Just about every three years since the start of this century, a new My Morning Jacket album has announced itself to the world with a twist of inventiveness. The Louisville-based band’s discography can be likened to a series of turns off a long highway of genre-governed expectations. But the turns don’t head in the wrong direction—they lead to a destination that feels right.
In May, MMJ released the latest installment in its eclectic catalogue: The Waterfall. Recorded during a weeks-long session at an oceanside studio in Stinson Beach, California, the album evokes the ethereal experience of roaming through nature near a vast sea while lost in thought. But it’s lively, often danceable, and grounded, too, in concrete themes of heartbreak and rebirth.
At home in Kentucky prior to heading to the East Coast for the band’s final shows of the year—culminating in a four-night run at New York’s Beacon Theatre—MMJ drummer Patrick Hallahan chatted with The Aquarian about the ultimate live show, defying creative stagnation, and the highlights of his vinyl collection.
My Morning Jacket has done multi-night runs in a few cities this year. They’re a real treat for fans because we get to hear more of your catalogue, but what about for you? What do you like or look forward to about playing multiple nights in one city?
First of all, none of us like repetition. If you listen to our albums they tend to be different from one another just because we can’t really stand to repeat ourselves twice—so that innate part of us is certainly thrilled to be doing no-repeat multi-show runs and things like that.
It’s also a great challenge to go back into the catalogue and re-learn material we haven’t played in awhile. You kind of get to visit with old friends and feel emotions that you haven’t felt in a long time. It’s a multifaceted experience for the band because it is a lot of work, but it’s also super rewarding on many levels—just going back and feeling the happiness or the sorrow of the times when you were making those songs. It’s an important part of being an artist because it’s all about the feelings. It’s all about taking those feelings and making something beautiful out of them.
You guys are known for your stellar performances. What are the most important things you try to accomplish live? What makes an ideal show?
Usually the best live shows for us are the ones that don’t even exist. If we’re up there thinking, if we’re up there worrying, then we’re not really 100-percent surrendering to the void. And on those nights when everything is in perfect alignment and the crowd is participating and the air feels right—you know, that goes by in a blink. And it’s more like waking up from a meditation than playing a show. There are a lot of times when I walk out to bow at the end of the night [and] I don’t really know where I am for a second…I really am just kind of coming to. Those are the moments.
Right now I think the most important thing to us when playing and bringing the best show we can is just to be good listeners: in many ways, but mostly in improvisational moments. Being able to listen to each other and get out of each other’s way when somebody is doing something or taking the lead of a moment when they’re feeling inspired to do so—it requires a great deal of concentration and listening.
Now that you’ve had some time to dig in to playing The Waterfall material live, how are you feeling about it? Has anything surprised you about bringing the songs to life? What’s that experience been like?
Oh yeah (laughs). The recording is just one little part of it—the live performance is kind of where it goes on forever. When we were making the album, there were songs that I was so excited to play live. I thought, “These are going to be so much fun, and people are going to react”—and you get nothing on those songs. And then there are other songs that I sort of liked but was kind of relying on my faith in my bandmates to know the right thing to do to agree to some of them, and they turned out to be some of my favorites. It’s really funny how the truth just kind of comes out over time.
And the songs change, too. We play them differently live than we did on the album because we’ve gotten more time to think about them and feel them.
You’re one of the few bands I can think of whose albums consistently sound very different from each other. How do you manage to approach each album from such a fresh perspective and not get stuck in a pattern?
That’s a good question. I think that requires a lot of things to happen. One of them is definitely our collective unrest—the need to constantly create something new, the need to push ourselves further to stay fresh. We’ve been around for a long time now and we could have easily just fallen on our laurels and made 10 It Still Moves and been done. But there’s something within us [that wants] to continue to create and to push the envelope so that life is interesting for us.
Jim [James, singer and guitarist] is the principal songwriter and it also stems from him constantly wanting to explore. When he’s sitting around doing demos, he’s always thinking and working. We benefit greatly from that because he brings a lot of feels to the table and then we pick and choose and expand upon them. We also record in a different place every time, specifically so that different energy leaks in to the process. It’s just a bunch of different things.
It has to be really gratifying as an artist to be able to do that.
It is. It can be frustrating, too, but the end result is total gratification.
What can you share about My Morning Jacket’s plans for 2016? There’s been word that you might release another album next year.
When we finished recording that session out in Stinson Beach—it was a dual session in Stinson Beach and Louisville—we came out of there with 21 or 22 songs. We were initially saying that instead of releasing a double album, we’d release one album this year and one album next year. And you know, we got to touring and there was just no time to really work on the second album. We’ve also lived a little more life and we’ve kind of fallen out of love with some of the stuff, and some of it has revealed itself in different ways. So we’re going to continue to work on that. It won’t come out in the early part of the year but we’re going to spend time on it next year. I can’t wait.
The touring will slow down some, but we’re just going to keep creating. That’s the thing with this band, there’s never really a concrete plan (laughs). We have tour schedules and things like that, but it’s just kind of up to where everybody is. We’ve toured pretty heavily over the last six months and by the time we’re said and done we’ll have done a good chunk of work and we’ll probably take some time off and regroup.
In a recent YouTube video, you and your bandmates went record shopping at Amoeba Music in Hollywood and talked about your picks. You had some pretty cool ones in your bag, like The Wizard Of Oz soundtrack. What are some of the gems of your vinyl collection?
Oh gosh, I’ve been listening to a bunch of stuff. After I come home and re-kindle my little family unit with my wife and daughter, I usually sit down and get to know my old friends on my record shelf.
A lot of what I’ve been listening to has been Louis Armstrong. I’m just infatuated with Louis Armstrong. I collect 78s, and when I was in Los Angeles last month I found these five Louis Armstrong/Mills Brothers 78s that are my prized possessions right now. I’m infatuated with the Mills Brothers as well, and I never knew that they collaborated together.
The Ella & Louis album is constantly on my rotation. Sir Douglas Quintet, Mendocino, there’s a lot of stuff. We just got off the road with the Fruit Bats, so that made me go back and listen to their last album, Tripper. Hearing those songs live and then going back and understanding the album better—it’s been a really fun adventure. I could pretty much play that every day.
My Morning Jacket will be playing at the Beacon Theatre on Nov. 24, 25, 27, and 28. The Waterfall is available now. For more information, go to mymorningjacket.com.