My Morning Jacket's Quest For Connection

Touch Me I'm Going To Scream

Music Features My Morning Jacket
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PT. 1
TOUCH ME
I’M GOING TO SCREAM IF YOU DON’T
INSIDE I KNOW WE HAVE
THE FEELING THAT YOU WANT
I KNOW IT SOUNDS CONFUSING
BUT IT MAKES A LOT OF SENSE
ROW A BOAT ACROSS THE OCEAN
DIG A HOLE UNDER THE FENCE

I’m eating nachos in the middle of the musical vortex known as the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference in Austin, Texas, when a 20-year-old with a bleached faux-hawk asks to share my table. I oblige and we strike up a conversation. He rattles off a list of bands he’s anxious to see. I haven’t heard of any of them. He turns his nose up at my ignorance. When I mention Lou Reed, R.E.M. and Yo La Tengo, the kid just stares blankly at me. But when the name My Morning Jacket rolls off my tongue, Faux Hawk’s eyes light up. “Love those guys, they rock,” he says. Indeed, grasshopper. Indeed. We live in fractured times. Never before in our history have we shared fewer unifying commonalities. Niche is king, and being friends on Facebook or texting each other—sometimes from opposite ends of a room—passes for human interaction. Some of us find ourselves aching for connection, perhaps to even share some generally accepted cultural touchstones. From the earliest primitive drum circles and fireside chants to The Beatles and Gnarls Barkley, music has been a vehicle for this connection. But as music becomes a more solitary endeavor, experienced on computers in our cubicles, on headphones and in cars, something is lost. And as the aging icons of ’60s and ’70s rock fade into the past, somebody needs to replace them. Rock ’n’ roll needs a torchbearer. To paraphrase legendary producer Bruce Dickinson, the culture of music has got a fever—and the only prescription is more My Morning Jacket. With a decade under their belts and a raging work ethic driving their career, the adventurous and constantly evolving Louisville, Ky., rockers have matured sonically, becoming a kind of superconnector, shattering barriers and putting listeners back in touch with their humanity. The band’s power is particularly transformative on stage, where they deliver full-blown, tongue-wagging, fist-pumping Flying V cock-rock. With My Morning Jacket there is no sarcasm or irony—simply iron. “I tell ya, it’s really magical to be playing with these guys,” drummer Patrick Hallahan says. “Something about the energy—we don’t mean to create it, and I don’t know what the hell it is, but it’s so human you can feel it.”

Touch me I’m going to scream if you don’t
Inside I know we have the feeling that you want
I need a human right by my side, untied, untied

If you examine My Morning Jacket’s career—its four studio albums, a live album/DVD, numerous EPs and singles, and, of course, countless gigs—the band’s artistic passion is obvious. Last November, after I witnessed them perform a ripping cover of “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You” during the concert celebration for Todd Haynes’ Dylan film I’m Not There at New York’s Beacon Theatre, the band chose to bag the swanky, hipster-and-celebrity-filled after-party, instead absconding to some blue-collar Irish pub to sing along with the jukebox.

It’s difficult to file My Morning Jacket neatly into the current musical landscape. “I feel sorry for anyone who has to conjure up a way to label this band from now on,” says keyboardist Bo Koster, smiling. He’s actually quite sincere, especially when he surmises that most people uniformly resort to using existing templates and older bands as reference points when discussing music. Taking this as a direct challenge, I try in vain to accurately and fully capture the band’s essence without falling into the trap of, “Take a cup of band X, add two cups of band Y, throw in a teaspoon of band Z and you have My Morning Jacket,” or “My Morning Jacket is the bastard love child of artist A and artist B after ingesting large quantities of drug D and playing genre E.” Everything that materialized seemed dated, clichéd and blatantly contradictory.

Koster laughs and tells me to wait until I hear the spanking-new album, and then take a crack at it. Four months later, a copy with a hand-scrawled track list lands in my office and—after my first uninterrupted listen—I swear I can hear his nefarious giggling through the speakers.

Touch me I’m going to scream if you don’t
Inside I know we have the feeling that you want
I can tell by the way you’re smiling
I’m smiling too
I see myself in you
I can tell by the sounds you make when you are pleased
You see yourself in me

My Morning Jacket’s fifth album, Evil Urges, is a sonic gut-punch. It doesn’t merely ignore expectations—it atomizes them, reconfigures them and then rams them down the gullet. After the first listen, I stared at my speakers, trying to come to grips with what had happened over the last 55 minutes. I pushed play again, and then again. Each time, the experience was more visceral and unnerving. As the album’s title suggests, Jim James’ lyrics explore the eternal battle of id and ego. The dichotomy is perversely comforting in a delusional, high-fever kind of way. Still, the band’s albums are merely postcards from their celebrated evolution. Attempting to capture primordial reactions to Evil Urges without seeing My Morning Jacket live is futile.

Pt. 2

During SXSW, at the Independent Film Channel’s Crossroads party at The Parish, the anxious hum in the room is so palpable that it leaves an almost metallic taste in your mouth. After a raging opening set by perennial all-stars and obvious MMJ muses Yo La Tengo, singer/guitarist Jim James and his gang take the tiny stage to frenetic applause. As payback, those lucky enough to make it inside the club are enveloped by the haunting urgency of the album’s title track. The crowd is nearly blown away by the sheer physicality of the sound.

As stoic bassist Two Tone Tommy anchors the bottom end with bone-rattling intensity, Hallahan swings, grooves and pounds the beat like he’s some cowboy-shirted yeti hopped up on laughing gas. Koster’s kaleidoscopic keyboard fills in the hollows while Carl Broemel’s riffs roll off his guitar like lit balls of butane. James’ coal-fed fire keeps the band’s engine running at full steam.

My Morning Jacket  packs cathartic release into every note of every song. Nothing is spared. Nothing is wasted. James is so in control of the room’s collective mojo, it’s as if he is wielding a baton instead of microphone. He’s Huck Finn with a cerebral soul. He’s a back-porch ghost, drawling and howling epic poetry.

Most of these songs are being introduced for the first time, and the audience embraces the new music. From the soft sunburst glow of “Thank You Too” through the junkyard smackdown of “Aluminum Park,” the crowd’s sway gains momentum. In the middle of “Run Thru,” things become unhinged. The room is breathing as the congregation contracts and expands, surging and swaying like a giant glowing amoeba.

“We focus on the elements of life that are the most important,” Hallahan tells me later. “It’s not about singles or radio play, it’s about being able to go to a show and see a band love what they do. It’s infectious and it becomes [reciprocal]. We infect the crowd and, in turn, they affect us. It becomes this beautiful cycle. Every show we play becomes a beautiful waltz.”

After an epic set followed by three encores, the band launches into yet another song, “Anytime,” for encore number four. James ends the show with a curious quote. Strangely, it makes perfect sense: “Things I could say to myself, I could never say to anyone else / But what Madonna said really helped, / She said: ‘Boy, you better learn to express yourself!’”

Pt. 3
IF YOU TOUCH ME
WELL I JUST THINK I’LL SCREAM
CUZ IT’S BEEN SO LONG
SINCE SOMEONE CHALLENGED ME
AND MADE ME THINK
ABOUT THE WAY THINGS ARE
MADE ME THINK ABOUT
THE WAY THEY COULD BE

The very next day—cruising through arid, mesquite-covered hills in the band’s massive tour bus—My Morning Jacket is headed for the Austin Zoo & Animal Sanctuary. On the way, the band discusses its slow-building career.

“Just seeing the fruits of our labor receive such positive feedback is a beautiful thing,” Hallahan says. “We all feel completely fortunate. We were joking last night that even after playing for 60,000 people at Lollapalooza, we finally sold out [mid-size Austin club] The Parish, and it only took 10 years! Seriously, that’s tried-and-true, and that’s our goal, to keep working on the grassroots level.”

While the band, up to this point, has always taken artistic leaps from album to album, Evil Urges seems like the biggest, most conscious departure yet—a fact that’s both liberating and nerve-wracking.

“But it’s only nerve-wracking for a minute,” Hallahan counters, “because we truly believe [this new record is] who we are. We constantly want more. Early in our career, when we were being compared to Lynyrd Skynyrd, Southern rock and swamp boogie and all that shit, we really weren’t that band, but it was easy; it was lazy journalism. … [These] labels aren’t the motivation for our progressive nature, but add the incentive and it’s just more fuel for our creation to keep moving forward. You can only get comfortable for so long before you become stagnant.”

“We don’t cling to anything we’ve done in the past or even on the last record,” Broemel says. “When Jim sent the early demos for this record, I was like, ‘OK, here we go. I’m in. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but let’s do it.’ I mean, I’m scared, too, but that’s the point, especially in this band. It’s nice to feel we aren’t hustling people or trying to be political. I mean, our M.O. is: There is no M.O.”

It’s clear that a vein has been tapped when even the usually reserved Two Tone Tommy joins the fray: “Once music stops being surprising to you, or stops being weird enough and becomes obvious, then it loses its purpose. If the music doesn’t have the tension-and-release or doesn’t have a common thread of connectivity, then it’s ultimately disposable.”

To My Morning Jacket, waving a wet index finger in the air and heading whichever way the trend winds are blowing would miss the entire point. For them, concepts like genre seem to have lost their relevance. These guys are musical omnivores, capable of digesting nearly any melody, rhythm, instrumentation or intergalactic harmonic convergence, effortlessly absorbing it and then expanding upon it. Watching Hallahan take pictures of the landscape at 70 miles an hour is a good metaphor for how hard it is to pin this band down—everything is blurred, but there’s an art to it, an intentionality.

I believe it. Why? Oh my
Ooh my lord, ooh my lord, I don’t even know why but
Oh! This feeling it is wonderful! Don’t you ever turn it off!
Feelings—why? Oh my, human needs, heartbeats

The bus finally stops when we find the entrance to the Austin Zoo, which was established to rescue and rehabilitate animals. Most of the creatures we see were once pets or caged curiosities at random truck stops and low-grade fairs. Somewhere between the ring-tailed lemurs and the New Guinea singing dog, James mentions that he used to work at a zoo back home in Kentucky. I ask him if he misses Louisville, and he says that while he loves seeing his family, it’s not so much Kentucky that he misses but the concept of home, of having a place to call his own. Evil Urges is suffused with this feeling of longing for a sense of place and permanence. James wrote most of the album while in a relationship, though the songs weren’t recorded until after the relationship ended.

“I feel pretty untethered these days,” the singer admits, “like a balloon floating around. While it’s certainly an adventure, the grass is always greener. All my stuff is in storage, I’m no longer in a relationship, so I’m pretty much just searching with an open mind. Unlike in the past, we plan on keeping some time for ourselves this go-round.”

Not a bad idea—the nonstop touring behind My Morning Jacket’s last album, Z, left James in the hospital for a few weeks with pneumonia. He spent much of that time re-evaluating his priorities. To prepare for the new album, and everything that will follow, the group absconded to the mountains around Pikes Peak, Colo., for some band bonding. Days were spent playing music, ping-pong, hoops or simply watching the daily thunderheads roll over the mountains. And at night the bandmates cooked meals together, and watched movies like Being There, The Elephant Man and Dr. Strangelove. They had no real itinerary other than trying to regain the natural rhythm that comes from being part of a greater whole.

“It’s important, as a band, that we all feel vested in each other,” Koster says as he watches a zookeeper play with a cougar. “So if Jim’s mind is opened up to some new music, or Tommy discovers some new tone, then organically it will find its way into all our playing. We are still developing our friendship, which is important for a band. I describe our time in Colorado—and how it really changed my philosophy on life in a nuts-and-bolts sort of way—as being on summer break when you were eight or nine years old. You have those golden times as a kid where you have nothing to do but grow, hang with your friends, and do whatever you and your friends like to do. You are just happy. … I feel like the five of us have reached that time again. I feel like as things grow more and more manic with the release of the album and all the touring ahead, I can actually touch that moment in time when I need to.”

Over the last decade, the band has clearly defined its career mantra: The slow build is not only the right way, it’s the only way. So it’s no surprise that My Morning Jacket spends most of its time at the zoo communing with the spurred tortoises, as opposed to the cheetahs. Nearly a decade with no charting singles or major radio play would leave many bands on the scrap heap. But My Morning Jacket’s plodding perseverance not only created a stalwart fanbase that allows the group to take risks, it has also allowed them to escape the trappings and miscues of instant notoriety. Their time in the spotlight finally at hand, there may be no other band better prepared to bask in its glow without being blinded by it.

Vampire Weekend could be sweet guys,” James says, “but it’s weird; it’s almost bad for bands like that. It’s gotta fuck with their egos and their whole system of doing things. Hell, maybe they make the equivalent of The Wall on their next record, but I’ve never seen that kind of hype do any good in the long run. Our ride has been so gradual that every little cool thing that happens is not taken for granted. It’s not as though we’ve had that one year where we’ve had five monster hits, doing coke in limos, buying mansions and shit. I think people see us in magazines and have some skewed perception that everything is wild and crazy and we are sitting back reaping the benefits of success. Being in a band, the songwriting and the playing is the fun part. But we still have to prove ourselves every night.”

Pt. 4

The next evening, the band plays an official showcase at SXSW’s largest venue, the Austin Music Hall, a concrete hangar where good sound goes to die. The room is packed with every industry type imaginable, along with a smattering of non-industry fans who managed to get their hands on a conference badge. The band—with its usual intensity and aplomb—breaks into the pounding, space-age funky “Highly Suspicious,” easily the most polarizing track on Evil Urges.

“Once you record and finish the album,” Hallahan says, “you wonder how people are going to relate to these songs. They’re like our little babies, and you get to watch them grow up. ‘Highly Suspicious’ was so absurd to me at first, but it’s become such a rallying cry. Just watching everyone while we’re playing it is so much fun. Not just the crowd but my boys, as well. It is so fucking adorable!”

The song’s divisiveness manifests itself at the Austin show, where one man in the audience stands in disgust and blurts out to no one in particular, “Fuck this, I’m going to get a beer,” while another guy two rows to his right stands in a section of people sitting, giving the song a rabid one-man standing ovation. For James, though, the SXSW experience was a bit of an overload this year.

“Just being here ... it feels like my brain is running out my nose,” he says the following morning, launching into a discontented rant. “There is only so much one can take of the whole fucking industry; it’s exhausting. It keeps coming back to technology—people’s brains are getting zapped by their computers, and they’re becoming more and more like robots. At these industry shows, half the people don’t really give a shit because they’re more worried about being seen than getting wild, and the real fans can’t get in.

“The thing that we always talk about as a band, that makes us sad,” he continues, “is that ... at the end of the day it’s not about us. My fantasy story is more about people in the music business caring about the music. No background information, who gives a fuck what we look like, just sit down and try to explain the band to an alien. Just put Evil Urges on the headphones, listen to it, and tell me what happens to you: ‘Evil Urges comes on and I see purple butterflies and it makes me want to smash my chair through the window and jump on the bed,’ or ‘I hate it,’ or ‘it makes me feel nothing,’ whatever, as long as it’s about the music.”

Later, sitting on a balcony with a small group of friends looking down at the tail end of an Austin Saturday night on 6th Street, James finally starts to unwind. After a week that’s also included playing a Lou Reed tribute, numerous soirées and—just a few hours earlier—a spirit-lifting show at a tiny church with his good friend M. Ward, James is still singing along to anything and everything on the stereo, including Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” and Don Henley’s “The End of the Innocence.” But it isn’t until he’s commandeered the stereo that he’s truly content. He harmonizes with Martha Reeves & the Vandellas’ “(Love Is Like A) Heat Wave” and his self-proclaimed theme song “Jimmy Mack” with humble sincerity. Before I split, he cues up Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” which brings me back to that night with the band in New York City and the gauntlet Koster threw down at my feet: a double-dog dare to try to write this entire feature—describing his band’s music and capturing its essence—without relying on pre-existing critical templates or falling back on easy comparisons to other bands. And I wonder if I can do the music justice. While us journalists—at least the ones with our hearts in the right place—strive for truth and honesty, and do our best to cling to objectivity, at our core we’re still fans, too. Otherwise, we wouldn’t devote our lives to writing about all of this. Could it be that there is more common ground between artists, fans and critics than most rock ’n’ rollers would like to admit? And isn’t common ground what we’re aching for now, as our lives become more insulated by technology and our experiences are filed off into tinier and tinier compartments?

I can see it all by the way you smile
I’m smiling too, I see myself in you
I am with it, ooh man I am wired
Ooh my lord, ooh my lord, yeah—now I really know why!
Oh, this feeling it is wonderful
Don’t you ever turn it off

We try and make our fans understand that we are fans of music, too,” James says, “and the one thing technology cannot kill is the live-music experience. People love to wax on about Springsteen or Zeppelin—to me, [the existence of those bands proves] that it’s okay if 15,000 people come out to an arena to see someone play because the music is fucking awesome. To me, that makes the experience that much more massive and communal. For everyone to be singing ‘Born to Run’ in unison is crazy energy. It’s sad because I feel people’s brains are now so divided and split that it almost can’t happen anymore. The ability to converse with each other using music as a shared reference point is close to becoming extinct. But we’re trying to change that.”

Click here to read the sidebar to this story, When the Music's Over: My Morning Jacket in 2038.

To read Paste's review of Evil Urges, click here.

I’m eating nachos in the middle of the musical vortex known as the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference in Austin, Texas, when a 20-year-old with a bleached faux-hawk asks to share my table. I oblige and we strike up a conversation. He rattles off a list of bands he’s anxious to see. I haven’t heard of any of them. He turns his nose up at my ignorance. When I mention Lou Reed, R.E.M. and Yo La Tengo, the kid just stares blankly at me. But when the name My Morning Jacket rolls off my tongue, Faux Hawk’s eyes light up. “Love those guys, they rock,” he says. Indeed, grasshopper. Indeed. We live in fractured times. Never before in our history have we shared fewer unifying commonalities. Niche is king, and being friends on Facebook or texting each other—sometimes from opposite ends of a room—passes for human interaction. Some of us find ourselves aching for connection, perhaps to even share some generally accepted cultural touchstones. From the earliest primitive drum circles and fireside chants to The Beatles and Gnarls Barkley, music has been a vehicle for this connection. But as music becomes a more solitary endeavor, experienced on computers in our cubicles, on headphones and in cars, something is lost. And as the aging icons of ’60s and ’70s rock fade into the past, somebody needs to replace them. Rock ’n’ roll needs a torchbearer. To paraphrase legendary producer Bruce Dickinson, the culture of music has got a fever—and the only prescription is more My Morning Jacket. With a decade under their belts and a raging work ethic driving their career, the adventurous and constantly evolving Louisville, Ky., rockers have matured sonically, becoming a kind of superconnector, shattering barriers and putting listeners back in touch with their humanity. The band’s power is particularly transformative on stage, where they deliver full-blown, tongue-wagging, fist-pumping Flying V cock-rock. With My Morning Jacket there is no sarcasm or irony—simply iron. “I tell ya, it’s really magical to be playing with these guys,” drummer Patrick Hallahan says. “Something about the energy—we don’t mean to create it, and I don’t know what the hell it is, but it’s so human you can feel it.”

Touch me I’m going to scream if you don’t
Inside I know we have the feeling that you want
I need a human right by my side, untied, untied

If you examine My Morning Jacket’s career—its four studio albums, a live album/DVD, numerous EPs and singles, and, of course, countless gigs—the band’s artistic passion is obvious. Last November, after I witnessed them perform a ripping cover of “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You” during the concert celebration for Todd Haynes’ Dylan film I’m Not There at New York’s Beacon Theatre, the band chose to bag the swanky, hipster-and-celebrity-filled after-party, instead absconding to some blue-collar Irish pub to sing along with the jukebox.

It’s difficult to file My Morning Jacket neatly into the current musical landscape. “I feel sorry for anyone who has to conjure up a way to label this band from now on,” says keyboardist Bo Koster, smiling. He’s actually quite sincere, especially when he surmises that most people uniformly resort to using existing templates and older bands as reference points when discussing music. Taking this as a direct challenge, I try in vain to accurately and fully capture the band’s essence without falling into the trap of, “Take a cup of band X, add two cups of band Y, throw in a teaspoon of band Z and you have My Morning Jacket,” or “My Morning Jacket is the bastard love child of artist A and artist B after ingesting large quantities of drug D and playing genre E.” Everything that materialized seemed dated, clichéd and blatantly contradictory.

Koster laughs and tells me to wait until I hear the spanking-new album, and then take a crack at it. Four months later, a copy with a hand-scrawled track list lands in my office and—after my first uninterrupted listen—I swear I can hear his nefarious giggling through the speakers.

Touch me I’m going to scream if you don’t
Inside I know we have the feeling that you want
I can tell by the way you’re smiling
I’m smiling too
I see myself in you
I can tell by the sounds you make when you are pleased
You see yourself in me

My Morning Jacket’s fifth album, Evil Urges, is a sonic gut-punch. It doesn’t merely ignore expectations—it atomizes them, reconfigures them and then rams them down the gullet. After the first listen, I stared at my speakers, trying to come to grips with what had happened over the last 55 minutes. I pushed play again, and then again. Each time, the experience was more visceral and unnerving. As the album’s title suggests, Jim James’ lyrics explore the eternal battle of id and ego. The dichotomy is perversely comforting in a delusional, high-fever kind of way. Still, the band’s albums are merely postcards from their celebrated evolution. Attempting to capture primordial reactions to Evil Urges without seeing My Morning Jacket live is futile.

Pt. 2

During SXSW, at the Independent Film Channel’s Crossroads party at The Parish, the anxious hum in the room is so palpable that it leaves an almost metallic taste in your mouth. After a raging opening set by perennial all-stars and obvious MMJ muses Yo La Tengo, singer/guitarist Jim James and his gang take the tiny stage to frenetic applause. As payback, those lucky enough to make it inside the club are enveloped by the haunting urgency of the album’s title track. The crowd is nearly blown away by the sheer physicality of the sound.

As stoic bassist Two Tone Tommy anchors the bottom end with bone-rattling intensity, Hallahan swings, grooves and pounds the beat like he’s some cowboy-shirted yeti hopped up on laughing gas. Koster’s kaleidoscopic keyboard fills in the hollows while Carl Broemel’s riffs roll off his guitar like lit balls of butane. James’ coal-fed fire keeps the band’s engine running at full steam.

My Morning Jacket  packs cathartic release into every note of every song. Nothing is spared. Nothing is wasted. James is so in control of the room’s collective mojo, it’s as if he is wielding a baton instead of microphone. He’s Huck Finn with a cerebral soul. He’s a back-porch ghost, drawling and howling epic poetry.

Most of these songs are being introduced for the first time, and the audience embraces the new music. From the soft sunburst glow of “Thank You Too” through the junkyard smackdown of “Aluminum Park,” the crowd’s sway gains momentum. In the middle of “Run Thru,” things become unhinged. The room is breathing as the congregation contracts and expands, surging and swaying like a giant glowing amoeba.

“We focus on the elements of life that are the most important,” Hallahan tells me later. “It’s not about singles or radio play, it’s about being able to go to a show and see a band love what they do. It’s infectious and it becomes [reciprocal]. We infect the crowd and, in turn, they affect us. It becomes this beautiful cycle. Every show we play becomes a beautiful waltz.”

After an epic set followed by three encores, the band launches into yet another song, “Anytime,” for encore number four. James ends the show with a curious quote. Strangely, it makes perfect sense: “Things I could say to myself, I could never say to anyone else / But what Madonna said really helped, / She said: ‘Boy, you better learn to express yourself!’”

Pt. 3
IF YOU TOUCH ME
WELL I JUST THINK I’LL SCREAM
CUZ IT’S BEEN SO LONG
SINCE SOMEONE CHALLENGED ME
AND MADE ME THINK
ABOUT THE WAY THINGS ARE
MADE ME THINK ABOUT
THE WAY THEY COULD BE

The very next day—cruising through arid, mesquite-covered hills in the band’s massive tour bus—My Morning Jacket is headed for the Austin Zoo & Animal Sanctuary. On the way, the band discusses its slow-building career.

“Just seeing the fruits of our labor receive such positive feedback is a beautiful thing,” Hallahan says. “We all feel completely fortunate. We were joking last night that even after playing for 60,000 people at Lollapalooza, we finally sold out [mid-size Austin club] The Parish, and it only took 10 years! Seriously, that’s tried-and-true, and that’s our goal, to keep working on the grassroots level.”

While the band, up to this point, has always taken artistic leaps from album to album, Evil Urges seems like the biggest, most conscious departure yet—a fact that’s both liberating and nerve-wracking.

“But it’s only nerve-wracking for a minute,” Hallahan counters, “because we truly believe [this new record is] who we are. We constantly want more. Early in our career, when we were being compared to Lynyrd Skynyrd, Southern rock and swamp boogie and all that shit, we really weren’t that band, but it was easy; it was lazy journalism. … [These] labels aren’t the motivation for our progressive nature, but add the incentive and it’s just more fuel for our creation to keep moving forward. You can only get comfortable for so long before you become stagnant.”

“We don’t cling to anything we’ve done in the past or even on the last record,” Broemel says. “When Jim sent the early demos for this record, I was like, ‘OK, here we go. I’m in. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but let’s do it.’ I mean, I’m scared, too, but that’s the point, especially in this band. It’s nice to feel we aren’t hustling people or trying to be political. I mean, our M.O. is: There is no M.O.”

It’s clear that a vein has been tapped when even the usually reserved Two Tone Tommy joins the fray: “Once music stops being surprising to you, or stops being weird enough and becomes obvious, then it loses its purpose. If the music doesn’t have the tension-and-release or doesn’t have a common thread of connectivity, then it’s ultimately disposable.”

To My Morning Jacket, waving a wet index finger in the air and heading whichever way the trend winds are blowing would miss the entire point. For them, concepts like genre seem to have lost their relevance. These guys are musical omnivores, capable of digesting nearly any melody, rhythm, instrumentation or intergalactic harmonic convergence, effortlessly absorbing it and then expanding upon it. Watching Hallahan take pictures of the landscape at 70 miles an hour is a good metaphor for how hard it is to pin this band down—everything is blurred, but there’s an art to it, an intentionality.

I believe it. Why? Oh my
Ooh my lord, ooh my lord, I don’t even know why but
Oh! This feeling it is wonderful! Don’t you ever turn it off!
Feelings—why? Oh my, human needs, heartbeats

The bus finally stops when we find the entrance to the Austin Zoo, which was established to rescue and rehabilitate animals. Most of the creatures we see were once pets or caged curiosities at random truck stops and low-grade fairs. Somewhere between the ring-tailed lemurs and the New Guinea singing dog, James mentions that he used to work at a zoo back home in Kentucky. I ask him if he misses Louisville, and he says that while he loves seeing his family, it’s not so much Kentucky that he misses but the concept of home, of having a place to call his own. Evil Urges is suffused with this feeling of longing for a sense of place and permanence. James wrote most of the album while in a relationship, though the songs weren’t recorded until after the relationship ended.

“I feel pretty untethered these days,” the singer admits, “like a balloon floating around. While it’s certainly an adventure, the grass is always greener. All my stuff is in storage, I’m no longer in a relationship, so I’m pretty much just searching with an open mind. Unlike in the past, we plan on keeping some time for ourselves this go-round.”

Not a bad idea—the nonstop touring behind My Morning Jacket’s last album, Z, left James in the hospital for a few weeks with pneumonia. He spent much of that time re-evaluating his priorities. To prepare for the new album, and everything that will follow, the group absconded to the mountains around Pikes Peak, Colo., for some band bonding. Days were spent playing music, ping-pong, hoops or simply watching the daily thunderheads roll over the mountains. And at night the bandmates cooked meals together, and watched movies like Being There, The Elephant Man and Dr. Strangelove. They had no real itinerary other than trying to regain the natural rhythm that comes from being part of a greater whole.

“It’s important, as a band, that we all feel vested in each other,” Koster says as he watches a zookeeper play with a cougar. “So if Jim’s mind is opened up to some new music, or Tommy discovers some new tone, then organically it will find its way into all our playing. We are still developing our friendship, which is important for a band. I describe our time in Colorado—and how it really changed my philosophy on life in a nuts-and-bolts sort of way—as being on summer break when you were eight or nine years old. You have those golden times as a kid where you have nothing to do but grow, hang with your friends, and do whatever you and your friends like to do. You are just happy. … I feel like the five of us have reached that time again. I feel like as things grow more and more manic with the release of the album and all the touring ahead, I can actually touch that moment in time when I need to.”

Over the last decade, the band has clearly defined its career mantra: The slow build is not only the right way, it’s the only way. So it’s no surprise that My Morning Jacket spends most of its time at the zoo communing with the spurred tortoises, as opposed to the cheetahs. Nearly a decade with no charting singles or major radio play would leave many bands on the scrap heap. But My Morning Jacket’s plodding perseverance not only created a stalwart fanbase that allows the group to take risks, it has also allowed them to escape the trappings and miscues of instant notoriety. Their time in the spotlight finally at hand, there may be no other band better prepared to bask in its glow without being blinded by it.

Vampire Weekend could be sweet guys,” James says, “but it’s weird; it’s almost bad for bands like that. It’s gotta fuck with their egos and their whole system of doing things. Hell, maybe they make the equivalent of The Wall on their next record, but I’ve never seen that kind of hype do any good in the long run. Our ride has been so gradual that every little cool thing that happens is not taken for granted. It’s not as though we’ve had that one year where we’ve had five monster hits, doing coke in limos, buying mansions and shit. I think people see us in magazines and have some skewed perception that everything is wild and crazy and we are sitting back reaping the benefits of success. Being in a band, the songwriting and the playing is the fun part. But we still have to prove ourselves every night.”

Pt. 4

The next evening, the band plays an official showcase at SXSW’s largest venue, the Austin Music Hall, a concrete hangar where good sound goes to die. The room is packed with every industry type imaginable, along with a smattering of non-industry fans who managed to get their hands on a conference badge. The band—with its usual intensity and aplomb—breaks into the pounding, space-age funky “Highly Suspicious,” easily the most polarizing track on Evil Urges.

“Once you record and finish the album,” Hallahan says, “you wonder how people are going to relate to these songs. They’re like our little babies, and you get to watch them grow up. ‘Highly Suspicious’ was so absurd to me at first, but it’s become such a rallying cry. Just watching everyone while we’re playing it is so much fun. Not just the crowd but my boys, as well. It is so fucking adorable!”

The song’s divisiveness manifests itself at the Austin show, where one man in the audience stands in disgust and blurts out to no one in particular, “Fuck this, I’m going to get a beer,” while another guy two rows to his right stands in a section of people sitting, giving the song a rabid one-man standing ovation. For James, though, the SXSW experience was a bit of an overload this year.

“Just being here ... it feels like my brain is running out my nose,” he says the following morning, launching into a discontented rant. “There is only so much one can take of the whole fucking industry; it’s exhausting. It keeps coming back to technology—people’s brains are getting zapped by their computers, and they’re becoming more and more like robots. At these industry shows, half the people don’t really give a shit because they’re more worried about being seen than getting wild, and the real fans can’t get in.

“The thing that we always talk about as a band, that makes us sad,” he continues, “is that ... at the end of the day it’s not about us. My fantasy story is more about people in the music business caring about the music. No background information, who gives a fuck what we look like, just sit down and try to explain the band to an alien. Just put Evil Urges on the headphones, listen to it, and tell me what happens to you: ‘Evil Urges comes on and I see purple butterflies and it makes me want to smash my chair through the window and jump on the bed,’ or ‘I hate it,’ or ‘it makes me feel nothing,’ whatever, as long as it’s about the music.”

Later, sitting on a balcony with a small group of friends looking down at the tail end of an Austin Saturday night on 6th Street, James finally starts to unwind. After a week that’s also included playing a Lou Reed tribute, numerous soirées and—just a few hours earlier—a spirit-lifting show at a tiny church with his good friend M. Ward, James is still singing along to anything and everything on the stereo, including Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” and Don Henley’s “The End of the Innocence.” But it isn’t until he’s commandeered the stereo that he’s truly content. He harmonizes with Martha Reeves & the Vandellas’ “(Love Is Like A) Heat Wave” and his self-proclaimed theme song “Jimmy Mack” with humble sincerity. Before I split, he cues up Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” which brings me back to that night with the band in New York City and the gauntlet Koster threw down at my feet: a double-dog dare to try to write this entire feature—describing his band’s music and capturing its essence—without relying on pre-existing critical templates or falling back on easy comparisons to other bands. And I wonder if I can do the music justice. While us journalists—at least the ones with our hearts in the right place—strive for truth and honesty, and do our best to cling to objectivity, at our core we’re still fans, too. Otherwise, we wouldn’t devote our lives to writing about all of this. Could it be that there is more common ground between artists, fans and critics than most rock ’n’ rollers would like to admit? And isn’t common ground what we’re aching for now, as our lives become more insulated by technology and our experiences are filed off into tinier and tinier compartments?

I can see it all by the way you smile
I’m smiling too, I see myself in you
I am with it, ooh man I am wired
Ooh my lord, ooh my lord, yeah—now I really know why!
Oh, this feeling it is wonderful
Don’t you ever turn it off

We try and make our fans understand that we are fans of music, too,” James says, “and the one thing technology cannot kill is the live-music experience. People love to wax on about Springsteen or Zeppelin—to me, [the existence of those bands proves] that it’s okay if 15,000 people come out to an arena to see someone play because the music is fucking awesome. To me, that makes the experience that much more massive and communal. For everyone to be singing ‘Born to Run’ in unison is crazy energy. It’s sad because I feel people’s brains are now so divided and split that it almost can’t happen anymore. The ability to converse with each other using music as a shared reference point is close to becoming extinct. But we’re trying to change that.”

Click here to read the sidebar to this story, When the Music's Over: My Morning Jacket in 2038.

To read Paste's review of Evil Urges, click here.

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