Band of the Year: My Morning Jacket

Music to me is really spiritual. In my brain, music is kind of everything. Music is the glue that holds life together.

-Jim James

Photo by: Autumn de Wilde

Like a fierce live version of "Steam Engine," "Gideon" or "Touch Me I'm Going To Scream Pt. II," once James gets talking about a topic he's passionate about there's no stopping him:

Jim James by Sam Erickson
"I also feel like churches have become exclusive, and it's almost like if you're a sinner you're not welcome at church. Whereas I feel the best kinds of churches are the kind that welcome you with open arms and say, 'Hey, life is tough, life is really hard and we all fuck up, and that's why you need to come to church, because you know you're a sinner and you need to come back to your community and sing some songs and be forgiven and try again. You know, get up and dust yourself off and try again to be a good person, because everybody makes mistakes.' I feel like a lot of people are made to feel like you've almost got to fake it. You've almost got to pretend like you're this totally perfect, pure person that goes to this big church where everybody pretends like they're not sinners. It seems like it's turned into this twisted thing where it's almost excluding people and making people feel bad, as opposed to welcoming people in and letting them be healed, letting them try to find a good way. I guess that's why people always gravitate to music, especially if they feel like an outsider or they don't understand the society they're in. Music is limitless and there are no rules there, no feeling of not being accepted."

Amen, Brother Jim, Amen!

But let's not forget, this didn't happen overnight. My Moring Jacket was not an instant success. There was no mass acceptance of their sound when they quietly arrived in 1999 with The Tennessee Fire. The My Morning Jacket of today was a decade in the making - five records, one live album/DVD, a bunch of singles and EPs and countless shows wrestled into ten years full of hard work, lineup changes, lost hopes, re-dedications, a little luck, a lot of talent and a fearless pursuit of their muse. Standing on the edge of superstardom, the Jacket worked damn hard to get here and there's no telling where they might go next.

The first three albums were recorded in their hometown of Louisville, Kentucky in a now-famous silo and these served as wonderful documentation of the band finding their reverb-soaked, psychedelic guitar rock sound. The Tennessee Fire was a lo-fi diamond in the rough, a stone just starting to show hints of sparkle. 2001's At Dawn found James' vivid, emotionally-pregnant songwriting taking form, and 2003's breakout It Still Moves put it all together into a fully-realized, gritty barn-burning rocker that stamped MMJ on the map in permanent ink. Having built a solid foundation, they could now tear it down and see what really lives inside. They left the farm and went to New York's Catskill Mountains, where they fully-embraced the production possibilities of a real studio and created Z. A sonic tour de force that shot the Southern rockers into the stratosphere, Z was a coming out party for the Jacket. We had it wrong. They're not Skynyrd jam rockers whose perfect slot is sunset (or a rain shower!) at Bonnaroo; My Morning Jacket is bigger than any of that. They are tethered to no genre, beholden to no scene. When they learned how to use the recording studio they transferred the miraculous creative-energy of their live shows to wax, elevating them into a different scope of artists. With Z My Morning Jacket became America's answer to Radiohead. Rooted in good ol' American roots rock but plugged into the cosmos, they have become "THE band" for a lot of people - no longer just entertainment but an answer.

My Morning Jacket
You hear it all the time, talk of how people don't care about music anymore. How radio, marketing schemes and the Internet have killed the art form, and even James fears the worst. "Music has become like this plastic novelty," he says. "I feel like it's lost some of its power."

Like dedicated Radiohead fans who believe the Brits are saving rock across the pond, My Morning Jacket's faithful are looking to their leaders with the same doe-eyed trust. This could be the band's sole mission statement: to save music. And James even cops to the idea, not exactly implying that his band can do it, but that they have to at least try.

"There are those of us that really love music and will always love music and it doesn't matter what format it's in or where we get it. We just want it and we want more of it. We want to search through it," smiles James. "But, I definitely think for people that aren't music nerds but who love music it is important. I feel like a lot of people don't want to go searching for hours of music; they'll just kind of listen to what's being broadcast, the most popular stuff, which is totally normal and an acceptable way of hearing music. It's just, I hope we can get the world back into balance where good-quote-unquote-good, healthy music is the big force."

The things they say are evil urges, baby, they be part of the human way
It ain't evil, baby, if it ain't hurting anybody
If it's all the same, we're tired of waiting, come on then
And dedicate your love to any woman or man
No racial boundary lines, no social subdivisions
If you want it – you can have it!

My Morning Jacket by Autumn de Wilde
All of this brings us to 2008's Evil Urges, another mammoth step forward full of weird futuristic soul-funk, touching ballads, fist-pumping bangers and R&B art rock that makes you want to jump up on the table and scream along. But, this is no mindless keg party. "Evil Urges" are inside all of us, and this album grapples with the most challenging aspects of our modern existence.

"The world 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," reflects James. "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."

The fact that the music on Evil Urges is so freakily different than Z, which was a world away from It Still Moves, really shouldn't have been a surprise. If we've learned anything about MMJ over the past decade it's that they never stop moving, growing or searching for what's next. In fact, James would argue that's the whole idea.

"I always made a conscious effort, from a production standpoint and from a sound standpoint, to make each album as different as possible," explains James. "I think it's really fun just to put on an album and from the first note you're just like, 'Wow, this sounds completely different! I don't even know if this is the same band.'"

MMJ definitely got that reaction when fans got to song three, "Highly Suspicious," on the new album. A polarizing force that could just as easily illicit hip-jerking head-banging as it could a pissed-off laugh and slap of the "fast forward" button, but such is the risk when you're really pushing boundaries. There will always be naysayers who want the same record or song over-and-over, and there are plenty of bands that fall victim to this, often having their creative juices siphoned by record execs that are only searching for that next big hit. Lucky for us, MMJ never let loose an ounce of control and that's a big reason why they've been able to make such adventurous music.

Continue reading for more on the Jacket...

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