Indie

Jim James Reviews Every My Morning Jacket Album

When it came time to name My Morning Jacket’s ninth album, due out Friday, Jim James decided to keep it simple: My Morning Jacket by My Morning Jacket. “When you first see it,” he reasoned, “it’s not going to hit you over the head with a heavy title like, ‘Geez, These Are Fucked Up Times.'”

James also knew that his band needed some kind of re-introduction. While it arrives just one year after The Waterfall II, the self-titled record represents the first new music they’ve made in more than five years. After establishing themselves in the aughts as one of rock’s great live bands, MMJ entered a period of relative inactivity in the 2010s, as James focused on solo albums and wondered whether the band would ever work together again.

But after a series of well-received concerts at Red Rocks in Colorado in 2019, MMJ once again felt rejuvenated, James says, and they quickly entered the studio without a producer or any other outsiders. The idea was to just play music without the pressure of a schedule or even conventional song structures. Instead, they jammed for hours, and pieced together songs from their most inspired improvisations. The result is an album — which was completed right before the shutdown last year — that exhibits the band’s live prowess on record better than any MMJ album since 2003’s It Still Moves.

Like the classic-rock heroes they’ve emulated over the course of a nearly 25-year career, MMJ have had plenty of ups and downs. But James feels like he’s made out the other side better than ever. “I feel younger now and stronger now than I ever have in my life,” he said in a recent interview.

As they prepare to release the new record, James agreed to revisit MMJ’s prior work and candidly break it down.

The Tennessee Fire (1999)

I had been in another band called Month Of Sundays before My Morning Jacket, and pretty much all I ever got was rejection. It was like, “You all suck.” But then I started doing a different kind of music on my own and calling it My Morning Jacket. I was sending out lots of demo tapes. Well, I got several responses to the My Morning Jacket demo tapes, which were really cool. When I got the chance to do my first record contract with Darla Records, I was just so blown away. It was the first time really anybody in my life had given me any sort of validation that I was on the right path.

I always felt insecure about my voice growing up. But luckily I had had this experience a few years before The Tennessee Fire, when I was in Month Of Sundays. I kind of rotated into being a singer but I never felt comfortable there and I always hated my voice. Then one day somebody accidentally left the reverb cranked up on the amp I was singing through at practice and it was a divine moment. Because right at that moment I was like, “Oh my god, this is one of the doorways for me to enjoying this life.” This sound, the way it feels to sing with the reverb all over my voice was just incredible, so then I carried that forward.

The funny thing about The Tennessee Fire is that I was like, “Let’s make this as long as we can, because this might be the only record that we ever get to make and I’ve got tons of songs.” We were just over the moon excited to be making a record at all.

At Dawn (2001)

So, The Tennessee Fire came out and for whatever reason it was a huge smash success in Holland and Belgium. That was the only place on Earth that really embraced the record and loved it. So we went over and did all these tours in Holland and Belgium and it was really just so great. We couldn’t even believe what was happening, that anybody cared at all. And then At Dawn was our first taste of like, This isn’t always going to be the case. Because then they hated At Dawn over in Holland and Belgium. [Laughs.]

But once you get a foothold somewhere, that will open the door for you in other places. Especially at home back in Louisville, people were like, “Whoa, what’s the deal with this band?” People started to notice us more and we started to tour more.

We never felt like we fit in anywhere. I mean, I still don’t feel that way. We definitely never felt like a Southern band. Louisville’s an interesting place because it’s like everybody thinks it’s what it’s not. If you’re from the north you think it’s the south. If you’re from the south you think it’s the north. We’re not cool enough to be with The Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. But then we’re not hippie enough to be with The Grateful Dead community. So it was like everywhere we’d turn it was just like nope, you don’t fit in here.

I had already written most of the songs for It Still Moves as well. I wanted to make At Dawn a bridge between The Tennessee Fire and It Still Moves, and make it kind of spacey and kind of slow and kind of inching towards more rock. I mean, there was definitely rock ‘n’ roll on The Tennessee Fire. But my cousin John and I, we were talking about inching towards this idea of our third record being, for lack of a better term, just more of a rock ‘n’ roll record. Because we were already going in that direction, taking a lot of songs that were on At Dawn and cranking them up to 11 on stage. A lot of the more gentle, textured songs from At Dawn we were playing full bore, AC/DC-style. We weren’t afraid to look like a bunch of maniacs up there. We all had super long hair. It was almost like a thunderstorm on stage, with all this kinetic energy that was tied to these emotional, sensitive songs.

It Still Moves (2003)

We had started touring a lot for At Dawn and we had been to Holland and Belgium. We got a Guided By Voices tour and we did a tour with this band called Eyes Adrift that was Krist Novoselic from Nirvana and Kirk from Meat Puppets. We finally got a manager, so there was a lot of “climbing the ladder” stuff happening. We were taking meetings with labels or people were coming out to see us.

Those first three records were all recorded out in Shelbyville, Kentucky at my cousin John’s studio above his grandparents’ garage. His grandparents were just so amazing and sweet to us and the band really would have never happened if it wasn’t for John’s grandparents giving us the space and the encouragement. We did everything to tape and it was a really simple set up and just super bare bones. There’s so many good memories of using the garage for reverb, or using the silos for reverb, or just doing things in our own way, in a real simple way.

We ended up signing to ATO and RCA. Our first real record deal, so there was tons of pressure and tons of excitement. But we still wanted to do it at home in our studio because we didn’t want to take a huge leap and go to some super fancy studio or something. We wanted to do it on our own terms still. We just got some more equipment and did the record out at the farm. It was one of those things where you just feel the pressure of the moment, because we were just a bunch of kids from Kentucky that really didn’t know anything about how the music business worked or what was supposed to happen or what was not supposed to happen.

Again, with It Still Moves, we were like, “Let’s make this fucker as long as we can because this is probably going to be it.” We always had this fatalistic approach for the early records. We were like, They’re not going to let us make another one because this shit’s just too weird.” I mean, we were having fun, too. It’s not like we were super down about it, but we always had this dark humor about it.

Z (2005)

With It Still Moves, the touring got even crazier. We were on tour in Europe and the touring was just killing us all. But I think for John and our first keyboard player, Danny Cash, they just had a really heavy realization that they couldn’t do it anymore. So, they both quit the band in London. We were having a band meeting with our manager, and my cousin John was looking at the table. He was like, “Look, oh god, I’m sorry to interrupt, I just got to tell you all, I can’t do this anymore.” Right when he said that Danny threw his binder down on the table and he’s like, “Fuck it, I quit, too.” It was just a funny and sad moment. But Tom and Patrick and I all completely understood because we were feeling that way, too.

Are we going to be a three-piece or are we going to just stop doing this and do something else? Jamie Cerreta, who to this day is my publisher and one of my best friends, is responsible for the band surviving, because he was like, “Why don’t you just try out some people?” And I was like, “I don’t want to do that. That sounds terrible and blah, blah, blah.” And he’s like, “Just do it for me.” And we caved and were like, “Okay.”

Carl and Bo were the first two people to come and they both just crushed it. They knew all of the things we asked them to know and more. We really liked their vibes. And then we proceeded to go through just the worst auditions. A nightmare realm, you know? It was like the universe just wanted the band to go on, and was like, “Here’s Bo and Carl, just go on in peace.” Ever since 2004 it’s been the same line-up.

I met John Leckie, who co-produced Z with me. We went up to this crazy studio in the Catskills called Allaire that was in this old, converted, insane mansion with 80-foot ceilings. We locked ourselves in there and it really felt like we were in the hotel from The Shining. At that point in time I was just learning more about synthesizers. My friend Craig, who plays in this band VHS Or Beta that we did a lot of shows with at the time, he was one of my best friends in Louisville. He left this Juno synthesizer over at my house and I’d just start playing with it. All of a sudden it goes boop, boop, boop, boop and I’m writing “Wordless Chorus” on it. And I was getting sucked into drum machines. I wrote “Lay Low” on a drum machine.

I really love thinking about the beginner’s mind concept that they talk about in a lot in Zen Buddhism, just trying to continually return to a childlike state of wonder at the world. For me one of the ways that that has happened is through discovering different instruments and just playing them like a child, because I have no idea what the fuck anything does on them.

Evil Urges (2008)

I was really in a profound depression. Again, it’s like this theme of pressure was constant for a while. But everything was opening up for us and there’s more and more touring and more and more demands.

I always wanted to make a record in the heart of Manhattan, because our other records had been made out in the middle of nowhere in Kentucky and then in upstate New York. So we went to Avatar Studios, which is this incredible studio, but really it was like a “clock’s ticking” kind of environment. Like, “Okay fuckers, don’t fuck up. Because it’s costing eight billion dollars a day.” I deliberately wanted to enter the super pro world, so we went to this super pro studio and had the super pro mixer and all this stuff. It was really fucking stressful but in the end I’m glad it is how it is because I think it’s an interesting thing in the catalog.

I made these insane demos with everything in place — all the synths and all the guitar lines and all the beats and all the vocals, everything. I was like, “We’ve got to make it like the demo.” I was driving everybody insane with this “chasing the demo” thing. That was a really, really valuable lesson for me and for the band. That was where I started this split in my mind, where if there was a song that I really wanted to work on all by myself, I would just record it for real and turn it into a solo record. And then I would keep the ideas for My Morning Jacket as just simple voice memo-style ideas, so that it was a freer experience for the band. It isn’t good to make demos that you love too much because you get demo-itis and you feel like you can never beat the demo.

That was also the first record we had done on Pro Tools. Up until then we had everything done on tape, but on Evil Urges we started recording to tape and then going into the computer. I was watching the engineer on Pro Tools and I had no idea what the fuck he was doing. That was a turning point for me: I’ve got to learn Pro Tools. I’ve got to learn how all this gear works so that nobody can do anything without me knowing what it is and also so that I would never make demos again.

Circuital (2011)

That was a really, really cool, organic record. We made that in Louisville. Kevin Ratterman, who assisted on that record and who I’ve done a bunch of stuff with, he found this really amazing church that had a huge gymnasium that we rented. We just brought in mountains of gear into this church. It was super, super old school because we did it all to tape again, and we tried to really just go for live performances.

I had just had LASIK surgery before that record, and several of the songs I wrote right after I got out of the surgery. Because I felt like I had this new clarity in my mind. I remember we recorded one half of the record when it was really fucking hot and we all thought we were going to die of the heat, and then we recorded the other half when it was super cold out. There was no AC or heat in there so it was totally not climate-regulated, so we had to try to keep the guitars in tune.

I’ve always really, really struggled with touring. It’s really been a love/hate thing, because I love the shows themselves, but the process of touring is just so brutal. The loneliness and isolation and the physical toll just the traveling takes on your body. Anybody from any profession that has to travel a lot I think can attest to that, just how brutal it is on your life and your spirit.

There’s something about the My Morning Jacket experience that also was just so physically heavy on me. I had been injured and had to go to the hospital two or three different times. Really how profoundly that upset my body depressed me. I felt like I really struggled for years with that, the energy of the whole thing.

I also had started building my own home studio. That’s one thing that I do all the time — I’m just constantly making solo records. If I’m not on the road I’m always in the studio making more records.

The Waterfall and The Waterfall II (2015 and 2020)

We originally wanted to make it a massive album. We were joking like, “Let’s make this the largest album ever made!” At the time our management and our label were really against that idea. They were like, “So much of this music will get lost and nobody will ever hear it and it will be a big mess.” It will be too much to print 18 pieces of vinyl. So, we decided to just split it in half. Then I wanted to do a thing where The Waterfall II would come out comically longer, like 30 years later. And we’re all dead when The Waterfall II comes out.

Then when the pandemic hit, I just had this spiritual moment when I accidentally reheard one of the songs from The Waterfall II again and I was like, “Oh my god, let’s use this moment.” Because it just felt like people could use some new music, and it felt like us to be a really cool time to reconnect with people as a band because it had been so long since we had put out any music.

The process of making those records was really, really special. We went out to Stinson Beach at this studio called Panoramic Studios. A really kind of ramshackle studio on the side of this beautiful hill that looks out at the ocean. We just had such a magical time walking on the beach and hiking up through Muir Woods. Nature inspired so much of that album, so many riffs and stuff I feel like came right out of the trees and right out of the plants and the ocean. A lot of the stuff just came right out of that environment.

Also, a really painful experience, because my back went out up there and I ended up having to have back surgery. So, I was in agony lying on the couch doing vocals.

My Morning Jacket (2021)

We’ve been gone for a while, and we never knew if we were going to make another record or not or if the band would tour again. We felt so excited to be back that it felt like such a cool, simple statement to just let the band’s name be the name of the record. Also, I just feel like these times are so complex and there’s so much going on that I also liked the idea of there not being another piece of information with the record. The record is the name of the band and all the things we want to say are inside of it. But when you first see it, it’s not going to hit you over the head with a heavy title like, “Geez, These Are Fucked Up Times.”

I feel younger now and stronger now than I ever have in my life. And I feel like we finally have learned as a band to stand up for ourselves and only do what we can handle and not say yes to everything. It’s part of the fucking habit that capitalism and the way our world has been built. We all have all this programming put in us to climb this ladder and get more and more successful and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. All this bullshit that’s such a fucked up illusion.

The 2019 Red Rocks shows reminded us about the beauty of music and friendship and how pure that is and not letting other people’s schedules or agendas get in the way. The problem here hasn’t been us and it hasn’t been the music, because we all get along really well and there’s never been any interpersonal drama. We’ve just been killing ourselves, so let’s make this record with just the five of us with no producers. Let’s go into the studio and not even be sure if we’re making a record. Let’s just go have fun and see how that feels and if it turns into a record, great. But if it doesn’t, whatever, we’ll go from there. We did that and it felt really good and we got all excited again and finished the record right as the lockdown started.

Something that we have started is taking a more jazz approach with recording, where there’s no beginning or ending and you’re not really doing takes. It’s more like we’ll just start the tape rolling and I’ll be like, “Let’s just play this idea for 20 or 30 minutes. If anybody doesn’t want to play anymore, just stop playing. But let’s just see where it takes us.” For a lot of our favorite Miles Davis records, what you hear is just an edit of their favorite passages of improvised music. There is hours and hours more music for every Miles Davis record, but they chose these passages to be quote unquote the album. So. we took that approach: Let’s just play these things in the round and let it be. It takes a lot of pressure off this idea of doing takes.

I’m still searching and I feel like I’m not where I thought I would be when I was younger. At the age of 43, I thought I would either be dead or I would have a wife and kids or something like that. I thought things would be very different but here I am still single, searching for a soul in the world. But I will say that I feel calmer than I ever have, and I feel less dark than I ever have. I feel like I’ve put in a lot of time trying to do work on myself, trying to do therapy, trying to meditate, trying to be more loving to myself, and be more loving and respectful to the Earth and to people in general. Just trying to be a source of more calm and less anger, even though there’s still confusion and sadness.

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