But for James and his bandmates, who have put out seven albums of jammy psych rock since 1999 and have amassed a mighty arsenal of cover songs that they whip out on a whim in concerts, the phrase is more than a platitude. “I feel like we’re fortunate to have so much material now that we’re trying to really switch it up a lot,” says the singer and guitarist, whose band last put out an album, The Waterfall, in 2015. “We can try different things, and we’ve really been enjoying doing so lately.”
The band is currently working its way around North America with gigs that run through August. Prior to the tour, the singer spoke with Rolling Stone about the many surprises that can occur when My Morning Jacket take the stage.
What types of things have you been switching up lately?
When we did our One Big Holiday concert in Mexico [this past February], we played multiple nights and we had no repeats in the set list. People got a different show every night. We feel really fortunate now to have enough catalogue and we know enough covers to do that.
The band is also known for playing songs differently than they were recorded.
That stuff just kind of happens. You’ll be playing, and sometimes accidentally you do something too fast or too slow or a guitar breaks and it will change a song. We try to be open to that. I love a lot of those happy accidents that can happen where your amp goes out and at the time you’re really pissed and you have to limp through the rest of the song, but then later you realize that because there was a problem somebody else has to do something different and it actually created a cool new way of doing it.
Can you remember a specific time when something like that happened?
“Phone Went West” [off 2001’s At Dawn] has changed several times because of that or just the mood you’re in. We have a lot of songs that have open passages for improv, so that really changes depending on what mood you’re in. We had this joke in the beginning that we made these really super slow dreamy records but then played them like a metal band. It’s weird how the energy of a show can be different than the energy you had in the studio, trying to get whatever you were going for in that point in time. And also just as you age and change and grow or learn, your taste changes and sometimes that changes a song.
Since you don’t have an album to promote this summer, do you have anything new to play?
I don’t know if we will, but I’ve got some new stuff I’ve been excited about. Everybody’s been busy with their family so we haven’t had any time to learn new stuff yet, but hopefully we’ll find the time.
Are the new songs you’re working on for the band or for you solo?
It’s kind of a big pile right now. I’m not really sure what will go where.
Around the time you did The Waterfall, you were saying you had enough music for two albums. What happened to the rest of it?
Yeah, we basically made two records. We finished the one that was The Waterfall, and then we went on tour and did yadda yadda yadda, and then in between I’d written all this new stuff that has, like, taken over my focus. So it’s almost like the other record kind of got forgotten or shelved for a minute, but just the other day I went back and I was listening to the rough mixes we made at the time, and was really getting into them again. So I feel like that’s something that will definitely come out. I don’t know if it will be called Behind the Waterfall or something related, but it still exists. It just needs to be mixed.
When you do a tour like this, other than your instruments, what do you always bring with you?
That’s a good question. Ever since I got back surgery, everything in my life has been about reduction. I’ve got the lightest backpack I can carry and the lightest MacBook. I’ve gotten into doing electronic books and audiobooks, so I have an iPad. I still love reading a real book, but when you travel, it’s better than carrying around a bunch of books.
And I feel like the craziest breakthrough I’ve had in the last few months was Spotify. I was always kind of against streaming but I’ve been traveling so much and I usually carry a huge hard drive of digital music with me but I haven’t had time to deal with it, so I’ve been doing streaming. And I had this incredible breakthrough of weightlessness where I’ve really been loving streaming music.
What do you like about it?
The thing I’ve loved most is how when I’m done with, say, Jimi Hendrix, similar things start playing. It’s stuff that they think I’d like or things that are related to it, and it’s been blowing my mind, ’cause I feel like it’s this really cool way to hear about things that I would not have heard about otherwise.
What have you discovered from that?
Oh, my God. So much. It’s every day. I feel like the Spotify thing is such a fucking wormhole.
I had this moment the other day where I was like, “Oh, my God, I have now stepped my both feet firmly into the streaming world and I love it, but I’m still so pissed that they can’t figure out a way to pay us fairly.” It’s like, yeah, we have this new beautiful tool for people to discover and listen to music, and it’s great that you don’t even have to remember to sync your iTunes anymore. But you’ve got all the music in the world in your pocket and people aren’t being treated right and artists aren’t being paid, so it’s like how do we remedy that?
“You’ve got all the music in the world in your pocket and people aren’t being treated right and artists aren’t being paid.”
Are you ready to get involved on the advocacy level?
Yeah. I mean, I’ve talked about it with a lot of music industry people. It’s obviously been a huge question, and you hear stories of shady backdoor deals where the labels are getting paid but the artists aren’t getting paid, but it’s so hard to find the facts. It’s so hard to find what is actually true. So yeah, I guess I’m just trying to be a conversation piece about it because I feel like we really need to keep talking about it. But I don’t want to rebel against it, ’cause I don’t like the thought of taking our music off of Spotify or Apple Music or whatever, because I love those services, and I love the thought that people can experience our music on those services, or that somebody might listen to some record they already know and then maybe one of our songs will come up in the random shuffle after it’s over. I think that’s amazing, but it’s just wild that nobody can admit that this is not fair right now, that artists are being basically cheated, their work is being stolen for fractions of a cent. It’s wild how it’s devaluing music, but also really bringing this new crazy value to music.
It’s just about getting paid fairly. Music is expensive to make. It’s expensive to pay studio costs and pay performers fairly and do all the things you need to do to make a record. So yeah, I don’t know, it’s a real wormhole.
Lastly, since you do put so much into making your music, what feeling do you hope people take away from a My Morning Jacket show?
I hope it takes them to another place. There’s something very spiritual about it. Everybody knows there is a social aspect to going out to the concerts, but for us it’s so far beyond that. We hope that people who come have fun also can hopefully gain something spiritually from the experience as well.
I keep having this notion that I want to transcend the physical body or I want to transcend the physical experience. Music is one of the greatest vehicles we have for doing that. Live music is incredible because you get to be with people and you get to have this tactile, real-world experience, but at the end of the day, if your eyes are closed and you’re getting swept away, it’s like … I don’t know. I keep trying to figure out some way I can be there as a spirit or something – not as a person, even though my person has to be there. If you close your eyes and listen, you forget everything. You forget all your aches and pains or whatever problems you’re dealing with that moment in your life. So I think that’s a big thing about why I like to play music, and hopefully why people like to come see the music.