My Morning Jacket frontman talks debut solo album, getting fired from a Mel Gibson movie & why Catholic school was hell
In October 2008, My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James fell off a stage in Iowa City, suffering severe torso injuries and ending up being rushed to a nearby hospital. The group was forced to cancel its remaining tour dates, but while recovering, the Louisville singer was handed "Gods' Man" by Lynd Ward, a wordless 1929 graphic novel made entirely out of woodcuts. Had James received the book six months earlier, it may not have had the same effect on him. But the singer, still nursing life-threatening injuries, instantly connected with the story of a struggling artist's quest for artistic achievement and success. "It was like déjà vu," says James. "Just knowing that I loved the book in a past life or something."
Over the past two years, James has been stealing weeks away from his day job as MMJ frontman to record his debut album "Regions of Light and Sound of God," inspired heavily by "Gods' Man." Recorded at his home studio Removador Fun Ranch ("It's not even a studio, though," admits James. "It's just a bunch of gear in a house"), the self-described "super gear nerd" handled nearly all the instrumentation on "Regions" minus a few string and drum parts. James opened up to Billboard about getting fired from movie scores, why Catholic school was hell and how getting lost in music is "part of God."
In an early statement, you said you wanted the album to sound "like a hazy dream that a fully-realized android or humanoid capable of thought might have when it reminisces about the good old days of just being a simple robot." Can you elaborate on that?
I wanted to make the record sound futuristic, like it doesn't sound like now, but I didn't want to make it sound overtly super crisp and technological like I'm trying to make it sound like a Rihanna record. But I was trying to think of what people in the year 5000 would think the year 4000 sounded like. I felt like I achieved that for me because I definitely wanted to fuck with the soundscape and make it sound old and hazy, but make a lot of the instrumentation sound futuristic and new.
Why were you attracted to "Gods' Man" as the source material for the album?
It's just so fucked up and amazing. It's about a struggling artist who sells his soul to the devil to get this magic paintbrush that allows him to instantly become famous because everybody loves his paintings. He has a great falling out with that, meets the love of his life, creates a beautiful new life, and then at the end, the devil comes back for his due, take the guy's soul and he dies. It's much deeper, but that's how a reviewer would sum it up.
Credit: Neil Krug
My friend gave me the book as a gift in 2008 and coincidentally around the same time, I fell off the stage while we were performing and got seriously injured. I was in a super dark place where I thought that my time on the earth was done. I thought I was going to die. But luckily I can talk about it with a smile now and a lot of people have to endure far worse.
How bad were the injuries?
I was on stage and stepped out just as all the lights went out. So instead of stepping onto a subwoofer to be closer to the crowd like I usually do, I just stepped into space and fell down into a pit. There were some really bad internal injuries that were just manifested into mental injuries. I was reading this book and there's a scene where the artist is chased out of town and literally falls off a cliff and meets this woman who rescues him and nurses him back to health. That exact same thing happened to me. So it was all happening in my life, but it was all illustrated for me in this book too. It struck with a fucking crazy power. I felt like I was on a really dark path that lead me to fall and the book was bringing the music out of me.
So was recording it like scoring the book's hypothetical film?
Well, the book is very cinematic; it's like you're reading a movie. If you're reading a book, you can't just look at a book. You have to read it and then the images pop into your mind. But this is images, so you can look at it, and I scanned it and put it in my iPad so I could look at it on a glowing screen while recording as if it was a movie. I would write and play piano to it, so it was scoring the book basically. I've been into sound collages and trying to do more score work because I've tried to score two films now and got fired from both of them.
There has to be a story behind that.
[Laughs] Both were with this fantastic composer Brian Reitzell, who's done all of Sofia Coppola's films and is well established in Hollywood. We just got fired for being too weird. One was called The Beaver with Jodie Foster and Mel Gibson, which just turned out to be abysmal. It was horrible. We made a lot of super cool, super weird music that we felt was helping the film, but [the producers] were just like, "We just need to get something normal in the film." Luckily, we got to keep all the music.
The other was called "Goats" and it starred David Duchovny as a goat herder. It was almost the exact same thing as The Beaver. We scored three-fourths of the movie to picture, but the producers were scared because they knew the film wasn't that good. They felt like they had to make it normal, so it's like so many fucking movies you see. There's a sad scene, it's gotta be mournful strings. There's a happy scene and it's gotta be "Fight for Your Right to Party." It's just these blatantly obvious cues and that's what ended up in these movies. So luckily, we dodged two bullets. I still want to score more films, though.
My Morning Jacket released their first albums before the rise of file-sharing. Do you think this helped or hurt the success of MMJ?
It's like the Internet is a giant garage door that was coming down and we slid through and our hat fell off and we reached in and grabbed it as it crashed down. Nowadays, it's so rare for a band to achieve, because we've never achieved phenomenal success like a Pearl Jam or Dave Matthews Band ever did. We're successful, but we don't fill fucking stadiums around the world. I feel like the only way you're massively successful nowadays is if you're a modern country artist or you're a purely pop artist like Rihanna. The Internet has blown the world to pieces and nothing really has the chance to be totally united in that massive way.
Still, do you ever worry about alienating listeners with the group's stylistic shifts?
I always want to change things because that's exciting for me. And as a listener, I like it when bands do that. A lot of bands are rewarded for always making the same fucking record over and over, but I love getting a record by a band and you put it on and you're almost like, "Did they accidentally print up the wrong CD at the factory?" I love that feeling and I've always been inspired by bands that do that.
Do bad reviews affect your mindset at all?
It's funny, man, especially now it's like, no matter what I do, somebody's going to hate it and somebody's going to love it. When we put out Evil Urges, some people were like, "Man, I fucking hate it. I wish they were still just playing rock," and then others are like, "I love it. It's different." But if we kept making the same record, some people would be like, "Fucking pussies always make the same record and never change." And if we change, they're like, "I wish they wouldn't change; I liked their style before." You can never win, so you just have to make yourself happy.
But do you ever start to question yourself when you read something negative or critical?
Oh yeah, of course. I'm used to it now, but I know I can't take it too personally. But it still hurts; somebody's ripping your work that you put all your heart into and you're like, "Man, I'm the biggest piece of shit in the world," or the opposite where you're like, "Aw man, I'm doing good; I'm fucking bangin'." It's hard not to be affected.