A Conversation With My Morning Jacket's Jim James
Mike Ragogna: How are you, Jim?
Jim James: Hey, I'm pretty good. How are you doing?
MR: Pretty well, thanks. What has this latest round of touring been like for you guys?
JJ: It's been great. We just finished a big tour, and we're on a break right now. I just feel so lucky to be out there playing and that people want to see us play. We're in a really good time for us...we're all just feeling really good and really positive about being alive, and enjoying making music together. Every day on tour, we wake up and think about how blessed we are to be doing what we're doing, so it's a good time.
MR: And you guys kicked off this tour with that simulcast in Louisville a few months, right?
MR: So, you've been touring a while and having all these amazing experiences, has that been adding to your creative process? Do you get inspired to write or maybe just get ideas for new projects while on the road?
JJ: I do get a lot of ideas on the road...usually just ideas that I try to remember because it's tough for me to try and work on the road, being so busy. I'm a big, huge, gigantic fan of the cell phone voice memo recorder. I feel like that's the most valuable tool that technology has brought into my life, or one of them. If I get an idea anywhere, I've always got my phone on me, and then I'll be able to come home and deal with that. But yeah, I've gotten a lot of really cool inspiration on the road because you go to so many different, crazy places, and you're kind of walking through a place and a song will pop into your head, so I'll just duck over into a corner and sing it into the phone, and then try to bring it to life later.
MR: How else does inspiration come to you?
JJ: Um, that's a great question. Do you mean just on the road or in general?
MR: In general. When you're ready to write a song, what's your process, what do you do?
JJ: I don't know, it's always different because sometimes the song comes in a full package, and other times, it just comes in little bits. We've kind of built whole songs out of just one little thirty second inspiration. So, some songs come fully formed in my head with all the arrangements and everything. It's always different, it's always a different process.
MR: Nice. I have to ask you, where did you find those fur boots I saw you wearing in Kentucky?
JJ: I'll never tell. It's a secret source.
MR: (laughs) Let's talk about your latest album, Circuital. What shaped that album?
JJ: Well, it was the first album we'd ever made in Louisville, which is where we're from, so that was a really cool experience for us, to be at home and kind of experiencing home life and recording life at the same time. We had never done that before we'd usually kind of holed-up and isolated ourselves. I definitely feel like all these songs feel like they're a family together. I feel like most of our records are like that. We do a lot of variety and try to do a lot of different things, but at the end of the day I feel like each record kind of speaks to itself as a family unit--all the songs speak amongst one another and speak to us as a band because they all come from the same batch of life experience usually. When I look back over the records, I remember different era's from life, different people from that era, and different things that I did that reflected into those songs. On this record, we wanted to capture it all really live because we play live so much and we wanted to make the experience as live as possible. I wanted to get my main vocal live with the band at the same time, so we set up in this beautiful old gymnasium here in Louisville, and it just made for a very open, simple environment for us to set up, play, and communicate. We try to capture each song's core performance in a live take.
MR: Nice. When you're in that environment, you're really relying on each other as a band more than you would normally, when you can always fix things in the mix, you know?
MR: Did the experience of making the record in that way bring you guys closer?
JJ: Definitely. The experience of this record was really fantastic for us. It was hard, and it had its challenges, but I feel like it really brought us together. As I look at us, as a band, that's really how I want to make records because that's really the whole point of us being a band--playing live. I enjoy the recording studio, and I love every aspect of the recording studio. I love digital recording and I love messing with things with the art of the computer, but I also love the analog world and the world of not messing with anything at all and just getting down to the heart of a group of people playing music together in a room. So, I feel like that is what I'm really interested in, as far as us as a band goes. It's fun too, to explore the art of the recording studio because the recording studio is such an amazing tool. It is the greatest instrument, as somebody said once. As far as this band is concerned, and the core of what we do, it was an amazing experience to just sit back and try to capture us playing in a room.
MR: Talking about bonding and closeness, it was phenomenal the amount of chemistry you guys had with your guests in that Palace concert in Louisville. It was amazing to watch you guys with Erykah Badu, and to see that the audience got it, you know?
JJ: Yeah, she's a magician. She's a real life sorcerer. She's a really powerful being, and we're really lucky that she came down to play with us. She's somebody I've always looked up to as an artist. For us, she's sort of in that big sister/big brother generation of bands that came before us like The Flaming Lips, Bjork, and Wilco--that generation that is about ten years older than we are--and I've always looked up to her albums. She's always reinventing herself, reinventing music, and reinventing sounds, and that, to me, is what it's all about, you know, rather than just doing the same thing over and over again. Getting to play with her was great because we just share so much in common. There is a lot that is different about her records, but at her heart, she's so of rock 'n' roll, and we're just into getting as many experiences as we can.
MR: And of course, you guys have something in common as far as a certain song, don't you?
JJ: (laughs) Yeah, we covered "Tyrone" a long time ago, when it first came out. She released it, and then five years ago or so, she heard that we had covered it, liked it, and came to see us play in Dallas. She jumped up on stage with us and did the song then, so that was one of the main reasons that we thought inviting her would be cool. We had had that experience and we wanted to recreate that for this show and tap into the inspiration she's brought us.
MR: I imagine it must be hard to finish a tour and know that you have an album to work on. When you start a new album, do you and the band have a vision of what you'd like the final product to be?
JJ: That's the most beautiful thing; at the end of the recording process, our vision is kind of irrelevant. It's like the music takes over and it becomes what it wants to become. I have ideas, thoughts, and songs that I bring in, and then we have the chemistry of the band and everyone's ideas that go into those songs. But at the end of the day, the record kind of decides what it wants to be on its own because our opinions often don't matter. Often times, the song we thought was going to be the best one on the record doesn't even make the record, and the song that started out as just a little thirty second blip turns into everybody's favorite song on the record. I feel like that's the most powerful thing about music, and what I love about it, that you just have to surrender to it. At the end of the day, your say isn't as important as its say is.
MR: Well said. Now, a lot of your songs have been used on television shows. And a great MMJ moment was on American Dad with the "My Morning Straight Jacket" episode. What was that like for you guys?
JJ: That was insane. That was such an honor, and just a really cool experience to work with those guys and see it all come to life. It's pretty scary too because at the end of the day, we didn't have control over what the finished product was. They asked us a lot of questions and wanted to make sure we were happy, but we didn't know what it was going to be like until it was done. I'll never forget sitting there watching it for the first time and being so nervous about it, but then when it was done, being so happy about it. I felt like they really put their heart and soul into it, and had a lot of deep knowledge of the band. I was really, really happy with that.
MR: You also had Circuital's "Victory Dance" featured on the TV show House, and one of my favorite uses was in the How I Met Your Mother episode when they used "Xmas Time Is Here Again."
JJ: I don't know if I saw that one. It's hard to keep track of them sometimes. I usually read what the scene is and make sure of the context, but I'm not the biggest television watcher, so I don't catch them all. I feel like that's one of the coolest vehicles for getting your songs out there--getting someone turned onto your music by a show that they already like. That's happened to me so many times, where I see a movie or a show with a song in it, and then all of a sudden, you're turned on to a new band. It's just a beautiful process.
MR: What advice would you have for new artists?
JJ: I always tell people just to listen to their gut, listen to their heart, and don't listen to any naysayer's that tell you that you can't do something or tell you what you're doing isn't good or isn't correct. You're always going to have a lot of naysayer's--we always had a lot of naysayer's--when you're starting out, with people telling you that you'll never make it. There are so many people in the world that have dreams, and I feel like those dreams pop into our heads for a reason, and it's our sacred duty to listen to our dreams and follow those things. That's my biggest thing--don't let anyone talk you out of anything that you believe in.
MR: Would that be the advice you would have given yourself, as you first started out with My Morning Jacket?
JJ: Definitely. Not to me, necessarily, because I was pretty stubborn. I just wanted to do what I wanted to do, and I thought that anybody telling me not to do that was an idiot and I didn't listen to them. So, I was kind of lucky in that aspect. Maybe my advice to myself would be just to be more self-aware--I don't know--take things in more, and don't be as easily rattled by things. There are just so many things that happen over the course of life, and it's easy to be rattled, especially when you're in a semi-public world, being in a band or being someone that is putting themselves out there.
MR: Speaking of putting yourself out there, you're going to be doing an Austin City Limits, aren't you?
MR: When is that?
JJ: September 15th, 16th, and 17th are the dates, I think.
MR: And you're no stranger to Austin City Limits of course.
JJ: No, we love Austin. We've done a festival, we've done a TV show, and Austin is just one of those special places on Earth. Any time to be in Austin is a good time.
MR: One last question for you, what in the news has got your eye right now?
JJ: The thing I think about most are the raging health care debates that roll on and fall back. That, to me, is one of the most important issues facing us as a county. I feel like the concept that we don't know how to take care of our own people, and that people can suffer and lose their entire livelihood just because of some illness or misfortune that befalls them is a sin. To me, it's just a sin that we can't figure that out. Obviously, there has been some progress made on it, but the fact that it isn't already done and that everyone isn't safely covered and taken care of is just silly.
MR: That's a really good point. I really appreciate your time, Jim. All the best with the rest of your tour and with your latest album, Circuital. Do you have any parting words you'd like to share?
JJ: Just to thank you, and I hope you have a good one.
1. Victory Dance
3. The Day Is Coming
4. Wonderful (The Way I Feel)
5. Outta My System
6. Holdin On To Black Metal
7. First Light
8. You Wanna Freak Out
9. Slow Slow Tune
10. Movin' Away
Transcribed by Ryan Gaffney
STEPHAN SAID'S "TAKE A STAND" - FREE DOWNLOAD!
Stephan Said's new album difrent (yes, spelled correctly) drops on Sept 21, The United Nations' International Day of Peace. Stephan's work--and this song--is about taking a stand for a more equitable global society both between nations and peoples, and the environment. Its first single is "Take a Stand," presented here as a Huffington Post exclusive download.
"It isn't just a song, it's a mission: the creation of a distribution network and broadcast platform for the music of our international movement," says Said. "It is being given away today to be shared by people and organizations who support the vision--bringing numerous artists and groups together through music to create a soundtrack for our generation's dream of a more equitable global society. Every download is your vote for a more equal world."
Through the song, the album it comes from, and Said's website, www.difrent.org, Said aims to help the global movement coalesce. Said adds, "We already have an international movement, a zeitgeist for a more equal society. When artists unite and declare themselves as members of that generation, the movement will gain thrust."
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