Q&A: Jim James On The It Still Moves Reissue, A New Solo LP, And What’s Next For My Morning Jacket
Tomorrow, My Morning Jacket are releasing a deluxe reissue of their sprawling, beloved 2003 album, It Still Moves. The package includes frontman Jim James’ original acoustic demos for the songs that made the album, as well as three outtakes. But for James, the main impetus for the project was to go back and remix the album — to bring more clarity to it, to bring more sounds to the surface. For the diehard MMJ fan, it might seem like a counter-intuitive move — the band’s first three albums are adored for that atmospheric Southern mysticism that was such a definitive cornerstone of MMJ’s first act. The end result of the reissue, however, isn’t that James brought the album too far down to Earth. Instead, It Still Moves is just as otherworldly as ever, it might just be a little more direct — it’s still an album to wade into, but you might now be at less of a risk of drowning in its gorgeous murkiness. It’s easier to wrap your head around, which is good, because It Still Moves remains a crucial entry in MMJ’s story, and one of their finest releases. Chances are, most fans didn’t need a reason to revisit it, but it’s worth doing all the same.
With the reissue on its way, I caught up with James to talk about the process of going back to a 13-year-old album, how the band has shifted over the years, as well as his plans for what’s next, including a new solo LP and new music from MMJ.
STEREOGUM: It Still Moves is one of the big MMJ albums and has so many fan favorites on it that you guys still play all the time. But I’d imagine it’s a different kind of experience to open an album back up and rework it on this granular level. Did returning to it and remixing it surprise you in any way? Did it change your mind about things in ways you didn’t quite expect?
JAMES: Oh man, yeah, it was a trip down memory lane. It was crazy to listen to it all again and dig into it all again. Just to think about how young we were when we did it — how much fun we had, but also how much pressure there was. Signing to a major label, trying to make a record for that, but also trying to make it still feel homemade and still feel organic. It was so cool that they let us make it at home and stay at our home studio and do all that stuff. When we [first mixed] it, we were in a giant rush and there were things I always wished were different about it. It’s probably the only record of our catalog that I’ve felt that way about.
STEREOGUM: Beyond not totally being satisfied with the mixing and production, were there other things that bothered you about it?
JAMES: Well, I think it’s impossible to look back at anything and not think you could’ve done something better or changed something. I feel like I’m literally a different person now than I was then, and my tastes have changed, and my outlook on life has changed. I think that’s the important thing, though, about doing something like this — not changing it. Not changing any of the structures, or any of the vocal takes. I think when you get into that…[My Morning Jacket guitarist] Carl [Broemel] jokes and calls it opening the time-space continuum. You can really crack open the wormhole and shit can start to get fucked up. But, you know, as a human: I think most of us, if we look back at any job we did, you would see things you would’ve done better, or things you could’ve done differently.
STEREOGUM: At the time, did you feel as if It Still Moves was a “make it or break it” situation?
JAMES: Kind of, yeah. It’s a lot of pressure. I mean, pressure on many levels. We wanted the record to do well and be a success. We also knew we were making strange music that probably wasn’t going to be a giant Top 40 hit or whatever. The label really did a great job of leaving us alone, really just letting us make the record we wanted to make. You want to make a record that stands the test of time and that people enjoy.
STEREOGUM: Where did the name It Still Moves come from?
JAMES: It’s just a feeling of something still moving you after all these years. Something that still moves you when you hear it, like listening to an old Willie Nelson song. And then I also wound up thinking about photographs, still-motion…something that’s still or seemingly not doing very much can still move you. I think about that in nature a lot. Looking at a flower or a tree or whatever. I feel like the world gets so consumed and gobbled up by action, and the pace of life is so frantic, and people feel like in order to move somebody you have to do something shocking or violent or something insane and fast. I was just thinking a lot about how sometimes the most moving things are completely still or seemingly very simple.
STEREOGUM: What does It Still Moves represent for you, in terms of the arc of My Morning Jacket? I’ve always looked at the album as the end of one version of MMJ before the beginning of another version of MMJ. I feel like It Still Moves is the logical end point to the first version of MMJ, and since then it’s spread out into a lot of different things.
JAMES: I definitely agree. Those first three records, we made them all out at Above The Cadillac Studios, which was my cousin’s grandparents’ farm in Shelbyville, Kentucky. That whole process, my cousin John [Quaid] was deeply involved in that part of the band, and he left after we had toured a little bit for It Still Moves. So, yeah, that was very much an era. The first record was just John and myself building these things, then we brought in our first drummer, J. Glenn, and Tom [Blankenship] came in on bass on that first record, and we cut a few songs with those guys. At Dawn was blossoming as a band, but it was still building a thing piece-by-piece. We had a big lineup change with Patrick [Hallahan] coming onto the drums for It Still Moves, but we were still out at the farm all the time, and my cousin John was still a major, energetic part of the band, and Danny Cash was still on keys. There were lots of songs that were on It Still Moves that I had written, and we had played — rehearsed, but also played live a couple of times — that could’ve gone on At Dawn, but we always knew we wanted to make a record that was more quote-unquote “rock ‘n’ roll.” We wanted At Dawn to be what it was, kinda spaced-out. So we were kinda saving these songs to result in It Still Moves, and yeah, I kinda think of it as a more rock ‘n’ roll period of that first chapter of the band. It was such a crazy time. John and Danny left. We thought the band was going to break up for a while, but then we found Carl and Bo [Koster] and they came right in and perfectly filled in the holes for the rest of the touring for It Still Moves, so they were really a part of that phase of the band, too, when they came in. But then we got to start on the next chapter with Z and let it be their world.
STEREOGUM: Did immersing yourself in this old record inspire or push you in anyway with what you’re working for what comes next?
JAMES: It did. It just kinda reminded me of how much fun we had and how seriously we did take it. We did it all to tape, and there’s not really many fixes or many things we fucked with. We kinda just did everything super old-school. That was fun to remember. Once you get into the world of a computer…it’s a really cool world in its own way, because there are so many things you can do on the computer. You could argue all day long whether that makes the music better or worse. I think it’s both sometimes. Sometimes the computer can help you make the music way better, other times it really hurts the music. Listening to it just reminded me of the way we used to do it. We didn’t have computers. I didn’t think the converters and the technology sounded that good yet. I think it sounds a lot better now. So we didn’t use computers at all. That got me into that frame of mind again. It got me into that headspace of turn off the computers.
STEREOGUM: You’re talking about putting out a solo record later this year, too. Is there anything you can tell me about that?
JAMES: It’s going to be the lowest carbon emissions record ever made. It’s been certified green. It’s like a hybrid car, or an electric car. Even better than that. It’s like some kind of car that runs on nothing. I always wanted to make a record that doesn’t exist. In some ways, it doesn’t exist, and it’s very low emissions, so I think people will be very stoked about that, from an environmental standpoint.
STEREOGUM: Musically speaking, is it of a piece with your last solo record?
JAMES: In some ways. I think it’s pretty different, but there are definitely some similarities. Hopefully people who enjoyed the first one will enjoy this one as much, or more. I’m hoping to have it out in the fall. That’s the general goal right now. Sometimes those things aren’t in our control. I got a great deal of it done, have some more to do, but I’m really excited about it.
STEREOGUM: Do you draw borders thinking, “OK, this stuff is for the next MMJ record, this stuff is for the next Jim James record?”
JAMES: Yeah, they kind of come out with little tags or labels on them of where they think they should go. Sometimes other ones come out that don’t have any labels and I’ll maybe try them in both situations if I’m questioning where one needs to go, or it’ll go to a side project. Other times, I just write things as something’s going on. A lot of the solo stuff comes from how much I love recording by myself in the studio, just building soundscapes. In the Jacket, I don’t need to play bass, I don’t need to play keys, I don’t need to play drums, but I enjoy playing all those things. And I also love just fucking with things in ProTools and building sound collages and stuff. That’s kind of how the whole solo thing started — whenever the Jacket’s off the road, it’s just so fun for me to be in the studio and work on things. Certain songs will start as an idea and I’ll start working on it myself and building it myself or bring a friend in the studio or whatever, just have a different experience.
STEREOGUM: Originally there was talk about the potential for a quick followup, a companion piece for MMJ’s last album, The Waterfall: something dancier, more electronic, but rooted in the same sessions. Has that plan been abandoned now?
JAMES: Yeah, for the time being. There are a couple of those songs that are going to find their way into the world in the next span of time on soundtracks, or Record Store Day, things like that. As an entire companion record…there’s still a lot of songs that haven’t been used, but for now I’m moving onto something else.
STEREOGUM: The record you’re currently writing for, are you hoping for that to be a 2017 or 2018 release?
JAMES: That’s a great question. Knock on wood, I would hope that it’s done in 2017. You get into the metaphysical battle of, when is it best to release something? What’s the label’s opinion and the business opinion and the best time for it to succeed? But then also you’re like, “It doesn’t fucking matter anymore, let’s put it out the day after we’re done.” There are so many fucked-up strategies now. Do you surprise people on the internet with it? Do you not? I dunno, that shit is still so confusing to me.
STEREOGUM: Are you a person who keeps up with a lot of contemporary music and feel it impact your writing as you go?
JAMES: Definitely, I feel like I’m lucky to see a lot of music. To see and hear new sounds all the time, playing all the festivals we play and different gigs and stuff. There’s so much inspiring new music out right now. It’s a pretty amazing time.
My Morning Jacket’s It Still Moves reissue is out tomorrow via ATO. Pre-order it here.