communication between the five of us. When we play with different bands it’s a different scenario because we really need to pay attention. We can’t just rely on second nature like when we play with My Morning Jacket.
For musicians who have toured and practiced as many times as these guys, one can’t help but think of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule. At this point the 10,000 hours has surely been passed and they have definitely come to the point where they are mastered their instruments and the art of playing together.
BPM: Speaking of other musicians, and your live music expertise, what was it like curating the Forecastle Festival in Louisville? What were the most rewarding aspects?
MMJ: JK McKnight (Forecastle Founder) had been doing this festival in Louisville and joined up with AC Entertainment, the guys that do Bonnaroo, and asked if we wanted to help curate this festival. We have very good relations with both parties, both are good friends of the band. Patrick (MMJ’s drummer) had always been involved with setting up a Louisville village anytime we performed in Louisville; a kind of tent city we would have at our performances. There would always be local vendors and restaurants. We’d always have local charities involved in these events. [MMJ donates percentages of all tickets sales to charities for all shows.] So, we’d have this kind of tent city at our shows in Louisville. Being part of this festival was a natural fit. We got to bro-down and discuss which bands we would want to come and help pick the final ones. We all have our favorite bands, and we felt very proud of ourselves when our line up was complete.
In the end we had a solid, strong line up top to bottom that we felt matched any other festival. It had solid indie acts like Neko Case, Flying Lotus, Clutch, and Beach House. We had great headliners in Wilco and ourselves. We got cool acts no one knew like Floating Action and Orchestre Poly-Rythmo from West Africa.
It was just cool, a musician’s dream come true: Pick your favorite bands, curate your own festival in your hometown, be on the same bill, all in the same weekend. We invited lots of our friends, people we had toured with. On our tour in 2003, Dr. Dog opened for us, and now they’re on the same bill as us in a festival along with other acts we’ve toured with like Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Andrew Bird. That’s pretty special day right there. It was so cool, like throwing a party in your backyard, except 20,000 times the size.
BPM: Jay-Z wasn’t the only artist to throw kick-ass festival this summer. He might’ve got most of the press, but you all did an amazing job as well.
MMJ: “Big pimpin’,” that’s our slogan.
BPM: Speaking of surreal moments, let’s get out of here on this one: your episode of American Dad! What was it like being in a cartoon TV Show? How did that come about? Did you notice any surge in popularity?
MMJ: We’ve had some surreal moments in our careers, where we look at each other and are like ‘what the fuck is happening right now?'; meeting our heroes, playing with them, some amazing musicians and amazing places but this was a real, lucky surreal moment. I wish I could go back and tell my nine year old self, ‘wait ’til you get to do that.’ I remember watching The Simpsons as a teenager on Fox. My 13 year old self would be like it’s a dream come true. I remember seeing Aerosmith on it when I was kid, and now here we are.
Carl [MMJ’s guitarist] was saying the other day a lot of people didn’t even know us before that. They watched the show and thought it was a fictional band. We know that it reruns a lot because when it does we get hit up on Twitter from people being like ‘we found you on American Dad,’ and on YouTube videos people will be like ‘I didn’t know they existed ’til American Dad.’ Then our hardcore fans will be like, ‘Fuck man, I’ve been listening to them for 15 years. Fuck American Dad!’ And the other guy will be like, ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t know they were real band.’
It came about when we met Mike Barker, the creator, at Bonnaroo. He saw our four hour set there. I think that’s where the inspiration came from. He thought it would be funny to have whole episode with the band. It was art imitating life. Mike’s love letter to the band by having Stan (the show’s protagonist) love the band. And we all became friends with Mike because he is so funny.
Just like in most people’s lives, great things for this band have been through knowing somebody and finding the perfect opportunity to work with them, collaborating for a real special memory. Heck, even for this reporter, I was lucky enough to meet Bo on a high stakes poker TV show. Seems even for a great band like My Morning Jacket, the old adage holds true: You never know who you are going to meet and what adventures are coming along next.