“Balance and Surrender” is apparently the name of a yoga studio in Tamworth, England. It also could have easily been the title of My Morning Jacket’s ninth LP.
First, the balance: It’s the only reason we even have this self-titled project, their first new album since 2015’s The Waterfall (and its temporarily shelved sequel from the same sessions, 2020’s The Waterfall II). After the gently twangy psych-rock band finished the grueling tour cycle behind that record, frontman/bandleader Jim James decided they needed to wind down for a bit — pausing, if not outright ending, the live/studio onslaught they’ve maintained since forming in 1998.
“When the band was coming up, we were fortunate to get so many offers — go open for this band or that band, go do that show,” James tells SPIN over the phone. “They’re all amazing things to do, but how many can you handle? I think we, and me especially, took on a lot more than we could handle, so at the end of the fucking run, you’re burned out or in the hospital or drinking yourself to death or whatever. It’s such a difficult way to live unless you balance it.”
So after a reliably sprawling March 2018 set at their destination festival in the Dominican Republic, One Big Holiday, they hung up the Jacket. The band members each took time for other endeavors, both musical (James’ multiple solo projects) and non- (drummer Patrick Hallahan’s recent cooking show) — only returning to honor a handful of already-booked shows in August 2019. Suddenly the spark was back, and they carried those good vibes into a pair of multi-week, pre-pandemic sessions at Los Angeles’ 64 Sound.
Now the surrender: The initial idea wasn’t even to make an album — instead, they just wanted to hang out, open up, and jam.
“[This album] started from a place of: We didn’t know if we were gonna make another record again, so we wanted to get together just the five of us, talking about hard stuff,” James says. “Everyone knows this feeling: When another person enters the room, the energy changes because you often feel a little more guarded or like you can’t get emotional. We wanted to give ourselves the opportunity to not have any fear of speaking our minds or anything. I was just like, ‘Let’s do that with no pressure. And even if we don’t come out with anything, it’ll just be great to get together.'”
But they were having so much fun that a record organically emerged, with James producing and engineering himself. “At times it was a bit much for me if I’m trying to give a great vocal take and the snare drum is blowing up,” he admits with a laugh. “Those kind of technical problems that normally an engineer or co-producer would be in the control room chasing down. That was pretty funny at times. But it was cool.”
James spoke with SPIN about My Morning Jacket, the band’s ongoing search for balance, and surrendering to the songs.
Let’s talk about My Morning Jacket. You told me last year for the Grammy site, “It’s funny — my favorite idea [never works] and my least favorite, 15-second-long scrap ends up becoming everybody’s favorite song.”
Jim James: Oh, yeah, that happens every time. Some little thing will turn into this really cool [idea] — whether it’s an improv section or a song itself. That’s the miracle and magic of whatever it is, wherever music comes from: the mystery of god and spirit. What are you dealing with when you’re able to hear things? That’s the interesting thing: Everything I’ve ever written, I hear it from some place. This thing, this being, comes in, like, “Here!” Then I put myself into it, and my human experience is reflected through it. I used to have all these grand plans and ambitions before an album: “This is gonna be our so and so record,” but you get in there and the music tells you differently, like, “No, it’s not!” [Laughs.] It’s going to be what the music wants it to be. Now I really enjoy it and just let that happen.
When you look back at your catalog, there are these major sonic leaps, like from It Still Moves to Z. Can you think of an example where your initial vision didn’t pan out?
Oh, God, every record — or a lot of them. [It will be something] like, “Yeah, this is gonna be more of a mellow, acoustic record.” Most records, I feel like there was some dream of what I thought it was supposed to be, and it’s different every time. Eventually you just learn to surrender to it, that you can’t predict what the time is gonna require from you or what the spirits are gonna want to speak or what’s gonna fall on its face. Sometimes I’ll take this little idea I’ve had for 15 or 20 years, and it comes back around and turns into a new song. It’s such a weird process.
You were just talking about that mystical idea of where songs come from, and I know you dreamt the main riff on “In Color.” Is it common for you to dream musical ideas? And if so, how often do you remember them?
I wake up a lot with dreams — I wouldn’t say they’re fully formed ideas, but I’ll wake up with a melody or a riff or a rhythm or something. I was just kicking myself because this morning I woke up with a song. I got up kinda early, and I was kinda foggy, and I didn’t make it to the voice memo recorder. And I lost the song! It floated off into the universe to somebody else. Those are the things where the divine inspiration comes, but you have to be ready to receive it. Everybody knows that feeling where you wake up from a dream and you want to journal about it or save it, but oftentimes you’re too tired or can’t, so you fall back into sleep. It’s the same way [for me]: I’ll wake up and if I can manage to get to the voice memo, I’ll sing the idea, but other times you wake up and you’re [too] lost in the fog.
I always have song ideas strike me in the grocery store, and I’ll have to saunter away in the corner and mumble into my phone, looking super weird the whole time.
Definitely. I always just pretend I’m on a phone call. But yeah, I’ll walk over to the corner or go into the bathroom. [Laughs.]
It’s almost like that Seinfeld episode where Jerry dreams this great joke, and then he wakes up and can’t decipher it. I’ve had that happen where I’ll listen back, and I’m like, “What does this even mean?”
Oh, God, yeah. I have so many voice memos of me going [in a gurgling voice], “Blah, blah, blah.” I’m like, “What the fuck, man? I can’t remember.” [Laughs.]
Let’s go back to the beginning of this album. When you guys got back together in 64 Sound, were a lot of these songs in that seed stage: just a lyric or a chord progression? Did you have fleshed-out demos? How did that process go down this time?
I don’t really make fleshed-out demos anymore. I discovered long ago that that’s often a way to kill things and make things more difficult. You spend all this time on a demo that you love so much, and when you’re trying to do the “real thing,” you’re chasing this ghost the whole time. So I stopped doing demos years ago. I will just start building a song for myself, if it’s gonna be a solo record, since I have my studio and know how to record. If it’s for the Jacket, I’ll oftentimes just make it a voice memo or a quick guitar-and-vocal thing to say, “Here are the basic chords of this song,” and then we’ll get in there.
I always have an idea for a rhythm or a key melodic line that we’ll work on, but then I try to just let it be more of an organic process. But we’ve started doing this thing I love a lot where we just play in a circular fashion — there’s no real beginning or end to the song. We just play it endlessly and then find whatever the recording ends up being somewhere in that playing.
I love when you guys get into that epic mode with spiraling songs like “In Color” and “The Devil’s in the Details.” How much of that is informed through jamming and then editing it down?
We just kind of go and see where it takes us. I’ve realized by reading about jazz records like Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way that they would just play in the studio for hours, and what you end up hearing is just their favorite passages. But there are hours and hours of more music. It could just be the verse, and just the fact that we’re playing it endlessly will make more and more lyrics come out. Or if it’s an improv section, more and more ideas come out — some of them good, some of them not. But that’s just kind of how the process unfolds.
This was your first time solo-producing a Jacket album since It Still Moves. You’ve talked about liking the idea of it just being you five. But was it a different dynamic not having a producer there for an outside perspective?
We’ve been so lucky to work with so many great producers and engineers. I wouldn’t say there’s any better or worse to it. For the first three records, we just did everything ourselves because we had to — we didn’t have any money. We did everything on tape, and we didn’t know computers or anything yet. It was all in this really simple way. Once we got our first chance to make a proper record in a studio, I didn’t know Pro Tools, and I didn’t know how to use studio gear. Over the years of working with producers and being in big studios, I’ve soaked in more and more, and now I know how to run a studio and use the equipment. The engineers at 64 Sound were really sweet and helped us set everything up and make sure everything is patched in. But when it comes to editing and recording, I know how to do all that stuff now.
“The Devil’s in the Details” is such a centerpiece, and it opens with what feels like such a random lyric, talking about the “grand finale of Stranger Things.” Obviously that connects to the shopping mall theme that runs through the track, but it’s jarring at first. Did that TV episode directly help kick-start the song?
That song was like a ghost that kept coming back. At first, the little guitar riff came to me. I bought this really old Sears drum machine for like 10 bucks, and I just turned it on for the little pulsating kick drum pattern. The song came with the riff, but then I kinda forgot about it and went about my business. When we were doing the record, we were at this crazy light-up festival at the Arboretum in L.A. It was in the winter time when we took a break. I don’t even know what to call it, but there are all these massive light sculptures everywhere. I was walking through these sculptures, and that riff came back into my mind, and all these lyrics started spilling out. I was like, “Oh, shit, we need to do this for the record.” Originally I was like, “Oh, I’ll just fuck around with this on my own later,” but it kept coming to me.
Then I watched the Stranger Things finale, and obviously that show was built to trigger nostalgia for people in our age group. Just watching those kids in Stranger Things and their deep, deep, deep nostalgia of the mall scenes in that stuff, and it just triggered a lot in me about how fucked-up that was — that the center of our society is based on this disgusting capitalism and consumerism. You go to his place called the mall to buy all this shit to make you happy, and kids running around as teenagers, like, “Going to the mall to try to fall in love!” It struck me as so perversely sad that that’s where people go, as opposed to going out into nature or building some amazing thing together. Instead of that, we all go to the fucking mall? Even now because, even now, the Internet is killing the malls. Now instead of the mall, everybody’s going to Facebook, and we can see how that’s destroying us.
How do we pierce the heart of greed and get to some way of living in the name of love and the name of nature and not in the name of greed and capitalism? That’s the riddle. Once we solve that riddle, everything else will fall into place. But until we do, everyone will keep killing the Earth and killing each other. I just saw and felt all that just when I saw that grand finale of Stranger Things, with that battle in the mall. It was so fucking brilliant to stage it that way — and I was also so pissed at that show, like, “You all are fucking assholes, doing all these deep emotional triggers.” [Laughs.]
Several years ago, you mentioned in a Reddit AMA that you’d started a new album with Monsters of Folk, building on script that Conor Oberst wrote for a movie. Have you guys talked any more about that?
God, that was so long ago, it seems like. I don’t know if he’s had any progress, but I know for a while there was a lot of progress and seemed like [the film] was going to happen, and then it didn’t. That’s pretty much just textbook Hollywood, at least for me — a lot of buildup and then a lot of disappointment. Like “Oh, my god, that’s gonna be insane! We’re gonna get Bill Murray to direct it!” All these things flying around, and then it disappears. I applause so heartily anyone who gets their dream to come true in the Hollywood sense. Bravo! But yeah, I’m not sure about it.
You’ve mentioned recently that you have some ideas you’ve been trying to work on during the pandemic but have been struggling because of the funk we’re all in. Have you made any progress?
There’s a lot of stuff brewing, so now is that classic phase of “Now we’re gonna support this record for a while, so when we will get a chance to spend time in the studio again?” It’s so hard to have the energy, at least for me, to create or record while you’re touring. But I have a lot of newer ideas and songs I’m really excited about.