On the Oregon Trail with My Morning Jacket
The first time they traveled to Manhattan, the members of My Morning Jacket crammed into a small passenger van and drove straight to Brownies, a tiny, hip, now defunct indie ‘n alt-country club located on what was then considered “the outpost” of Avenue A and 10th. At the time, New York felt a world away from the group’s native Louisville, KY, probably as different as the tag hippie seemed from hipster. “We drove in, threw our gear in the club, parked our van, played and left,” singer/frontman/guitarist Jim James remembers about his band’s first trip to New York. “We were in and out in two hours or something crazy.”
At the time, James was a long-haired 23-year-old college-dropout with a relatively new band that rarely played outside Kentucky, and he spent most of their free time recording the soft, somewhat lo-fi indie-country songs that comprise their first two albums: the consciously murky The Tennessee Fire and the dreamy, psychedelic At Dawn, as well as a series of fan EPs, like the holiday recording My Morning Jacket Does Xmas Fiasco Style and Chocolate and Ice, which contains a 23-minute version of the exploratory jam “Cobra.” Oddly enough, outside the southeast, the group’s biggest audience was in Europe, where the ever-eclectic summer festival circuit prepared fans for MMJ’s mixture of folk, rock, jam, indie and folk.
Of course, a lot has changed since My Morning Jacket’s maiden voyage to Manhattan, a long strange trip that has seen the group organically grow from Brownies to Mercury Lounge to the Bowery Ballroom to Irving Plaza to Webster Hall to Roseland Ballroom, and once again the members of MMJ find themselves back in the Big Apple, this time for a few press days intended to promote the group’s fifth studio album, the experimental curve ball Evil Urges. It’s already been a long week of press ‘grips and grins’ for the group when MMJ arrive at the Slipper Room, a swanky burlesque club a few blocks south of HiFi, the rock-and-roll bar that has since replaced Brownies. But, the quintet agreed to devote a few hours to various interviews with the Relix family (print, digital, podcast), including a surprise Q&A with friend and fellow performer Grace Potter (please read the June issue of Relix for more on that conversation).
As they walk into the bar, mostly dressed in sweatshirts and hoodies that simultaneously clash and mesh with the Slipper Room’s swanky red curtains, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that they’re exhausted from the press circuit. And, as when they walk onstage, the group band together for support as they make trudge through town and, finally, make themselves at home at one of the venue’s horseshoe-cushioned booths. Though James gets most of the attention and drummer Patrick Hallahan does most of the talking, they move as a unified band, something that hasn’t always been the case for this particular group of, as Potter would later say, “21st century Vikings.” While most groups start off as a band of equals and gradually produce a charismatic star, My Morning Jacket did the opposite. After scoring a record deal with the indie-label Darla, James assembled a band, taking the name My Morning Jacket from the initials embroidered on a discarded coat he purportedly found in the remains of a bar fire. The group’s sparse, early recordings focused around his reverb-drenched vocals and mostly acoustic guitar, but, over time, each member of the group gradually carved out their own three-dimensional personality and assumed a certain role: James, the mysterious frontman, Hallahan, a jovial, outspoken drummer who resembles Animal from the Muppets and Two-Tone Tommy, the shy, quiet bassist whose been with James since the beginning.
The group’s seen its share of turnover too, including James’ cousin/original guitarist Johnny Quaid and early drummers Danny Cash and J. Glenn, the latter of whom left the group to make waves in Hawaii. The arrival of Hallahan 2002 provided the group with the rock-and-roll battery it needed to move into larger clubs, while later-day members like Berklee-schooled keyboardist Bo Koster and guitarist Carl Broemel refashioned My Morning Jacket as a fully electric indie-rock outfit.
“I had an evil urge today,” Hallahan jokes as he takes a slip of the first drink on his band’s eventual $300 bar tab. “I wanted to kill our cab driver on the way over here.”
Almost a decade after My Morning Jacket’s first visit to New York, the five musicians have found themselves in New York more and more frequently and plan to return at least twice before the end of June: In May they’ll tape their first appearance on Saturday Night Live and, after touring Canada and making their fifth stop at Bonnaroo in six years, they’ll return to New York for an “evening with” performance at Radio City Music Hall---a grand celebration that sold out in only 22-minutes. While they remain mum about the details, rumors are already flying about which club---or arena---will host the group’s next New Year’s Eve celebration.
“I think we are doing New Year’s again this year and, if we do, it is going to be a sequel to the continual New Year’s saga that we started in 2006-2007,” James says. “So that will be part two of our epic Oregon trial saga.” “Only now we are all dead,” Hallahan interjects. “That’s’ right,” James continues. “We died and ascended to heaven on the stairway to heaven. Part two will start in heaven and continue onwards.”
“Oregon Trail was a great game, it really inspired me,” a reserved Two-Tone Tommy perks up to say dryly, his hands still tucked beneath his armpits. “I killed a few Oxen and lost a few children named things like Fart. You don’t really need them anyway.” “Poor little bugger has died of small pox,” James says, shaking what’s left of his curly hair. “We made up a recipe for malaria,” Koster says, jokingly referring to MMJ’s contribution to I Like Food, Food Tastes Good, a self-described “indie rock cookbook,” featuring contributions from the likes of Devendra Banhart and Death Cab for Cutie. “Sweet, sweet delicious malaria,” James says with a grin, chewing on the toothpick that remains fixed in his mouth throughout the night.
Indeed, while the members of My Morning Jacket have scored the cover of Spin, appeared in Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown and jammed with everyone from Eddie Vedder to the Boston Pops, they still joke like five old friends, finishing each other’s sentences and trying their hardest to steer the interview back to the topics any guys in their late-20s and early-30s would discuss over drinks: whiskey (bourbon), pizza (pepperoni) and the NCAA basketball tournament (go Kentucky, of course). When the conversation shifts to a two-night mock prom the group hosted in Athens, GA last spring, the quintet answers in rapid-fire succession, not unlike the verbal wordplay characteristic of Beastie Boys during the height of their MTV fame.
Did any of you attend your real prom?
James: That was our real prom. We even played “Wonderful Tonight.”
Hallahan: We’re not kidding…we did a little huddle before we went onstage and made a pact
Broemel: We all lost our virginity
Koster: And all puked
James: And one of us woke of up with a tattoo on his forehead
“These ideas usually start as conversations and kind of snowball,” Hallahan says, seamlessly shifting back into interview mode. “Yup, we try to be as stupid as possible,” James volleys without missing a beat. The members of My Morning Jacket are at an interesting stage in their career for sure, having gradually aged from cult heroes to critical darlings to, quite possibly when Evil Urges is released on June 10, crossover successes. James knows he’s a rock star for sure, he’s just not sure he wants to be…yet.
"We basically just say we are a rock band, but I don't really know what that means," Broemel says of seemingly every critic's quest to define My Morning Jacket's style. "I mean, if I am at the dentist's office and the dental assistant is like 'I like Kid Rock, would I like you?,' I'm like, 'well you may like us.'" And if she presses, I'm like, 'but we are a weird rock band,' so if she comes to see us, she isn't disappointed."
For a group that once hid beneath their long hair and a wall of reverb---to the point where the vocal effect often precluded James from speaking onstage---My Morning Jacket has grown surprisingly comfortable in the spotlight and James has become an increasingly open in his writing. In fact, as the group trimmed its hair, one could argue that his lyrics have become more personal and heartfelt than ever, addressing topics like longing ("Touch Me I'm Going to Scream (Part 1)"), politics ("I'm Amazed") and life on the road (“Smokin' from Shootin'”). And while My Morning Jacket may be the only band to truly hold dual citizenship on either side of the great Coachella/Bonnaroo divide, in certain ways, no band has come to symbolize both the spirit and sound of Bonnaroo more than My Morning Jacket. Since their first appearance in 2003, they’ve played almost every spot the festival has to offer short of headlining, from a Friday afternoon daytime showcase to a marquee late-night tent set to, this June, one of the festival’s signature all-night outdoor jam-sessions. It’s also somewhat fitting that at a time when every singer/songwriter sporting more than a 5 o’clock shadow has seemingly tailored their style to replicate the classic Jim James sound, My Morning Jacket has moved in the opposite direction, creating a dense, funky, psychedelic album that would fit more comfortably next to Flaming Lips or Prince than either At Dawn or It Still Moves.
If 2005’s breakthrough Z helped push My Morning Jacket to the forefront of the modern indie movement, than Evil Urges will likely push the boundaries of what is considered indie rock altogether. While early interviews suggested that My Morning Jacket was working on a gospel album, Evil Urges is stylistically all over the map, incorporating elements of the Prince (“I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man”), Lionel Richie (“All Night Long”), AC/DC (“Highway To Hell”) and Eric Clapton (“Wonderful Tonight”) covers the group introduced into their repertoire before entering the studio. “I think it has some gospel influence in that, for me personally, gospel has always been for my soul,” James says about his most personal collection of songs. “I am trying to find my own personal Jesus, as Depeche Mode would say. It does my heart good to hear people sing about something that they believe in so strongly, even though I can’t personally believe in many things or anything. So I think in that sense [Evil Urges] is a gospel record.”
In many ways, Evil Urges is actually two very different albums, conceptually spit down the middle by, appropriately enough, the song “Two Halves.” For lack of a better term, the disc’s A-Side is the more experimental half, driven by studio gimmicks and Hallahan’s big, funky beats. The album’s B-Side is more traditional MMJ, filled with modern classic-rock moments and a few more gentle interludes. And while the album’s A-Side was clearly sequenced upfront for a reason, it’s the record’s B-Side that echoes through my head, especially the soft, haunting “Librarian,” a vintage MMJ moment that could fit on Neil Young’s Harvest were it not for the malapropism referencing “the interweb.”
“We kind of had fun with the sequencing,” James continues. “When you get the vinyl, you can kind of see it. It is going to be a double-disc vinyl with four sides. I think the record kind of flows more in four quadrants than two-halves, though there is a song on it called ‘Two Halves’ halfway through.”
“Not a mistake,” he says with an assured wink. “We started out with more songs than we knew we’d end up with, so we kind of whittled the songs away. In that way, the album kind of makes itself work out, because sometimes you might want a song to work and it just won’t. So we recorded 15 we decided that these were the ones that kind of worked together and then we labored over the sequence and tried to make it a journey. “
The recording of Evil Urges itself was also somewhat of a journey. After playing a handful of spring dates that included a marquee spot at Langerado and the above-mentioned pair of mock-prom gigs, My Morning Jacket disappeared into the mountains of Colorado to flesh out James’ latest batch of songs. “We did a month of messing around and spacing out and then brought it to New York City and hammered it away,” James says. Though the quintet emerged for the occasional Colorado or New York performance, with the likes of Bob Dylan or Feist, it was their longest break from the road since signing with ATO in 2003.
“We all have lots of freedom,” Broemel says of James’ songwriting approach. “We all kind of all try to be as selfless as possible. If someone has an idea that is better than another idea, we all try to go with it. So that is our modus operandi.”
After finishing their first round of the drinks, the quintet huddles around a small, wooden piano for a photo shoot, but can’t help messing around with the melody to one of Young’s best songs, “After the Goldrush.” Like 2005’s Z, Evil Urges finds the Kentucky-bred quintet masking its raw country-rock muscle with glitchy studio wizardry rather than acoustic guitars and reverb-drenched vocals; in fact, James has tweaked his voice to such an extent that he now employs two microphones onstage. But, from start to finish, those classic MMJ touches are still there, buried beneath a thick layer of conscious fuzz, where one gets the sense James always felt they belonged. “For thoughtless folks like me and J, who'd pay, but can't afford, the finer things in life,” he once mused, “So we heist them all...”
And while the members of My Morning Jacket are a far cry from the Grateful Dead or Phish stylistically, more than almost any of their peers, they embrace the jam-scene’s improv-ready road warrior edict and dedication to creating a unique live show. Over the years My Morning Jacket has made a point to turn almost each-and-every one of its festival sets into some sort of theatrical performance: In 2005, the group hosted a puppet show during their afternoon Bonnaroo set and the following year they played a late night, cover-heavy tent show that drew in guests like Andrew Bird. At ACL they dressed like beach bums, at High Sierra they invited Brad and Andrew Barr onstage for a magic trick and at Lollapalooza they were backed by the Chicago Youth Symphony. Most recently, at Coachella they opened for Roger Waters and invited longtime friend M. Ward to sit in on a version of “Off the Record” that stood out in stark contrast from the festival’s slicker indie-rock acts.
In many ways, they’ve also come through the jamband pipeline, balancing support spots for Pearl Jam with gigs with ATO with label-boss Dave Matthews, The Slip and the Benevento/Russo Duo, as well as at festivals like Langerado, Mountain Jam and High Sierra. They have a trippy light show and, particularly on slower numbers like “Golden,” James’ voice resembles Garica-ish unpolished, high and lonesome voice.
“I'd do ‘Candyman,’ there's something about that song that's so awesome,” James told Jambands.com in 2005, when asked what Grateful Dead song he’d cover on the tenth anniversary of Jerry Garcia’s passing. “I'm more a fan of the real structured Grateful Dead songs, the acoustic Grateful Dead songs. On ‘Candyman,’ it's just like all the harmonies and all the amazing guitar parts and the lyrics...the whole thing. I'd do that or ‘Brown Eyed Women." I'm not even that huge of a Dead fan, but there's just something about Garcia that was so sweet and so awesome. The first time I ever heard him was on pedal steel on ‘Teach Your Children’ — pedal steel, I think, is one of God's gifts to people. I can sit there and listen to that song over and over and over and it makes me want to have kids and get married and cry. Just the way he emoted was to me more important than any song that he wrote or anything in particular. It was just his force and I think that's why people loved him so much. There was just something about him that was insanely magical.”
“Playing Mountain Jam and Bonnaroo, we’ve found that the jamband community seems to be very musical and very accepting, so we are happy to play in front of anyone,” James says a bit later at the Slipper Room. “I think people put up silly names and divisions and these indie-rock verses jamband scenarios, but we don’t really pay attention.” “It’s like an old friend you run into each year,” Hallahan continues. “It is so peaceful and community driven.” James adds: “You play Bonnaroo and you are in the middle of nowhere on this magical musician fantasy thing, and then you play Lollapalooza and you are right in the middle of the city and go out and see all your friends at night, so there are benefits of both.”
“Every Bonnaroo is really fun,” Broemel says backstage at another MMJ show in Philadelphia. “For me, my favorite moment was probably my first time there, which was the band’s second in 2004. We played a few songs and then it started to pour. It was something unexpected that made the show fun for us. It was so harmonious with the rain. It just cooled everyone down because it was so hot, but the day had this nice breeze. We try to make it different each year. Bonnaroo is always special, so we try to go more extravagant.”
With great power comes great responsibility and, in addition to spearheading a new genre of shaggy hair rockers that includes groups like Band of Horses, The Whigs and Fleet Foxes, My Morning Jacket has helped place the likes of Dr. Dog, M. Ward and The Slip in front of their most attentive national audiences yet. In fact, Dr. Dog wasn't even a full band until James personally asked them to open a series of My Morning Jacket tourdates. “M. Ward, Conor Oberst and myself have done several tours together called the Monsters of Folk,” James reminisces. “We’d play during each other’s sets and do our own sets as well. And M. went out on tour with us a few years ago. We were his backing band, and he’d come out and play with is.”
“We love The Slip and we love watching them,” Broemel says. “They are an interesting band and hard to characterize. I can't speak highly enough of them. We caught part of their show at High Sierra once and were intrigued.” “A few friends of mine played them for me and then I checked them out in the rain at Mountain Jam,” James admits. “They mix so many different styles.” Indeed, in an era when every festival is determined to program their setlist like a three-dimensional iPod, My Morning Jacket has set the template for the modern, post-jam playlist.
“Part of the post-jam concept definitely rings true for sure…it makes touring exciting for us to change things up every night," Broemel finally says. "We play High Sierra and Mountain Jam and then Coachella. Sometimes we feel a little bit out of our element at those festivals. But as long as we are freaking people out then its OK."