When you're My Morning Jacket, and two of your long-standing members decide they want off the ride for good, you try to soldier on. Worse, the near-breakup comes after three achingly beautiful albums, a half-decade of paying your dues and tours at increasingly large venues for growing crowds, and it happens only months after critics drooled over your major label debut, It Still Moves.
But rather than fall apart, you head to the studio with a new guitarist and a new keyboardist. Along the way you pick up, for the first time, a producer who's not a band member. In fact, he's the guy who produced The Stone Roses, The Bends and (for God's sake) Dark Side of the Moon.
This time, you really focus on rhythm and putting your vocalist's strengths to the test in the studio, taking you far away from your homemade recording space in Louisville, Kentucky, and onto the wax with the best album you've ever made, Z.
It's November 2005, and if you're My Morning Jacket, you've weathered the storm and somehow come out in a much better place. So we sat down with bassist Tom "Two-Tone Tommy" Blankenship to make sense of the evolution of MMJ, striking a pose in Cameron Crowe's Elizabethtown and losing bandmates on "The Death Tour."
DO: On your earlier albums, you guys recorded in some really unusual spots. What was that like?
Tommy: A lot of that was really out of necessity. The first three records were done in an apartment above a three-car garage on a farm in Kentucky, basically. And it was either put the drums in the corner of one of the rooms and they'd sound kind of dry and weird, or we could do it in the basement or in the garage, where we'd pull all the cars out. All that stuff--Jim doing vocals in the bathroom to get that reverb sound, recording in the grain silo--that was all about doing what we had to do because we had sort of limited options. Our approach was, "Let's try this out and see what happens."
Z sounds remarkably different from your past albums. Why is that?
We really made a conscious effort to put on less songs. Instead of 74 minutes of music on the record, we focused on having every track be something really solid. Jim's range is also unbelievable now, the way he can stretch out and the way his voice has gotten deeper over the years. In the past, we produced the albums mainly by ourselves, and on this one we had a producer, [and] we recorded it in a different place than we'd recorded all our past stuff.
You guys played "Freebird" in Elizabethtown. How'd you hook that up?
We ran into Cameron about three years ago in L.A., and he was talking about how he was making this film that was gonna be in Kentucky. Next thing we know, he's in Louisville, and he's talking to us about funerals and wakes and what kind of bourbon you'd drink and what things would be like when you lived in Kentucky--just kind of everyday stuff. And then from there he decided to cast us.
Do you miss your former bandmates?
Yeah, I miss 'em, but on the last run with those guys we called it "The Death Tour" because it was just miserable. Sure, I sometimes pine for the old times, but I'm just glad that they've moved on and that they're happy now and that they aren't in that place that they were. We still see them all the time. In fact, they both got married over the two-month break that we had in Kentucky.
What is Z?
It's nothing really, which is why we chose it for the title. I've heard all kinds of rumors, like it's Z because it's going to be our last album, or Z because we're going to go backwards and make a different album for every letter, but it's basically the kind of thing you can attach meaning to yourself.
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