A staple of Kentucky rockers My Morning Jacket's live shows is some serious headbanging. "I've fallen into the drum kit a few times, just not paying attention. I've definitely hurt myself," admits bassist Two Tone Tommy. "It kind of scares me to see clips of myself playing."
This is not necessarily what you'd expect from listening to the band's records, part alt-country and part dramatic, reverb-saturated harmonies. "We've always wanted it to be two different experiences," Two Tone says of the group's split personality. "The record would be this timeless thing that we hope will live on far after we are gone. The live performances are just us having fun and us living out our thirteen-year-old fantasy of air-guitaring on our beds."
But on their new, fourth effort, Z, My Morning Jacket -- Two Tone, singer/songwriter/guitarist Jim James, drummer Patrick Hallahan, guitarist Carl Broemel and keyboardist Bo Koster -- are experiencing a bit of an identity crisis. The band known for Southern-tinged riffs amidst thundering reverb has shed some of the Americana image.
For the new effort, Two Tone admits, the band shook off the country tinge of some of the tunes on 2001's At Dawn and their 2003 breakthrough, It Still Moves. "We never do anything consciously, as far as writing," he says. "We don't say that we're going to write a really poppy song, or one with alt-country twang. We pride ourselves on not thinking about things creatively and just letting them happen."
Things began happening for My Morning Jacket when It Still Moves produced the college radio favorites "One Big Holiday" and "Mahgeetah." The buzz surrounding the band had them touring non-stop -- which took a toll on some of its members. Under pressure and eager to be closer to their families and loved ones, guitarist Johnny Quaid and keyboardist Danny Cash decided to quit the band. "We made the decision to take every opportunity that came to us," says Two Tone. "But they were a casualty of it. We never stopped to say, 'Oh, maybe we should stop to take a breather every once in a while.'"
With Quaid's departure, My Morning Jacket felt they couldn't record Z on his grandparents' farm, where they'd laid down tracks for their previous albums. "It didn't feel right," says Two Tone. "It felt like a ghost town, going out there to the studio. We had milked that place creatively. Then we decided, 'Hey, we have two new members in the band, so we should just do everything differently.'" With veteran producer John Leckie (Pink Floyd, Stone Roses) on board, the band headed to Allaire Studio in the Catskills Mountains of New York.
"It's so secluded, it took a half-hour just to drive up the driveway," Two Tone says of the set-up. "We had been talking for years about really locking ourselves in when we did an album, and now there was no excuse but to be in the studio all the time. You'd wake up and have breakfast and grab your coffee and walk into the control room."
The resulting album is My Morning Jacket's most experimental offering yet. The song "Off the Record" begins as pure pop, only to end with an ambient instrumental outro that recalls French duo Air. Broemel's pedal steel on "Into the Woods" sounds more vaudeville than alt-country. And Z's gem is "Gideon," a kind of piano-heavy hymn to reverb.
So now the group that has been both a force on the jam band circuit and an opener for rockers like the Foo Fighters, has become even harder to pigeonhole. "We try to never subscribe to any label or genre," says Two Tone. "We just don't like to be classified."