Jim James plays Slowdown tonight at 9 p.m. with opener Basia Bulat. Tickets are $27 at Etix.com or at Homer’s. (Photo by Neil Krug)
Jim James plays a solo show tonight at Slowdown, and when I called him last week, we got to talking about all kinds of stuff including Monsters of Folk, which recorded its first (and so far only) album here in Omaha.
First, I asked him if they’d ever make new music. His response? “Hell yeah.”
The My Morning Jacket frontman went on to say, “we did start another session to start another record.”
They didn’t finish. Unfortunately, everyone in the band — James, singer-songwriter M. Ward and Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis — is pretty busy and they haven’t had time to finish.
“This was the exact same problem getting it together in the first place. I like to think at some point, I’d like to do it again. The universe opens up or it doesn’t,” he said.
We talked about a ton more including how the Monsters of Folk came together and what he loves about Omaha music.
Oh, and then there’s also the upcoming My Morning Jacket record and James’ solo album, “Regions of Light and Sound of God,” which led us to talk about R&B, pleasing fans and James’ thoughts on God and spirituality.
Kevin Coffey: On the new record, there’s a lot of soul and R&B, which you’ve touched on before. What I really like is that you’re not relying on a rehash of old stuff.
Jim James: I couldn’t agree more. Thanks for thinking that. That’s a craze in all genres of music nowadays. It’s like, “You sound exactly like Crosby Stills Nash & Young,” or “You sound like James Brown from 1967. That’s awesome.” We all have our influences and there’s not a band on the planet that you couldn’t listen to their music and go, “These guys like James Brown or The Beatles.”
I feel like so many bands these days are pretty handsomely rewarded for just exactly copying an older formula. (laughs)
KC: Do you ever stop yourself and say, “That sounds too much like something else?”
JJ: I don’t know, man. I try to follow what my head says and try to follow whatever you want to call your thing, your muse or the spirits or whatever. I feel like they tell you something for a reason. If I feel like something sounds too much like something, I hope I can catch it. I try to tell my bandmates or my friends when i’m playing them a new song. “If I’m playing you this song and it sounds exactly like “Love Me Do” or something, please tell me.”
But that’s the crazy thing about music, too though. There’s so many unintentional overlappings. There’s the classic George Harrison “He’s So Fine” and “My Sweet Lord” lawsuit. There’s only so many chords in the universe so I feel there is a great amount of unintentional overlapping. If someone strums C-G-F the same way that someone else strums C-G-F, it’s not like they were trying to intentionally rip someone off.
KC: I like this record and it’s different than what people might expect from My Morning Jacket. But recent Jacket records have moved away from earlier stuff. Do you ever worry about alienating fans?
JJ: Yeah. We’ve dealt with that on every record. All of us have to realize that in each of our own lives, you just can’t please everybody. Every time I or we put out the record, there’s always someone who hates it and says it’s a piece of shit, and there’s always someone who loves it and thinks it’s good.
I just realized a long time ago that I can’t control that. There’s always gonna be somebody sayin’, “I wish they were still more country-folk. I hate this R&B stuff.” Then there’s somebody like, “I love this R&B direction. I hate country-folk.”
KC: On the solo record, you get a little spiritual. I know you grew up Catholic, but are you religious any more? Maybe “religious” isn’t the right word.
JJ: I’m very spiritual. I don’t subscribe to any religion. I don’t have any idea of what God is or what God isn’t. I don’t believe any religion is right or wrong. I believe spirituality is a very personal thing that everyone should be allowed to explore and feel like is right for them.
I think about God and the universe and my place in it and spirituality a lot. There’s a lot of questioning more than anything in the music that I’m making, but I don’t have any answers.
KC: Is that a big theme for you?
JJ: Questioning is probably my big theme. I would my consider myself an expert in questioning things and not understanding. That would be my primary theme if someone is doing a high school or college thesis paper on me.
God is in there. Or spirituality. I feel there’s something bigger.
I don’t believe in anything necessarily, but I do feel like there is a higher power and I do feel like there is some reason behind everything. I don’t know. I hate thinking that it’s all just random or it’s all just for naught. I’m not saying that’s not true either, but I just personally don’t think we’re all here randomly as a part of a chemical reaction.
You try to find the meaning behind everything in your life, behind your love and your loss and the coincidence that happens to you and the different paths you feel like you should take.
I feel like there’s a lot of magic in the world and I like to try and focus on that and try to combat sorrow.
KC: Do you feel like there are things you can do as Jim James that you can’t do as My Morning Jacket?
JJ: It’s more energetic. My Morning Jacket, we’re really free and liberated in that band and everybody’s open to whatever. The solo thing can be whatever it wants to.
It’s really been a beautiful thing touring for the solo record and playing with this new band. It’s more of an energetic difference. There’s just something different between the two things that’s just making me love each thing more. I love having the freedom to do whatever I want with the solo thing in the studio because I enjoy playing all sorts of different instruments and things I don’t need to do in My Morning Jacket because those bases are already covered.
Live, it’s a different thing, too, because it’s a different set of friendships. I don’t know if I could do it in a romantic relationship, but it’s a classic open relationship thing or whatever. If people can successfully navigate that without jealousy or pain or hurt or mixed emotions. For me musically, it’s been very successful. Any time I’ve even remotely started to get tired of doing My Morning Jacket or when tired of something you’ve been doing for so long if you let yourself go into another experience, at least for me, it’s renewed my love for the original thing.
KC: At one point, you were playing all of “Regions of Light and Sound of God” and then playing a bunch of Jacket songs and other stuff. Are you still doing that?
JJ: We were doing that for awhile, but when we played the Jacket stuff in the solo band, we did a good job of it but it was kind of strange energetically. And we tried to play some solo songs in the Jacket and that was kind of strange, too. (laughs)
We found through trial and error, really, that both worlds I think work best on their own. I’ve got other Monsters of Folk songs or New Multitude songs or different things from other solo things that the solo band can play. Then the Jacket has enough records by now that it’s hard enough for us to make a setlist as it is without trying to squeeze in more solo stuff.
KC: Whenever I get one of you on the phone, I always ask about Monsters of Folk. Is more Monsters of Folk something you want to do?
JJ: Hell yeah. We’re definitely all open to it.
We did another session to kinda start another record. So technically, another record has been started. Everybody’s so busy and we’ve all had our own missions. This was the exact same problem getting it together in the first place — schedules and stuff.
I like to think someday at some point, I’d like to do it again. I think the universe opens up or it doesn’t for those kind of things.
KC: How did you become friends with Mike Mogis and Conor Oberst?
JJ: It’s funny how long it’s been now. We had kinda run into each other at festivals or whatever and say hi. We had for awhile the same label in the U.K., so we met through our label guy over there briefly.
We kind of hit it off, and we did this acoustic show one night. Conor was gonna do this acoustic show and invited me to come play. We hit it off.
I don’t know what happened or why, but we just all kind of were into the spirit of… you spend so much time on the road and you play so many shows with other bands, but up until that point it had been rare to do things with the other bands — you actually collaborate and play and record. That stuck with us us ever since.
Growing up for me, if you played shows as a kid, at least in Louisville’s scene, it was very isolating. You play with your band and the next band plays and the next band plays and it’s over. We wanted to do more cross pollination because it’s so fun to see what the other bands are up to and learn something from the people you’re playing with.
KC: Have you spent a lot of time in Omaha?
JJ: We spent a month or more (at ARC, Mogis’ studio). Then the first time we did Monsters of Folk, we spent a week at Conor’s house rehearsing. I’ve definitely spent quite a few months or week chunks here and there over the years.
Mogis’ studio is so incredible. The whole Saddle Creek thing over there and Slowdown is cool. It’s an amazing thing.
KC: Your coolest connection to Omaha is that Mogis has a Mellotron where your voice is recorded at different pitches.
JJ: I know!
KC: He played it for me once and it was so cool.
JJ: It was so cool doing that. Yeah, I had to sing all of those notes. It was pretty hilarious. (sings a long note)
KC: Have you started a new My Morning Jacket record yet?
JJ: We’re starting in October, and working on another one. I’m so excited about that.
KC: Have you done a lot of composing in your own studio?
JJ: Yeah, I do a lot of stuff. I’ve got my studio and I’m constantly working on stuff.
KC: Does that always go somewhere?
JJ: It just depends. There’s lots of times I’ll create something and ends up getting used or doesn’t end up getting used.
I just can’t stop going into the studio. That’s where I love to be in this point of my life.