Interview: My Morning Jacket

With fifth studio album Evil Urges arriving in stores this week, Louisville rockers My Morning Jacket were in town to promote the album, record a Black Cab Session and put on an acoustic show at St. James Church. It's no secret that Chimpomatic are big fans of the band, so we had plenty of questions about British Bobbies, Butch and Sundance, Nashville and Kentucky.

Chimpomatic: Tell us a bit about how your approached this album, after Z. Was that album a success for you?

Jim James: Critically, we were really happy with it. That record was weird because when we put it out in the states it had copy protection software on it, so I think that scared a lot of people away from buying it. But we just laugh at every situation because we're just happy to not be working at a construction site or a coffee shop. We all grew up working in restaurants and shit, so the fact that we're here talking to you right now is awesome, so everything's kind of a success. It feels great when people write nice things about us and stuff like that, I mean that's awesome, you want people to like your record.

Chimpomatic: How long has music been a full time job for the band?

Jim James: Well, we've all been doing it for years in other bands but it's probably been about 5 or 6 years since we've been able to be just recording and touring and making a living from it.

Chimpomatic: Tell us about the approach to the new record.

Jim James: I don't know, I guess they're all similar because songs just come out of experience for me - whatever happens determines the songs that come out.

Chimpomatic: Stylistically, the new album has moved on a lot from Z. Your first few records were in the tradition of where you come from, but you seem to have brought other things into the last 2 albums.

Jim James: Yeah it's not that way all the time, but I think it's more subtle on the earlier records. I guess when you make your first record you're so engrossed that you’re making a record for the first time. We weren’t even thinking stylistically, just whatever came out. Then the second record was kind of like that as well, but the third one was more of a deliberate attempt to make it more rocking and sprawled-out and psychedelic and long. Then with Z… I don't know, I guess I wanted to do something different and make it more rhythmic and focused, but still kind of spread-out and psychaedelic. I think with the older records I was always thinking about the past, wanting to make something that was part of something - to make it sound old and out of place, to mix the past and the future, to make it sound all bizarre and weird. But I think this record is maybe the first time I have personally wanted to focus more on the present, like going through a particular relationship or whatever and having that directly affect the songs. And with the production of the record, I really wanted us to really tighten it in as a band, tighten up a lot of sounds because I wanted to kind of appeal to modern ears, to current ears. Ears that might be fans of Kanye West or fans of Outkast, or even modern rock. Ears that are more used to hearing Death Cab For Cutie than they are to hearing Curtis Mayfield or something like that, but still tying in some of the ghosts of the past. From a production stand point we wanted it to sound more here and now.

Chimpomatic: The other albums are quite timeless. The sound quite 60's or 70's, like The Band or Neil Young - were they deliberately trying to sound from that time?

Jim James: I don't think they were deliberately trying to sound like that, but I think I always used to romanticise about the past so much. I used to think the past was just the greatest there was and you couldn't ever beat it. But I guess maybe us touring more and meeting more people and me personally listening to more stuff - I found that there's just as much magic now as there was in the past. The past tends to be more romanticised. I don't think there was ever a conscious attempt to be a retro band. I never wanted to be like, "we're this hippy 70's band." We never wanted it to be that kind of band.

Chimpomatic: I don't think it ever did sound like that. Even The Band were retro at the time, with their whole Civil War vibe. The stuff that's come out between Z and this album - like the Dylan soundtrack - haven't hinted at how the new stuff would sound. Have you been holding back on this introduction of the new ideas?

Jim James: I don't know...

Chimpomatic: Some of the songs on Evil Urges are totally different from what went before. Z seemed very different when it came out, but it was still a progression of the same band but with new ideas. Whereas this one seems like a bigger leap.

Carl Broemmel: Well it seems like we're answering the same sort of questions that we did for Z. But time has passed and people have dealt with it and the ones who used to have a problem have come around and now there like "oh I like Z," now they're like "Oh, shit what's this?" To me it seems quite similar but maybe it's a bigger jump, it's kind a hard to process it.

Jim James: I think when people first hear this record, your immediate reaction is you think a couple of songs are way different, or the beginning of the record is way different. I had to listen to it like eight million times when recording - because that's what you do - but by the time we were done, it all made sense to me, it all seemed similar. So I guess one of our hopes is that somebody's who's a fan of the band and gets the record and puts it on and thinks " man, Highly Suspicious is fucking with me or Evil Urges is kinda weird, but then they hear songs like Sec Walkin' or I'm Amazed and they're like "Oh, OK, I like this, I'm more used to this." Our goal I guess would be that eventually they'd be in their car or they're walking around and listening to it over and over again and hopefully by that time their ears get used to it and it all might make sense as a whole and Highly Suspicious and Evil Urges don't seem as weird anymore. I think that's something we've always been trying to do. To make this big huge musical stew that has everything from rock and reggae to r 'n' b and soul and beats and whatever, we just like everything.

Chimpomatic: At your shows it all makes sense, it all seems like it's all from the same band. I suppose as artists you're all so close to it, but for us as fans buying the album we're going to see more of a difference.

Carl Broemel: Totally, you've listened to Z more recently than I have, I mean I haven't put it on for a long time. Maybe we should.

Chimpomatic: You should, it's still going strong, it's still working.

Jim James: After a while of working on it you're brain gets so flooded with it. It's funny to think that you guys have only been able to listen to it as recently as you got it but I haven't listened to it in a while. We work on it so much. Some of it's personal, some of it's not so some of the songs I don't want to think about again because I'm so fucking sick of them. Without the emotional ties to them I'm like "see ya album, see ya on tour," and I'll just push it a way and see it again when we play it live. I'm trying to think about other things and work on other music and stuff like that.

Chimpomatic: So you said it has been influenced a lot by touring, that your point of view has maybe changed a lot by meeting other people.

Jim James: That's right.

Chimpomatic: So you've toured pretty solidly?

Jim James: Yeah, we toured solidly for Z and then for Okonokos, our live record that came out after that.

Chimpomatic: You toured again for that?

Jim James: Yeah, but my mind gets hazy when trying to think what was what, because I think there were certain periods of the tour when we had to cancel shows, we were supposed to come over here but had to cancel.

Chimpomatic: What kind of response have you got in Europe?

Jim James: Europe has been more difficult for us from the beginning, even from a technical standpoint because of how expensive it is over here. Coming over in a van and trailer and riding around and gas is so expensive and everything's so expensive. Coupled with the fact that when Z came out, we were getting some good press then I got sick and we had to cancel the whole European tour, so things kept happening that kept shooting us in the foot. In Europe it's been harder for us to get through to people I think.

Chimpomatic: What about the crowds?

Jim James: It's been different. The last time we played London it was great. It was sold out and everyone was happy and it felt like people had traveled to London from all over. I feel like London and New York are similar in that vibe, you get lots of different people. So that felt great and there are other places we went like Nottingham - it was a small club, it was packed and everybody was having a good time. But then you go to other places, smaller clubs that are half full and people just stand there staring at you. You can't tell what they think, whether they're like, judging you still or that's the way they are, as for a lot of places that's just how they are. Even if you're their favorite band, they're gonna just stand there and stare at you.

Chimpomatic: The English get accused of that a lot, I think we can just stand there and look at you and think, "c'mon impress me".

Jim James: I think that's weird, as I've always had pretty good vibes from crowds here, at least rowdy vibes.

Carl Broemel: The more we tour, the more we get used to that sort of reaction and it doesn't throw us off so much. It's hard for me to stay engaged with a band for more than 90 minutes and we play for longer than that a lot, so I can understand.

Chimpomatic: At your last show I was quite surprised how upbeat it was, from the moment you came out it was so intense and having got into the band with your older records that have a more mellow side, it was surprising to find the live show so rocky, with lots of guitar huddles around the drum kit. There's more of that in your live show than in your records. Is that a conscious decision or do you just go for it live?

Jim James: It's weird I think, because when you make a record you just make the best record you can at the time. A record is like taking a snapshot in time of that song and you do it as best you can, given the time allowed. When you play live it's like, everyday is so different and you just play the song and some days you play it too slow and some days you play it too fast and sometimes you play it just right. When you play live you either sit in the dressing room all day or you have a fun day and you go to the park or we go somewhere new and see some new stuff so the show for me usually depends on the day, if I'm having a fun day I'm usually having a fun show. But the show is like the one time we all get to go out and expend energy and that's what we're there for and that’s what we’ve come for.

Chimpomatic: You were on tour with Pearl Jam. How was that?

Jim James: It was awesome. It was crazy. When we opened up for them in Europe we did a lot of places that wouldn't have been possible if they hadn't have taken us out. They treated us really well, those guys for us are definitely like a big brother band that we look up to.

Chimpomatic: And what was the response from their fans?

Jim James: It was pretty good, but I mean, half the time when you do those arena shows, you're playing to a half full arena while people are still coming in and getting beers and stuff. But we got some good response, it's kind a hard to tell.

Carl Broemel: Eddie did a really cool thing where on a couple of the shows he went out and played before us and as soon as everybody heard him, they all went to their seats, then he was like "My Morning Jacket..." Talk about a cool gesture, that was really awesome, that's how it's done.

Chimpomatic: So going back to the whole Europe thing, is that one of the reasons why you switched labels over here?

Jim James: Well there was a big switch at home. Cos we've been signed to BMG/RCA/ATO originally.

Chimpomatic: And that’s a Sony imprint?

Jim James: Well it's weird because after At Dawn when we did It Still Moves we signed to ATO, RCA, BMG. ATO was the smaller indie and they were distributed by RCA which was owned by BMG. And then BMG merged with Sony, so Sony, Columbia and all these labels merged with BMG and it turned into this big monster mess where people were getting fired and moved thought the company and stuff like that, so all the people that we had signed to the record label for were now either gone or different or changed or whatever and it just started getting really, really weird. So ATO decided they wanted to leave the situation and we wanted to leave too, as there was no one there that we cared about.

Luckily, ATO was able to leave with us so they left and that took away BMG and RCA and BMG dealt with us over here. And that was another thing I felt like with Z and It Still Moves over here, I felt like BMG really didn't give a shit about us, they cared about Christina Aguilera, but I understand they got to take care of their big money makers and we're not big money makers. So I wasn't holding it against them or anything, but we just weren’t getting any love. We'd show up to play here and there's no flyers anywhere, there's no notices, there's no excitement and we're not from here, we can't do it on our own, we've got to have somebody help us. When we put out The Tennessee Fire and At Dawn, Witchita released those records over here and I thought they did a great job. They put up flyers, they put up posters, we came over and they had parties and cards were being handed out. We really felt it, we didn't feel anything from BMG. So now that we're with Rough Trade we feel a lot of excitement coming from them so we're hoping we can kind of recreate the magic that Witchita created and hopefully better if we keep working hard.

Chimpomatic: And Sony are re-releasing your old albums now too?

Jim James: ATO are re-releasing them. They bought them all back.

Chimpomatic: What do you think about the way the music trends are going, with bands able to get round major labels and release their music over the internet - what's your opinion of the whole download culture?

Jim James: We talk about this a lot and the only conclusion we come to is that we’re really confused. Part of it is cool - if you’re in a hotel room and you want to hear some Janet Jackson you can get it. As artists, we know the pain of not getting paid for it so I pay for it at Amazon or iTunes or somewhere, so that part is cool. At the same time, I think it’s made music more disposable and you can be like “that sucks” or “this sucks” and throw it in the trash or whatever, where before you’d have to save up a lot of money for that. You'd love the album, you put it on your listen to it, you invest time in it. I hope there are still kids out there with older brothers who are turning them on to vinyl and sitting them down and saying “listen to this whole record” and giving it some time. "Listen to it ten times, and maybe you still won’t like it, but wait and see".

Chimpomatic: So many kids now might only have one or two tracks from an artist, where bands like you are album bands …that must be frustrating.

Jim James: It is. On one hand I want to be nostalgic for the past, and I like albums, you like albums… but if the kids growing up now don’t find albums to be relevant to them, then you can’t ignore that. If they only want to get three songs off an album, then that’s the way we’re living and I can’t change that. So in some ways it’s like we’re back in the 50’s. Back in the 45’s era. It’s all singles and even the albums that come out are like singles.

Chimpomatic: Do you have singles coming out for this album?

Jim James: Yeah, I think a couple of different ones for different things. Touch Me Part 2 is I think the first single coming out here, then I’m Amazed. But one of them is for like ‘rock’ radio and one is for ‘pop’ radio.

Chimpomatic: Tell us about the track Highly Suspicious, because I read it was about British bobbies.

Jim James: Yeah, on several songs we pretended we were like, different people. Highly Suspicious is kind of sung from the point of view of a paranoid, drug-addled person who’s in a room and has freaked out and the bobbies are going to come and get him, but in reality he didn’t even do anything wrong, they’re just freaking out. It's about living in an age of terrorism and suspicion, and fear of people who look different, and fear that people are coming to get you all the time and the guy’s like “Highly Suspicious!”, and we sang those vocals from the point of view of British Bobbies with huge nightsticks, who are coming to bust down your door and arrest you for something you didn’t do and they’re like “Highly Suspicious!”. We sang the vocals over and over and dubbed them and multi-tracked them until they sounded like an army of policemen coming to get you.

Chimpomatic: Will you be wearing bobby hats on stage?

Jim James: Sometimes!

Chimpomatic: It hasn’t come from a direct incident with a British bobby then?

Jim James: (Knocks on wood) Not yet!

Chimpomatic: Do other people sing on the album?

Jim James: Carl and Bo do background vocals, and sometimes I layered background vocals.

Chimpomatic: So that is you singing Evil Urges, because the vocal sounds so different from you - and you’re also tracked on the backing vocals too?

Jim James: That’s right.

Chimpomatic: I thought that wasn’t you. Are you all involved in the song writing. How does the process work?

Jim James: I just live life and have experiences, then write songs, then start sending the guys demos. Then we all meet after a month or so and we start playing songs and working out which ones work best as a band, and the guys will start adding ideas - like riffs and changes and all that stuff, and we turn it into more of a real thing, rather than a demo.

Chimpomatic: And you’ve got a different producer this time - Joe Chicarelli - how was that? What did he bring to it that John Leckie didn’t bring to it?

Jim James: He played a similar role to what Leckie did. Since we left our own studio, we’ve always wanted to make a conscious decision with every record to do as many different things as we can to make it a different record. Record in a new place, get some new gear, get some new songs, new producer. Every variable we change gives us the best shot at making a record that is completely different. Because I write the songs, we talk about them and I have a vision of what I want them to sound like and how I want them to feel and all that shit, so most of the production’s done before we even get to the studio so we could just press record and get out of there. But having John Leckie Joe Chicarelli …Their ears are immaculate, they’re amazing. They have thirty or forty years of experience and we couldn’t have that because we haven’t even been alive that long. I didn't realise it before, but having a guy like Joe or John in there is so important because you can trust their ears and trust their judgement. We’re in the studio getting emotional and you get back in the control room thinking "we did a good job", because maybe we were playing too slow, or someone was playing to fast …and John or Jo will just sit there and they’ll be honest with us and they’ll be like. “Sorry guys, that wasn’t that great”

Chimpomatic: They’ll stay detached?

Jim James: They’ll just be looking at it with analytical eyes and their choice of mic placement might be different, or I’ll have an opinion about reverb or a choice of mic, and their choice of mic positioning might be different, or their compressor choice… the whole gear thing is really cool too. The time and experience and gifts that they have gained over the years means they will hear things that I can’t hear. It’s really awesome.

Chimpomatic: How do you go about getting to work with these people? Do you approach them, or do you like their work that they’ve done in the past?

Jim James: You make a list of people you like, or you like the work they’ve done or you’ve heard good things about them. I’ve made a list of like 10 or 15 people in the past and you just go and have lunch with them or go sit with them in the studio. It’s kind of like dating or something. You’re just looking for that special little something. You need to think “I’d like to get to know you more”.

Chimpomatic: The reverb thing has been a trademark for you, but there doesn’t seem to be as much of that on this album.

Jim James: It's still there, it’s just different. It’s in different places. Some of the songs have that trademark reverb or whatever, but with some of the songs that are more rhythmic it just didn’t make sense to have this big pile of reverb on top of it. If the point of the songs is to get you to bob your head or make you want to dance, the reverb just feels like a big weight that’s just holding things down and we felt like we didn’t need it.

Chimpomatic: There’s been a few bands recently - like Fleet Foxes or Band of Horses - that have used that sound. Band of Horses were described as “the new My Morning Jacket” and the new Fleet Foxes record has the whole reverb thing. How do you feel about bands like that when they’re so similar in style?

Jim James: I don’t really know those bands too well …like I’ve heard some of their stuff, but people can dance to other people. When we first came out people compared us to other people then. You’re always getting compared to other people as an artist.

Chimpomatic: Who were you compared to?

Jim James: We’ve been compared to everybody. Neil Young, Flaming Lips, Prince.

Carl Broemel: With the reverb thing, you were always compared to Galaxie 500. The reverb thing is nothing that anybody can claim really.

Jim James: Nobody can help but be influenced by things they listen to. I don’t know if those bands have listened to my My Morning Jacket records, but if they did then that’s OK. Sometimes it sucks being compared to other bands, because it can feel like people are saying you’re not doing your own thing. Music is this big twisting turning thing and you borrow from this place and listen to that place and try and make it your own. If bands do listen to us, then that’s awesome – but I wouldn’t pass judgement and say these guys are ripping us off.

Carl Broemel: Most bands don’t get to develop beyond that first record. Hopefully with these little labels these days, bands are hopefully going to get the chance to make three records, or six records . Everybody should get their chance to make a bunch of records – so they can’t say “you never did anything original”.

Chimpomatic: Band of Horses and Fleet Foxes are two great bands though.

Carl Broemel: I haven’t heard Fleet Foxes. I’ve seen their name in places.

Chimpomatic: Critics need to use that sign-posting. When I read a review, I need to know what it sounds like. You need that kind of “If you’re into My Morning Jacket, you’ll like this”. That’s a good thing. It must be a hard to be compared all the time, but it’s an aid to get people interested in the music.

Chimpomatic: Even if he's influenced you, it wouldn’t be realistic to compare you to Kanye West in a review.

Jim James: Right.

Chimpomatic: So who else has had an influence on this new record?

Jim James: I don’t know, I go through different phases. Recently I find myself frequently in a couple of places - listening to something really old, like Washington Phillips or Jimmy Rodgers …real old music from the 30’s, like early folk music. Washington Phillips more from a gospel point of view or Jimmy Rodgers from a country point of view, but it’s funny how similar even those guys can seem. They put out a box set of the Johnny Cash show, where they put out all the best performances off the whole thing and Louis Armstrong was on there doing this song with Johnny Cash – Blue Yodel Number 9 (watch it here) – a Jimmy Rogers song. It’s been one of my favourite songs that I’ve been listening to for years …and there was this trumpet on it… not a trumpet, the one older than the trumpet.

Carl Broemel: Flugel horn?

Jim James: No... anyway, I’d been listening to this song for years and I didn’t realise it was Louis Armstrong playing on there, and it was. That blew my mind. I’ve been really on a train with a lot of classic 70’s soul stuff – Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, some of the Sam Cooke gospel stuff, before he became a popular singer. I find that to be some of the best music ever made.

Chimpomatic: You said you've also been listening to a lot more contemporary music - I think you can totally hear that in the new album. Would you say that’s having more effect on your music than it used to?

Jim James: I’ve been listing to a lot of stuff that’s not totally contemporary, but it’s in the last 10 years or 15 years or so, like The Notorious B.I.G., Dr Dre, Outkast. I just think that Outkast are one of the greatest bands of all time. Even thoug they’re really a duo, I consider them to be a real musical group. Their output and their production ideas and the way they do everything - the way they package it, do videos for it. Everything they do is a real source of inspiration. I feel like they’re one of the only groups that has done that rare thing that Micheal Jackson did with Thriller, where almost all boundries are crossed. Everybody's in. Indie rockers love it, Hip Hopers like it, your Grandma likes it, your parents like it, just crazy. And it’s still good. It’s fucking awesome.

Chimpomatic: And it still has integrity. Often when people try to appeal to more fans they lose some integrity, but to retain both must be the ultimate goal.

Jim James: Exactly.

Chimpomatic: Are you getting more interested in the performance of the band and the idea of the band as a brand? With the Okonokos DVD you had the narrative and asked people to come in costume and try and make it more of an event.

Jim James: We definitely try to do that. We always want to make it like a cartoonish, exciting event. It’s always on our mind to make it as surreal as possible, so people can remember it. Within that there are certain boundries that you can and can’t cross. There’s other bands out there doing things, so you want to do your own thing, but you don’t want to do someonee else's thing. I guess our thing has always been about the music. We’re five guys who happen to be on stage and we want to project the music and we want to make it a great show. Have a great light show or a great background, something to pull you into it, so it's like you're in a painting or a big cartoon – something so you kow you’re at OUR show. That was the whole Okonokos thing, it wasn't necessarily about being at the Fillmore or whatever - it was about the show.

Chimpomatic: You had the Boston Pops thing too - how did that come about, did you approach them?

Jim James: They approached us. They saw us and they’ve been trying to do programs where they did music with more contemporary bands. They approached us and we were like “totally”. That’s always been a fantasy to have the whole orchestra thing and it was amazing.

Chimpomatic: And the new record has an orchestra on it to? I saw some of them on Saturday Night Live.

Jim James: Some of those people were on the record, so we have a nice string section.

Chimpomatic: Some quick questions: Nashville or Kentucky?

Jim James: I need both. Carl lives in Nashville so I drive back and forth all the time. I live in Kentucky, so he drives back and forth all the time.

Carl Broemel: It’s two and half hours.

Chimpomatic: Favourite album of all time?

Jim James: What’s Going On is my favourite album of all time.

Car: I’ll say After The Goldrush.

Chimpomatic: Butch or Sundance?

Jim James: I’ll go with Butch

Carl Broemel: Me too.

Chimpomatic: Bob Dylan or Kevin Dillon?

Jim James: I don’t even know who Kevin Dillon is.

Chimpomatic: He's in that show Entourage...

Carl Broemel: Bob Dylan.

Chimpomatic: So what's next, do you see the band going on forever, like the Rolling Stones with endless albums? Or do you see yourself doing solo albums, soundtracks and other stuff?

Jim James: Even if we do solo albums or whatever, we’ve all played on other peoples records and done stuff. It’s easy - well not easy - but you can do a lot of stuff at once. We’re having a lot of fun now and hopefully that will last a long time. That kind of stuff is out of our control in a way. There’s so many factors, so many variables that you can’t control. I find that the less we think about those things, the better things go – so I try not to think about it too much.


My Morning Jacket
Chimpomatic Review: It Still Moves
Chimpomatic Review: Enterprise, Camden
Chimpomatic Review: Z
Chimpomatic Review: Okonokos
Chimpomatic Review: Okonokos DVD
Chimpomatic Review: Astoria, London
Chimpomatic Review: St. James, London



7th Jun 2008 - Tumblr