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Interview: Jim James

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photographer Neil Krug

Today, Jim James releases his solo debut, Regions of Light and Sound of God. It's a jammer. The My Morning Jacket frontman gets a little gritty and a lot funky, singing love songs and the words of Martin Luther King. The album is incredibly catchy and a good departure from MMJ's Americana inclinations. This gets stuck in your head. James, who is incredibly convivial, spoke about the album's genesis, ran down specific songs and got us pretty excited to read a turn-of-the-century graphic novel.

How did this record come together? Back in 2000, 2001, My Morning Jacket had a studio on our old guitar player’s grandparents’ farm, that we made our first few records at, so I’ve always loved fucking around in a home studio. When he left the band, there was a period of three or four years where all our gear was just in storage, and then about four years ago I found the house where I’m living now that I wanted to make into a studio again. In building the studio, I just realized I loved being in the studio all the time. Sometimes my brain will get an idea and say, “This is a My Morning Jacket idea,” or it’ll get another idea and it’s like, “This is a song you want to work on by yourself.” So all of these songs kind of started deciding they wanted to be together. It really would just start with me laying down some drums and building a loop out of those drums and just start piling stuff on top. Most of the songs for this record, I had a pretty solid picture in my head of what I wanted the end result to be, but I didn’t know how I’d get there. I would know what the beat was and what the vocal melody was and what the lyrics were, and I would know that I wanted certain things to happen here and there, but I didn’t really know how to make them happen. So I had to find a way to make them happen.

I find the record to be really spiritual in tone, sometimes jazzy. What were you thinking about and listening to while putting it together? I’m always trying to find different shit. I’ve been really into the great labels right now that are putting out lost music like Light In The Attic and Sublime Frequencies and Mississippi Records. They’ve put out so many fucking amazing things. And those Ethiopiques releases and stuff like that. Those are super great records. My brain’s really been in that. It’s such a romantic idea of all this music that was created so long ago and lost. Nobody gave a shit about it. And now people are finding it again. Some people back then gave a shit about it—obviously, they did—but the world at large kind of passed it by or whatever, and it’s cool to see it get this second chance at life. So a lot of that stuff has been infiltrating my space.

Do you ever hear something and just say, “I want that sound?" I’m a big gear freak. Painting with music is like painting with anything. There’s a thousand brands of paint out there. You have to decide what brand reflects the color best. If you’re painting, it’s one swipe of the color red down a white canvas. There’s a thousand reds out there, which is the right one? You have to experiment a lot and mess with a lot of different reds. I feel the same way about gear. There’s so much gear out there—so much great gear and so much shitty gear. There’s so much great gear that sounds shitty, and so much shitty gear that sounds shitty, and so much shitty gear that sounds great. It’s like a puzzle. I feel very fortunate to be able to make music and make it my living, so I feel it’s my duty to do as much experimenting as I can to find sounds that make me lose my mind. So I try to find cool things and cool pieces of gear and stuff that, to me, sounds unique. The best way I can describe it is it’s like it’s the sound of the future’s past. I wanted it to sound like someone in the year 4016 was listening to the record and the record was made in 3970 or something. I wanted it to feel like an old lost record that somebody found from a while back, but also futuristic and more rhythmic and more progressive. Lately, I haven’t been a big fan of super pristine, super crisp recordings. Maybe it’s because my brain has been enjoying so much of this lost music. It just sounds like shit, but in the best way—in a super hi-fi way. It doesn’t sound like this four-track thing, it doesn’t sound like Guided by Voices or something, and it doesn’t sound like Celine Dion. It doesn’t sound like some overproduced thing. It’s the best of all worlds. I was really striving to make my record not sound lo-fi, because I didn’t want it to sound lo-fi and shitty. But I didn’t want it to sound super hi-fi, so I was trying to use gear that made it sound like the sound of the future’s past, or whatever.

In the middle of the record, we get a pause with “Exploding,” which is an instrumental guitar song. A lot of the song titles are earthy and sweet and that one sounds a lot more violent. That title came from the lyrics, because that song had lyrics and a vocal at one point. But I felt like the sentiment I was trying to express got in the way of the song. I just loved playing that figure on the guitar so much and then fucking around with it, putting some strings on it, putting some guitar overdubs and stuff. It’s rare that this happens, but I was just like, the vocal ruins the song. It was about a carnival exploding, like going to a carnival and somehow getting involved in some accident. I was trying to describe going into the carnival and the things you’re seeing and somehow it eventually explodes. I could never figure it out.

On “God’s Love To Deliver,” I’m struck by the direct and very literal invocation of Martin Luther King. Why use his “I Have a Dream” speech? Everybody knows Martin Luther King. The reason I love Martin Luther King is I feel like we all got to see that he was human. A lot of times, we hold him up as a god, and rightly so. He’s not a god but he did such great work and I think it’s important that we hold him up as a great figure, but [acknowledge that] he was also human. He was also a womanizer. He had these very human, flawed qualities. I was reading Gil Scott Heron’s autobiography. He’s always on my mind. We got to play with Brian Jackson at Madison Square Garden. We invited him to come play with us and we covered "The Bottle,” and he jammed with us on flute. I was reading the Gil Scott Heron book, and he talks about how Stevie Wonder played such a big part in making the Martin Luther King holiday happen, because there’s a lot of people that didn’t want that to happen. That just made me think even more how much Martin Luther King had to fight for what he was fighting for, and even once he was killed people still had to fight to get him recognized in that way.

Actually, the song was started by a building. There’s a building here in Manhattan, down in Soho, that says “God’s Love: We Deliver." I remember seeing that for the first time and I was like, God, that’s fucking beautiful. No matter what you think god is, what faith you are, obviously there’s a million definitions of god. God is us, god is love, whatever. I felt like, what a beautiful statement, saying that our mission in life is to deliver love to each other, to deliver the love of god to everyone we meet and to make that our primary mission. It’s just kind of tied into falling in love and trying to make that the mission of love, even if it’s with two people or one person. I felt like that was Martin Luther King’s mission of love, that it was such a big thing for the world.

I would love to talk about “A New Life,” which took a couple of listens to unfold itself as a really romantic song. How did it come together for you? There’s a book called God’s Man—it will fucking blow your mind. It’s a graphic novel that came out in 1929, the same year the stock market crashed. It’s a wordless novel all told in woodcuts. My friend gave me this book, like four years ago. Kind of right before I had an accident where I feel off the stage when we were on tour and got injured. I’m trying to think of a long-story-short way to tell this. I can paraphrase it, but you can never do any book justice by doing that. Basically, the book is about this artist that sells his soul to the devil for this magic paintbrush that anything he paints with it people instantly love it and think it’s the greatest thing they’ve ever seen. And he starts out poor and desolate, and he sells his soul to the devil kind of unknowingly. He’s just hungry and cold and he meets this man who tells him about this paintbrush that has given all these famous people throughout all of time this gateway to fame and he kind of jumps at the chance and signs this paper without even looking at it, and he quickly rises to fame and fortune and it’s all very empty and it’s all very cold. Eventually he gets run out of town and chased off a cliff and falls from a cliff and is rescued by this girl who nurses him back to health and turns out to be the love of his life, and they have a child and all this stuff. But at the end, the devil comes back to get his due. At the time when I was reading this book I had this thing where I felt like I was going down this really super dark path and I literally fell off the stage and injured myself and then I met someone and fell in love and kind of got brought back to health. These events in my life were weirdly paralleling the events that were happening in the book, so I was like scoring the book. I would sit there and look at the book; the book is very cinematic. I scanned it into my iPad and looked at it that way. The book played a huge part in this album. “All is Forgiven” I scored as like “The Dark Man’s Theme”—as the devil’s theme, originally, instrumentally. Then the lyrics kind of came about hoping somehow that in the next life the artist could be forgiven for making these bad choices. “A New Life” was written when the artist and his love have their child and they’re starting a new life and that’s a beautiful part in the book and they’re running through the fields and painting together. “Dear One” I wrote as he meets her and he’s waking up and he’s seeing her.

Where are “The Regions of Light” and what is “The Sound of God”? The “Sound of God” part is kind of the sound of God’s Man, cause that’s the name of the book. The “Regions of Light,” it was first seen when we were working on the last Jacket record and I was mixing it with Tucker Martine in Nashville and we were riding to the studio one day and he saw a sign, or something, that said “Regions of Light and Sound of God.” And he was like, That’s so fucked up. What does that mean? The next day, we were riding, and we saw that he had misread the sign. But I loved that phrase so much, I wrote it down. In my head, the moment he said that it became the album title for this solo record. I just knew it was supposed to be that. To me, it’s like some fucked-up hypnotic phrase or something. The label didn’t really like that. They were like, It’s too long and people don’t want to hear about god.You can’t mention god cause people are gonna get mad. I humored them and was like, Let me think. Let me see if I can find something else. Everything else I found didn’t make sense, and the title wouldn’t leave me alone. It had to be the title.

Do you think it freaks people out that you mention god? I don’t think so. I’m not bashing anybody over the head with it. I’m not saying, You have to believe in Christ. I talk about god in a very open way. I think that people should figure out what it means for them. And I don’t care what it means for anybody.

Interview: Jim James