Q&A: Jim James On My Morning Jacket And His New Solo LP, Regions Of Light And Sound Of God
In the press materials that accompany Jim James’ new solo album, the singer/songwriter has this to say about the songs that make up his new solo record:
I wanted the album to sound like it came from a different place in time. Perhaps sounding as if it were the past of the future, if that makes any sense — like a hazy dream that a fully realized android or humanoid capable of thought might have when it reminisces about the good old days of just being a simple robot.
Having spent a couple of months now listening to the songs on James’s solo debut (one of the perks of being a music writer, I am occasionally privy to top-secret advances), I’d be hard-pressed to come up with a more weirdly accurate description of what the record sounds like. Regions Of Light And Sound Of God — on which James plays all the instruments and produces everything himself — contains songs that wouldn’t be out of place on a My Morning Jacket record but steers them in a decidedly more cosmic direction. Inspired in large part by a 1929 graphic novel called God’s Man by Lynd Ward — a book that deals with an artist’s struggles against temptation and corruption — the record is arguably the most adventurous and nakedly emotional thing James has done (which is no small feat, considering some of the heartbreakers that are sprinkled throughout MMJ’s massive back catalog). I met up with James at NYC’s spooky old McKittrick Hotel (home to the popular “choose your own adventure” — style play, Sleep No More) to discuss the new record and … well, a bunch of other stuff.
STEREOGUM: How was making this record different from making a My Morning Jacket record?
JAMES: The first My Morning Jacket records were basically just demos. I was just making them, and I liked what I made and just put that on the record. And then once we became more of a band, I would still do that, but then that would be like a demo that I would give them, that then we would all work on together and turn into something else. And ever since the third Jacket record, it’s kind of been that process. And for some records I’ve made super detailed demos — they’re almost like a different record in itself of all the shit, keyboards, drum machines, and stuff. Then after Evil Urges, when we worked with Joe Chiccarelli, he gave me a great piece of advice, which was: Don’t make demos. Because a lot of times you make a demo, and a lot of your first love or first passion goes into making the demo. You could or could not get it back later, but sometimes you don’t. So ever since he said that to me, if I get an idea I’ll just use my voice memo thing on my phone. If I get an idea I’ll sing it so I don’t forget it, but then I try not to fuck with it until I’ve committed it to tape. So over the years I’ve gradually been building a studio in my house. I just wanted to stop making demos, and when I’m ready to do something just start doing it in whatever fashion I want it to sound like. So that’s kind of how this record started. I just had ideas that I knew for some reason that I wanted to fuck with myself and just gradually started fucking with them whenever I had time from not being on the road. I just wanted it to be a thing that I did when I had the time.
STEREOGUM: Do the songs span a great period of time?
JAMES: I think probably the first time I recorded anything was mid 2010. So probably a year and a half or two years of time.
STEREOGUM: When you are making a record is there always a point when a bigger picture starts to reveal itself and you’re like “alright, this is a thing” or “I can see how these things go together now”?
JAMES: It’s always been different for me for every record. The songs always tell you something, but always for different reasons. Sometimes I want to make a record that’s so schizophrenic and so all over the place, and then other times I want to make a record that’s very coherent and very short and together. This record was like, I felt like all the songs knew they wanted to be together, and there were a couple more that thought they wanted to be with these songs, but then they ended up being on the last My Morning Jacket record. I don’t know why they want to do that, but they just say they do or they don’t with wherever they want to go.
STEREOGUM: A couple of weeks ago I interviewed Tori Amos — who recently re-recorded a bunch of her old songs with an orchestra — and she’s probably the only other person I’ve ever heard to talk about songs that way – these songs want to do this, this song didn’t want to be with this one. I like that idea. The songs have a consciousness of their own.
JAMES: They really are. I didn’t realize it before, but it’s a two-part process. There’s always this weird song thing that comes from nowhere and just pops out of nowhere and I’ve gotta just record that “blah blah blah” or whatever idea on my phone, so I don’t forget that idea. And then the second step is me sitting at a desk and playing that voice memo back and trying to figure out what chords it is and bring it into instrumentation. Sometimes the idea will be larger or smaller. The idea could be the whole production of everything – how it wants to sound — or it could just be the melody or something.
STEREOGUM: This maybe falls into the category of impossible-to-define-thing, but what makes these songs not be My Morning Jacket songs?
JAMES: With My Morning Jacket there’s a definite energy that, at least for me, we best captured on our last record, because we made a point on that record to really speak to that. Ever since the third record when we’ve really been a band, whenever we do a song, 80 to 90 percent of the rhythmic base of the songs and all of our parts are all done live, and we capture all of that. But then throughout the process, the vocals are always an overdub. This last record I really wanted to get the whole core of the performance, including the main vocal, as a live thing, because that’s what we do and that’s how we are when we play together. I feel this very distinct energy that is our energy. But just making demos over the years and always having a four-track, and getting a slightly more modern setup when I got my first computer and bought a few nice mics and preamps, and going to where I am now. I feel very lucky to have the best of all worlds. I’ve got a super nice tape machine and a super cool computer setup and lots of microphones and things I can fuck around with. I just love fucking around with everything that it’s just so fun for me to be by myself fucking around. When I make a record with My Morning Jacket, I love what those guys do, so I don’t have a need to play bass or drums or anything because we’re doing that as a unit.
STEREOGUM: I was a fan of your records from pretty early on. It seemed like a pretty logical progression — the movement from one record to the next, playing slightly bigger rooms on each touring cycle. But I know from having so many close friends who are musicians what a weird mindfuck that can all be when it’s happening to you, to suddenly sit up one day and say, “How did we get to this spot? Have I made the right decisions?” Has that been, for you specifically, a difficult thing to navigate?
JAMES: I’m not saying I’ve always made the right decisions, because I haven’t, but I feel like I grew up with a really good family and friends who helped me decide what to do, and I feel like I want to make them happy. I don’t want them to think I’m an asshole or sellout and so many things you can quickly become. So I feel like with their guidance, I’ve been very lucky to navigate with their help. I also feel like for us it’s been a kind of … not a turtle’s pace, but it’s been a very steady, very level climb, and you watch so many bands pop up for an album like “We’re the greatest fucking band in the world,” and then they’re gone. Even in the short time we’ve been around, we’ve seen that so many times. In that sense, we’ve never had to deal with that crazy shit, because that to me is a super mind-fuck. You put out your first record and it sells a million copies, and everyone’s like, “You’re the greatest band,” and then, bam, it’s gone. That seems like more of a mind-fuck.
STEREOGUM: Making records like this one — I’m assuming everything was done by you in your studio.
JAMES: Well my buddy Dave played drums on five of the songs, and we had live strings put down. There are certain things — I’d say 90 percent I did — but I can’t play strings.
STEREOGUM: Does the process allow you to be an OCD control freak in a way that you can’t be in My Morning Jacket?
JAMES: Yeah, I guess so. I feel like I’m always OCD no matter what I do. But I just love playing music. You could hook me up to an IV in the studio and I’d never leave, just put me on a feeding tube, cause I just love to fuck with things. Who knows, maybe some day the spirit will leave and I won’t enjoy it anymore. I’ll just be sitting there with a guitar, completely bored. But for now, making this record was just like “what do I want to play? I want to play bass today. Or I want to program a loop. Or I want to play keyboard today. Or I want to sing.” I love doing all that stuff.
STEREOGUM: Do you have a hard time knowing when something is finished?
JAMES: I don’t. That’s one thing I really don’t have a hard time with. I don’t know if that’s how I was raised or something, but I feel like I have a certain acceptance, once a song gets to a certain place, I can kind of accept it. Because some songs take a day or an hour and some songs take five months. It’s just a certain acceptance — like, “This is me in the year 2010 and I know that I did the best that I could.” I don’t know what people are going to think about it and I don’t know what I’m going to think about it three years from now, but I know at this moment in time, I put every ounce of what I had to it and I’ll see you later.” On to the next thing.
STEREOGUM: I guess there’s an argument to be made that there’s those records that are just marvels of production, like Rumours or something, and need to be appreciated as such. But I like the idea to not be so precious about it. It’s just a document of this time, this year, when we were all together and made these 10 songs.
JAMES: But even those records are just that. That’s all that Rumours or Pet Sounds could be, because at some point they had to stop. So you still look at it and this is the best that Fleetwood Mac could do at this point in time. And when they walk away from it — some people can think they know, but they never really know. Because we all know those lost masterpieces that were released in their time and nobody fucking cared about them and the artist fucking killed themselves. And then 30 years later, “It’s the greatest record of all time.” I’m sure there’s tons of records in people’s attics that we haven’t heard yet, that were made 30 years ago and are just waiting to be discovered.
STEREOGUM: As for the process of making records and recording — do you get more pleasure out of that than playing live?
JAMES: It’s a real balance. I love being in the studio and I think you have to balance it, because without the balance you’re just trapped in the studio the whole time, you’re not getting the energy, and you’re not hearing the way songs resonate. But if you’re always out on the road, you’re getting burnt, you’re getting tired. And the off time of not doing either is real important too.
STEREOGUM: Are you getting better at taking that time?
STEREOGUM: I was gonna say, you guys sure tour a lot.
JAMES: It’s a sickness or something. I keep telling myself I’m gonna take more time to do nothing, but I’m in the studio at home.
STEREOGUM: Will you play shows on your own for this record?
JAMES: Yeah, I’m putting a band together to do it. We’ll probably do a few things when it comes out in February, but I really want it to be out at least a couple of weeks before we tour it. Because I want people to have a chance to digest it. When you tour immediately, it’s kind of fun for people watching who don’t know it, but it’s kind of weird too. Especially for something like this where I’ve never put out a solo record before, because it’s not like I have five solo records and people will know the older stuff. When we do the tour, I’m sure we’ll do some of the My Morning Jacket songs, but I want people to have had a couple of weeks to know this record and want to see it live.
STEREOGUM: I remember being at that taping of your VH1 Storytellers episodes. It was so interesting to see the band dynamic in action, from about five feet away. You guys have a very subtle way of playing off of each other.
JAMES: I was really dreading it because I was really scared about talking because I just don’t like to talk when we play, but everybody there was super friendly and helpful and it was just a really cool experience.
STEREOGUM: It was really emotional.
JAMES: It was. It was super emotional.
STEREOGUM: Did you always, even as a kid, have a sense as a kid that you wanted to be a musician?
JAMES: Yeah, I mean as a kid I loved the Muppets and I loved fucking around with stuff, playing with toy guitars and stuff. But when I got to the sixth or seventh grade I started really learning guitar and playing with friends. I feel so lucky to have had that, because I just feel like everybody needs something in life, whether it’s poetry or football or music. There’s a lot of distractions — now more than ever — and a lot of people think their cell phone or video game is their purpose, and that’s scary.
STEREOGUM: How old are you?
JAMES: I’m 34.
STEREOGUM: I just turned 38. For a lot of people, they express their creativity by what they buy, which is a real bummer. I grew up in a farm in Oklahoma, but luckily my parents encouraged my artsiness. Most people did not. And one of the upsides of having grown up very poor on a farm is that we were always very self-entertained. You sort of went inward in a way, because that’s how you entertained yourself. When I look at my friends who have kids, I’m like “I don’t know, dude.”
JAMES: So much distraction, I can’t imagine.
STEREOGUM: So when did you first start learning guitar?
JAMES: However old you are in sixth or seventh grade — 12 or 13.
STEREOGUM: I always think no matter how much we love things, it’s never possible to love them with the same intensity as you do when you’re sixteen … and that has a weird ripple effect through your life. Even if you stop loving them, you’ll come back to that eventually. What were those things for you?
JAMES: I don’t know, because I feel like a lot of things I fell in love with then were timeless things that everybody falls in love with, like the Beatles or Bob Dylan. I really came of age when grunge was hitting hard, so I was really into Nirvana and Pearl Jam — that whole thing. But also at that time there was a lot of cool hip hop stuff, like PM Dawn. I was always into that cool beats with a trance-y thing behind it that was going on. I heard one yesterday that I loved so much — remember that band Dead Can Dance? That song “The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove” — I want to cover that song so bad. Stuff like that I loved. And then like the Beastie Boys and stuff. You know it’s funny, we were talking about this when we opened for Pearl Jam, because I think for a lot of people it’s like the wrinkles in their brain only need so much music, and if they came of age with Pearl Jam or during that era, it’s like a giant garage door shuts down and that’s all they need. If you pop the CDs out of their car player it’s like Ten and Nevermind, maybe Led Zeppelin IV — that’s all they need. But luckily I devour music, and every time I find a new song, I’m like sixteen again. I think I still have that manic teenage thing with music.
STEREOGUM: I do too. You either have that or you don’t. It’s a compulsion.
JAMES: There’s never enough. We’ll never exhaust it. We could listen to a new song every five minutes till we die.
STEREOGUM: There’s always some other record to buy, or a different version of a record that I have.
JAMES: Or like different pressings of the same record, and how do they sound different.
STEREOGUM: My boyfriend is sort of a KISS fanatic. They seem to have mastered the art of having a million versions of every record.
JAMES: I love KISS!
STEREOGUM: That’s sort of his go-to safe place, like if it’s late and we’re kind of drunk and I’m just doing something else, he’ll just be looking at weird Danish KISS websites. But I kind of love that. It’s a never-ending rabbit hole. He has all of these complete bootleg concerts from every era of KISS. I’ll come home and it’ll just be a random KISS tour from 1979 and he’s like, “This is the the such and such tour and notice these giant cats on stage, they only had these for one tour.” It is amazing. I always think it’s cool, as a writer especially, that there are certain books, certain things that when you’re doing too many things at once and your dials are out of whack, there are certain things you can read that reset you and all your dials go back to the middle. For me it’s like reading Joan Didion essays or something, where I’m like, “Oh! This is how you write!” Do you have anything that’s like that for you, music-wise?
JAMES: Universally it’s What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye. I’ve listened to that record more than anything. To me it’s just the ultimate document. I feel like it’s the ultimate musical document. Maybe someday my mind will change, but I feel like for its message of social consciousness and religion in such a big way and sex and drugs and strings and horns and beats, I just feel like it’s got everything. ‘Cause I feel like there are other records that come close, like Pet Sounds. And I love Pet Sounds, it’s one of my favorite records, but it doesn’t have that soul. Or Dark Side Of The Moon, but Dark Side Of The Moon is super dark. I feel like What’s Going On is dark, but hopeful. It’s all sides of the cube. There’s another record — have you heard Pastor T.L. Barrett And The Youth For Christ Choir? That record is like my new What’s Going On, ’cause I feel like that record start to finish is just dizzyingly brilliant. Those two records — I just put em on and all the dials start turning back to where they used to be.
STEREOGUM: I remember seeing My Morning Jacket play at Asbury Park at Bamboozled, or something, and I think that day was considered kind of a flop because it was raining.
JAMES: Didn’t Sonic Youth play?
STEREOGUM: Sonic Youth and Patti Smith played at the Stone Pony. But for me it was an amazing day. You guys played, and it was by the water, but it was kind of overcast and drizzly, but it seemed really beautiful to me. But I remember one of my friends was there too, who had never seen you guys, and was like, “I just thought they were a jam band, so I never paid any attention.” I would hope that now, having made all the records that you have, that that particular idea would change. Do you find that people still have that conception of you?
JAMES: Well there’s so many people in the world, and people are just gonna think what they’re gonna think. So much is based on appearance and people talking out of their ass. I feel like we have certain sections that are improvised, but to me that’s more jazz than being a jam band. That stuff is frustrating, but you can’t do anything. A lot of our passages of music — you might see us and you see these hairy guys jumping around, riffing on guitar or whatever, but those are passages of music. It might be ten minutes of guitar interplay, but most of that is orchestrated and thought out. It’s kind of calming in a way, and I try to tell friends of mine who want to put out a record, “Fucking just put it out, because you’re going to put it out and you’re going to get every kind of response.” Somebody’s gonna say, “This is the biggest piece of shit I’ve ever heard,” but somebody’s gonna say, “This is really nice, I really like it, it’s wonderful.” Somebody’s gonna say, “This is great, this is the best thing I’ve ever heard.” Doesn’t matter if you’re Bob Dylan or some 19-year-old kid putting out your first record. It doesn’t matter. I could play somebody Whats Going On and they could say, “I don’t really like soul music.” You’re gonna get everything.
STEREOGUM: Stylistically, you guys sort of dip your toes into so many different things, and the records themselves sort of disprove that idea that you are just a countrified jam band or whatever. So maybe it’s just about appearances. But I was thinking about that in relation to the solo record. Are there other kinds of music — could you imagine yourself at some point saying, “I’m gonna make a straight-up soul record”?
JAMES: I don’t know, I mean “soul” to me is so many things. I feel like this record for me is a lot of what I like about soul but filtered through me, because I’m still gonna be me. I feel like a lot of people are making retro records, like, “Let’s make this sound like 1967,” and that to me is really boring because we already had 1967, we don’t need it again. But it’s so easy to do that, and people are so fooled by it. Some of it’s great, I mean you’ll get a great performer who has a great song and gives you absolutely nothing new and no combinations of sounds. We’re all influenced, and you can listen to anybody’s music and say, “That guy was influenced by that and that.” But for me it’s about mixing all those influences and putting yourself in and trying to make something different. But so many people are rewarded, like that Amy Winehouse record, like, “Let’s make a retro-soul record that has one good song on it.” It’s so easy because nobody has to think about it. They already know it because they’ve heard it before. It’s like this instant recognition thing.
STEREOGUM: It feels very disingenuous too. It feels dishonest in a way. And maybe that has its own place too. Beyond touring this record next year, do you envision trying to take time off before you make another My Morning Jacket record?
JAMES: I need to. We’re gonna try and make another Jacket record next summer. It’s hard because when I get a chunk of time that’s technically “off,” I’m still working in the studio. It’s so hard to force yourself to just sit in a chair.
STEREOGUM: Well outside of music, do you have other pursuits, stuff you want to do?
JAMES: I kind of wish I did, but to me walking is a big art form. I love to walk. And since I bought a house I really love taking care of the house. I think that’s a fun thing to do to fuck around with the yard, fuck around with repairs. And really just the biggest thing is spending time with friends and family, because I’m gone so much that when I get back I’m really trying to make a concentrated effort to see as many people as I can. I’ve painted and drawn and stuff, but I’m always so obsessed with going into the studio that it’s like I don’t really want to paint, but I probably should just to step away from the studio.
STEREOGUM: I know it’s been many years in the making, but are you surprised by your success?
JAMES: Oh God, I mean we’ve had so many “what the fuck is going on?” moments: Madison Square Garden … Saturday Night Live … we got to play with Roger Waters at a Levon Helm tribute concert. You’re standing on stage and you’re like, “Fuckin’ Roger Waters? That’s fucked up.” We’ve had a lot of “Can’t wait to get back to the hotel and geek out when it’s over” moments.
Regions Of Light And Sound Of God is out on 2/5 via ATO Records