For My Morning Jacket, It's The Music That Matters
Burlington, Vt. Jim James, leader and lead singer of My Morning Jacket, is sick and tired of critics talking about everything except his band's music. "It is frustrating to hear people constantly talk about our hair or the fact that we are from Kentucky," said James, 25, during an interview at Vermont Sandwich Company, a small restaurant in Burlington, a few hours before the band were to perform at Higher Ground.
"We have long hair because we like it," James, who also plays guitar, continued. "The media is so lazy. They write more about what we look like than what we sound like. We are what we are, we sound like what we sound like. We can't help that. I just want people to write more about the music. Whether they love it or they hate it, make it about the music."
My Morning Jacket's sound is good ol'-fashioned '70s-style rock that somehow mixes the spastic and stylistic musical approach of the Flaming Lips to a 1970's Neil Young (think After the Gold Rush) aesthetic. With his voice drenched in reverb, James croons lyrics of love, lust and wide-open spaces in a way that only James (with his falsetto) can produce.
James is proud of the fact that the group guitarist Johnny Quaid, bassist Two Tone Tommy, keyboardist Danny Cash, drummer Patrick Hallahan and James attracts a diverse audience. "The genius behind the band is that there are not certain kinds of people that listen to our music," he said. "We don't want to ever be exclusive."
A skilled, talented songwriter, James creates songs that take the listener on a lyrical road trip akin to the one in Jack Kerouac's "On the Road." It Still Moves (ATO), presents colorful images of outstretched roads, love, lust and living life in Kentucky. Whether it is through the down-tempo beat of "Golden," which discusses the exploration of unmarked territories ("Watchin' a stretch of road/ Miles of light explode/ Driftin' off a thing I'd never done before/ Watchin' a crowd roll in/ Out go the lights it begins/ A feelin' in my bones I never felt before") or the poppy surf-rock love song "Mahgeetah" ("Sittin' here with me and mine/ All wrapped up in a bottle of wine/ Little we can do/ We goin' see it thru somehow so/ Now are you ready to go?/ My lady I been waitin' on the boat here/ I been waitin' so long"), James manages to draw on rock's past without creating musical clichés.
James was still in elementary school when he decided he was going to become a rocker. "I have known this is what I wanted to do since I was in 7th grade, and since then it has been my number one priority," he said. He noted that Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation and Don McLean's "Leader of the Band" (a song that he was obsessed with) inspired him to want to make music himself.
My Morning Jacket's live performances seem to portray the purity of a childhood vision of rock stardom. With their shaggy retro look the band members have long early '70s-style hair and at times play shoeless My Morning Jacket reminds music fans that nothing is sacred.
The band formed in 1999. They recorded two indie albums, 1999's The Tennessee Fire (Darla) and 2001's At Dawn (Darla), before signing with Dave Matthews' well-funded ATO Records in early 2002. Although the group has yet to meet Matthews, James said the move to ATO has been a good one. "We told them how we wanted to go about making this album, that we wanted to record at our own studio (Above the Cadillac) and do everything on our own terms, and ATO respected our wishes," James said. "The main difference in switching labels for us was distribution. We wanted more people to be able to listen to our record. ATO is distributed by BMG, one of the biggest media companies."
At dinner James was confident and relaxed. His long hair was tied back in a ponytail and his face was obscured behind an overgrown beard. A simple, worn-down vintage T-shirt and corduroys fit perfectly snug to his body. "So what do you want to be when you grow up?" he asked me.
Though James has done many interviews, he's still not at ease in partaking in one-sided conversations. Throughout the dinner, James and guitarist/cousin Johnny Quaid carried on a rambling discussion that ranged from music to anti-fashion and gossip. "Less music, more talk," joked Quaid, as he created a new slogan for the band: "My Morning Jacket: less music, more talk and fashion."
Asked about the inspiration for their name, the two young men displayed their sense of humor. "My Morning Jacket? Isn't that a brand of cigarettes?" Quaid asked.
"I could tell you a load of bullshit about our name, but I am not going to," James said. "There are just some things that are meant for us and there are other things that are meant to be shared with the public. Our name and the name of the studio is for us; the music is for the public." Rebekah J. Zietz [Monday, Sept. 29, 2003]