‘The Want for Exploration’ - My Morning Jacket flips to a different page
My Morning Jacket
w/ The Louisville Leopard Percussionists
Saturday, Aug. 16
Tickets at Slugger Field Box Office (212-2287) or Ticketmaster (361-3100)
www.louisville.com (local village)
$33.50 ($1 from each of ticket benefits The Center For Women & Families); 6:30 p.m. (gate)
BY MAT HERRON
Offstage, Patrick Hallahan is the jokester anyone with an ounce of good ol’ boy would saddle up to a PBR with. A first-class cutup, he always seems at ease with his environment, which, in this case, is the dining room at Kashmir Indian Restaurant on Bardstown Road.
Onstage, My Morning Jacket’s drummer alternates between sweet, soulful beat doctor and uncaged gorilla, pummeling that C&C five-piece kit like it owes him money. This year was MMJ’s biggest yet: an appearance on “Saturday Night Live” and a sold-out Radio City Music Hall gig, four stars in Rolling Stone and L.A. Weekly’s declaration they are the best live band in the world sure didn’t hurt. And now, 6,000-plus tickets already sold for Saturday’s show at The Great Lawn to bring it on home.
As Hallahan explains, the gravity of these achievements isn’t lost on the boys. Truth be told, they’re as blown away as their hometown fans are. Maybe more.
LEO: I want to start with the drums. Sometimes I’ll talk to musicians, and there will be a show or a band or an event that compels them to play music. How did you decide that you wanted to be a drummer?
Patrick Hallahan: It wasn’t really a concert or an event. My grandmother was in a lounge act. They would play hotel lounges and I guess maybe weddings, and they were rehearsing in her basement constantly. That’s where they had band practice. I guess she was watching me one day, and I was just down there. I would go over and feel the guitar amp and feel the vibrations coming off of it. I thought it was great that there was sound coming out of this box. I eventually gravitated over to the drummer, and it just kind of clicked with me right away. It wasn’t really a profound moment. I just knew that’s what sounded good to me, what made the most sense.
LEO: From there did you know you wanted to be in a band? Did the ambition start there?
PH: Well that day, (the drummer) gave me a pair of drumsticks, which I still have. They’re tiny. I’d smash them in half now. But yeah, I was 5 years old and started playing in the air to my parents’ records and taught myself how to play drums with that. (I’d) start with — I don’t know why I did this or what made me do it — but I would start like, “Today, right now, I’m going to learn how to time up my hands with this (song).” I’d sit there and get my right and left hands in time with what they were doing. “Today, I’m going to start working my right foot, learning how to work in bass-drum timing with this.” I was trying to figure out the hi-hat, open and closed, cutting-off-the-vibration maneuver. So I started doing that in my room for years. I finally played on a drum kit in sixth or seventh grade and kind of knew what I was doing right off the bat.
LEO: With this record (Evil Urges), what messages were you trying to send?
PH: I think if you asked everybody in the band that question, it would be different. Of course, the lyrical message is gonna be from Jim’s (James) standpoint, because he writes all the lyrics. From my standpoint, this album was all about displaying growth and the want for exploration, trying to stay out of a rut, trying to evolve spiritually, physically and emotionally and musically. This album … I really wanted this album personally to be an endeavor, something fresh, something out of the ordinary from what people would expect us to play based on previous albums. That’s what it meant to me: the next step.
LEO: Describe the rehearsals for the album. Did everyone essentially try to change up the way they played this time around?
PH: Everybody was pushing themselves to take themselves out of their comfort zones, and play some styles that maybe they hadn’t played before. Every album kind of starts out with Jim sitting in a room by himself and making some demos, and he presents the demos to us, and we think about them for a month or so, and then we get together and start hashing them out. Some of the stuff that he came up with rhythmically on the drum machine I thought was so good that I just wanted to mimic it. Or not mimic it, but mimic the robotic feeling of it, and put a little bit of a spin on it but stay the course with it. A lot of it was based on trying different sounds, trying to make an album sound like an album but made up of different parts, instead of a concept. This is more of a gift basket, more than a concept album.
LEO: Were you listening to anything specific that maybe crept into what you were playing?
PH: (Laughs) It’s weird. I think everything I was listening to was non-drum-oriented — a lot of old jazz singers. I was playing my drums like I thought Dinah Washington would sing. I don’t know (laughs). I think they were just my initial reactions to his demos, so yeah, just trying to come up with weird, different ways of approaching it. You, as a musician, when you hear something, you probably immediately go to something that’s comfortable at first. I just have these beats that I always go to, and I’m like, “Damn it! Gotta get out of there for just a second.” So yeah, I’d go to a lot of music like Fela Kuti, a lot of African big band music, with just these rhythms that repeated themselves over and over again, never really deviated too much, just rose and fell with the song.
LEO: You were in New York and that environment making Evil Urges.
PH: Ended up there, yeah.
LEO: Did the feel of the songs change from the time you were working on them in Colorado to when you tracked them in New York?
PH: That’s a good question. Some of them did not change at all. Some of them didn’t even really change from the demo version. A song like “Highly Suspicious,” we just found it so … (laughs) … I don’t know what the word would be. Absurd. Hilarious. Amazing. And it didn’t change from the time the demos were made until then. I mean, there were more fluctuations band-wise, but the core was there. But yeah, everything kind of changes, the feel of things changes more than the song parts do.
If you listen to the demos we made in Colorado, they were much more like, “Yaaaaaayyy.” We weren’t on a timeline; it was beautiful outside. Our days consisted of waking up, making breakfast, playing whenever we wanted, however long, all day long, and then make dinner and maybe go back and play for a while and watch movies the rest of the night. Whereas New York was like, you wake up, you get on a train, you gotta get there by midnight, because you only have 12 hours from the moment you get there to the moment you end, before you have to start paying overtime. So there was a different feel, because there was a sense of urgency, because we wanted to get it done, and we had timelines and deadlines. It wasn’t as comfortable. But again, we wanted to take ourselves out of our element, out of our comfort zone and out of our normal routine and put ourselves in a different environment.
LEO: Were you surprised by some of the reactions that “Highly Suspicious” has gotten?
PH: No, because I was prepared for both (laughs). I was actually surprised how many people liked it, initially, live. I definitely thought that was one of the farther stretches on the album. I knew we liked it. We’d play it back to back all the time, just because it was fun. Yeah, I wasn’t really surprised either way, because I knew it was probably going to split the listening base in half. Some people were gonna go, “I hate ‘Highly Suspicious’!” Or, “Yeah, that’s great that they’re reaching out! That’s really funny, and man, it rocks out at the end!” I don’t know. It just is what it is (laughs). The moral of that story is you can’t please everybody.
LEO: With Okonokos (a live album), a lot of the studio songs take on a life of their own live. What sorts of things do you think about when you’re on stage playing? What goes through your head?
PH: It all depends on the day and where we are on the tour. I think more times than not, the reason we’re out there doing that is to go play live. That’s the payoff for missing your family or living out of your suitcase for a month. That’s the icing on the cake. I love playing with those guys. A lot of times, if everything’s going right, I’m not really thinking about too much of anything, closing my eyes and (being) in this euphoric place. If everything’s going right, a good show is a blink of an eye, because you’re not focusing on, “God, that doesn’t sound right,” or “Oh my God, my seat’s about to fall over,” “Jesus Christ it’s hot out here.” Everything is in its right place. You’re just in a trance, more or less.
LEO: The band will be 10 years old next year. What’s the secret?
PH: I’ve been with them since 2002, so I have seven of those 10 under my belt. We’re very lucky to be good friends and trust each other. I think it’s just important to surround yourself with people you love and trust, and get it to a point where everybody understands each other’s stand in a situation and what their role is. I think the five of us are definitely all about the same things when it comes to being in a band and being a group of people and wanting to do the right thing. I think honesty and a good work ethic will keep anything together for a long time.
LEO: What was “Saturday Night Live” like?
PH: Man (long pause). I don’t get too terribly nervous about playing. I don’t get too terribly blown away by things. I don’t know, but “Saturday Night Live” was one of those things, I just felt my stomach-acid level rising with every step, getting closer to that building, and by the time I got in there, I was just blown away by the fact that we were just standing in there, first of all, because they’re such a part of my childhood, personally, just growing up with the show and watching my favorite bands play it. The rest of the guys feel the same way, too. You can’t really top this. It was just one of those milestones that I never thought would be possible.
When we got in there and played, it became so natural after a minute, but the initial travel in there was just so nerve-wracking. The people were so warm, and the show was so accommodating to everything that it made everybody feel at ease. That’s another thing: Sometimes television’s very cold and regimented, and they’ve been doing it this way for so many years, and they don’t want to think outside the box. They let us control how it sounded, how it was lit, to a certain point, what songs were played. It was one of the most fantastic experiences of my life.
LEO: And Radio City Music Hall? Sold out in 22 minutes …
PH: I don’t even have an answer for that. Honestly, and I think that’s the best answer, because we didn’t even know how to process that. That’s beyond anything. And the show was just electric. It was really special to have that kind of call-and-response reciprocity in a venue like that. They were giving back everything that we were giving to them, and that made us give more, and it just became this push-pull dance. It was perfect. The venue itself is like being in the belly of a whale. It just looks like a giant ribcage leading up to a mouth with this beautiful light show. The history surrounding that place — I don’t know, I’m meandering about details, but to give you an answer, I can’t really do. Between that and “Saturday Night Live,” you have me at a stalemate.
LEO: What performers influenced you in terms of putting on a show?
PH: Well, there’s the obvious answers to that, watching the Keith Moons and John Bonhams, and they were a huge part of how I looked at approaching a rhythm section. Watching Stevie Wonder play, watching the music take over his body. I think there’s a certain conduit that runs through people, from wherever that great musical source is in the sky, and you just watch it hit people. You know when the flow’s going through that conduit, you could see it through Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, when people close their eyes and lose themselves, their mouth’s open, their head’s movin’, they’re lost in the moment. I get off on watching performers like that, that aren’t necessarily putting on a show, but are so into what they’re doing that they don’t care what facial expression, or what they’re doing. I think watching those people play like that made me realize that it’s all right to lose yourself. It’s kind of like — this is a silly comparison — but watching old clips of Michael Jordan, and you see him sticking out his tongue when he’s going up for this beautiful dunk, flashes of cameras everywhere. He’s not thinking, “I’m going up to this dunk, and I’m going to stick my tongue out.” That is the point when the conduit goes through his head, and he’s not thinking. It’s this beautiful moment, where he’s gonna make this happen. I wanted to feel that conduit.
LEO: On most of the tour dates, you guys are playing alone. What led to that decision?
PH: I think (laughs), honestly part of it is because making a setlist can be so difficult sometimes, because, when we’ve released this number of albums, and we’ve been around for almost 10 years, there’re just a lot of songs that you want to play, and we’re just getting to the point now where it doesn’t feel right playing 90 minutes. Sometimes it does. But when we’re in a good moment, we don’t want to stop, and we just wanted to see how that would go, just to put on our own show for once, and get up there and play for as long as we wanted to and make it an evening. It’s like throwing a dinner party. Inviting people in and playing for them for that long, just to see what happens. There’s a couple co-headliners in there. We’re playing with The Black Keys.
LEO: The Louisville Leopard Percussionists, how did you guys find them?
PH: We always try to treat the Louisville show like an event, not just a band playing on a stage. And initially, everybody wanted to … keep the “Evening With” motif going throughout the whole thing. I was kind of throwing out ideas about regional opening acts and kind of like, eh, what could we do different. Our manager’s wife works for HBO, and she had just been in town, and they had just done this documentary on the Louisville Leopards. He said, “Well, have you thought about asking the Louisville Leopards?” and we were like, “The Louisville Leopards?” None of us had really heard of them before. They sent us a DVD of the documentary, and it was like Niagara Falls on the bus. It’s such a beautiful, moving thing to watch this group of kids get together, led by this inspired person to teach all of these kids who aren’t even reading music. They’re taught through learning parts at a time, by themselves, and then as an ensemble. And it was so moving, we had to ask them to do it. We didn’t know too much about it in Louisville. We were certain people were just like us and really hadn’t had a chance to see them. What better way to get this knowledge out there than to have them up there? Also, with the current state of musical education, or the lack thereof, in our school systems, music classes are going by the wayside every day, and we have to champion these organizations that are getting these kids excited about music again. It’s gonna be cool.
LEO: You’re a huge basketball fan …
LEO: Favorite player?
PH: Of all time?
LEO: Of all time.
PH: Ahhh (long pause). I’m doing a three-way tie, and you can’t stop me: Julius Irving, Michael Jordan and George Gervin. If they could all form one super-being. Then there would be everybody versus the Master of All.