With My Morning Jacket’s sixth studio album, Circuital, singer-songwriter-guitarist Jim James continues to combine the band’s spacey Southern rock with free-ranging explorations of world music, soul, retro-pop, and just about any other genre that strikes James’ fancy. The last time The A.V. Club spoke with James, he talked about the band’s evolving influences and how they fed into the recording of 2008’s Evil Urges. This time—via e-mail—James talks about the goals for Circuital and what the band has learned during its adventures in show business over the past three years.
The A.V. Club: You’ve said that you tried to make this record sound more spontaneous by recording live and “in the round.” Do you typically have goals in mind when you start a new record, or do you just get started and see what develops?
Jim James: Well, it’s funny. Normally I have rules, until I realize I can’t have rules. But for this record, yes, we wanted to make it a live, emotional thing, which included live vocals and everyone’s main performance for each song being live, in order to get a take. We were all excited about running back to the control room, jumping up and down, high-fiving!
AVC: You open Circuital with the two longest songs on the album. Anything purposeful about that choice? Maybe a nod to fans who like My Morning Jacket’s jammier side?
JJ: We don’t consider them “jammy,” so to speak. Just because a song is longer than three minutes doesn’t mean it’s “jammy.” I just wanted the songs to flow into each other and create a cool note, and extended listening experience. I love listening to a record that has points where the music does not stop. I really love the sound of the chord as the noise from “Victory Dance” ends and “Circuital” begins. It just felt right.
AVC: Do you feel like you owe it to your fans to challenge their perceptions of what My Morning Jacket is? By the same token, do you feel like you owe it to them to have some “classic” My Morning Jacket-style material on each record?
JJ: We just want to have fun playing music. We are very appreciative of our fans and realize we can’t do this without them, but at the same time we don’t feel like we “owe” anyone anything other than just knowing that we try as hard as we can with every record and put 100 percent of our blood, sweat, and tears into everything we do. Even then, even our biggest fans don’t like everything we do. Hopefully they know we respect them so much, and we are just trying to follow what feels right to us.
AVC: “Holdin’ On To Black Metal” has a wild sound, a little like ’60s soundtrack music mixed with girl-group R&B. Where did that come from?
JJ: It was inspired by a song from a ’60s Thai pop compilation. I was hypnotized by it, and listened to it on repeat in the car. The lyrics and melodies just poured out as I drove thru Griffith Park, rocking to the riff of the song from the stereo. And therefore and unto forth and so on.
AVC: Last fall, My Morning Jacket played a five-night stand in New York City, where the band performed every album from its discography in its entirety. What was it like reflecting on your career up until this point? Is it a challenge to connect with songs you wrote in your early 20s, now that you’re in your early 30s?
JJ: It was very emotional having to live by the rules you set for yourself many years ago. Some songs I’d be like, “Man, I hate that song, why did I let it be on the record!” But most of it felt really great, and I felt really proud of our work. It was really eye-opening to do it as we were working on our new record. It was a cool recap of what we had liked and not liked from previous efforts.
AVC: Some Southern cities that have a real sense of pride in who they are and what they have to offer, and some almost seem to have an inferiority complex. What kind of city is Louisville? And how do you think growing up in the South influenced your approach to music?
JJ: The thing I love about Louisville is that it is its own thing. I don’t consider it the South. If you live in New York City, you probably consider it the South, and if you live in Alabama you consider Louisville a very Northern place. It is right in the middle, which I really identify with. It is a most wondrous place, full of ripe ghosts.
AVC: Are there any acts you played with as you were coming up that you think should’ve been bigger than they turned out to be?
JJ: Oh my god, almost all of them. Will Johnson. Dr. Dog. Canyon. Swearing At Motorists. Wax Fang. I could go on for hours. It seems like so much shit rises to the top thanks to brilliant marketing, while the real players are striving to just make ends meet. The music scene is truly, absolutely 100 percent fucked in that way.
AVC: A lot of people were surprised to read recently about you writing songs for the Muppets, and were immediately disappointed to find out the collaboration got squelched. What did Jim Henson mean to you as a kid?
JJ: Jim Henson will always be one of the greatest artists of all time. As long as there are human beings living, there will be an audience hungry for his work. He is like Beethoven or Dylan or Shakespeare or anyone else in that line of artists that will always endure. We were really bummed about the Muppets fiasco, but that is the corporate music scene for you, and Disney is about as corporate as they get. We were working with a guy there, and then there was some corporate takeover and he was fired and our project was dropped. There ya go. End of story. Most big corporations like Disney seem to no longer care about art like they used to. It’s just a battle to move units. They forget that it was great art that got them where they were in the first place. It is a shame that the Muppets were bought by Disney, but hey hey, what can you do but keep on hugging your old Kermit doll. Luckily, on the Disney side of things at least there is Pixar. They are making the enduring art from that realm now, like Wall-E and the Toy Story movies. Maybe they will ask us to make a computer Muppet movie?
AVC: In the years since Evil Urges, you’ve been involved with a number of side projects, including the Yim Yames EP and Monsters Of Folk. Did you take anything from those projects that you’ve been able to apply to My Morning Jacket?
JJ: Absolutely. You learn so much about how different people navigate their ships, and that makes a crazy reflection on how you view your own battle plans and schematics. So cool. And it also helps you really value the comfort and familial connection you share with the guys you have played with for a while. The love gets stronger.