The guiding principle that "music is everything" has helped My Morning Jacket grow from humble roots in Louisville into the American rock band many feel is most likely to take it to the proverbial nex
It's 4 a.m. on the last night of South by Southwest, and Jim James is belting out Rod Stewart's "You're in My Heart." A few hours earlier, the My Morning Jacket frontman dazzled an intimate crowd at an Austin church with a mostly solo acoustic set, and the full band's three other performances during the week were some of the most acclaimed of the industry confab. But of all the places James could be right now, it's a cozy terrace suite at Austin's famed Driskill Hotel, surrounded by a few close friends, a bucket of Miller Lites and an iPod, singing and analyzing songs into the wee hours. As he says the following week, "Music is everything."
That guiding principle has helped MMJ—James, "Two-Tone" Tommy (bass), Patrick Hallahan (drums), Bo Koster (keyboards) and Carl Broemel (guitar)—grow from humble roots in Louisville into the American rock band many feel is most likely to take it to the proverbial next level in the weeks and months to come. Like so many bands that have managed to achieve staying power in a fickle environment, MMJ has developed its touring base and recording career on separate, parallel paths.
Still, "Both are important to us," James says. "We treat them both as equals."
It is true that the best-laid marketing plans are no substitute for enthusiastic word-of-mouth, and the buzz around MMJ is at a fever pitch, both internally and among fans. The reason? Beyond MMJ's ever-building reputation for epic live performances, there's tremendous excitement surrounding the band's fifth album, "Evil Urges," due June 10 via ATO.
"We've always felt that whatever commercial success was realized would be a residual to appreciation for the music," band manager Mike Martinovich says. "It's never been the band's vision to chase opportunities; they'd run themselves ragged and fear losing touch with their original motivations. We'll leave the marketing plan to our friends at ATO and [PR firm] Girlie Action."
Even with live performances that send fans into orbit and critically acclaimed albums, MMJ has not yet achieved neither widespread arena-headlining status nor platinum success. But the band's camp and its many supporters in the music industry at large seem to cherish MMJ's dark horse status, believing that a band that takes a while to develop is building the solid foundation for a decades-long career.
And if MMJ seems to hang its hat on the concert stage, it never shortchanges studio time. "If you ask any artist today if they would rather sell millions of records or millions of tickets, they would choose to sell millions of tickets, and it seems My Morning Jacket is well on their way to that goal," says Scott Clayton, the band's agent at Creative Artists Agency. "Having said that, my feeling is that once the world hears 'Evil Urges,' it will be clear that this band is achieving great things artistically both in the studio and on the stage."
LIVE IS THE THING
As the group built its live performance legend, MMJ has shown time and again that it is more than comfortable on a wide range of concert stages, whether it's marathon performances at festivals like Bonnaroo or Lollapalooza, headlining theaters and ballrooms, or sharing bills with a diverse range of acts that includes Guided by Voices, Doves, Foo Fighters, Pearl Jam, Bob Dylan and John Prine.
"I wouldn't say there was a 'strategy' so much as the band is musically nimble and interested in playing with a variety of artists from different genres and generations," Martinovich says. "If there was any one overriding 'strategy' in the early going, it was to follow up a tour where the band opened for someone with a headline run to establish something of their own and not just hope that they were connecting with another audience."
Such a philosophy creates options and challenges for the band's agent. "Since January of 2002, Scott Clayton turned on a dime to work with the band and has had, until this day, an 'as long as it takes, no matter what' perspective that has only helped keep things on the right track," Martinovich says.
MMJ isn't adding any extra bells and whistles to its 2008 tour, which began May 22 in London and will run through New Year's Eve. But it's clear that demand is higher than ever. A June 20 show at New York's Radio City Music Hall sold out in 22 minutes, and observers are expecting big numbers for an Aug. 21 gig at Red Rocks outside Denver, with support from the Black Keys.
"The greatest thing about live music is that it's something you can't replicate," James says. "It's something very communal, and I think society is lacking that. People are so alienated and trapped in their little cubicles with their computers and texting devices. When you go to a big concert and you're in a room with a bunch of other humans, I think that's really healthy."
URGE TO RECORD
After self-producing its first three studio releases, including its 2003 ATO/RCA debut, "It Still Moves," the band turned to outside producers for "Z" in 2005 and "Evil Urges," with John Leckie and Joe Chiccarelli, respectively, helming the boards. "It Still Moves" has sold 197,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan, while "Z" has shifted 212,000.
The result has been a true evolution of the band's sound. More adventurous than anything that has come before, the new songs explore falsetto singing ("Evil Urges"), soft rock with a modern twist ("Thank You Too"), disco beats (first single "Touch Me I'm Going to Scream Part 2") and gritty, Prince-tinged funk ("Highly Suspicious"), without skimping on the two-guitar jams ("Aluminum Park," "Remnants") and mellow balladry ("Librarian") of MMJ's past work.
"Joe and John are both two very different people and they work in very different ways, but they're both great policemen," James says. "We go into the studio with the songs done; they're thought-out and ready to go. Always some things end up happening to them while you're recording them that you didn't think would happen to them, but Joe and John, their ears are just fantastic."
These outside producers have brought discipline and constructive criticism to the recording process. "They'll scold us when we've done bad and they'll applaud us when we've done good," James says. "And that's what we really need. You can get all excited and think you've done a great take, but it could be way too fast. Or you could think it was really emotional but it was just kind of slow. It's good to have somebody outside of the band to hear that stuff."