Music: Up the Jacket

My Morning Jacket replaces two members and completely changes its process for Z

Danny Clinch

Beardly beloved: With more time in the studio and fresh blood in the band, Louisville's My Morning Jacket came up with their most diverse album yet, Z.

My Morning Jacket's career path has followed an arc similar to one of its extended, slow-building jams. Over the course of seven years, three albums, a handful of EPs and thousands of miles logged on the road, the Louisville, Ky., quintet has become a critics' darling with its heavily reverbed Blues/Pop/Psychedelic soundscape, earning them boundless praise, magazine cover exposure and a well-deserved reputation as a must-see live act. All of this culminated two years ago with the release of the ecstatically received It Still Moves, the band's debut for Dave Matthews' ATO Records label.

Unfortunately, the acclaim, attention and constant road-dogging ultimately took its toll on the band. After MMJ wrapped up the grueling circuit following It Still Moves, guitarist Johnny Quaid and keyboardist Danny Cash departed the band under circumstances that are still not openly discussed. The remaining founding members (guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Jim James, bassist Two Tone Tommy, drummer Patrick Hallahan) regrouped, adding guitarist Carl Broemel and keyboardist Bo Koster and hitting the road to provide the new members their MMJ initiation.

When the time came to start writing material for a new album, James, Tommy and Hallahan sequestered themselves in a house in old Louisville and began fashioning tight demos for the songs that would ultimately comprise Z, MMJ's fourth and most concise album. Although there was no overt mission statement about taking a different direction with the band, the reality wasn't far from everyone's minds.

"There were like mini-discussions or decisions that we made about a different way of songwriting," says Two Tone. "We got together for a month before Bo and Carl came in and just got the rhythm as tight as possible.

I think we made a conscious effort to not have everyone playing all at once."

This represented a substantial shift in the MMJ studio mindset. It Still Moves had been populated with songs the band had been playing live for several years, a feeling they re-created live in the studio. The material for Z, save for a couple of tracks, was brand new and completely untested on stage. The change in songwriting translated into changes along the entire recording process for the band.

"It was as different as we could make it," says Two Tone. "It was the first one we haven't done on the farm; the last three were done on John's grandparents' farm. It was the first one with two new members, the first one with a producer, the first one where we actually got to lock ourselves away for an entire month. We literally got out to the outside world one day a week. We were completely secluded for once."

Recording in Allaire Studios in upstate New York under the auspices of legendary producer John Leckie, MMJ assembled Z, an album that retains the reverbed majesty of the band's earlier works while subtly moving toward a more song-oriented atmosphere. Even with all of the changes in personnel and process, Two Tone insists the evolution was natural.

"It was never a conscious effort on our part," he says. "We've always been those guys that don't think about it and just do it and see what happens. We've never deliberately tried to sound like Prince or whatever, or if we did, it would be like, 'It would be hilarious if you just went off at the end."

Of all the changes the band instituted, the presence of a producer was certainly one of the most profound. Even with bona fide genius Leckie on board, there was still a little hesitation.

"We were all scared because you hear things about producers," Two Tone says. "There's this preconceived notion that a producer is there to tell you how your song is going to be structured or what lyrics are going to be used. We had no clue how far he would intrude on the way we'd been doing this in the past. From the first moment we had the house in old Louisville and he sat down in a little lawn chair in the middle of the room we were rehearsing in and was taking notes. I guess that's when we realized he was a laidback guy. He would suggest things here and there, but wasn't in the middle of everything. It was just (a case of him) having an ear that you really honor and respect."

Clearly, My Morning Jacket has been revived by the presence of Broemel and Koster, both live and in the studio. After the last leg of the It Still Moves circuit, which Two Tone says the band dubbed the "Winter Death Tour," MMJ was spiraling downward with the departures of Quaid and Cash and the dwindling energy of the remaining trio. MMJ's two new members and new work modes kept the band from burning out and fading away.

"We'd done three records with the old lineup and always rehearsed and recorded at the same place and always been in the same environment," says Tommy. "Whether you want to or not, you're constantly being influenced by the same things; the same environment, the same way of songwriting, the same way of talking about music. It's definitely a challenge for me because (Carl and Bo) are such amazing musicians and I still have no clue how to talk about music. Maybe I have a better clue now. It's the unspoken language of talking about parts, or how to arrange a song or just songwriting in general. Everything changes."

Indeed it does. With so many deviations from the writing, rehearsing and recording ritual that My Morning Jacket had established on all its previous albums, Z stands as succinct, song-based and structurally distinct from its predecessors while retaining the band's familiar sonic appeal.

"I think just the experience of making it was my favorite part," says Tommy. "We had talked for years about making a record like At Dawn. We had done a lock-in, but that record was done in three days. Everybody had day jobs, so we took Monday off and we had Friday afternoon through Monday night to lock ourselves in and make the record. We had a whole month (for Z) where it was just us. We came down from the mountain every Sunday to have dinner in the normal world. Otherwise, it was like having our own little world; we ate at the facility and did everything there. Our rooms were literally down the hall from where we recorded. It was just a fun time, like being at Boy Scout camp or something. A slumber party that lasted for an entire month."

MY MORNING JACKET performs Wednesday at Bogart's with Kathleen Edwards.