Jesse Carmichael and PJ Morton on touring with superpop group Maroon 5

What does it take to play stadium-filling gigs for superpop group Maroon 5? Keyboard caught up with Jesse Carmichael and PJ Morton while the band members were wrapping up sessions for “V” in Conway Recording Studios, Hollywood.

When Jesse Carmichael was in high school, he played in a little band called Kara’s Flowers. After a short run in the ’90s and subsequent hiatus, the band reformed in 2000 and became the pop juggernaut now known the world over as Maroon 5. Their 2002 album Songs About Jane catapulted them to the top of the charts, where they’ve pretty much resided ever since.

PJ Morton came onboard as touring keyboardist in 2010 and took over the main chair when Carmichael took a hiatus from the band in 2012. Morton is a pastor’s son from New Orleans, and was raised playing music in church. His soulful style fit the modern R&B/pop flavors of Maroon 5’s music so well that when Carmichael returned to the group to record their new album V, he decided to stick to mostly guitar and let Morton man the main keyboard rig. Complementing them both on tour is Sam Farrar, who commands samplers, turntables, and special effects, plus the occasional synth.

Keyboard caught up with Carmichael and Morton while the band members were wrapping up sessions for V in Conway Recording Studios, Hollywood.

What made you decide to hire an additional touring keyboard player?

Jesse Carmichael: We’d been touring for a long time with a huge number of keyboards surrounding me, and I was trying to juggle all the parts that we put on the records. I just needed help, a little lift. PJ came along like an angel.

Before PJ came on, were you running a lot of tracks or samples before you decided you needed another keyboardist?

JC: At the very beginning on our first album and most of our second album touring, it was all live. Then as we started playing bigger places we started thinking our sound needed some more backing-track fullness, so we put some string pads in choruses so that I could be playing other parts.

Who operates the tracks?

JC: We have an Ableton rig behind our drummer, Matt Flynn. He has pads that start each track and stop it, and then we play along to that. There are two computers side by side and there’s a whole switching system.

Tell us about when you came into the mix, PJ?

PJ Morton: I came in at the completion of the Hands All Over album. When I initially came in, Jesse and I still had pretty big rigs. I came in for the tour of that album and then was involved in Overexposed and V. But I think sonically things changed because Hands All Over was a little more organic, so we were playing more organic things. As the record started to change, as they always do, and grow, I think the needs became different and we’ve adjusted to that onstage.

What’s your musical background?

PJM: I grew up playing gospel music. I’m from New Orleans, so jazz was always around and I just went into soul. Then I started as a producer and a songwriter and a solo artist. These guys reached out to me as I was doing my solo thing.

Was it a challenging transition, to move into the pop realm from jazz and gospel?

PJM: Not at all. I think part of what I’ve always loved about this band, even before I was a part of it, was that it’s always been a good mesh of pop sensibility with some old-school soul. There’s always been that layer there, and live, it allows us to slip that stuff in. I’ve had a B-3 since I’ve been playing with the band, and a Rhodes and a Wurly, and Jesse has always had Clavinets onstage.

Also, I think people don’t truly know Maroon 5 until they see us play live, because there’s that edge where we show that we can play, and it’s not the same language as on the records.

Which songs do you get to stretch out on a little more live?

PJM: There are songs that these guys have been playing for 15 years, like “This Love” or something where I’m playing keyboard bass; then we add stuff that’s not there on the record.

JC: You come alive a lot on “Sunday Morning.” You put new flavors to those chords.

PJM: That was also where I found my space. For a lot of the back catalog, we were looking for something fresh. Even with a song like “Moves Like Jagger,” we rock stuff out a little more.

Out of all the keyboards in your rig, which do you play the most?

PJM: The core of it all is definitely the [Yamaha] Motif XF8, because that’s where I’m playing a lot of the piano parts. After that is probably the organ. The main synth board is the Nord that we always use. We’ve got specific Maroon 5 sounds, which are on almost every song on the album. Jesse’s dialed some things in there that will travel through whatever Nord we use.

JC: I like you on that MicroKorg too.

PJM: Oh yeah, the XL. I don’t play it as much as the others, but that’s fun for me live—adding in the key bass.

Jesse, tell us about your transition to playing mainly guitar on tour.

JC: I started playing guitar in the band when we started in high school. I didn’t really shift into keys until we graduated high school and changed our name to Maroon 5. Over the years, whenever we’ve made records, there have always been multiple guitar parts with Adam and James playing guitars. But Adam didn’t want to play guitar as much, so I became the missing piece of the puzzle.

On the original Maroon 5 tours, you used a lot of vintage gear. Was there a standard rig, or did it morph a lot in those days?

JC: It morphed a lot from the beginning before we had PJ to the point where it was at its largest. We had an Korg OASYS and a B-3 with a Clav on top, and a Nord Lead 3, and a MicroKorg, and the Open Labs Neko, which is a Windows PC built into a keyboard with soft synths inside.

What soft synths were you using in that?

JC: There were a lot of Kontakt libraries and some Omnisphere patches. Then we had a Rhodes with a Wurlitzer sitting on top of that, and then the Nord on top of that.

What changed when PJ came in?

PJM: The B-3 organ was a big part of it. Jesse was holding down a lot of the piano and the core stuff. So I did more little touches with synths, but mainly it was the B-3 for me—and I had the MicroKorg XL.

PJ, your rig on the road is going to be the Motif XF8?

PJM: Yes—and the Nord Wave. And now we’ve gone to the Nord C2D, which I think is the closest anybody’s gotten to a B-3. And I’ve gone through every single keyboard out there. The Rhodes will be out with us, too—a ‘73 Suitcase.

Does you use the Nord’s internal rotary effect or a real Leslie?

PJM: We’re talking about bringing a Leslie out with us on this tour, but until now we’ve been doing it internally. But I think it would just take it to the next level if we used an external Leslie.

What’s left for Sam Farrar to play?

JC: Sam triggers a lot of sounds that are on the records with pads from one of his Akai-run things. And he plays some synth pads coming from a laptop.

PJM: Sometimes, instead of having something in the track, he plays it naturally; that gives a natural groove to certain things. It’s more like somebody’s singing it. His rhythm is great. It’s tricky for keyboard players, because there’s a lot of stuff we can do that can be programmed, that can be sequenced, but nothing beats a human element.

On the new record, V, there are a couple of songs where there is some prominent piano: “Leaving California,” “Feelings,” and “My Heart Is Open.”

PJM: “Leaving California,” that’s the one written with Nate [Ruess] from Fun.

JC: His contribution to that song was from a voice memo!

PJM: He just sang the melody of the chorus and we built the whole thing around that.

JC: The way a lot of these songs came together in the studio was from demos that the external songwriters had started. They were pretty established tracks because all these guys were working in great studios. They’d send in tracks that were pretty much ready for us just to add little touches on top of.

When you were recording, did you use mostly digital instruments or was there any real piano?

PJM: There’s real piano on everything—mainly a Steinway at Conway.

What was the keyboard setup for recording the song “Feelings”?

PJM: In the studio we had about nine vintage keyboards.

JC: We had the Prophet-5 in there, and the Roland Juno-106.

PJM: Also the digital Mellotron—the new M4000D. The Nord was in there, of course.

JC: Most of the keys on “Feelings” were probably programmed by Shellback, one of the songwriters.

Who is Shellback?

JC:He’s this young Swedish death-metal kid who plays guitar and drums. Max Martin, who did the executive producing on the last two albums, and Shellback became friends. Shellback also wrote “Moves Like Jagger,” which I think was his first big hit.

How did you go about choosing sounds in the studio?

JC: Mainly just by tweaking. We have nine analog synths on the wall, each with a million tweaking possibilities. We have soft synths. Sometimes a song has been sent from the songwriter with a synth part that sounds complete already. [In those cases], there was a lot of matching or just filling in frequencies.

PJM: Or trying to improve upon the existing sounds. Maybe something they did on a soft synth made us think, “hey, maybe the Juno would do that better . . .”

Was there ever a point where you said, “We’ve put too much frosting on the cake. We’ve got to dial it back”?

JC: That usually happens. Generally, the studio practice is to throw around every idea you’ve got. And all the while our engineer, Noah Passovoy—we call him Mailbox—is constantly switching back and forth between the main speakers and small speakers, and thinking about the way that people listen to music these days, whether it’s on their phones or on their laptops or in their cars. Sometimes we add some low-end key bass or something onto it, and Mailbox would be like, “It’s actually not going to make it in the mix.” So he’d filter it out, take out some low end, until it was more of a cutting sound.

Have you ever heard a remix of any of the songs that you liked better than the original?

JC: I did a remix with some friends of mine with a modular synth side project I have called the Circuit Jerks. We did a remix of “Maps.” That’s coming out on a Samsung CD sampler for the record that has a bunch of remixes on it. We slowed it down by 40 beats per minute and just made it completely different—a new chord progression.

What would you say a young keyboardist should concentrate on to develop as an artist?

JC: I would say that finding your own voice is most important. Finding your own comfort zone without comparing yourself to other musicians. You never want to get hung up on that kind of anxiety.

The music Maroon 5 is making now is reaching the biggest audience you’ve ever had. Is that daunting, or is that just cool as hell?

JC: It’s super cool. Adam said something the other day that I really loved. We were talking about climate change and politics and what’s going on in the world today. He was like, “Everybody’s playing their part in this huge puzzle of this world that we live in and our job is to help bring people happiness, if they come see us live or if they connect with the record. When people are happy, they make good decisions and everything gets steered in the right direction.” I like that.