MMJ concert is also a homecoming for guitarist Carl Broemel
My Morning Jacket’s Rock for Riley performance Saturday in Indianapolis is a homecoming for guitarist Carl Broemel.
“I’m excited to be playing at Clowes Hall, because my dad used to play in the symphony when they were still there,” Broemel says. “The fact that it’s a benefit makes us all happy, too. It’s not just us playing another show.”
Whatever musical genes Robert Broemel, the now-retired Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra bassoonist, might have passed on to his son, the shaggy-haired guitarslinger, they are serving Carl well. Not many people get second chances at rock ’n’ roll success.
“I definitely feel grateful,” he says of the nearly three years he has spent with MMJ, a Louisville-born group that has risen to international critical acclaim and deftly maintains fans in both the indie-rock and jam-band worlds. “I think everybody in the band feels grateful to do what we get to do.”
As local observers might recall, the younger Broemel was among a cadre of Pike High School grads who moved to Bloomington for college and ended up forming Old Pike, one of the most commercially promising bands to emerge from Indiana in recent memory. Often placed in the “working-class, heartland” category with the Mellencamps and Springsteens, the band signed to Sony 550 in 1998 and released its national debut, Ten Thousand Nights, the following year.
Despite heavy touring and such, the record didn’t take off. The label and band parted company, and soon the weary band members went their own ways. Broemel spent the subsequent years in Los Angeles, playing in various groups and doing studio work.
“I just had my ear to the ground, kind of brainstorming on what to do next,” he says.
Meanwhile, two original members of My Morning Jacket, Johnny Quaid and Danny Cash, had decided to give up the rat race. Broemel got word of the vacancies — as well as a helpful endorsement — from a friend in Nashville, who happened to be the brilliant singer-songwriter Bobby Bare Jr. (Broemel and MMJ drummer Patrick Hallahan also have contributed to Bare’s next album.)
Broemel had been familiar with My Morning Jacket, but grew increasingly enthused as he listened and recognized more of the material. In a move that would later help ace the audition, he rehearsed the band’s entire catalog.
“I hadn’t put two and two together,” he says. “That was a turning point where I just decided I was going to learn every song.”
He and keyboardist Bo Koster joined the group in early 2004 and soon were contributing to a more expansive sound.
On two independent albums and the 2003 major-label debut, It Still Moves, on Dave Matthews’ Sony-affiliated ATO Records, MMJ staked out a twangy territory that nodded heavily toward epic Southern rock and West Coast psychedelia. On top of the muscular arrangements and general guitar craftsmanship, the band’s distinctive personality came from songwriter and lead vocalist Jim James, with his melodic hooks, enigmatic persona and trademark high-lonesome croon. He uses reverb, that most common of audio effects, to turn his unconventional voice into an otherworldly instrument of beauty and mystery.
The band’s 2005 album, Z, seemed to blast off into that heavenly space, piling on the vocal harmonies and adding textures and rhythms inspired by electronic and hip-hop music. Produced by British studio veteran John Leckie, it signaled a band in the throes of a Radiohead-style metamorphosis.
All the more curious, then, that MMJ would return not with a radical collection of new studio material, but with a concert DVD and double-disc live album that catalog the Z tour, both of which are titled with the fabricated and undefined word Okonokos.
Although live recordings often reflect an end-of-an-era mindset, Broemel says there was no calculated strategy behind the new releases.
“I don’t think it was that cerebral,” he says. “It started kind of small — we were going to record some shows. Then we thought maybe we should film the shows. It just kind of snowballed. When we got the footage and the audio back, we were kind of surprised [by the quality], because we were really tired at that point in the tour. Then we got all proud of it.”
The CDs are a nice reminder of the powerful show that shook the Vogue a year ago, and the recordings and performances are strong enough to make the collection a nice introduction to the band.
The DVD, likewise, showcases a great live group at the top of its game, and it also includes some of those “fantasy sequences” that often enhance classic rock films.
The Okonokos project is the focus of MMJ’s current touring, which involves a few weeks now in the Midwest and East, then a few more weeks in the West after New Year’s. Work on the next studio album is likely to start in the spring — after the band members take a little break.
“It’s been a long road for everybody,” says Broemel, who now lives in Nashville with his wife.
“I think if we have some time off, the record is going to be better for it.”