Friday, February 1, 2013

Pitchfork: Jim James Interview


Jim James

The My Morning Jacket frontman on blowing up the tortured-artist myth, embracing his feminine side, and his proper debut album as a solo artist.

Larry Fitzmaurice
 , January 31, 2013

Jim James
Photos by Neil Krug
 Jim James: "Know Til Now" (via SoundCloud)
For a band that traditionally works within a genre that could be defined as Southern rock, My Morning Jacket have always been weirder than they've gotten credit for; along with their arena-ready guitar epics are reggae jamsCookie Monster-style freakouts, and children's choirs singing about black metal. So it's fitting that frontman Jim James' solo career has proceeded thus far in unorthodox fashion. There was 2009's Tribute To, a brief, solemn collection of George Harrison covers billed under Yim Yames. And now, nearly four years later, James is back by his lonesome-- this time, under his own name-- with his proper solo debut, Regions of Light and Sound of God. Similar to the last few MMJ full-lengths, the album expands on James' professed love of vintage soul and R&B. Structurally, though, it's decidedly more psychedelic and left-of-center than what listeners have come to expect from his main act; instead of big-ticket anthems, there's a wealth of sonic idiosyncrasies that come and go as they please.
Self-produced in the comfort of his home studio, the album has a personal, handmade through-line. "The first two My Morning Jacket records were basically demos," James says, sitting on the roof of Manhattan's McKittrick Hotel in the middle of an unseasonably warm November day. "From [2003's It Still Moves] on, I've made another record's worth of demos-- just me fucking around-- and I wanted to make an album that was similar to those demos." Having a studio at his disposal encourages James to constantly create-- he's currently workshopping material for My Morning Jacket's follow-up to 2011's Circuital-- which is an impulse he doesn't mind indulging in: "I like to be productive-- it's very hard for me to go on vacation, because I just feel like I'm losing time."
 Jim James: "A New Life" (via SoundCloud)
Regions of Light started taking shape after James fell off of a stage during the tour for 2008'sEvil Urges. "I had a lot of internal injuries, my mindset was dark, and I thought I might have been done on this planet," he says. He entered a relationship around this time, too, which he describes succinctly: "I fell in love. I grew out of it. Everything turned out fine." Then, he began reading Gods' Man, an illustrated "novel in woodcuts" from the 1920s that a friend had given him shortly before the stage accident. The book's stark contents hit eerily close to home.
"Every page is a beautiful masterpiece," James says with a hint of wonder in his voice. "At one point, the main character gets chased out of town, falls off a cliff and gets injured, and then he's rescued by this wonderful woman who nurses him back to health. Some of this stuff was also happening to me in a very dramatic way, so I would look at it while I was playing piano and I felt like scoring different parts of the book. That's how the record started coming together." We spoke about the record, religion, and what it means to be a man.
"There's a lot of great lessons in Catholicism, but a religion
created by angry, old, greedy white men that doesn't
value women as equal is fundamentally fucked."
Pitchfork: This album's a bit of a departure from My Morning Jacket, in terms of sonic structure, do you consider it a risk artistically?
JJ: I don't think about taking risks anymore because there aren't any risks to take. If you always make the same record over and over, people will say, "Those guys are so fuckin' boring." If you change, they're like, "God, I fuckin' hate the new shit. Why don't they just stick to the old shit?" No matter what I do, someone is always going to call me a fuckin' fraud and a talentless hack-- and someone else will say, "This is good!"
With the internet now, everybody's got a fucking voice. Even if you're like me and you don't want to hear about it, people are going to send you links: "Look at what this asshole said!" You hover over the link, thinking, "I know I shouldn't..." and then you read it, and you're like, "Fuck! I'm a talentless piece of shit" or, "Man, I'm fucking killin' it." It's such a mindfuck.
Pitchfork: Some artists try to avoid using the internet as much as possible.
JJ: I wish I used the internet less. Almost every time I go to the ocean, I think about throwing my phone right into it. Sometimes, you pull that thing out of your pocket, you look at it, and you're like, "What was I just going to do with this? Was I going to take a note? Was I going to check my email? Was I going to take a picture? Was I going to fucking tweet?" It's scary. The internet and text messaging fucks people up because they think they've achieved a purpose sending texts or playing video games all day long, but it's just an illusion that leads you through a maze. You're walking through it and you're like, "What am I doing in this maze?"
Pitchfork: Your soul and R&B influences are really coming to a head on this album more than ever before. What inspired that change?
JJ: So many people are sold the myth that in order to be successful, you have to suffer, like Kurt Cobain or Brian Wilson, and if you don't, your art is shit. At one point, I bought that myth hook, line, and sinker. Then, people started turning me on to Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye. Their music is positive, it embraces social consciousness and family, but it also has this crazy layer of darkness around it, too. As a movement, I find soul more encouraging than somebody being all bummed and bitching. I love Nirvana, Dylan, and Neil Young-- but a lot of that stuff is fucking heavy. You relate to it because it's so painful, but I'm tired of being in pain. Curtis and Marvin were in pain, too, but they embraced the totality of the human experience, whereas a lot of our heroes only embrace the pain.
Pitchfork: There is a conservative impulse to champion bands that faithfully replicate classic strains of popular music.
JJ: Yeah, it's infuriating. For most of the bands I like, you can hear their influences, but they're trying to change it up, too. Nowadays, it's almost as if there's this huge reward system for bands that do nothing new. A band will put out a record that sounds exactly like Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and certain people are like, "I love it, brother! It reminds me of my dad's old Crosby, Stills, and Nash records. So trippy." Those people aren't willing to take the time to hear something and go, "Whoa, that was fucked up. I want to hear it again." They're like, "That was fucked up. I'd rather listen to Crosby, Stills, and Nash." That's really sad.
Pitchfork: What's your relationship with religion at this point in your life?
JJ: I went to a Catholic grade school and high school, so I had Catholicism deeply beaten into my brain. There's a lot of great lessons in Catholicism-- like, don't fucking kill somebody, don't fuck your neighbor's wife. But a religion created by angry, old, greedy white men that doesn't value women as equal is just so fundamentally fucked. I feel like I've been on a constant quest where I've been trying to weave a big tapestry of my own religion that's made from all of the religions. I try to meditate and be calm, to let the good things sink in and remember them.
"I've always felt uncomfortable as a man on this earth--
I've got male and female energy."
Pitchfork: In America, it feels like the culture of strict Catholicism is slowy receding or at least becoming more modernized. 
JJ: I don't want to jinx it, but I feel like we're stepping into a new era of acceptance and enlightenment and love. We're finally saying to Mitt Romney and Catholicism and old, angry, white men: "We've had enough. Your system is fucked." We're trying to embrace the feminine side of the universe again, trying to say everyone is equal. During this past election, women stood up and were like, "We're not going to be treated like this anymore." The Latino vote said, "You can't pretend like we're not part of America." It's so awesome that it worked.
Pitchfork: What's your take on the overarching presence of masculinity in culture and society?
JJ: I've always struggled with masculinity, because I believe that every living being is part male and part female. Spiritually, you're both. That's why I've always felt uncomfortable as a man on this earth-- I've got male and female energy. This is a world that tells you that's wrong-- "you're a fucking pussy"-- and a lot of people feel that way, which makes this world hard to walk through. There's this book, [Neale Donald Walsh's] Conversations With God, where this guy writes questions on a piece of paper, and God answers them. He talks about how, long, long ago, women were the rulers, and men gradually took over. A lot of people feel like we're slowly beginning to roll back towards women taking over-- but even when women ruled the earth, it was imbalanced, because the women looked down on the men. The men were just the sex dudes who moved heavy rocks out of the way. They weren't treated equal. I've been thinking about this stuff a lot.
There's this group called ManKind Project, they lead retreats to try and help men feel more OK with all the different sides of being a man. I went on one of those retreats because I was so intrigued. It was fucking amazing. The experience was about taking accountability for yourself and your actions-- just trying to be a better person. As long as we've been alive, the world has been hugely tilted in favor of masculinity and is totally fucking itself because of it. That's nowhere close to being over, but hopefully, we're turning the spirits back on their axis to make it even.

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