Jim James Q&A: How a Near-Death Experience and a 1929 Graphic Novel Saved His Life

Jim James
Tim Mosenfelder, Getty Images

Jim James of My Morning Jacket performs in support of the bands' Circuital release at the Greek Theater on September 15, 2012 in Berkeley, California.

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.

NEXT PAGE: On His Catholic Upbringing, Being Into 'New Age Shit' and the Status of the Next My Morning Jacket Album

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You talked about "sound collages." Can you give me an example of this on the album?
"Of the Mother Again" was one that started as a sample of a Dr. Dog song that they would play live but never released. I really liked it and they hated it, but it had this super cool instrumental breakdown that I wanted to sample and the only recording of the song was a shitty board recording. I took the guitar solo section, sampled that and then started making a sound collage out of different elements of that.

What about "Know Til Now"? Some of it sounds like the space lounge music played at the Cantina in Star Wars.
[Laughs] That one started as just a sound collage. I've been into getting into trances in general and meditating. I'm really into Fela Kuti and James Brown and music that's super repetitive, like the same [riff] for fucking 10 minutes while all this other shit's changing on top of it. That one started with this loop that went on for much longer than is on the record. That's often how things like that'll start; I'll just play that thing for 10 minutes and then solo all over it and then pick out the parts I like and condense it to the best parts. I tried to make the beginning and end of the body of "Know Till Now" a sound collage of different parts floating through space and I just felt like that ending thing came out of nowhere like a big ship or something. I can see the Star Wars analogy.

The album has a cohesive sequence. How do you feel if people shuffle your work on iTunes or Spotify?
I'm open to it all. I think anybody who's a fan of music and knows albums knows that the artist, if they know the artist gives a shit, created the album in a sequence for a reason. I really believe in the art form of an album, but I also love the digital age too, and if you wanted to fucking flip the album around, go for it. But I like to think and hope that if somebody's a fan… Whenever I get an album I'm excited about, I take it home and listen to the whole thing because I love that experience. Like, "Why did they sequence it that way? What are they trying to say?"

What was it about the title "Regions of Light and Sound of God" that struck you?
The title was almost a mantra, like some fucked-up phrase that hypnotized me. It was the weirdest thing because no matter what else I thought about or tried to call it, it was that thing that kept gnawing across my mind that would not shut up.

You mentioned mantras, meditation and trances. Are you into more New Age interests? Is "hippie" a fair word to use?
I think both the words "hippie" and "New Age-y" have negative connotations. People give hippies a bad name because they think they're just sitting around smoking pot all day or New Age-ys are just chasing butterflies and listening to Enya or whatever. A lot of people would see me and be like, "There's a dude with long hair and a beard; he's a fucking hippie." But I don't feel like I'm a hippie. I'm into lots of different stuff, and I'm into New Age shit: reading lots of New Age books, meditating, doing yoga.

Do you consider yourself a fairly spiritual person?
Oh yeah. I'm always searching for what things make sense and I'm always on a quest to obtain a deeper understanding of life and why it is the way it is.

Where do you think your music factors into that? Do you look at music as a vessel to greater personal understanding?
Oh, music deeply factors into it, because music is very spiritual to me and getting lost in music is part of God. I think getting lost, in a good way, is God to me. Like getting lost in love or lost in a good passage of music; that moment when your mind is gone and you're not thinking, "I'll go do this on Monday. I'm doing this on Tuesday." When you're not thinking about that shit anymore and you're making love or you're fucking playing music or you're just listening to a great record or reading a great book, I think that's, at least to me, the essence of God.

How do you think your religious beliefs have changed since childhood? Has the quest always been there or is that something relatively new?
Well, I was raised Catholic, went to Catholic grade school and high school and I now consider myself a recovering Catholic. Catholic school was horrible. I would never recommend it to anybody. There was just tons of guilt and tons of, "Everything's evil and dirty. Every normal human emotion should be repressed. If you're feeling sexual, that's dirty and horrible. If you're angry, you stuff it in. If you're sad, don't show it; you're a pussy." That's obviously not just Catholic, but just everything is repressed. But I wouldn't trade it for the world because I met some of my best friends who I'm still friends with today. We all bonded together because we were all like, "This is fucked up. Help me."

Did you renounce Catholicism wholesale or was it more tuning out the parts of the religion you didn't agree with?
Catholicism obviously has great things in it like the 10 Commandments, but it just has such fucking bullshit; so much guilt and any religion that does not respect the woman equally as the man is fundamentally flawed and fucked up. In high school, you start to realize these things and you're like, "This is fucking stupid." My parents weren't hardcore Catholics, so around that point, they were like, "If you don't want to go, we're not going to force you to go." You could tell they were realizing it was bullshit too. Then they stopped going and naturally as a teenager you want to start exploring, like, "What's this religion? What's that religion? There's not just Catholicism?"

And the majority of religions share the same basic tenets.
Exactly. Why is the world ripped apart by religion and then you find out that so many religions are just fucking corporations started by evil white men who are scared and want to prey on the world and it's just so fucked up. You start questioning everything and I just finally got to the point where I had searched through different religions and taken things that made sense to me and rejected things that didn't.

I feel like there's the concept of God like I was talking about earlier as this force. I've gotten into meditation and trying to get to that point where your consciousness is the same as the universal consciousness of the world. When you put on a great record or you go to a show or you make love or whatever you do when you're zoned out, the "you" that is here now is gone. In transcendental meditation, you sit down to meditate and they give you a mantra. You're supposed to do it twice a day for 20 minutes a time, and I'm hit or miss on that one. I wish I was better.

Why did you decide to practice transcendental meditation in the first place?
I did a benefit for the David Lynch foundation for transcendental meditation in 2009 and they taught me. The whole point of it is you sit down on the cushion and you say this mantra and then eventually your mind starts going like, "Tuesday, I gotta take my dry cleaning and pick up this from the store." The chatter that you have all the time starts rolling in, and when you realize that, you start thinking of the mantra again and you see it disappearing in the space of time between when the mantra ends and when your thought chatter begins again. That's the line of transcendental consciousness where you have the same consciousness as a tree or a deer or a leaf or water or whatever, and to me that's like the parallel of God or being lost in music or lost in love. You're trying to get in touch with the force that is unifying every living thing. It helps in every aspect of life.

Back to more physical pursuits, what's the status of the next My Morning Jacket album?
Now that the solo record's released, I'm getting into the next Jacket record and getting excited about that. We're probably going to start recording in the summer. I'm thinking about [the sound] right now and getting super stoked about it and recording tons of voice memos. I don't know to what extent it's going to go, though. It always goes this way where I have these ideas and grand schemes and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. So I'm going to save myself the trouble [and not reveal details], because it may or may not work.

Since the group has become a marquee band, do you feel freer to do what you want or do you feel that there's more pressure on you to sound or act a certain way?
I feel both honestly, because every time we've put out a record we get both responses. Somebody's like, "I hate these guys. They're fucking hippies, southern rock bullshit," even if it's like a totally electronic funk record. At this point, I feel free as a bird, because I know no matter what, if our next record is completely silent, people are going to call it "southern rock" and call us long-haired hippies. No matter what we fucking do, we're going to get it.

It's your tag for life until you shave your head.
Well I've even done that and it's still… But I put a lot of pressure on myself because I want everyone to be fucking pumped about it and love it or I wouldn't release it. I would just make it for myself and fucking play it in my basement. But I want to make music for people and I like it when they like it, so I want it to be fun. I want every fucking thing I do for people to be like, "That's the shit." Life is a tough, confusing battle, but it's fun and full of joy, so I'm in a cool spot.