With her new record Proof of Life, the alt-folk guitarist and singer-songwriter wrestles with mortality and change, and emerges triumphant and hopeful.
“It’s nice here,” Joy Oladokun says through the phone. “The mountains are beautiful.” The 31-year-old Nashville-based guitarist and singer-songwriter is taking a moment to breathe and clear her head in Asheville, North Carolina, while on tour with her friend Noah Kahan. Touring is fun, especially with pals, but it’s also tiring and stressful. Oladokun is doing her best to stay balanced since the release of her fourth LP, the lush, hopeful Proof of Life. The record indulges the best bits of pop, R&B, indie rock, and folk, all sewn together with Oladokun’s defiant optimism and vulnerable, late-night-diary-entry songwriting.
Proof of Life, too, is a balancing act, swaying expertly between subdued acoustic ballads, plush, swooning electronics, and heady electric guitar churns. It’s clear about the state of the world: “Newspaper says the world’s on fire / People yelling and the water’s rising,” Oladokun sings in cool harmony over calming acoustics on track two, “Changes,” before submitting at the chorus’ end, “I’m trying to keep up with the changes.” But opener “Keeping The Light On” is a breezy, textured mission statement to always make one’s way back out of the darkness. The third track, “Taking Things For Granted,” is a humming, light-footed indie-rock jam that recounts Oladokun’s lonely 8th birthday, when no one from school came to her party. It’s a real-life, heartbreaking memory, relayed over a beachy-road-trip arrangement. These are the huge, existential places Oladokun takes us with her voice and her guitar just in that trio of opening songs.
“This record is as autobiographical as anything I’ve ever made,” says Oladokun. “It’s actually me this time, it’s not a bunch of songs about ideas. Are people gonna like me?”
Joy Oladokun - "We’re All Gonna Die"
Oladokun admits it’s frightening to be this vulnerable, especially when, at this stage in her career, she has voices around her telling her how she ought to create her art. But the specificity is paying off. On tour, people are expressing how meaningfully her songs capture and validate even their own experiences. “That’s the ultimate goal for me,” Oladokun says.
Oladokun’s artistic path has taken her across North America, on stages with John Mayer and My Morning Jacket, but the road can be traced back to one turning point when she was growing up in Casa Grande, Arizona. She was only allowed to watch TV on weekends, when her father would go to Blockbuster to rent a video. When Oladokun was 10, he screened a DVD of Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday celebration at Wembley Stadium, and at a point during the festivities, Tracy Chapman walked onstage and performed “Fast Car,” with just her and her guitar in front of tens of thousands of people.
“It’s actually me this time, it’s not a bunch of songs about ideas. Are people gonna like me?”
To this day, the performance is arresting and gut-turning in the best ways, crackling with tension and desperation. It was the first time Oladokun remembers seeing a Black queer woman on television, and not only that, but Chapman was alone, vulnerable, and changing entire worlds with her song. “I had a feeling that I belonged / I had a feeling I could be someone,” Chapman belts in the chorus. For many listeners, it was simply a great pop song. For Oladokun, it was liberating.
That clip was “the gateway drug” for Oladokun, who begged her parents for a guitar that Christmas. They bought her an acoustic, and she went from a socially anxious kid who didn’t show interest in much to a committed guitar student. In small-town Arizona, guitar was one of the few things that lit Oladokun’s candle. “They couldn’t get me to do my homework to save their lives,” she says. “But I would sit in my room and play guitar for four or five hours every night.”
Joy Oladokun's Gear
For her new record, Joy Oladokun took a more autobiographical approach to lyricism, crafting songs that share different intimate, personal portraits of her life.
Photo by Lauren Schorr
- Nash T72TL
- Gibson J-45
- ’60s Gibson B-25
- Kemper Profiler Stage
- Swart Stereo Master 20
- Jam Pedals Wahcko
- Mesa/Boogie Grid Slammer
- JAM Pedals RetroVibe
- Chase Bliss Audio Automatone CXM 1978
- Gamechanger Audio Third Man Records Plasma Coil
- D'Addario NYXL (.009–.046)
First up, she learned the riff to Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” and stretched her fingers so she could play power chords more clearly. Her parents’ great music tastes nudged her toward Nigerian guitarists like King Sunny Adé, whose music imparted deep appreciations for rhythm and syncopation alongside technical skill. Simon and Garfunkel, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Nina Simone, and even Genesis were played around the house, but perhaps the most significant influence came from the church, and the gospel music Oladokun heard and sang there.
“I grew up listening to a lot of music that was purpose-driven,” she says. “Everything that I listened to and my parents listened to, they were talking about the world and revolutions and stuff.”
“They couldn’t get me to do my homework to save their lives. But I would sit in my room and play guitar for four or five hours every night.”
Oladokun self-released her first EP in 2015, followed the next year by a full-length. Her 2020 followup, in defense of my own happiness (the beginnings), yielded syncs on This Is Us, Grey’s Anatomy, and The L Word: Generation Q, all of which laid the groundwork for her to sign with Amigo Records and Verve Forecast Records for her 2021 breakout in defense of my own happiness. The record, which featured a co-write and appearance by pop country titan Maren Morris, expressed itself in broad, universal terms, dissecting anti-Black violence, religion, and being queer in America. She’s said that she wrote the album’s closer, “jordan,” the day she decided to come out herself. In December 2022, she performed the song on the lawn of the White House as part of a celebration of the signing of the Respect for Marriage Act, which requires that all states recognize same-sex marriages.
Before the performance, she had a moment where she booted everyone from her dressing room, and just looked at herself in the mirror—a practice her therapist encouraged. “When I was a young Black queer kid in Arizona, I don’t know that I could’ve imagined a world where I would be invited to perform on the White House lawn to celebrate same-sex marriage. It was really emotional and powerful. I tried to embrace as much of the significance of the day as I could because I also know that things like that are a lifeline for queer people around the world.”
Joy Oladokun’s music weaves between alt-folk, indie-rock, and pop, and on her fourth full-length, she invited friends like Chris Stapleton and Manchester Orchestra’s Andy Hull to fill out the sound.
Oladokun came up with the title for Proof of Life one day when she was sitting in her studio, looking at all the instruments and knickknacks lining the room. “I started morbidly thinking about what would happen to them after I die,” she chuckles lightly.
“For me, ‘proof of life’ was like a way of saying, ‘What is singular about my existence right now, and what connects me to the rest of this planet?’” Oladokun continues. The songs on Proof of Life became vehicles to explore those threads, “and doing it in a way that 100 years from now, if someone found my album, they would have a pretty good understanding of who I was, what I had been through, and what I believed about life.”
Oladokun says she conceptualized the bulk of the record’s 13 songs in her attic studio at home, then enlisted Mike Elizondo and Ian Fitchuk to produce some of them. But Oladokun produced a good chunk herself, renting Electric Lady Studios and inviting her friends to contribute. Across the record, guest spots from Chris Stapleton, Manchester Orchestra’s Andy Hull, and Mt. Joy add extra color and dimensions. Oladokun says it was an exercise in learning to contribute and how musicians can lift one another up.
“When I was a young Black queer kid in Arizona, I don’t know that I could’ve imagined a world where I would be invited to perform on the White House lawn to celebrate same-sex marriage.”
Right through to its close, Proof of Life ripples with big-picture tension and energy, but they’re perhaps the most pronounced and direct on “We’re All Gonna Die,” which opens with howling violins before switching gears to a macabre, anthemic indie pop rock banger. “We’re over our heads so I’ll say it out loud / We’re all gonna die trying to figure it out,” Oladokun calls on the chorus. Her pal Kahan takes the mic on the second verse: “I’m pissin’ in the dark and hopin’ I hit the bowl / I’m afraid of what I can’t control,” he groans.
Making the record and performing the tracks live has pulled Oladokun into a more open dynamic conversation with her guitars. Sure, she can do the tender, Chapman-style singer-songwriter routine as well as any of them. But on tour recently, she and her band have been ripping “Smells Like Teen Spirit” right after the heavy racial reckoning of “I See America.” By the time the solo in “Teen Spirit” comes, it feels like an explosion of emotion. “It’s like this expression of all the sadness and frustration that those songs represent to me,” says Oladokun. “I’m gonna get on the acoustic guitar and give you a clean version of ‘Keeping The Light On,’ but I’m also gonna take the solos at the end of ‘We’re All Gonna Die.’ To me, [performing both styles] gets the message across in a different way than if I delegated [those parts] to someone else.”On Proof of Life, Oladokun isn’t a pessimist, but she is a realist. The record tells us that we can and must find joy and peace and community, but the trouble is that we have to do so knowing that not a single one of us is here forever. It’s hard work to keep your footing knowing that everything changes, and everything goes away. But if you can find something to help steady yourself, hold onto it. “One thing that I feel really proud of that hasn’t changed,” says Oladokun, “is that I love playing guitar more than any single thing in the entire world.”
Joy Oladokun and her band groove through a perfectly restrained, airtight rendition of “Somebody Like Me” on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
An intimate look at the jam-band scene’s most iconic instruments.
San Francisco-based photographer Jay Blakesberg has been documenting the growing improvisational rock scene long before the “jam-band” moniker became popular. Blakesberg’s latest book, Guitars That Jam, focuses on a cross-generational group of musicians and the tools that fuel their exploratory solos and wildly interesting collaborations. Admittedly, the “jam” label gets stretched a bit—we’re looking at you Satriani—but the stalwarts are well represented with insights from Phish’s Trey Anastasio and Mike Gordon, the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh and Bob Weir, and members of moe., String Cheese Incident, Widespread Panic, and the Tedeschi Trucks Band.
Rarely does a photographer have the ability and access to capture how a scene evolves more than Blakesberg. His images have graced countless magazine covers and albums while offering a unique perspective that fans don’t often see. For more than 30 years he has captured the essence of improvisational music. In this exclusive excerpt, we take a look at five artists that live comfortable within the community but also do what they can to expand it.—Jason Shadrick
Jerry Garcia's 1973 D. Irwin, Custom “Wolf”
If Tom Anderson’s recollection is correct, at the beginning of the Wake of the Flood sessions Garcia was presented with the custom guitar that would become his primary axe for the next couple of years (and intermittently for many more years). Garcia’s new axe had been crafted by a luthier named Doug Irwin, who, Rick Turner says, “came to work with me when we set up the chicken-shack factory [in Cotati]. He trained with me and eventually started making the guitars for Garcia and then split off and did his thing.”
Rick Turner hired [Irwin] for a half-time job at Alembic; he spent a year or more there, learning the ropes from Turner and Frank Fuller and devoting his free time to building his own electric guitar. One day, toward the end of 1972, Garcia was in Alembic’s Brady Street store and spied the first guitar Irwin had made for Alembic. “He bought the guitar right on the spot [for $850], and asked me to make him another guitar,” Irwin recalled in an interview.
“So I built the next guitar for him,” Irwin recalled in the same interview, “which I had actually started building at the time he ordered it; it was made out of purpleheart [also known as amaranth, a South American wood] and curly maple. It had an ebony fingerboard and mother-of-pearl inlays. This is the one that became the ‘Wolf.’”
Grateful Dead, Capitol Theater, Passaic, NJ, November 24, 1978
The guitar didn’t receive its “Wolf” moniker until later. Garcia had put a decal of a bloodthirsty cartoon wolf below the tailpiece, and after bringing it in to Irwin for refinishing between tours one year, “I knew the decal was going to be gone, so I just redid the wolf as an inlay,” Irwin said. “In fact,” Garcia recalled in 1978, “it was a week or so before I even noticed what he had done!” Garcia first played the Irwin guitar on the October ’73 tour.
Beginning with the fall 1977 tour, Garcia stopped playing Travis Bean guitars and went back to the Irwin “Wolf,” which a little earlier had been retooled to include the effect loop and unity-gain buffer that had worked so well in the TB-500. Garcia never expressed any particular dissatisfaction with the Beans; perhaps he just liked the woodier feel of the Irwin axe. It was at this time, too, that Doug Irwin inlaid the “Big Bad Wolf” (as Jerry called it) on the spot where an identical sticker had been.—Excerpted from Grateful Dead Gear, by Blair Jackson
Neil Young's 1953 Gibson Les Paul
This is Neil’s main electric guitar. It’s a 1953 Les Paul goldtop that’s been painted black—in 1953 they only made gold Les Pauls. It’s got a mahogany neck and a mahogany back with a maple cap on the top.
Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Key Arena, Seattle, WA, November 10, 2012
Originally, the ’53 Les Pauls came with what’s called a “trapeze bridge.” The strings came from underneath the bridge because the neck wasn’t tipped back far enough in ’52 and ’53, which made the guitar pretty much unusable. In ’54, they got rid of that bridge because they tipped the neck back to its present position, but the thing with having less of a neck angle is that you can have a lower bridge, which works much better for a Bigsby, which Neil has used extensively. So this has a Gibson Tune-o-matic bridge on it, and it has a Bigsby B7 vibrato on it.
Originally, this guitar was made with two P-90 single-coil pickups. In the early ’70s, Neil took it to a luthier to have some modifications done. When he came back to pick up the guitar, they’d gone out of business. Neil tracked down the guitar, but the bridge pickup was gone. So they put in a late ’50s Gretsch pickup, a DeArmond pickup with adjustable magnets for the poles. It’s a special Gretsch pickup, and it’s only in the bridge position. The neck pickup was still the P-90, but they put a silver cover on it. I started working for Neil in ’73, so this was the condition I found the guitar in, with the DeArmond pickup and the Bigsby and the Tune-o-matic.
After a year I put a Gibson Firebird pickup—a small, two-coil humbucking pickup—in the bridge position. The Firebird is a very unusual pickup noted for its particularly bright tone. This particular pickup is remarkably microphonic. If you tap on the guitar, you can hear it. Neil has even talked into it, screamed into it, and you can hear it coming out of his amplifier. It’s that microphonic, which contributes to the unique sound he gets.
I found the remnants of a switch in the middle of the four knobs. No switch was there, and what it did I don’t know. So, what I ended up doing was put a miniswitch in that hole and routed the bridge pickup directly to the jack, bypassing both the volume and the tone control on that pickup. After I did that, Neil said, “It’s like it goes to 11 now.” You’d be surprised how much energy and tone gets absorbed by the volume and tone control. It’s a remarkable guitar. It has extremely low action and plays really great. —Excerpted from interview with guitar tech Larry Cragg
Mike Gordon's 2014 Visionary Instruments Custom Moiré Bass
This instrument is one of a kind. It was finished for me just in time for my March 2014 tour, and Ben Lewry of Visionary Instruments flew out to some of our locations to make some final tweaks. The 3-D light patterns were my idea, and they make for some great photographs—especially Jay Blakesberg’s! There’s also a 3-D effect you can only see in person.
The Fillmore, San Francisco, CA, March 18, 2014
When I picked up this instrument, I wanted to transcend the typical jam-band stage set by finding new themes that could encompass the entire concert experience from visual to auditory to interactive. I started noticing moiré patterns everywhere, and an exhibit by artist Annica Cuppetelli inspired the idea of an interactive use of these patterns. Ben Lewry had created some instruments for notable people—guitars with LCD screens or robot control knobs, so he was the perfect person to carry out my idea for the invention of a new kind of bass. He appreciated that, in an age steeped in digital projections, this concept is entirely organic—like two screen doors on steroids. It was Ben’s genius that allowed an instrument to wirelessly take lighting cues and to react internally to the notes being played, without any compromise to the tone. Every time you use LED lights there is a pulsation that can put hum into guitar pickups, not to mention the various wireless circuits, and despite that the instrument has a better sound than any bass I’ve ever played!
What’s most significant for me about this instrument is that when I was 5 I wanted to be an inventor. This bass allowed that dream to come to true. I’ve never seen anything like it, other than the guitar version, which was simultaneously made for Scott Murawski.
I’ve had several great moments with this instrument already, but one that stands out occurred when my band was playing “Peel” in Vancouver, and it became a long exploration. I even picked up a bouzouki at one point and then put the moiré bass back on, and then the music took us to some Portuguese hamlet. We had left the bass and guitar lights off, when all of a sudden the lighting designer, Liggy, blasted bright beige (a color only available when beamed from the outside) into the bass, the guitar, and the set pieces, and the jam seemed to scream out to the stratosphere, leaving a trail of beige fire.
I remember lying on the family couch with my first guitar when I was about 12. Every day I had a few minutes of slowly plucking notes and getting into the Zen of the tone decaying, the instrument balanced on my chest. My favorite thing is to pluck (or pick) a note on the moiré bass and feel a little bit of the metal screen after striking the note—it’s a metaphor for the way I’ve taken my career into my own hands; I’ve pushed myself in a new direction unique to me. And really I’ve only scratched the surface! I wasn’t intending a pun, but I can’t really back out of that one.
Bob Weir's 1959 Gibson ES-335
It was my first time in Nashville—I think it was around 1970—and I went to
Gruhn Guitars there—great guitar shop. I was just nosing around, playing a few guitars, and one of the guys in there was watching me—and he said, “You ought to look at this guitar.” He pulled it off of a rack, and I played it and fell in love with it. It was 350 bucks. Back then that was a lot of money—it was a couple months’ rent—but I had to have it. It’s worth a couple hundred times that now—it still has all the original parts. It’s pretty much the holy grail of thin-body guitars.
Furthur, Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, San Francisco, CA, December 30, 2011
I was immediately drawn to the feel of it. I also liked the way it sounded, but I loved the feel—loved the neck, which is relatively slim for a Gibson. Sonically I can do just about anything. It’s not going to sound like a single-coil guitar—it’s definitely a Gibson—but that said, it can get bright, real bright. In fact, I generally play it pretty bright. It has wonderful balance. The tone isn’t real tubby. Sometimes Gibsons have a sort of tubby tone, but not so with this particular guitar. And it works well both in the studio and live—it’s good no matter where you plug it in.
Steve Kimock's 1972 Charles LoBue Explorer
I didn’t go after this guitar; this guitar came to me. You could say more than anything that they were both gifts. When I got this, I was playing in a band called the Goodman Brothers. We lived on a farm in Pennsylvania. The whole setup was kind of a commune.
There was more than one band involved in this, and the guitarist in the other band, who was known by the name of M.K., played theatrical hard rock, and he used to throw his guitars a lot and spin them around his body on the strap—lots of guitar throwing. Apparently, Explorers don’t throw well. He got the guitar and didn’t have it long before it was thrown and broken. He repaired the headstock, but realized that the guitar was not very aerodynamic. I had maybe two Stratocasters at the time, and he said, “Hey, you want to trade the Strat for the Explorer?” So that’s how I got it. That was ’74 or ’75. But I didn’t go looking for it, it was one of those “to each according to his needs” commune deals, and it just turned pretty instantly into my main guitar.
Sweetwater Music Hall, Mill Valley, CA, December 15, 2013
I think Charles made four Explorers. The most visible one belongs to Rick Derringer, who did a Guitar Player cover with his LoBue guitar back in ’75. LoBue also made basses. I think there was a lot more visible, iconic use of his basses. He made Gene Simmons’ first axe bass, for example. He also took care of the New York guys. The funk guys, like Alphonso Johnson had a couple of LoBue fretless guitars that he played later on in Weather Report.
LoBue became a friend, and since he passed I’ve been trying to find his guitars and get them under my roof so eventually I can pass them on together. I have three of those Explorers. I don’t know where Derringer’s is. It might be with Gibson still, or it might be in Nashville, or it might have been destroyed in the flood. Nobody knows. But I’m seeking them out, because I loved the dude. Charles was a very special guy. He was in my life for many years.
I think what I like most about the guitar is that it’s been with me through everything. It does whatever I need it to do. It’s a great big dominating-sort-of-thing in the mix. That guitar will eat the room; it’s one of those guitars. You can’t pick it up unless you mean business. It’s like, “Okay, we’re not screwing around here!” Also when I’m picking up this guitar, I’m picking up a lot of stuff, a lot of memories. I’ve got pictures of it from pretty far back, and it was beautiful back in the day. You can see now that it’s pretty beat up, but so am I. We’re aging together, and old friends with gray hair are hard to find.
Jim James and Carl Broemel of the Grammy-nominated My Morning Jacket talk about their treasured tape echo units, the musical magic that happens when you jettison logic, and how tracking live in an old gym helped them create their own universe on "Circuital".
Carl Broemel (left) and his duesenberg Starplayer tV collaborate in the studio with vocalist Jim James and his custom Breedlove Revival 000. Photo by Roderick Norman Trestrail II
Over the last decade, My Morning Jacket has proven itself to be perhaps the contemporary band most adept at absorbing and mixing country, folk, rock ’n’ roll, gospel, funk, and soul. So adept, in fact, that they were invited to open for Neil Young. And their Coachella and Bonnaroo performances over the last few years have been genuinely epic (their 35-song 2008 Bonnaroo set lasted four hours and featured guest appearances by Metallica’s Kirk Hammett and The Hangover’s Zach Galifianakis). Led by singer/guitarist Jim James’ falsetto hollers and smooth crooning, the Louisville, Kentucky, outfit has managed to consistently capture and distil the essence of American musical origins, as evidenced by everything from the raw, lo-fi raggedness of 1999’s The Tennessee Fire to 2008’s sultry, Grammy-nominated Evil Urges. The current lineup—founders James and bassist Tom Blankenship, along with guitarist Carl Broemel, drummer Patrick Hallahan, and keyboardist Bo Koster—has been together since 2005’s Z, which happened to be the album when their heavy Americana leanings really burst forth. Coinciding with that subtle shift was a greater affinity for keys, soaring guitar breaks, and eclectic surprises such as the single “Highly Suspicious”—which had a wah-fueled funk riff like something you’d hear from Prince.
But MMJ’s latest album, Circuital—with its gentle fingerpicked passages, spacious echoes, gorgeous vocal harmonies, and winsome pedal-steel lines—marks something of a return to the band’s roots, And it’s no doubt due at least partially to a three-year break, during which many members of the band explored other musical outlets. James formed the super group Monsters of Folk (with singer-songwriter M. Ward, and Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes) and recorded an EP of George Harrison covers under the name Yim Yames. Meanwhile, Broemel played on various sessions, including rockabilly star Wanda Jackson’s latest album, and Hallahan toured with the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach in support of his 2009 solo album Keep It Hid. Whatever the reason, Jacket’s latest outing is more lushly atmospheric and acoustic-driven than their last two efforts—although there are some notable exceptions: “Holdin’ on to Black Metal” has a Thai-soul sound, with funky horn stabs and electric piano grooves, while “You Wanna Freak Out” features a gloriously fuzzed-out, square-tooth-filtered guitar solo.
“I feel like solo acoustic material has always been a part of MMJ,” James says when asked if his stint in Monsters of Folk contributed to the sparser sound of Circuital. “Our records usually feature one or two tunes that are pretty simple. I’ve always liked taking a minute to boil it down and space out.” A prime example of the sort of sound James is referring to is “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)”—a hymn to simple pleasures that finds James indulging in twinkling acoustic arpeggios and intermittent string-section filigrees.
Broemel tracking Circuital with his duesenberg Starplayer TV and a Carr rambler head routed
through a top hat cabinet. Photo by Roderick Norman Trestrail II
Live at the Gymnasium
One of the more interesting—and kudos-deserving—things about Circuital is that the vast majority of tracks were recorded live in a rather sonically unfriendly environment.
“This was such a fun record to make,” says James. “We just set up in a beautiful old gym from the early 1900s and kept the gear real simple—just our tape machine and some nice mics.”
“We discovered we’re innately happier there than in a proper recording studio,” agrees Broemel. “It’s fun to have no reason to look at a ticking clock or have to say ‘Oh, the drums always sound great over here’—to be in a space that doesn’t feel as if it’s been used for what you’re using it for. We got some overdubs done in Brick and Stone Studios in Nashville, and I love it. It’s an amazing studio—so much equipment— but they have pictures of the Beatles everywhere. When you’re trying to record your songs, you don’t want to look at pictures of the Beatles. C’mon, it’s a little intimidating! [Laughs.] In the gym, we were in our own universe, which is the best place for us.”
Another reason Circuital feels like a return to form for MMJ is because the albums prior to Broemel’s arrival had a lot of pedal- steel playing. But apparently Broemel has spent the last four years training himself on the instrument, because it adds a familiarly soaring, classic-country vibe to “Outta My System,” “Holdin’ on to Black Metal,” “You Wanna Freak Out” and “Movin’ Away.”
James with his Gretsch Super Axe and a 3 Monkeys Orangutan half-stack at the Charter One
Pavillion in Chicago on August 17, 2010. Photo by Andy Keil
“I had always been curious about it,” he admits. “I love country music and I love the sound of pedal steel, but I didn’t know how to play it, how it was set up, or even how many strings it had. I found a really great teacher and he gave me a couple of lessons and showed me how it relates to the guitar,” explains Broemel. “There’s been so much amazing stuff done with it in country and swing and jazz, and I try to be conscious of that—but I’m not trying to master it. I treat it more as an ambient thing. I’m just applying it to what we do and trying to make sounds that I feel like I haven’t heard yet. Now, sitting down and playing it is one of my favorite things about being in the band. I’m kind of a beginner, so I just use it for what I know I can pull off without falling on my face.”
In addition to constituting a return to classic MMJ form, pedal steel also boosts Broemel’s creativity on his main instrument. “I love the guitar, but sometimes you get burned out and go ‘I don’t even know what to do!’ When that happens, I’ll play pedal-steel guitar for a while, and having to think about the theory and how the instrument works and then going back to guitar helps me picture the fretboard differently. You get a different perspective.”
A Lot of Gear for a “Minimal” Rig
Whether crafting eerie shimmers or slashing at minor chords with a reverb-drenched overdrive, Broemel has a surprising amount of gear for a man who says he likes to keep his setup minimal. One of his favorite new pieces is a German-made Duesenberg. “Until this record, I used all Les Pauls, all the time. I bought a couple of Duesenberg guitars after the last record—my friend runs a studio in Indiana and he had a couple, including a 12-string that I used on a session there. So I bought the Double Cat 12-string, and then a guy from Duesenberg brought me a Starplayer TV, which is kind of their version of a Gibson ES-335 and has the Bigsby on it—and I love Bigsbys. I’ve always had Bigsbys on my favorite black Les Paul Standard, my main guitar. I used the Starplayer for the whole record, basically. The neck’s a little bit longer scale than a Les Paul, and it’s the only hollowbody I have. The older songs don’t feel right on the Duesenberg, but the newer songs do, so it’s cool that an instrument is dictating how I play and making me play a little bit differently. It’s like a hi-fi, fancy guitar—like a BMW guitar. It’s too nice for me!” he laughs.
Broemel and his Bigsby-outfitted 1988 Gibson Les Paul Standard at the Charter
One Pavillion in Chicago on August 17, 2010. Photo by Andy Keil
As for amps, Broemel says, “I’ve always been partial to combos. I’ve always used pedals for overdrive, so I just look at what’s going to work live and be really flexible and play all the songs on it. But it’s such a slippery slope—you can go chasing those zenith guitar sounds, but what’s the point? Do you want to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan or just like Jimmy Page? Or Jimi Hendrix? I don’t really care about that. If it sounds like me—if that’s possible—then great. I’ve been using a Carr Rambler live, and I love that. I also have a couple of old Fenders. I have a Vibrasonic, as well, which I use for the pedal steel—it’s a silverface with a 15" speaker.”
James stuck to his tried-and-true guitars, including a 1999 Gibson Flying V and a Breedlove Revival Custom acoustic. Amps-wise, he waxes lyrical about a new discovery: “I have finally found an amp I love both on the road and in the studio— the 3 Monkeys Orangutan. It is unreal how versatile this amp sounds. It can truly do everything. I feel like I’m doing a product endorsement right now,” he admits. “But I’m really being serious. The amp sounds amazing and it looks beautiful, too—like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey or something. God bless that amp.”
Given MMJ’s Americana emphasis, one would correctly surmise that James and Broemel don’t use a lot of strange effects— though both have a wide selection of echo, reverb, and overdrive pedals. Indeed, Jacket seems to exist in a cloud of reverb, so the two guitarists’ attention in this area is no real surprise. But what might be surprising is the lack of full-on vintage love and the embrace of many new boutique stompboxes, including models from SIB, Z.Vex, EarthQuaker Devices, Malekko, Durham Electronics, and Boss.
James Howling as he grips his 1999 gibson flying V. Photo by Linda Park
That said, Broemel is pretty adamant about the necessity of one vintage-styled piece of signal-altering gear. “I’ve got one of those Tube Tape Echos,” he says of the treasured Fulltone unit he used on pretty much every Circuital song. “That thing is unbelievable. That and great amps are all you need in the studio. I try not to use too much, though—only what I need.”
Finding a Balance
Another reason why Circuital sounds a little more reigned-in than some of MMJ’s recent albums is the more supportive role that the guitars play. Whereas past MMJ tunes like “Gideon,” “It Beats 4 U,” and “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream, Pt. 1” had more central guitar refrains, this set is very much about delectable songs that create an irresistible mood.
“I feel the guitar is far more effective on record when it’s used sparingly,” James says, “but live it translates very well and provides a lot of excitement. So, I try to find balance between those two worlds.”
Here Broemel cuts in to add some context. “We approach all the instruments equally. As much as we try to experiment and try to use keyboards or saxophones or something to pull the weight of the midrange where the guitar would typically go, a lot of times we’d end up saying ‘Y’know, the guitar is the best thing there.’”
James on the prowl with a Normandy Guitars Archtop plugged into Carr rambler (left) and
Mesa/Boogie Tremoverb heads, each powering a Boogie 2x12, at a 2008 New Year’s eve
gig at Madison Square Gardens. Photo by Jackie Roman
As an example of the type of egalitarian musicianship that’s more prevalent on Circuital, one need look no further than the build-up of the opening track, “Victory Dance”: A gong and a heraldic electric-piano refrain lead into spoken-word vocals that slowly build to a crescendo of strings and sparse, slapback-tinged electrics that snap here and there before tremolo-goaded chords warble and swell into out-of-control feedback and the whole song gets sucked into a frenetic vortex of sound. But Broemel feels the title track has the album’s finest guitar spot: Clean, palm-muted electric arpeggios and James’ lilting voice set a lovely, optimistic mood before the choruses lift you a little higher with John Mellencamp-like acoustic splashes and bristling power-chord stabs, and then, more than five minutes into the seven-plus-minute song, Broemel and Hallahan ratchet up the pulse with crashing snare and cymbals, a bunch of Bigsby wobbling, soaring melodies, and a series of joyous descending double-stops—all with impeccable tone that speaks volumes with a delectable minimalism.
“I consider that a flashy guitar solo— that’s the big guitar moment for me,” Broemel says. “Being flashy just isn’t that important to me. I remember thinking, ‘There’s plenty of space for me to play a solo in this song . . . I could do that and that and that.’ When we were done with the main tracks, everybody went, ‘I think we’re done,’ and I was like, ‘Wait a minute— I was just trying to get stuff together during that. That can’t be it!’ I was totally bummed. We finished that session, went home, reconvened, and tried to record the song again, but we just couldn’t redo it— I’d grown accustomed to the solo I played and I was like ‘Thank God it is what it is!’ Jim’s vocal vibe, the weird piano notes, all the things that happened in that moment— they can’t be replicated. I don’t think it’s the most unbelievable guitar solo ever played, but it’s something I’m glad we caught.
“And that’s been the huge lesson of this record,” Broemel continues. “It’s all about intent versus just letting it happen. If you try to play it well, it’s terrible! If you’re just playing for the sake of playing—if you can somehow get to that place where you get something neat that you didn’t intend to do—that’s better than something you would’ve come up with logically.”
Broemel listens to the atmospheric kerrang of an 11th-fret power chord ringing out through
his ’88 Les Paul Standard’s bridge pickup. Photo by Chris Schwegler
Carl Broemel’s Gearbox
Duesenberg Starplayer TV, Duesenberg Double Cat 6/12, 1988 Gibson Les Paul Standard with Bigsby, Gibson goldtop Les Paul with P-90s, reissue Gibson Les Paul Junior, GFI S-10 pedal-steel guitar
Carr Rambler, Carr Vincent, vintage Fender Vibrolux, vintage Fender Princeton Reverb, vintage Fender Vibrasonic (for pedal steel)
Keeley Compressor (two-knob), Electro-Harmonix Micro POG, Electro-Harmonix Freeze (“My new favorite pedal!”), Fulltone Fulldrive 2, Fulltone PlimSoul, Fulltone Tube Tape Echo, Durham Electronics Sex Drive, Eventide ModFactor, Eventide TimeFactor, SIB Mr Echo, Boss RV-5 Digital Reverb, Hilton Volume Pedal (for pedal steel), Fulltone Fat-Boost (pedal steel), SIB Mr Echo (pedal steel), Boss DD-6 Digital Delay (pedal steel), Eventide ModFactor (pedal steel)
Strings and Picks
D’Addario EXL 115s (electric), Jim Dunlop Tortex .73 mm
Jim James’ Gearbox
Custom 2008 Breedlove Revival 000, ’50s Martin 000, Gibson J-185, Gretsch Super Axe, 1999 Gibson Flying V, 1975 Fender Strat, two Gibson ES-335s
3 Monkeys Orangutan head and 2x12 cabinet, Mesa/Boogie Tremoverb head
Boss BD-2 Blues Driver, Boss RV-3 Digital Reverb/ Delay, Boss TU-2 Tuner, SIB Mr Echo, Z.Vex Box of Rock, Z.Vex Woolly Mammoth, EarthQuaker Devices Monarch overdrive, EarthQuaker Devices Ghost Echo, Malekko Spring Chicken reverb
Strings and Picks
D’Addario EXL115 sets (electric), and D’Addario EJ17 sets (acoustic), Jim Dunlop Tortex .88 mm