Here's Angel: “My Morning Jacket's humble Midwestern roots are very relatable and inspiring to me. Their dynamic genius promises to keep it fresh with each new album. But probably the most appealing aspect of their music is the authenticity of Jim James' lyrics. It's very easy to put a My Morning Jacket album on repeat and let the hours slip by, especially their latest release, The Waterfall.”
And here's Burtch: "My Morning Jacket is one of the few bands for me that consistently keeps me on my toes with every new release. I love the fact that each new album is a distinct entity that stands on its own from prior efforts. Often when bands try to diversify their sound, it comes off as ploy to seem creative or a venture to the mainstream. My Morning Jacket's evolution through the years has felt very organic which makes each new musical experience truly unique.
"In addition to their diverse sound, they are one of the great live acts of our time. They are an act where the live performance enhances their music. It is reminiscent of a prior time in music to the '60s and '70s when the rock gods of the past reigned. That is my favorite era of rock music, and My Morning Jacket would fit perfectly in that era. It's easy for me to fall in love with a band that is constantly trying new and interesting elements within their sound and also happens to put on one of the best live shows in the game."
The week of the fest, we connected Angel, Burtch and My Morning Jacket bassist Tom Blankenship before MMJ's show in Indy this weekend for a short chat about scene building, Midwestern work ethic and middle school band.
Angel: You have a show tonight, Tom?
Blankenship: No, no, we start on Thursday. We're in Nashville right now.
Angel: What do you do in your free time when you're not playing the bass?
Blankenship: Today I mowed the yard, got a haircut, and walked down the street and got a hot dog. It's exciting.
Angel: That sounds like a nice relaxing day. So Tom, how long have you been playing music?
Blankenship: I actually played trumpet in middle school band. That was probably in 12 or 13? I picked up a bass when I was about 15, and I've been playing on and off in bands ever since then.
Angel: Did you have any idea when you were playing trumpet in middle school band that you'd be in one of the biggest bands in the world someday?
Blankenship: [laughs] Definitely not. In middle school band, you had to challenge seats. You always wanted to be first seat. I was usually one of the last few guys, not because I didn't enjoy it, but I just didn't like the competition side of it, I guess. I was just always doing it for fun.
Burtch: When did you transition to bass, and what other instruments have you played throughout the years?
Blankenship: I started to play bass when I was 15, and played in a bunch of high school bands. It was like early '90s, so it kind of felt like everybody [was doing it]. It suddenly seemed like an obtainable goal, to be in a band. There were guys that we all grew up watching in local bands and it just seemed like an accessible thing. I played bass for a few years, then I switched to guitar. I played guitar in this band called One Trick Death Club, which was actually three original members from My Morning Jacket. When that band dissolved, I switched to bass, and played bass in a bunch of bands.
Angel: You've been there since the beginning with MMJ?
Blankenship: Yeah, since early '99, and the band started maybe six months before that.
click to enlarge
Angel and Burtch
Photo by Gage Hein
Angel: When did you guys realize that you had something really special going on that set yourselves apart from a lot of other bands?
Blankenship: I remember when I first sort of [heard] what Jim was recording, and what the other three guys were recording, and really connecting with it in a way that I hadn't since I was 15 and first picked up an instrument. [It] was in this weird sort of way that they were my friends, they were making music, but I was really inspired by it. And I thought, I've never worked with a songwriter like Jim before, number one, and players like the other guys in the band. I think growing up in Louisville, and us not feeling like we were a part of [the scene]; there was a huge hardcore punk scene, you know, in the early '90s and all throughout the '90s. We were kind of at the tail end of that. We weren't a popular band at all, and that's when I first knew that we were different in a way where I believe in it, but I knew that we weren't the popular dudes in Louisville at all. We were kind of like the outcasts in a way. I think that helped us later on, too, because we never really expected to have any kind of popularity, or expected to have anybody out at our shows. I think that made us work harder.
Burtch: How would you describe the band's creative process in developing a song, album and live show?
Blankenship: It's kind of a hard thing to describe, especially after you've been in the middle of it for so long. I think it's just that collective headspace that we all get in when we're playing together. A lot of it goes back to just playing for the sake of playing, and just having fun. When the five of us get together, we're just having a lot of fun playing music together. A lot of the great ideas come out – or what we might consider great ideas – because we're just psyched to be playing together. When five different people are coming from five different places, and the result is this one singular thing, that's can only be produced by these five guys, that's the magical part of it.
Angel: You guys have evolved a lot since The Tennessee Fire.The Waterfall is a great album. Thank you for putting that album out. Are there any life experiences that you could [sketch out] that mold you into the type of musician that puts out these great modern records?
Blankenship: For me personally, it's just being self-taught. When I first started in the band, I remember before I had my first audition, or my first meeting with the band to play through all the songs, I learned all the songs … on a five-string acoustic that I had, not on a bass. It was just a guitar that had five strings. Early on, we would call certain chords or certain capo positions on the neck by colors. When Carl [Broemel, guitar] and Bo [Koster, keys] joined the band and they really educated the other three of us; they came from a background of music. A lot of it was just substantial, where we were encouraged, and a lot of it was just forced through the journey of being a band to learn more about music and become a better musician. I took jazz lessons for a few years and tried to push myself to get out of the same patterns and shapes and things that we all kind of have in our heads and that we rely on as musicians when we're playing. That would probably be the biggest one.
And, of course, just the experience of playing live all the time, you know? Every show that we play, a lot of the songs change night to night. Songs like … “Only Memories Remains” on the new record, those are different experiences every night.
Burtch: You guys have made quite a reputation, at least from my perspective, one of the preeminent live acts in the music industry. Could you touch on how important the live show is to you all, and how that's evolved through the years? How do you keep things fresh night to night?
Blankenship: You can sell records, or you can read a bulletin board online, or a forum or whatever, but really the best way to connect with fans and share in the joy in making music [is the live show]. A big part of making music and playing live is that communal feeling of, yeah, we're the musicians onstage, but at the same time, we wouldn't be doing this if not for the people in the audience. In a lot of ways, it's kind of weird that we're onstage and up above the crowd, but once we're out there it feels like everybody is in this great big circle together, and we're all experiencing the same thing at the same time, in our own different ways. It's about them as much as they're enjoying and feeding off of what we're doing. It's a very reciprocal experience. And fortunately, knock on wood, there's nothing that rivals that in our digital era.
Angel: You guys are an incredible inspiration, especially to us. We're in the music business, but we're here in Indianapolis, not too far from where you started out. Do you have any advice for those in the Midwest playing music? It seems kind of tough for our area as opposed to the East and West Coasts.
Blankenship: I definitely felt that growing up, and in a way all of us – Carl's from Indianapolis; Bo's from Cleveland, and the other three of us are from Louisville. It's pretty similar all over the place, you know, regionally. It is tough. I remember growing up in Louisville and seeing all these national acts pass Louisville by, because they could play Nashville, or Indy, or Cincinnati, wherever. It just wasn't a huge draw to play there.
I think a lot of that informs how we make music, and it's the same way there too: You end up playing for your friends, or other band members, or whatever. It's tough. I wish I knew the secret key to the formula to break out of your hometown, other than just getting in a van and hammering at it and touring as much as possible. I think that absolutely helped us early on.
If you go:
My Morning Jacket
Thursday, May 26, 7 p.m.
Farm Bureau Insurance Lawn at White River State Park, 801 W. Washington St.
prices vary, all-ages