[This piece ran in Kerrang! late back in 2003. If I preach full-pelt the wonders of My Morning Jacket here, then its only because My Morning Jacket are perhaps one of my favourite bands (check out all of their albums, or (even better) a live show), and that this is one of my favourite trips ever. The band themselves were warm, funny, wonderful people, who welcomed us into their home, forced us to buy their favourite books at the local Barnes & Noble, and shared some tender moments which revealed plenty of the vulnerabilities that would see guitarist Johnny Quaid and keyboard-player Danny Cash leave the band, homesick and tired of the duties of touring It Still Moves. But My Morning Jacket continue, majestically, and their next album should be due some time this year. Word up to my man Tony Woolliscroft, photographic accompaniment for this trip.]
The thunderstorm swarmed through
But this aftershock of the nearby rampaging Hurricane Isabel cared not, creeping sinisterly through the deserted sleepy streets and half-built yuppie-condos: retina-scarring flashes of light, unbroken walls of fierce and chilling rain, spiny bone-white fingers of forked lightning, and ominous, heart-stopping explosions of thunder, louder than war – fuck it, louder than Rock’n’Roll – leaving us awestruck, terrified and humbled.
Some things, it seems, can’t be tamed. A lesson taught us, most recently, by Louisville’s own My Morning Jacket, five friends who eschew the trinkets and fakery of modern ‘rock’ – digital trickery, image-over-content – for something elemental and magical, stoning you with sublime, spiritual, supernatural rock’n’roll steeped in a timeless power and wonder you can’t conjour up from just anywhere. Something from the heart.
“We pride ourselves on not thinking about it all too much. It takes the magic, the power away,” smiles hirsute, perma-daydreaming singer/guitarist Jim James, as he drives us the forty miles between
Outside, the storm rages hard but, rolling in the band’s homely eleven-seater touring van, we’re almost cosy. Clothing, magazines and other detritus clogs the nooks, while a huge jar of peanut-butter rolls around the floor; bootleg CDs chronicling the Rolling Stones’ entire 1972 American tour (matinee and evening performances) teeter on the passenger seat. You imagine the band’s own bedrooms to resemble this dog-eared but charming chariot, and why not? They’ve logged more hours in the van than their own beds this past year or so.
“The first concert I ever saw was Metallica, the Black album tour. They played for four hours, no support,” brags hairy and gregarious drummer Patrick Hallahan, from the back of the van. The stereo’s spinning an eclectic mix CD Jim made for such trips –Roy Orbison, AC/DC, country-rockers Flying Burrito Brothers, even calypso king Harry Belafonte – but the band, for our benefit, are in ‘metal’ mode. “I saw Pantera support Skid Row, totally blew ‘em off the stage,” continues Patrick, excitedly.
“Me and Johnny used to put on ‘Vulgar Display Of Power’ and rip his bedroom apart,” offers Jim.
“For some reason we never trashed Jim’s bedroom,” muses the guitarist, with a wry smile.
For all this confessed destruction, My Morning Jacket are gentle obsessives; but music drives their every impulse; “I don’t think any of us really cares what we look like,” murmurs the sweetly scruffy Patrick at one point, hinting at their monomania.
“We start at that unspoilt point,” offers keyboard player Danny Cash. “Unlike most other bands, we’ve never strayed from it.”
“We didn’t fit in at school, with the footballers, the skaters, the ‘alternative’ kids,” remembers Jim\. “Most bands we saw looked like rock’n’roll bands, they were all sexy and skinny and looked like they were wearing the ‘right’ clothes. We’ve never been that way, we’d rather think about our music than what we’re gonna wear or how our hair looks. I think we learnt early on, that kinda stuff is really distracting.”
Their latest album, ‘It Still Moves’, opens with ‘Magheeta’, a shimmering sliver of tender rockidge that ploughs through seven minutes of southern-fried soloing and exquisite falsetto melodies betraying nary a whisker of machismo, beautiful, powerful and vulnerable. It sounds so unguarded, so un-self-conscious; like the boys themselves.
“It’s not about any one person in particular,” starts Jim, talking about ‘The Way That He Sings’, a moving near-lullaby off their second album, ‘At Dawn’. “Half of it’s about all my favourite singers, half of it’s about love. It’s about loving somebody, a singer, or your girlfriend or boyfriend, for what they do rather than what they look like. Something deeper, that you can’t really understand. Like, when I listen to my favourite singers, a lot of the time I don’t even know the lyrics, but I’ll just get so wrapped up in their singing. It’s the same thing with falling in love with someone, it’s cool if they look good, but it goes way beyond that.
“Music was the only thing I ever felt like I was any good at,” he continues. “The only way out for me. I was bad with girls, I hated school, I’m not good at sports. But music… I could always turn my stereo up in my room, jump off my bed and play air guitar, pretending I was in Sepultura, or lay on the floor crying, listening to REM.”
“I always got this feeling in my chest when I heard music,” offers Johnny. “It was just so emotional, I couldn’t believe something could make me feel that way. I wanted to capture that, recreate that for other people.”
That dream began here, at Cadillac Studios.
The van deftly negotiates the entrance to the farm from the Interstate, gingerly touring its breath-taking thousand-acre sprawl, the fields of corn and tobacco interspersed with a vast hall Johnny’s family rents out from time to time (most recently to a lizard-fanciers’ convention), pumpkin patches, grazing horses and cows, a petting zoo (we spy some soggy bunny-rabbits peeking gloomily out of their hutches at us), and huge rickety barns packed with relics like Johnny’s granny’s dilapidated T-Bird sportscar (she was quite the speed demon in her day). It’s still a working farm, Johnny’s brother and grandfather running it now, though that’s not why we’re here.
We pull up alongside a 60 foot tall grain silo that’s seen better days, not suspecting that this is, in fact, My Morning Jacket’s secret weapon. For – having rigged up a speaker deep inside it – this forlorn farm utility has now been transformed into a sublime Reverb chamber. This is why, when Jim James sings, he sounds like a chorus of angels cooing down from Heaven.
“I was in a band, and our singer got sick or quit,” remembers Jim, of the day he discovered reverb. “Everyone was asking, ‘who’s gonna sing?’ So I tried. But I felt real self-conscious about how my voice sounded until, one day, somebody left the reverb turned up on the amp. I started singing, and this amazing sound poured out; I knew I’d found my calling. Nothing had ever made me feel more powerful than that in my life. I felt like I was in the Righteous Brothers or something. It was such a fucking amazing feeling!”
“The reverb knob has been at ‘11’ ever since,” laughs Johnny. “We’re gonna design a Jim James Signature Reverb Pedal: it won’t have any dials or buttons or even an on/off switch, just Jim’s smiling face staring up atcha; just plug it in and you’re ready to go!”
We walk from the silo to a nearby two-storey building. This, it transpires, is Cadillac Studios; it feels more like a clubhouse than a studio, decorated with concert-posters and fairy lights and cluttered with memorabilia, and the down-home atmosphere and antique analogue equipment confirm that feeling; a sense of romance for rock’n’roll’s past, the days before digital, before Autotune and Pro Tools – before cynicism – hangs in the air.
“Speaking for myself,” offers Jim, “The 1950s, 60s and 70s, that’s when music was at its peak for me. There’s good stuff today, but no-one’s hitting me like Roy Orbison or Etta James or Led Zeppelin or The Band or Bob Dylan or Neil Young.”
“It seems like as the decades progress and more money enters the equation,” adds Danny, “The more formulaic everything has gotten. Like they’ve figured out exactly what to do to make the most money, and that’s become the total focus.”
“The music business is so fucked up,” sighs Jim, with the resignation of those newly betrothed to the corporate behemoth. “It wouldn’t surprise me if the album came out and sold two copies or two million; you can’t control if people are gonna love you or not. All we can do is close our eyes and rock out as hard as we can.”
This momentary darkness passes quickly, doubtless thanks to the Jacket’s “think less” mindset, and we talk influences some more. The band admit they wear theirs on their sleeves, and refuse to cover their most obvious heroes – “No Skynyrd,” laughs Patrick, “And if you hear us playing Neil Young, you’d better check the papers, because either we’re splitting up or Neil’s dead!”.
But there’s one influence you mightn’t instantly guess when you hear My Morning Jacket, one very close to Jim’s heart.
“Kermit The Frog,” he smiles, bashfully. “I’ve always loved dark, fucked up children’s shows. The Muppet Show is so happy and so colourful, but some of the songs are really sad; the emotions Jim Henson could express through Kermit were amazing. He was just as brilliant a genius as John Lennon or Walt Disney. The Muppets show what you can do if you don’t put any limits on your self, that there’s no limit to how far you can get with your imagination.”
If there ever was any real doubt in Jim James’ heart about whether or not his band can truly break through, then you wish he could sit in the audience for a My Morning Jacket show. Earlier, Johnny had said that when they play live, “We almost sound like a metal band; there’s sensitivity and softness there, but we get back to our roots and rock out.”
And he’s right. A couple of weeks earlier in London, supporting Foo Fighters audience at that band’s secret Mean Fiddler show, MMJ seduced a partisan audience with ‘Runthrough’ off ‘It Still Moves’, Foos fans pumping their fists with that song’s bass-breakdown and fierce twin-guitar attack, even though they’d never heard it before.
This afternoon they’re playing a set for local station WFPK, which Jim describes as “the only good station in town, playing stuff that isn’t Foreigner or Foghat”. Indeed, their playlist is as winningly wayward as James’ own mixtapes, and they’ve supported the band since the early days. Jim, a barefoot blur of hair with a voice like honey, leads the band through an hour of sweet and soulful southern rock, country-tinged and metallic at its core, alternating fiery riff-outs and fragile balladry, dripping with sublime peaks and electrifying goosebump epiphanies. It’s a poignant moment, one last breath of normality before the boys get back in the van and lose themselves in the wilds of the world for another three months.
It’s made doubly, triply poignant by the presence of their loved ones in the audience, mothers and fathers and siblings and fiancées savouring these last precious hours together. There’s a farewell dinner later and we’re invited, but we decline; for all the southern hospitality and genuine warmth we’ve enjoyed, there are some parties you shouldn’t gatecrash. Unlike most, this band thrives on its family, and, as such, severance is painful.
“Being in this band is a fucking awesome experience, but it’s a hard way of life,” nods Jim, quietly.
“I’d find it harder if I didn’t love touring with these guys,” offers the newly engaged Patrick. “I never get sick of ‘em. We really are all brothers in this thing; it makes missing loved ones at home a little bit easier, because we have each other to fall back on.”
“We’re all in this for the same reason, we’re all aiming at the same goal we’ve all had since childhood,” adds Johnny. “All our friends and families and significant others understand that and support that. It is difficult, but you know that coming in, because nobody’s handing out dreams; if you want something you’ve got to work for it. And it’s tough, but, I think, in the end it’ll be worth it. I feel like we can honestly say that we’ve tried as hard as we could’ve up to this point.”
Humble, but reaching for the stars and with hearts of gold, they can’t lose.
(c) Stevie Chick 2003