The effect My Morning Jacket has had on live Rock music in America over the past several years is hard to deny. Spawned from the fertile Louisville music scene, the band’s legendary live show is an electrifying experience for all who attend. At the end of May, MMJ put out its sixth studio album, Circuital, which earned a career-high first-week entry into the Billboard Top 200 album chart, bowing at No. 5. Bo Koster, MMJ keyboardist since 2004, joining the band during the gap between its major label debut, It Still Moves, and the wildly diverse Z. CityBeat spoke with Koster about the band’s Cincinnati stop Wednesday at PNC Pavilion with Neko Case, as well as My Morning Jacket’s memorable live performances and passion for local record shops.
CityBeat: Many of the band members are from the Louisville area. Are you actually from Louisville as well?
Bo Koster: I actually grew up in Cleveland, a Cleveland boy. I haven’t lived there in a long time but I grew up there. I spent the first 21 or 22 years of my life there.
CB: You guys opened your tour for Circuital in Louisville at the Palace Theater and had it broadcast on YouTube (part of the “Unstaged” concert series, which featured live concert streams “directed” by various accomplished filmmakers). It was a large production. What was that experience like for the band?
BK: That was a hectic day, for sure. That was the first show we did on our new record. We had not played all the songs live yet. That alone was kind of nerve-racking because you don’t have the confidence of playing them for years under your belt. Plus we had this whole narrative aspect so it was almost like doing a live play or Saturday Night Live, where everyone has to hit their mark on time. Everyone was a little bit on edge backstage and then we had the whole internet element and (series sponsor) American Express was involved.
CB: But no pressure at all, right?
BK: We were like, “Oh, fuck.” This is a lot of stuff piled on top of each other. Plus being a hometown show is pretty heavy. There’s something about playing your hometown that always adds a little bit of extra pressure. Maybe I wouldn’t say pressure but you want to play a good show for your hometown show. It’s just an added element.
CB: Did anything go wrong that day or any craziness?
BK: Doing that show was definitely mind-bending. But it was great and the opportunity to work with Todd Haynes (director of MMJ’s concert stream and director/co-writer of music flicks Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There, in which MMJ appeared) … he was really awesome. We had a great time working with him. He is super-talented. That alone was worth the whole thing and also having a record come out that way, streaming live on the internet, was pretty cool.
CB: I actually have seen you guys a few times. I’m a photographer and shot you for the first time at Voodoo Festival and I just caught you guys in Lexington at the small show you did at the University of Kentucky. I have to say, I did get a little upset with the white sheets at the Voodoo fest.
BK: The white sheets?
CB: When you dressed up for Halloween at Voodoo Festival.
BK: Is it because you couldn’t see us?
CB: Yes. It was awesome for the crowd, I’m sure.
BK: Yeah, but when do you get the chance to shoot a band wearing white sheets …
CB: It was memorable.
BK: Everybody gets to shoot the band as they normally are.
CB: But not as angels, you’re right (see badly shot video snippet below). But you guys are obviously, in my opinion, one of the best festival performance bands around right now. Do you prepare differently for the festivals versus an arena or theater show?
BK: A little bit because we know that there will probably be a lot of people there that have never seen us play before. We want to make sure that we build the set with that in mind. If we play our own show, obviously we are thinking more about fans of the band that are familiar with all our records or most of the records. We want to keep it upbeat because festivals are a little bit of a different beast because it is about keeping the crowd excited because they are there all day and it is usually fucking hot.
CB: You also have those stuffed animals on stage with you, the bears. It was really funny because I interviewed Grace Potter two weeks ago and she was telling me the story of how she fought with you guys over the owl and you won, and she has tigers on stage with her now.
BK: She has tigers. Yeah. It’s funny because those tigers that she has, we procured some of those too along the way. There are a couple of those hanging on the wall at Jim’s house. You can get those tigers at any truck stop.
CB: She said it was very convenient.
BK: Yeah, and we’ve given them all names.
CB: You have bears on stage now, right?
BK: Yeah, we have bears. We have always had animals and shit like that since the beginning of time. There is a bear on the cover of It Still Moves. There is a song called “The Bear.” It’s been part of the band for a long time. It’s our spirit animal. It’s our totem. Have you seen those animal totem books? I have a couple of those at home. That’s kind of a thing. It’s fun.
CB: I just thought it was crazy because she said, “We fought My Morning Jacket for the owl because we are The Nocturnals, but they won so we have tigers.” It was making me laugh.
BK: We have the owl, too. I forgot how the owl got in there. But it’s been part of album artwork. We had this really cool white owl that we put on the top of the recording desk when we recorded Z, I believe. Ever since then, it has been our mascot as well.
CB: So you guys are really good about staying connected to your fans and you make a lot of appearances at independent record stores, particularly in Lexington and Louisville. Why is that important to you guys?
BK: Independent businesses are a big deal for us. We believe family-owned, mom and pop-owned places are definitely something hard to maintain with today’s corporate culture and we think that’s a bummer. We think that it is getting harder and harder for people to kind of realize their own dreams on that level because of corporate domination in every sense of the word. We just like to support the little guy that has sacrificed everything in their life to open a business to do something special and do something different.
It is kind of like being against the homogenization of the world. As a creative person, it gets sad when you go to every town and every town has the same fucking thing. There’s the same Arby’s. There’s the same T.G.I.Fridays. There’s the same Starbucks, and I love Starbucks. I go all the time. It is a good company and whatever. But when it comes to music, these are the places that we go to have a relationship with people and music and culture. The independent record store is like a church to a lot of us. We go there to meet people that love music as much as we do. We go there to stumble upon things and get turned onto things. We love music. We believe it is a spiritual thing.
I think it is important to support the people that are fighting really hard to keep those places open for people like us. Nowadays, you can download records on the internet. The search engine is specifying your searches for you. If you buy an Arcade Fire record, it’s only going to show you records like the Arcade Fire or other records people who bought the Arcade Fire record have bought. So you are never stumbling upon some fucking weird record. Where, if you go to a record store, you might just happen to see a weird record in the corner with a fucked up cover and go, “Weird, what is that?” Then you pull it out and say “1984? This is weird.” Then you ask somebody about it and they are like, “Oh man! You have to listen to track 4.” That just doesn’t happen at Best Buy. That doesn’t happen on Amazon.com.
CB: The community aspect of it has been lost.
BK: Yeah, and it is an important thing. The bigger the corporation is, the less likely it is the little guy is going to get their record out and be heard. You don’t see a tiny band with some weird 7-inch at Best Buy. You can’t get that stuff, really. You can get it on iTunes, but you have to find out about it and it’s harder to find out about it nowadays. So I think supporting those places is mandatory. It’s like supporting the local orchestra or library or anything like that, any cultural thing in society that adds value and work beyond making money, like an art museum or anything. That’s what independent record stores are to us.
CB: It’s amazing the support that you show. I’m sure they appreciate it. I know in Cincinnati we have three or four independent stores that are still open and trying to make it.
BK: And the owners of those stores are fighting the good fight. They are fighting an uphill battle. They need all the help they can get. We are happy to do it.
CB You guys recorded the new album in a church in Louisville. I wanted to ask you about that experience and if you would ever consider doing it again. How did that all came about?
BK: Yeah, it was just kind of a lucky thing. This guy, Kevin Ratterman, that we are friends with is a recording engineer in Louisville. He kind of had a relationship with these people at the church and they had done a little bit of recording there. When we were talking about getting together and working off demos and doing initial recording sessions on the album, Kevin said we should try this church out. We went in there with no expectations. We grabbed as much gear as we could. Kevin helped us out, he brought gear. Tucker brought gear. Jim brought his gear. So we just set up shop without really knowing what it was going to be or what we were going to get. It ended up being really a good thing. Without having the heavy, weighted expectations on it, it ended up allowing us to be free and enjoy the moment and have fun and hang in the studio together trying to get takes because we had not even rehearsed any songs yet. It was super-rough demos that we were working off of. I think it put us all in a good head space.
CB: Is this something you guys would consider doing again?
BK: Yeah, for sure. It’s like if you have never made some crazy dish and you got a bunch of your friends together and you all brought pots and pans and brought ingredients and were like, “Let’s see if we can cook some cool food.” You don’t know what’s going on. You don’t really care if it’s good or not. So it’s just kind of fun.
It lent itself on a creative level for all of us to be open-minded and kind of have a beginner’s mind, to be in the moment and enjoy what it was. I definitely think we get off on playing unique spaces and weird kind of environments and stuff like that. Every place has a history and a certain unique energy to it, with ghosts and spirits. It affects the people in that space and the music coming out of it. So I think we are always trying to find those places and hopefully it affects the process in a positive way.
CB: Is there anything, that you like to do when you are here in Cincinnati? Any fond memories?
BK: It’s kind of been a while since we have been there. We used to play, what’s the name of that club that everyone has played?
BK: Yeah. We used to play there. I don’t know why we haven’t been going through there. I guess we have been in between.
CB: Louisville and Lexington are really close and it is almost the same market.
BK: Yeah. And I think we were probably coming down to having the right size venue. Sometimes the size of venue doesn’t work for the tour or the amount of production we have going into it. There is a lot that goes into the routing. I have a couple friends that live in Cincinnati, so a lot of times they come out and we go out to eat. We don’t have a specific thing that we do, but if you have any suggestions, we are open.
CB: They have re-vamped downtown a lot so there is a lot more to do in downtown Cincinnati and Fountain Square. There are cool restaurants and they are trying to get more people into the downtown area.
BK: So you think it would be worth going down there?
CB: Yeah, I do. I think downtown Cincinnati is beautiful, especially during the summer. You can walk around and there are a lot of cool things to do. What can the fans expect from the show that night?
BK: I don’t know. Hopefully, just more of what we have been doing all year long. Hopefully we can play for a while. I think Neko Case is opening. It’s going to be a great night of music. Neko is one of the best songwriters alive. Her voice is undeniable. I could listen to her sing the rest of my life. I think it is just going to be a good show with her opening.