My Morning Jacket formed at the tail-end of the 1990s, when Jim James’ group Month Of Sundays folded, and he began recording new songs with ex-members of local rockers Winter Death Club. At Above The Cadillac Studios – in reality, a shed on the grounds of guitarist Johnny Quaid’s grandparents’ farm – the group took shape, drawing upon their rich knowledge of classic rock, country, soul and psychedelia, and spinning these influences into fresh, life-affirming rock’n’roll and aching, haunting balladry. My Morning Jacket made their early reputation off the three sublime albums they recorded at Above The Cadillac – 1999’s The Tennessee Fire, 2001’s At Dawn and 2003’s It Still Moves – and legendary live shows that proved here was a truly magical group for the ages. It Still Moves marked a move to the major labels for the group, while its heavy touring cycle prompted the amicable exit of Quaid and keyboardist Danny Cash from the ranks.
Album number four, 2004’s Z, was a brave step outside of the group’s comfort zone, recorded in New York’s Catskill Mountains with the aid of respected producer John Leckie (Stone Roses, Spiritualized), and with new members guitarist Carl Broemel and keyboard player Bo Koster making their debut appearances on tape, their skilful performances swiftly proving themselves cut from the same cloth as their bandmates. The album also saw James stretch his song-writing chops beyond the familiar reference points of My Morning Jacket’s earlier work, an impulse he furthered with 2008’s Evil Urges, which scattered the group’s ragged rockers and tender, keening ballads with subtly sensual grooves and tracks that sounded like heavy metal laced with psychedelic soul and feral funk. Both albums helped grow ever-swelling following, a grass-roots movement that’s spread like wildfire in the wake of their many long and glorious tours, and already-legendary shows like their 4-hour 2008 Bonnaroo head-lining performance, which captured one of the world’s greatest rock’n’roll groups at their most masterful and alive.
Circuital is the first album the group have made in Kentucky since It Still Moves, recording it in the gymnasium of a Louisville church under the aegis of producer Tucker Martine. Jim bonded with Martine while recording backing vocals for Laura Veirs’ 2010 album July Flame, which Martine, Veirs’ husband, also produced. “We hit it off right away,” says Martine, who later helped set up a home studio in James’ Louisville home, where he’s working on a future solo album. “As a group, we’ve always been hoping to find ‘our guy’,” says James. “And we’ve worked with some great people, but we’d wanted to find someone who was, like, ‘one of us’. And Tucker fit in perfectly, and he had a whole set of skills we didn’t possess. He’s real smart, and fun to be with.”
Converting the gymnasium into a recording studio wasn’t an easy task, says Martine, but the extra effort yielded unique results. “It’s a big project, to record in a space like that. It has so many limitations, compared to working in a modern studio, but they were limitations we were all drawn to. The focus became on communicating and interacting, and not on what modern trickery we could use later.” At the group’s insistence, the album was recorded live, with few overdubs; James’ vocals were recorded at the same time as the band’s performances. “We were going for full takes; we wanted everybody running back to the control room afterwards, freaking out and wanting to listen back to the take,” remembers James. “We’re A Band, and so I want our records to be made that way, with us being A Band. Capturing performances, that intangible thing between us, some kind of soul. When friends have been through as much as we have together… It’s not something I could even describe. We wanted to capture the sound of us just playing, being in the same place and just feeding off each other.”
“This is truly a great band, and they play so well together, it would be wrong not to document that,” adds Martine. For James, the new album finds a sweet understanding between the questing creative impulses of Evil Urges and the more familiar feel of My Morning Jacket’s earlier work. “The album’s like a rolling, gentle soundwave,” he says, in comparison to Evil Urges’ jagged edges. “But I don’t feel Circuital sounds like our earlier recordings. We’re always trying to go in new directions.” His memories of the sessions for Circuital are only fond. “There was no AC, no-one had their laptops. We recorded everything on tape. It was like, we’re just who we are, with what we have with us at the moment, and that’s all we have. It was a beautiful thing, and it really cemented what we all mean to each other, as people and as a band. We’ve learned, slowly over the years, how to function more healthily, I guess, so we don’t all combust. Making this record, it felt like our friendship was only strengthened.”