You guys took a few years off between 2011’s Circuital and May’s The Waterfall. What were you up to? [Frontman] Jim [James] did a solo record that he had been working on for some time; that came out. [Drummer] Patrick [Hallahan] worked on [side project] Spanish Gold. And I worked on some music, too. Everybody just split off and took a little break. It seems like that’s our way of working now—we’ll go real intense with My Morning Jacket, and then everybody needs a little break, so we come back to it with fresh ears, eyes and minds.
I have a young child, too, so it was really a perfect time for me to take a little break. It all kind of worked out. When we reset and started working on the new record, we definitely took our time with it. A lot of times when you let the record label know you’re working on a record they expect there’s all of a sudden some date that you have to turn it in, so we purposefully pushed that question as far into the future as we could. We didn’t even think about when it was going to be released as we were working on it. That’s the first time that’s ever happened. I think that was a healthy way to approach getting back into music, and I think it reflected pretty well on the album, the way it turned out. I’m really happy with it, front to back, eight months later.
It sounds like you ended up with lots of songs to choose from. Yeah, Jim had a ton of demos that we worked through, and we actually recorded a lot of songs that aren’t on the album. Because we always have a lot of different styles or different ways of going about things, some of the records come out with a lot of variety, and this record feels like it’s very solidified stylistically. There’s still some variety on there, but by working on a bunch of songs we were able to work through the songs and get them to make sense together.
The setting for the record was the Panoramic in Northern California, which is a remote recording studio-house. Do you think that helped provide a more relaxed sonic feel? Definitely. We’re deeply affected by the environment in which we record. We’ve recorded in New York [City]; we’ve recorded out in the boonies in upstate New York; we’ve recorded in a gymnasium in Louisville. So a lot of different variety, and this one was so different. Everybody except for [keyboardist] Bo [Koster] lives in a landlocked state, so to be close to the power of the ocean ... and cell phones didn’t really work and there weren’t a lot of people out there. It was nice isolation, and you’re steps from an inspiring hike at any moment.
If you wanted to take a break you could walk out to a cliff and look up and see vultures flying above you. It was just a beautiful forest and that Marin County air. We were staying in rental houses right on the beach, and we would hike up to the studio-house every morning—it would take about 40 minutes—and then at night we’d hike back. There’s way less light in Stinson than there is in Nashville, so we could see stars, maybe grab a beer and walk down the road, hang out together after we had worked on music all day. And it definitely seeped into the record. I’ll never be able to separate the views, I’ll always remember standing outside that crazy, old castle building, hearing the songs blasting out of that open door with a deer walking down the creek next to me. That’s just where we were and what we did.
MMJ is known as such a great live band. Did you road-test any of the songs before deciding which to record or which made it on the album? Nope, we didn’t, and we haven’t actually done that in a long time. We usually keep everything secret and work on it in the studio. It’s not a bad idea, though, to road-test it beforehand, but this time we hadn’t really messed around with any of the songs before we got into the studio and set all the gear up.
How important is it for you guys that the songs are able to translate to live performance? Or do you just have some songs that are too intricate to play live, so they’re studio-only cuts? It’s pretty important. One of the filters we have is, will this song translate live, or do we think it will be useful to us in the live realm? And we factor that in. But sometimes you can achieve things in the studio that you can’t on the stage, and vice versa. So it’s okay if every song isn’t a huge live hit. Sometimes at a live show it’s hard to get across something that’s obfuscated or subtle when you’re playing to a big drunk crowd or a rowdy crowd. I mean God bless ’em, we love ’em, but sometimes it’s hard and you don’t wanna play a song like “Only Memories Remain,” and everybody is just gonna talk through it.
You’re playing two nights here at Brooklyn Bowl. Will you take a different approach to the two shows? Both nights will have 100 percent different music, I can tell you that much, but we haven’t specifically planned those gigs out. It should be fun though. Vegas is a strange place to play, a strange realm, as I’m sure you know. I think since it’s two nights, some of the people who are traveling to Las Vegas that weekend will be coming specifically to see us. And you know, Vegas lends itself to some ridiculous behavior so maybe there will be some ridiculous stuff (laughs).
My Morning Jacket with Strand of Oaks. October 9 & 10, 9 p.m., $50. Brooklyn Bowl, 702-862-2695.