My Morning Jacket's Tom Blankenship on Record Stores: "We Need That Sense of Community"
Few bands have risen from the stale, beer-stained stages of America's dingiest dives only to entertain majestic crowds at some of the world's largest festivals more naturally than My Morning Jacket. Formed in Louisville in 1998, the Jim James-fronted group has undergone a series of personnel changes that have accompanied stylistic shifts, and gained them new followers with each release.
The band is now a full-fledged arena rock act that can be bombastically experimental, yet easily digested. Touring in support of this year's fine Circuital, the five-piece seems to have found an exciting middle ground between the outer-space rock of their breakthrough 2005 record Z and 2008's prog-loving Evil Urges.
Following up their headlining Austin City Limits Fest set, My Morning Jacket comes to town Wednesday with Delta Spirit at the Verizon Theatre in Grand Prairie. We recently had the pleasure of speaking to long-time MMJ bassist Tom "Two-Tone Tommy" Blankenship about the band's artistic evolution, the hidden talent of his hometown and the need for a sense of community. Q&A after the jump.
Your band has gone from playing the smallest of clubs to the largest of arenas in recent years. That seems rare for a band that has altered their sound over the years the way in which MMJ has.
I've never really thought about it like that, because everything seems so gradual. Our sound evolving has been a gradual thing. The progressions we've gone through from one album to the next feels very natural. We've had major line-up changes, which has brought in new elements to our sound. I feel like we've always played the same live show, regardless of how many people are out there. We've always played like there are a million people watching and that it's the last time we'll ever get to play together. I just feel blessed that people come to see us, regardless of how many it is.
It just seems like in today's climate, there's a lot of griping when a popular young band makes a bunch of changes to their overall sound. Not only are your long-time fans still on board, but you're picking up plenty of new converts along the way.
That's the biggest blessing of all, actually. We've never set out to write a song that's totally messed up and talks about peanut butter pudding surprise ["Highly Suspicious" from Evil Urges]. It was just like, "Here's another song," and it felt like it was in the wheelhouse of what we were doing. Again, it was just natural. We don't spend a lot of time analyzing what we do, outside of the actual playing itself. We've never talked about what our sound actually is. I don't know if any of us could describe it, or even want to describe it. We get to go on these crazy journeys of what's turning us on musically. And the fact that people are hanging onto that crazy rollercoaster is the biggest blessing of all.
With a great writer like Jim James leading the band and enduring multiple line-up changes, what's the creative process for the band typically like when gearing up to record an album?
Our process hasn't really changed at all over the years. Jim comes up with the demos on his own. Sometimes it's just basic acoustic and sometimes it's a full fleshed-out song with all of the parts already there. He'll give us a tape, or CD or mp3, and we'll each spend some time with the song to see where it takes us individually, then we just see what happens when all five of our minds collide. Sometimes, the song sticks to the formula that Jim had in mind, and other times it can lead to something much different than what was planned. For Circuital in particular, we would be together and hit "record" quickly when the vocals were fresh and all of the emotion was there and we were all playing off of each other while being super-focused in a way you wouldn't hear if we had done 50 takes.
So, five different views of a single song can certainly be a key reason why your sound is so hard to describe, right?
Right. It's kind of like one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books from the '80s. With us, there's five different choices, but in our book, all of the different stories end up in the same place, only after different journeys.
What's up with your nickname, Two-Tone Tommy?
The artist formerly known as Two-Tone Tommy. Our first drummer, J. Glenn, used to leave messages on my answering machine and he would come up with different nicknames, and this one kind of stuck. We had fake stage names and this one was added at the last minute for some album art, so it stuck around.
When one thinks of influential music scenes around the country, Louisville doesn't often come to mind, even though members of groups like Slint and your band were all members of bands that were making some noise prior to the more well-known projects. Any thoughts as to why that is?
The thing about Louisville is that it doesn't have that one identifiable sound. Many areas around there have sounds that people think of when they think of that city. Like Cincinnati with The Afghan Whigs, or even Nashville. Louisville has always been more under the radar. Kentucky's a state that borders different regions, too. It's not completely in the Midwest, or completely in the South, so that makes it kind of like an island and it makes bands work harder too. That made us jump in our van and get out to see what we could do. There's also not a whole lot to do in Louisville, culturally, compared to other, larger cities, so you have to come up with ways to entertain yourself. I grew up in a dry county, so somebody's big brother couldn't really go get alcohol for us. We were just big music dorks that got together to play music, just for the sake of playing music. We would all start four or five bands because we couldn't stop playing. There's a lot of talent there; I think that's why you see a lot of bands from Louisville but maybe not a real big scene that gets a lot of attention.
Speaking of the music scene in Louisville, the legendary record store, Ear X-tacy recently closed down. Surely you have some fond memories of spending time there and browsing the aisles or catching a great in-store.
Oh, absolutely. I grew up outside of the city, which was all farmland and all we had was a Wal-Mart. So, before I was old enough to drive, or even knew that there was such a thing as a record store, I got all of my music from Wal-Mart, because I had no other option. So when I was 14 or 15, I found Ear X-tacy. There was no one else in town that supported local music. I have so many good memories of things like going in and buying [Louisville math-rock band] Rodan's Rusty from Kevin Coulton, who played drums for them, because the store sold local bands' albums and all the musicians worked there. It was a great opportunity to interact with those guys. Plus, John [Timmons, owner of Ear X-tacy] has done so much for our band over the years, right from the beginning. I personally owe him so much for introducing so much music into my life, but also a sense of community. We need places like that and to keep them alive. We need that sense of community, whether it's a bookstore, a coffee shop or a record store. Place that are owned by locals and where people congregate and talk. We really need to keep those places around.
My Morning Jacket performs Wednesday, December 7, at Verizon Theatre in Grand Prairie.