Jim James: Cool people ruin music

My Morning Jacket star on how bands survive solo CDs, how the Dead and Velvets are the same -- and Mitch McConnell

Published February 10, 2013 7:00PM (EST)

 Jim James   (Neil Krug)
Jim James (Neil Krug)

When Jim James took a false step, tumbled from the stage and injured his head while My Morning Jacket performed at the University of Iowa in summer 2008, it was a horribly painful end to what had seemed like a charmed run of luck.

The Louisville, Ky.,-based band had just celebrated its 10th anniversary with a four-hour headlining set at Bonnaroo. Their album "Evil Urges" debuted at No. 9 on the Billboard album charts, helped along by a starmaking appearance on "Saturday Night Live."

But it wasn't a charmed time for James, who worried he was on a wrong and very dark path, that he'd lost control and was not listening to his own best instincts. That horribly painful misstep, which sent him falling a dozen feet between songs in a pitch-black arena, meant months of canceled shows and a long recovery. Good thing he was obsessed with a book, a 1929 graphic novel called "God's Man," by Lynd Ward.

While the artwork moved him, the story resonated deeply -- about an artist staring down temptation and the devil as success and fame beckoned. It didn't take long for songs to emerge. The cinematic book lent itself to a musical score, and soon James was writing some of his most intimate and moving lyrics. Those songs turned into his first real solo album, "Regions of Light and Sound of God," released last Tuesday. It's a gorgeous slow-burner of a disc, sculpted and simmering, thirsty with spiritual questing, and framed around one of rock's most mystical voices -- and nearly the opposite of the searing, psychedelic jams which made My Morning Jacket famous.

Though I spent five years in Louisville, where James is a familiar and important presence, he and I had only emailed before an interview last week in his manager's Chelsea high rise, during which he opened up about that torturous fall, how cool is the enemy of music, and about his state's two Republican senators, Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul.

There is a willingness to welcome spirituality in your music, especially on this album, that is uncommon in your generation of songwriters. How did you get so comfortable with embarking on this searching, this quest, in public?

I don’t know if I’m comfortable with it. I think it’s because I’m not comfortable (laughs) in life and I want to talk about that, ‘cause I know I’m not alone. I know a lot of people who are uncomfortable and are searching for something, you know? I mean, it’s probably because most of my favorite music has given me strength through addressing those things.

I grew up on, and kind of came of age, during the grunge movement, and was introduced to Neil Young and Bob Dylan and grew up on that path. But in recent years I’ve gotten more turned on by gospel music and even secular artists like Marvin Gaye or Curtis Mayfield or Sam Cooke -- singers who started off in church, and I’ve gotten into their church recordings.

There’s something about it not being a love song anymore that makes it more powerful for me, ‘cause I know that God is love and I know that there’s a greater understanding that can be reached for humanity. Somehow, that’s the ticket to it, is the understanding of God for everybody, But God is such a vast concept that people fight over it all the time. It’s caused more bad than good, it seems. So I feel like it’s a concept that deserves as much explanation towards the positive as possible, at least the questioning of that and the acceptance that every being should be free to question their own spirituality without any danger of being reprimanded or criticized.

But people are nervous to go there, especially the people whose music you came of age with. It’s impossible to imagine Kurt Cobain singing in a church choir. What was it that kind of made you feel like that’s not enough -- that the searching that’s happening in a grunge song or a Neil Young song is great, but that you also wanted to be opened up to this other side?

Well, I think I just felt the power. I think maybe the vehicle for me was Sam Cooke’s Greatest Hits, it has a song called “Touch the Hem of His Garment.” Do you know that song? I kind of got obsessed with that song and started exploring and getting more of his old recordings with the Soul Stirrers and really getting into that super, super deeply. And I soon began to find out that the Sam Cooke that was gospel moved me more than “Cupid, draw back your bow” and the “Don't know much about history” -- and I love that stuff too -- but I went, “Wait, a minute, this stuff is way more powerful.” And I don’t even, like, subscribe to Christ, you know? I don’t call God, I don’t know what God is, but hearing him sing about God is like …

Makes you feel like you do. What is your conception? What has your searching and questing and questioning brought you to, as far as an understanding of faith in your own life?

You know, I don’t know. I would never claim to know. The closest I’ve come is through meditation. I really believe what people have said before, that God is love. For me, it’s music, for you it might be writing or for somebody else it might be soccer or whatever. There’s these things we do that take us into the zone -- and we go in that place that I feel like is the place of love that you reach when you’re in love or making love or you’re having a good conversation. I feel like that is God.

But through meditation, I feel like I’ve realized that when you sit and meditate and get to that place where you’re lost, but you’re not doing another activity like music or soccer or something, but you’ve reached the same place where the thinking you is gone, but you’re still living, but you’re living like a deer or a tree or a molecule of water. You’re filled with the same essence that any living being is filled with. And I feel deep down inside like that’s the key. I feel like if everybody could take the time to sit and meditate and realize that, there would be far less war, far less racism, or it would be gone completely. Because people would realize it’s not hippie-dippie bullshit, but we really are all the same at the core. What people have been saying for eons is really true, it’s not bullshit. Every living thing is really the same. And of course that’s a giant concept that I can’t claim to fully understand, but that’s at least the tip of the iceberg for me.

So Gary Burden, who designed My Morning Jacket's "Evil Urges" album, gives you Lynd Ward's book "God's Man." Did it hit you right away that you wanted to create something based on it? 

Yeah. Yeah. The novel really struck a chord with me. You gotta get your hands on a copy of it, because just holding it in your hands is very powerful. It’s one of my favorite works of art of anything. I consider it more a work of art than a book even.  They just reissued all of Lynd Ward’s work in this two-volume set that you can get in a lot of different places. There’s just something about the art of it that really spoke to me on a deep level, kind of deeper, even, than the story it tells. I really got sucked into it and really started scoring it like it was a film, almost, just really sucked into it. We’ve been brainstorming it and trying to make it a film, which hopefully will happen, but you never know.

It's the story of an artist staring down temptation at a particularly dark time. And it particularly resonated with you because you'd just taken that horrific fall from a stage in Iowa -- the lights went out at the end of a song, you took a step in the dark, and fell into nothingness.

Yeah, it was pretty wild. It was definitely a hard time. It was weird, because the overall, in-a-nutshell story, is this artist who’s super down on his luck and meets this guy, this really dark, shadowy figure, that offers him this magic paintbrush. He shows all the other artists throughout history that have used this paintbrush, like Van Gogh and Rembrandt and all these famous artists, and he’s like, “You’ll end up like these artists if you use this paintbrush.”

Here’s temptation.

And the guy’s starving, and he’s like, “OK, done.” He doesn’t really realize what he does, but of course he signs his soul over to the devil and has to pay it back later. I don’t really feel like I ever signed my soul over to the devil or anything, so that part of the story I didn’t really relate to. But I did relate to him traveling down that path that wasn’t right for him and it leading to this fall and I feel like that had happened to me. I was on a dark path. And being obsessed with the book before and as that happened to me, it just intensified it all. Because it was the worst thing that ever happened to me.

But you felt like the fall happened for a reason?

I did, yeah. I don’t say it’s my fault, because I don’t like to hold blame towards myself or anybody, but I feel like it wasn’t an accident. I don’t look at it that way. But luckily, everything’s fine from that so I can look on it with gratitude and accept it as a lesson that hopefully I learned from. But in the book, after the artist falls off a cliff, he meets this woman who nurses him back to health and they have a beautiful story and that happened to me too. So it was just a weird parallel déjà vu thing that was happening.

What did you feel was going wrong at that time? From the outside, but living in Louisville then, that seemed like a year of great triumph -- magazine covers, a top-five album, "Saturday Night Live," Madison Square Garden ...

It’s just easy to get sucked into not listening to yourself. For me, it’s about not listening to myself. I’m really good at not listening to myself. I think most people are. We all have these voices inside us that say – that tell us what we should do, and it’s so hard to listen to. You think you can change it or something.

Or that you know better.

Yeah, exactly. “Oh, OK, you keep telling me, voice, that this isn’t right for me, but I’m gonna try it. Maybe this way or that way, no? It’s still not right.” So it’s kind of like a case of that. Like, “OK, you’re not gonna listen to me, I’m gonna take you down and now you’ve gotta listen.” So … yeah.

So you were working simultaneously on what seem like two very different records: My Morning Jacket's "Circuital," which was very much a back-to-basics for a band reconnecting with its roots, but also this deeply interior and searching solo project. 

Yeah, the music kind of started pouring out for this when I was looking at the “God's Man” book, but then other music was coming out. I was kind of filing them in different categories.

Is that hard to do? 

I don’t know why that process isn’t really difficult, because they kinda know where they wanna go. But occasionally they switch, because there’s a couple of songs on “Circuital” — “The Day’s Coming” and “Moving Away” — that were supposed to be on the record originally, but then I just felt like somehow I already had what I needed and “Circuital” didn’t have those elements and it kind of needed those. So it kind of jumped ship, and occasionally that happens, but most of the time they stay where they initially stay and go where they want to go.

They have a mind of their own.

They do. Yeah. They come with coding, some kind of coding that tells you. I don’t really know why.

Does a solo album feel liberating after the pressure of recording with a band -- to be able to take over, play every instrument, and have it reflect exactly your vision? 

I feel like I’m half extrovert, half introvert. I love my friends, and I love to go out dancing. I love playing concerts. I love being in a band. But I spend a lot of time alone, too. Like, I love being alone. So ever since I started playing music, that’s a big part of it for me: just sitting in my bedroom with my guitar, a tape recorder or a four-track. I’ve been fortunate enough to move up the chain of equipment, so I now have equipment that I love in my house so I don’t have to go to a studio or anything, so I just decided to stop making demos and just keep recording. The first two Jacket records were really just demos, and then after that, for every Jacket record since, there’s always been super-intense demos that precede the record, up until “Circuital.”

So for the solo record, it was the same thing. The first time I would record, play something -- it’s not like I’m saying we always did it on the first take, or I’d always do it on the first take, but – the first time I got it right was the first time I’d ever recorded it. So there’s not some other thing I’m trying to be. I was just making it as I went, which was really fun and, I think, gives it a lot of energy.

I’m trying to think of a similar process, because with recording it’s – you can’t really liken it to painting, or you can’t really liken it to carving. When you carve something, it’s kind of gone and you can’t undo that carve. And in recordings, you can undo things, yeah. I was thinking about that the other day, it’s such a fucked-up concept: It’s one of the few things where you can undo time. ‘Cause in your life, if you make a mistake, you can’t Apple-Z it, you know? You can’t undo it ... I dunno where I was going with that.

Well,  was there something about these songs, though, where they had to be done just by you?

Yeah, well, they started in such a personal space, but also like, a cinematic space, I guess. ‘Cause I was just scoring them by myself and writing them. They just kind of had that energy, and most of – five of the songs on the record, though, I wanted them to start with a live performance take, so I had my friend Dave come play drums and I would play piano and sing, because I wanted a little bit of that touch in there.

I wanted it to sound futuristic, in a kind of hazy way. Because I don’t – most of the time, I’m kind of turned off by the kind of music that – I guess you could call it futuristic, like, really precise dance music, or really clean electronic music, ‘cause it just sounds too clean and robotic for me and too modern that I feel like it’s not human enough. I wanted to make something that wouldn’t be dated but wouldn’t be modern, that hopefully could stand the test of time. But obviously time is the only thing that can decide that.

There's a line in "Of the Mother Again" that seems to encapsulate your approach to everything: "Nothing ever stays like it was in the beginning, as it goes through you must choose to renew to begin again.” 

Yeah, I think about that so much. I think everybody does, because you have to stay in the beginner’s mind, you know? We all get into these things that at first are so magical and so fun, like a new relationship or a new band or whatever, and then once the reality sets in it starts to become commonplace and you start to get tired of it or whatever.

But it’s like you have to keep finding new ways to reinvent it, whether it’s a band or a relationship, and if it’s really meant to stand the test of time, you will do that. And if it’s not, you won’t, and you’ll move on to something else. That’s what your conscience is for.

I’m just restless. I feel like I’m always searching for something. And I don’t want to be ungrateful or run from something without putting any work in trying to revitalize it or reinvigorate it or whatever. But it’s a fine line, because you also need to know when to walk away from something, when to say it’s done. But other things you can look at and say, “Is it done? Maybe it’s not done. Maybe I just need to look at it from a completely different angle or step back from it.”

That has to be a hard line to negotiate with a successful band. 

 It is, yeah. It goes in waves. Sometimes it’s super tiring and you’re super tired of it and other times it goes ... I think we’re really lucky because we’ve all given each other the freedom to kind of explore what we want, you know? I think if we were always pissed at each other for doing outside projects and stuff, I don’t think we would’ve lasted this long, but I think it’s because we all genuinely encourage each other to explore everything.

It’s kind of like having an open relationship in a way, which everybody on earth pretty much agrees, “There’s no way I could do that. That’s tough.” But with this, somehow, we managed to do it, and I hope we can do it forever, but you’ve gotta somehow curtail the jealousy, because somehow it’s always come back to we enjoy being with each other. So it’s like, Carl put out a solo record, I put out a solo record, I’ve done Monsters of Folk, Patrick plays with tons of other people, Bo plays on tons of sessions. We all do these things, but when we come back together it’s like we have this special thing that’s only us, you know? And I think over time, we’ve learned that, and we love that. But I think sometimes people can resent that. They feel trapped in the thing. They’re like, “I’m fucking tired of the same thing.” But I think because we’ve allowed ourselves to be free, it’s the old cliché: “if you love it, set it free.” So I feel like that’s really worked for us.

It almost sounds like a laugh in “A New Life” after that line "I think I'm being really sincere." Is that you sending up your sincere and earnest image?

Yeah, I just kind of laughed about it. ‘Cause it’s just like, “I think I’m being sincere,” you know?

“Or maybe I’m not being sincere ...”

Yeah, I dunno. I try to leave records open or places that are, like, open to humor. Because I like humor. I feel that’s something people like to criticize me for, I feel like a lot of people don’t like humor and are afraid of it. They think it’s stupid or goofy or cheesy or whatever, but in fact, that’s part of the human experience. That’s something that I like to embrace.

You're willing to embrace things that are uncool. I think the first year I was in Louisville, we surveyed a lot of writers and musicians and artists about the best show they saw in the last year, and you wrote back that it was a Kool and the Gang concert. It's so easy to be dismissive of a band like that because of the three hits they had when you were 10, to write them off as cheesy, but that's never seemed to bother you. How did you get comfortable enough to listen without prejudice? Not to get all George Michael. 

Well, I think there’s an anger in music – especially in the music world and the music business. Everybody wants to be fucking cool. Everybody wants everybody else to think that they are the fucking coolest shit on the planet. And I think that’s why so many people aren’t afraid to like the Velvet Underground, but they’re afraid to like the Grateful Dead. It’s like, “I’m safe if I’m way too cool for school. Nobody can see my emotion. I’m super fucking cool, man, nobody’s gonna fuck with me.”

In high school, growing up in Louisville, that was all the rage, the super-cool, post-hardcore scene. And everybody in that scene was an asshole to [My Morning Jacket]. They were so mean to us, and would constantly say we sucked, and we were stupid and goofy and all this shit. So we constantly got made fun of, and through all that stuff, we learned, well,  A) I don’t want to make anybody else feel this way, and B) these people are making fun of this shit that they don’t understand, you know?

So it kind of like opened us up and sent us in the reverse direction to where – if Kool and the Gang hits me, I love Kool and the Gang. I don’t fucking care if you think it’s cool or not. I guess I’m not concerned with people thinking I’m cool because I’ve already been made fun of enough to not care. I don’t care. You know, "cool" is such a stupid, relative word.

Was there ever something that you dismissed as something, “Oh, no way -- I wouldn’t like that”?

 Well, the Velvet Underground is a perfect example. I would rebel against the rebellion. I was, like, “Fuck all these reviews. I’m sick of hearing about Lou Reed.” But eventually when I got turned on to Velvet Underground, I was like, “Goddamn, man, this is beautiful. This is some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard. I understand why people like this. I just don’t understand why they have to be such assholes about it.” (laughs)

The Grateful Dead and the Velvet Underground are this classic example of how stupid people are. ‘Cause I feel like people who are “hippies” and love the Grateful Dead would kind of look down on the indie rock, too-cool-for-school scene, and the people who like Velvet Underground are too-cool-for-school and think hippies are stupid and fucking hate the Grateful Dead. But I see so many similarities between the Dead and the Velvet Underground. You listen to a song like “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’” or you listen to a song like “American Beauty” or some of that era Dead, and so many of the harmonies and the jams they do, there’s so many similarities. I think it’s so hilarious that everybody’s so busy hating on each other ...

It’s so tied up in identity ...

... that nobody’s listening.

In "God's Man," the devil comes back. You guys have managed to keep the devil away, but the devil must be there a lot.

Oh my God, yeah. Always.

We’ve got the Grammys coming up on Sunday, and when you look at the bands that get invited to play, at the bands that get invited to present at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremonies, who get held up at the high-profile industry events, you can tell that it is no accident. And I’m sure it was there for you guys, to kind of be that anointed band.

Well, I don’t know. A lot of that stuff is hard to understand, because a lot of that stuff’s big business. But it’s weird, because there’s a certain – it’s a weird circle. Sometimes you see it, and it’s like, “Man, that’s so unfair. That’s so unjust, that Band A over here is getting so much attention and so much love out of nowhere when they’re clearly a corporate product that is not real. And here’s Band B over here dying on the vine, nobody’s going to their shows, they’re amazing, no one fucking gives a shit.” And it’ll seem unfair, but occasionally, the equilibrium evens out, and you see somebody like Bon Iver win a Grammy, and you’re like, “Well, maybe there is some fairness or something." Sometimes you’ll see people that you feel like really deserve it and are really grateful for it get something like that. It’s a weird system that I’m not sure I’ll ever understand. The music industry is a strange fucking place. A lot of people don’t realize how much it’s really big business. Things don’t really happen by accident.

So how do you manage to stay committed to what you believe in faced with those kinds of temptations?

I just realize that it’s out of my hands, because there’s nothing I can do other than feel – the only thing I want is to go to bed and sleep peacefully at night, ‘cause I follow my inspirations and my muses, ‘cause I’ve already seen that no matter what I do, somebody’s gonna be there to hate on it and somebody’s gonna like it. And it doesn’t matter if I keep trying to do the same thing over and over again or if I keep trying to change every time -- somebody’s gonna hate it and somebody’s gonna love it. We’ve been fortunate enough to be nominated for two Grammys, which is really cool, and a lot of our albums have never been nominated and maybe the rest of our albums never will be or maybe they will be. I don’t know. But I feel kind of comfortable in it all, because I know that I’ve never sold my soul to the devil, and I know I’ve tried to be true to my muse or whatever, and followed what it wants me to do. And if the world chooses to recognize that, great, that feels good. And if they choose not to, man, I wish they would, but I can’t control it, you know?

Last question: Explain Kentucky to me.

(laughs) That’s a good question.

How can it be the state of such beauty and creativity, and the state of Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul and a creationist museum, but also Hunter Thompson and Muhammad Ali and Jim James.

I’m trying to understand it myself. I think it’s just a classic case of education and fear. I think people who aren’t open to being educated and being open to the truth of living in reality live in fear. You know, a person like Mitch McConnell’s filled with fear and filled with hate that he doesn’t even understand. On one hand, you almost feel bad for him, ‘cause you’re like, “Man, you really don’t know what’s going on. You don’t understand the reality of life and that people need your help and you’re choosing not to help them.” In that sense, it’s very sad.

Kentucky’s a very mysterious place. There’s a lot of spirits in Kentucky– going back to the Native Americans’ viewpoints on Kentucky and stuff, they were afraid of Kentucky in some ways. There’s a lot of spirits that I can’t claim to understand, but obviously there’s good and bad, because there’s a lot of creativity and a lot of beauty. Kentucky is this really cool, blank slate, at least for me. Kentucky and Louisville – everybody thinks it is what it isn’t.

By David Daley

David Daley, former editor-in-chief of Salon, is the author of the national bestseller “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.”

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