Interview with Jim James of My Morning Jacket by Jonathan Bond from 2003

carouselHere a music feature I wrote for Phoenix New Times interviewing Jim James from My Morning Jacket as they toured in advance of the release of their third album It Still Moves.  

Some interesting Bob Dylan related content, considering James’ later involvement in Dylan’s AmericanaramA tour and the New Basement Tapes. Story below, full raw transcript below the jump. Please forgive any errors in the transcript, not meant for public consumption.

 

More Barn

They can play with Bob, but Bob won’t play back: My Morning Jacket does the tour thing.

Jim James answers his cell phone on a very windy Sterling, Colorado, evening, about 140 miles from his band My Morning Jacket’s next gig in Boulder during a stop to get some grub. The limited food choices find the band settling for self-explanatory diner Country Kitchen. James, bandleader, songwriter and guitar-playing vocalist, toughs it out to field questions in the wind while his bandmates relax in the warm confines of a greasy spoon. Less than ideal conditions for an interview, but James is polite, cheery, straightforward, if a bit reserved.

My Morning Jacket, the five-piece, genre-distorting rockin’ Americana band from outer space, is winding down a drive from Minneapolis, and when they arrive in Boulder they will have driven more than 950 miles in two days. The band is midway through a month-and-a-half-long headlining tour, the largest headlining effort they have embarked on to date. The tour finds the band previewing songs for It Still Moves, its upcoming third album due this summer. Psyched to be touring under their own power, the band is enjoying the freedoms a headlining slot affords.

“It’s just really nice to be able to play a full set,” says James of the difference this time out. “I mean, it’s fun to open up for people, but I think we’ve got a lot of different sides to what we do, and it’s hard to showcase those different sides in 30 to 40 minutes when you’re opening up for somebody. So that’s probably been the best thing, being able to take our time, stretch out and do a long show.”

The tour also recently found the band opening for Bob Dylan in their hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. What was it like opening for his Bobness in their city of birth? “It was cool, it was a real honor to be able to do it in our hometown,” James replies humbly. Any chance for the band to meet Mr. Zimmerman? “We couldn’t get near Bob,” explains the singer. Bob is mercurial that way. “We couldn’t even — they wouldn’t let us watch him from backstage.”

Even sans the intro, the Dylan show was quite a coup for a band that has been releasing material for only four years and change. My Morning Jacket has released two full-length albums, both on indie Darla Records, 1999’s Tennessee Fire and 2001’s At Dawn. The band has also released several EPs, including a Christmas album and a split CD with one-man folk-rock band Songs: Ohia. The music is firmly centered on James’ musical vision, his songwriting and his vocals, which suggest a requisitely haunted Neil Young paired up with a less atonal Dean Wareham. Each progressive release builds on the promise of the previous recording, and It Still Moves may just continue that movement. Tennessee Fire found the band spare, lonely, and splashed with reverb.

At Dawn built on this template flourished with more experiments in reverb, cross-pollinating old country, good old gritty rock ‘n’ roll, and aural experimentation reminiscent of something that might come from early Flaming Lips or Wareham’s Galaxie 500. The 74-minute, 14-song epic At Dawn mostly rides warm tones. There is angst and loneliness, almost as if At Dawn is a sideways response to fellow Louisvillian Will Oldham’s endless bummer mining.

James himself provides an elliptical description of My Morning Jacket’s sound that somehow makes perfect circular sense — or something like that.

“We are who we are and we are proud to be from where we’re from, and we’re proud to sound like what we sound like, but at the end of the day if someone takes home one of our albums and listens to it all the way through, they will find that it’s not any one thing, that we like to try a bunch of different things,” he says.

Part of what helps My Morning Jacket sound so unique is the band’s non-traditional — to say the least — recording process, specifically at James’ cousin and band guitarist Johnny Quaid’s grandparents’ place, a farm in Shelbyville, Kentucky. They’ve recorded all three albums there, and for It Still Moves, they worked additionally with engineer Danny Kadar (Trey Anastasio, Stevie Ray Vaughan). James explains it like this: “I knew how I wanted my music to sound, and I could never get anybody to make it sound how I wanted it to, so I started working with my cousin John and he had some real simple recording equipment. We were lucky enough that his grandparents let us practice and record out on their farm, and that gave us lots of different spaces to work with. Lots of different rooms, you know, from grain silos to barns to garages . . . and we do it to tape so we get the best of making it sound as old as possible . . . so we can make records that only sound like us because that’s where we’re recording.” In addition to Quaid, James’ best buddy Patrick Hallahan plays drums for the band.

So the all-in-the-family-on-the-farm dynamic has greatly helped the band define its sound. Unless, of course, other people start booking time on Johnny’s grandparents’ farm.

The group’s record deal with RTO, their new label, allows for full creative control, and Kadar was there to help this time around with some of the more annoying aspects of recording. “It’s nice to have somebody there to press record’ and make sure all the levels are good and everything’s sonically happening so we can concentrate on playing,” says James.

Back in Sterling, Colorado, James would probably rather be concentrating on eating, but he kindly responds to a question about strange roadside attractions he has seen on the road this time out. Suddenly animated and a bit weirded out, James describes an odd piece of religious folk art displayed in the hotel courtyard adjacent to the Country Kitchen. “Right now there is one of the freakiest things I have seen this whole tour,” he says. “This gigantic wooden statue of this guy that looks like Moses with this little angel on top of him pouring honey on his head or something. It’s gigantic. It must be at least 20 feet tall — out in the middle of nowhere. It is one of the most surreal things. It’s kind of scary. . . . It’s really amazing. Really well done.”

Sounds a lot like My Morning Jacket, actually — beautiful but unexpected, like an amazing wooden sculpture in the middle of nowhere for no reason at all.

My Morning Jacket transcript

 

 

b – Where are you right now?

j- we are getting ready to walk into the country kitchen restaurant in Sterling Colorado. It’s slim pickins out here is Sterling.

b- tomorrow you play Boulder

j- yep

b- where did you play last night?

j- nowhere.

b- you tired of driving?

j- nah, it gets to be the same thing.

b- little windy there?

j- yeah. It’s a pretty bad connection out here.

b- what’s’ been the longest drive you’ve had so far?

j- uh, we’ve done some long ass drives, cross country drives. I say you know 30 or 40 hours.

b- now this time out is your first headlining tour the states, correct?

j- no, we did a headlining tour about a year ago, so this is our first one in a long time. We went out with Swearing at Motorists.

b- this time around your playing the larger venues-

j- yeah this is definitely our first proper headlining tour.

b- how is going for you?

j- it’s going good. Its going really great. It’s been a lot of fun, the crowds have been really receptive, its been really awesome.

b- how is this different than past tours –

j – it’s just really nice to be able to play a full set. I mean it fun to open up for people but I think we got a lot of different sides of what we do, and its hard to showcase those different sides in 30 to 40 minutes when your opening up for somebody. So that’s probably been the best thing, being able to take out time, stretch out and do a long show.

b-   are you doing an acoustic set by yourself –

j –uh huh-

b – is that in the middle or the end or how dos that work?

J – oh, I can’t tell you that.

B – what’s been the largest venue on this one –

j- trying to think of the largest show – we got to open up for Bob Dylan in our home town a couple of weeks ago. I’d say the largest venue on this tour would have to be the Metro in Chicago or the bowery in New York

b- how was that opening for Bob btw?

j- it was cool, it was an honor, it was a real honor to be able to do it in our home town.

b- did you get a chance to meet him?

J – no we couldn’t get near Bob. We couldn’t even, they wouldn’t let us watch him from backstage.

b- Freaks about his security. Does it feel strange to be headlining a tour without an album to tour behind?

J – no. we just kind of go out and. It will be cool when the new album comes out, but we’re just kind of previewing songs from it.

b- people are likin it?

j- I think so. (laughs) I don’t know.

b- what’s going on with the album?

J – well it’s done, it’s just basically being put through production. Being worked and all that fun stuff. I think in about two weeks the advance copies will be available.

b- was this still recorded in your home studio?

j- yep. Out in Shelbyville KY.

b- was it just you guys?

j- No, it’s self produced, we did it all, but we had an engineer come down, Danny Kadar and he really a lot of load off our hands, to not have to push buttons and do stuff and play music he really helped up out a lot.

b- but it seems like you guys enjoy that part of it, don’t you?

j- oh yeah, it’s a big enjoyment, and that’s why we have always done it ourselves, but also its nice to have somebody there to press record and make sure all the levels are good and everything’s sonically happening nothings going wrong so we can concentrate on playing.

b- how did you get into the recording aspect of music? Just necessity?

J – Well, I think to be honest, I knew how I wanted my music to sound, and I could never get anybody to make it sound how I wanted it to sound so I started working with my cousin John and he had some real simple recording equipment. I’ve always been a fan of old recordings and recordings with lots of ambience and recordings with lots of style and personality and we were lucky enough that his grandparents let us practice and record out on their farm and that gave us lots of different spaces to work with lots of different rooms, you know from grain silos to barns to garages and …. and we do it to tape so we get the best of making it sound as old as possible, but with as much different things that only we can have, so we can make record that only sound like us because that’s where we’re recording.

B – unless somebody else gets to go out and use the farm.

j- exactly.

B – is it a benefit or a detriment touring with people you have know most of your life

j- it’s a benefit. It’s awesome. We really feel fortunate to get along with each other as well as we do. Keeping our fingers crossed that is stays that way.

b- Country Kitchen what has been your best meal on the road?

j – definitely not Country Kitchen. This exit hardly had anything on it. We’ve had a lot of good meals, we get a lot of bad ones but we get a lot of good ones.

b- good road story –

j- right now there is one of the freakiest things I have seen this whole tour. This gigantic wooden statue of this guy that looks like Moses with this little angle of top of him pouring honey on his head or something– it’s gigantic – it must be at least 20 feet tall made out of wood statue just in the middle of this hotel courtyard it’s one of the weirdest things – out in the middle of nowhere – you never expect to see this kind of thing but, it is one of the most surreal things. It’s kind of scary. Danny’s looking at it right now I can’t even walk all the way up there because it’s that scary.

B – is it like shellacked?

J – it’s called Zion. It’s like a huge piece of wood it’s like they took a gigantic tree and just started carving and it ended up, its’ really amazing. Really well done.

b- that’s odd.

j- yeah.

B – My Morning Jacket is big in Holland –

j- in a way. That was kind of our were we got our first start, our first crowd.

b- why do you think that is?

J – I don’t know, I think they’re just a little more open to new music, a little more open to give something a chance that might not be – (phone breaks up he comes back on and ask if I can hold on) sorry. I had to place my dinner order.

b– what are you having?

J – I’m having the ham and cheese omelet

b- why do you think the Dutch like Americana so well? A lot of Arizona bands do well there as well.

J –I don’t know. I don’t really like to think of us as Americana, but I guess they probably value it more because it’s something far more foreign to them than it is to us in the States. I think maybe that makes it seem a little more special, a little more off the beaten path than something they can get over there, whereas I think it takes things a little more time to catch on over here because people take a lot of what they have close to them for granted.

 

b – Tell me about the band name –

j- I could tell you were it came from but I would have to kill you. We just wanted to make sure that the name was something special and weird and it really chose itself, it just kind came to me.

b- is it meaningless?

j- no there’s meaning in it.

B- but it’s private.

J – yes.

b- what do yo think you sound, where would you place the band –

j- I like to say random because I don’t think we sound like anything and I think rock and roll is the only description you can use that isn’t limiting because rock n roll is everything from the band to Roy Orbison to the stones to Led Zeppelin to Pink Floyd, I just don’t like limiting terms like alt-country or Americana indie rock or country, we are who we are and we are proud to be from where were from, and were proud to sound like what we sound like, but at the end of the day if someone takes home one of our albums and listens to it all the way through they will find that it’s not any one thing, that we like to try a bunch of different things.

b- It’s definitely not one thing.

b- How do you feel about comparisons to Neil Young or Galaxie 500 –

j- I don’t mind it. Any comparison as long as it’s not Britney spears or something like that is flattering in a way. I think when a band first comes out, all of us, and I do it too, you have to think of something to tell people to see if they will like it, to kind of name check I would like to hope some day people won’t compare us to anything anymore, if they actually sit down and listen to all the records.

b- Maybe someday people will start saying bands sound like My Morning Jacket. Maybe you will become a touch-phrase.

 

 

 

 

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~ by 15wattLasVegas on June 15, 2015.

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