Carl Broemel takes his customary place – stage right – with his black Gibson Les Paul in hand. The crowd roars, but it is not Broemel or his fellow musicians that the audience has come to see. The applause and excitement are for the venerable Ray Lamontagne. After the screams and whistles die down, a woman’s voice can be overheard asking, “I recognize Ray’s backup band. Who are they?” Another voice answers, “That is My Morning Jacket, and the guitar player is pretty awesome.”
Such is the recognition of one of music’s most gifted musicians. Despite being recognized by Rolling Stone Magazine as two of the twenty new “guitar gods” (and who also graced our own list), Broemel continues to fly under the radar among music listeners and festival goers. Even for diehard My Morning Jacket fans, Broemel is the humble and most unassuming member of the quintet. He is soft spoken and quiet. He tends to shy away from the limelight. Everything about him is simple. There are no bells and whistles in his appearance. His section of the stage is littered with multiple pedals, several instruments, and occasionally a drawing from one of his kids. His nature and his surroundings are unlike that of a rock star. That is, until the music starts.
With his trademark ruffled white shirt, the man affectionately known as Snowy unleashes a maelstrom of sound. His boyish features are removed and the rock star comes out, as Broemel’s head and body move in unison with each chord he rips. Suddenly, eyes are transfixed on Broemel. The same woman can be heard saying, “He is good! What is his name?” Nothing is said. Just Lamontagne’s voice and the instrumentation of Broemel and three of his MMJ bandmates flow through the light, mid-afternoon breeze at Newport Folk Festival.
Carl Broemel may not yet be a household name, but his talents with the guitar and pedal steel are unquestionably worthy of the guitar god designation. But where Broemel often gets overlooked is his work as a singer-songwriter. This Friday, he will release his third solo album, 4th of July, via his own label Stocks in Asia and Nashville-based Thirty Tigers. The album follows 2004’s Lose What’s Left and 2010’s superb All Birds Say, the latter which had Broemel’s father, Robert, contributing clarinet, bassoon, and baritone sax.
Broemel’s albums are the rare glimpse into the mind of the gifted artist. Speaking to him one-on-one also offers additional insights – thoughtful and considerate, intelligent and introspective. While he may come across as quiet, he is open and transparent, willing to share his experiences in a way that only a songwriter could: through stories. In our conversation, we cover a wide range of topics, from being back at Newport Folk Festival to playing with Roger Waters to who is Carl Broemel. As a supplemental read regarding the songwriting process for 4th of July, check out the excellent interview between Carl and Songwriters on Process.
Conversation with Carl Broemel
As we’re at Newport Folk Festival. What is it like to be back?
It’s great to be back. All day I was getting excited just to be here. There are so many friends here, from the artists to the people who run this event. It feels like we are embedded within this special place. You know, it feels like home. And to do something different, very different, the last three times is really awesome. Collaborating with other artists is a huge part of this place, so it made sense to come back in this capacity. It is what makes Newport special.
Last year you backed up Roger Waters. This year, you’re in Ray Lamontagne’s backing band. What will next year bring?
Well, I could come back myself next year, as I’m putting out a record in August. Hopefully Jacket will come back again, too.
That would be great. But if you could collaborate with another artist next year or in the future, who would it be?
Just me or everyone?
It’s up to you?
I would love to be in Paul McCartney’s band for a summer. I’m not sure how feasible that is, but that would be at the top of the list.
Excellent choice. You never know. You are, after all, considered one of the great guitarists of your generation and a member of one of the best live bands on the planet. Even your work with Jacket, your solo work reveal a much different side – much more laid back, more mellow. So who is the real Carl Broemel?
It’s both. Honestly. I don’t think I would be able to do either without the other. When we’re traveling and doing the band, there is this powerful thing when the five of us are together. There is this indescribable collective energy that suddenly combusts.
When I’m by myself, I get more introspective, which is more my normal nature – to dive in and seriously contemplate the songs in front of me. Sometimes this happens at night after I put the kids asleep, but whenever it is this environment just cultivates this form of music. It is also during these times that I realize that I am way better at doing something else (laughs). But you can’t always be with the band because we get tired and realize we need a break. So both things are important; they provide an equilibrium of sorts.
Your debut LP Lose What’s Left was released in 2004. All Birds Say was shared in 2010. Now 4th of July comes in 2016. Does the number 6 have any special significance for you?
(Laughs). No, but that’s good research. When people ask me when the last record came out, I’m like, “I don’t know, maybe 3 or 4 years ago” The time has gone by so fast that I don’t even really know. So, there’s no significance to the number. I think that is just my tempo. Who knows? Maybe the next one will come out sooner.
What I find most interesting about your solo work is your songwriting style. You often take the role of a narrator as opposed to singing in the first person or the “me”, “I”. Why take that point of view?
That is a natural thing. If I see a song with a lot of “me”, “I”, I see if I can take it to the third person on purpose. It makes it more fun to work on the song, and it also opens up more possibilities on what the song is about. I’m not totally against doing songs in the first person, but if I catch myself doing that I always check to see if it is possible to put some distance in it. You also have to keep it open-ended because sometimes it is more about what you don’t say.
You’ve worked with a lot of people over the last few years – your bandmates, Roger Waters, Ray Lamontagne, and Neko Case and Laura Veirs are on the new album. How much have they helped you develop as an artist?
Every time I do any musical project with anyone – whether it is with Tucker (Martine who produced MMJ’s The Waterfall) or Laura Veirs, whose last record I worked on – I always go into the studio or recording session feeling like a beginner again. All of a sudden, I have no confidence and I have to quickly build myself up to this thing and figure it out. That’s tough. It’s a hard thing to feel so vulnerable. So whenever we do other projects, side projects, or if I go play shows by myself, I’m often asking, “What am I doing?” If I’m really uncomfortable, this feeling seems to really help me gain perspective on life and other things that I’m doing. It makes me feel grateful about what I am doing. What I get to do.
It’s kind of like an open relationship. Me and Jim and everybody goes off and does other stuff, and we get energized and try to get reborn there and come back, so we’re not in the same zone as before. We have to keep it fresh somehow. I think that’s one of the techniques we use – lots of space between us when we need it, and when we come back then we’re really tight. Nothing we do is stagnant.
You’ve played in some of the most remarkable venues – Red Rocks, Madison Square Garden. Have you ever thought about going back and performing at some of the smaller places you did in your earlier years?
We did play at Headliners (in Louisville) when the new record came out, and that was really fun. However, a lot of people who have only seen us play in the United States have this distorted reality of what we’re capable of and where we can play. When we go to other countries, we are playing in small clubs again. I remember one time we played Radio City and we were so high on life. Then the next week we’re in Paris playing in a small club and the opening band played for three people. It is like we have suddenly gone back into time, where we’re this hard-working band once again. So playing in these small clubs isn’t so far removed for me because we do it. It’s not like we are going to do everyone a favor and play a small club; rather we actually have to do it and go at it like the first day I joined the band.
Let’s look at the flip side then. Are there venues on your bucket list? And are there any performances that stick out for you?
I would like to play at Royal Albert Hall (London). We’ve never played there. I would like to play a big arena show in the UK or the main stage at Glastonbury. That kind of stuff we haven’t done there yet. I don’t know if we ever will.
That said, it has been pretty surprising the things we have been able to do the past couple of years. Playing with Roger Waters was definitely not on our radar. We were just completely amazed, completely wowed. That was a huge bucket list thing to do. It was surreal, super surreal.
But personally, my favorite moment in the past five years was getting to play with Neil Young at Bridge School and sing “Harvest Moon” with him. He is my all-time favorite. When we did that with him, I was literally in tears after the show. That was completely fucked up. And Neil, he’s just great. After we finished, he was like, “Yeah, that was cool.” And I’m like, “Holy shit!” (laughs)
Let’s end with five MMJ-related questions. First, we know Bo Koster (keys) wears a lot of headware. What’s your favorite “Bo-nnet”?
I like the wide-brim hat. He’s like a riverboat gambler in that hat.
What is your favorite Patrick Hallahan (drums) shirt?
The classic red shirt. Definitely that one.
Favorite gesture or shout out that Jim James (vocals/guitar) does to get the crowd going?
(Laughs) Umm… Let’s come back to that one. I need to think about it.
What is your favorite Tom Blankenship (bass) outfit?
I like the gray suit. That’s the classic. If you were to draw a cartoon character of Tom, it would be him in that gray suit.
We have to come back to the Jim question because the last one concerns you.
Hmmm… I like it when he pauses with his arms crossed over his chest. I think that’s powerful.
I like it when he stands with his one arm in the air.
The Statue of Liberty. That’s good, too, but I like the pause. It has a Michael Jackson air to it.
Finally, what’s your favorite instrument to play?
One of my favorite parts of each night is to sit down and play pedal steel. If there isn’t a pedal steel song on the setlist, I’m like, “Wait a minute, what’s going on here?” Sitting behind the pedal steel gives me a chance to sit back, watch, and reflect for a moment what’s happening in front of me.
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