Jim James and Ken Wilber discuss the spectacular rise of My Morning Jacket, examining the circumstances and intentions behind each of their albums, tracking the band’s career from their humble beginnings to their latest forays into rock stardom. They take a look at the personal side of Jim’s career, exploring some of the more difficult aspects of maintaining one’s relationships, sanity, and integrity amidst the mania of the rock and roll lifestyle, and reflect on the role that rock music often plays as the primary source of spiritual experience and connection for a great many people in the world.
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There's a theme of moral confusion that runs through the whole record," says Jim James, frontman of My Morning Jacket, explaining the title of the band's new album, Evil Urges. "The world today is such a confused place. Things that people think are good values are obviously twisted, but there are other things considered evil that obviously aren't. There is real evil out there, but Evil Urges is about how all of these things that you've been told are evil really aren't, unless they're actually hurting something or somebody."
It's ambitious territory for the group's fifth full-length studio album, and it's matched by the most far-ranging, surprising, and satisfying sounds of their career. From the freak-funk electro-slam of "Highly Suspicious" to the contemplative "Sec Walkin'," which could almost be a Nashville standard, on Evil Urges, My Morning Jacket display the scope and fearlessness that demonstrates their growth into one of the world's great rock & roll bands.
One key to attaining these new heights was a change of scenery. The band recorded their first three albums—the independent releases The Tennessee Fire (1999) and At Dawn (2001), and their 2003 ATO debut It Still Moves—in their home studio outside of Louisville, Kentucky. These records established the signature MMJ sound, mixing soaring harmonies with cascading, psychedelic guitars, and drenching the whole thing in head-ringing reverb. For their last studio album, 2005's widely acclaimed Z, they headed to Allaire Studios at the foot of the Catskill Mountains. Working with producer John Leckie, they crafted a more eclectic blend of sounds, bringing James's vocals further forward and adding reggae, soul, and pure pop into their gumbo.
This time, though, they opted for a different kind of setting, recording the bulk of Evil Urges in midtown Manhattan's Avatar Studios. "We wanted to deliberately try to make ourselves uncomfortable and shake it up," says James. "I feel like New York is just limitless possibility—you never knew what you'd see on the way to the studio, every morning was an adventure."
James recalls coming to Avatar one morning and hearing a subway station full of people singing along to a street musician singing Bill Withers and Hall and Oates songs. Guitarist Carl Broemel says that one day he got onto the train in Brooklyn, and the car "filled up with a thousand Santa Clauses."
The energy and intensity of the city found its way into MMJ's playing. All five members of the band independently came up with the word "urgency" when asked to describe the feeling of the sessions, which were co-produced by James and Grammy-winner Joe Chiccarelli.
Not that this focus made the recording any less fun—"it was nice to be around people for a change," says bassist Two-Tone Tommy, "we've always been so secluded." (The big-city setting, however, didn't determine all of the sounds on Evil Urges; Tommy notes that he came up with some of his bass parts in his yard while he was on his riding mower.)
What instantly jumps out of the Evil Urges grooves is the power of the band's rhythm playing, especially the jacked-up crunch of the opening salvo—the title track, with its Philly-soul-flavored strings and high harmonies, into "Touch Me I'm Going to Scream (Part One)" followed by "Highly Suspicious." It brings to the surface a love of hip-hop and R&B that MMJ has always claimed, but never revealed so explicitly.
"I feel like rhythm is kind of forgotten in a lot of rock music, but also that arrangement can be forgotten in a lot of hip-hop and current R&B music," says James. "Everybody is traveling along this dangerously segregated path, and I was wanting to incorporate all different types of stuff." The centrality of the beat, he says, is just as important on the quieter songs as the monster jams—"it's all unified by this bottom-end thing."
Other songs on the album illustrate a new maturity in James' writing. "Librarian" is the most straight-ahead narrative composition in the MMJ catalogue. "I'm not normally a storyteller songwriter, but that's just what came out," says James. "The kind of person I'm attracted to is someone that is not projecting themselves that way, so I always felt the whole 'sexy librarian' concept is just hilarious, and also really true." ("Someone should make a movie out of that one," says Broemel.)
And fear not, rock & rollers: My Morning Jacket has in no way abandoned the guitar frenzy so beloved by their fans. The blitzkrieg garage assault of "Remnants" and "Aluminum Park" blast as hard as anything they've ever done, and "I'm Amazed" features James and Broemel's thrilling, soaring tag-team playing. James' voice, meanwhile, has grown stronger and more fluid than ever, able to convey intimacy or howl at the rafters.
This broad palette of sounds and styles first became clear when the fivesome convened in Colorado last year and listened to the demos of almost thirty new songs that James had worked up. "When I heard 'Highly Suspicious,'" says keyboardist Bo Koster, "I knew then, OK, anything goes, there's no stopping this."
Drummer Patrick Hallahan adds that the band wasn't intimidated by the demands of this new batch of music. "It really challenged all of us to play differently," he says. "There was lots of exploration, lots of beautiful mistakes."
Evil Urges marks a new high point for a band that is proudly, impressively evolving. Z was a breakthrough for My Morning Jacket, really their first attempt to use the studio to do more than just capture their incomparable live sound (as documented on the mesmerizing live 2006 CD and DVD releases, both titled Okonokos). This album, though, extends that sense of experimentation and aspiration—and Jim James gives credit to his bandmates for the accomplishment.
"I'm pretty controlling, because I know what I want to do and how I want things to sound," he says. "But they're so good at working with me, and chilling me out and making my dreams come true—and then always making everything sound even better."