My Morning Jacket: Renewal from The Waterfall

Music Features My Morning Jacket
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“Whenever I see a waterfall in nature, I always have this weird impulse of wanting to stop it—like pausing a video,” says Jim James, reflecting on the title of My Morning Jacket’s seventh LP. “I’ve always loved the beauty of a giant waterfall, but standing in front of one is very overwhelming. There’s nothing you can do about it.”

There’s something sinister about the weight of an unending stream, the relentlessness of its force. And the singer/songwriter, 37, spends most of his waking hours trying to slow down the one in his brain. “The waterfall, can it be stopped?” he sings on The Waterfall’s sprawling pseudo-title cut, his golden yelp gliding over psychedelic guitar riffs and spiraling synths.

“We should all strive to constantly be reborn,” James says. One of his favorite concepts is “the beginner’s mind, of trying to be a child every day in some new way.” So when his band isn’t headlining festivals or selling out theaters, he’s likely hiking as he hums a new melody to himself—or maybe sprawled out in the grass by his Louisville home, trying to glimpse the divine in the ordinary.

“I feel very overwhelmed with life a lot of the time, and I feel like there’s nothing I can do to make my life more peaceful or get it all to slow down,” he continues. “Then you try to find these ways to stop it all peacefully: meditating, going for a walk, all these things that involve nature and disconnecting in a certain way from the world—but in a good way. It’s so healing for people. In the age of being trapped in cubicles with computers against our faces, getting into nature is the ultimate experience in life.”

The Waterfall explores that struggle in-depth. Throughout its 10 winding songs, James sings about physical injury (space-pop banger “Compound Fracture”), romantic turmoil (country-tinged break-up ballad “Get the Point”), spiritual yearning (sunny sing-along “Believe (Nobody Knows)”)—and emerges with a simple yet abstract answer: “Again I stop the waterfall by finally feeling / Again I stop the waterfall by just believing.”

The album’s central theme is renewal, starting over. James promises he’s “done hibernating” on heavy epic “Spring (Among the Living),” and even at its darkest, the songs carry that sense of baptismal uplift. That sense of grandeur is nothing new for the quintet, a live act that transforms every venue into a church. But the stakes feel bigger than ever on The Waterfall.

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James has always chased his own spacey intuition. He formed My Morning Jacket in 1998, idiosyncratically christening the band after discovering a discarded coat embroidered with the letters MMJ. Channeling the raw emotive power of Neil Young, he wrote Jacket’s 1999 debut, That Tennessee Fire, and recorded most of his reverb-smothered vocals in an empty grain silo. That lonesome sound—James’ voice echoing into the ether—is now almost mythic. But he’s never been defined by that accidental trademark.

My Morning Jacket’s critical breakthrough, 2005’s Z, cemented their status as America’s resident art-rock icons, as they blended Flying V hard-rock with Floydian psychedelia, spastic soul and symphonic bombast. (“America is a lot closer to getting its own Radiohead, and it isn’t Wilco,” David Fricke wrote in his Rolling Stone review.) It also cemented the band’s line-up, with guitarist-saxophonist Carl Broemel and keyboardist Bo Koster joining James, bassist Tom Blankenship and drummer Patrick Hallahan.

That quintet released two more albums, 2008’s polarizing Evil Urges and 2011’s measured Circuital—but they always earned their widest acclaim on-stage. The band’s show-stopping 2008 Bonnaroo performance is now the stuff of legend: James and company crammed their set with rare tracks and left-field covers (from Erykah Badu to The Velvet Underground), stretching out close to four hours. In 2013, Rolling Stone named MMJ the planet’s 10th-best live band.

Now, with The Waterfall, they’ve recaptured the boundless energy and wind-blown freedom of their stage show. And most of that spirit can be traced directly to the idyllic Panoramic House Studios at Stinson Beach, California, where the band recorded most of its songs—starting with a series of sessions in October 2013. Illuminated by the property’s West coast glow, they worked on music during the day, cooked communal meals in the evenings and often walked the beach.

“It just had a really magical air, like being on another planet,” James says. “It was like we were on the moon or something—it feels like you’re so high up in the air, and everything there’s so massive. You’re right next to Muir Woods, and the trees are really massive. The beach is really massive, and the sunsets are massive. Everything is so broad and epic, and it just brought this surreal quality to the whole thing. It made us feel like we had our own colony on another planet or something. You can see the ocean from the studio, but you’re up on this hillside. We were isolated with just our little group, but we had all of nature there with us. It was a really comforting place to be.”

That paradise was temporarily marred when James, attempting to move an amplifier, suffered a herniated disc. He struggled to record, often tracking his vocal parts while laying on a studio couch—but after surgery and a two-month recovery process, the frontman regrouped with the band, winding up with more songs than he could even fit on two albums. (The next My Morning Jacket LP is planned for 2016, and James is also at work on a solo LP—a follow-up to his 2013 debut, Regions of Light and Sound of God.)

Some Waterfall material—like the barnburner “Big Decisions”—was recorded in Louisville, some at producer-engineer Tucker Martine’s Flora studio in Portland. It was a fractured but fulfilling process: “Believe” was the very last song James wrote during the sessions, and it wound up being the crucial opener. “It’s weird because it’s like putting together a puzzle,” James says of the sequencing. “For a while, ‘Spring’ was the first song, and that was back before ‘Believe’ existed. But [‘Believe’] just felt like more of a clean slate beginning—it set a more positive tone. I originally picked ‘Spring’ because it has a real mysterious tone. It’s a positive song, too, but it can be a bit confusing.”

Unlike Circuital, which was recorded live to tape as a full-band, The Waterfall was partially constructed by James with computer technology—splicing random sections together into sonic tapestries.

“I would say 80 percent was stuff I wrote after Circuital and the solo record. But there are always a couple nuggets from five or 10 years ago on each record. Some ideas will poke their head out, and I’ll find them again—sometimes accidentally, from my music collection being on random, one will pop up. That’s kind of cool because there all these little ideas, and I might have one I really love from 10 years ago but didn’t have any lyrics for it or know where it should go. Something will come up on random, and I’ll think, ‘Oh, I love that guitar part I wrote 10 years ago and didn’t know what to do with,’ and, ‘Oh, weird, it’s in the same key as this song.’ For whatever reason, I feel like the universe guides you toward what you need to find.”

As usual, most of the ideas originated from cell phone voice memo fragments, which James sent to the band as rough demos. This time around, instead of rehearsing the songs to death, he focused more on spontaneity—capturing a vibe in the moment, then figuring out the logistics later.

“We used to have a big rehearsal period and would leave and come back to record,” he says. “I’ve done away with that because I think it’s more fun to start doing it all at once and start recording. You get the best of both worlds. Some songs are way better in the early stages with less time put into them, and other songs are better with tons of time put into them. If we get a song early on, great, we’ve got it. And if it takes a long time, it takes a long time.”

Soulful lullaby “Thin Line,” the album’s oldest track, began life “five or six years ago” but was shelved when James couldn’t figure out how to finish it. Then Blankenship stumbled upon an additional riff on his computer, and the other pieces fell into place. Another great example is the proggy “In Its Infancy (The Waterfall),” which veers from ominous synths to twangy folk to churning space-rock.

“I knew it should all go together, but I didn’t know how,” James says of the latter epic. “I was obsessed with this idea of a song being built from unrelated elements that become related. The different pieces of the song I wrote at different times, but they told me they should be connected. I had this idea that a song doesn’t always have to be this thing you sit down and write with verses and choruses. We’re at the crossroads of the world where we can still record live performances on tape, but you can take those performances and put them in the computer and do new things with them that you could never do on tape.”

But for all its technical wizardry, The Waterfall never feels synthetic or piecemeal (as did the low-points of Evil Urges or Regions of Light). It’s one man’s 48-minute catharsis backed by hypnotic sonic color.

On “Believe,” James sounds enraptured, belting over Koster’s carnival-like keys as he encourages people to put their faith in something—anything—that helps push back the waterfall for another day.

“I just feel like everybody should be free to choose whatever it is they believe, and whatever feels right to you should be fine,” he says. “There’s been so much damage done in the name of religion throughout the course of humanity in a quest to figure out why we’re here and what it all means and what we should believe. Should we believe what we’ve been taught to believe, or should we believe what we feel in our hearts to be true?

Everybody should be free to believe what they think they think is true without persecution—as long as they’re not hurting anybody else or persecuting anybody else. If people could just let each other have that, the world would be a more peaceful place. But you get into organized religion as big business, and I don’t think a lot of people think about that side of the coin. You think about a giant business that doesn’t want to go out of business or lose its money and its foothold in the world. There’s a lot of chaos and greed in religion because they want your soul and your wallet. There’s been so much damage done. So that song is about believing what you want to believe because nobody really knows anything. Nobody’s going to prove anything—at least they haven’t yet.”

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“The waterfall, can it be stopped?”

Probably not. But James keeps searching—through meditation, through romantic love, through nature, through the cosmic warmth of My Morning Jacket.

“I have a lot of respect and love for the people who were in the band before,” he says, surveying the current quintet’s decade-long run. “But once it got to this line-up, that’s where it wanted to be with its own force. This is definitely the band, and anything that changed from this line-up wouldn’t be the band anymore.”

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