Jim James loves to do voices. He peppers his conversation with crisp impersonations of the jokers who populate his world. Like the suits who go platinum-gaga at the arrival of each new album by his band, My Morning Jacket. "It's time to go to the next level, ravity-ravity-ravity!" James says, bending his faint Southern drawl into biz-speak yammer. "This album's gonna crack things wiiiide open, like an ice-cold can!" Or the promoters -- journalists, even -- who can't see past his group's image as bearded yahoos from Kentucky. "It's the longhair band!" James sputters like a huckster. "Come see these fuckin' crazy hillbilly rockers, with their weed-smokin', whiskey-drinkin' jams!"
If hair down to your ass and facial kudzu were the only prerequisites for being a member of one of America's most fiery if still unheralded rock bands, a quarter of the population of Louisville would qualify. So when the city's hardest-hitting exports since Muhammad Ali gather for a late February dinner at a place called Bourbons Bistro, it's surprising to find them looking like something closer to the metrosexuals in Maroon 5 -- excepting James' semi-wild scruff and drummer Patrick Hallahan's curtain of locks.
Although they're being treated like local celebrities (when a round of drinks is sent to the table, Hallahan asks the waitress to "throw in a couple of tanks of gasoline, too"), the fact is, only two-fifths of My Morning Jacket's lineup still live in the area, and if the hugs are any indication, tonight marks a reunion of sorts. Hallahan and bassist Tom ("Two-Tone Tommy") Blankenship made the journey from their nearby homes, but guitarist Carl Broemel traveled from Nashville, and James -- well, it's unclear where he beamed in from, since, in his own words, he's been "homeless for a couple of years." As his bandmates divvy up an appetizer of fried green tomatoes, keyboardist Bo Koster is at home in L.A. -- a no-show for this first sit-down to support Evil Urges, their fifth studio album.
Watch behind-the-scenes video from our cover shoot with MMJ in Tennessee
And there are more geographic twists: Unlike the first three albums of bourbon-and-reverb-soaked rock that made MMJ's reputation and were recorded in dirty lo-fi on a farm 30 miles east of Louisville, the songs for Evil Urges were roughed out by James in a cabin in Virginia, rehearsed by the band to a high polish in the shadows of Colorado's Pikes Peak, and recorded last November with spic-and-span clarity in a midtown Manhattan studio.
Veteran producer/engineer Joe Chiccarelli (the Whites Stripes' Icky Thump, the Shins' Wincing the Night Away) cohelmed Evil Urges with James and has witnessed firsthand the band's evolution from timid twang rockers to eclectic virtuosos. His introduction, he remembers with a laugh, came at Austin, Texas' South by Southwest music festival "five or six years ago. And Jim sang the whole show into a [stuffed-animal] bison head! He put it on a mic stand and hid behind it the entire show."
There's nothing shy about Evil Urges. It explodes the band's musical DNA in the same way that Z, their critically acclaimed 2005 album, did. Predictably, Michael McDonald, cofounder of the band's label, ATO, thinks MMJ have made their masterpiece. But he also has a hunch that rings true. "I think the world is finally ready for them," McDonald says. "And I don't know that it has been in the past."
At Bourbons Bistro, the James gang find the "next level" talk alien -- especially the notion that they may have consciously crafted Evil Urges' vibrant, unapologetically accessible songs in order to raise the stakes in what James calls "da game."
"Every time we put out a new record, people are like, 'Expectations are high!' " says James, laughing. "But Carl said it best when we finished the album: It doesn't matter what record we set out to make -- this is the record we made. We started with 22 songs, boiled that down to 18, boiled that down to 14. There were songs that I thought for sure would be the cornerstones of the album -- you know, like, the fucking opening track -- that didn't make it on the record at all."
Photo by Melodie McDaniel
As far as breakthroughs go, James finds what's happened to his band dizzying enough as it is. "It's already exceeded our expectations," he says. "Not to say that we're trying to push it back, but it's been weird already."
Like their tuxedoed appearance on the Letterman show, where they were accompanied by the Boston Pops? Their blistering performances at Bonnaroo four years running? The cameo in Cameron Crowe's film Elizabethtown? Or the recent news that their first-ever headlining gig at New York's Radio City Music Hall -- set for June 20, ten days after Evil Urges' release -- sold out in 22 minutes?
"Awesome," James effuses.
"Fuckin' A, for sure."
Read the entire cover story on My Morning Jacket in the May issue of Spin, on newsstands now.