Jim James starts the engine of a rented black SUV, pulls out of the circular driveway of his hotel in Portland, Maine, and hits “play” on the stereo. As My Morning Jacket’s front man steers onto a dark cobblestone street flanked by snowdrifts, a gong rings out — the first sound on his band’s just-finished new album, Circuital. But after five seconds, he shakes his head and stabs at the “stop” button.
“Do you mind it loud?” James asks softly, before twisting the volume knob all the way to the right and starting the album over. He flew to Portland two days earlier from his home in Louisville, Kentucky, to master Circuital with veteran engineer Bob Ludwig, who is based in this seaside city. The two men just finished tweaking the album a few hours ago — with Ludwig keeping the volume at an ear-protecting 87 dBs — so James is dying to experience its full brain-rattling power.
This time, the gong sounds apocalyptic: agonizingly loud for me, just right for James’ tour-hardened ears. He grins under his curly beard, blue-green eyes twinkling in the dashboard glow. The song’s pulsing beat kicks in, and he hits the accelerator harder, heading toward the bridge that separates Portland’s north and south.
The revolving guitar arpeggios of the album’s title track begin; streetlights and snowbanks blur by. There are few other cars on the road. James grips the steering wheel tight, eyes fixed straight ahead as he takes sharp turns. He’s drifting away, headed to the same out-of-body place he visits during the ecstatic concerts that make MMJ their generation’s most powerful live act.
James is the band’s leader, but not necessarily the bandleader — he’s too busy closing his eyes and entering other dimensions to give anybody cues. “He just kind of takes off into space sometimes,” says MMJ drummer Patrick Hallahan, who has known James since fourth grade. “He leads indirectly — we’re going where’s he going.” At least he keeps his eyes open behind the wheel. James is equal parts lapsed Catholic and lapsed roots rocker. My Morning Jacket started in a Neil Young-ish vein but exploded into more cosmic, rhythmic sounds beginning with 2005’s Z; plunged deeper into R&B and electronic weirdness on parts of 2008s Evil Urges; and slammed it all back together on Circuital. James is all about journeys, spiritual and musical, and doesn’t make much of a distinction between the two. “I just like to take some of my favorite things from every religion that I learn about,” he says, inadvertently describing his musical approach as well.
“Jim never settles for what’s expected of him, never rests on his laurels,” says James’ friend Conor Oberst, who plays with him in the side project Monsters of Folk, and who recently wrote a song called “Beginner’s Mind,” fueled by James’ dedication to the Buddhism-inspired idea of starting anew with each project, each song. “It’s always pure exploration.” Adds MMJ guitarist Carl Broemel, “Before I knew Jim, our first conversation on the phone, he talked about approaching things with a childlike mind. I’ll never forget that. It must have been before I went in to audition.”
James is as much of an introvert as a rock singer can be. He used to talk about wanting to blindfold the audience while his band played, and drowned his vocals in reverb in part as a protective mechanism. He’s more comfortable onstage now, but he still likes to hide inside capes, long coats and other props. When he plays the album for me the first time, he sits behind me, deliberately out of sight, invisible.
He’s indifferent to musical and sartorial trends: Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” single came out that morning, but he hasn’t heard it, or any of her other songs (by late May he finally caved in and watched some of her HBO special — he’s mildly impressed). He’s had the same look since the band began around the turn of the century: that leonine beard, topped by long curly hair so thick that he has to wear a cap to tame it before shows. There’s always a lot going on in his eyes, which radiate a sort of ageless warmth — amid all that hair, the effect is vaguely reminiscent of Aslan, the kindly lion-god from The Chronicles of Narnia. Today, he’s wearing mismatched gloves (he balked at the $40 price of new ones when we ducked into a menswear store to buy me a pair); two scarves, one black, one brown, over a slightly frayed brown canvas coat, a denim shirt and dark corduroys.
We haven’t had anything stronger than some wine with dinner, but the drive and the music are starting to feel distinctly trippy — which isn’t anything new for James. He dropped acid around 10 times during a long-ago psychedelic phase, and it’s stuck with him. “I feel like every day is a psychedelic experience,” he says, “if you’re open to it.”
A few hours earlier, we drop into a scuzzy dive bar for a beer. It’s a few minutes before 5 p.m., and grizzled locals are ordering Jell-O shots. On the wall, incongruously, are several laminated placards with quotes from the likes of John Quincy Adams and Buddha (“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned”). “Some little words of wisdom here,” James notes, taking in the quotes, and briefly singing along with “Bitter Sweet Symphony” on the jukebox. “Maybe that’s why the universe led us here.”
Sipping his drink, James explains that “Victory Dance,” the song with the gong, was inspired by his Lasik surgery in November, an experience he describes with awe and wonder, making it sound like a trip to inner space: “The whole experience of it is so fucked up, it’s somebody slicing your eyeball open and shooting you with a laser. This ring of white lights comes down, and you feel the suction, and it feels like the doctor pushed your eyeball back into your head, and all your vision’s gone, and you’re starting to hyperventilate.
“Then you’re looking at this machine that’s going to burn your eye, but it’s got a green dot that you’re supposed to focus on, and above that are two or three other digital dots, and the room is dark, you keep trying to focus on the green dot, and the doctor flips your eyeball open, and those three dots turn into a gigantic psychedelic wash of colors. Then the lasers start shooting into your eye, and you can smell your eyeball burning — it kind of smelled good, like incense. Then the next morning, you open your eyes and it’s just like a miracle, it’s like you’ve been touched, or healed.”
The day after the surgery, James sat at the Wurlitzer keyboard in his living room, meditating over the experience, and the result was one of his band’s spookiest and most powerful songs, with a first line that asks, “Should I close my eyes and prophesize?” If you take him at his word, James may well be a prophet, or at least mildly psychic: He sometimes has dreams that predict the future. “There’s always uncanny dreams I’ll have that will later come true in life,” he says with a shrug, “even just random, stupid things, like I’ll have a dream where you’re sitting there with the wall like that, and plants behind you, and then I’ll find myself in this situation and the layout is exactly like my dream.” As for the Lasik, it’s also probably not a coincidence that Circuital‘s album cover is a close-up of a glowing green eye that looks like it belongs to a digital god.
James glances at a vintage cigarette machine in the coiner. “That’s so beautiful,” he says. “Have you ever been a big smoker? I smoked some, but I always wanted to sing so much. If I didn’t, I probably would have been a pretty big smoker. It’s such a therapeutic ritual, but we just abuse it, people just abuse it so much, like everything else.” Despite the highly spliffed-out nature of his music, James isn’t big on pot, either. “I’ve never smoked too much weed — it always makes me freak out. I enjoy it sometimes. If I’ve already had a couple of drinks and we’re listening to music I really love, but in a social situation, it causes me more pain…. I think it specifically reacts to different people’s body chemistry.”
The course of James’ recent life was set by a freak accident three years ago during an Iowa show, when he took a wrong step and fell off the stage, injuring his torso. He left the gig in an ambulance. “I was really fucked up,” he says. “It really hurt bad.” The band canceled tour dates, and James — who had briefly started living in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood — headed home to his parents’ house in Louisville for a while to recuperate.
He decided he was done with New York, and bought his own house in Louisville. While he was still setting up the place, an old friend brought a pretty, tattooed blond woman over. “He was like, ‘This is Molly, remember her?’ and it triggered this thing,” James says. “I had met her one or two times in high school, but somehow, that night, we had some kind of knowledge of each other that was really intense, and from that point on, we’ve been together. You’re a single person out traveling the Earth, you’re always in some bar or some club, always hoping you’ll meet somebody, and they walk right in. That’s always how it happens.” Molly and her young daughter now live with James, and the couple wear matching not-quite-wedding rings.
It’s James’ first brush with domestic contentment, and people ask him if he’s worried about losing his artistic drive. He’s not: “I think about artists where you listen to their work and you hear the celebration of life and kids and joy and love — Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder — and I don’t think that should ever be a thing that shuts you down.” Six years ago, just after releasing Z, James told me that he often wrote songs from a place of unhappiness, but he wanted to change that. “I’m tired of being sad,” he said. “I feel like I wanna strive to a place to write songs like ‘Over the Rainbow’ or ‘When You Wish Upon a Star,’ you know, songs filled with wonder and magic, and kind of a bit of sadness but positive.”
Fittingly, Circuital, recorded in a makeshift studio set up in an un-air-conditioned church gymnasium, was also My Morning Jacket’s most relaxed recording experience since the band’s earliest albums. Contrary to legend, those first three discs weren’t recorded in a barn — the bandmates played in an apartment above a farmhouse garage. They did run hundreds of feet of Ethernet cable so they could use a grain silo as a reverb chamber, however. “Anytime you needed reverb, you’d just pull open the silo, and if you were standing outside, you’d hear it in the country wind,” says Hallahan.
My Morning Jacket’s frontman and drummer were born on the same day in 1978, just minutes apart. They first met in the summer between third and fourth grade, at a “vacation school thing” at St. Martha Church, where they would both eventually go to Catholic school during the year. James’ dad, an electrical contractor, had just moved back to Louisville after a stint in Atlanta. “If I remember correctly,” says Hallahan, “we were both making alternate lyrics to these religious songs because they were stupid and we hated being there. I thought he was funny. I was like, ‘Who is this guy?’ “
It turned out that they lived around the corner from each other, and they quickly became close friends. They had one band together before MMJ, in seventh grade, just as James (whose real name is James Olliges Jr. — he chose “Jim James” as a stage name because it “sounded like a gunslinger”) was first learning guitar: The first song he tackled was R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion.” Hallahan had gotten an earlier start, first playing guitar and then drums by age five — his grandmother sang in a jazz band, and he was entranced by her drummer. “We played shows in the backyard for our parents,” says Hallahan. “That’s what you do when you’re in seventh grade, you’re hoping somebody walks by and hears it and signs you — in Louisville, Kentucky.” But Hallahan got so into the band that his grades started dropping, and his parents made him quit. The two friends kept their musical adventures separate for the next decade.
Hallahan joined My Morning Jacket just before the band recorded its third album, the epic classic-rock move It Still Moves, and it quickly became impossible to imagine the group without the classic-rock muscle his huge beats provide. “It’s like marrying the reckless abandon of Keith Moon with the heart, soul and precision of John Bonham,” says Hallahan. “That’s kind of how I got my style.”
The two have an almost familial resemblance — from a distance, at least, Hallahan resembles a larger version of James. But Hallahan is outgoing, a hugger, and an enthusiastic meat-eater, while James is mostly piscivorous (“I feel lighter and more maneuverable when I’m not eating a lot of meat, but my girlfriend and I, every couple of months, will share a piece of beef and try to be thoughtful and thankful to the animal and let it know that it didn’t die in vain”), and Hallahan is a serious foodie since childhood: “They didn’t have a name for it then. I was just hungry. And picky.”
Hallahan and founding bassist Tom Blankenship — a sweet, quiet guy who writes short stories in his spare time, and who has his flashiest parts ever on the new record — helped keep the band together when original guitar player and keyboardist Johnny Quaid and Danny Cash simultaneously quit in 2004, worn down by the rigors of van tours. “They’re kind of homebodies,” says Hallahan. “Touring is just not for everybody, it’s brutal, especially when you’re at that level.”
They were replaced by two formally trained musicians: easygoing keyboardist Bo Koster, who has become the group’s less-shaggy Garth Hudson, coaxing an endless array of spacey sounds from multiple keyboards and effects pedals, when he’s not triggering samples; and the sardonic, virtuosic Carl Broemel, who switches between guitar, pedal steel and saxophone, which he plays through octave pedals to become a one-man horn section.
The rehearsals for Z with two freshly minted members were among the band’s tensest moments. “I was just like, ‘What the fuck is going on with my band?’ ” says Hallahan. “Everybody was moody.” But when Broemel and Koster started laying down their parts, everything changed. “They added in all this magic,” Hallahan adds. “And we were just like, ‘Oh, my God, these guys are ballers!’ ”
It’s three months after James’ Portland trip, and My Morning Jacket are onstage in a Louisville theater, rehearsing for the night’s show — beneath a giant glowing stage-prop version of the Circuital eye. As usual, the stage is decorated with various owls and the band’s two giant stuffed bears. “They’re our spirit animal guides,” Hallahan explains. “They make sure we’re going in the right direction.” There’s also another guest onstage: the brilliant neosoul eccentric Erykah Badu, who’s wealing denim overalls and is rapidly seizing control of the band.
The group did an admirable job of nailing the skittery beat to Badu’s song “Twinkle,” but Badu wants to add James Brown-style stops and starts, so she cues Hallahan with dramatic swipes of her hand. She also corrects James on the melody of the line “We’re still here in this ghetto.” “I know you don’t know nothing about the ghetto, so I understand,” she teases. James and MMJ have long been covering Badu’s “Tyrone,” and her manager hooked the two acts up for a duet on the song back in 2008. When the organizers of tonight’s show — which is also an American Express-sponsored webcast — suggested a celebrity guest, perhaps thinking of Neil Young or Eddie Vedder, Badu was among the first ideas that popped to mind. “We’re from the same tribe,” she says. “We just use the funk in different ways. None of us take baths.”
James recognizes that the band’s sonic mutations may be a commercial liability. He doesn’t name names, but it’s hard to deny that groups like Fleet Foxes and Band of Horses have seized on aspects of MMJ’s early sound that they’ve long left behind. “Sometimes I feel like maybe we’ve shot ourselves in the foot by doing too many different styles of music,” James says over dinner. “It is frustrating sometimes to see people get places you thought you’d get based on something you felt like you were doing, but at the same time, we’re making a living making art. That’s all I could have ever asked for. So I’m grateful not to be having to do something else to keep the electricity on.”
For all of its periodic oddness, James considers MMJ’s last album, Evil Urges, to be an attempt at commercial acceptability — it was recorded in a fancy New York studio, with a whip-cracking producer, Joe Chiccarelli. “I was like, ‘Let’s do things that they say make things successful,’ ” says James. “I was trying to eliminate all of these variables that could make something not a success, because people had told us before with something like It Still Moves, ‘It could have done better if you’d recorded it in your barn, recorded in a real studio,’ and I said, ‘OK, let’s go to a studio, let’s work with a dude that’s won a million Grammys,” and all this stuff, and at the end of the day, I felt like the studio or him, nothing against him, didn’t give us any input that made anything a hit that wouldn’t have been a hit. I don’t want to write a song about my sex parts being on fire, just to have a huge hit audience.”
James still wouldn’t mind having a hit single — but he feels an almost sacred duty to honor his creative urges. “I try to have a certain amount of respect for the tones and sounds that come out of my head,” he says backstage in Louisville. “I feel like, for some reason that I don’t understand, that’s what the universe wants me to put out. There’s some pipeline going on, and some reason why the universe or God or whatever is telling somebody to do it this way, they’re telling Dolly Parton to do it like this, and they’re telling Kanye West to do it like this, and there’s all these spirits telling people to do things different ways.”
On Circuital‘s second-to-last song, the sweet “Slow Slow Tune,” James directly addresses a listener he always imagines — “you, somewhere in the future, listening.” He pictures a musician looking for influences. “I’ve always been the person digging through crates of records at a Goodwill,” he says, eyes bright. “So I always get this vision of some kid in a digital Goodwill a thousand years from now, finding the file of all of our songs — and maybe one of them was what they needed to hear, to make their music do something else.”