Carl Broemel has come a long way from Indianapolis.
A graduate of Pike High School, he played in the roots band Old Pike in the '90s, releasing an album on Sony in 1999 titled Ten Thousands Nights. The group didn't last, however, and after completing his classical guitar studies at Indiana University, Broemel headed west to L.A. in pursuit of musical adventure.
He found it eventually — in a celebrated indie band from the Midwest, no less.
Broemel, who lives in Nashville now, was busy touring with bands and performing session work while on the West Coast. Then one day he got an audition with a group named My Morning Jacket. The Louisville-based band came to L.A. in 2004 looking for a guitarist and keyboard player after two of their members quit. They needed replacements to finish a tour they'd already booked.
"I wasn't super familiar with their music, but had heard some of their stuff on [L.A. radio station] KRCW," Broemel said during a recent phone interview. "I actually heard a song a couple weeks before I got the phone call. I didn't know who the band was, but I remember thinking goddam, I'd love to play that. That's what I want to be doing."
The song was "I Will Sing You Songs" from My Morning Jacket's 2003 Southern rock epic It Still Moves.
"I really connected with that," said the now 41-year-old Broemel. "I couldn't believe I got to play it with them."
A couple weeks later he was on a plane to Louisville to start rehearsals. Since then Broemel has contributed guitar, saxophone, pedal steel and vocals to My Morning Jacket's last three studio albums, including this year's Circuital.
As founder and bandleader, Jim James starts the writing process for a My Morning Jacket album by sending each member fleshed-out songs or snippets.
"That's the first indication of which direction the music's going to go," said Broemel, whose father is a retired Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra bassoon player.
After that, the band communes to work through ideas and pick favorites. Broemel said the intent with Circuital, which was recorded in a church gym in Louisville, was for everyone to do as much as they could at once, including vocals.
"That gave the record a certain vibe," he said. "We're all playing at the same time versus splitting things up."
The record is somewhat of a return to My Morning Jacket's jammy, psychedelic roots, compared to the poppy, R&B styles they successfully experimented with on Z and Evil Urges. There are still detours, such as "Holdin' On to Black Metal," with its girl-group and spaghetti western flavors.
"There's always a couple songs where we think they won't make sense on an album, but they always end up getting on," Broemel said. "We always go in with a certain intent, but the songs always show you what's working and what's not."
Given the variety of music every member has on his iPod, it's understandable why My Morning Jacket doesn't comfortably fit any one genre. Everyone brings different sensibilities and musical fixations to the fold. Broemel, for instance, has received an education in hip-hop since joining the band.
"It's cool because we all expose each other to things we may not be caught up on," he said. "Music I may have thought I didn't like for whatever reason, I'm starting to see the truth in it."
He's learned to play in other styles while on the job, picking up session work in Nashville for a variety of acts. Just this year, he played on rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson's new release and worked with lounge singer Tom Jones.
"This city's been great for me," says Broemel, who has also issued a couple solo albums. "Being in this band is my dream job, and having time off is really great too because I can do other things. It's always educational."
In his experience, it's easy to get too comfortable in an ensemble. With session work, you're playing for strangers who don't care who you are as long as you play well. That's kept Broemel on his toes.
"That's been a good yin and yang for me – come off the road and get thrown into situations where I have to be good, not rest on my laurels," he said.
That's the mindset My Morning Jacket takes to its concerts. Over time, the band has earned a reputation as one of the country's best live acts.
"It's like a basketball game for us," Broemel said. "We're wrecked after the show. We try to put everything we possibly can into it."
Some performances end up being mostly improvised; others, not so much.
"Certain songs lend themselves to being extended or changed more than others," Broemel said.
A four-hour tour
Broemel doesn't consider My Morning Jacket to be a jam band — at least not in a pure sense — even though they've often been labeled as such. They don't treat their performances like jazz, he said, in which you have a basic melody in a verse-chorus format, and then everyone solos before bringing it back.
"It's more open-ended," he said of their concerts. "There could be a big section there or it could just not happen. And it's usually not discussed ahead of time. Sometimes we'll acknowledge that was cool, let's maybe do that sometime again."
Their 4-hour, 35-song Bonnaroo set in 2008 has taken on an almost mythic status.
"That one took a lot of work," Broemel said. "When you plan something like that, you basically have to pretend you're 16 again."
To fill the time they learned a lot of covers and brought in special guests to keep it interesting, including Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett and comedian Zach Galifianakis. What Broemel remembers most about that gig were the fans who stood in rain for the entire set.
"I'm eternally grateful for people who can get on board a show and can stay through pouring rain, and be into it," he said. "That's really inspiring for us. It fuels the fire when we see that sort of dedication."
He even admits having trouble watching a band for more than 90 minutes.
"I'm very aware that we don't want (our shows) to get boring," Broemel said. "We want it to have a flow, give people a reason to want to see us again."
Broemel still has an older brother living in Indy. His wife has family near Muncie, so they're back here often. But My Morning Jacket has kept Broemel busy. Each of their subsequent records has charted higher, with Circuital and Evil Urges both debuting in the top 10. The band has gone from playing The Vogue to Clowes Memorial Hall to The Lawn.
"We're just trying to stick to what we think is possible with us playing music — in the studio or on tour," Broemel said. "It's always nice to see incremental growth. It's been slow going. Every time you put out a record you hope people are into it."