FOR THEIR 35TH AND FINAL SONG AT Bonnaroo, as a steady rain soaked Tennessee, My Morning Jacket eased into a cover of Mötley Crüe’s “Home Sweet Home.” It wasn’t the only special moment during the four-hour, career-defining set – which included most of the band’s new Evil Urges, killer covers of James Brown’s “Cold Sweat” and Erykah Badu’s “Tyrone,” and a guest spot from Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett (“an up-and-comer,” said MMJ frontman Jim James), who shredded on the 2003 jam “One Big Holiday.” “It was a loving affair,” James said the next day, summing up the peaceful vibes floating around the festival. “And a magical night.”
The covers-heavy set pointed at the musical paths the band has taken on Evil Urges, its fifth album, which amplifies its rootsy, anthemic indie rock with production that wouldn’t be out of place on an Eighties Prince record. The disc, which hit the charts at Number Nine the week after the festival, earned the band its first appearance on SaturdayNight Live. “When we got back to the dressing room, we were jumping on the couches and screaming like we’d just won a football game,” says the 30-year-old James.
On Evil Urges, the Louisville, Kentucky, band shifts effortlessly from slow-burning love songs like “Thank You Too!” to the prog-rock-meets-R&B of “Highly Suspicious.” “Sec Walkin,” a blue-eyed-soul-style ode to taking walks, is especially close to James’ heart. Before his recent move from Louisville to a one-bedroom apartment in New York, James took the same 90-minute stroll nearly every day. “It’s very meditative,” he says. “When the blood starts pumping, shit comes out. Rhythms come, lines come, melodies come. A lot of the songs on Evil Urges came from those walks.”
“Getting those demos from Jim was like Christmas morning,” says bassist Tom Blankenship, the only band member who’s been in MMJ since the beginning. “Some of it’s like, ‘Oh, my God’ – it’s so good,” adds drummer Patrick Hallahan, a six-year veteran who’s known James since they were kids. “And some of it’s like, ‘What was he thinking?’ You think you know somebody and then you’re like, ‘Man, maybe we should talk more!'”
A month before Bonnaroo, over lunch in New York, James is soft-spoken and careful with his words. Sometimes he unleashes a warm, wry smile. He grew up in Hikes Point, a suburb of Louisville. At three, he cried when he heard “When You Wish Upon a Star,” and when he first laid his hands on a guitar, he was “completely captivated by it, like it could take me to another dimension.” In seventh grade he got his own, and spent afternoons jamming on heavy metal and grunge at a drummer friend’s house. He formed My Morning Jacket in 1998.
James won’t get explicit about the meaning of his lyrics, but he admits Evil Urges‘ songs were written just before the collapse of a relationship. “I’d met this person who was really fantastic, and I got this wall of love that I hadn’t felt in awhile, and it brought out a lot of emotions,” he says. “But it didn’t work out. By the time we made the album, shit was falling apart. I was singing these really happy songs from a really sad place.”
Last summer, the band converged in a mountainside compound in Sedalia, Colorado, to work out the tunes. With James living in New York, Blankenship and Hallahan in Louisville, multi-instrumentalist Carl Broemel in Nashville and keyboardist Bo Koster in Los Angeles, they rarely hang as a group when they’re not working, and each likens the experience to summer camp. “We’d get started after breakfast,” says Hallahan, “and rehearse as long as weather would allow. We were so high up, there would be lightning storms, where we’d have to turn everything off and go hide in the basement. One time there was a tornado that we could actually see crawling its way over the mountains. It was definitely freaky.”
Though the setting was ideal for a hallucinogenic experience, it never happened. “I’m into the power of altered states, and I’ve had a lot of really good drug experiences,” says James. “But Miles Davis always said he played best when he was straight, and Jerry Garcia said that if he were on acid onstage, he’d rather be chasing a butterfly through a field.” Instead, the band decompressed over whiskey and vodka, and took turns DJ’ing through the PA in the rehearsal space. “Tom probably had the DJ set of his life on one of those nights,” says Hallahan. “It was magical.” Adds Blanken-ship, “[I played] a Chipmunks’ Christmas song, ‘When You Wish Upon a Star,’ John Coltrane and Michael McDonald. I think there was even some Toto in there.”
Although James is pleased with his musical abilities, there are other parts of his personality that he feels are lacking. Last year, he lived in New Mexico for a stretch, learning how to build “Earthships,” self-sustaining homes built into the land. He also got into a spiritual practice developed by writer Ken Wilber. James has listened to CDs of a 12-hour interview with Wilber called Kosmic Consciousness, about topics such as “the chakra system, a paradigm for the unfolding self.” “It’s like a map for living and understanding the human existence,” says James. Part of the process is charting what practitioners call “lines.” “Like, things you’re good at and things you’re bad at. My music line is pretty good, but there are other lines I want to develop. I’d like to be a better basketball player. And I’d like to get a good relationship going and have kids someday. I don’t just want to be the guy that’s a rock musician.”
James’ spiritual awakening followed a bout with pneumonia that landed him in a Louisville emergency room. On November 23rd, 2005, before the hometown show that closed MMJ’s U.S. tour behind their breakthrough album Z James fell ill. “I’m a big believer in mental states and their ability to affect me physically,” he says. “I started feeling sick before the show, because I was exhausted, but I made it through.” The next morning he felt worse. “I was watching a documentary about Metallica’s Black Album, and I was like, ‘Goddamn it, my chest hurts so bad.’ I felt like I was having a heart attack. Pneumonia had spread to my heart, which was inflamed. I was in the hospital for a week.” MMJ were forced to cancel a New Year’s Eve gig opening for the Black Crowes at Madison Square Garden, but the lesson learned was more important. “I got to live life and be a normal person, get into a more human rhythm,” James says. “I feel like it was some of the best life that I ever lived.”
Because of residual problems with his heart, James has learned to slow down a bit. “Whenever I get off the road I go through periods of intense detox – no drinking, no smoking, no nothing,” he says. “But I’m still worse than I should be.” He’s not going to get much rest this summer: The Jacket will tour through 2008, wrapping up with a New Year’s Eve blowout at the Garden; he’s recording an album with Conor Oberst and M. Ward; and, bizarrely, he’s dead serious about making music as an alter ego he describes as an Asian country star named Sec Walkin (after the Evil Urges tune about walking). “It’s such a great country name, like Trace Adkins,” he says. “Look for us at the top of the charts.” Even with all that going on, he’s still most excited about playing with My Morning Jacket. “We never even thought we’d get to this point,” he says. “We’ve worked really hard and gotten a lot back. We feel like things are cosmically justified.”