NEW YORK/NASHVILLE (Billboard) - It’s 4 a.m. on the last night of the South by Southwest music conference, 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 event.
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, Kentucky, into an American rock band that many feel is poised to take it to the proverbial next level in the months ahead.
It’s 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. 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.
In Austin, MMJ played more than half of the material on the new set, which the quintet conceptualized during an intense songwriting session last summer in Colorado and then recorded in Manhattan last winter. A month later, when the band played the Coachella festival in Indio, California, five of its 11 songs were off the new album, and another five were from its previous studio album, “Z.”
Even with live performances that send fans into orbit and critically acclaimed albums, MMJ has not yet achieved widespread arena-headlining status or platinum sales 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.
“The press is now regularly tagging My Morning Jacket as ‘the greatest live band,’ ‘best band in the world’ or some version of that,” Scott Clayton, the band’s agent at Creative Artists Agency, says. “That type of over-the-top hype is usually a concern for any artist, but after seeing these guys perform as many times as I have, I am very comfortable with their ability to live up to those labels.”
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.
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 August 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.”
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 delve into falsetto singing, soft rock with a modern twist, disco beats and gritty, Prince-tinged funk, without skimping on the two-guitar jams and mellow balladry 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.”
James says “Evil Urges” “took a lot of work. This record was more constantly whittling and carving.” Drummer Hallahan adds that the more “simple” songs were the most difficult to nail down.
“The ones that were more intricate, I found those to be much easier,” Hallahan says, citing “Sec Walkin”‘ as an example of the opposite. “You had to remove yourself from any craziness in your head and just focus on this bouncing pattern that takes you through the whole journey.”
On the other side of the creative process, the band seems to have mixed feelings about its most “commercial” endeavor to date, the use of its song “Mahgeetah” in an Aspen Edge beer commercial in 2004. “We did (the commercial) and I’m kind of almost glad it happened, because it was a really cool learning experience,” James says. “We were able to use that money toward some positive things. We gave some of it to the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation.”
Today’s music business can present tough choices, James admits. “It’s a really confusing time to be a musician, because it’s so hard to make your living and so hard to get your music out there. Sometimes you see music used in creative ways in advertising, and at least some kid out there watching TV is hearing a great song.”
Constant touring has raised MMJ’s profile, as have the band’s appearance on the cover of Spin magazine and its ‘Saturday Night Live’ performance. But these opportunities also present new demands on the band’s time.
“It’s weird, because on one hand, we feel lucky we’ve had so many opportunities to go out and do stuff,” James says.
“There was that period (in 2004) after John (Quaid) and Danny (Cash) left the band when we were all going crazy and all melting down,” James says. “We’ve been through our periods, but we try to talk about it. Everybody’s got their significant others and their families. You really have to draw that line in the sand; we’ll do this for this month, but then we’ll take this month for us. You’ve got to make time for life. I mean, this is life too. We need more life juice to bring back to this thing.”
“Life juice” might have to wait a bit, and as touring ramps up in earnest, James says, “We’ve never wanted to be a rock band or an R&B band or be one kind of band. We just enjoy celebrating music and having fun with it; making it loud, making it sad and making it funny. We feel lucky that people are excited about hearing the music we make.”