"I was going down a dark path," My Morning Jacket singer Jim James says of his personal life in 2008, when he fell offstage in the middle of a show in Iowa. "Too much activity and not listening to myself. I've been really bad and I'm trying to change." The accident forced the band to cancel the rest of their tour, but it ended up a productive time for James. While laid up, he began recording his new solo album, Regions of Light and Sound of God, inspired by Lynd Ward's 1929 graphic novel God's Man.
As he sits on a New York rooftop for an hour-long conversation with Rolling Stone, James looks rested and optimistic. He gamely discusses his dark path, the future of his bands Monsters of Folk and My Morning Jacket and his serious issues with the modern music business. "Nine times out of 10, it's a fucking product scientifically engineered to fucking move units," he says of current music. "Nobody gives a shit anymore."
This record is much different from the last My Morning Jacket record. Was it hard to go to a mellower place after Circuital?
Not really; it's such a different thing. Circuital was just so much about us as a band. We captured every song live, including the main vocal. That is probably my favorite My Morning Jacket record because it's really the essence of us being us. The solo record is just a completely different essence of just me trying to figure out stuff.
The record was inspired by God's Man, a graphic novel from 1929. How did you discover it?
I got it from Gary Burden, who did the artwork for Evil Urges. He just gave it to me as a gift because he thought I would like it. When I opened it, I was just blown away. I felt kind of like the me that lived in 1929 when it came out was probably a big fan of it. It felt like I was seeing it again, you know? But I'd never seen it.
Also, I had fallen offstage and gotten injured and thought maybe for a minute that my life was done here on the earth. And then I fell in love and had this beautiful reawakening and stuff, and that's something that happens in the book and I was kind of getting into the book at the same time this stuff was happening to me, coincidentally. So it took on this heavy thing and I kind of just starting scoring the book. Like, I was just, like, just looking at the book and this music was coming out and evil music was coming out for the bad parts. It all spilled out in this really weird déja vû.
You've talked about going on lots of long walks at home. Is that how you wrote some of this record?
A lot of it just kind of comes from moving. Moving and motion tends to make things pop up. But things pop up for me really at just odd intervals or at random times that aren't really convenient, so I'm a big fan of the voice memo recorder on my phone. That's the only way I can remember things. I won't listen to it for a month later and I'll be, like, "I don't remember doing that at all." If I wouldn't have saved it, it'd be gone. I feel like it's our duty as a songwriter to remember those gifts.
My Morning Jacket has so many different sounds, whether it's "Holding on to Black Metal" to "Wonderful (The Way I Feel)." When you write, when do you know whether a song will be acoustic or eight minutes and heavy with tons of experimentation?
I think that's why I like variety so much. . . In "Holding on to Black Metal," for example, if I was writing that and part of my brain was, like, "I don't know, should I try to make it acoustic?" I would be, like, "Well, I mean, I could." I'll often question a song. If it starts more straight-ahead rock, I'll be like, "Could I make this, like, more danceable?" At least, for me, each song comes with a message. It comes in a distinct enough fashion that I try to honor that fashion and maybe sometime later I'll change it live or something, I'll try to play it different or record a different version of it but I try to let the idea come in and then put my mark on it working on the idea if that makes sense.
Was there less pressure to make these songs big-sounding sounds that might come off really well live?
For this record, I didn't want there to be any pressure at all other than just me liking it, 'cause I didn't have any time rush. I really didn't even tell anybody that I was making it because I just wanted to make it at home, you know? It's not like, "I'm going to New York for a month to make this record! And I gotta fucking make it!"
How long did it take you to make this record?
It was sporadically over the course of two years. Probably a year and a half, two years but that's just kind of whenever I could. If we were between tours for two weeks or something, I'd work on it at home.
How did you write "A New Life?"
Well, that just kind of came out of the beautiful part of God's Man. There's a scene where the main character's chased out of town and he falls off a cliff and is lost and kind of injured and this woman finds him and nurses him back to health and they fall in love. And they have a child together and they have this new life. That had happened to me. I had fallen offstage and gotten injured and gotten super dark and fell in love, and all that was happening at the same time I was loving this book.
It seems like your stage fall was a little more serious than some people thought.
It was horrible. I'm not complaining about it because it was meant to happen to me. In whatever way, I made it happen. I'm not saying it's my fault, but it was meant to happen to me.
Did you just step off in the wrong direction?
Yeah, I was in the front of the stage, and there's usually those rows of subwoofers. Before then, many times, I'd step on to the subwoofers to be closer to the crowd to play guitar. I thought I was stepping on the subwoofer, but I stepped into the air and fell into that pit down in front of the crowd. It was right at the end of a song because I was stepping down and all the lights went out and I just stepped into nothing and fell. It wasn't really that far but it was just so hard. That influenced the darkness for sure. I really identified with that part of the book, too, of the artist's fall, because I felt like I was falling mentally, too, at the time. I felt like I was going down a dark path in life and then it resulted in that physical fall, you know? Both were happening.
What dark path were you going down?
Too much activity and not listening to myself, you know? I knew I should have done other things. I've been really bad and I'm trying to change. You get into these life patterns and you get so sucked in. You almost don't listen to yourself, even when you know you need to change. Your body will be screaming at you, "This is wrong for you!" and you just don't listen. It's this struggle between your heart and your body and when you don't listen, you lose. You fucking fall off the stage.
What did you need to change about yourself?
Everything. Spiritually, physically. There's been a lot of ups and downs but I'm just trying so hard to listen to my heart. I think that's really hard for everybody to do. It's like God or the universe or whatever gave us this gift of a compass. We've all got this compass inside of us that says what we should really do, but we fucking ignore it so much of the time. That's part of growing older and whatever: making mistakes, because that's the only way you can know, to look at your mistakes and say, "Ok, I fucking made this mistake over and over and over again. How do I not make it again?"
Do you ever think about your life if My Morning Jacket hadn't become successful? Would you be able to live with having a regular job?
I think about that a lot, especially when I'm super tired from touring. I went to college for like a year and a half with the intention of doing some kind of art therapy or some kind of teaching of art, because I feel like art is a more free area in school than music is. I feel like music is too mathematic for me. Music school's so hard. It's math. It's fucking math. I just honestly don't know how to quantify it. I just couldn't handle that part of school, music school. I don't think it's wrong, because I feel like some of the most spiritual, brilliant musicians. . . our band is very schooled. And I'm so glad that they [are] 'cause when we do sections with somebody else or when we do sections with strings or horns, I'm like, "Uhh, I want it to sound like it's grey and it's purple and it's up in the clouds," and they're like, "It's a B diminished seventh chord, with an augmented fifth." You know, all that kind of technical talk.
What will your tour for this record be like?
I want to tour for this record and I'm going to bring a band because I want to play the record as it is recorded, with all the instrumentation. I'm sure I'll probably do a couple of songs each night acoustic and stuff like that, but I want this show to be more of a danceable affair. I feel like there's a lot of rhythm in the album, and I really want to celebrate that. I definitely love to play acoustic, too, so there'll be some of that.
When you're in a happier place, are you ever afraid the quality of your writing will decline?
I feel like our generation got sold the biggest fucking crock of bullshit that in order to be an artist, you have to be fucking miserable, especially Kurt Cobain. I loved Nirvana growing up and I still value their music and I feel bad for him for being miserable because I wish he would have had a happy life. But he perpetuated this myth that, in order to be successful, you've got to be shooting heroin, you've got to be fucking a miserable person. And I grew up buying into that and believing that. Even some of our great heroes like Neil Young and Bob Dylan project a lot of darkness and shit. But then you listen to Curtis Mayfield or Stevie Wonder or Bruce Springsteen and you see these brilliant artists projecting hope, [saying] we're in this together.
Did Monsters of Folk influence the new record?
Yeah. Working with those guys influenced me in lots of ways, probably more ways than I can count.
Do you still talk to Conor [Oberst]?
Yeah. Oh yeah. I still talk to those guys all the time.
Will Monsters of Folk record again?
I hope so. We all want to. Everybody's just always so busy; it was so hard to make the first one happen, but I know everybody wants to.
Maybe I'm botching this, but in part of God's Man, the character compromises his art, and that's when things start to go bad for him. You're in a business where people can trade their integrity for short-term success.
Oh God, you see that all the time. You see it more often than not. I don't know. It's fucked up. It's a fucked-up world. The music business is fucked up! It's so often you see people rewarded for the wrong reasons. You know, you see these people rise out of nowhere with little to no talent that are put together by corporations. That's the thing people don't realize, that all these people that you see rocket out of nowhere to superstardom: occasionally there's someone who's an awesome musician, but nine times out of 10, it's a fucking product and it's scientifically engineered to fucking move units. Or be controversial or be this or that, and people don't notice that but yeah I think most of those people. . . it's sad. I think they're taking the short route and it gets them that massive fame very quickly, but then they're gone. Nobody gives a shit anymore.
How has My Morning Jacket avoided that?
Well I feel very fortunate to come from a really good family and friends that I feel like they help me keep in check and I want to make them – I want to try and make them proud, you know? I fuck up all the time, but I I don't feel like I've ever sold my soul to the devil and I don't feel like I've ever sucked anybody's dick to get anywhere. I don't feel like I've ever played that game. But I also know the sting of having your music used for something that you didn't want it used for or seeing that like happen. It feels so horrible.
Do you hope My Morning Jacket become bigger than they are now?
I'm grateful to be successful and I'm grateful that we can make a living and I hope we can maintain our integrity forever. That's really my only dream. The notion of bigness or smallness, I feel like that comes and goes in such waves that are kind of out of my control. All I can do is try to make records that we believe in and that's what we've always done. And sometimes we put them out and people are like, "I hate these guys. They're fucking hacks." And other people are like, "I love these guys." If we can somehow just be true to ourselves and be able to keep making a living and be sane and have love in our lives and love in our hearts for each other, that's all I really want.
Any music you're really into right now?
Yeah. There's this band called Floating Action that is from North Carolina. It's like my life's work to turn people onto this guy, [singer] Seth Kauffman. I feel like he's the most underrated person in music right now and nobody knows about him. And it's weird; it's like nobody will give them the chance that they deserve, cause his shit is deep. He's got an album called Desert Etiquette and then I put out his new record, Fake Blood, on my little label, and I swear to God I'm not just saying this because I put out the record: it's transcendent stuff that if nobody fucking catches onto it now, 20 years from now, somebody's going to fucking find it and they're going to be like, "Why didn't anybody fucking care?" It's that deep.
Have you been working on Jacket songs?
It's going awesome. I actually just kind of finished up this whole process of getting this record done and it's like this new wave of voice memos coming for the Jacket record that I'm just now starting to get super excited about it.
What's it going to sound like?
You know, I don't want to say, cause I got like this new vision for it that I think is going to be super fun, but I don't know if it's going to work yet. So…
Want to elaborate?
No. Because I don't know if it's gonna work. We'll see.
Something new that hasn't been done before.
Well I don't know if I'll say that, but it'll be cool.
Was there a reason you switched to playing solo as Jim James instead of Yim Yames?
Yeah. I talked about it with friends and I thought Yim Yames was hilarious, but a lot of people just didn't understand and I just got so many questions about it. And I thought people were talking about that too much, more than the music or whatever. After talking it over with some friends I thought, "I'm just gonna go back to Jim James, cause I'm not trying to, like, annoy people." I just thought it was funny. But sometimes I'm wrong.
You're a big Neil Young fan. Are you into his current work?
The last Neil Young record I really enjoyed was Prairie Wind. I thought that was a fucking beautiful record. I like everything that Neil does. Neil's a big hero of mine, but I really came to this realization: I saw Springsteen in Louisville, and I've never been giant Springsteen fan. I only liked things here or there and I wasn't like a giant fan. I saw him in Louisville and he was fucking phenomenal! It was like seeing the sun shine for the first time or something. It was like he was so positive and it felt like every motherfucker in that place was his best friend. You know he touched everybody. He was crowd surfing. He was fucking running around and shit. When you see Neil and Bob, they're, like, all pissed and you feel like they don't give a fuck if you're there or not. I'm so sick of that, and seeing Bruce I was like, "Fucking-a, man! Thank you! I paid a lot of money to be at this fucking show and you care I'm here." It was just, like, such a revelation.