Down on the Corner, up from ... Somewhere
We engage our heroes during lunch time at the Ken-Tex barbecue joint in Shelbyville. It's the homegrown sort of place anyone who lives around Louisville or points south might take for granted, yet when you've been away on the road, like the young men in the Louisville/Shelbyville band known as My Morning Jacket, you come to realize that good barbecue is almost exclusively a Southern thing, and you understand it is a privilege to get home to some pulled pork and cole slaw. (Except for Two Tone Tommy, who's vegetarian and reduced to sneaking in a sack of meatless items from Taco Bell. Something in the way he wrinkles his forehead says he's used to it.)
"Yeah, we have to get our fix when we're in town," says drummer Patrick Hallahan. "You can't get this stuff just anywhere."
The end of the last stretch, may signal the calm before a September storm. That's when the band's much anticipated major label debut album drops, and also when they hit the road for a headlining tour. Goodbye, 40-minute sets. Look out, world.
MMJ HISTORY 101
Jim and His Magic Friends-Jim James is dwarfed by this silo, which the band uses as a reverb chamber of sorts.
Former University of Kentucky art student Jim Olliges takes his songs to various open mics around Louisville, circa 1998. His surname yields to the pithier "James," and My Morning Jacket is born when guitar-slingin' Jim James and his guitar-slingin' cousin Johnny Quaid finally get in the same band. A bass player by the too-cool name of Two Tone Tommy jumps on board, and the local buzz comes quick. The CD Tennessee Fire announces the band as an incredible and inscrutable new sound and smokes 'em in Holland, where a bevy of good press leads to a Dutch tour and an unlikely film documentary.
The players are all of 22-years-old.
Meanwhile, a guy with minimal keyboard experience hears My Morning Jacket is looking for a keyboard player. That's funny, he thinks, because that Tennessee Fire CD was great, but it sure could have used a Fender Rhodes. Danny Cash takes on learning keyboards and adds a tasty and indispensable element to the My Morning Jacket sound. His contributions are apparent on the incredible 2001 CD At Dawn, which quietly shakes the world to its ethereal core.
MMJ History 102
April 2002-Patrick Hallahan becomes the fifth and final piece of the My Morning Jacket puzzle. Hallahan may fairly be called the linchpin of the band. (He's also a jokester; maybe he should be called the Smiling Irishman: "I was originally in Riverdance, and they saw I had rhythm and that I could use my feet. I applied my Riverdance techniques to the drum set and they were like, 'Wow, would you come play?' And I told 'em no, made 'em fester for about a year. Then they asked me again and I said yes.")
My Morning Jacket tours with Guided By Voices, Doves, and other impressive names, foreshadowing a big year in which Dave Matthews signs the band to his fledgling ATO/RCA record label. The deal gives the band complete creative control, a rarity, and the band records It Still Moves at their trusted Shelby County studio with Jim James producing.
Summer 2003 begins with a performance in front of 80,000 people at Bonnaroo-and a photo in Rolling Stone of all five members exiting the portable potties simultaneously. You know what they say about publicity.
INTO THE MYSTIC
My Morning Jacket songs tend to unfold slowly, like a movie you nearly quit before it catches fire and binds you to your seat. As such, the music is not an easy thing to grasp or describe. Once your music geek friends from other places start asking about this upstart band from Kentucky, easy answers are going to be hard to come by.
You could, as so many have done, begin with the visuals:
There's this singer. He starts out looking angelic with his neat ponytail, the kind of hair a woman might kill for. He seems as polite as all get-out as he busies around the stage before a gig, getting the electronics just so and pausing every so often to make eye contact and shoot a warm smile at a friend in the crowd.
But in no time at all, about as soon as the music begins, there is hair flying, a ton of it, and at some point it sort of swallows the microphone. That is, when it's not falling over the top of its owner's beloved Flying V guitar.
Before you know it they're all thrashing around, and Tommy's hair is flying and Patrick's nearly standing up behind the drum kit and his hair is flying, too, and then Johnny holds his SG straight up like Angus Young. God, it's something to see.
But now your friends are thinking Skynyrd or Metallica or something heavier, and that's just wrong. Because, under the hair, Jim James' eyes are probably closed, and far from this unfortunately misleading countenance, he is connecting to someplace distant. This stuff is deep.
You could try to talk about the sound.
Well, Jim's got two voices-one way up in the clouds and one that's more in the middle register. You can hear the Beach Boys' influence in that breezy singing. The Band and its chug-chug. Some say Neil Young under a harvest moon. Maybe some Radiohead, or better yet, a nod to their home buds in VHS or Beta. My Morning Jacket could write some great show tunes, and they wouldn't sound out of place on The Muppet Show.
Are we getting there?
"I just call it rock 'n' roll," Jim says. "If you say rock 'n' roll, it's everything, you know. Rock 'n' roll is slow and fast and sad and happy. Rock 'n' roll is Roy Orbison, but it's The Band, it's Etta James, it's Led Zeppelin, it's AC/DC.
"I like to think anybody from a 5-year-old kid to a 60-year-old person could hear our song and understand it and have a melody repeat in their ear and like it. At the same time, I like to have a lot of stuff going on, lots of different waves. I think it all just boils down to variety."
When young kids like Jim get hip to seminal rock 'n' roll, there's usually a dad or an uncle behind it. But he says that's not the case.
"My family had some records, but no one was really a big music fan," he says. "I don't know how much I believe in reincarnation, but I feel like a certain part of me was alive during (the early '70s) because sometimes I have these visions and I see these weird scenes. I know I wasn't there physically, but I know the '60s and '70s like the back of my hand, and hearing that music awakens a part of me that's unreal.
"When I put on a record, I can feel being in somebody's bedroom in 1974 listening to On the Beach by Neil Young and feeling like I knew I was there, I had this connection with it. That music makes me want to laugh and makes me want to cry."
But the real test is, does it make you want to do something?
"Lots of people like to write about how we're crazy hippies from Louisville, Kentucky, with long hair," Jim says. "But they don't write about how they felt like their brains were oozing out of their ears when they heard a song or how they wanted to cry or laugh or throw up, really feel like ripping somebody's head off, or making love I think lots of the music industry and lots of things are wasted because people aren't conveying emotion anymore, they're just writing about what a band looks like or how many people were there. That stuff doesn't matter."
So you're still trying to describe My Morning Jacket to your friends.
And the sound is so far away. Everything sounds like it's in a cave.
Now we may be confusing them even more. We are speaking, of course, of the band's extreme affection for-no, make that its slavish devotion to-reverb. This is a conversation all its own.
UP FROM SOMEWHERE
Reverb is that distant, disconnected sound effect you occasionally hear applied to guitars and voices. With My Morning Jacket, though, you will probably never not hear it. Reverb is such a part of what makes the band that it has been described as an actual sixth member.
That's fair enough, but a little more exploring suggests that, for recording purposes, at least, that designation may more accurately apply to the farm where so much of that reverb lives and grows. It belongs to Johnny's grandparents (Jim's aunt and uncle), and everything the band puts on tape is recorded there, including the new album.
Command central is the formerly raw space above a three-car garage, which the band transformed into a workspace/domestic abode that has since been dubbed "Above the Cadillac Studio." The nondescript two-story structure sits in the middle of some thousand acres of farmland, fronted by a strikingly tall house and surrounded by various barns and other outbuildings that neatly shelter various implements, old cars, appliances and the myriad other odds and ends that accumulate within such an operation. MMJ are ingenious when it comes to leveraging the natural assets of the farm, so that their music is, literally, defined by place. More on that in a moment.
Mission accomplished at Ken-Tex, their barbecue jones satisfied for at least the time being, the band retreats to the farm to check out some new equipment and have an afternoon practice before the overseas dates (sans Johnny, who's visiting his significant other in Holland and will join up with the others in Europe). Standing in the driveway near the studio, they look beyond a split-rail fence into an adjacent field. "What's that?" Patrick wonders aloud. "It seems like there's something different planted every time we're here."
Two Tone Tommy is from Oldham County, and he knows his crops. "I think it's sweet corn," he says. "Sometimes they grow feed corn, but I'm pretty sure that's sweet corn."
They make their way to the rear of the garage, through a door, and up the stairs to the second floor. The studio looks like a pretty cool and sizable apartment that is much cleaner than you might expect. "Because we haven't been in town for a while," Jim says, grinning. The main room, not overly large, appears at the crest of the stairs, sprinkled with amplifiers, road cases, a brand new guitar rack, divided from a half-visible kitchen by a bar-like countertop. A tape machine and mixing board prominently occupy the first room. The next room back is the place to chill on the couch. Posters from past shows and other memorabilia hang in a hallway that leads toward the rear of the building. In another room, the smashed body of a Les Paul guitar adorns the wall, a testament to Johnny's exuberance during one West Coast show.
The studio proper comes with ample formal reverb-in particular, digital effects and an EMT plate reverb, a big wooden contraption that was sitting up on its side like a table staged on a school cafeteria. The EMT has numerous small microphones that transmit voices onto a vibrating plate so "you get a real big sound," Jim says, proud to point out the EMT came from Clinton Studio in Clinton, N.Y., and has a Tony Bennett connection.
But there's nothing like homegrown, and so they also go to some lengths to create opportunities for more organic reverb.
The bathroom, for example, has its own peculiar echo, so Jim may record his vocal sitting in a chair in middle of the head. Or they may set up and record the drums at the bottom of the stairs, next to the family automobiles.
And certainly the coup de grace-so far, at least-running 600 feet of ethernet cable to a silo out back, feeding in a vocal at the bottom and recording it with a microphone at the top.
"It was my idea to use the silo," Jim says, walking toward the tall structure, past a curious horse behind an electric fence. "And then Danny made it a reality by figuring out the whole ethernet cable thing. Normally, I just go back here and just stand in the silo and singWe basically made an old-fashioned reverb chamber out of a silo, so instead of using a digital effects processor, you're creating an effect yourself."
His reverb affection (affectation?) came about quite by accident.
"I remember playing music and trying to sing in a band with friends when I was little," he says. "I was kinda uncomfortable. I knew I liked it but I didn't like the way my voice sounded, and then one day somebody left the reverb on the amp in practice and I just started singing and it blew my mind. Like it totally opened up this gateway to my mind, and I knew for once what I wanted to do and how it sounded good.
"Now I can't even play at home by myself without reverb. I just need to be in the stairwell or in a silo or have some reverb in my four-track."
THE WORLD MOVING UPWARD
In conversation, Jim is softspoken and thoughtful. He still admits to some measure of self-consciousness, and says he felt alienated from most things in high school but that he started coming around before he went off to college.
He never earned that art degree at UK, but it turns out the time was well spent anyway because he was writing oodles of songs. Three-minute ditties built around two brief sentences of lyrics; spacy drawn-out affairs with lots of word; dirges; everything he could wring out of himself. Both of the band's previous full-lengths include everything but the kitchen sink.
These days, he still writes the songs and takes them to the band. "They add all the icing and all the great things that make the songs 10 million times better than I ever thought they could," Jim says. "I just bring in a skeleton and then everybody else turns it into a real boy. I bring 'em Pinocchio."
The songs reveal a lot about his world view: slow down, reach high, feel your heart. Embrace the mystery, treat people well. But he's at a loss to really explain his connectedness to music.
"All my favorite art and my favorite music and books, I feel (come from) some force that we can't understand," he says. "Some thing that comes from somewhere that none of us even know what it is, like magic. My favorite stuff's like magic that sends chills down your spine or takes you to a place when you close your eyes that is just totally three-dimensional. It's just as real as seeing the world, but you feel it."
The world certainly knows about My Morning Jacket. They've gotten tons of great press over the past couple of years, and they're well loved in their hometown. After a CD release party there sometime next month, you can probably say goodbye to seeing them at Headliners.
"They're huge to me, and have been for a few years now," says Dan Reed, program director at WFPK-FM in Louisville. "I just love them so much. The band dropped off a copy of their Tennessee Fire CD to me back when our studios were still in the library. I put it on and the first song was 'Heartbreakin' Man'I mean, C'mon. I was so totally a fan from day one. Seeing them live just made me even more of a believer.
"I love them because their music makes me feel like all the times I fell in love with rock 'n' roll throughout my life. Hearing them for me now is like me hearing the Monkees when I was 5, Al Green and Marvin Gaye when I was 12, the Ramones when I was 16, Bob Marley when I was 18, The Replacements when I was 22 and so on. They're so good because you believe them. They got soul."
DOWN ON THE CORNER
My Morning Jacket are nothing if not organic. I'm thinking here of that primordial timeline at the beginning of Adaptation. One minute Jim James is playing open mic nights, the next he's fronting a band that's surging on the national scene. Or maybe the past five years just seem like a supernova.
They've followed no formula, aligned with none of the people or places normally associated with Louisville bands that are known beyond the city limits. There is no Chicago connection, no Nashville networking. They have simply worked hard and placed their trust in Jim James.
Now things will surely begin to change. The new album's release will mean lots of new fans and whole new layers of critical buzz. Many more people will be around, and they'll want to get near them.
"We're excited about what we're doing, but we're seeing it from a completely different perspective (than fans)," says Danny Cash, the keyboardist. "Being in the band is completely different. We see people and they'll ask, 'How's Dave Matthews doing?' and that kinda stuff. But it doesn't register because we're out doing the same things we've always done."
It's difficult to envision them on commercial radio, given that the dozen songs on It Still Moves average six minutes in length. Yet other idiosyncratic bands, helped along by good press, have turned into potent business units and great artistic ones. Some whisper about an early R.E.M. buzz. Some say Counting Crows. Some go much farther out on a limb. Only time will tell.
"As far as a prediction on their commercial appeal and their career overall, with the right breaks they will be huge-like, U2 huge," says Reed. "And they will have earned every bit of it. Don't underestimate Jim's appreciation for commercially viable tunes, nor his ability to create them."
In any case the band seems to have a plan for keeping it together. They vow to stay intent on staying themselves and being good stewards of their skills. They'll keep driving around in their van-except for Jim, who is banned from the driver's seat, not in the name of star treatment but because, Danny says, "for most people, the brake pedal has varying degrees of breaking pressure, but for Jim, I think it's like a button, either on or off." They'll keep passing the time with video games and Frisbee, maybe some hoops, and by seeking out the bizarre and surreal sites that are unique to each city.
Buzz band or not, the real trick may be riding out the next several months and coming back with more good work. That's how the band is thinking.
"We're just trying to keep getting better at what we're doing," says Patrick. "To me, that's the huge focal point, just honing my skills and getting everything as tight as it can be. Continually working out the bugs. I think that's where our heads are right now."
Jim gets the last word:
"I think the most important thing we've all talked about is, no matter whether we sell 20 million records or two records, whether or not people hate us or love us, the most important thing is that we're all still friends at the end of this," he says. "That we aren't doing cocaine and (sleeping with) each other's wivesI think the most important thing to do is talk and have communication, so that way you know if something's wrong, if somebody's got a problem. As long as we can stay a tight core unit, keep everybody grounded-everybody keeps each other grounded-that's the most important thing.
"We just strive to be the best we can be. We can't control whether people like it or not. What will make us feel good is to know that we've done everything we can, put our whole heart and soul into it, all our sweat, all our emotion. If people love it, we know we did the right thing. If they don't, we know we tried as hard as we could."
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