THEY STILL MOVE My Morning Jacket

 

 

My Morning Jacket makes a quantum leap.

BY ANDY TENNILLE

 

 

“I love Prince.
I adore him. I think he’s the baddest motherfucker on the planet after James
Brown died. But to me, I think the comparisons are silly.”

 

Jim James runs a
hand through his dirty blonde locks and shakes his head dismissively. It’s
mid-March and the 30-year-old frontman of My Morning Jacket is sitting on a
couch in a midtown-Manhattan apartment talking about the supposed influence of
His Purple Majesty on Evil Urges, the
band’s fifth studio album and the follow-up to 2005’s universally lauded Z.

 

The week before,
James and his bandmates – drummer Patrick Hallahan, bassist “Two Tone” Tommy
Blankenship, multi-instrumentalist Carl Broemel and keysmith Bo Koster – torched
the stage of the Austin
Music Hall at SXSW, debuting
eight songs off the new record. The next day, Blogger Nation was abuzz with
reports that the dance grooves and falsetto wails on tunes like “Highly
Suspicious” and “Evil Urges” were the direct result of James’ obsession with the
Purple One. Almost every article that’s hit newsstands in the run up to the
album’s release has referenced Paisley
Park, so after nearly a
week of press meetings, James is ready to set the record straight on why some
of the tracks off his newest masterpiece have the sweaty feel of an
intergalactic dance club.

 

“A lot of it
comes from the energy and the tightness of this city,” James says. “You hear
about so many bands coming to New York to make
their ‘New York’
record and all that shit. I feel like we didn’t really come here to make a
record about New York, or about meeting girls in bars, or about topical New
York things, but it’s just so different here. I love so many other big cities:
I love Chicago and I love L.A.,
but nowhere else but New York
do you have this energy with so many different types of people crammed in
together. If you’re going to work riding the subway every single day, you’re in
contact with every other race, every other religion, every other everything. I
just think more people need to experience that.”

 

As much as the
incredible diversity and palpable energy of the City that Never Sleeps
influenced the urban vibe on Evil Urges,
however, the soul of the album was found 1,600 miles away in the mountains of Colorado.

 

***

 

 

“Those four
weeks will definitely be something I look back on in 20 years as a really
special moment, for sure,” says Bo Koster, of the month the band spent last
June prepping the new material at Hideaway Studio, a rustic ranch and recording
facility 35 miles northwest of Colorado Springs
at the base of the Rocky Mountains. “It just
reminded me of what I think is important in life and the things that I want to
accomplish right now. You don’t often get to have your four best friends in the
world that you share your life with in a place like that, all alone. Just us by
ourselves, playing music.”

 

“It was just one
of the coolest times for us, as a band,” says Carl Broemel, the Nashville-based
guitarist and saxophonist who joined My Morning Jacket with Koster in 2004
following the departure of original members Johnny Quaid and Danny Cash. “We
had a little compound, with a barn that we’d rehearse in and a little studio to
record in. When the storms came through, we had to unplug everything, so right
when we were getting down to work, we might have to stop and go look at the sky
for a while. You couldn’t force things. We all lived in the same house and
cooked dinner together every night. It was like another level of connection developed
between the five of us.”

 

In a band that
measures its inner-relationships in decades rather than years (James and Patrick
Hallahan met more than 20 years ago in Sunday school), Koster and Broemel are
still the new kids on the block. But a lot has happened since they came aboard
almost four years ago: the group recorded and released Z, played countless concerts and toured the world over, opened for
Pearl Jam and Bob Dylan and issued Okonokos,
a live CD/DVD that documented their two sold-out performances at San Francisco’s historic
Fillmore auditorium in November 2005. Shortly after the Fillmore shows, James
was hospitalized with pneumonia, exhausted by the band’s relentless touring
schedule. The group was forced to cancel its New Year’s Eve appearance at Madison Square Garden
opening for the Black Crowes, and all future touring plans were put on hold as
James was relegated to bed rest.

 

“We went through
a lot of stuff after Z, just with me
getting sick and being fragged by touring again,” James says. “It was a dark
time. After it was over, I felt like I got a chance to live some life that
really spoke to me, and the songs came out of it.”

 

Refreshed and
re-energized, James fleshed out the songs for Evil Urges during the spring of 2006 while at a log cabin in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.
He subsequently brought to Colorado
what his bandmates say was the most concise set of demos he’d ever presented to
them.

 

“They couldn’t be
any more lean than they were,” says Tommy Blankenship. “It wasn’t half-formed
ideas — not that other demos had been – but on earlier records, the demos
seemed like they were Jim trying to feel his way through the songs. With this
batch, it was like Jim was saying, ‘Here are the songs.’”

 

“When we got the
demos, we all agreed that we shouldn’t hear our own instrument too much,
because we didn’t want his ideas on the demos to infect what we would do for
the album,” says Hallahan. “But when he played us ‘Touch Me, Part One’ for the
first time, we were all like, ‘Where did this come from? Why didn’t you play
this for us sooner?’ The rhythms he came up with on that were just too hard to
ignore. They were awesome.”

 

While songs like
“Aluminum Park,” ‘Sec Walkin’” and “I’m Amazed” were quintessential My Morning
Jacket creations, the silk-sheet sensuality of the two-part suite “Touch Me I’m
Going to Scream” and the robotic funk of “Highly Suspicious” were driven by
beats James dreamed up after a friend encouraged him to experiment with drum
programming tools.

 

“Normally, I
just do four-track stuff, but for this record, I got a computer set up with some
drum programs,” James explains. “I really wanted to tighten all the screws down
and make these songs more rhythmically propulsive. Hip-hop and soul music are
really one of the only things left that unify people right now, musically. I
think most of it’s because of the movement and what it does when it gets into
your body. So I really wanted to incorporate that into our music. I wanted this
record to be this big weird, propulsive thing where you’re like, ‘Should I
dance to it? Or should I not dance? Should I rock out to it?’”

 

As defined as
most of James’ demos were, some of the songs on Evil Urges – such as the title track – were birthed the
old-fashioned way: on the rehearsal room floor.

 

“It’s hard to
even recall the exact process of writing that song,” Blankenship says, of “Evil
Urges.” “Jim came in one day and he basically had these two parts: the intro
part and the second verse. It was just one of those times where five people
just play whatever comes into their minds and magic happens.”

 

“That song in
particular is probably the best representation on this album of what we do as
band when we come together,” Hallahan adds. “Jim came in with two parts and was
like, ‘Let’s go play.’ And everybody just clicked.”

 

In the end, the month
James and company spent in the mountains of Colorado was the kind of galvanizing
experience that they needed following the trials and tribulations of the
previous year. “It was definitely a defining moment for the band,” says
Hallahan. “We play music together and share in that bond, but it was just
amazing to break bread together and drinking wine looking at a sunset over Pike’s Peak after a hard day’s work. Colorado was a very spiritual, bonding
process for us.”

 

***

 

“Jim and I
talked for several months about where he wanted to make the record,” says Joe
Chiccarelli, the Los Angeles-based producer (Frank Zappa, The Shins, The White
Stripes) who manned the knobs on Evil
Urges
. “In the past, they’d done all these rural, off-the-beaten-track
studios, because they liked the isolation of working out in the middle of
nowhere. But when I heard the demos, I thought the material was so upbeat and
alive and had this great sense of groove to it that I told Jim that it sounded
like an urban record to me. I thought they needed to record in a city.”

 

Finding the
right place to achieve the sounds James envisioned wasn’t an easy task. Band
members were sent to studios across the country — from Louisiana
to the Pacific Northwest — in search of the
perfect home for the album. Even when he walked into the hallowed halls of
Avatar Studios in midtown Manhattan, where the likes of Dylan, Bowie, Clapton
and Springsteen had come before him, James was still unsure that he’d found the
right place.

 

“I thought it
was cool with all the history and everything,” he says, “but I was trying to
look at the recording of the album from the perspective of a job that had to be
done. It was almost like picking out a good workbench that had a good vise on
it and all the right hammers and tools that we needed. When it came down to
making this record, we wanted it to be precise and we wanted it to be really
locked in, and that took a lot of work. That’s one of the reasons we came to New York, because we
thought that the energy here and the constraints of working in a city would add
to the sense of urgency on the album.”

 

“You can’t walk
out your door in New York
and not be kind of swept up into the current of the city,” Blankenship says.
“And I think that seeped into things we were doing musically on the album. I
think this album is more in your face, in a way. The vocals are real upfront
and things generally sound tighter and more immediate.”

 

Not only did the
immediacy and urgency of New York
influence the making of Evil Urges,
but the focus James paid to the rhythms in writing the songs for the album
forced the band to explore new sonic territory in the studio.

 

“We spent a lot
of time in the studio looking for different sounds, because the sounds of the
record were just as important as the arrangements of the songs,” Koster says.
“Every song was its own baby. Just think about all the different kind of beats
Patrick played in a single song. He didn’t have eight rock songs and one or two
ballads. Every song had a different feel that required a different approach
from him. We all had to do that in our own way.”

 

The result is an
album that’s sonically diverse and builds on the blueprint the band laid out
with 2005’s Z. While much of the
credit is due to James as the band’s songwriter, the frontman is quick to
credit Koster and Broemel as the main reason why My Morning Jacket’s last two
albums have been so ambitiously expansive.

 

“To me, it’s
like the ultimate cake we’ve got going on with Carl and Bo,” James says with a
laugh. “Tom, Patrick and I are all untrained musicians and they’re both trained
in school. They’re both multi-instrumentalists and yet they’re creative and
relaxed. During our shows, Bo’s back there doing so much shit, between playing
keys and making samples. Carl’s out there playing electric guitar, steel and
fucking saxophone. It’s just incredible. They are what make us able to execute
the vision completely. I feel like the band was good before they got in, but
once they got in, it was like the music came together with all the details
filled in. All the colors were there.”

 

“Bo and Carl’s
involvement with the vocals on this album was just incredible,” agrees
Hallahan. “They had never done that before with us. When we made Z, they were still feeling out their
roles, on and off stage, so this album is really about their hard work. We can
throw anything at them now, and they’ll throw it right back at you and make it
better than you ever could have expected.”

 

In addition to
the album’s musical diversity, the songs on Evil
Urges
, James notes, represent some of his most personal lyrics to date. “This
record’s been a weird one for me, because a lot of it is tied up in a massive
positive relationship that I had that ended right when we started recording the
record. So a lot of the songs come from a really positive place but I was
really bummed out when I was actually recording them.” Indeed, songs like
“Thank You Too,” “Look At You” and the two-part “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream”
sound like open letters of love and lust, while the acoustic tenderness of
“Librarian” — which James suggests additionally stems from his “bad habit” of
falling in love but not doing anything about it — seems to get to the heart of
the matter for the songwriter.

 

As much as the
album deals with his tumultuous love life, James also turns the camera outward
on Evil Urges, crafting commentaries
on social unity (“Remnants”), moral confusion (“Evil Urges”) and the chaotic
state of the world (“I’m Amazed”).

 

“I think the
theme that runs through the album is that maybe there isn’t any good or bad,”
James explains. “People always want it to be red or blue, good or bad, or black
or white, but it’s not always that easy. It’s wild to me to think of people
involved in certain religions believe in their minds that they’re doing good things,
things that are supposedly going to get them to heaven or get them to the next
phase or whatever, when in reality those things seem really horrible and
harmful. It’s confusing to me, and it’s a confusing time in the world right
now. It’s a weird time to be alive. I think everybody feels it, so my hope is
that people can relate to this record. I hope it’s something that is part of
the time in some way, but that’s something that time and space will decide.”

 

“I think this
record is a lot more outward looking and less introspective than Z,” Koster says. “That record was more
of an intimate record in a way, between the five of us as a band and Jim as the
songwriter. The themes on it are pretty deeply personal, but this one has a
more universal, almost populist feel. Instead of it being about his individual
feelings or emotions or fantasies, I feel like Jim’s talking to people and he’s
almost preaching on certain songs on this record.”

 

And it’s that
evangelistic tone that reveals the deeper sources of influence and inspiration
woven into the fabric of Evil Urges.
The echoes of Prince’s falsetto may have provided a handy reference for the
critics, but James is reaching back beyond Sign
O’ The Times
to the records and artists that informed Prince’s best work.

 

“It’s just cool
how you can be both grooved and be moved spirituality and emotionally, just
through listening to Curtis Mayfield. He’s like the ultimate to me. Talk about
one of the most brilliant human beings that ever lived: he was trying to unify
people through music,” James says. “His playing, singing, structures,
arrangements…after I heard Curtis Mayfield, I was hooked. I mean, I listened to
the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and people like that way before I ever heard
Curtis Mayfield, and they’re all fine and good, but now that I’ve heard Curtis
Mayfield, now that we have albums like [Marvin Gaye’s] What’s Going On in our vocabulary, now that I’ve heard Sam Cooke
sing ‘A Change is Gonna Come,’ the rest of it starts to seem silly.”

 

It’s no
coincidence that James’ appreciation and greater understanding of the emotional
depth of soul music occurred in the same year that he faced his own mortality
through illness, overcame his first real adult romantic relationship and
celebrated his thirtieth birthday. In the end, Evil Urges almost feels like an awakening, a watershed album that
reveals the growth of a man who’s emerging as a more confident artist,
bandleader and lyricist concerned with the larger issues and questions that
surround him.

 

 “I think Jim has a very clear vision right now
of what he wants his music to be and he’s very much in touch with the heart and
soul of his songs,” producer Chiccarelli notes. “That’s one of his incredible
strengths and what makes him one of the greatest songwriters out there, I
believe. He’s willing to let go enough that as long as the whole intent, the
feeling and the emotion of the song is right, all the colors and details seem
to fall into place.”

 

 “He’s more confident in his role as the
frontman of this band and I think it’s reflected in how he approaches his
singing on this album,” adds Hallahan. “When he steps up to that microphone, he
owns that microphone. Instead of him standing back and hiding behind the
reverb, the vocals are very upfront and very present on this album. And he’s
more willing to try new things. I’m really proud of him.

 

“Jim jumped a
hurdle in his life, and the proof is in this album. You just hear it — he grew
up.”

 

 

[Photo Credit: Autumn DeWilde]

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