The Magic of My Morning Jacket’s Jim James

Published August 17, 2012

ABOVE: MY MORNING JACKET. (LEFT TO RIGHT) BO KOSTER, TOM BLANKENSHIP, PATRICK HALLAHAN, JIM JAMES, AND CARL BROEMEL. IMAGE COURTESY OF DANNY CLINCH

There is something about Jim James’ voice and My Morning Jacket’s psychedelically-tinted brand of roots rock that, under the right circumstances or chemical intake, approaches religious transformation. In the 2009 American Dad episode “My Morning Straitjacket,” the comically straight-laced G-Man Stan Smith is transformed by a My Morning Jacket song, which sends him on a sonic head trip through space and time, with the band appearing as angels and lead singer Jim James a kind of mystical Shaman/God. The episode is more than just a joke; it was based on the life-changing experience of Dad co-creator Mike Barker after seeing My Morning Jacket’s four-hour, rain-soaked performance at Bonnaroo in 2008.

With the band approaching its 15th year and still riding the success of their Grammy-nominated 2011 release Circuital, MMJ could easily kick back and take an extended hiatus. Instead, they have embarked on a fall tour, dubbed “The Spontaneous Curation Series,” with shows comprised entirely of fan-submitted setlists. With an upcoming solo project, the Louisville-bred James is looking forward to the future while embracing the present and doing what he loves best: being on stage.

DREW FORTUNE: This tour is unique in that the fans are choosing the setlists. How are they doing so far?

JIM JAMES: [laughs] They’re doing good. I really like it, because I feel it kind of takes us outside of our heads. I feel like normally I’m really trapped in my own likes and dislikes at that particular moment in time that don’t always mesh up with what some of the deeper fans want to hear that have been with us for a long time. So it’s kind of cool to know what songs they want to hear and really try as hard as we can to get all those in the set. I like the thought of thinking of someone out there in the crowd that specifically wrote in that they wanted to hear a song, and then giving it to them.

FORTUNE: How do this work exactly? They send in the setlists and then you take a day or two to rehearse? I’m sure there are songs that you’ve completely forgotten.

JAMES: It all happens the day of the show. The people are able to tweet or write in to the website. We just look at all that the morning of the show and make the setlist. Then we’ve got a little bit of time for rehearsal in the dressing room with a couple guitars and drums that we can bang around on and try to remember the songs. Most of them we remember and have played at some point, and then there’s some that we’ve never played, or only played once. It just takes a few guitars to bring it back to memory.

FORTUNE: Are there specific songs that you hold really close to your heart, or is every song like a child, and you don’t like to play favorites?

JAMES: [laughs] I’ve got a lot of favorites, and I’ve got a few here and there that I don’t like. It is like a parent/child relationship, and there are certain kids that ran away from home and we haven’t reconciled. Most of them I don’t mind playing, but there are some that I just don’t get into anymore for various reasons.

FORTUNE: Do you know immediately when you’ve written or recorded something great, or are you surprised by what fans and critics gravitate towards?

JAMES: I’m not the kind of person that’s so self-confident that I would ever think I had recorded anything great. I’m really proud of everything we do, and I hope the people like it. It’s a weird process.  I know that whenever we finish an album and turn it in, I know that in my deepest heart of hearts that we did the best that we could. Only time goes on to tell what I will think of it 10 years later or if people will listen to it forever or if people will get tired of it. I think it’s every artist’s dream to create something that will endure, something that people will listen to until there are no more people on earth to listen to things.

FORTUNE: With Evil Urges (2008), which was a pretty big departure, did you put that out to the world with excitement or with some trepidation?

JAMES: We’re always excited. Music is a fun thing, and it should be fun. We love all sides of music, the playful side and the funny side, the serious side and the sad. I think a lot of people take it so fucking seriously, and they don’t have any room for humor, or any room for joking or trying anything different. It’s such a weird thing, man, and I can’t understand how some bands are criticized for doing something different and other bands are rewarded for doing things different. At the end of the day, I throw my hands up in the air and say, “Fuck it.” I’ve come to accept that no matter what we do, there’s going to be somebody out there on the Internet that says it’s a piece of shit and somebody who says they really like it. That’s happened with every single album we’ve put out.

FORTUNE: How did you hone your voice? Did it take a lot of practice, or did you come out of the womb singing?

JAMES: [laughs] It’s definitely changed over time, and it continues to change. I don’t want to say it’s a conscious intention, because I feel a lot of it is unconscious. There are messages that come into my head and I try to follow them as to what I should sing like. Some of them are very difficult, and some of them are very easy. I enjoy screaming and yelling. You gradually shape your voice by constantly performing with it.

FORTUNE: Do you have a honey or eucalyptus regimen?

JAMES: I have honey lemon water that I drink onstage to feel like I can calm my throat down, and I usually do some warm-ups before I go onstage.

FORTUNE: Was there a defining moment when music hit you, an album or a concert, when you thought, “I want to do this for the rest of my life?”

JAMES: Yeah. For me, it started really young, with The Muppet Show. I remember being three years old and seeing The Muppet Show for the first time and being so struck by the power of the band The Electric Mayhem. It was like somehow they revealed the answer to what I though music should be, which was using music to convey emotion and have fun in a really colorful, psychedelic way. That was the biggest thing for me.

FORTUNE: At this point in your career, it would be easy for you guys to phone it in, but you always give 100% in concert. Does that dedication come from having built a grassroots fan base?

JAMES: That’s part of it, but also when you’re out on the road, you’re trapped in a tour bus a lot of the time, or a hotel or dressing room. So much of the day is waiting. When you finally get onstage, it’s definitely a big release. We love to play, so a lot of it is that it’s the most fun part of the day. You get to stretch your legs, jump around and have fun. The other part is that we’re big music fans and we know what it’s like to go see a concert by somebody that doesn’t give a shit. They don’t give a shit about their playing or about the crowd. We’ve met people before that we were fans of that were total assholes and didn’t give a shit and it really turned us off. I think we just remember that feeling, and we’re just grateful that anybody wants to come see us. We want to give them the best show we can.

FORTUNE: What’s a perfect day for Jim James?

JAMES: A perfect 24? Man, that’s tough. It depends on the day you ask me. Right now I’m really fucking tired, so the perfect day would be me sleeping inside a mosquito net on a beach for 24 hours.

MY MORNING JACKET IS PLAYING SUNDAY, AUGUST 19, IN WILLIAMSBURG PARK, BROOKLYN.