This time, My Morning Jacket's Jim James just wants to have fun

·9 min read

"That's one thing we love as a band," says Jim James, the frontman of Louisville, Ky., rock veterans My Morning Jacket. "There's so many songs we have where we're like, Okay, I'm trying to say something.' But then we reach a point [where] anything goes."

James is referring to the funky, Henry Mancini–esuqe outro on the nine-minute "Devil in the Details," one of the highlights of his group's just-released eponymous album. Like their best work, "Details" features James' pleasantly nasal croon over a meandering psych-meets-Southern rock groove. But the lyrics skew toward damnation: "Look back on our actions," sings James. "Will we ever be redeemed?"

Those questions are common themes on Jacket's new project, their first album of original material since 2015's The Waterfall (the sequel, which came out last year, was recorded during the first sessions). But the message James is looking to send — about what misinformation is doing to our society, about how we're losing faith in our fellow human beings, about the toxic stew of hatred in our politics — isn't all doom and gloom. Amidst it all, there's love to be found and connections to be made.

A few weeks before My Morning Jacket dropped, James hopped on the phone with EW to talk about writing music on (and during) this current moment in history, how he and the band survived multiple crises, and the complicated feelings around their return to touring.

The Cost of Touring in a Pandemic
The Cost of Touring in a Pandemic

Amy Harris/Invision/AP Jim James has described My Morning Jacket's current tour as a 'survival mission.'

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This is the first new music from the band since the Waterfall recording sessions. Did you guys plan to take time off, or did it just happen that way?

JIM JAMES: We took a break for a while. I just was beat down by the speed of everything. I wasn't really sure what would happen. But then we played four shows in 2019 and it really reminded us of what we loved about being in a band together. So we went into the studio just to play and create with no pressure and had a lot of fun and ended up recording a ton of songs.

Was there a single moment when you realized you were feeling burnt out?

It built over years. I mean, I've had various crises and injuries and ended up in the hospital and just didn't know how to say no to things and pushed myself too hard, pushed the band too hard. I just ran myself into the ground. I didn't know at the time what to do about it. So the best I could do was step away for a while. In that time, I think we all learned a bit better to just consider what things would really cost us in terms of energy — then go forward planning a schedule that was more livable.

By more livable, what do you mean? Like more sleep, more exercise?

I don't know, just a way to stay alive easier. I just felt like it was going to kill me. The output of putting on a My Morning Jacket show is a lot of energy, and it's a cool thing because we've been together so long and have so many albums and time periods. But also when you're performing live, you're conjuring up all these past emotions and past feelings and past versions of yourself: "That's the 20-year-old Jim who wrote this song I'm singing tonight, or the 30-year-old Jim or whatever." If you don't have enough time or space between things, it really just — for me at least — starts to destroy [you]. But I've found when I can put in a proper amount of rest, then it becomes fun instead of destructive.

Did you find it easy to fall back into a recording rhythm with the guys, even though it had been so many years since you had actually stepped into the studio?

Yeah, definitely. It's funny, as a number of years have gone by, I look back [at our] records and some were really hard [to make] and other ones were really easy. And this one was really easy because it was just the five of us. And so there really was no pressure or external forces. We were able to hang out and drift from idea to idea with each person feeling like they could do stuff. And it's not like there's this huge timer on the wall or this huge pressure kicker being like, "Well, you got to record."

You guys made the decision to engineer this record yourself, which was a first for the band.

I'm always working in the studio by myself. I know how all the recording technology works. But we had never made a My Morning Jacket record without a co-producer or an engineer present. And so this was the first time we had done that. The guys at [the studio we recorded at] helped mic everything up and get all the levels going. And then they would just leave us be, and I would check things out as we were going and make small adjustments.

We had always really enjoyed moments where it was just the five of us. But that's so hard to find as a band, especially once you got touring stuff, or in the studio there's oftentimes just people [hanging around] that work [there]. I'm not saying those people are bad or anything. We just had this sense where we always really enjoyed it in band practice or whatever when it was just us. [This] was a tender time for us getting back together as a band. We can also talk and get emotional and stuff like that. Sometimes you feel weird in front of a stranger or a new person to feel really vulnerable or emotional.

Jacket really made its bones performing live. Going into this tour, had you thought about the mental toll of having to go out and perform after experiencing burnout, and in the midst of a still-ongoing pandemic?

We're thinking about it constantly. It's an ongoing process. This tour for us is really going to be a survival mission. It's going to be: Get off the bus and onto the stage, take your mask off, put on a show, put your mask on, get back to the bus. No hugging strangers. As a singer, even if I got [fewer] cases of COVID, that would shut down the whole tour. We want to play the shows and get the energy out there and hopefully be a source of healing for people and a source of good times, because everybody's had such a rough couple of years. Also, for a lot of us musicians and crew members, nobody has been able to make a living. So a lot hinges on these shows financially as well.

Were you guys hurting bad financially without shows? Or were you able to float for a little bit?

Well, everybody's financial situation is different individually. The craziest thing is a whole entire half of our revenue was taken from us with the streaming services and YouTube and all these places, because nobody buys records anymore. I mean, there is a section of people who buy vinyl, but nobody buys albums in the numbers they used to, and they still haven't figured out a way to pay artists fairly from streaming platforms. So there's really no other way for artists to make money other than touring — unless you get lucky and get a license or film or commercial thing.

We made this joke to ourselves over the last decade as all of our album sales dried up. We were like, "Well, they'll never take touring from us." And then this pandemic comes and takes touring from us. And we're all just like, "F---, what do we do?" Luckily... with the resurgence of vinyl — that's one cool byproduct of all this digital technology and confusion: that a lot of people still do enjoy buying a piece of vinyl and sitting at home and listening to it. So we've been really grateful for people like that.

You get into a little bit of the push-pull of new technology on the new album's opener, "Regularly Scheduled Programming," which deals with screen addiction. Why was it important to kick off the record with a song like that?

We're all really suffering from it right now, especially in the pandemic as it pushed us deeper into our devices. We're really being ripped to pieces: Our connection to each other as humans, everybody on Twitter fighting with each other, people watching cable news. And the fact that we talk about it in this way, that there are two sides, like it's a f---ing football match or something, is just so sad. It's such a missed opportunity for humanity to find a middle ground and find connection with people who are different from you.... I think a lot of what I try to sing about and talk about is trying to get people to somehow wake up from that spell and fight for their own independence and their own self-love.

The internal conflict of living in this period of history is pretty prevalent across the record. Was that a through-line for you going in?

Oh, definitely. The technology in so many ways is brilliant. That you can stream all the music in the world in your pocket is such a cool thing. But why can't they pay us fairly? Even technology itself, the way that it's powered is still through f---ing fossil fuel. It's like Jesus f---, the way that we're running the world... we could have all of our technology powered by the sun and the wind. Everything is possible here on Earth, to live this harmonious lifestyle with each other. But the greed is f---ing killing us. And the thing that blows my mind is I don't understand why the one percent can't realize that if it keeps going at this rate, they're not going to have anywhere or anybody to make money off of, because we're all going to be dead.

Even with those dire circumstances, the album ends on a pretty hopeful note with "Never Could Get Enough."

I did want to end the record that way. It's just at the end of the day — I think we all know this — but we forget that love is all there is. That's all that really matters. [The song] is just a meditation on that wonderful feeling of being in love with somebody who really cares about you and having a pure two-way connection where you really care about somebody and know that they care about you, and it's like you just can't get enough of it. It felt like a nice meditation to go out on.

My Morning Jacket is available now.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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