erasing clouds

Bringin' the Noise: An Interview With Jim James of My Morning Jacket

by dave heaton

After two great albums for Darla Records--The Tennessee Fire and At Dawn--Louisville-based rockers My Morning Jacket have taken their songs to a major label with their third album It Still Moves, released by ATO Records, a subdivision of RCA. Forget, though, about whatever fears and hang-ups you have when a group moves from a small independent label to a larger, more commercial label, for the main difference here is that more people are likely to hear them. Their musical personality - a sublime mix of knock-em-dead rock n' roll, the atmosphere of a gorgeous sunset and old-style country - is intact. If anything, It Still Moves showcases a tighter, more rock-oriented Jacket, the same band that you might have glimpsed if you ever saw them grace a stage. The fact that they've been touring like demons for the last few years, opening for anybody you can think of and doing headlining shows in between, means that many new fans of the group are likely to know them as the rambunctious on-stage monster that they can be anyway. It Still Moves shows off that side of the group better than either of their previous albums, while still having plenty of moments of grace and imagination.

{Note: the interview below with My Morning Jacket lead singer Jim James was conducted last week over e-mail.}

How did you think your near-constant touring since At Dawn affected the way It Still Moves sounds?

Near constant touring made us a much stronger unit as a band. It made the record have more of a live, all at once feel as opposed to building it up like we did on At Dawn, or just using simpler arrangements on the 'Fire. If there's one thing that oils up the machine, it's a tourin!

What led to the horn players being on the album? When you wrote those two songs, did you envision them with horns?

Yes, when I first downloaded the songs from the ether into my brain, horns were included in the arrangements. I knew I wanted to have them, and then Nico Bolas, whom we were working with helping find equipment for the studio, recommended Willie Mitchell and his fabulous Horns. That was an offer I had to make happen. They were sensational, it was like watching god creating the earth they way they melded those hornz together.

It's obvious from the way the record turned out that ATO Records gave you creative freedom and didn't pressure you, like fans often fear will happen when a band signs to a bigger label. How difficult was it to find a major label that would let you do whatever you want without hassle?

We talked to lots of labels and lots of people say a lot of things, but ATO and RCA really walked the walk. We made sure everything we asked for was included in our contracts, and they were very positive and agreeing. I feel we are building a very great relationship with them because we want them to know that yes, we want our creative freedom, but we wanna work hard and be professional about what we do, not abuse it and make metal machine music 2.

You're on tour right now. How's it going? What have been some of the most memorable moments so far?

Tour has been great. We've felt some really great connections from people at the shows. It has been fucking amazing and completely rewarding, but tour is like constantly being pounded down with a hammer. It really wears on you physically, and it's hard sometimes to "bring the noise" night after night, but we huddle before we go onstage each night and pump each other up, remind ourselves why we're here, what we want to do, and all the good that has and will come from it.

To be frank, live you guys really put on a kick-ass show. Have you ever considered releasing a live album?

Thank you sir. Yes, we just recorded 4 shows, actually. At some point we'll begin mixing them. I wanna put out several live records over our career. Cause we are one way now, and I hope if we're lucky and get to be around for awhile we will change and grow and keep putting out live records.

I saw you open for the Doves, and it was a great pairing even though on paper it might seem like the two bands don't have much in common - how did you meet them and end up touring with them?

We just sent them some music cause we heard they were looking for openers. they luckily enjoyed it and brought us out. We just did some festivals and dates with them in England. It was great to see them again, especially on their home turf. What an amazing group of guys they are.

Both times I've seen you live, it was in New York City while I was on vacation. Do you play there more often than other places, and if so, do you have a particular fondness for the place?

I love NYC, more and more every time I come here (I'm here right now, actually, we just played CMJ last night). The undescribable energy that come off this place is amazing. I feel like I live here we are here so much. Hey, it's just the center of so much that's goin on, so yes we do play here quite a bit.

Some of the songs on It Still Moves are songs you've been playing live for a while - "One Big Holiday" and "I Will Sing You Songs" are the two I'm thinking of. Do you often write more songs than you use on an album? Do you have a closet full of unreleased songs, or just a handful?

Yes, that is always the case. I've got a lot of songs that didn't work on this album and others that are setting up the foundations for future albums...I always like having a general idea when we start an album, with a couple songs I have milling around, then other ones pop up as we're working on the founding songs.

I loved your Chocolate and Ice EP. Did you see that EP as a way to experiment and work through different sounds and styles? Also, is ATO OK with you putting out smaller records like that (either with them or on other labels), or have the days of 7"s and split EPs come to an end?

Thank you for saying that sir. Yes chocy was definitely a way to experiment. that is one of the funnest things about music is that you can play it so many ways, do so many things with it, there's no need to limit yourself to one style or sound. I love variety and couldn't bear the thought of just being hammered into one style. We always try and switch it up. ATO is very cool and I'm sure there will be many things coming out in many ways in the future.

How would you describe your approach to writing lyrics? Would it be fair to say you go for feelings or impressions more than direct storytelling?

I have no approach. I try to do both, sometimes abstract songs leave more room for the listener to be creative themselves and have it mean something it never would've meant for me. But sometimes I like to tell a specific story for a specific reason.

One of my favorite songs on It Still Moves is the last one, "One in the Same," which I think is a real beauty. What can you tell me about that song and what inspired it?

Thank you. That song reminds me of snowing. When I wrote it I was in my bedroom with only green xmas lights turned out. I was lying on my back on the floor with my headphones on thru the 4 track with a bunch of reverb just listening to the air with the reverb on it. I had this vision of riding in a carriage thru the snow sitting on a family member's lap as a child back in the 1800's, on a long journey thru a snowy forest, and all the ways we would entertain ourselves, like singing, since there was no radio. And then I thought about growing up and what it would've been like then to realize your dreams in such a different way than we do now, but really though working it out, it would be exactly the same.


Issue 16, October 2003

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