BY ANDREW J. NUSCA, PHOTOS BY SAM ERICKSON
All Patrick Hallahan wants is a hot dog.
It’s an unnaturally warm Halloween night in New York City, and Hallahan and the rest of the boys in My Morning Jacket have just arrived in Manhattan, completely exhausted from the trip. The Tennessee-based band – a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll, and very much indie – is here to record their new album, Evil Urges, the follow-up to their critically acclaimed breakthrough, Z. But the only urge they’ve got right now is for late-night grub, and they’ve got it bad. Good thing they’re in New York City.
Hallahan and his four bandmates have already stowed away their belongings at a hotel in Chelsea, a popular downtown neighborhood, but they can’t seem to reach any of the restaurants or watering holes along Seventh Avenue. The street is swamped with ghouls, goblins, and witches gone utterly ballistic. Unbeknownst to them, the five grizzled, mostly bearded members of My Morning Jacket have walked out of their door and into the front line of New York’s Village Halloween Parade, the largest such celebration in the United States. Crossing over 23rd Street, they challenge the movement of the 2 million dancers, artists, costumed performers, and drunken revelers surging down the avenue toward them, faces aglow with impish, devilish – hell, downright evil glee. All for a single hot dog.
Despite their bad luck on this night, Patrick Hallahan and his band have seen a whirlwind year of progress. Besides recording a new full-length album, the band played Saturday Night Live for the first time – “a perfect mistake” of a show, Hallahan says – and came out of the woodwork to premiere new songs at South By Southwest and the Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival. So it’s no surprise that Hallahan is trying to squeeze the most out of his last precious days at home in Nashville, doing a little home cooking and clearing his head before he heads out on what is scheduled to be more than a year and a half of live performances around the world.
“We’re going to be doing plenty of playing in the next year,” he says. “Spending time with my wife and recharging batteries at home – it’s good for the soul.”
STARTING A RUCKUS
Born and raised in Nashville, Patrick Hallahan was inspired to play drums by the music of a most unusual band: his grandparents’ professional lounge act.
“I’d go down in the basement and watch them practice,” he says. “I would touch the guitar with my hands and feel those vibrations. I felt the grooves and I really started becoming attracted to the groove – the rhythm part of the soundscape. Then [my grandfather] gave me a pair of drum sticks.”
The problem for Hallahan – arguably more a potential problem for his parents – was that he had no proper drum kit to play on. But with a healthy dose of imagination, Hallahan says he had no problem practicing.
“I started playing in the air,” he says, chuckling. “I intentionally tried to get my snare and hi-hat arms in order before I added the kick. We didn’t really have a drum kit at my house, so I’d play around the neighborhood. It just felt so comfortable. It felt like an old friend. To hell with the air – I really wanted a drum kit.”
With a little bit of musical inspiration in the form of The Beatles and Led Zeppelin (Hallahan says any Bonham-esque flourishes should be blamed solely on his right foot), a young Hallahan was on his way, and soon found himself in his first band, playing on buckets, sans kit. One of his bandmates in that band was Jim Olliges, or Jim James, as he now calls himself, the frontman for My Morning Jacket. Though Hallahan was only in the seventh grade, the experience with James was formative.
“After that, I joined other bands,” Hallahan says. “I mowed lawns and saved up to buy a big piece of crap [drum kit], which was good, because you learn how to fix a big piece of crap, and then when you get something nice, you appreciate it and you know how to fix anything. As time went on, I ended up really enjoying the studio and recording process, honing the craft. I had always dreamed of being in a touring band. It’s amazing to look back on it now.”
In 1997 Hallahan enrolled in the University Of Louisville, spending much of his time outside the classroom playing in bands. College became a pursuit more in body than spirit, and his grades started slipping. “I was showing up to class with one eye open,” he says. “I ended up taking a break. I didn’t want my GPA to suffer any more than it had.”
At the same time, childhood friend James was making waves in his new band, My Morning Jacket, and was preparing the band’s debut album, The Tennessee Fire. All along, Hallahan and James had kept in touch. Hallahan says he was one of the band’s biggest fans, but nothing more, thanks to a pact made much earlier. “Jim and I vowed never to be in a band together,” he says. “We didn’t want that. Our friendship was too valuable.”
So as James continued forward with the band – recording and releasing At Dawn in 2001 and making headlines in the Louisville Courier-Journal – Hallahan took stock of his academic career and decided to give it another go, this time in engineering. But just a day after receiving his acceptance letter to the program, James called. His drummer, Chris Guetig, was leaving the band, and James needed help.
“I said, ’Oh God, I thought we weren’t going to be in a band together?’” Hallahan says. “It was really strange because I was such a fan and a friend.” Getting behind the kit and going through the motions was an even stranger sensation. “I felt like I was playing my friend’s music,” he says, “I was playing in a My Morning Jacket cover band, but it was My Morning Jacket.”
So began the session for 2003’s It Still Moves. Hallahan says the experience was like putting on his favorite shirt. “It was an easy transition,” he says. “I knew everybody in the band then for so long, just walking into that situation was, ’Oh, I can’t believe you’re in the band, this is too easy.’ I was playing that music that I had been listening to for so long. It was strange. Then again, nothing about this band is normal.”
The album was met with warm reception, and the band performed “One Big Holiday” on Late Night With Conan O’Brien. But it was the release of Z in 2005 that really propelled them upward. Produced for the first time by someone other than James – John Leckie, in fact, of Radiohead and Stone Roses fame – the album was a sonic and procedural experiment that found the band abandoning the reverb and “Southern fried” tendencies of albums past for a more polished, eclectic sound, and giving up their usual local family farm recording setting for New York’s Catskill Mountains. Met with rave reviews by both the indie-favorite Pitchfork and mass-media machine Rolling Stone – calling them “America’s own Radiohead” and comparing them to Wilco, no less – things began moving fast. Real fast.
“I would be a liar to say that changes were not being felt,” Hallahan says. “We were out there touring our faces off. We had it down to a science.
Metaphorically speaking, we were pushing it along. Around that time – midway through Z – we started feeling that maybe somebody had put some flotation devices under the band, and it got a little easier.”
But it was on the road where the changes were most apparent. Slotted within a loaded tour schedule was a triumphant two-night stand at The Fillmore in San Francisco. The shows would become the live DVD <em<okonokos< em=””>. “People started giving energy back to us in that crazy way,” Hallahan says. “I think Bonnaroo of 2006 might have been the moment where I thought, ’Oh my God, what have we created?’ It was absolute mayhem. It was a performance we will never forget. I never get nervous, but I’m sure the tempo on that first song was about 8,000 paces faster than it should have been.”
It continues to be a sobering trajectory. “It’s still all so new,” he says. “We don’t really like to overthink these things. We’re feelers in this regard, and everything feels very good, very electric, very surreal right now.”
SATISFYING THE URGE
Back in New York, the members of My Morning Jacket are feeling a little spoiled. For all of their previous albums, they were able to live near the recording studio and come and go as they pleased, be it on a farm or in the mountains. It was a relaxed, familial atmosphere – just as the band likes it. But now, Hallahan and the boys are deep in the concrete jungle, in New York City’s Avatar Studios on 53rd Street, to be precise, and the clock is ticking down. Time is money anywhere in the world, but a New York minute seems a bit faster than 60 seconds.
“Before, we had unlimited time [to record],” Hallahan says. “Twenty-four-hour access. We lived at the studio. We were living around the studio. That brought a sense of comfort. We didn’t have that pressure. In Manhattan, we had 12 hours, every day. We had to take a subway from the hotel room to the studio. That was it. You had to leave after 12 hours. It was a little more stressed.”
But the new procedure was actually a boon for productivity, and the band learned to work more efficiently. “It was a little more work-oriented, and for some songs, it really worked,” Hallahan says. “Any touring band has to adapt to any surrounding immediately, or they lose. [Listening to the album], you can hear the pressure involved. A lot of these songs are recorded so much tighter.”
But there’s no kind of pressure like that of a follow-up record. Though Evil Urges is the band’s fifth proper full-length album, and Hallahan’s third with them, the pressure to make the same impact as Z was pervasive during the recording process.
“It is a big growth record,” he says. “We never want to make the same album twice, and that’s probably frustrating to a lot of people. But we need that as musicians – as people. I couldn’t be more complimentary of my bandmates on this last album to play certain things that don’t come naturally. I just think that everybody’s really stepped up their game on this album. Every album’s a litmus test for playing – you never notice how everyone grows on their instruments, and mentally as a songwriter or editor or whatever role we play in this thing.”
For Hallahan’s drumming, “new and different” can be heard on each track. The opening title cut commences with an erratic double kick pattern interspersed with splashy ride pinging and ends with a satisfying Led Zeppelin-style romp. “Touch Me I’m Going To Scream, Part 1” shows Hallahan moving outside of his comfort zone to machine-style playing, creating a psychedelic-inspired shuffle that evokes equal parts Flaming Lips and Adore-era Smashing Pumpkins. On “Highly Suspicious,” Hallahan drops into a hip-shaking disco beat, and on “Librarian,” he restrains himself to sonic flourishes and light accented ticks on his Istanbul cymbals. On “Aluminum Park” and “Remnants,” Hallahan ditches the programmatic playing for punk-style crash riding in the vein of The Who. Arguably, Hallahan hardly has a “Southern-fried” moment on the entire album.
Hallahan was able to reflect more of his musical taste in his playing on Evil Urges. “I’ve always been a huge fan of hip-hop – I’m talking phat hip-hop beats,” Hallahan says. “They’ve never had a place to show their head in this band. A lot of those hip-hop beats, the more danceable songs, I would just start to act like a machine. Jim had written some beats that were so good that I didn’t need to add anything. There’s a couple songs where Jim wrote this beat and I’m saying, ’You s.o.b., that’s fantastic.’”
Attempting to reproduce the sounds of a machine organically was one example of the challenges on the new album. Hallahan says he tried harder than ever to stay outside of his comfort zone – straightforward rock and roll – mentally and physically during the recording sessions. “I am most comfortable when I’m rocking,” he says. “I really like crescendos. I really like the way that rock music propels me. I innately want to go to that, but then my brain tires of it. It’s really fun to just switch gears. When I’m playing like a four-on-the-floor dance beat, that’s a lot of fun. I’m learning how to play that efficiently, how to make it my own. It just peels back layers of the brain every time you jump into something like that.”
The same playing mindset applies for the restrained playing in “Librarian.” “Holding back and being sweet – that was fantastic to figure out those parameters,” he says. “Where I needed to not be. It takes me out of my element.”
RETURN TO THE ROAD
With Evil Urges pressed and ready, the only thing left for My Morning Jacket is to hit the road and tour. Indeed, the band is preparing for a global jaunt, with dates scheduled for Japan, Australia, and two swings through Europe. Hallahan’s gearing up for the long haul.
“It takes a little mental preparation,” he says. “Touring is a lot of fun, but it will wear on you if you don’t do it right. Being rested – stress free. It’s okay though, because we took a big chunk of time off last year, knowing that we had this to do this year. We’re really proud of this album. We’re not afraid of taking it to the people. We’re oiling our machine.”
Aside from the satisfaction of the live performance, touring also brings inspirational rewards. Hallahan says he’s been fortunate enough to cross paths with drumming heroes Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters, Matt Cameron of Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, and Mac McNeilly of The Jesus Lizard. “Dave Grohl and Matt Cameron, fantastic people to meet,” Hallahan says. “I was a huge Jesus Lizard fan, and meeting Mac McNeilly … I just used to love the way that he played. Meeting him and finding out that he was a sweetheart is just something special. I’d love to meet [session drummer] Jim Keltner – he and I have the same birthday. He’s so diverse and I just love that. I don’t want to be one thing.” But the pressure to play a wide variety of styles doesn’t scare Hallahan. In fact, when it comes to learning outside his comfort zone, it’s a whole different story. Even with a new album hinting at new styles of playing, Hallahan says he doesn’t feel any pressure to reinvent the wheel – or in this case, the drum – by taking a formal lesson. It’s all a matter of trying new things during live performances. “I feel so comfortable behind the drum kit that maybe it’s to my discredit sometimes,” he says. “I get scared about taking lessons because I worry that it will affect the feel I’ve been trying to develop for so long. I just don’t want to be thrown off right now. We play so much that I get to try out new things anyway. I never took lessons. I listen to music and get ideas. I don’t really like to talk shop too much, I just like to sit back and watch. I’ve learned a lot of tuning techniques and stick-holding techniques just watching people – how they interact, how the rhythm section works together. I’m kind of like a sponge.”
And what to do, then, when that sponge is saturated with too much music? “I love getting away from it all and going to museums and Gothic cathedrals – just to walk in complete silence,” Hallahan says. “Something to contrast the rest of your day is so important. I like quiet, because I make a lot of noise.”