My Morning Jacket
Photo: Danny Clinch
My Morning Jacket's Jim James On 'The Waterfall,' Touring & GRAMMY Nominations
Following the release of their seventh studio album, The Waterfall, in May, GRAMMY-nominated rock band My Morning Jacket are now on the road touring in support of the album. When GRAMMY.com caught up with frontman Jim James prior to a concert in Salt Lake City on Oct. 7, he revealed the transition for this album from the studio to the stage has been seamless. Intriguingly, though the band is renowned for their live show, James says when the band is in the midst of the recording process they are focused on the task at hand, and not thinking about touring.
While James believes it’s the album that will live forever, he acknowledges it is a new world now, one in which live shows also are recorded for posterity. To James that is one part of the very complex dynamic between music and the Internet, a subject that dominated our fascinating conversation.
How are the songs from The Waterfall changing for you on the road?
This record, in general, has been a really easy transition. Some records are really difficult to incorporate some of the songs into the set and other ones are easy. And [for] this one, most of them, like “Compound Fracture,” “Spring” and “In Its Infancy,” have been fun and we’ve been playing most of the record every night and we’ve been excited about it. People seem to be responding to it well.
Even though My Morning Jacket are known as a live band, do you let the songs dictate themselves and then worry about how the music will translate to the stage?
Absolutely, because it’s two different worlds. When you’re making an album you’re creating this life and you’re so absorbed in creating the life that you’re really not thinking about later. You’re not thinking about the future, you’re so in the moment of trying to get this thing the way you want it to be and, at least for me, there’s kind of an acceptance that time and the universe is gonna dictate whether or not it gets played live. I guess with live recordings, performances can live on forever, but really once you die — which we all will — you’ll never be playing live again. Everything is finite, but as long as there’s electricity or gramophone machines you’ll be able to play the records forever. That, to me, is really cool and really fascinating. I try not to think about the future other than the sense you want to create something people will hopefully want to listen to forever.
Now, thanks to sites such as YouTube, every live performance lives forever, too. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
It’s both, I think. It’s extremely frustrating and extremely liberating all at once because in a way it’s like the Internet has heightened the importance of everything and also made everything not important at all because we’re so flooded with information. If you do something stupid or play some cover song it can instantly go up and be the trend of the day, literally just that day, and everybody freaks out over it. Then the next hour or the next day it’s gone and it’s replaced by a new stupid trend. The Internet really scares me. I’ve said before I feel like we’re gonna look back on the Internet as a big mistake. I don’t know when, 50 years, a hundred years from now, we’re gonna look back on the Internet as a relationship we jumped into way too fast. It’s like we just went on one date with the Internet and the next night we got married. I think that’s a big mistake because I think we’ve seen how it’s devalued music. It’s devalued music in such a great way that it’s really made it a very difficult ordeal for most bands to even make a record. It’s a strange time we’re in, but I don’t think we’re even gonna realize how strange until we see the damage it’s done.
It’s interesting you say the Internet devalues music. Maybe it does monetarily, but music is arguably more prevalent today than it’s ever been.
It’s a very complex argument and I think music in general will always be important. I’m not talking about the importance of music in general, but rather how we consume it. For example, the reason I was late for your call is because my buddy owns a rare bookstore here in Salt Lake City. I had my phone turned off and I was walking through the bookstore trying to be respectful of people reading. I was looking at this old book from the 1800s of wildflowers, and inside the pages of the book are tucked real flowers and real plants. The person who was looking at this book was so sucked into it they’d find the plants and flowers they were looking at and stick it in the pages. I was so sucked into this thing and I was thinking, “Well, if I was on the Internet looking at wildflowers I’d quickly look at one picture and quickly look at the next picture, [and] quickly Wikipedia this and this.” And it’s the same with music. It’s amazing that right now in my pocket I have all the music in the history of mankind. That’s insane, but it’s so chaotic. Whereas if you’re in a record store and you see a record that really catches your eye, you get home, put it on and get really sucked into it — that makes it more important. At least for me as a kid cutting the grass and working at Dairy Queen and having to spend all this money that I worked so hard on just to get a cassette tape or something, you give that tape a chance.
Nowadays nobody gets a second chance. You’re lucky if somebody makes it past the first song of your record before they go onto the next record on Spotify. It’s so rare anybody gets a second chance anymore and it’s so hard to get away from your past. You’re labeled and processed, you’re either cast in or cast out and then that kind of perpetuates the love for new stuff, but in an unhealthy way. It’s all so fast, it’s really sad. And I don’t think we’re gonna understand fully until we look at the wake of damage and destruction years from now.
How do you deal with the quick burn now? And what advice do you have for those artists who have come up in the last few years?
At the end of the day you just have to say f*** it because it’s out of your control and a lot of that bulls*** is all hype-based. The hype takes over the music, the feud takes over the music and the Instagram takes over the music. It’s this big hype thing and everybody goes to see the hype and it sells tickets for a minute, but then it drops off and nobody cares about the music anyway because they didn’t care about it in the first place. So it’s like this big hype money machine that just keeps eating itself and always will until it stops. We’ve never had a chance to think about it because we’ve never had the hype, we’ve never had a hit single, we do what we do and some people like it and some people don’t and we’ve kind of ridden this line that’s our own line. People think we’re a hippie jam band, but then hippies think we’re an indie rock band.
Who are the bands you really admire for the way they’ve handled their career?
I kind of look at two tiers of our big brother, big sister bands, like Björk, Radiohead, Pearl Jam — bands who are 10 or 15 years older than us and that we’re really inspired by the way they’ve always put music first and always tried to do that above everything else. Then you’ve got your obvious legends, [Bruce] Springsteen, [Bob] Dylan, Roger Waters, Neil Young, that you look up to.
Is there one GRAMMY nomination that would mean the most to you for The Waterfall?
We’ve been nominated twice before in the past and it’s an honor and it’s really exciting and it makes you grateful that anybody noticed or anybody cared. It also makes you think about all the great records that come out every year that don’t sell any copies and nobody ever hears about. That’s kind of what it makes me think about the most, why do certain people get noticed and other people don’t? It’s all relative. I feel like in this world, this day and age you do what you can the best you can, you work as hard as you can and when something like that happens, if you get nominated for a GRAMMY, that’s a big deal. We’ve always been really excited and grateful when anybody wants to nominate us for anything. It feels good to be noticed, but it also makes you realize all the times you weren’t noticed and all the times people made great records this year that nobody talks about. To me, it’s a reminder to try and spread the love and get the word out about records you like.