Jim James answers his cell phone on a very windy Sterling, Colorado, evening, about 140 miles from his band My Morning Jacket's next gig in Boulder during a stop to get some grub. The limited food choices find the band settling for self-explanatory diner Country Kitchen. James, bandleader, songwriter and guitar-playing vocalist, toughs it out to field questions in the wind while his bandmates relax in the warm confines of a greasy spoon. Less than ideal conditions for an interview, but James is polite, cheery, straightforward, if a bit reserved.
My Morning Jacket, the five-piece, genre-distorting rockin' Americana band from outer space, is winding down a drive from Minneapolis, and when they arrive in Boulder they will have driven more than 950 miles in two days. The band is midway through a month-and-a-half-long headlining tour, the largest headlining effort they have embarked on to date. The tour finds the band previewing songs for It Still Moves, its upcoming third album due this summer. Psyched to be touring under their own power, the band is enjoying the freedoms a headlining slot affords.
"It's just really nice to be able to play a full set," says James of the difference this time out. "I mean, it's fun to open up for people, but I think we've got a lot of different sides to what we do, and it's hard to showcase those different sides in 30 to 40 minutes when you're opening up for somebody. So that's probably been the best thing, being able to take our time, stretch out and do a long show."
The tour also recently found the band opening for Bob Dylan in their hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. What was it like opening for his Bobness in their city of birth? "It was cool, it was a real honor to be able to do it in our hometown," James replies humbly. Any chance for the band to meet Mr. Zimmerman? "We couldn't get near Bob," explains the singer. Bob is mercurial that way. "We couldn't even -- they wouldn't let us watch him from backstage."
Even sans the intro, the Dylan show was quite a coup for a band that has been releasing material for only four years and change. My Morning Jacket has released two full-length albums, both on indie Darla Records, 1999's Tennessee Fire and 2001's At Dawn. The band has also released several EPs, including a Christmas album and a split CD with one-man folk-rock band Songs: Ohia. The music is firmly centered on James' musical vision, his songwriting and his vocals, which suggest a requisitely haunted Neil Young paired up with a less atonal Dean Wareham. Each progressive release builds on the promise of the previous recording, and It Still Moves may just continue that movement. Tennessee Fire found the band spare, lonely, and splashed with reverb.
At Dawn built on this template flourished with more experiments in reverb, cross-pollinating old country, good old gritty rock 'n' roll, and aural experimentation reminiscent of something that might come from early Flaming Lips or Wareham's Galaxie 500. The 74-minute, 14-song epic At Dawn mostly rides warm tones. There is angst and loneliness, almost as if At Dawn is a sideways response to fellow Louisvillian Will Oldham's endless bummer mining.
James himself provides an elliptical description of My Morning Jacket's sound that somehow makes perfect circular sense -- or something like that.
"We are who we are and we are proud to be from where we're from, and we're proud to sound like what we sound like, but at the end of the day if someone takes home one of our albums and listens to it all the way through, they will find that it's not any one thing, that we like to try a bunch of different things," he says.
Part of what helps My Morning Jacket sound so unique is the band's non-traditional -- to say the least -- recording process, specifically at James' cousin and band guitarist Johnny Quaid's grandparents' place, a farm in Shelbyville, Kentucky. They've recorded all three albums there, and for It Still Moves, they worked additionally with engineer Danny Kadar (Trey Anastasio, Stevie Ray Vaughan). James explains it like this: "I knew how I wanted my music to sound, and I could never get anybody to make it sound how I wanted it to, so I started working with my cousin John and he had some real simple recording equipment. We were lucky enough that his grandparents let us practice and record out on their farm, and that gave us lots of different spaces to work with. Lots of different rooms, you know, from grain silos to barns to garages . . . and we do it to tape so we get the best of making it sound as old as possible . . . so we can make records that only sound like us because that's where we're recording." In addition to Quaid, James' best buddy Patrick Hallahan plays drums for the band.
So the all-in-the-family-on-the-farm dynamic has greatly helped the band define its sound. Unless, of course, other people start booking time on Johnny's grandparents' farm.
The group's record deal with RTO, their new label, allows for full creative control, and Kadar was there to help this time around with some of the more annoying aspects of recording. "It's nice to have somebody there to press record' and make sure all the levels are good and everything's sonically happening so we can concentrate on playing," says James.
Back in Sterling, Colorado, James would probably rather be concentrating on eating, but he kindly responds to a question about strange roadside attractions he has seen on the road this time out. Suddenly animated and a bit weirded out, James describes an odd piece of religious folk art displayed in the hotel courtyard adjacent to the Country Kitchen. "Right now there is one of the freakiest things I have seen this whole tour," he says. "This gigantic wooden statue of this guy that looks like Moses with this little angel on top of him pouring honey on his head or something. It's gigantic. It must be at least 20 feet tall -- out in the middle of nowhere. It is one of the most surreal things. It's kind of scary. . . . It's really amazing. Really well done."
Sounds a lot like My Morning Jacket, actually -- beautiful but unexpected, like an amazing wooden sculpture in the middle of nowhere for no reason at all.
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