My Morning Jacket leader Jim James steps out on his own
"Music has always come to me through a friend or through a film, and I just want to receive that invitation. I follow it as far as I can through the wormhole until I receive another invitation that I want to follow more.”
James Edward Olliges Jr. was born in Louisville on April 27, 1978. By the fourth grade, he had already made some of his life’s strongest friendships, including future drummers Dave Givan and Patrick Hallahan. By his teens, Olliges was playing with friends in bands, such as Month of Sundays, Two Shotguns and Hotel Roy, forgotten to all but Louisville music scene veterans and superfans.
Along the way, he took the stage name Jim James. The new handle reflected his absurdist sense of humor, as well as the fact that many people were unable to pronounce his given name. He also liked that it sounded like the name of a gunslinger.
In the late ’90s, while an art student at the University of Kentucky, he submitted a demo of songs to a handful of record labels, including a small indie in California called Darla. When Darla’s owners heard James’ demo, sent under the name My Morning Jacket, even though it was only James at that point, Darla offered a deal. The Tennessee Fire, the first full-length album by My Morning Jacket, was released in 1999.
After an even more highly acclaimed second album with Darla, At Dawn, in 2001, the band signed to a major label, the RCA-owned ATO Records. Since then, My Morning Jacket has released four more studio albums and become one of the most popular live bands in the world, appearing on “Saturday Night Live” and becoming animated in an “American Dad!” episode inspired by and starring the band.
They’ve performed in movies, been featured on magazine covers, and become such a big music festival attraction that when they play at Tennessee’s massive Bonnaroo Festival, it’s expected that they will play at last three hours, Springsteen-style; anything less would disappoint.
My Morning Jacket closed out 2012 in the style they wrap up every year these days: three nights in New York, followed by a New Year’s Eve concert in Boston. On Jan. 2, they played a Hurricane Sandy benefit in Asbury Park, N.J. James spoke with LEO over the next two days, beginning with a phone conversation from the Newark airport and continuing later in Louisville.
The official occasion for these discussions was James’ first full-length solo album, Regions of Light and Sound of God, which will be released Feb. 5. The album often departs sonically from the guitar-based sound he’s known for with My Morning Jacket. Its source of inspiration was also surprising.
While working on My Morning Jacket’s album Evil Urges, released in 2008, a friend gave him a copy of a book called “Gods’ Man.” It would spark a creative epiphany.
Created by Lynd Ward and published in 1929, “Gods’ Man” uses woodcut images rather than words to tell the story of an artist’s struggles. Upon the book’s release, New York World newspaper wrote, “The emotional effect of this book is tremendous … It will make a novel and exciting gift for a friend who is sick to death of meaningless words.”
James, who opened My Morning Jacket’s 2005 album Z with a song called “Wordless Chorus,” says, “I was really struck by the book, and I started scoring it in the hopes that it would become a film, in some form.”
Over the next four years, what began as a hypothetical film score evolved into the songs that became Regions of Light and Sound of God. During that time, James says, “Thoughts started creeping in … that had more to do with my life than the book — although some of the lyrics have to do with the book. Probably about half-and-half.”
The songs came out in chunks, he says, but they all wanted to be together. He began composing his score on an iPad, because the screen-flipping effect made it feel more cinematic. James hadn’t planned on making a solo album, but over the years he had built a home studio. When he’d get off the road, he’d work on more songs.
Previously, before making My Morning Jacket records, James would work on demos at home “to try and figure out what I want(ed) the record to be.” But in the 2007 sessions for Evil Urges, producer Joe Chiccarelli pointed out how James’ elaborate pre-production work, what James calls “super-duper intense demos, almost like a record themselves,” was affecting his creative energy.
“I put all this shit in there like keyboards, drum machines, and made the record before we even made the record. And several times throughout the sessions, I found myself butting up against a wall, where I couldn’t beat the demo I had made.”
Now James fights the urge to make demos. “I’ll just record an idea on the voice memo on my phone so I won’t forget it, but I’ll wait until I’m with the guys to turn it into a real song. That’s what we did for (2011’s) Circuital, and it worked out a lot better. We had a lot more fun with it.”
The songs that became Regions of Light and Sound of God “started popping out,” he says, and he invited lifelong friend Givan to play drums on most of the album. Emily Hagihara added percussion, and other friends joined in on strings: frequent collaborator Ben Sollee on cello, fellow Louisvillian Scott Moore on violin and viola, and New Yorker Adriana Molello, also on violin. “Everything besides that, I played myself,” James says.
Though he worked on most of Regions of Light at home, he moved to a room in local recording engineer Kevin Ratterman’s studio for a month to finish it.
“I just got this crazy kind of déjà vu when I saw (“Gods’ Man”), when I held it,” James says. “My friend gave me one of the original pressings of it. It was all yellow and crazy looking. When I held it for the first time, it totally smacked me in the face. I felt like I had known it from back then, from whatever life I lived back then. I knew it and loved it somehow. So when I saw it again, it’s like I already knew it.”
He loved the art deco presentation of the book, as he loves many cultural artifacts from that 1920s/’30s era. “Holding an original pressing from that time in my hand … there’s just something about the pattern of it that echoes, resonates really deep in my brain.”
For James, the idea of time travel appeals to him, “… just being a huge music nerd, always looking to be turned on to something new from whenever or wherever. The world’s just such a giant place. The span of recorded-music time that we can travel to is so short in the span of how long music has been around.”
“I don’t know, I’m just fascinated with it,” he adds. “I want to learn as much as I can about … everything. I’m always searching for new things.”
Since last May, James has been co-hosting, with Givan, a weekly program that can only be heard on local public radio station 91.9 WFPK or streaming online as it airs. “Sir Microcosm,” which airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m., has a time traveling theme, as the pair bounce around from music by Hank Williams to David Bowie, Dirty Projectors to Count Basie, Harry Belafonte to Frank Ocean.
Even as kids, for James and his friends, music was everything.
“I think it started as an escape … because you can travel into these different worlds in your mind. For me, it’s always fleeting glimpses or fleeting flashes — you’ll go see a movie set in the ’20s, and you’ll catch a little piece of music that you like, and you’ll want to explore that more.”
James is very close to his family and friends back home, despite spending a lot of time on the road. “I don’t know, I guess you could take it back to the time travel thing. I like slipping into different portals and slipping down different wormholes and different worlds.”
But it’s all about finding a balance: If he’s home for too long, he gets antsy. If he doesn’t have time to create, he gets antsy. If he’s on the road too long, he wants to be home.
“The one frustrating thing about the way I live life is so much of my life is planned so far in advance,” he says. “You’re planning New Year’s Eve in the summer, and you’re planning summer on New Year’s Eve.
“By the time you get to those points in time, sometimes you’re ready for what you planned and sometimes you’re not. You have no way of knowing how you’re going to feel six months into the future when you have to commit to it now.”
Still, he’s working on plans for a tour, where his band will include Givan on drums, Ratterman on samples and percussion, and a pair he met through Sollee, pianist Dan Dorf and bassist Alana Rocklin. “So I’ve got a band formed. We haven’t played yet, but we’re gonna do that soon and see if we can figure out how to … get it all figured out.”
He confirms Louisville as a destination on the tour. “Oh, yeah. We’ll definitely play a show here.” On Monday, James announced details of the show, which will be April 17 at the Brown Theatre. Tickets go on sale Feb. 1 for $31, with $1 of each ticket sold going to the cancer research and treatment hospital City of Hope.
Though a crucial element, the story of “Gods’ Man” did not inspire all of Regions of Light and Sound of God. The opener, “State of the Art (A.E.I.O.U.),” came from James’ conflicted feelings about technology. “I love technology, and I love working in technology. If you’re in music nowadays, most of the innovation that happens is inside the computer,” he says. “If you’re not using the computer, you’re not on the cutting edge of what is happening.”
At the same time, he sees “a really cool thing happening right now in the world.” One of his sisters has an organic farm, where her family grows their own food. Another is a midwife, helping women deliver children in their own homes. James thinks such a movement has come up as a response to technology; he fears a future in which even a business like Kroger can’t maintain a physical presence, “because you can print out your groceries from your computer.”
The computers are going to gobble up the world, he says. “That’s kind of the moral of the song — have siblings who can grow food so you can live after the end of the world,” he laughs.
The second song, “Know Til Now,” was the first song released online to get fans excited about the album. James wrote it “musically, thematically, to be the sound of progress in ‘Gods’ Man.’ The sound of The Artist making his way into the city, advancing up the ranks, climbing up the ladder.”
“The song is mostly one-half of that, then there’s an ending that’s completely different … The Artist is at the reception for his show that’s super-successful. High society is there, toasting him and cheering him.”
On a more personal level, it’s also about how we all do things that make sense at the time, but “… you look back on it now, it’s the stupidest thing you ever did. But back then, you didn’t know any better.”
It’s a theme that also ties into one of the last songs on the album, “All Is Forgiven,” a topic that’s been weighing on James. About the song, he says, “Lyrically, at least from the way I looked at it, it was just … that everything can be forgiven.
“That’s something I think about a lot, for any time I’ve hurt somebody, or done something that I shouldn’t have done … I think, if you hurt a person, you pray for forgiveness and hope that the world, or that person, can find a way to forgive you.”
He has a “pretty clear” conscience, “But I’ve hurt a lot of people I didn’t even know I was hurting, and I feel like that’s what happened to The Artist in the end of the book. He didn’t even know what he was getting into until it was too late. So he’s hoping for that forgiveness.”
His most colorful description of a passage from the book comes when relaying his inspiration for the song “Actress.”
“She becomes his muse — there’s this really amazing scene where he’s painting her portrait, she’s nude, and he looks closer and sees a dollar bill tattooed on her shoulder and realizes she’s a whore who’s just been conning him the whole time,” James laughs. “He realizes he’s been duped and he’s running all over the city, trying to seek refuge … fucking crazy, you’ve got to look at this book.
“He runs to the church to seek refuge there, but the priest is fucking the girl; he runs to the park, and the girl’s fucking the cop. Everywhere he goes, he sees this girl’s face on every girl, everywhere, in all these places where you’re supposed to seek help. So that was meant to go with that. It isn’t personally written about anyone that I know.”
Though lauded for his guitar playing, James downplays the instrument on his solo record, focusing more on sensual keyboards and strings, reflections of his love for 1970s soul and funk music. It isn’t until the third song, “Dear One,” that a guitar is featured viscerally.
“I get to play guitar so much in My Morning Jacket, I really didn’t feel a need to play it as much in this,” James says. “I mean, there is guitar on the record, but not in the normal way. I wanted it to be more subliminal. Or, like in ‘Dear One,’ I wanted it to be hyper-realized, like a computer was beating the guitar.”
For James, the occasion to write a “computer beating a guitar” song came from a love story. It was written for a passage in the book when The Artist has fallen off a cliff and landed in a field. A woman finds him, and they fall in love.
“There’s a beautiful scene in this big field at night, stars are shining, it’s just a beautiful point in the book,” he says. “‘Dear One’ was written to be the music for those scenes, where they’re falling in love, and it was written from my point of view. We’re all trying to fall in love, and … just how important that is, that feeling is.”
The next song, “A New Life,” reflects the consummation of that love. The Artist and the woman have a child and are now a family, running through the fields together. It’s the happiest point in the book. About those lyrics, James says, “Everything is echoing from my life, too, things that were going on back then — but I didn’t have a child.”
In his mind, James has a map of his intended score for the book. For the purposes of his album, however, it’s not a literal retelling of the story from beginning to end. “I looked at this record in two ways. I wanted this record to be itself and be in an order I wanted it to be, independent of ‘Gods’ Man.’ And if ‘Gods’ Man’ does ever get turned into a film, then there’ll be a soundtrack that goes with that. Maybe some of these songs will be on it.”
But past experience in the film world has made James cautious about that process. “I’ve worked on two different film scores now that I got fired from,” he says with a laugh, “(because) they were too weird. The movies, I always end up being incredibly frustrated that I can’t control (them).”
He collaborated on two scores with composer Brian Reitzell, who has worked frequently with director Sofia Coppola. The first was for “The Beaver,” the what-were-they-thinking movie by Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster about a man who communicates with a hand puppet. After scoring the entire film, the pair was replaced.
“It was ‘too weird,’ and they realized the film was gonna tank,” James says now, still bruised by the experience. “I’m really glad it happened, because the film is horrible. They just needed more blatantly obvious music. It’s the kind of thing, too, where it’s like a break-up — maybe they just hated the music we wrote and it’s horrible. But I think it’s awesome. Me and Brian really believe in it, and someday we’ll do something with it.”
The other movie was an indie called “Goats,” which, according to James, also turned out horrible. “And I say that because I have a right to say that, because I feel like both of those could have turned out good. I feel like they were both cases of directors letting Hollywood tell them what to do with their art and fucking themselves. If they would have listened to themselves and listened to their conscience and listened to their gut, they could’ve made a really great film.”
It’s another preoccupation for James — instinct. “I really believe in intuition and in your gut. We all have this force inside of us that, if we just listen to it, it would always set us on the right path. But a lot of times we don’t listen to it … I think that’s the biggest gift we were given.”
Despite the setbacks, James values his experience in the film world, which also includes two attempts to work with The Muppets. It felt natural, but losing control was frustrating. “I think everybody needs to have control over their art. That’s the problem when art and commerce start to mix. If you don’t spell things out pretty clearly, you can quickly lose control.”
Over the years, James has counted on the support of family, friends and fans, but he’s still a work in progress. “I may be confident musically, but I’m definitely not confident in other areas, that’s for sure.” Musically, he has the self-assurance to command thousands of people in a crowd at once and ignore the many opinions directed at his stage persona.
“Performing is such a weird thing. It’s almost like you have to put a different brain in your head, because it’s just so different than how I live in a day-to-day way. It’s a whole different world,” he says. “You have to be open to putting yourself out there, both in being criticized and being enjoyed.”
The moral of his story, according to James, is that “it doesn’t fucking matter.” He tells this to anyone who wants to make a record but is scared, or to bands 10 years in who are afraid to try something new. You’re always going to get the same response: Some will praise you, others will damn you.
“It’s kind of freeing, in a way. It’s like this great equalizer.”
And even when you know it’s completely out of your control, he says, “It all still fucks with you.”
“I try to not read press, but people email me shit. It still hurts when people say it sucks, and it fucks with your ego when people say it’s great. But you hear so much of both, you have to just be happy with what you’re doing. That’s where I find solace — at the end of the day, I’m in love with what I’m doing, and I’m having a really great time doing it.”