One of rock’s leading bands hits the gym to reset its circuits

My Morning Jacket bassist Tom “Two-Tone Tommy” Blankenship is out of breath, and there are a few possible reasons. Most likely that he just completed a morning workout at his Louisville, Ky., home. But it’s also possible he’s still collecting himself after his band’s electrifying set from days earlier at this year’s Bonnaroo Music Festival. Or he may just be reeling from the excitement of seeing My Morning Jacket’s latest effort, Circuital, become the group’s first Top 5 debut. “That was a fun week,” Blankenship acknowledges.

Mind you, selling records hasn’t been an issue since the band’s third album, 2003’s It Still Moves, catapulted the experimental Southern rockers well beyond their devoted fan base. Formed in 1998 by singer, guitarist and primary songwriter Jim James (Blankenship is the only other remaining original member), the group embraces sounds ranging from acoustic balladry to Who-style rock on Circuital, recorded live last summer in a Louisville church gymnasium with producer Tucker Martine. Blankenship attributes the newfound sense of confidence in part to a five-night stand at New York City’s Terminal 5 last October when James, guitarist Carl Broemel, keyboardist Bo Koster and drummer Patrick Hallahan and he played the band’s first five albums in their entirety. We caught up with Blankenship on a rare trip back home to Kentucky.

How has your relationship with Jim evolved over the years?

I was talking to a friend about this over the weekend, and he asked, “How old were you when you joined the band?” And I said it was right before my 21st birthday. We were laughing about how funny it is that the entirety of my adult life has been spent in this band. It’s pretty wild that Jim and I have experienced all of the normal things that you go through from when you’re 20 till when you’re 33 together. I think it’s remarkable that we’ve been doing this for this long, and if anything our friendship is stronger and musically we’re stronger.

How does Jim bring in songs?

Sometimes they come fully formed, other times there’s just the sketch of a song. “Circuital” was like that, with just a few parts intact. The five of us hammered it out from there. His process is all over the map. It can be completed songs or sketches or just a riff. If there are 12 to 20 new song ideas, we’ll listen to them on our own for a few months, then get together and discuss which ones we’re really excited about and go from there.

How was recording in the gym?

We’d always intended to make a record live like this, and had talked about it forever. We’d already done some of it to a large extent with rhythm tracks in the past—drums, bass and maybe Jim’s guitar as well. But we’ve always wanted to record everything live—with maybe just some guitar overdubs and background vocals here and there—to have that spirit all the records we grew up listening to had. We wanted to capture that feeling of everybody playing at the same time and recording that moment. In a way it was one of the easiest records for us to make, because it was just us playing. We’d literally say, “Hey, let’s work on ‘Circuital,’” run through the song twice to get a rough idea of where we were going, then press record. That’s pretty much how the whole record went.

Was that enjoyable?

Oh yeah. It was a kind of magic that came from us not concentrating solely on our own parts and actually listening to each other, knowing nothing has to be perfect and capturing the spirit of how exciting and new the song was. Not someone going after 30 takes, “Well, that one part’s still not working.” And a lot of that came from the Terminal 5 run we did, where we learned about 99 songs over five days. We became a tighter unit through that process, and learned to trust each other to a degree that we hadn’t been forced to before.

How did you approach this album differently from the last?

I won’t say that it all came easy, but I put less pressure on myself with this album. On the last one [2008’s Evil Urges] I did a lot of self-editing. I would come back to the control room and listen and say, “Well, I just don’t like what I’m playing.” So with this record I purposely dumbed down my stuff, out of fear of being too much in my head. I had a lot of things going on in my personal life at the time, so I didn’t have the emotional real estate to pressure myself to deliver the most amazing bass track ever. That gave me some freedom, in a strange kind of way. But “The Day Is Coming” was the toughest for Patrick and me, because there’s so much space in the song. It’s mostly drums, bass and vocal, and it was the only song that took multiple days.

What basses did you use?

It was all Fender Precision bass, except for “Wonderful,” where I used an upright. I used three different P-basses, but they were all pretty much identical.

What was your experience working with Tucker Martine?

The way he works is so effortless. It was immediate, literally as soon as he came into the room. We’d been at the gymnasium for one or two days setting up stuff and going over a few tunes, but there wasn’t this weird adjustment period you sometimes have with people, even with someone you ultimately end up liking and working well with. I don’t think we’ve ever had that instant connection with someone from outside. His ears are wonderful. More than anything else, he was as excited as we were to have this strange opportunity to try and make a space work that isn’t normally used for recording bands. He saw that as a challenge instead of a limitation to the process. So it was really like seven people at a Boy Scout camp or a lock-in where you’re just there to kick back.

What surprised you about the results of the whole process?

While it wasn’t evident when we were sequencing the album, I found that the journey, the musical story arc played out in the songs, was one that I desperately needed at the time. The songs began to take a different shape and meaning. I no longer experienced them, lyrically, as an outsider. Surprisingly, I found myself speaking through them about grief, pain and ultimately relief—things I wasn’t sure I had words for yet.

Do you have an ultimate goal?

I’d like to lie on the hood of my car, sipping a milkshake in a dairy-bar parking lot, watching the sunset. Seriously.

–Jesse Thompson

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