The LATEST NOISE INTERVIEW SERIES
MY MORNING JACKET’S Tom Blankenship
PART 1: GET IN THE FUCkinG VAN
Interviewed by Kuz
Tom Blankenship joined My Morning Jacket over 20 years ago. In those 20 years, My Morning Jacket has grown to become a live powerhouse and one of the most respected bands there is. They have shown what passion, dedication, hard work and love can bring you if you listen and allow yourself to evolve. Tom graciously agreed to answer questions about his 20 years of performing with My Morning Jacket for this two part interview. Part 1 focuses on the 20th anniversary of Tennessee Fire and takes a look back at the beginning. Enjoy! -Kuz. Read Part 2 HERE
Kuz: It’s the 20th Anniversary of My Morning Jacket’s debut, Tennessee Fire, what are some of your earliest memories of recording that album?
Tom: This might be the first time I’ve admitted this publicly, but I didn’t actually play on the album. Most of the work was already done when I tried out for the band, way back in January of 1999. The summer before I was playing guitar in a band called Winter Death Club with my high school buddy Patrick Nevins along with John McQuade and J Glenn, who I had just met. We played a couple shows with Jim’s band, Month of Sundays, and I loved their live shows so much I asked J if he had any newer recordings I could dig into.. cos I knew they were recording some at John’s studio, which doubled as our rehearsal space, Above the Cadillac Studios (it was an apartment above a three car garage out in Shelbyville which did indeed house John’s grandmother’s Cadillac). J lent me his cassette of the new MOS tunes and the B-side was mysteriously labeled “MY MORNIN JACKETA”. It was basically the TN Fire on the flip side of that tape. So that’s what I learned when I tried out for the band, which I did in the wrong key cos I didn’t own a bass and my acoustic guitar was out of tune and missing a string. Not sure why 20 year old me refused to use a tuner. A few practices in, somewhere around February of ’99, the dudes told me they were heading up to Ultrasuede Studios in Cincinnati to re-record a few songs for the record and invited me along. I didn’t feel I was prepared enough to join them but they were nice enough to stick my ugly mug on the back of the record and list my new nickname “Two Tone Tommy” in the credits.
What was your first time in a studio recording a full album? What did you learn in the process?
The first full length recording I was a part of was with Winter Death Club, summer of 1998, again at Ultrasuede Studios in Cincy. And it remains unreleased to this day. Fun MMJ Fact: Jim drove up with us for our initial session and kinda hid out in Studio B while we were tracking. A few days into recording, during playback, the engineer solo’d this random channel on the console and it was Jim singing and playing a tune off the TN Fire. Chris Koltay, the engineer we were working with, had snuck a mic into the room and recorded whatever Jim was doing while we were recording in the next room. Kinda funny. Those recordings are lost to the hands of time I’m sure. Anyway, biggest lesson I learned was to listen, intently, to what the other band members were doing. Playing as much as possible and sloppily works okay in the moment, to a degree, but when you hear it back under the microscope you realize how much you may be stuck in your own head and not paying attention to what everyone else is doing. Especially in terms of tightness or staying in sync rhythmically or allowing enough space for the essential elements of the song or composition to shine. For me it was learning that simpler is better, almost always. And that your individual part isn’t worth a damn if it’s not serving the song itself.
How have the songs from Tennessee Fire evolved over the years? Does reflecting back on the album with the Capitol Theater show and One Big Holiday’s opening set (performing the album in front to back) give any songs in particular a new meaning?
Those songs changed quite a bit when we started playing them live shortly after the record was released. In hindsight, maybe we were all playing as hard as possible because that was what we witnessed in our formative years. We were all into metal or the hardcore scene in Louisville growing up and I think that spirit quickly fused with the beautiful sound of those recordings when we played out. It certainly wasn’t something we discussed beforehand, like “should we headbang during Picture of You??”.. it just sorta happened. But some of those songs we never played live until the Terminal 5 shows in 2010: Butch Cassidy & If All Else Fails and they really turned out quite beautiful, in a way that we couldn’t have done in our twenties with that live energy we had. With this lineup we’re able to show restraint and play them way more subdued and fragile, an approach which serves the tunes better.
When MMJ started out playing live, what do you think it was that allowed you guys to connect to the audience? Was there anything in particular that helped you break out of your local scene?
I don’t recall playing to big crowds in Louisville until around the time It Still Moves came out. We were mostly playing to friends and family early on. Crazy thing is The TN Fire was the #1 record in the Netherlands for a couple weeks in early 2000 at a point when the band hadn’t even played a show outside of Kentucky. Anyhoodle, being an unpopular, struggling band in your hometown gives you a lotta freedom and makes you do funny things. As does being in your twenties. We never played with the intention of winning folks over, which is an attitude we’d carry with us for years (like playing “Black Sabbath” by Black Sabbath opening up for Beth Orton at a wine bar in Minneapolis). We played to make ourselves, our friends and our family smile and laugh and have a good time. Perhaps the magical dynamic between the band and audience might be our unwillingness to intentionally do things to get a “successful” reaction? And to never take ourselves too seriously? I still love the mystery surrounding it to be honest. The band jumped in a van and toured relentlessly for years, to whatever audience we could, opening up for acts that sounded nothing like us. It was a formula that worked for many bands before us. And as much as the musical world has changed over the years, I’d like to think it still works. That said, we had to gain a following outside of our hometown before it felt like we proved ourselves within the local scene.
What was the experience of touring in Europe like? Was it a blessing to be playing in a completely unknown environment to begin your music career?
The distributor Konkurrent brought us over to the Netherlands in early 2000. When we got off the plane there was a documentary film crew waiting for us, from Dutch national television, that followed us around our first week long tour over there. Crazy. It takes a lot of faith to put yourself and the band into the hands of relative strangers but fortunately everyone involved in our numerous trips to the Benelux that year were super supportive and patient and provided us with amazing opportunities. Looking back I’m so grateful for those experiences and not just in terms of our career. I had only visited a handful of states back home, so touring over there, meeting and interacting with people that spoke a different language and had a different perspective really opened my eyes and forced me to see the world in a different light. I wish everyone had that opportunity outside of their hometown and support system. Of course we were lucky that we played in front of folks that believed in us or were at least fans of music and supported struggling artists, and we had each other, our own chosen family to lean on. That was a huge help. But if you really wanna open your eyes and mind, like really really get them open.. Jump in a car or a van or a plane and drag your ass across this country, or the world, or the galaxy. Wherever. And interact with people in a real honest way, where you’re actually listening to them and not just waiting for your chance to speak. See a day in their life and feel what it’s like to be them, in their community, for a day. It will change the way you see your world. It will make it feel smaller. You’ll soon realize that your complaints and problems and reasons to grumble aren’t shit. It’s called perspective. I can tell you all this and maybe you glean a lil something from it. Or dismiss it. Or think I’m just an asshole. I get it. You’ll feel and think however you do until you get out and experience the world. You know those dudes you went to school with who never left town and look 10 years older than they actually are and always complain about how the world is against them and everything that’s wrong in their life is due to some force outside their control? It’s because they never experienced any part of life outside of what was right in front of them. Get in the fucking van. You’ll thank yourself later.
In the 20+ years of MMJ, what has changed the most from the beginning, how have you changed? What has stayed the same?
The list of things that have changed would be exhausting. As we know, change is inevitable, it’s part of life. It’s the great journey filled with pain and joy, hardship and triumph. It feels like the things that don’t change, the fundamental attributes that make up the dynamic of a group, be it a band or a family, plays a huge part in success or failure during the journey. For us that’s been a real love for one another and belief in what we do. Faith and love. The cornerstones of any relationship. We find a reason to laugh together, in any given moment, and that comes from love. We work to push ourselves and our sound and the way we craft songs, and that’s because we have faith in one another and in what we do together. And since it’s life and there’s no endgame other than one day it will all cease to be, things done in either faith or love are not wrong and can only serve to make us better individuals in the limited time we have here.
When forming MMJ was there a feeling that you guys were going to make it or did that evolve over time?
Speaking only for myself I was just grateful to be in a band with nice guys playing songs I really truly believed in and enjoyed playing. My dream at 20 years old was to play in Chicago. Everything after that was icing on the cake. It sounds like total bullshit but I didn’t even expect or hope that anyone would like what we were doing. Expect nothing from everyone except yourself and your bandmates. That’s been my motto for years. If you’re disappointed after that it’s easier to fix. Change your attitude or your perspective. Work on yourself. Work on your craft. Or have a talk with your bandmates. Be open and honest about your expectations amongst yourselves. That shit can all be fixed unless someone (including you) is stubborn and unwilling to change or make a compromise. Back to the question, I never expected us to make it, and maybe that was my way of protecting myself. But we all put in the work like we were going to make it. We tried our hardest and worked our asses off while not assuming it would pan out. As the years roll by I’m convinced more and more that life should be lived this way regardless of what you do for a living or what your dream is. Put in the work and expect a lot from yourself. You’ll be happier knowing you did your best and went for it, whatever “it” may be. And the journey, the fun (and failure) of learning along the way, is what it’s all about. That’s the thing about growing up, which I believe is real success, I think it’s how you come through the other side that determines if you’ve become an adult or you’re just stuck being a shithead teenager for life.