Jim James leads My Morning Jacket on new journey
Wednesday, June 1, 2011
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Jim James is on a spiritual quest of sorts, and you’re invited to listen in.
The My Morning Jacket frontman sat in the prayer room of a church in a quiet neighborhood of his hometown last month, talking about old records, religion, philosophy and his perpetual yearning for understanding. These things color the Kentucky quintet’s much-anticipated new album, “Circuital,” and James says the record reflects a search he’s been on for some time.
“I just want to be peaceful,” James said. “I just want to find peace. I don’t want to be questioning anymore. I don’t want to be searching anymore.”
Don’t get James wrong. He understands he’s living the life millions dream of as the head of an increasingly important and influential rock band. That part of his life is great. James is looking for solace in other places as well, however. He jokingly calls himself a recovering Catholic and says he’s given up on organized religion. He’s now seeking comfort from other sources.
“There’s so much stuff that you just don’t need in your brain that they hammered there so young and you’re trying to deal with it,” James said. “I don’t consider myself any faith. I just try to listen to all faiths and all ideas and sift out what I believe and what I don’t.”
Increasingly James is finding answers in music. Long a rock ‘n’ roll fan, he started to grow uninterested and turned to different forms of music to feed his need for new sounds. His discovery of soul music has influenced his own music over the last five years. More important, it’s opened his mind about the possibilities of life.
“I’ll never forget hearing (Marvin Gaye’s) ‘What’s Going On’ for the first time and being like, ‘Oh, my god,”’ James said. “All this rock music is beautiful and serves a purpose, but so much of it is about pain and darkness. And when I hear ‘What’s Going On’ or when I hear some of Sam Cooke’s religious work, I hear all the mystery and passion that I loved about my rock music, but I also hear hope and praise and all this glory that I feel like I don’t hear in all this sad stuff growing up, listening to Nirvana. When I put on Nirvana now, it’s like nails shooting into my ears.”
Like Gaye, Pastor T.L. Barrett also blew his mind, and helped set the stage for the recording of “Circuital,” My Morning Jacket’s first album since 2008’s “Evil Urges,” out Tuesday. Barrett’s little-known “Like a Ship ... (Without a Sail)” was a gospel funk masterpiece that all but disappeared after a small pressing decades ago. Boutique label Numero Group reissued the album, which Barrett recorded with his Chicago church’s youth choir.
James decided he wanted to recreate the uncommon energy and communal spirit of that album and other lost gospel records, and rented the church (the band asked its name and exact location be withheld for privacy reasons). The church’s large, echoing gymnasium was the perfect space for the band to gather after a yearlong hiatus. There was room for everyone to set up and face each other, and they were able to strip away all the artificial separation you find in a traditional studio.
“We’re in a band. We play music live all the time, so I wanted this album to showcase just us being a band, all playing together and hopefully achieving that moment of good tape together,” he said.
After a rather confined experience recording “Evil Urges” in a New York City studio, the “Circuital” sessions were freewheeling and loose for the band, which also includes bassist Tom “Two-Tone Tommy” Blankenship, drummer Patrick Hallahan and multi-instrumentalists Carl Broemel and Bo Koster. James brought the lyrics and skeletons for songs and the band worked each over for a few days, at most, before recording them. They skipped the usual step of rehearsing and making rough demos for each song and went right to the tape recorder, keeping it loose as they tried to turn the sprawling church’s gym, soaring chapel and various gathering spaces into something useful.
“There was an element of do-it-yourself with this one ... because we just walked into a space that isn’t a studio and had to make it sound good,” Hallahan said. “We built a tent around my drum kit to reign in the cymbals because it’s such a big, wide room. We had to dampen the whole floor with acoustic absorb material. It was just like a big project that never ended.”
Hallahan describes the group as “five compassionate and curious souls” and James’ bandmates get where he’s coming from when he’s translating his spiritual questions into artistic expression. Each has had his own journey over the last half decade as My Morning Jacket toured relentlessly, earning the combination of critical adoration and experimentation-indulging fan bases of top rock acts like Radiohead and Wilco.
So James’ ruminations resonated with his bandmates as they laid down the tribal vibe of opening track “Victory Dance” or matched the beauty of James’ soaring tenor on “Wonderful (The Way I Feel).” They nailed the title track, which builds over a long crescendo to some of the album’s most heroic guitar work and interesting sonic moments, on just the second take.
Todd Haynes picked up on that connection on the record when he first heard it. The “Far From Heaven” director is helming a live webcast of My Morning Jacket’s Tuesday concert at The Louisville Palace Theater. Haynes met James when the singer stole a scene in his Bob Dylan film “I’m Not There” and has followed the band for some time.
He called “Circuital” a “powerful” album and noted how different it is from My Morning Jacket’s previous sound, which has evolved from lush alt-country to Neil Young-style rock to something fairly unpredictable.
“When I really listened to ‘Circuital’ through the first time, I really noticed it as a through-line lyrically in this record — this sense of a new beginning, of a new life, of sort of turning the page on the past and having a kind of confidence. It’s very optimistic,” he said.
And why shouldn’t they be? With one of the year’s most anticipated albums and tours, they’ve attained a kind of long-term stability that’s rare in the music world. It seems natural that should be reflected in their music.
Now the question is, will it help James find some of that peace he’s looking for?
“There’s things that I’m trying to figure out that I haven’t figured out,” James said. “I’m getting clues and stuff but I don’t know why it’s built into my brain that way. My brain is just not satisfied. It has to question something infinitely. And usually it questions something so much that it eventually kills it, and then I go somewhere else, and then it questions that. So I’m trying find a way to stop that.”