(Pictured above [L-R]: My Morning Jacket's Bo Koster, Patrick Hallahan, Jim James, Two-Tone Tommy and Carl Broemel)
In the midst of a fitful sleep somewhere between Buffalo and Cleveland on Interstate 90, I wake to the sound of wine and liquor bottles crashing. In the wee hours of the morning, the driver of My Morning Jacket’s tour bus has made a sharp turn, and the contents of a slippery counter in the vehicle’s forward lounge have smashed to the floor.
I groan, but avoid rolling over (only one position—the back—works for sleeping on a moving bus.) And I decide not to get up to survey the damage; I’m on the uppermost bunk and in my groggy state will surely step on someone if I climb down.
Unless you count a pre-show screening of Badder Santa, this is about as decadent as it gets touring with rock ’n’ rollers My Morning Jacket. Earlier in the evening, I was ushered to my bunk and handed a blanket and pillow—not by the band’s road manager—but by Jim James himself, the band’s leader and sole songwriter. And the next day, at a homecoming show in Louisville, Ky., band members’ parents, siblings and old friends (including the members of another noteworthy Louisville band, VHS or Beta) would mob the backstage area.
I may be on the road with one of director Cameron Crowe’s favorite bands, but this certainly isn’t Almost Famous (though I keep expecting to see Russell Hammond and Jeff Bebe standing alongside the road, hoping to thumb a ride after they’d kissed and made up at a Jacket concert).
To quote Penny Lane, “it’s all happening” for My Morning Jacket, but it’s happening musically. Despite their growing reputation as a phenomenal live band, and a series of recordings worshipped by an expanding cult, My Morning Jacket is about the rock ’n’ roll—hold the casual sex, drugs, trashed hotel rooms and, if possible, photo shoots and interviews. “I think the only time we actually act like rock stars is onstage,” observes keyboardist Bo Koster.
The band’s discomfort with anything not directly related to the music rears its head when photos by veteran rock photographer Danny Clinch arrive, prior to a gig supporting Wilco in Buffalo.
“This is the one to use for the tribute to me after I die,” deadpans James, holding up a beatific solo shot.
“Jim, some of those frontal shots of you, you look like you’re from Abu Dhabi or something,” says drummer Patrick Hallahan, eyeing James in an olive head wrapping.
“That’s my goal,” James responds. “I want to look Abu Dhalicious.”
But James isn’t joking as he turns toward me: “I wish we could do this thing without pictures. Like, run a story of us with a picture of a beach ball.”
James and Hallahan then start plotting ways to avoid future photo shoots. “We should have brought in some graying stuff to do some pics for years down the road,” Hallahan suggests.
“Hey, that’s a good idea,” James says. It’s obviously no accident their latest album includes a song called “Off The Record.” They may avoid rock’s clichéd excesses, but in a sense, My Morning Jacket is Stillwater, the fictional band from Almost Famous, and their story may well be “a think piece about a mid-level band struggling with their own limitations in the harsh face of stardom.” I tell the band this and we all laugh, but I’m only half kidding.
Consider that October will bring not just the release of My Morning Jacket’s second major-label album, Z, but will also see the Jacket’s silver-screen debut, playing another fictional band, Ruckus, in Crowe’s Elizabethtown, with representation on the soundtrack as well. All this comes on the heels of another performance at the Bonnaroo fest in Tennessee that’s the talk of everyone who was there.
This band of introverts (save the garrulous Hallahan) isn’t interested in discussing world domination, however. “We made the record we wanted to make, and we had this opportunity to work with one of our favorite directors of all time,” James says. “We’ve just gone the fun route. I don’t know if that is going to be the coolest thing. I don’t know if that is going to be the most critically lauded thing. Or if the public is going to like it. I don’t know.”
“Harsh face of stardom” or not, My Morning Jacket stands at something of a crossroads. Since It Still Moves, the band’s successful 2003 ATO Records debut (and third full-length), the band has lost founding guitarist Johnny Quaid and keyboardist Danny Cash (replaced, respectively, by Carl Broemel and Bo Koster). Co-produced by John Leckie (Radiohead, New Order, XTC), Z is both the first album James hasn’t solely produced, and the first recorded away from “the farm,” the band’s longtime homebase near Louisville, Ky. While no one connected to the band shows any signs of feeling the pressure, it still feels like a moment of opportunity.
Who are those guys?
Ask five fans what kind of music My Morning Jacket plays and you’ll get five different answers. It’s “country-rock.” Or it’s “jam-rock.” Or it’s “space-twang.” The word “Southern” is often used as a modifier, and the word “reverb” is certain to be mentioned. But the labels frustrate My Morning Jacket—not because none of them apply, but because all of them apply at one time or another. Like their spiritual cousins The Flaming Lips, My Morning Jacket embraces possibilities, welcomes nearly all musical influences and acknowledges few limits. It’s “rock ’n’ roll,” hold the hyphens, please.
And what’s often termed “Southern” may actually be, instead, the sound of Middle America. Many would say that if you can see Indiana across the river, as you can in Louisville, you’re not exactly in the heart of Dixie.
While their sound draws on everyone from Neil Young and Brian Wilson to Marvin Gaye, the only constant in the Jacket’s music is reverb, which emerged as a fixture in the band’s early days. “When I sing without reverb, I just hate it.” James notes. “I don’t even sit here and play without reverb. I’ve got my four-track and headphones in my bedroom in reverb, and that’s the only way I play.”
The reverb revelation came when James was trying to sing with his former band, Month of Sundays. “There was one time that I was singing through an amp at practice, and somebody left the reverb turned up and I just sang, and from the first note that came out, it was just awesome. I felt like the Righteous Brothers or something, I felt so powerful. And then I would just take that amp in the basement and sing through it.”
Catching some Z
So it’s appropriate, if accidental, that when I interview the band at a verdant Louisville park near James’ apartment, we’re gathered around a picnic table underneath a stone bridge: a big ambient space.
We pass the time talking about how the newest band members came aboard, their recording experiences and what inspired the latest batch of songs. For James, an intuitive worker who prefers making music to thinking about it, the writing springs from dissatisfaction with the state of the world. It starts with last fall’s presidential election, but it’s ultimately much bigger than that.
“I feel like I’ve been upset—and most people I know have been really upset about the way the world’s going right now,” he says. “Ever since the election, it’s been a huge knock in the head. Shit’s kind of gone weird, gone wrong. [I’m] writing songs where I just feel really upset and angry, and I don’t know what to say all the time. So the chords are just crying for what’s going on.”
Inarticulate frustration sounds like a flimsy base for songwriting. Well, perhaps it would be for another band, one that doesn’t rely on gorgeous pyramids of reverb vocals, but in “Wordless Chorus,” Z’s opening track, the song’s “ahs” get the point across better than language could.
And, of course, there’s more happening under the surface. “I feel like it takes times like these to make great changes,” James continues. “Great stuff comes out of feeling like that. That’s the thread of it; that’s the thread that runs through all of our albums—being in a place you might not want to be, knowing there’s always power to change it, to get out of your situation, to use it for good.”
“I was thinking about that the other day,” Koster chimes in. “It’s that struggle to keep true to your identity and not lose it. Some of [Jim’s] cultural observations are kind of looking at things and saying, ‘Wow, the culture’s becoming more homogenous.’ Everybody’s hip now. You get on the Internet and find out what the hip things are to be into. …That’s why Jim’s special—he’s unique, he’s a complete individual who won’t be something he’s not.”
Hanging out before the previous night’s homecoming show, James expresses his disdain for conformist cool. “We’ve all tried to be dorks deliberately,” he tells me. “We’re not cool guys. We don’t care about being cool. Being hot. Getting lots of chicks. And doing all the cool things that only Lou Reed or Iggy Pop would have done. So many people are so f---ing concerned with being so cool. And all the bands that get popular are so cool. That’s why we have always strived to be the biggest dorks we could possibly be. There are so many kids out there—so many people like us when we were kids—who love music, and also love baseball, and also love movies. They don’t care what the cool clothes are. They don’t care what the cool haircut is.”
“There’s a thread in all [Jim’s] songs,” Koster adds, “lamenting the fact that he has to struggle to keep his identity and not relate to a lot of things. That’s why I think all of us relate to it. Everyone feels like they live in their own head and are alone. I think Jim does a good job of getting across those feelings.”
‘Honest and unmerciful’
Putting those feelings to music and capturing it on tape, this time, took place in New York’s Catskills, far from the band’s old Kentucky home. But if you have to leave home to record, Allaire Studios seems like the place to do it. The mountaintop studio’s main room features 45-foot ceilings, perfect for a reverb aficionado like James, and the studio’s windows provide awe-inspiring views of more than cornfields.
Working with an outside producer for the first time, the band didn’t know what to expect. John Leckie’s recent producing credits include Starsailor and Longwave, but he began in the 1970s as an engineer at Abbey Road studios, working on such projects as Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon and George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass.
“It was a little unnerving at first,” Koster recalls. “There was no weaning period. He flew in after we sent him demos, and it was just funny right off the bat. He was like, ‘Not good enough, not good enough, these demos are shit, you guys are going to need a lot more practice.’”
It wasn’t necessarily comfortable, adds guitarist Carl Broemel, but ultimately it worked. “It’s good to have someone who wants to push us a little more than we were comfortable,” he says.
“My favorite thing about John was when he said ‘That was it,’ you could put your guitar down and walk away. It’s hard for you to tell, when you’re in a song that deep, if you played it well enough.”
“It definitely felt like he was almost a sixth member,” Hallahan adds. “He approached decision-making in the same way we all did.”
The result was a recording that stretches the already expansive My Morning Jacket sound, while stripping out unnecessary elements and trimming some of the open-ended jamming. Everything from blue-eyed soul and Crazy Horse stomps to the Jacket’s trademark spacey textures fills Z’s 46 minutes, yet the album sounds decidedly different from its predecessors.
“There’s never a point where we’re thinking, I like this chorus, it’s good, but we need to put some reggae in here, or we need to put some country in here,” James remarks. “It’s just like every song builds its own little world.”
Off The Farm
For almost its entire existence, the farm owned by the grandparents of former guitarist Johnny Quaid has been My Morning Jacket’s headquarters. As James and I make the trek to Shelbyville, about 30 miles east of Louisville, he says I may be getting the last tour of the place.
After we stride across the lawn past an impossibly tall cornfield, we climb the steps to an apartment above a detached, three-car garage behind the main house. I can immediately see what James means—in a bedroom that was, until recently, a control room, there are two-inch-tape machines encased in bubble wrap and a packed-to-move mixing console. In the main room, where a gridded whiteboard still bears production notes for songs on It Still Moves, drums lay in a ramshackle heap in the corner, old concert posters are piled up on a counter, and a muggy breeze wafts through a shattered window where James says he killed a wasp.
After using almost every cranny of the farm, from the garage (drum sounds) and the barn’s loft (the cover of It Still Moves) to, famously, one of the two grain silos (vocals), James says the place has been milked dry, and even if Quaid had remained in the band they might not have stayed.
“Even at the end of his run we were kind of getting burnt out on being in this place,” James opines. “I’m a big fan of variety and change… [During It Still Moves] we had so many problems with humidity and temperatures and the tape machine breaking. The magic just got drained out and things got tougher and tougher.”
Later, during the ride back to Louisville (after James commandeers my iPod to play The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo) he discusses the difficulty of finding a new practice space after so many years on the farm. “I’m in a place where I like to be around people. If I went back to the middle of nowhere I might just get lonely and drink. Which may be good for the music but not good for the soul. But it’s hard to find a place [in the city] to be loud.”
Jim James, born James Olliges, Jr., began My Morning Jacket in 1998 as an outlet for the more introspective songs his current band had no interest in. He adopted the stage name for easier billing at open-mic nights.
“I wanted something more like a Western gunslinger,” he says, adding that it was only later that he found out that Jimi Hendrix once billed himself as “Jimmy James.” “I do hope I catch some of that mojo,” he says, grinning.
The most influential band for young Jim James was Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. Like Stillwater and Ruckus, they’re not a real band, but they did perform every week on The Muppet Show. “The Muppet Show was a huge explosion,” he says. “The music on there was just so amazing.”
Later, James went through a heavy-metal phase before Nirvana and R.E.M. busted the underground wide open in 1991. “We were like ‘Holy shit, these people are just like us.’ They’re just wearing normal T-shirts and jeans. There’s no attitude and it’s not about style and it’s not about fashion; it’s about music. That was what made us want to be like them.”
While James has been My Morning Jacket’s leader from the beginning, the band has always been more than a Palace Music- or Iron & Wine-style glorified solo project; the other members have always made vital contributions. The band’s inception dates to when he enlisted cousin Johnny Quaid and college friend/bassist “Two-Tone Tommy” Blankenship (besides James, now the Jacket’s only remaining founding member). Then the young group started wooing San Francisco indie label Darla.
“I wrote them a love letter like I was writing to a girl named Darla, and I put it all in red foil, and put hearts all over it and satin and stuff so it would be really attractive to them, and sent it to them, and they ended up liking it,” James says. “So I think that was like the first moment of actually having someone that cared, because nobody had cared about Month of Sundays, and nobody ever cared about any of our bands. …That kind of gave us the momentum to make the first record and go on tour and start this whole thing.”
With the addition of keyboard player Danny Cash, the band put out two albums on Darla—1999’s The Tennessee Fire and 2001’s At Dawn—and built its audience while touring incessantly, both in the U.S. and overseas. (The Tennessee Fire, by some quirk, earned the band a cult following in The Netherlands and Belgium.)
In 2003, Hallahan—James’ childhood friend (his mother tells me they were born just minutes apart)—took over on drums, and the band recorded It Still Moves. However, midway through a spate of touring, both Cash and Quaid decided they’d had enough of the nomadic life, leaving James to wonder if the band had a future.
But quickly, friends of the band recommended Koster and Broemel (in the latter’s case it was alt.country singer Bobby Bare Jr. who helped make the connection). Soon the two were in place, and the band was back on the road before some fans even realized there’d been a change.
“I feel like the band wanted itself to keep going,” James says. “So, somehow these two people got sent there at the right time. And they knew their shit, and they were nice guys. It was this weird puzzle that fell into place. The band just kept going. It didn’t miss a single beat.
“When two members leave a band, that is a f---ing big blow, and that could easily end a band. … From far away they even look like John and Danny, if you don’t know the band that well. It was just like the band knew what it wanted to see and knew how it had to happen. And it just channeled everything together. It was really, really weird.”
For a band that prefers making music to talking or thinking about it, the stage is a refuge. Left to its own devices, My Morning Jacket routinely plays sprawling, two-hour-plus sets, punctuated by oddball covers and a solo set from James. But for this tour with Wilco, they’re confined to a 35-minute opening slot.
Nonetheless, they’re plotting as much mischief as they can—with a different set list every show. Tonight, at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo (for the Rockin’ The Knox festival), they’ll lead off with a cover of Prince’s “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man.” (After the next night’s show in Louisville, James says: “I think we’ll do this one more time and then retire it.”)
Before showtime, James and Hallahan pace across the asphalt behind the outdoor stage, stretching and doing calisthenics, as if they were taking the stage for a three-hour marathon. I ask, “Has anyone ever gotten hurt onstage?”
“Well, I hurt a shoulder stretching,” Hallahan responds, before his face registers another thought. Then he displays his scabbed knuckles. “OK, well, I do that flailing around.”
Those who’ve seen a My Morning Jacket concert know that a good night brings plenty of “flailing around,” with heads bobbing, hair flying and James’ Gibson Flying V in full effect. (Two-Tone Tommy, who currently sports the band’s longest hair, often goes missing behind his mane for extended periods. Before James’ recent haircut, even the lead vocals emerged from behind a shaggy curtain.)
In Buffalo and in Louisville, the Jacket achieves liftoff in fairly short time, and has to stop almost as soon as it hits a groove. It’s all happening, for sure.
The post-show backstage chatter both nights is the same. “You guys were awesome,” says Kathy Olliges, Jim’s mother, following the Louisville show. “We just didn’t get enough of ya.”
I get the sense that this is how My Morning Jacket likes it. Epic shows with the onstage rock-star adulation the music demands, and no one but family and friends to answer to afterward.
Later we all land at the Left Field Lounge, a dive bar on Bardstown Road, Louisville’s nightlife district. The place is choked with smoke and mobbed with old friends. There’s no analysis and no interviews—well, none on the record anyway—just friends having a good time. After about an hour, James heads out.
“We like to be practitioners of just doing, being there in the moment…” he tells me the next day. “I feel like we all understand it so well when we do it. We don’t have to talk about it.”