Jim James and crew play for keeps on Circuital
BY BUD SCOPPA
TUCKER MARTINE’S two most recent album projects have been all about location, location, location. Last July, the Portland-based producer headed from the rustic Oregon barn where he’d recorded the Decemberists’ back-to-basics surprise hit The King Is Dead, to a church gymnasium in Louisville to begin work on My Morning Jacket’s Circuital. “I went right from one to the next,” says Martine, “and there wasn’t much of an adjustment for me, because both were such unconventional studio environments.”
What’s more, both bands were committed to the idea of recording live off the floor, an approach My Morning Jacket would take the whole nine yards, recording to two-inch tape with the five musicians arranged in a circle at half court of the cavernous, high-ceilinged gym. The idea of location recording wasn’t new to these guys—they’d recorded their early albums in a Kentucky grain silo.
“In some ways, we’ve come full circle, though I hate that term,” says MMJ frontman Jim James. “I feel we’ve progressed musically and personally, but just happened to be returning home for this record and making it in a very natural way—just the five of us playing in a circle, going for live, emotional takes from each band member.”
“They’re a fantastic band,” says Martine, “and what does it sound like when they’re in a room together and things are spilling into each other? So we purposely painted ourselves into a corner. There’s a vitality that comes through when you record that way. It’s the sound of people that have to make it work right now and not rely on fixing things later. It also becomes a general feeling of embracing imperfections. There was no computer in the building, so you couldn’t get tired or lazy—it was out of the question. No one wanted to do anything reminiscent of the days of old as much as not falling into the traps of modern record-making, like not needing to commit early on to arrangement or performance.”
Tucker Martine captured MMJ studio sessions with his iPhone camera; see more of his shots at
“I worked with Tucker doing backup vocals on Decemberists and Laura Veirs records, and we hit it right off,” James explains. “We both have the same goofy, f**ked-up, surrealist sense of humor where nothing and everything make sense. I can see a caterpillar on a tree and call it a basketball, and he knows exactly what I mean. Tucker is in a league of his own. His ears are golden and he is a surrealist—which a lot of producers I’ve met can’t fully wrap their heads around. That’s why we loved and gravitated to Tucker.”
The band had set up in the gym before Martine’s arrival. “Our friend Kevin Ratterman, one of the greatest producers and engineers on the planet, had recorded there,” James says of the space. “I went to visit and thought it was really special. We also wanted to work with Kevin on this record, so he and I brought all our gear into the wonderful old turn-of-the-century church and we went to town. I gave the guys very simple demos and we began working on them and getting levels.” As soon as Martine showed up and familiarized himself with the setup, they started going for takes.
“It really did create a circle amongst everyone’s brains and hearts as well as the mics,” James says of the resulting experience. “It is so cool to solo a mic and hear bits of everyone else in that mic, as opposed to having it completely isolated and sterile. Obviously, sometimes you need some isolation, but for the most part the bleed was good.”
The “let it bleed” approach extended to James’ vocals; he chose to sing his lead parts—and play guitar at the same time—surrounded by the rest of the band.
“Jim really stepped up and rose to the occasion, because that is such a difficult thing to do,” Martine marvels. “That’s the biggest challenge of making a record this way—getting the singer to peak at the same time the band’s performance is peaking. As a singer, you can always weasel your way out of it and do a scratch vocal, but Jim wouldn’t let himself have any outs. I’m sure he felt the pressure to get it quickly, because he knew that everyone else was probably gonna be delivering the goods early on. If the band has played something great several times but the vocals aren’t quite there, you hate to ask everyone to keep going even though there’s nothing to improve on for them. So they just have to take one for the team.”
MMJ had no such problem, thanks to James’ inspired singing amid the band’s taut playing, resulting in keeper performances in the first few takes once they had the arrangements nailed down. At the same time, they were flexible in achieving their goal within certain parameters. On some songs, James was sequestered in a room in order to minimize the bleed, while Bo Koster and his piano were also isolated in some instances.
The July sessions lasted nine days, during which the band got four of the songs that wound up on the record, including the epic title track. There was no air conditioning, with all the windows and doors closed in order to cut down on the sounds of cars passing and birds chirping (some of which can be heard on the record if you listen closely). But, true to the spirit of the project, the band made the most of the sweatbox conditions. “It added to the sense of urgency and intensity,” says Martine. They reconvened for two weeks in November and laid down the remaining six tracks while bundled up in parkas and scarves; the gym had no heat, either.
But the pivotal moment went down back in July when they got that keeper take of “Circuital” and climbed up on the stage at the end of the gym where Martine was positioned to listen through the Proac Studio 100 monitors. “That was a really special moment,” the producer recalls. “They were all dancing around the room and bobbing their heads with their eyes closed, and then, when the song was over, they were hugging and high-fiving each other. It was so inspiring to see veteran musicians who were still able to get that much joy out of making music together. It was like we were all going on an expedition together to fi nd something magical, and there it was. We found it, and no one was afraid to have unbridled joy about it. That’s how it should be.”
It’s performances like that one—inspired, synchronous. and clutch, like a veteran basketball team kicking it into high gear at crunch time in a tight playoff game—that make Circuital such a thrilling, even ecstatic, listening experience. This was one bold experiment that paid big-time.
Circuital Signal Paths
Tucker Martine breaks down the chains for each band member.
Guitars: “All electric guitars were recorded with Royer 121s. Lead guitarist Carl Broemel’s amp ended up in the sanctuary, and a Neumann KM86 captured the room. Acoustic guitars were recorded with either a Neumann M49 or a pair of Neumann KM86s, depending on the song.”
Bass: “I used a combination of the direct signal through the EVil Twin DI and an EV RE20 on the cabinet.”
Piano: “The piano was recorded differently on each song. On ‘Circuital,’ a Shure SM91 was taped to the back of the little spinet that belonged to the church; this reduced drum bleed a lot and gave it a midrange presence that helped it cut through the track. That mic was crushed with an 1176. A pair of Shure SM57s were used on ‘Freak Out,’ and Neumann KM84s were used on ‘Movin’ Away.’”
Drums: “A Shure SM57 or a Neumann KM86 was used on the snare, with an AKG D112 on the kick. The mono overhead kept changing: KM86, M49, Peluso C12, or RCA 44. I always ran at least one drum mic that was distorted, compressed, or both, to be able to dial in attitude and crunch as needed. The Atomasonic Dynoray was helpful for this, as were the Thermionic Culture Vulture and UA 1176. Mic pres were API 212 and 512. I often used a dbx subharmonic synthesizer on the kick, for low end that you feel more than hear.”
Vocals: “On some tracks, Jim’s lead vocals are the driest and most natural-sounding he’s ever recorded (though he broke out his trusty EMT 140 plate reverb recording the backing vocals). His favorite mic on the sessions was an old RCA 77 ribbon mic, on loan from Carl Broemel’s dad. All vocals went through an 1176. Sometimes it was hit too hard, because Jim would get excited during a take, and by the time I saw it, it was too late to change it—and we had our keeper take.”