Carl Broemel: MMJ Guitarist Steps Out

Music Features Carl Broemel
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Hometown: Nashville, TN
Album: All Birds Say
For Fans Of: Low Anthem, Andrew Bird, Lindsey Buckingham

“It’s strange,” guitarist Carl Broemel says from the back of the My Morning Jacket tour bus as it motors from Colorado to Illinois in early August, “playing with the band before 9,000 people, like we did last night at Red Rocks, feels totally natural. But playing my own show before 100 people at South by Southwest, like I did in March, was frightening. It’s so easy and fun to be one of five guys; I’m more comfortable being part of the organization. To be the guy out front, to be the one guy making all the decisions is kind of awkward. But it’s good to be scared sometimes.”

It is good to venture out of your comfort zone, especially when the results are as captivating as Broemel’s solo album, All Birds Say. As the title implies, this is airier, quieter, more tuneful music than the dense dramas constructed by My Morning Jacket. This is chamber-pop with the chiming quality of birdsong.

Broemel was joined by two of his MMJ bandmates—bassist Tom Blankenship and pianist Bo Koster—when he showcased the album at St. David’s Church on Austin’s 8th Street during SXSW. But the focus and responsibility fell squarely on Broemel, the 37-year-old man in the brown shirt and shaggy brown hair and sideburns. MMJ fans crowded into the semi-circular pews, almost surrounding Broemel as he sang his own compositions in a dreamy, disarming tenor.

On “Carried Away,” the lovely Beatlesque melody resembled a lullaby for adults, as Broemel seemed to be whispering to a lover kept awake by bad memories: “Don’t get carried away in the past; it’s not fair. Turn it off; get some sleep.” The music backed up that advice with soothing harmonies that didn’t numb so much as they invited Technicolor dreams with their surprising intervals and changes. For the coda, Broemel switched from guitar to pedal steel and gave the chorus a legato phrasing that made the line flow and bend.

“Yeah,” Broemel agrees, “I wrote a lot of the album late at night when my wife was sleeping and I couldn’t really bang on the guitar. Sometimes I’ll get melodies in my head in the middle of the night, and I’ll get up and sing the phrase into my computer. But even in the middle of the afternoon, heavy music doesn’t come out of me naturally. On a lot of the albums I really love—Ron Sexsmith’s Other Songs, Big Star’s Third and J.J. Cale’s Naturally—you can tell they were really quiet in the studio. I decided I wanted to make an album like that.”

Reinforcing the music’s sense of reverie is Broemel’s reliance on the bassoon and pedal steel, two instruments that extend long lines with fluid sustain. The bassoon was played by the singer’s father, Robert Broemel, retired from the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra after a long career. Carl was raised on classical music and went on to obtain an M.F.A. in classical guitar from Indiana University, even after he fell in love with rock ’n’ roll. He puts his dad’s woodwind playing and classical influence to good use in pop arrangements filled with counterpoint and chord substitutions.

The pedal steel is a more recent but crucial addition to Broemel’s arsenal. MMJ’s lead singer Jim James had bought a Sho-Bud steel guitar at a pawn shop but had never learned to use it. During the rehearsals for MMJ’s 2005 album Z, James asked Broemel if he’d like to take it home and try it.

“I love all those old country-music steel guitarists,” Broemel confesses. “I’m a big fan of Buddy Emmons, Ben Keith, Pete Drake, Lloyd Green and Leo Leblanc. But the greats have already done everything that can be done in that genre, so I’m finding out what else you can do with the instrument. I want to play it so the first thing you think of is not country music. I’m finding you can build chords and fills with it that aren’t obvious on the regular guitar; you push one pedal to change one note and suddenly the whole harmony changes. Robert Randolph is taking the instrument in a whole different direction, and I think a lot of us are right behind him.”

Broemel is emphatic that his first priority is MMJ, the band he joined in early 2004, precipitating his own move to Nashville. But he also admits that he has this other music inside him that keeps pushing its way out. Whenever he has time off from MMJ’s recording and touring demands, he goes into the studio with his Nashville pals Teddy Morgan and Richard Medek to record Broemel’s compositions. He already has a handful of demos for his third solo album (his first one, Lose What’s Left, was released in 2004). Far from creating conflict with MMJ, Broemel’s solo career has been welcomed by the band.

“The most amazing thing about My Morning Jacket,” Broemel declares, “is that we’re all encouraged to have a complete life—to explore the world, to spend time with our families, to do solo projects. There’s a feeling that all that makes the band better when we get back together, which we always will. When I played my demos for All Birds Say, it was the other guys in the band who pushed me to release it.

“And when I played some shows to support the solo album, I worked up some loops to flesh out the sound. Once I started doing that, I realized I could do more things at once; I could jump from one instrument to the other, and the first instrument could keep playing. When I went back on tour with the Jacket, I brought that with me.”

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