James Vincent McMorrow doesn’t know any of the lyrics to his favourite songs, but he can still sing Kylie and Jason’s ‘Especially For You’ confidently. As a teen, you’d sit in front of the radio with a paper and pen, jotting down every phonetic murmur to learn the song off by heart. Only then could you prove you were a real fan.
That’s not what he yearns for in his listeners. Instead, McMorrow’s new record, ‘Post Tropical’ (review), is about so much more than the songs. It’s the package, the brand and the connection between its every element, drawn from his love of hip-hop, colliding with the likes of Jeff Buckley. It’s where you find an Aaliyah fan creating something with the grace of Patrick Watson.
The package is much more of an artistic approach than a business one, brought together by a booze-free head and a cottage out in the sticks of Ireland. The end result, he hopes, is a record that will be recognisable from a beat, a melody, a gig backdrop and even an out-of-focus Instagram snapshot.
“The live thing is really important to me,” he says, enthusiastically. “The detail is in everything, from the lighting rig to what I do on stage. I love the idea of it being a show, not just a gig. It should be a story with a start, middle and end. You want to feel like something is happening. Live shows are where it’s at. You can make it about the band, and that can be great, but for this record it’s more visual. I want it to be all consuming.”
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James Vincent McMorrow, 'Cavalier'
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There’s true delight in his face when he recalls shows by the likes of Grizzly Bear, with their gently cascading shoal of jellyfish lights, and Arcade Fire’s shifting stage – a band he once opened for. There’s never any fear of just turning up, hearing a few songs and getting the bus home like you’ve been drinking tea with your mum. It’s a new experience that brings a new dimension to the music. Even the choreography of St Vincent and David Byrne’s ‘Love This Giant’ collaboration has been an inspiration – although it’s unlikely you’ll see McMorrow in a dance routine with a sousaphone any time soon.
“Just playing the record is dull,” he says. “Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails is a perfect example. He could fill stadiums, but he gets it. People come for a gig and even if they don’t know the songs, they walk away having seen the best show ever. It’s the catalytic compelling nature of it. It makes it all feel worthwhile.”
McMorrow’s live shows promise to follow in these footsteps, featuring LED wonders and projections – digital mapping to turn a boring old stage into a canvas of musically driven, emotive moving image. He wants it to stay with people.
So where does ‘Especially For You’ fit in? Admittedly it was just an example of a song from the golden age of manufactured kiddy pop, where a snazzy jumper and a cover photo on Smash Hits were all you needed for global domination. The point is that, when you start to love music, you love and listen to every element. Lyrics just aren’t as important.
Starting out as a drummer who “just wanted to hit things”, listening to Pantera and Tool, it was the discovery of hip-hop and, later, folk that created a blend that refuses to fit into a pigeonhole.
“I was always listening to stuff that had some kind of impact on me. I’m a big Flying Lotus fan and when his ‘Until The Quiet Comes’ album (review) came out, I was blown away that someone could do that. It got me thinking about the music I love and how I make my music. I don’t consider myself just a musician, but a producer who builds songs.”
“That’s what compels me,” he continues. “It’s about the structure. I start with the production and finish with the songwriting. Every piece is as important as the other. It’s why I didn’t want lyrics in the sleeve. I don’t see them as any more important than, say, the drums. People gravitate towards the lyrics, but I don’t think I know any of the lyrics of my favourite songs. They just don’t resonate with me.”
It’s not a new direction, but a natural progression, filled with the bright experiences gained from two years of no drinking. That by no means suggests McMorrow ever had an issue with the sauce, but that he relishes remembering and enjoying the experience of being a musician people want to hear.
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James Vincent McMorrow, 'Red Dust'
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“When you’re on tour, it’s easy to drink all the time. You have a drink because you’re nervous, but you walk off stage and don’t necessarily remember what you’ve just done. All the shows blur into one. I never wanted to be that kind of musician. I don’t want to coast. I don’t want to be safe. I don’t want to be convenient. It’s boring! I’ve spent a lot of time making myself the musician I want to be and I want to remember it.”
Since giving up alcohol two years ago, McMorrow has found a new lust for life, especially on the road. He writes about his favourite times and places – the pit stops in New York or the amazing crowds in Amsterdam. He feels brighter. He has more fun. He feels “freer”.
It’s this freer mind that filled to bursting with the vivid sounds, images and textures that make up ‘Post Tropical’, in which he plays every instrument apart from the clarinet. It was boosted in its final weeks with the golden hand of Grammy Award-winning producer Emily Lazar (Vampire Weekend, The Killers, Foo Fighters). It was her love of vinyl and history of hip-hop production that drew them together. But even he admits his perfection and vision may have “driven her to insanity”. The end came as a relief, he sheepishly remarks.
But that was more than a year ago. While the battle scars of production have healed, he’s now got to free it to the public, which he says is “freaking me out”. The album is out and the shows are happening. The McMorrow package is being delivered.
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Words: Gemma Hampson
Photos: Laura Coulson
Fashion: Hannah Elwell
Find James Vincent McMorrow online here. ‘Post Tropical’ is out now on Believe Recordings.
This is an edited version of the full Clash feature with James Vincent McMorrow, which can be found in issue 92 of Clash magazine – details here.