Even before their debut album came out in late September, Monsters of Folk — the new band featuring My Morning Jacket's Jim James, singer-songwriter M. Ward and Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis — were sick of hearing about rock's more famous supergroups. "We're tired of Traveling Wilburys comparisons," says James, gathered with his bandmates on the beach in Santa Monica. He asks the others how they feel about Blind Faith, and Oberst, one of rock's most gifted young songwriters, reveals he doesn't know much about the Eric Clapton-Steve Winwood group. "They did 'Can't Find My Way Home,' which is probably the only good song Eric Clapton ever did," James says, before cracking up his bandmates with a dirty version of Clapton's "Wonderful Tonight": "I slide on your panties and slip on your tights/And I say, 'Darling, don't I look wonderful tonight?'"
The new record, Monsters of Folk, took each of the musicians out of his comfort zone: They traded instruments — including drums, not a specialty for any of them — and learned to write songs collectively. "For me, singing harmony is not my strong suit — it's not something I do at all," says Oberst. "But then Jim would come up with a lot of the harmony arrangements and encourage me to sing on them. That's the whole thing — we feel like beginners again."
The Monsters first came together on a 2004 tour with their original groups; a member of the road crew jokingly gave them the name and, says James, "it just stuck." They eventually gathered again in February 2008 in Mogis' Omaha, Nebraska, studio for a 10-day session. "We didn't have any expectations," Oberst says. "We were all prepared to walk away if it didn't work out, without any hard feelings."
Despite the Monsters' discomfort with Wilburys comparisons, the disc is soaked in classic-rock vibes. Three and a half months after they got together in Omaha, MOF reconvened at Shangri-La Studios in Malibu, where the Band, Bob Dylan and Neil Young all cut classic albums. "There are lots of old tape machines and cool microphones," says Oberst. "It was a very encouraging environment. No one was afraid to try something and be ridiculed."
You can hear the experimental approach all over the record. The opener, "Dear God (Sincerely M.O.F.)," is built over a RZA-style hip-hop beat fashioned out of a gospel-funk obscurity; James, Oberst and Ward each take a verse and harmonize beautifully on the chorus. On other tunes — the ethereal Latin shuffle of "Temazcal," the Clash-like rocker "Losin Yo Head" and the Beatlesque doo-wop of "Say Please" — it's hard to tell who's singing which part. "We're all interested in those moments when the listener has to ask what's going on, who wrote this, who's singing," Ward says. "It creates a cool tension, like when you're watching a David Lynch movie and you're not sure what's happening, but you're still drawn in."
The next day, the Monsters gather at Shangri-La to perform their songs live for a visiting film crew. It's a preview of the MOF live experience they will unveil when they go on tour this month, a sprawling road show inspired by Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue. "We'll do a lot of the catalog from our other bands, and we'll change it up every night," Oberst says. "We have enough material so that hopefully it can be a different show as we go from town to town." Adds Mogis, "It'll be nonstop — three hours of people filtering on- and offstage, with lineup changes throughout the night."
The band forms a circle: Mogis, on lap steel, trades atmospheric guitar lines with Ward, who reveals himself as the band's secret shredder. Oberst leans over a mellotron, his eyes half-closed, bobbing his head woozily. It all comes together with the gorgeous harmonies from the standout track, "The Sandman, the Brakeman and Me." As the song finishes, James is visibly moved. "That felt good!" he says. "That might just be the body of Christ!"