MONKS, MUSCLE RELAXERS AND… Monsters of Folk

Conor Oberst, Jim
James, M. Ward and Mike Mogis are thankful for what they got.

 

BY ANDY TENNILLE

 

“I don’t think that it’s a coincidence we’re all four here,”
says Mike Mogis, sitting in an oceanfront hotel in Santa Monica with a
panoramic view of the Pacific. “We all share that same love…”

 

“…of monsters?” quips Jim James from deep inside the thick
covers of the suite’s king bed. M. Ward nods approvingly. Conor Oberst lounges
nearby.

 

“Well, I was gonna say music, but yeah, monsters, too,”
Mogis replies without missing a beat.

 

Hanging with the Monsters of Folk – Mogis, James, Ward and
Oberst – keeps you on your toes. Friendships in the band date back to the ‘90s,
and they’ve all recorded with each other over the years. In 2004, the group
toured together as a quartet under the guise of “An Evening with: Bright Eyes,
Jim James and M.Ward” but were quickly dubbed Monsters of Folk by their road
crew. A bond was built. Today, they finish each other’s sentences, whether
they’re snappy retorts or prescient insights into the motivations behind their
splendid self-titled debut released this week.

 

“If you and four of your friends were in a room, the things
that are said are certainly important, but almost more important are the things
that are unsaid but understood,” Ward explains. “So when you’re talking about a
project like this, it’s a hard thing to put your finger on, but that’s what I
think about when I’m asked about this record.”

 

“That was actually exactly right and incredibly eloquent,”
Oberst says with a grin.

 

“I have no idea what I just said,” Ward deadpans.

 

[Ed. note: see our new
– Winter 2009 – issue for a different version of our MoF interview, along with
a photo gallery shot exclusively for Blurt.
]

 

 

***

 

 

BLURT: How’d you guys
first meet?

 

Conor Oberst: Michael, would you like to tell Andy how we
all met?

 

Mike Mogis: Well, obviously, I’ve known Conor for a long
time, so we’ll skip that one…

 

M. Ward: Actually, I’m interested in how you first met
Conor.

 

Jim James: Yeah, me, too.

 

MM: I met Conor during my freshman year in college. I was
probably nineteen, and he was like thirteen or maybe fourteen…

 

CO: I was probably thirteen.

 

MM: Yeah, you were like elementary school looking to me. I
remember thinking, “Who’s this kid?” He had long hair and an acoustic guitar
and would play on campus.

 

MW: You were into metal at the time, right, Mike?

 

MM: I wasn’t just into metal – I was into about everything
at the time. I had long hair and was in an acoustic band.

 

JJ: An acoustic metal band?

 

MW: Was that Lullaby?

 

MM: Lullaby for the Working Class was the band. We were the
first acoustic metal band. I played the glockenspiel and some fucking banjo… but
in a metal way.

 

JJ: What a rich heritage. (Laughter)

 

MW: So what was Conor listening to at that time?

 

MM: Superchunk…

 

CO: Yeah, I was wearing Umbro soccer shorts and giant Smiths
t-shirts that went down to like my shins. That was my steez at the time. Mike,
how’d you meet Matt?

 

MW: It was a stormy night in Belgium, wasn’t it?

 

MM: Liège.
I was working on a label project and someone was like, “You wanna go see a
show? This guy Matt Ward is playing.” I’d never really heard of him at the
time, so I went. I was a little homesick at the time, so it was cool to see
another American musician. That’s the first time I saw Matt. I thought it was
so cool ‘cause I’d heard nothing like that before, to be honest. Here was this
guy that sounded like he was fifty years old, but he was a peer onstage wearing
a baseball cap and playing this music that sounded like it came from a
different era.

 

MW: Why thank you, Michael.

 

MM: You’re welcome. I remember getting some records that
night…

 

MW: I gave you some records?

 

MM: No, the guy from the label gave me some records to give
to Conor because he knew we were friends.

 

CO: Yeah, Mike tried to talk to you, Matt, but you blew him
off. (Laughter)

 

MM: Actually, no, I came up to introduce myself…

 

MW: But I was only speaking French… (Laughter)

 

MM: No, you were super sweet. You were with the Norfolk & Western.

 

MW: I think it was Jordan Hudson and Tony Marino.

 

CO: Marino? You mean, the quarterback?

 

JJ: Jordan from New Kids on the Block?

 

CO: Tony Romo? (Laughter)

 

MW: No, it was Tony Marino. Tony Romo couldn’t make that
tour.

 

CO: How’d you meet Jim, Mike?

 

MM: The first time we met was at Field Day Festival 2003,
I think. It was similar to the first time I met Matt in that I got to watch Jim
perform before I met him, so I got more of a fan experience. I’d heard the My
Morning Jacket records before I’d seen them live, and I remember thinking that
they seemed like a cool band. It was obvious they were a deep band, with the
melodic, mellow acoustic stuff and the soaring rock thing, but I’d never seen
them live until that Field Day Festival show. I remember it rained. There was a
lot of hair flying around onstage, and the rain made it seem that much more
intense. We sat on the side of the stage and were just blown away. It was such
an uplifting experience. The day to that point had been such a drag. Bright
Eyes had played earlier, and everything that could have gone wrong did. We were
all in kind of low spirits, but when they took the stage, all that shit went
away and all that was left was that pure joy you get from being a part of
music.

 

(Silence.)

 

CO: We’d like to thank you for that, Jim. (Laughter)

 

 

Matt, how’d you meet
Jim?

 

MW: I met Jim through Conor. It was an invitation that
Bright Eyes extended to me to tour with Jim. I was already a fan of both Jim’s
and Bright Eyes’ musics…

 

CO: We were his booking agent at the time…

 

JJ: Bright Eyes also does booking.

 

CO: We had a helluva roster. (Laughter)

 

MW: We actually met in the basement of Conor’s house and
started rehearsing songs.

 

JJ: Immediately.

 

MW: Yeah, immediately.

 

JJ: Didn’t even say hello…

 

MW: I just walked in and said, “This song’s in C minor.” (Laughter)

 

 

Tell me about the
2004 tour. How’d it come together?

 

CO: That same weekend of the now infamous Field Day
festival, we did a last-minute show at the Bowery Ballroom. Jim played acoustic
to open up, and I think that’s when we really hit it off. That’s when we knew
it was destiny that we were going to play music together. We talked about it
that weekend, in the way you talk about things in bars after shows. You know,
the whole “wouldn’t it be great” kinda thing. I don’t remember exactly how it
actually happened. I think we asked Jim if he was really interested in doing
it, and when he said yes we suggested that we also invite Matt. So I invited everyone
out to our house and I guess they accepted.

 

MW: We all said I do.

 

 

That’s when y’all met
in Conor’s basement?

 

MW: Yep. We met in Omaha. It was wintertime, if I’m not
mistaken. I remember there was icy terrain.

 

JJ: I slipped on an icy patch going into a restaurant, fell
on my back and hit the back of my head. Right above where my head hit, there
was an icicle hanging there and it kept dripping and landing in my eye as I lay
there stunned on the pavement. I think that was the first time we all ate
dinner together. (Laughter)

 

MM: It was. That place is torn down now.

 

JJ: That’s what they get for not clearing the ice off their
stoop. (Laughter)

 

MM: It was a Thai restaurant that was connected to this
hotel where all these prostitutes hung out and smoked crack. We went there for
the prostitutes and crack really. The food sucked.

 

 

Any favorite memories
from that 2004 tour?

 

MW: The tour ended up at Carnegie Hall, where we played with
the Tibetan monks. That was the last night.

 

JJ: Who did?

 

MW: We did.

 

JJ: We played with the monks?

 

CO: Don’t you remember that?

 

JJ: I remember playing Carnegie Hall, but I don’t remember
playing with the monks.

 

CO: The monks did their chants before…

 

JJ: But we didn’t play with them?

 

CO: No…

 

JJ: We didn’t chant with them…

 

CO: We were on the same bill.

 

MW: I went onstage with them. It was me and Ira (Kaplan, Yo La Tengo) and the monks. You
guys were there, right?

 

MM: At the end, there was this group thing…

 

JJ: That’s right. I do remember everyone being onstage at
the end.

 

CO: We did a Keb’ Mo’ song.

 

JJ: Didn’t we also do “What’s So Funny ‘bout Peace, Love And
Understanding?”

 

CO: No, that was with the Boss.

 

 

Who dubbed it the
Monsters of Folk tour?

 

MW: Wasn’t it Eric D?

 

JJ: I thought it was Bill Sullivan.

 

CO: That still needs to be sorted out. There’s a little
dispute. (Looking to the band’s publicist)
Pam, do you think they do sciatic massages here? Honestly. Can you give me a sciatic massage? (Pam consents.)

 

 

On that tour, you sat
in on each other’s sets pretty frequently. What did you learn about each other
as musicians that perhaps you hadn’t known before?

 

MW: That’s going back a few years, but I think we really
learned our chemistry. We learned that we had chemistry very quickly. That
we’re not…

 

JJ: …to be fucked with. (Laughter)

 

MW: Well, yeah… basically. (Laughter)

 

JJ: It
was cool to see the magic in the chemistry
. All of our personalities work
well together. Every band out there today knows C chords and D chords…

 

CO: Speak for yourself… (Laughter)

 

JJ: At the end of the day, it all comes down to the magic in
someone’s personality. I just learned to appreciate more the beauty in
individuals’ personalities and what that means.

 

 

So how did it move
from a tour to wanting to make a record together?

 

JJ: We just had so much fun on the tour. It was this pipe
dream that we were joking about on the tour. It took us four years to finally
do it, but every time we’d see each other, we’d be like, “When are we gonna do
that record?” A year later, we’d run into each other again and be like, “Let’s
do that record, oh yeah!” (Laughter)
It was always being talked about.

 

MM: I think we all knew it would be fun and potentially
something that we’d be proud of and want to share.

 

MW: Yeah, it was one of those proverbial no-brainers. Of
course we’re gonna do a record; it was just gonna take some time to get it
started up.

 

 

So how did it get
started?

 

MW: In Omaha, Nebraska.

 

 

Back in Omaha…

 

MW: Back where it all began.

 

 

Did you guys bring
songs independently or did you write songs collectively?

 

JJ: We brought in songs individually, but then we
collaborated on them. So it was a little bit of both.

 

 

Is it safe to say
that the singer of the first verse of a given song is the songwriter?

 

MM: Not all the time.

 

MW: It’s not that simple. It’s more complex.

 

JJ: If you hear one of us singing the bulk of the song,
chances are that one’s probably that person’s song.

 

 

Mike, tell me about
your approach to producing this record. I guess you were both playing and
producing, which is something you’re pretty comfortable doing.

 

MM: Yeah, it’s something I’m used to doing, but on this
record, it was different in the sense that all four of us had equal production
input and credit. That was the whole idea behind the project – that
collaborative spirit. We all contributed to the songwriting, we switched up
instruments throughout basic tracking and recording and we all had ideas in
production. The sheer improvisational approach to making this album was a new
thing for me. There were no real roles for anyone in the studio at all. That
was really refreshing for me ‘cause I’m often in the studio and there’s a
fucking singer, a guitarist and a guy who plays drums, and I’m the guy sitting
behind the board making the decisions. That’s all fine and good, but this was a
different project in the sense that we took turns doing things, things we were
comfortable with and things you might be uncomfortable with. I think that led
to a unique sound…that old folk sound. (Laughter)

 

JJ: It’s been driving ‘em crazy for decades. (Laughter)

 

 

When did the first
sessions go down?

 

MM: It started in February 2008. It was the first time we
could all get together. No real preconceived ideas of what the hell we were
gonna do, aside from throwing around some ideas, I suppose. We had no label. We
didn’t really tell anybody that we were gonna do it. There were no
anticipations or expectations from anybody outside or inside the group. It was
nice to have that freedom.

 

MW: It was Conor’s birthday also…

 

MM: It was also Conor’s birthday. Right around Valentine’s
Day…

 

CO: (Rubbing his lower back) Man, I need to look into a massage. This sciatic thing hurts.

 

 

It’s crippling, isn’t
it? I’ve had it and it hurts like hell. It’s nothing to joke about.

 

CO: I haven’t had it for very long. It just started this
week. It felt like something bit the back of my leg.

 

MW: That was old age biting you… (Laughter)

 

CO: Like death nipping at my…ass. It’s sudden, kinda like a
shock. Is that what you’ve experienced?

 

 

Yeah, and it doesn’t
matter if you’re sitting, lying down or standing up, it still hurts.

 

CO: Yeah, man, it doesn’t matter. How long does it last?

 

 

I got some muscle
relaxers, and it went away in about a week. It happens every so often when I
really tweak my back, so I take a few muscle relaxers and it goes away. It’ll
drop you for a couple of days though.

 

CO: Dude, how old you are, if you don’t mind me asking?

 

 

I’m 32 years old.

 

CO: Yeah, I’m 29…we’re too young to be getting this, I
think.

 

(Silence.)

 

MM: What kind of muscle relaxers? (Laughter)

 

 

I think they were Flexeril.

 

JJ: You got any with you? (Laughter)

 

 

Left them in my
luggage. Sorry.

 

 

JJ: Bummer.

 

CC: What kind of muscle relaxers do you have, Mike?

 

MM: Mine are Soma.

 

JJ: You’re on muscle relaxers? I didn’t know that…

 

MM: I’ve got the same fucking problem they’ve got. That’s
why I was curious.

 

JJ: Do you take them every day? Do we need to be worried
about you? (Laughter)

 

MM: No. Fuck no. I take them when I get on a plane. Sitting
down for that long can really fuck you up. I lost feeling in my leg for weeks
one time after a really long flight.

 

CO: That wasn’t your sciatic…

 

MM: True, I had broken a disc, but it was pushing on my
sciatic nerve. It was right before the Lifted tour. I did physical therapy before and during that tour and got two epidural
shots. They laid me on this table, and I watched on this screen as they gave me
a shot in my spine. It felt weird, but I didn’t walk out of there feeling numb.
It just relieved a lot of pressure.

 

MW: How’d you break your disc?

 

MM: I don’t know…

 

CO: I thought it was from sitting on your wallet while you
were mixing records.

 

MM: That’s when it got really bad. I couldn’t sit at that
point.

 

JJ: It’s
bad to sit on your wallet
.

 

MM: I know. I’m doing it right now, but I take it out all
the time.

 

JJ: What you do is you keep your wallet in your front
pocket.

 

MW: That’s what I do.

 

JJ: That way, it’s harder to steal and it’s not as bad on
your back.

 

CO: Mike used to have a giant chain wallet….

 

MW: …with a wad of cash.

 

MM: I do roll around fairly flush with cash.

 

JJ: Note to readers: Mug Mike when you meet him. (Laughter)

 

 

Any favorite memories
from the sessions? You guys also spent some time out here if I’m not mistaken…

 

CO: That was some of my favorite time, when we were in
Malibu.

 

 

Where were you in
Malibu?

 

CO: Shangri-La
Studios
.

 

JJ: Rich history.

 

CO: Jimmy rented this beautiful convertible…

 

JJ: Teal green
Chrysler Sebring convertible
. Only the best. (Laughter)

 

 

Did y’all take a spin
down the PCH?

 

JJ: We drove all up and down the PCH listening to “Be Thankful for What You
Got”
by William DeVaughn.

 

CO: Literally, on repeat for a week. (Laughter)

 

MW: How does the chorus to that song go again?

 

JJ: “Diamond in the back, sunroof top/Diggin’ the scene with
a gangsta lean.”

 

MW: Yeah…great moment, er, moments, I guess. We did listen
to it a lot.

 

JJ: That was back in the days before we were tethered down
by Conor’s sciatic problem. (Laughter)
Now everything’s based around that. When we want to go to dinner, we can’t go
anywhere that Conor has to walk too far. (Laughter)

 

 

Favorite songs on the
album. Conor?

 

CO: One song is “His Master’s Voice.” That song takes me to
a special, strange land. Jim basically came up with it, which is beautiful, but
the way in which it was recorded and all the instrumentation really give it
this surreal feeling. To me, it’s like the dream you have after the record’s
over or something. It takes you off into this far-off special place.

 

MW: “Temazcal” kind of does the same thing for me. I feel
like I’m in another country or something. The lyrics are amazing, and I think
the production is incredible. That’s one of my favorites.

 

MM: I think right now maybe my favorite is “The Sandman, the
Brakeman and Me.” I listened to it a few days ago on my way here, and it just
struck me. Maybe it was the mood I was in, but I found myself really enjoying
that one. I like the less is more approach to that one, but I’m really proud of
the record in total.

 

 

One of the successes
of this album, in my opinion, is the diversity you achieved, be it the
diversity of song, sound or roles in the studio. Each track is its own little
world, but they play well together.

 

MM: One thing I really enjoy about this record is that it
does have a lot of twists, turns and surprises. It has a traveling feel to it.

 

CO: I think it’s like a tapestry. There’s all these
different designs and you can focus on one and see that, but then together it’s
more complex and there’s all this nice imagery.

 

JJ: That was the cool thing about everybody bringing in
ideas, ‘cause someone would bring in a song but you never really knew what was
going to happen. “The
Right Place”
was like that. Conor was talking about “His Master’s Voice” –
once everyone got in, all these guys brought in ideas that I never would have
had going into it. Mogis had this really cool guitar thing he was doing that
lent this really spacey feel to the song, and there were these parts where all
of us sings…

 

MM: That was the point when I got goose bumps in the control
room. 

 

JJ: There’s this point on that song where Conor is yelling
that kind of takes me to almost this Peter Pan, Lost Boys kind of place.
There’s this other piano part where it sounds like a ship is coming through the
water. I just feel like every song had something like that. When Matt brought
in “Whole Lotta Losin’,” I felt like that was a fun song, ‘cause he kinda had
an idea for it, but it got taken into this real different place where we did
some electronic drums on it and we all got to sing verses and bridges and
really mix it up. I just feel like the songs still stayed as the creator wanted
it to but there are so many surprises that happened that the creator never
would have imagined that it became the best of everybody’s worlds.

 

 

You guys said earlier
that you learned a little something about each other as musicians during the
2004 tour. What did you learn about one another from recording this album?

 

JJ: I think I learned a little bit about listening to people
and trusting their instincts and go along with them. Not that I don’t do that
in the band that I’m in, but it’s just a different thing when everyone involved
works in their own world. It’s a rare opportunity to work with some of your
favorite artists that are also your peers. So it was an opportunity for me to
listen and learn.

 

 

Matt?

 

MW: I learned a lot through the whole process. I loved
watching these guys in the studio and seeing us all rely on each other to
finish each other’s thoughts and sentences. To be able to do that in the studio
is a very rare experience.

 

CO: It just felt so amazing to me because how much I love
their music and respect what they do as musicians. Beyond that, I trust each
one of these guys and their sensibilities as people. It was really a great
experience. We all have our own bands that are like these little planes that
we’re used to flying and we’re trying to get to where we’re going, but then all
the sudden this comes along and it’s like you’ve got these two jet engines. You
can get to your destination of a good sound or take so much faster and easier.
It was like having this incredible reinforcement to your ideas.

 

 

Mike, you mentioned
earlier that this album feels like a journey. Is that the tie that binds these
songs together?

 

MM: I think a lot of it is the commonality that we share,
both personality-wise as well as musically speaking. There’s a lot of
commonality in the songwriting. There was never really any talk while we were
recording about a common thread or some grand scheme. It was just sort of
naturally present. I guess that’s why we never talked about. There was never a
feeling that it was lacking of anything, like it was going off the rails. It
always seemed to have…

 

MW: …a direction and structure…

 

MM: Yeah. Even though the songs sound so different, there’s
still some commonality. I think it’s due to the personalities.

 

CO: That’s why it’s easy to do what we do together – ‘cause
there’s enough of that unspoken understanding. That’s the foundation that
allows it to be so comfortable.

 

JJ: Right. If you had to waste time talking about some basic
fundamental shit, then you’re probably not with the right people to begin with.

 

 

The comparison has
been made in the lead-up to this record to the similarities of this group to
CNSY and the Traveling
Wilburys
. Is that comparison silly in your mind?

 

CO: Well, the Traveling Wilburys were a family band, and
we’re a family band.

 

MW: Same mothers…

 

MM: Different dads…

 

JJ: They likely have lower back problems and so do we. (Laughter)

 

 

Photo credit: Autumn
DeWilde.

 

 

 

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