Interview: My Morning Jacket’s Jim James Making Big Decisions
My Morning Jacket may be the “Greatest American Rock Band” of the 21st century, but their frontman, Jim James, isn’t so easily labeled. The enigmatic vocalist/guitarist was called “Crazy Horse-esque” pretty regularly during the group’s early years, but as their sound has progressed it’s become more and more common to hear James compared to artists ranging from Prince to Smokey Robinson.
While Jacket’s latest release, The Waterfall, has taken the quintet in a decidedly more Motown direction, James’ individual discography continues to grow in different directions thanks to solo albums, side projects, Woody Guthrie tributes and superstar collaborations alongside both Elvis Costello and Mumford & Sons’ Marcus Mumford.
Recent years have seen Jacket host an annual, multi-day concert in Mexico called One Big Holiday where they’ve shared their stage with icons ranging from Preservation Hall Jazz Band to the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir. This past summer they served as the backing band for Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters during the bassists headlining set at the Newport Folk Festival, and their sold out performance at Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheater was their first concert ever to be webcast to paying fans across the globe.
For as public of a star as James has become, very little is known about the man born James Olliges Jr. in the spring of 1978. Details of his personal life are scarce and the little press he does is appropriately focused on the work that makes him worth interviewing, not what goes on in the privacy of his own home.
Recently, JamBase got on the line with Olliges for a rare interview to talk about his latest accomplishments, relationships with other musicians and the continuing evolution of his onstage persona, all to give us a deeper understanding behind the mysterious figure JamBase Nation knows as Jim James …
JamBase: I’ve been covering Jacket for the past nine years and something that’s really interesting to me about you is how little I actually know about you. How have you managed to maintain a private life while performing on national TV and selling out venues around the country?
Jim James: Well, [privacy is] just really important to me. I’ve got a pretty big separation in my mind between my personal life and my musical life or whatever you want to call it. That’s the way it should be. I feel that way about the artists I like. I don’t give a shit about their personal life, so I try to enjoy the music. Whatever moves me moves me. In our age of crazy Internet, there’s too much information and I don’t think it needs to be a part of the picture. It’s a weird time we live in. All the mystery is gone. Everyone wants to know everything and I think that takes away from a lot of things.
JamBase: I get that you keep up a wall between your personal and professional life, but another thing that’s interesting to me about you is that you never write lyrics in first person. Your songs don’t give us any information about your history, experiences or life story. Do you intentionally keep a distance up in your songwriting as well?
JJ: I try to write things from a perspective that hopefully anyone can get into. I try to go so far as to leave gender out of as many places as I can because love is such a universal thing. [Love is] such a beautiful thing [that] anyone can share. [I want] anyone [to be] able to hear one of my songs and identify with it, regardless of their gender. I try, and I’m not saying I always succeed, but I try to write in a way that hopefully is still moving but not super specific.
JamBase: At an old school Jacket show, there used to be a lot of head banging and hair flying. That said, you had a moment during your set at Red Rocks this summer where you wandered off behind the stage and just sort of meditated up against the rocks. I feel like there’s more of a silent charisma in your stage presence these days. How do you think your stage presence has changed?
JJ: I think time changes us all. I feel like I’m a different person now than I was even a year ago, let alone five or six years ago. Time changes you in so many ways [that] you don’t even know what’s happened or how it’s changed you. But that has been my call lately, to be more still, and more present in my mind. It feels more natural to me lately.
JamBase: When you hurt your back [during an on-stage fall in 2008], how did you learn how to adapt your stage presence to what you could and couldn’t do physically?
JJ: When I had back surgery, I had physical therapy for a few months and since then I’ve become really into Pilates and I do that a few times a week. I’m trying to learn to move properly so I don’t re-injure myself.
JamBase: There’s a lot you used to do that on stage I’m sure is off the table right now, like the way you used to slide across the stage on your knees or just bang your head all night long. Is there anything you think you can do now that wasn’t in your bag of tricks as a younger guy?
JJ: Hmm. That’s a good question. [Something I didn’t used to do was] just trying to stand still. I feel like I couldn’t sit still. I was filled with something that made me want to head bang and jump around all the time and not that it’s bad but it’s a different me and I’m not the same person, literally and metaphysically. They say every seven years all your cells have changed. You shed skin and hair cells and you are literally not the same person. I like to think about that a lot because I like to listen to what the universe is saying and when you have back surgery, the universe is saying something pretty big to you. I try to listen.
JamBase: You toured and recorded with Monsters of Folk [with M. Ward and Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst]. Then there was New Multitudes [alongside Son Volt’s Jay Farrar]. You recently put out an album with The New Basement Tapes [featuring Elvis Costello, Rhiannon Giddens, Marcus Mumford, and Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes] but My Morning Jacket is the only project that you’ve ever returned to. Is that by design or is that just the way the cookie crumbles when you’re in a super group?
JJ: I don’t know. I’ve actually never thought about it. There are so many things I’ve been lucky enough to do [that] kind of come around and there’s no guarantee there will be a Round Two, so you enjoy Round One and just go for it. Everybody has fun in those project but the schedules are so crazy. With Jacket, I guess it’s just been the thing that started everything [for me professionally], so it’s always something I come back to. I love playing with the guys and we have such a tight bond between us. It’s one of those things you don’t even think about. We always come back to it no matter what else we’ve been working on.
JamBase: Is there anything else coming from The New Basement Tapes? Maybe a tour or another album?
JJ: Well there’s a lot more material but I’m not sure [if it’s coming out]. I think everyone’s kind of been off in their own world so I don’t know if they want to put out a Vol. 2 but I hope they do because there’s a lot of great stuff I like that didn’t make the light of day. I hope it happens but I’m not sure.
JamBase: Are there any new projects on the horizon that Jacket fans don’t know about yet?
JJ: I’m always working on a new record. [Right now] I’m working on another solo record. But we’re always working. It’s hard to say when these things will be done, but they’re in progress.
JamBase: There was a gap between [2011’s] Circuital and [2015’s] The Waterfall but you put out plenty of other material during that time period. Are you one of these guys who will go crazy if he isn’t busy or does this kind of lifestyle ever tire you out?
JJ: I get really tired [laughs]. I’m tired right now. Being at the airport doesn’t help. I feel pretty fucking tired but there’s something [in me], luckily, and I’m thankful that there’s an energy that keeps me wanting to create. I try not to think about it or question it because sometimes that energy isn’t there and I feel crushed and don’t even want to get off the couch. But when that energy is there and I want to create and be active, I’m grateful for that.
JamBase: You busted out a lot of new covers at One Big Holiday last year and so far this summer, with the exception of [backing up Roger Waters at] Newport [Folk Festival], from what I’ve seen, you’ve been exclusively performing new material. Are you actively avoiding covers in 2015?
JJ: Yeah, I’ve been kind of tired of covers. I like playing them and we’ve done a lot of them over the years. They’re fun in a party type atmosphere like One Big Holiday or on New Years Eve or those kinds of occasions where it’s a show but also a party. Not that we don’t want all of our shows to feel like a party. But at our shows, we’re in more the mood and mindset to focus [exclusively] on our music because we’re lucky enough to have so much music we can’t fit it into a set, let alone cramming covers in. [Playing covers means] we’d be playing less of our own songs. I’m just tired of playing covers …
JamBase: Has it become harder putting setlists together now that the back catalog is larger? Do you feel there are tunes you have to play?
JJ: Yeah, it’s weird. It does get harder because we have more records and more songs [than we used to] but the same amount of time to play in a night, so you have to decide [which songs are the] most important to you and what feels better. Songs go in cycles. We call it the doghouse. Songs get thrown into the doghouse for no reason other than they don’t feel right at that time, then a year or two later for no reason that song is out of the doghouse. It’s funny: We all have different songs in our doghouse. When we’re making a set list, someone will say, “Lets play song X,” and someone else will moan, “I don’t want to. It’s in my dog house.”
JamBase: What’s an example of a Jacket tune that’s been in the doghouse and hasn’t made it out yet?
JJ: “Into the Woods” [from 2005’s Z] is one that’s been in my doghouse for a long time. It might come up here and there that someone wants to play it, but I’ll moan and groan and say, “It’s in my dog house! I don’t want to play it!”
JamBase: Do you get final say over the set list each night?
JJ: I kind of do because I’m the one who has to sing the songs. We’re pretty democratic and everyone has a say, but at the end of the day the guys are really respectful about the fact that whoever has to sing the songs has to carry the most emotional weight. So if there’s a song I’m not feeling, I’ll vote it down and the guys are always really respectful of that.
JamBase: Do you ever play tunes that you don’t feel like playing but feel that you owe to the audience?
JJ: No, we try to go with what we’re feeling that night and whatever feels good to us. It’s cool when people tweet at us when we do our Spontaneous Curation Series. We like seeing what people request and a lot of times it make the setlist and remind us of a song that we hadn’t thought of, but at the end of the day, it comes down to what we’re feeling emotionally. If someone requests a song I can’t feel emotionally on that day, I’m not going to sing it. I’m glad they like the song and requested it but if I’m not feeling, it I cant do it.
JamBase: Do you ever worry [the MMJ song] “One Big Holiday” is becoming your “Enter Sandman?”
JJ: [Laughs] No [laughs], I’m not worried about that.
JamBase: You think you could go a whole tour without playing that one?
JJ: Hmm … I don’t know. There are nights we don’t play it. That goes in and out of our doghouse too but it’s also a really fun song to play and most of the time I really enjoy playing it.
JamBase: Is there going to be a 2016 incarnation of [the event,] One Big Holiday?
JJ: Not in 2016, but probably a 2017 one. We’re taking a year off. We just didn’t have time in 2016.
JamBase: Have you been in touch with Bob Weir or Roger Waters, or any of these icons you’ve played with over the past year or so?
JJ: Yeah, we stay in touch. We’re not best friends who talk every day, but we share a life and those guys are amazing. What an honor to share the stage with… So many people! Those guys are heroes so it’s a big honor to get to jam with them.
JamBase: Is there anything you’ve recorded with these guys that might make it out someday?
JJ: Not that I know of, but I honestly can’t remember. There might be something [recorded] but there’s nothing planned.
JamBase: When The Waterfall was announced, it was said there would be two albums spread a year apart. Is there still a new album coming in 2016?
JJ: [Sigh] That was sort of taken out of context. I was just trying to say we’d recorded a bunch of songs. We wanted to put out another record sooner than we normally do but I wasn’t sure how that would happen so I don’t know. There’s a lot we’ve recorded that exist but [those songs] still need work and there are other things to record before we could say a record is ready. But you never know … Things can happen really fast.
JamBase: I know a lot of artists aren’t fans of doing press because things can wind up being taken out of context. Is there anything you want to set the record straight on that you think people have misconceptions about?
JJ: That’s a good question …
JamBase: We’ll run it word-for-word, from your mouth straight to the readers’ screens. If there’s anything you want to set straight, lets get it out there.
JJ: I’m trying to think, but nothing really comes to mind. I’m sure I’ll think of something as soon as you hang up the phone …
JamBase: I want to change gears a bit. How did working on your first full solo album influence your work with Jacket?
JJ: I love working by myself. I work every day in the studio by myself on different things. [By making a solo album] I learned the studio better. I learned Pro Tools better and the millions of things I learned you can do in the studio, and I feel like it helped me for any project. It feels good to be able to sit down at the console and know what I’m doing. I’ve still got a lot to learn but I always hated the feeling of going into the studio and not knowing what was going on. I wanted to change that so I didn’t have to feel that way again. When I made the solo record, I did everything myself and learned as I went along without any pressure or anyone watching me. I’ve carried that into everything else I’ve done.
JamBase: If this interview was your State of the Union to Jacket Nation, what would you want folks knowing about what’s in store for the year to come?
JJ: Hmmm …. I don’t know. I haven’t been into words lately. I don’t have many words. I’m trying to … feel. I’ve been at a loss for words. I like to just play the music and let it say whatever it’s supposed to on a given day.
JamBase: Last question, what do you think of the new Muppets Show?
JJ: I haven’t seen it. There are definitely too many Muppet heartbreaks in my career so I haven’t thought about them in a while. Have you seen it?
JamBase: Yeah, I like what I’ve seen so far.
JJ: It’s pretty sweet?
JamBase: It’s not The Muppets Take Manhattan but I enjoyed it.
JJ: I’ll have to check it out. I’ve been kind of weary of the Muppets because several times we almost did projects or songs and it hasn’t worked out. Maybe there’s still a chance …
JamBase: Is there anything else you wanted to say or talk about that I didn’t give you the chance to discuss?
JJ: Not really, but I appreciate your asking.