Want Some Hangout Clout? My Morning Jacket's Jim James Is the Surreal Deal

05/13/2015 10:47 am ET | Updated May 12, 2016

Is Jim James for real?

My Morning Jacket's mysterious frontman/guitarist/vocalist must enjoy keeping people guessing, bouncing from prestigious side projects to occasional solo work to incredible collaborations with the likes of Elvis Costello and Marcus Mumford.

The trio joined Rhiannon Giddens (Carolina Chocolate Drops) and Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes) to record Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes, a T Bone Burnett-produced album and Showtime documentary that required the five singer-songwriters to flesh out Bob Dylan's long-lost lyrics into the most intriguing roots-oriented product of the 2014 holiday season.

Hangout 2015 textMembers of James' actual band have been co-stars, too. Portraying the fictional Ruckus in the Cameron Crowe film Elizabethtown, they burned up the stage in more ways than one with a rendition of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird" that was the highlight for many who were otherwise disappointed in the 2005 dramady.

Part whimsical, part weirdness, part wonderment, James was a cartoon character who transformed American Dad from "emotional tight ass" to swooning soul neighbor, did a trance-like dance with a golden bear onstage (witness the photo from the 2013 Hangout) and released a solo EP under the name Yim Yames.

The man, the myth, the enigma, with a voice that can summon angels and a churning Flying V that sounds like he made a deal with the devil.

Jim James hair guitarJim James bearNeedless to say, his return to the stage with MMJ at the Hangout festival (7:15 p.m. May 17, Surf stage) in Gulf Shores, Alabama, is highly anticipated.

Even frontmen (and women) from other bands performing at the festival such as Houndmouth and Kopecky are ready, expecting to see a tailored Jacket that still fits after 16 years.

With the May 5 release of The Waterfall (ATO/Capitol), My Morning Jacket -- which also includes Tom Blankenship (bass), Patrick Hallahan (drums), Carl Broemel (guitars) and Bo Koster (keyboards) -- is pulling out all the stops. Its first studio album since 2011's Circuital means mega-promotion, from appearances on Ellen and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon to a lengthy Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything).

To help represent My Morning Jacket's part in this Hangout preview series focusing on a wide range of groups, James recently took time out from his hectic schedule to answer a few random and festival-related questions via email, and showed he was a good sport by supplying answers to a few goofy curveballs that didn't necessarily deserve a response. He even managed to throw us a couple of sliders. So is James really for real?

The opening song from The Waterfall -- the beauteous "Believe (Nobody Knows)" -- just might reveal the power behind this electric eccentric.


My Morning Jacket (from left): Jim James, Carl Broemel,
Patrick Hallahan, Bo Koster, Tom Blankenship.


What makes The Waterfall stand out from your previous works as a solo artist and with My Morning Jacket?

JJ: Well, I mean I hope they all stand out on their own as their own special thing. They really are like children in that sense you love them all in their own special way.

Compared with performing solo, what are the pluses and privileges associated with a group membership that keep bringing you back to My Morning Jacket?

JJ: It is like a family -- there is a sense of immediate acceptance but also a strong bond that can only be formed and strengthened by the passing of time and continued time spent together ... that is something so different from the rush of something new. ... It is a deep connection forged by many hours in the fire. That bond is so different from doing solo work. ... I am a solitary person sometimes and just really enjoy working by myself. So I need both sides of the coin.

Having worked on so many different projects, you might be considered the current king of musical collaborators. If that's too high and mighty, where would you rank yourself in today's royal hierarchy?

JJ: Ha-ha-ha, I def would not call myself the king but thanks. I just enjoy collaborating. I think there is always something to be learned, and I think that one could never collaborate enough -- that would be impossible. So I am always excited and honored when someone wants to work with me. I think one's musical life should be free and open to new experience in order to keep expanding your mind and horizons.

Whatever happened to Yim Yames?

JJ: It was just a joke that no one got. It ended up causing me more time just explaining that there was no explanation and I just got tired of talking about it! People always want reasons for things ... but sometimes there are no reasons.

How did you feel about participating in the Basement Tapes project and how did that experience change you as a songwriter? Did it affect the way you write songs?

JJ: It was a truly beautiful experience. And yes, of course, I learned so much. ... Working with the words of Dylan was unreal ... seeing what appealed to my current soul and also which one's I did not gravitate to gave me a lot of perspective on the concept of like and dislike and how no one, even the greatest lyricist of all time, is ever perfect. It all made me question the nature of a song. What is a song? Especially when three of us would write completely different music to the same set of lyrics. Working with T Bone and Elvis, who have produced so much great music throughout the years, was truly inspiring as well as the fresh perspectives of Taylor, Marcus and Rhiannon -- it was very interesting to see how my peers went about their process as well. It was true ego-free magic and I hope we get to release Volume 2 and play more together. We had a lot of laughs.

Outside of music, what's been your most satisfying contribution?

JJ: This is obvious -- but friends and family are the key to life for me ... so I like to think that I have hopefully contributed even a fraction of the magic to their lives that they have contributed to mine. I am very blessed to have a great group of long-term friends and a huge family that has been very loving and supportive. I try to stay connected to that and contribute as much as I can.

So what's the deal with the golden bear? What's his/her name and what led to making him/her part of your stage show? Where does it hibernate when it's not onstage?

JJ: Some things cannot be explained. This is part of the magic of life. There cannot be a word or an idea or a definition attached to everything. Think of all of the biggest mysteries of life that we cannot nor will we ever be able to explain.

What can audiences expect from My Morning Jacket's latest tour show?

JJ: I think that live music is something that the Internet can never kill. The community getting together to form a circle -- in which everyone present is equal -- band and crowd together in perfect union harmony expressing and receiving ... giving and taking. ... Even if you do not know the person next to you -- you are sharing a special experience with them -- people getting out of their little boxes and coming together to be with other people. We are just happy to be a part of this experience.


1. What separates the Hangout from other music festivals?

JJ: It is on the beach, which is so beautiful to look out on, this beach you have been to before in your life and now here you are playing on it and all these people are having fun.

2. When you're not making music, where do you like to hang out?

JJ: When I am not making music, I enjoy hanging at the Hangout festival.

3. Complete this sentence: If life is a beach, then Gulf Shores is ...

JJ: A beach.  

4. What about your previous appearances as Jim James (while touring behind 2013's Regions of Light and Sound of God) and with My Morning Jacket (2011) at the Hangout festival made you want to come back? What moment(s) stood out?

JJ: Oh man, it is just so cool to play on the beach right next to the water. I am deeply moved by water as I think most people are -- so to play music with it is a most powerful experience.

5. What band in the 2015 Hangout lineup would you pay to see?

JJ: Peter, Paul and Mary.

Fourth in a series that began with Kopecky on May 1 and continued with the Mowgli's on May 7 and Houndmouth on May 12. See more in the days leading up to the Hangout festival.

My Morning Jacket publicity photo by Danny Clinch. Jim James 2013 Hangout performance photos by Michael Bialas.