Jim James of My Morning Jacket
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Throw a rock these days, and you'll hit a band of gentle, bearded souls rocking dreamy My Morning Jacket-esque jams. Except that My Morning Jacket no longer sounds My Morning Jacket-esque. The new Evil Urges builds on what began with 2005's Z, an eclectic, economical record that cut down on the long-winded noodling and airy atmospherics of MMJ's first three records. Evil Urges is spacier than Z, but it's spacey like Sly Stone, not Pink Floyd. While singer-songwriter Jim James hasn't completely left his old influences behind—much of the record still draws from the usual well of classic rock and country sounds—his love of soul and R&B; is more pronounced than ever on Evil Urges, which caused some fans who heard an early leak of the record to cry foul over stylistic departures like the hysterical Prince freak-out "Highly Suspicious." James recently talked with The A.V. Club about Evil Urges, Sly Stone, My Morning Jacket-esque bands, and taking it to "the next level."
The A.V. Club: How do you think My Morning Jacket fans will react to Evil Urges?
Jim James: They've already been reacting to it, because we've played a lot of the songs live. And the album leaked, so I think a lot of people have heard it. A lot of it has been positive. Some of it has been negative and confused. But I remember that from when Z came out, and people really not liking songs like "Wordless Chorus" that were a little different. I always think time and records are weird things, because I remember hearing some of my favorite records for the first time and not really liking or understanding them. People's initial reactions sometimes change. I guess every record we've ever put out, some people hate it and some people love it. There have always been people who say, "I wish they'd keep playing rock 'n' roll. I hate the new stuff." And then there's other people, like, "I love the new stuff, I'm glad they're not doing the same old shit."
AVC: Do you pay attention to what fans say about you online?
JJ: It's almost impossible not to. People will e-mail us shit and say, "Look at what this asshole said!" Or "Look at this beautiful review!" The Internet is so fucked-up, because we're all tied to it. The way the band works, we have to check on e-mail every day to get information we need, like where the hotel is and what time sound check is and all that. I like to e-mail with my friends and family to keep in contact, but at the same time, you're getting all these e-mails you don't want to read. Somebody sends you some link and you're staring at it, like, "Fuck, I guess I'll read it."
AVC: How does that stuff not influence you when you're making your music?
JJ: It's really tough. It sucks. It hurts when you read somebody totally rip what you poured out of your heart and soul. And it feels good when somebody says that it means a lot to them. And in both ways, it's hard to not let it get in your head. We've been lucky enough to have been around for a while now, so we've had a lot of experience in that realm. We've been able to get used to it. I've never been able to understand a band that releases their first record and it sells 20 million copies, and they spend forever trying to follow it. That kind of pressure is mind-numbing to me.
AVC: If people react strongly to your record, even if it's negative, that's a good thing, isn't it? At least you know you aren't being complacent.
JJ: That's definitely true. I mean, it always bums you out to hear that somebody doesn't like it. But if somebody has an extreme reaction, it does make you feel like, "Well, at least they listened to it and felt something from it." Rather than just "Here's the same old shit." Then again, people like it if you do the same old shit over and over again. It's impossible to please everybody. I don't want to do the same old shit over and over again, but there are people who would be most happy with us if we kept remaking The Tennessee Fire. At the end of the day, I feel the record makes itself what it wants to be. I only have so many songs that pop out of my head. There's only so much we can do to meet people's expectations, or not meet them.
AVC: Has there been a conscious effort to change things up with every new My Morning Jacket record?
JJ: Definitely in production choices. When we had our own studio, we made an effort to record on different tape machines and use different gear. Now we make an effort to go to different studios and work with different producers and use different equipment. So there's always been a conscious effort to sound different. But from a songwriting perspective, I can only get what I can get.
AVC: Z and Evil Urges are more eclectic than your earlier records. Are you drawing from a wider range of influences, or are you just more confident now playing around with different sounds?
JJ: I feel like we've always had the influences we've had. Maybe they're just more pronounced production-wise. All of our records have had elements of soul and reggae, and if you go back and listen, you'll see those there. Not as pronounced as they are now, but that's more of a production thing. I've always personally been really varied in my musical taste. I've always loved everything: metal, country, hip-hop, R&B;, rock, you name it. If it's good, I love it.
AVC: You've cited Sly Stone as an influence.
JJ: I feel like he was sent here to show humanity that it was possible to do anything, that it's possible to mix all music together. He was a genius that way. He did it with an emotional quality to it, a sadness. He's always been a really big inspiration to me. I've been more into music that moves me, lately. Even if I'm feeling sad, I'd rather listen to something that has a beat behind it. Sly Stone did it. Marvin Gaye did it. Curtis Mayfield, I consider him like a Buddha. You listen to Curtis Mayfield, and you hear the ultimate in peace and possibility in human accomplishment. He can make you want to dance, and he can also make you want to cry, and he can make you do it all at once. If you listen to Nick Drake, you really want to start crying. I guess I just got tired of that. I wanted to cry, but I also wanted to dance around my apartment at the same time.
AVC: You recently said, "I've gotten tired of normal rock 'n' roll sounds." What did you mean by "normal rock 'n' roll sounds"?
JJ: I just feel like when you're listening to rock or folk, it's like, "Hey, we're rocking out!" or "Hey, we're not rocking out!" Marvin Gaye has this song called "When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You," about his divorce. It's like, "Fuck, this is sad." But at the same time, the beat is making my head bob up and down. If I'm listening to something acoustic and still, I want to sit there and think about it and not do anything about it. And that's good sometimes too. I'm not knocking folk music. Sometimes I think it's totally appropriate to have just a guitar and a voice. But this is what we've been into lately.
AVC: Your vocals definitely have an R&B; feel on this record. You sound a little like Prince on the title track and "Highly Suspicious."
JJ: I was just having fun with it. It's people's natural instinct to hear that and think Prince, but I don't really get that. We wanted to make this record more rhythmic-oriented, and tighter and more focused, and make it more about the bass and drums.
AVC: As the band has evolved, the "old" My Morning Jacket sound became its own genre. Do you hear your influence in bands that often get compared to MMJ, like Band Of Horses or Fleet Foxes?
JJ: I don't know about that stuff. People have said stuff like that about us, and I never liked that. I don't like being compared to other people. I know it's inevitable, because bands sound like other bands, and people get inspired by other people. If they like our music, I'm flattered, but maybe that's not their intention. It's not my place to comment on it, really. It's tough to make music and make it your own, and not have somebody call it something you don't agree with but can't control. Sometimes the press doesn't realize how much power they have and how they can shape somebody's life. I think there's a lot of people just trying to make music and get their art out there, and their heads get fucked by the press calling them this or calling them that.
AVC: My Morning Jacket has always been tough to categorize. Indie-rock fans like you, but you also play jam-band festivals. You belong, but you don't belong.
JJ: That's always been a double-edged sword for us. We're too heavy for the hippies, and we're not heavy enough for the metal kids. And we're not indie enough. But we don't really fucking care. We don't look at the crowd and go, "There's 300 hippies there and 300 indie-rock kids there!" There are a lot of people out there just like us who don't really label themselves. You might see someone with dreadlocks and label them a hippie in your head, but that doesn't mean they think of themselves that way. A lot of people look at us and see I have a beard and shaggy hair, and think I'm a hippie. I'm not a hippie, and I'm not not a hippie. I don't know what the fuck I am.
AVC: Practically all the attention given to My Morning Jacket is focused on you. How comfortable are you with that?
JJ: It's always been that way, and the guys have all been really understanding of that. The band started out just as me playing songs acoustically in a coffee shop. It's always been my baby. But I've never wanted to be the dude. The band is always going to be presented as us. The media can twist it however they want it, but if we paint a picture of ourselves, it's always us, because we're all equally important. I think a band is more powerful than all the members by themselves.
AVC: So you don't have any desire to do a solo project?
JJ: I've thought about that. I haven't had to do it, because I've been satisfied enough doing My Morning Jacket records. But sometimes I've played solo concerts. And I've worked on a few other things here and there. And all the other guys have always been able to do whatever they want as well. We've all made it a point to say, "This band is the most important thing to us right now," but if we have spare time or nothing else is going on, we're all totally down and understanding of doing things with different people.
AVC: The recent Spin cover story on My Morning Jacket talked a lot about the band going to the proverbial next level with this record. But is there really a next level?
JJ: [Laughs.] People always fucking talk about the next level. I remember being a kid and thinking, "Man, someday it would be so cool if I was in a band that toured and we made it, and we'd be on Saturday Night Live." It's like you think there's this level where everything's fine and you're sipping martinis all day. For me personally, I'm confused at every level. People just like to hype it up in the music world and talk about all that shit, but I'm trying to think of my life along other lines. And music is one line. I'm happy and excited that we've had some success, but I'd also like to be a better basketball player, and be better at relationships, and be better at being happy with myself.
AVC: At any point in your career, have you thought, "Okay, we finally made it"?
JJ: Not really. We'll be sitting around and drinking beers after we play a big show, and we'll be really happy. But at the same time, it's not the '80s any more. We're not all riding around in limousines and snorting coke off of hookers' tits. We still have to keep working and touring. We're definitely still very much a working band. If we stopped doing this tomorrow, we'd have a little bit of cash to last us a couple of months, and then we'd have to go and get other jobs.