Photo credit: Jack Spencer
Multi-instrumentalist Carl Broemel is most well-known as the lead guitarist in My Morning Jacket, but with that band taking it easy in the past couple of years—including a touring hiatus this year—Broemel has branched out to other musical outlets, including playing shows with some of his MMJ bandmates as Ray LaMontagne’s backing group. Broemel has also gotten his solo output flowing more recently, releasing 4th of July in 2016 and his latest effort, Wished Out, this past September. For the latter, Broemel tried his hand at taking the reins in the studio, working from the recently constructed recording haven at his Nashville home, starting by playing most of the instruments by himself while learning some studio tricks, then expanding to welcomed some friends to finish out the tracks.
Calling in from home before heading out on a solo tour with backing band Steelism—an instrumental outfit led by the duo of guitarist Jeremy Fetzer and pedal-steel player Spencer Cullum—Broemel takes us through the sometimes difficult process of “starting from scratch” with new songs and a new studio, plus what he’s learned as a solo artist versus supporting guitarist, why its nice to have a mix of song energies on tour, whether My Morning Jacket have any plans in the works for 2019 and more.
I’ve noticed that Wished Out seems a bit more uptempo than what you were doing with 4th of July or even with All Birds Say back in 2010, especially with the opening track “Dark Matter.” Was that a deliberate move to up the average bpm on this one?
Yeah, I definitely was trying to do that exact thing. I built a little studio in my backyard and started recording out here. It’s really fun to record [softer,] vibey music, and I still enjoy it and it’s actually easier to do, to make it sound right. In the moment, you’re like, “Oh, this is great”—then you go on tour. I’m playing clubs and hearing people chit-chatting while I’m playing my sensitive songs, and I’m like, “You know what? I’ve got plenty of this already, so why don’t I try to balance it out on this record?” I did as much as I could. Six of the songs are pretty in-your-face. Now that we’re on tour—I’m playing with this band called Steelism, who didn’t play on the album—the live versions are a little different, a little bit more intense than on the record. So that’s been cool too, to see them evolve. We just did two-and-a-half weeks of an East Coast tour, and now we’re heading out to the West Coast to do three weeks. So the record is evolving. I’m trying to explore different ideas. It’s fun to rock out at a club; it also makes your quiet songs more impactful when they’re not one after another.
When you were out touring for 4th of July and you were noticing “chit-chatty” moments like that at clubs, did you try to make the songs a little more in-your-face, or did you just keep to what it was like on the album?
I think they did get amped up a little bit, like the song “Snowflake”—the ending on that was fast on the record, but not intense, and now it’s really intense. It’s a natural evolution. It’s one of those things that happens when you’re playing for actual people. When you’re playing in the studio, you don’t really have an audience and it’s tricky—a lot of times you’re playing a song over and over again and it’s hard to keep up your energy. You’re playing a different game; you’re playing a sonic game and not necessarily an energy game. But when you’re playing a show, it’s so important to stay engaged, keep it going.
So I assume you hadn’t played these songs out before, the ones on the new record.
No, not really. Steelism and I did a tour last November, just like five shows, and it was sort of solidified, like, “OK, we’re gonna do this next year. It’ll be for real.”
Were you playing some of these songs?
Yeah. It was cool to play brand-new songs. These songs were getting the biggest reaction of everything I’ve played, so it was a bit of a confidence booster.
I spoke with you around two years ago about 4th of July, and I remember you were talking then about how you were deliberately trying to not get bogged down in strict song structures and, like you said, leave them little more open. Do you think you brought that mentality to Wished Out as well?
Yeah, maybe. This record I made in a different fashion. I tried to start by literally playing everything myself. Like on the song “Out of Reach,” I mapped out the song, went and played the drums and then added everything else to it and had someone play keyboards. It’s kind of hard to improvise by yourself. [Laughter.] I think that did speak to me, and it became more about songs. But by the end, I had roped in Tommy [Blankenship] and my friend Russ Pollard to play drums. Then there were enough people in the room. When we recorded the song “Wished Out,” we could determine the length of the song depending on how everyone was playing it rather than having to map it out. Instead of me thinking, “My drum track is terrible, it needs to be over.” [Laughter.]
About that title track: I read that you were inspired to write it after seeing Michael Kiwanuka’s band play at Newport Folk Festival and admiring how they left it a little open and used some fuzz guitar and stuff like that. I’m a fan of his, so I was interested to see you mention that specific correlation.
Yeah, it’s so cool. I mean, I love going to Newport Folk Fest because you see so much great shit. And I had heard his records, but for me the thing that pushed it over the edge was seeing his band, seeing him sing live. I love live music when it hits you like that. I was a fan but not super into it, then I saw his show and was like, “Damn, that’s badass.” It’s not like it was a new idea to me to turn a fuzz pedal on or have a jam part—it’s not like I didn’t think of that until I saw him. It was that after I saw him I was working on my song and I was like, “Man, that was tight when they were patient and let the song evolve.” They’re great. It’s kind of how it goes—you’re always bouncing off things in the world, then you come home and go, “Hmm, what did I just bounce off of?” So I used that idea.
When did you find time to write these songs, with your other commitments?
It was in between stuff. I did some touring with Ray Lamontagne the last couple summers, because the Jacket’s been taking some time, so I did some stuff in hotel rooms. I did take a trip out to California on purpose and saw Jim [James] and Bo [Koster]—we had dinner and hung out—then I went off to the beach for a couple of days and stayed at a house. I’d never done that before to try to write songs. That was really productive and fun—I kind of got over the hump. I had a bunch of little snippets and ideas, but I was like, “I should just start from scratch.” And that’s when I wrote that song [“Starting from Scratch”]. It’s a song I couldn’t have written unless I was there. And that got the ball rolling, so I want to do that some more. It’s so hard to make time to write, because I’ve got a family, and sometimes writing yields nothing. You can literally waste two or three hours, so it’s hard to break away from life.
This album did come out with a lot less time between solo albums than the last span, so maybe you had more time or more inclination to get one album out.
Yeah, and I built this studio in my backyard almost two years ago, so I had to have something to show for it. [Laughter.]
Was that something you had planned on doing for a while?
Yeah. I’d been needing a space. It’s changed everything, because I can come out here and leave everything set up and know I’m not disturbing anyone. I’ve been doing songwriting with friends and doing demos, and I recorded half of a band’s record here last year. It’s just kind of a playhouse.