My Morning Jacket: Still Amazed

Music Features My Morning Jacket

Well anyway you cut it
We’re just spinning around…
Out on the circuits
Over the hallowed grounds…
Ending up in the same place
That we started out
Right back in the same place
Right back in the same place
That we’re starting out.”

June 6, 2011
New York City

It’s the first truly perfect day of summer, and My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James and I meander around the Central Park Ball Fields drinking coffee and looking for the Ballfields Café. I’ve run into James many times since our first meeting seven years ago, and our interview keeps getting sidetracked into shared memories—shows we’ve seen, songs we love, conversations we’ve had. It’s an easy path to succumb to in the presence of the affable and genuinely curious James.

His band’s sixth studio album, Circuital, has just been released, and the prior evening, My Morning Jacket headlined one of several festival gigs on its busy summer schedule. Having paid its dues for years in the rock trenches, the band is now, indisputably, one of the most respected touring acts in the world. And with the gradual nature of My Morning Jacket’s ascent, James has a pretty healthy perspective on the band’s success.

“When I was younger I had all these perhaps arbitrary ‘goals’ of being on the cover of this or that magazine, or playing in certain venues, or [receiving] awards,” he says, “but as I mature and the band evolves, it becomes more and more simplified and focused. To continually feel awed by the fact that we get to do what we do on a nightly basis is, in fact, the true end game. I don’t want to discredit any artists in particular, but when instant success hits some of these bands, it’s got to screw with their mindset. I’ve never seen that kind of exaggerated focus do any good over the long haul. It feels good to believe we’ve earned our opportunities.”

June 12, 2004
Manchester, Tenn.

“I might die, but it’d be a hell of way to go out—so very rock and roll,” James tells me, eyeing the looming thunderheads and fork-tongued lightning on the not-so-distant horizon. We’re backstage at Bonnaroo, and while no one knows it yet, My Morning Jacket is on the cusp of a legendary set, a defining moment that will go down as the band’s breakthrough performance.

While most other bands flee to safety, James and company hold their ground—they’ll be damned if they’re going to miss the chance to play in front of their largest crowd to date because of a storm. They take the stage, courageously facing down Mother Nature’s impending fury.

As the set begins, the storm unleashes buckshot pellets of rain, dervish winds and lightning strikes so terrifyingly close that the instant thunder nearly knocks people off their feet. But My Morning Jacket’s hell-bent magnetism and Southern-cock-rock verve somehow override the crowd’s instinctual desire to evacuate. Not only that—as word spreads through the festival of the band’s valiant, death-defying performance, more and more people show up, the multitudes swelling with each note that blasts from the human Tesla coil on stage. Finally, the madness climaxes as James falls to his knees and lofts his lightning-rod Gibson Flying V by its points to the heavens like a grizzled, redneck Thor just daring the gods to strike him down. But they choose to spare him. As if on cue, when the band walks offstage to an applause as thunderous as the storm it’s just weathered, a few rays of silvery sunshine penetrate the ominous dark. People in the audience start to hug and high-five. They have survived. And the band has arrived.

June 24, 2005

On the heels of a spectacular follow-up performance at the following year’s Bonnaroo, complete with towering puppets and a bewigged conductor named Dr. Friedrich von Guggenheim, My Morning Jacket is at Boston’s Agganis Arena opening for Wilco.

With no soundcheck and a small window to prove their mettle, they hit the stage before the lights have even gone down. Displaying their burgeoning affinity for soul, the band opens with Prince’s “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man.” Inexplicably, the lights remain on for the first three songs. And the sound—excruciatingly horrendous in this hockey-rink-turned-concert-hall—might’ve broken the spirit of a lesser band.

Note by note, though, My Morning Jacket begins drawing in the phalanx of at-first skeptical Wilco fans who’ve been cavorting outside. By the last song, the dam has broken, and those already inside rush the floor, foregoing any passionless hipster shoegazery and joining the transcendent collective head-bang that erupts following the opening drum crescendo of “One Big Holiday.” At the end, James looks the small throng in the eye and mouths a sincere, “Thanks.” This band is going to be big.

May 24, 2006

Backstage at the Boston Garden, Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready tells a lingering photographer, “Have you seen MMJ? Amazing stuff; they’ve got this fantastic interplay between guitarists, obviously I always watch for that stuff. Also shirts-off-their-backs kinda guys. You gotta get out there early and catch ’em.”

Sitting at the soundboard, My Morning Jacket’s manager Mike Martinovich glows like a proud father. Unlike their last opening stint in Boston, the lights are off, the sound is superb and the place is packed and buzzing. The band walks onstage with Eddie Vedder in tow and breaks into The Band’s “It Makes No Difference.” It’s been a good year. Still surging on the success of their album Z, some in the rock press have begun hailing My Morning Jacket as “America’s Radiohead.” The comparison is only apt because, like Radiohead before them, the band has defied all comparisons.

The set is appropriately punctuated with “Wordless Chorus,” James proudly proclaiming, “We are the innovators / They are the imitators” as the infectious din of thousands shouting in unison makes it undeniably clear that a large contingent are here for Pearl Jam and My Morning Jacket.

The enthusiasm for the opener has clearly lit a spark under Pearl Jam’s ass, as the veteran rockers barrel through a no-holds-barred set of career highlights. During the show, James ventures out to the soundboard to watch. I ask him if he ever imagined he’d be playing arenas and opening for bands he listened to when he was starting out. James shakes his head and says, “It’s definitely a bit nerve-wracking, but we truly believe we’re more than capable. We look at each step as a natural progression in the grand plan … which truthfully we have no real hand in making other than to stay incentivized and not get too comfortable. Once that happens, and things stop seeming fresh and new, it can quickly become disposable and disappear real fast. The trick is to keep it weird and stay humble about it all.”

Later, back in the band’s dressing room, James tells the assembled coterie to help themselves to drinks. Even with the announcement, I’m hesitant crack open the wax-sealed bottle of Maker’s Mark I’m holding—you just don’t break into a man’s whiskey without asking. But before I can even turn around, James hands me a cup and asks if I need any ice.

June 27, 2006

“What do you think about My Morning Jacket playing a few shows with the Boston Pops?”

My incredulous silence is obviously seeping through the phone.

“I’m serious.”

In my best Boston Brahmin accent, I answer: “Sounds splendid. I must get my cumberbund ironed and tails pressed.”

A friend who works at the Boston Symphony Orchestra office had told me months ago of a new series in which the historic Boston Pops would team up with contemporary bands in order to appeal to a younger non-endemic audience. I had casually suggested My Morning Jacket. As it turns out, so had a few others.

Sneaking peeks at the intense rehearsals, relishing the joyous formality of the occasion and watching the civilized procession of the awed attendees as they entered majestic Symphony Hall was like witnessing a whimsical yet regal graduation ceremony where all the furry freaks, dressed to the nines, straightened each other’s bow ties and clapped with polite sophistication until the music crescendoed and they could no longer contain their whoops and hollers of euphoria. My Morning Jacket in tuxedos jamming with harps, violas and kettle drums—the lunatics had overtaken the asylum.

Nov. 7, 2007
New York City

In the alley behind the Beacon Theatre in Lower Manhattan, actor Heath Ledger enjoys a solitary smoke. He’s here tonight to help emcee a concert celebration for Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan quasi-biopic, I’m Not There, in which he plays one of several “Dylans.” When asked which artist he thought best evoked the spirit of the film, he unsurprisingly names his friends, Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros—a newly formed band, basically doing their first show and playing a very loose cover of “All I Really Want To Do.” But after a long drag, Ledger exhales and adds, “But for pure explosive power and commanding presence—toss up between The Roots’ ‘Masters of War’ and My Morning Jacket’s ‘Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You,’ which just shook the doors off the place, eh?”

Ditching the über-swanky, celebrity-studded downtown after-party, My Morning Jacket and Tift Merritt instead ensconce themselves in some blue-collar Irish pub to shoot pool and sing along with the jukebox. Over pints, James and Merritt bond over the brilliance of Prince. The band is in town putting the finishing touches on their upcoming album, Evil Urges, and its members are in admittedly high spirits after a large chunk of time rehearsing in the wilds of Colorado. There’s a surging confidence in the way they talk about the new songs, and their comfort in each other’s presence is palpable—they’re a band of brothers getting ready to take on the world. And it’s not long before James takes on the pub’s jukebox. The ensuing karaoke party goes deep into the night, with James at one point belting out a pitch-perfect rendition of “Easy,” doing his best Lionel Richie while folks from the band’s label, ATO, sing backup, playing the part of The Commodores. In true MMJ fashion, there’s no sarcasm, no irony—just an enthusiasm for music and sharing it with others.

March 14, 2008
Austin, Texas

A few months earlier, a hand-scrawled copy of My Morning Jacket’s fifth album, Evil Urges, landed in my office. The first spin was less a surprise than an affirmation that any prognostications about what this album might sound like were utterly useless. Like a cocksure funambulist straddling the abyss, My Morning Jacket had once again sauntered into the uncharted future. But looking back over the band’s catalog, each record is a postcard of its sonic evolution; the proof is in the live show.

I’m at SXSW to see the band unleash its new songs on an unsuspecting public. After spending most of the past 72 hours with Jim James, it’s 3 a.m. and I’m on a balcony at the Driskill Hotel recuperating from sensory overload. The sheer physicality of the sound from a “secret” club gig, the fearless ferocity of My Morning Jacket’s main showcase, a hastily concocted Lou Reed tribute show, the sweet intimacy of a church set with friend and fellow Monster of Folk M. Ward, not to mention a bizarre jaunt to the Austin Zoo with the entire band—it’s all left me incredulous at the speed with which James and company caterwaul to each end of the musical spectrum and still maintain the energy to lay themselves bare on every note of every song. This is an efficient bunch. Nothing is spared. Nothing is wasted.

Here at the hotel with a small group of friends, James unwinds, singing along with everything seeping from the suite’s 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. Listening to him harmonize with Martha & the Vandellas on “Heatwave” and his personal theme song “Jimmy Mack” with such self-amusement, I ask him how he’s holding up.

“Just being here at SXSW, it just feels like my brain is running out my nose. There’s 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 then getting wild, and the real fans can’t get in. … The thing that we always talk about as a band, that makes us sad, is while we know we live in a mostly visual world—at the end of the day it’s not about us. My fantasy story is more 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 our music 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 the 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.”

And, in a world of distractions, that’s what My Morning Jacket has always held fast to—the music. “We try and make our fans understand that we’re fans of music too, and the one thing technology cannot kill is the live music experience,” James says. “People love to wax on about Springsteen or Zeppelin. To me, those are moments in time where it’s proven 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 just 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.”

Without another word, James cues up Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” and the night shifts slowly into day.

June 13, 2008
Manchester, Tenn.

Bonnaroo’s What Stage My Morning Jacket Storms = Epic Event. This is no longer a theory; it’s been subjected to all the necessary proofs. Starting sometime after midnight, for nearly four hours in every type of rain the wicked Southern skies can conjure, this decade-old band from Louisville, Ky., is sonically strafing the weak of heart and eviscerating those lacking intestinal fortitude. Most in attendance, though, seem more than willing to go the distance.

Through this unhinged romp, the band morphs from fist-pumping, tongue-wagging, melodic daredevils to an unstoppable platoon of funkified yetis lurching hither and yon—covering Erykah Badu, Kool & The Gang and Bobby Womack—their insatiable maws swallowing all who dare commune with the feral beasts within. Then Metallica’s Kirk Hammett materializes out of dry ice to share lead guitar on “One Big Holiday,” and comedian Zach Galifianakis—dressed as Little Orphan Annie—sings lead on Mötley Crüe’s “Home Sweet Home.” Where does a band go from here? How can you top what just transpired? Do they go on hiatus? Do they try their hands at polka?

Jim James and his mates stood atop the mount and claimed the mantle of best festival band in the country. In the steaming pre-dawn mist, James stands dumbfounded, grinning and emotionally fried, muttering, “Wow, that actually happened—it really happened,” before he and his bandmates celebrate their heroic feat with some Egg McMuffins at a nearby McDonald’s.

Nov. 3, 2009

James is arm-in-arm with his friends and fellow Monsters of Folk, M. Ward, Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis backstage, filming a contest announcement for their fan club. There’s obviously been little rehearsal as they keep cracking each other up and flubbing their lines. They truly seem to enjoy each other’s company, like a group of old high-school buddies having a long weekend away from their responsibilities.

Later, over coffee James says, “Each day with these amazing friends and musicians is a fresh start. At times it’s like an intricate dance because we all love each other’s songs so much we have trouble deciding which ones should be in the set. Even though I’m still on the road, it seems easier because it’s such a relaxed atmosphere. I’m still feeling pretty untethered, like a balloon floating around in a personal way, with all my stuff in storage, but I’m not anxious about it anymore. I’m just staying pretty open to each day and living it. The grass can always be greener, but this is so fresh I’m enjoying it all.”

James looks at them for validation. They all nod in unison.

July 31, 2010
Newport, R.I.

This is James’ third time at Newport Folk Festival as a solo artist, and he’s making the most of it. “It’s an honor to roam these hallowed halls with all the fine performers of yesteryear and today,” James says of playing the nation’s oldest music festival. “That’s the crazy thing about [Newport Folk]—it’s been going on forever, and all those past years are still happening right now. … We’re on top of ghosts. They’re on top of ghosts. They’re on top of other ghosts.”

This year, James is haunting everyone else’s sets. Dressed in a dapper, brown three-piece suit with a small stuffed owl for a pocket square, he manages to sit in with Calexico, John Prine, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Sarah Jarosz, Ben Sollee and Daniel Martin Moore—and only missed performing with Levon Helm because he was starving and wandered off to grab a burrito.

Last year, in the midst a night of debauchery that began with an impromptu late-night jam session broke out by the water with James, M. Ward and David Rawlings. James continued singing and playing in a nearby chapel, spouting absinthe-inspired a cappella Janet Jackson covers, and the festivities ended with a dip in the Atlantic at dawn.

Since then, James has embraced the festival as a place where he can cut loose, let his hair down and dip deeper into his expanding catalog. Today’s set is no exception. It’s not just a heart-wrenching cover of the late John Callahan’s “Summer Never Ends” or a sublime, foot-stomping rendition of Harry Belafonte’s “Sylvie”; it’s the poignant interplay between the man onstage and those bearing witness. They’re entwined, inseparable, feeding off each other in a symbiotic exchange.

March 2011
Austin, Texas

After another SXSW endurance contest, I’m lounging at an airport BBQ joint, waiting for my flight back home, when James unexpectedly strolls by with his roller suitcase and sits down. As usual, he’s spent the last 48 hours being everywhere at once, jamming with The Preservation Hall Jazz Band before a screening of documentary Louisiana Fairytale, taping an Austin City Limits session and checking out a showcase by Nicole Atkins, to whose last album James lent his backing vocals. We get some ice cream, and I ask him about the pending release of My Morning Jacket’s new album, Circuital, which is set to drop in a few months. Every time I’d seen him at the start of an album promotional cycle before, he’d always had this frenetic energy pulsing under his casually cool demeanor. This time, though, he seemed different.

At this point, he has nothing to prove to anybody—he and the band are now playing pretty much on their own terms. But unlike some gloating, cocksure, preening rockstars, James seems at ease transitioning into the “middle period” of his career. He’s happy, is now in a solid relationship—which had not been the case during the writing of Evil Urges—and the natural stability has only strengthened his resolve to be more open creatively.

“Gearing up for the next 18 months—it’s like I walk the line between the excitement of birthing this album and knowing I’m going to be away from home,” he says. “It’s a tough duality, but it’s a good place to be because it means I’m moving forward on all fronts. I think about this point in our career and our lives quite a bit. If we focus on the elements of life that are the most important, and try to make the experience better for all including ourselves, it can be a gorgeous thing. There’s a reciprocity if we do what’s the most honest and true to our nature, and it becomes this beautiful dance.”

June 6, 2011
New York City

In a Town Car on 8th Ave., on the way to one of his countless press/radio commitments, James is being prepped by his management on the conversation topics for his upcoming radio interview. The first is, “What year in music do you think was the most important.” James jokes that he should name 2011 as the year that has meant the most to him. “Seriously though,” James finally decides. “1971. What’s Going On, Marvin Gaye—that’s the starting point that changed the game.”

June 11, 2011
Manchester, Tenn.

A lone trumpeter steps onto Bonnaroo’s monolithic main stage and heralds the coming of the wild-maned horsemen of American rock ’n’ roll, My Morning Jacket. The blare is suddenly punctured by the primal yawp of frontman Jim James as the foreboding funk of “Victory Dance” cascades over the sea of ravenous revelers.

Hope to dance the victory dance
After the day’s work is done
Hope to dance the victory dance
In the evening’s setting sun

Having finally been given their rightful slot on Bonnaroo’s main stage after years as the festival’s benchmark, the band is due for a victory lap. And, yes, the sun is setting just as James’ lyrics float out above the roaring crowd.

The next day, after the sweat has dried from all the ecstatic tension and release, I run into James backstage during The Meters’ set as a large second line assembles, featuring the Preservation Hall Jazz Band with special guests My Morning Jacket. James twirls a Saints parasol like a funky pied piper and shakes his head at the madness from the night before.

“Truly surreal,” he says. “Just a blurring ocean of flesh, as far as I could see. Just feeding off that energy was mind-blowing. It’s a different beast, one that you simply ride instead of trying to tame. Every time we’ve played here it’s a different intensity, but this was just electric. I keep wondering where we go from here, but I guess it doesn’t matter as long as we can keep doing this for a living.”

As we draw closer to the parade’s final destination, a massive Mr. T. Mardi Gras float, we bid each other farewell.

“Until next time…”

Right back in the same place / That we started out.

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