Band of the Year: My Morning Jacket

By: Kayceman

My Morning Jacket by Autumn de Wilde
We are our parent’s children, but we are not our parents. The generation gap we feel today has been exacerbated by the computer revolution, which birthed our text message, IM (instant message for those of you who haven’t made the leap), e-communication lifestyle, which many of those born before the PC have failed to adopt. But beyond our ever-growing inability to interact as humans, we’re one of the few generations in the history of America that will not enjoy a higher standard of living than our parents. While many cling to hope that Obama can save this country, the truth is as we step into 2009 we’re staring down a barrel and there are bullets in the chamber. Our economy has collapsed, we’re mired in a war costing us billions of dollars, and we’re still dependant on the precious oil our enemies control. This is not the world we were promised, but it is the one we’re inheriting.

We also happen to be the first generation to fully see through the veil of organized religion. When times are tough people turn to faith; they always have. Problem is, we watched the walls of the world’s largest religion, Christianity, crumble from corruption and crimes inside the Catholic Church too heinous to consider while the second largest religion, Islam, became erroneously tied to fanatic, extreme violence. All around the world people are suffering in the name of religion, and those of us coming of age today have had enough. We aren’t looking to scripture and we certainly have no time for hypocrisy handed down from atop a white horse. We’re looking for something that connects us in real time, not learned through forced Sunday school traditions and stuffy synagogues we never wanted to attend in the first place. The old rules don’t apply. We’re searching for more; praying not for Christ’s return but for a mass awakening. And like our most ancient ancestors did, many of us are looking to music. Just as cavemen slapped stones, Africans stretched animal hides to make drums and the Whirling Dervishes spun into ecstasy, music is in our bones and it very well may be the path to spirituality. As we close the book on 2008 we need something we can believe in, we need to go deeper and My Morning Jacket is taking us there. And that’s why they’re our Band of the Year.

Who makes my decisions? Who reads all your thoughts?
What makes us how we are?
Faith can’t prove what science won’t resolve
Kumbaya my lord, c’mon row your boat ashore
The river’s long. It is cold. It chills the body but not the soul.

My Morning Jacket by Dave Vann
“Music to me is really spiritual. In my brain, music is kind of everything. Music is the glue that holds life together,” says bandleader Jim James. “I’ve always been the kind of person that really believes in God or some kind of force, some kind of spirit, but I’ve never been able to put a name on it. So, to me, the most transcendental, beautifully religious moments I’ve ever had have been either listening to music with some close friends or playing music.”

Filling your soul with sound isn’t a new idea, just one that seems to be lost in the digital fog of our shared sensory overload. My Morning Jacket is breaking through that fog and they’re doing it in a number of ways, but most often it comes in the form of a concert. MMJ’s live shows have reached mythic proportions. Their albums are an invitation – a chance for audio observation and personal reflection, deep solitary journeys full of sonic headphone bliss – but it’s live, in the concert halls-come-sanctuaries that fans are transformed into disciples.

“Music is a great vehicle for people to lose their minds and to get out of their normal thought bubble and just kind of escape time and space and just get into that vacuum, that blurry area where time doesn’t exist anymore,” says James. “For us, the live thing, the audience plays a huge role, because if we’re playing somewhere and we feel like the audience isn’t feeling it or something then it doesn’t get that spiritual because it just turns into some tedious task. But, if the audience is really into it and the mood is right and the spirits are right, that’s when I feel it becomes really religious, really spiritual, because the fever and the energy of the audience is coming at us and that makes us want to hit back harder. It’s just such a crazy, unpredictable kind of energy thing going on.”

It seems every time James and I discuss what people are reacting to inside his music we end up back at the spiritual/religious crossroads. It’s not that he thinks he’s special – far from it, he’s very humble – but perhaps Jim James is just a bit more aware of his surroundings.

Jim James by Dino Perrucci
“I’m a big believer in, I don’t know, spirits or ghosts is a simplistic way of putting it, but I feel like there are spirits that are around the Earth and if you’re writing music, I feel like the best music is kind of brought to you by these forces or spirits” explains James. “And it’s the same way with playing a live show. If we’re in a place, I try to be respectful of the forces that are already there and the people that have been there before. I try to pray and we huddle up as a band, just to try to let the forces know that we’re there with them and we hope that we can kind of join the forces that are there and have it be a good spiritual experience.”

But it begs the question why? Why are tens of thousands of fans packing into venues across the globe to be part of this? Is it really because we’ve lost faith in mainstream religion?

“In a lot of ways organized religion is even more powerful than ever and it just makes me sad, because I’ve never been able to finalize my thinking on any of those lines because you just can’t prove anything. It requires this big, huge leap of faith on the part of the participant to be involved in any of these religions, and it just seems like they do so much more damage than they do good. And they go against the basic principles of what the religion’s supposed to be about,” says James. “So, I think a lot of people, especially younger people, find that freedom and that boundless, no-boundaries-at-all feeling when they get into music, and they get moved by those forces. I feel like the best thing about church, if you go to a good church, is the music, the fever.”

Continue reading for more on the 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…

The world doesn’t realize that the accountant or the construction worker needs to come home and listen to music and have art and architecture affect their lives in a beautiful way, even if they don’t know [it], even if they don’t realize that it’s affecting ’em.

Jim James

Photo by: Dave Vann

“I feel like we’ve bought ourselves artistic freedom by always being really clear with our record labels [about] having full creative control, full artistic control, full control of the album artwork, every single thing. I never wanted to worry for one second about anything I wanted being questioned or taken away,” says a proud James.

My Morning Jacket by Dave Vann
This creative freedom has fostered an atmosphere where anything is possible. A place where My Morning Jacket can go in any direction, and whether it’s conscious or not, that direction almost always touches on something bigger.

“That’s why I think the spiritual side of it is so important,” says James, “because sometimes I get tired of music and I think about how many people have made records with guitars and drum sets and basses and all that shit. And it’s funny because when you listen to a record that has no spirit, you hear just some dudes playing guitars and basses, but if you listen to a record that you love it’s almost like it turns into this thing where it doesn’t matter what they’re using. It all turns into this big, beautiful painting or whatever, and it’s no longer guitars or basses or voices – it’s just this thing.”

There could perhaps be no better analogy for My Morning Jacket’s sound than a painting. When the Jacket hit their stride brushes full of color fly across the mind’s canvas. Like James said, it stops being guitars, drums and singing, and the pieces come together to form a single entity far greater than any words I could hope to muster. Take for example the vocals. Often when a jam is getting heated and someone starts to sing it grounds the listener, connecting them to a storyline or chorus phrase, but when James’ reverb-juiced howls float into the sky they stop being a man singing and become another splash of paint on the mural. They don’t bring you back – they ignite liftoff.

It’s possible that James, bassist Two Tone Tommy, drummer Patrick Hallahan, guitarist Carl Broemel and keyboardist Bo Koster exist in this echelon of “artists” like Radiohead, Wilco, Bjork and The Flaming Lips (all bands name checked by James) because they understand the core value of art just for art’s sake.

“To keep seeing arts funding get cut over and over again,” James cuts himself off and restarts, “The world thinks it can exist without art. The world doesn’t realize that the accountant or the construction worker needs to come home and listen to music and have art and architecture affect their lives in a beautiful way, even if they don’t know [it], even if they don’t realize that it’s affecting ’em. So, it’s like they think they’re cutting arts funding to save money and make more money in other places but in the end it’s only going to end up shooting everybody in the foot.”

What is it inside our heads that makes us do the opposite?
Makes us do the opposite of what’s right for us?
Cause everything’d be grrreat and everything’d be good
If everybody gave like everybody could.

My Morning Jacket by Autumn de Wilde
By the time I meet James, Hallahan and some of the crew for dinner at a quaint Berkeley restaurant, the interview portion of our time is long over. James has had a taxing flight with multiple delays and we’re no longer unraveling Big Ticket items. Religion and spirits, transcendent guitar solos and talk of how drugs are “overrated” has turned to salmon (what Jim got) and ribs (what I got). The guys are excited but tired. The next night is a big one. They are playing The Greek, hallowed grounds in the Bay Area and we’d soon find out perfect acoustics for the Jacket’s massive sound to stomp around in (read the review here). Somewhere between a triumphant “Mahgeetah” and a dark, twisted “Dondante,” the beautiful “Librarian” reached a peak when James sang out, “Cause everything’d be grrreat and everything’d be good/ if everybody gave like everybody could.” Standing amongst the swaying congregation, I couldn’t help but feel connected to something bigger than myself, this band or this single experience, and I was sucked back to my talk the previous day with James:

“Everybody is the same and everybody needs the same things. I think that’s why music, good music, kind of speaks to that timeless essence or pure consciousness that’s in every living being,” says James. “I think music is a form of that, and I think that kind of ties into the whole religion/spiritual thing, because I think if you go out and make any effort in the world to travel or go to different parts of your town or try and meet different people and see what people of all different races and creeds and stuff are up to, everybody’s looking for the same thing. We all want to be loved. We all want to be taken care of. We all want to be fed and take care of our families and have a roof over our head. I think that’s one thing that hopefully – I’m hoping with fingers crossed – that we’re coming out of a dark time and into a better time where there’s a more level playing field between the rich and the poor. And it would just be really great to see things even out and to see people kind of recognize that in each other more, this kind of essence that everybody deserves to have a fair, nice life.”

Looking at the front page of the newspaper or into our bank accounts might not make us feel like life is fair or nice, but if we study the success a band like MMJ has enjoyed, perhaps there is hope after all.

2008 was the year of the Jacket. It all started in March at the annual South by Southwest music conference/schmoozefest. The buzz in Austin was ridiculous. From the minute one stepped off the plane into the humid air all you heard was talk of Evil Urges (which wouldn’t come out for another three months) and the availability of tickets to their Wednesday night show at the tiny Parish (which would prove a revelation for those of us fortunate enough to get through the door). The following months found the band garnering more praise than ever, selling out amphitheaters and sheds, playing major slots at festivals around the world, landing on the covers of mainstream magazines, getting serious airplay with their singles, their new album debuting at #9 on the Billboard charts, and even getting a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Album. And if you need more tangible, hard evidence consider this: The last time MMJ played a NYE show they did three epic nights at San Francisco’s 1100-person Fillmore Auditorium to celebrate 2006 passing into 2007. This year, to end 2008, they are set to play America’s biggest stage, Madison Square Garden on New Year’s Eve. It doesn’t get any bigger and bands simply don’t get any better, and that’s why all of us at JamBase are proud to crown My Morning Jacket as our Band of the Year.

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