“We’ve Found the Formula”: My Morning Jacket on the Breakup That Wasn’t

We caught up with frontman Jim James and drummer Patrick Hallahan on the heels of MMJ's triumphant return to the road

Music Features My Morning Jacket
“We’ve Found the Formula”: My Morning Jacket on the Breakup That Wasn’t

My Morning Jacket have just wrapped up a tour, which is notable for a couple of reasons. For starters, the 22 shows scattered between August and November marked the first time the band had performed onstage since August 2019. Also, there was, for a while, a strong chance that My Morning Jacket wouldn’t ever tour again.

After seven albums and two decades together, the group had begun a hiatus in 2018 while the band members took a collective deep breath and thought about whether they wanted to keep going. “It’s just like any long-term relationship: You talk to anybody that’s been married for 20 years, there’s probably a couple of years in there that aren’t so hot,” drummer Patrick Hallahan tells Paste. “A band is rooted in art, obviously. But it is also a business and to take the art, the live show and albums, to people, it requires an incredible amount of work and a lot of life sacrifice. We missed a lot of stuff at home and it just wears on you after a while.”

As the band was weighing whether to make the break permanent, the musicians reconvened at Red Rocks in Colorado in 2019 for a handful of shows that had already been on the books. “Those Red Rocks shows, those were kind of the litmus test,” Hallahan says. “It was like, OK, we’ll see how this feels. If it feels right, we’ll keep going, and if it doesn’t feel right, we’ll call it.”

Things went so well that My Morning Jacket almost immediately decamped to a recording studio to see what might happen next. The musicians came to the sessions without specific expectations, and did their best to ignore the looming shadow of the band’s acclaimed catalog, which includes My Morning Jacket’s 2003 breakthrough, It Still Moves, and their 2011 release Circuital, which hit No. 5 on the Billboard 200 albums chart.

“We just got together as friends again to spend time with each other, and wanted to be able to play music and record loosely if the spirit moved us—which it did,” singer and guitarist Jim James says in an email. “And then we just started playing around and improvising, and then began working on songs.”

The result is My Morning Jacket, the band’s first album of new music since The Waterfall in 2015. (The Waterfall II, released in 2020, comprised recordings from 2013.) The new LP finds a band refreshed on 11 songs that capture elements of everything My Morning Jacket does well, from sprawling psychedelic rave-ups like album closer “I Never Could Get Enough” to punchy songs with a playful sensibility such as “Never in the Real World.” The chemistry among James, Hallahan, bassist Tom Blankenship, guitarist Carl Broemel and keyboardist Bo Koster remained so potent that they finished laying down basic tracks in Los Angeles by March 2020—just in time to run right up against the pandemic.

“I flew home from L.A. on March 12, and as fortune would have it, I hit my last downbeat the night before I left,” Hallahan says. “And then my family and I were locked down in the house by March 16.”

The lockdowns didn’t stop work on the album—band members were able to record overdubs remotely from wherever they were riding out the worst of those early days—but Hallahan recalls it as a complicated time. “It was very frustrating to be like, ‘OK, well, we’ve got this album together. We’re looking at touring and locking in some dates.’ And then the world starts shutting down. That’s pretty wild,” he says. “And that was mixed with moving and traveling for 20 years straight, and all that coming to a screeching halt.”

Despite the frustrations, and the general weirdness of standing still after spending so much time in motion, the enforced slowdown brought with it an opportunity for introspection. Though James had written lyrics for the songs “Regularly Scheduled Programming” and “The Devil’s in the Details” before the pandemic, the songs—about how we numb ourselves with technology, drugs and a corrosive quest for material goods—took on added resonance as the pandemic unfolded.

“I feel like I really struggle with these things myself, and I struggle with being an observer of the world, as well—just seems like there has got to be a better way than the way we are headed right now, so I feel like it’s all of our jobs to talk about it,” James says.

Even over email, it’s clear how much James thinks about the topic. Part of the problem, he says, is that people have lost sight of the importance of being present in a given moment, which has led to a cascade of related issues: environmental degradation, social media addiction, substance abuse and a general sense of self-absorption divorced from the world around us. “I know it’s cliché, but, I mean, it has to start from within,” he says. “Instead of yelling at each other on social media, I think we need to sit down and be quiet and really listen to what’s going on in our own hearts. Work on our own troubles. Sit and meditate. Get out in nature. Find a way to get into therapy that can work for what one needs. Get started taking better care of our physical and mental health so we can be more present for those around us. Create new openness around sharing and communication. Remove the taboos and shame around talking about difficult things like suicide and mental illness, drug abuse, etc.”

That perspective informs My Morning Jacket’s collective determination to take a more sustainable approach to the band’s career, especially with regard to touring. Fans can expect shorter tour legs, for one thing.

“We’ve found the formula, where we tour long enough to where we leave the tour happy, and we go home and we recuperate and we do all the other projects that we want to do,” Hallahan says. “And then we come back to My Morning Jacket to do it again. And I really do think that, and exercise and having good mental health and being open with one another is going to affect the longevity of this band.”

The drummer pauses, then adds, “And it’s taken 20 years to figure that out.”

Eric R. Danton has been contributing to Paste since 2013, and writing about music and pop culture for longer than he cares to admit. Follow him on Twitter or visit his website.

Watch a 2011 My Morning Jacket performance from the Paste archives below.

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