MY MORNING JACKET: On Love and Songwriting

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

“We went through a lot of stuff after Z, just with me getting sick and people being fragged by touring. It was a dark time. After it was over, I felt like I got a chance to live some life that really spoke to me. The songs on this album came out of that.”“We went through a lot of stuff after Z, just with me getting sick and people being fragged by touring. It was a dark time. After it was over, I felt like I got a chance to live some life that really spoke to me. The songs on this album came out of that.”

Jim James sighs deeply, like a man who’s felt the hot breath of the hellhounds at his heels and lived to tell the tale. In November 2005, immediately after two sold-out shows at San Francisco’s historic Fillmore auditorium-documented on the Okonokos DVD and live CD-the frontman and creative catalyst of My Morning Jacket was hospitalized with pneumonia, exhausted from the constant touring of nearly a decade spent on the road. Just a month earlier, the band had released Z, their fourth full-length album and second on ATO Records. Recorded at Allaire Studios under the watchful eye of legendary producer John Leckie (Pink Floyd, John Lennon, Radiohead), Z proved to be the band’s most auspicious effort to date, an awe-inspiring album that expanded their sonic palette beyond the whiskey-drenched country rock found on 1999’s Tennessee Fire, 2001’s At Dawn and 2003’s It Still Moves while solidifying their reputation as one of rock’s most ambitious acts.

Not only was the band at a creative zenith, but James found himself at a personal apex as well. As he regained strength after his bout with pneumonia, the 30-year-old, Louisville, Ky.-native was aided in his recovery by an unlikely surprise: he fell in love.

“I was lucky to go through a magic kind of thing that I really needed after going through an especially dark time after Z was out and I got sick,” he explains, though mum on the details. “I wasn’t expecting it, but for some reason, I met this person and it was totally the right thing for both of us at the right time. There was something really special about it.”

That glow inspired the songs that would become Evil Urges, the group’s latest studio release. It’s most apparent in songs like the soulful “Thank You Too,” the sublime “Librarian,” and even the dance funk of “Evil Urges” and “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream;” but lest My Morning Jacket fans longing for a bit more pain and pathos think the album is little more than a big wet kiss, the affair collapsed just before the band began recording, leaving James in a very different emotional state as he entered the studio.

“A lot of the songs come from a really positive place, but I was bummed out when I was actually recording them. It’s something that’s happened a lot, because I haven’t been able to keep a relationship for longer than a little while,” James says with a grimace. “I’m not glad it’s that way, but I think it makes the songs more unique, because I’m not necessarily coming from just one place. I’m not coming from the ‘I’m in love and I love you’ place, or a totally “f@#$ love, f@#$ life, I hate all this shit’ place. I’m able to come at it in a few different ways.”

Tell me about your process as a songwriter.

Jim James: Music usually comes first. A rhythm will come in my mind, and then a melody thing starts going. Usually, I’m excited about just singing, ‘cause that’s what I enjoy doing most. So if I’m making a demo, the beat and the vocal melody are like the two most important things to me. I’ll also play guitar, just to have something to sing over and just to have some bass. But it’s usually a beat and a melody that comes first.

But sometimes on certain songs, it all falls out in a big clump. A song like “Sec Walkin'” off the new record was like that. It came all at once, but it came like 75 percent finished: there were one or two lines that I was still searching for throughout the process of playing it. So the songs come in a lot of different ways.

The thing that amazes me about My Morning Jacket is the evolution from record to record. Each record, if you lined them up-from Tennessee Fire to At Dawn to It Still Moves to Z-you can see a natural progression from one to the next, but they’re also very different from each other. Is that a main goal for you?

Yeah, that’s definitely a goal. I feel like there are certain things that you do that are you. It’s like you can’t not be yourself in some ways, but there’s definitely a big effort made-in the way we approach recording and even the equipment we use-to try to make each record sound different.

So if that’s the case, what’s the evolution from Z to this record, in your opinion? How did the band evolve?

I think we’ve just all gotten to know each other better. Carl [Broemel] and Bo [Koster] have been in the band a while longer. We’ve all grown as a band and as musicians. I think there are some themes that we started exploring on Z, musically, that we expanded on for the new album. For this record, I really wanted to tighten all the screws down and make it even more rhythmically propulsive than what we did on Z. I wanted to make it more about the drums and the bass. I wanted it to be like this big weird, propulsive thing where you’re like, “Should I dance to it? Or should I not dance? Should I rock out to it?” Even with the slow songs, I feel like there’s a definite intention for the rhythm to be there.

Dynamic rhythms have always been a part of your music, but they’ve been shot into the stratosphere on this record. What changed?

A buddy of mine talked me into getting a computer setup. Normally, I just worked with four-tracks, but I started working with some drum programming things. With “Highly Suspicious” or “Touch Me, Part One” and “Touch Me, Part Two,” I had the beats made and all ready to go before sharing them with the guys. The one thing I wanted on this record was for the rhythms to be real tight and almost mechanical. Almost like it’s a drum machine, but I didn’t want the actual version to just be a drum machine because I think it’s so cool that it’s Patrick [Hallahan] organically playing the drums. It’s pretty f@#$ing rhythmically precise for a human being to be playing some of the shit that he plays. And it’s a total credit that I give to Patrick and the guys in the band of being kind of ego-less in taking those things and working with them. I feel like they put their special stamp on it, and I think the end product is vastly superior to what I had initially. And that’s always the goal.

Is that difficult to do: to ask these guys to reinterpret, in a way, your musical vision?

It’s such a fine line. I don’t ever want to be the dictator guy or the control freak, but I am really controlling and I do have a really specific vision. But the thing is, the guys are all masters of being able to listen to me blabber on and then take that and make it better than I could have made it, but also stay true to what the idea was in the first place. At the end of the day, the guys understand that I’m not trying to be an asshole, but I’ve got shit that I want to get done and I’ve gotta get it done. They’re so great about somehow being able to listen to that and still make it their own and still satisfy their own emotions. It’s weird-the thing that makes this band so powerful is that it’s five guys getting off. It’s not just me getting off with hired guns behind me that don’t give a shit. I don’t even know how that works. I don’t ever think I want to either.

Every single track on Evil Urges is like a world in and of itself. You’ve got some funk, some soul, some rock, a little country and even some hip-hop influence on there. Was that a goal for this record going in?

Definitely. I think it’s fun listening to a record where it’s really diverse. I think that’s always been a goal of ours-to hopefully turn people on to different kinds of music. We hope that somebody might hear a song like “Sec Walkin'” on their triple-A radio station and go, “Man, that’s a really nice song.” So they go buy the CD, put it on and “Highly Suspicious” comes blasting through their speakers and they’re like, “What the f@#$?” [Laughs] Maybe they might get turned on, you know?

It’s funny-after listening to this album so many times while we were working on it, I feel like all those diverse things kind of fade away and it turns into one big wave where a song like “Highly Suspicious” isn’t really that different from a song like “Two Halves.” It just sounds like us.

Tell me about Carl and Bo. I think the incredible diversity that you guys have achieved sonically on the last two albums has a lot to do with those two guys coming in and bringing in some fresh blood and new ideas. Is that accurate?

Absolutely. To me, it’s like the ultimate cake we’ve got going on with Carl and Bo, ‘cause Tom [Blankenship], Patrick and I are all untrained musicians and they’re both trained in school. They’re both multi-instrumentalists and yet they’re creative and relaxed, so it’s not like they’re always going, “Well, we should do an F-sharp because an F-sharp comes after C-diminished seven.” [Laughs] Bo’s back there during a show doing so much shit, because we use samples and he’s playing keys and singing backup. Carl’s out there singing, playing steel, electric guitar and saxophone. It’s just incredible. Those guys are what make us able to execute the vision completely. I feel like the band was good before they got in, but once they got in, it was like the music came together with all the details filled in. All the colors were there.

Tell me about working with Joe Chicarelli (Frank Zappa, The Shins, The White Stripes). What was the biggest thing that he brought to the recording of this album?

Joe’s got million-dollar, crazy ears. They’re insane. So he’s great at getting sounds, but Joe played the role of a really good policeman. I feel like that’s what we need. After working with John Leckie and now Joe, I feel like we respond really well and we make better records when there is a policeman in the control room who has more experience than us and who isn’t trying to tell us how to write the songs or how to play our parts. They’re just there to tell us that I’m not singing well enough or I’m not emoting well enough. Or the song’s too slow, or the song’s too fast. I feel like with somebody like Joe or John, you can’t argue with their experience. They make our records better.



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