Kentucky Reign – My Morning Jacket Interview

Jim James talks new album 'Circuital'

From out of the pressure cooker and into the fire, My Morning Jacket have gone home to revamp…

In their thirteen year career, My Morning Jacket have continued to prove themselves a daring and ambitious group, whose musical adventures stretch from acoustic Americana through R&B to delicious disco – sometimes across the course of one album. An ever-changing beast, MMJ stand at the forefront of US rock; their creativity and intelligence develops with every release, and their fans faithfully follow.

However, as often with progressive attitudes, there will always be somebody slow to conform. 2008’s ‘Evil Urges’ caught some flak for the infiltration of quirky grooves to proceedings (Pitchfork called their Prince-ish ‘Highly Suspicious’ track “eye-poppingly annoying”), but mostly for not being ‘Z’, its expansive and breathtaking John Leckie-produced predecessor. Three years later, Jim James, their angel-voiced frontman, confesses that ‘Evil Urges’ was “the hardest record we’ve ever made”.

Retreating to their native Kentucky for the creation of new album ‘Circuital’ served as a reminder for the vitality of their genesis, and the music, as a result, is charged with passion, freedom and, unnervingly, black metal.

Clash spoke with a newly impervious Jim James ahead of their epic sixth release…

So, you decided to record back in Kentucky. Did you feel like the band needed grounding again, to remind you where you came from?

Yeah, in a way. It’s funny, for me, with music, how little control I have over what comes out of me. I kinda feel like every album we make, all those songs that kinda come out of me for one reason or another…that’s just kinda how the universe made it happen. It’s really not much of a conscious decision on my part. I just kinda work with what I have at the time, so I guess that’s what the universe wants to happen. I don’t ever set out to say, ‘This record’s gonna be a response to the last record’ or anything like that; it is what it is.

But when the band get a hold of your songs and they naturally evolve, they do eventually sound different to what’s gone before. Do you notice these differences? Are you happy to go along with what happens?

Yeah. I just like to enjoy music. I know that as I grow and change as a person I enjoy different music and that seeps into the music that I write. I’m always just happy to be into what I’m into at the time, and the guys are always really communicative and helpful about making it all our own once we get into the process of us all working on it and writing it and putting it all together.

Is there any thought given to how it might go down with the fans? Do you worry that some might not embrace the change?

Every record we put out, after a while you just kinda learn that you’re never gonna please everybody. You don’t really know what people are gonna think, and now that the Internet is here, everybody has a voice, so everybody’s comments all kinda get neutralised. Because one person will review your album and say that it’s the worst piece of shit they’ve ever heard, and then the next person will review it and say that they love it and they think it’s wonderful and intelligent and beautifully done. It just makes me even more sure that I should just have fun with this and do what I want to do and have a good time with it.

In a recent interview where you were asked to suggest some of your favourite music, you chose a record by Thai group Ubon Pattana, then it transpired that the track ‘Holdin’ On To Black Metal’ from this album grew from a loop taken from a Thai song. Where did your love of Thai music come from?

We all love all different kinds of music. I try to listen to and consume as much music as I can, from any genre or any place in the world. My love with it started when a buddy of mine, who has always turned me on to great music over the years, turned me on to this ‘Cambodian Cassette Archives’ record that was put out a few years ago. There’s a label called Sublime Frequencies, they release some really cool music like that. I heard that ‘Cambodian Cassette Archives’ record and was just really blown away with it and really inspired by it. I guess that was almost seven or eight years ago now that that record came out, but then over the last couple of years, Sublime Frequencies have put out other records like the Thai pop record that I found ‘Black Metal’ on. That was a weird experience for me, because I’ve experimented a little bit with sampling over the years, but not too much – I’ve always been a fan of hip-hop music and the sampling culture and the artform of it, but I’d never really done it too much until I did the Monsters Of Folk record [James’ supergroup with Conor Oberst, M.Ward and Mike Mogis] and I used a sample on that record. Then I heard this Thai pop record and for some reason fell into a trance with this ‘Holdin’ On To Black Metal’ riff, and I kinda rode around in the car and had the song on repeat, and all these lyrics started popping out of my head, and all these melodies started popping out of my head. Because the original song where the loop for ‘Holdin’ On To Black Metal’ came from, I obviously can’t understand what the guy is singing, so his voice almost became just another instrument, and it became a really cool pad for me to start singing my own words over and my own thoughts.

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The choir that sings on ‘Black Metal’ was recorded in a funeral home – that’s taking things a bit literal, isn’t it?

Yeah! Our friend Kevin Ratterman, who helped us record the record, had his own studio above his family’s funeral home in downtown Louisville, and that’s where we tracked the girls. It’s actually a fun place – he jokes and called it ‘The Fun Home’ instead of ‘The Funeral Home’. It wasn’t as dark as it sounds.

You previously said that your last album ‘Evil Urges’ was the hardest record you ever made. How did it become so?

We intentionally set out to make it a challenge. We went to Manhattan and were in a studio that had time limits. We tried to get the energy of the city. We tried to build kind of a pressure cooker environment, because you hear stories of people working in those kind of environments, like The Clash working in some crazy studio environment with a producer that was a total asshole, and there’s all this pressure and all this crazy energy going on. So we were trying to experiment with that and create some of that, because that‘s normally not how we work at all – we work in a very calm and relaxed way on our own time clock. It was an experiment for us to see how differently we could do a record, and it was really tough.

Do you think it backfired at all?

I don’t know. People have different opinions on it. I’m glad we did it, because I’m glad for the experience and I feel like that record is what it is and holds a particular place in our catalogue, which I’m glad it does, because I feel like it gives our catalogue even more variety and even more different soundscapes and stuff. So I don’t have any regrets about it. When we released that record, people were like, ‘This is ridiculous that they’re trying to do anything different than the stuff they did before’, and other people are really glad we’re trying to do different stuff.

Did the pressure cooker environment assert itself on the band members at all, turning you against each other?

Luckily no. We didn’t really get angry with each other or anything like that. You just hear stories about bands working in these environments where they have a real almost violent relationship with the producer or the time they’re working in, and I feel like our recording sessions have always been so peaceful and they’ve always been out in the country and really kinda laidback affairs. So I think it was our attempt to see if that kind of environment did anything dramatically different to the music, and I think the music was already different anyway. It just kinda proved to us that it was more difficult, and we didn’t really enjoy doing that! (Laughs)

Do you think success has affected you at all, either positively or negatively?

The only thing that I really don’t enjoy is the analysis of what we do. Because I feel like after a while it does feel like you’re in some therapy session or something, because everybody’s constantly analysing your work. But that’s just a small price to pay though, because I feel really fortunate. I feel more fortunate than anything. I just feel fortunate that we’re able to make music that we love and that people want to come see us play it live. I feel so fortunate that that part of our dream has been able to come true. I feel like the only way we can be real to our fans is to make the music that we’re feeling at that point in time. If certain people don’t like it for a record, fine; maybe they’ll like it next record. Or maybe they’ll only like one of our records. You almost have no control over that. I feel like I used to worry about that a lot more, but now I know for sure that I don’t have any control over that.

Words by Simon Harper
Photo by Danny Clinch

Read Clash’s review of My Morning Jacket’s new ‘Circuital’ album HERE.

This interview appears in the new issue of Clash Magazine, out now. Read more about the new issue HERE.

Access the digital version of the issue HERE and subscribe to Clash magazine HERE.

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