When you're My Morning Jacket, catastrophe takes the form of a breakup.
It comes after three achingly beautiful albums and close to a decade of paying your dues, touring at increasingly large venues for growing crowds.
It comes while critics are busy drooling themselves about the deeply soulful, reverb-drenched sound of your major-label debut, It Still Moves, and your band's vocalist and songwriter Jim James, whose powerful, plaintive voice can veer effortlessly from bottle-breaking twang to a heartbreaking whisper.
Catastrophe arrives when two of your founding members, Johnny Quaid and Danny Cash, decide they want off the ride for good. The road has been too long, and it's no longer worth it to them or their loved ones.
So you try to soldier on. You head to the studio with a new guitarist and a new keyboardist. Along the way you pick up, for the first time, a producer who's not a band member. In fact, he's the guy who produced The Stone Roses and The Bends and -- for God's sake -- The Dark Side of the Moon.
You really focus, for the first time, on rhythm, putting your vocalist's strengths to the test in the studio, taking you far away from your homemade recording space in Louisville, Kentucky, and onto the wax with the best album you've ever made. Z arrives in stores as one of the best-rated albums of the year, sporting haunting, memorable tunes like "Knot Come Loose," "Lay Low," and the hopeful, hopelessly addictive "Wordless Chorus."
It's November 2005, and if you're My Morning Jacket, you've weathered the storm and you've come out somehow in a much better place.
New Times sat down with the group's bassist Two Tone Tommy backstage at a sold-out show at Chicago's Vic Theater, to discuss the evolution of the band, striking a pose in Cameron Crowe's Elizabethtown, and losing two bandmates on "The Death Tour."
New Times: In your first four albums, you guys recorded in some really unusual spots -- grain silos, bathrooms, basements. What was that like?
Two Tone Tommy: Yeah, well, a lot of that was really out of necessity. Where the first three records were done was in an apartment above a three-car garage on a farm in Kentucky, basically. And it was either put the drums in the corner of one of the rooms and they'd sound kind of dry and weird, or we could do it in the basement or in the garage, where we'd pull all the cars out. All that stuff -- Jim doing vocals in the bathroom to get that reverb sound, recording in the grain silo -- that was all about doing what we had to do because we had sort of limited options. Whatever it took, our approach was, "Let's try this out and see what happens."
NT: Z sounds remarkably different from your past albums. Why do you think that is?
TTT: Well, we really made a conscious effort with this album to put on less songs. Instead of 74 minutes of music on the record, we focused on having every track be something really solid. Jim's range is also unbelievable now, the way he can stretch out and the way his voice has gotten deeper over the years. In the past, we produced the albums mainly by ourselves, and on this one we had a producer. We recorded it in a different place than we'd recorded all our past stuff, so we definitely tried some different things on Z.
NT: You guys worked with John Leckie as a producer on this album. What was that like?
TTT: It was pretty amazing. We were definitely scared at first. We didn't know what was going to happen. Everybody always has this idea in their head of what a producer is going to be -- like he's going to change your sound or tell you how to write the songs and everything. He was just really honest with us, which was great. He didn't kiss our asses. He'd just come in and say, "That take was shit," or, "Why are you playing this? This doesn't go along with what the rest of the band is playing." He was also very encouraging. If we'd recorded this album like we had in the past, we'd have done a take and thought it was great like we used to, but he would push us and say, "You guys can do this better."
NT: You guys played "Freebird" in Elizabethtown. How'd you hook that up?
TTT: Well, we ran into Cameron [Crowe] about three years ago in L.A., and he was talking about how he was making this film that was gonna be in Kentucky, and we figured that we'd stop by the set sometime to see what the movie business was all about. Next thing we know, he's in Louisville and he's talking to us about funerals and wakes and what kind of bourbon you'd drink and what things would be like when you lived in Kentucky -- just kind of everyday stuff. And then from there he decided to cast us in the movie, playing a Skynyrd tune.
NT: Do you miss your former bandmates?
TTT: Yeah, I miss 'em, but definitely on the last run with those guys we called it "The Death Tour," because it was just miserable. Sure, I sometimes pine for the old times, but I'm just glad that they've moved on and that they're happy now and that they aren't in that place that they were. We still see them all the time. In fact, they both got married over the two-month break that we had in Kentucky.
NT: What is Z?
TTT: It's nothing, really, which is why we chose it for the title. I've heard all kinds of rumors, like it's Z because it's going to be our last album, or Z because we're going to go backwards and make a different album for every letter, but it's not that -- it's basically the kind of thing you can attach meaning to yourself.