My Morning Jacket's Jim James on the idea of letting fans tweet the songs they want to hear
Having formed in the late '90s, Louisville, Kentucky's My Morning Jacket has continued to evolve over the course of six studio albums. At the same time, the band has managed to hang on to that reverb-drenched magnetism that fueled its first two albums -- 1999's Tennessee Fire and 2001's At Dawn. With last year's Circuital, the band proved that it was trying something different, especially on the very un-metal-sounding "Holdin' On to Black Metal," which employs a loop of a Thai pop song from the '60s, and the Beach Boys-inspired "Outta My System." We spoke with frontman Jim James about recording Circuital live, the Spontaneous Curation Series (where fans can make song requests via Twitter) and how the band tried to create multiple first takes and a self-hypnosis series the band is working on.
Westword: How is the Spontaneous Curation Series going so far?
Jim James: It's been going really great. It's really cool. It's been a really cool exchange. It's cool to see what people want to hear versus what we want to play and what we would have thought to have played. There's always some interesting things that come up each night that we might not have thought to play. I really like the idea of, you know, tweeting in to us what they want to hear, and I just love the thought of somebody out there in the crowd being really stoked that we're playing a song that we might not have thought to play, that they really wanted to hear. It's just a really cool feeling.
Are you guys delving into a lot more deeper cuts than you'd normally do?
I think we normally try to do a lot of deeper cuts, but we kind of go through phases of likes and dislikes of songs that we have. It's just a cool way to get us out of our heads a little bit, just kind of listening to people saying what they want to hear and try and play that.
Have there been any surprises on some of the songs people have chosen
Well, not really surprises, per se. It's kind of more like a memory-lane, time-machine sort of thing, where you might not be expecting to think about a certain song or you haven't thought about it in a while. Somebody requests it and kind of brings back memories of making that song and what was going on at that time in your life. A similar thing happened when we did all of our albums at Terminal 5 in New York. We played all of our albums in their entirety, and that was like a really cool time-machine sort of experience.
Speaking of going back and maybe looking back at the evolution of the band over the last decade, is that like one of those things you can sort of look at from the inside and sort of chart how you guys have changed and evolved over the years? Or is it kind of hard of see from being inside it all?
Well, I feel we kind of always let the music change us and let our own personal tastes change us. Probably being music nerds and music fans ourselves... I think that's the coolest thing about being a musician is, like, letting the music that you love change from time to time. It also changes how you think about your own music. It's kind of like this really great web of thought that really...I don't know. It's cool. It's like a limitless well of information than you can keep changing and growing with.
Speaking of musical tastes changing, are there any bands you were still into maybe a decade ago, and what are you into now?
I kind of go in these weird spurts of, like, devouring music and really loving it and really enjoying and really being fully into it. And then feeding on something else and getting really drawn into that. I kind of let myself be carried along of the current of activity. Lately, I've been into a lot of new music. There's a band called Floating Action from North Carolina that I discovered not too long ago and just have been really in love with their music and I've been listening to that a whole lot. There's just a lot of really great stuff going on right now.
Is there older stuff you keep kind of coming back to that you really dig?
Yeah, there are the classic touchstones. I enjoy a lot of gospel music and artists like Curtis Mayfield, Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye. I like a lot of artists that were big pop stars that started off in the church and stuff like that. It's kind of cool to hear that. I'm a big fan of digging through old recordings, like there's a lot of great labels who put out kind of lost recordings by at the time might have been unknown artists long ago that never got discovered, and now they're kind of getting rediscovered.
Like the Numero Group stuff?
Exactly. Numero Group puts out a lot of great stuff. I've kind of been in that kind of mind frame a lot, which is cool because that constantly changes too as people find more stuff.
And kind of going back a ways with the song "The Way He Sings," I was reading about how you said that it's based on Roy Orbison and Neil Young, or maybe sort of a combination of a lot of singers that you like.
Yeah, it really based on all my favorite singers. It's kind of like, "Why do you like a person's voice and dislike another person's voice?" That's the beautiful thing about music is that a lot of times it's inexplicable, really, you know, why you like what you do and why you don't. So the song's kind of about that -- about the beauty of something and not really understanding why you love because you love how it sounds.
With Circuital, you recorded the whole album live? Have you guys done that before on previous albums?
Well, we usually always record the band live, like all of the instruments live. But this time I really wanted to get the main vocal live for every track as well when we did it so that would be a big part of our initial emotion of doing a take and deciding if we liked the take or not. I wanted the vocal to be a big part of that. This was the most completely live thing that we've ever done.
We did some overdubs after that with some strings and keyboards, but we just wanted the core of each song to have been done completely live because it's really thrilling when you run into the control room after a take like that and everybody's just got that magic of knowing you just did a great take, and being able to listen to it and hear the vocals and hear everything and be able to identify with the song quicker.
Did you guys find that a lot of the energy and the passion comes in the first few takes or after playing it a few times?
It's both. You definitely get a lot of excitement and energy and passion on the first few takes, but sometimes you're just learning the song on the first few takes. It's kind of cool because I feel like we have this system of trying to create first takes over and over again if we're working in a song. We'll work on it for a while and if we're not getting it, it's good to take a break or go do something completely different like play basketball or something. And when you come back in you kind of be in that mind frame again of feeling like you're right at the beginning of it.
There's a Thelonious Monk documentary, Straight, No Chaser, where his sax player talks about how Monk would usually do one or two cuts because he thought that's where all the passion was, and if you didn't nail it in those first few cuts you had to live with it on record for the rest of your life.
I think part of that is a good philosophy because I think mistakes are the most interesting things about a track. I feel that a lot of times it's really great to let the mistakes ride and let it just be what it was, in the moment. I think that's cool, definitely. We try to look at things that way as well, but sometimes when you're learning a song or just playing a song you feel like you haven't gotten what you want to express with the song -- that's when the theory doesn't work really.
I was kind of curious to hear about the self-hypnosis series you're working on.
We just wanted a chance to release, I don't know, just different types of music we work on, like maybe more instrumental or hypnotizing music that we feel like is good for certain things in the brain that could be good for listeners to listen to. Music is very healing and very energizing and most people listen to music for fun or for emotional release or whatever. We listen to music driving around in our cars, or we dance to it or whatever, but I think that music is also very healing and very important as a healing tool, something you can kind of sit around with headphones and listen to and try and reprogram your brain.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.