My Morning Jacket Evil Urges

My Morning Jacket Evil Urges
It used to be you knew what to expect from My Morning Jacket: big reverb, blistering guitar solos, Jim James’s falsetto bounding through the thick Kentucky atmosphere — mind blowing stuff. But, starting with their last album, Z, they now wear the mantle of sonic chameleons. You just don’t know what their crazy minds are going to come up with. Here, they succeed more than they fail, but it all feels a bit unsteady. "Smokin’ From Shootin’” is a definite highlight, with a strong James vocal and propulsive momentum, and "Remnants” is a hard-rockin’ rollercoaster. "Walkin’” sees the band going all sweet, low-key country and it works, almost reminding one of their debut. "Highly Suspicious,” though, reeks to high heaven and is best avoided and "Evil Urges” errs on the side of slick. Despite all this nitpicking this album is really just another example of the expansive range of this band and their creative restlessness. Even their missteps are fun, laidback slices of easy rock’n’roll with some Kentucky flavour. This album is all about urges, but they aren’t quite as evil as others say.

Starting with the album title and the cover art, it has a movie quality to it. What was the inspiration behind it? Or is it just a cool title?
Bassist Two-Tone Tommy: It was the title of the first song, which is called "Evil Urges.” We tossed around a lot of ideas. Some were more ridiculous than others and others were more serious. And it seemed like something that was a little ambiguous and kind of like the band name, where you can read it a lot of different ways, literal or not so much. As far as the album art goes, the band shots were done at an old theatre in Jersey and there was a lot of elements from the World’s Fair in there.

This is the second time you’ve worked with an outside producer. Did you like how that process went with John Leckie on Z? Why outside people?
I think just to change up the experience for ourselves. Working with John was a huge undertaking for us because we had done three records on our own in our own studio and, so, to go to upstate New York and record was kind of taking us out of our element and it was the same thing [on Evil Urges]. We intentionally went for the city after rehearsing in Colorado, out in the sticks, for a month. It was nice to change up the environment every time. We weren’t opposed to be working with Leckie again but we wanted to just try somebody different and I don’t know if that will be the plan from now on: just to work with somebody different and always change it up and not fall back into the same thing of, "We’ll work out a couple here so we should just keep doing it here.” Not to get too comfortable in the environment that we’re working in.

What does the producer bring to the table since you’ve already written the songs?
I think it’s quality control in terms of getting the best performances out of us that they can. A lot of times, when we did the records ourselves, one guy would be on the controller and he’d press record and run in and throw a guitar on and we would keep doing it until we were satisfied and it’s nice to have an outside ear that’s like, "You know guys, that wasn’t so great, can we try it again?” and somebody that pushes us and somebody that hears things. The five of us are so, like we live in incubators when we’re recording and rehearsing and so it’s nice to have an outside set of ears, especially with people who are experienced as Leckie and [Joe] Chiccarelli are, so somebody we really respect. There have been times, too, where they say this part kind of drags or the structure of the song is already there but there might be times where you’re just going to switch up how many times a part is done, like a verse or a chorus, or maybe somebody’s part is conflicting with somebody else’s and when you’re in the middle of recording and rehearsing it and living inside these songs, it’s hard to take yourself out of it. There are a lot of times I’ve written things and it clashed with everything else that was going on and we need somebody, the producer, there to kind of clue us in and show us the bigger picture instead of the individual parts, like guitars and drums.

Do the songs change a lot when you first rehearse them and then sit down with a producer?
They pretty much stay the same. Some individual parts may change here and there or how many times a part may be played we’ll change up, like the breakdown of "Evil Urges” was a lot shorter originally and then it got stretched out because it seemed like it came in for no reason or whatever. The songs don’t change too drastically, like the demo version that Jim [James] did of "Highly Suspicious” sounds almost identical to the one on the record. Structure-wise it’s the same or the guitar tones and a lot of other things were almost identical and other songs turn out completely different but, for the most part, I’d say 90 percent of the songs stay the same.

Was there some moment when you were recording by yourself that the process because so strained that you needed that outside set of ears? Was there some kind of breaking point? Or was it more natural?
It was definitely naturally because John [Quaid] and Danny [Cash] had quit the band and John, it was his grandparents’ farm that we recorded on, and so we had literally no place to go. We tried to find a place in Louisville that we could rent and record demos at, but it was definitely out of necessity, it was like, "Oh god, we don’t have a studio anymore, so let’s just go to the most off the wall place we could go.” So we went to what used to be a mansion in the Catskills to do Z, which, in a sense, wasn’t too much different because we were still secluded but it was a different environment and unfamiliar to us.

When you’re putting the songs together for the first time, do someone lead the songwriting or it really collaborative?
It depends on the song. The majority of the songs are that Jim does demos on his own and sometimes they’re like full demos with all the guitars and basses and drums and keyboards and sometimes it’s him acoustic or on a keyboard and then he sends them out to all of us and we live with them for a month or two and we all get together and see what happens. But, there are some songs, like "Smokin’ From Shootin’,” which was just kind of done on the fly where Jim had the guitar part and the vocal and just played it and everybody added to it or "Evil Urges,” which was in a couple of different parts and then we all just kind of arranged it from those parts.

Was there any intention behind this album, like going in a new direction? Because some of these songs sound very different from what you’ve done in the past, like "Highly Suspicious”?
The funny thing about us and it will probably sound - I don’t know how it’s going to sound – but we never really think to much about what the final product’s going to be or what direction we’re going to go. Like, we knew we had 20 or something songs and we were all really excited about them and I think the only intention was, "Well let’s try to do this as best as we can.” With "Highly Suspicious” we tried to make it like as hilarious and bizarre as possible, but didn’t really think like, "Oh, we wanted to sound like Prince. Maybe you should sing like Curtis Mayfield on some songs.”’ Like, it was what it was and we didn’t think too much about it in terms of direction, but we thought about it musically and what was thrilling about what we were doing, but nothing intentional.

Some of the songs on the first half of the album sounds very slick or smooth and lacks the rough edges of the earlier stuff, was there any intention behind that?
I think that was more, not performance or songwriting, but Chiccarelli and Jim really kind of crafting the tones and capturing things in a way that were a little more direct and clear and defined whereas past records there was always kind of a sheen of reverb or of an atmosphere, or that you can feel the room that it was recorded in, or a three-dimensional quality and this one is more clear-cut and I guess, in a sense, you could say. Yeah, it sounds like it was recorded in New York City but I guess that’s what you’re hearing. That’s what I always hear, or that things are more straightforward sound-wise, tone-wise.

It’s an interesting shift since after four albums there’s a definite My Morning Jacket sound, and I’m wondering do you try to strike a balance between something new that you’ve never done before and what the fans love?
That’s a good question. It definitely enters our mind and I would definitely have thought that while we were writing the records a song like "Highly Suspicious” or even "Evil Urges,” like what are people going to think of this? Because, obviously, it doesn’t sound like, you could say a song like "Walkin’” or "Sexiest Librarian” or "Look At You” sound more like At Dawn or It Still Moves and these other songs were definitely in a way sounding like they were coming out of nowhere if you hadn’t been with us in between Z and this record. It’s been our shadow the entire time we’ve been talking about music and playing different stuff. Yeah, it was more like, "I wonder what they’ll think,” but not we should honour the past or whatever.

Do you use the live show to break out another version or give the people what they want?
Yeah, I guess in a sense because a live show hasn’t… I mean it’s evolved as far as having a light show and playing bigger stages but essentially we’re still playing the same as we have since we first started. Half the time it time it looks like we’re playing in a metal band and you’ll feel like you’re playing to an audience of 50,000 when there’s only 500 people there. That hasn’t changed and the live experience is about the same. So, maybe if there are songs that people didn’t like on the new record maybe they would find it having a different life on the road.

I have a ridiculous question, if that’s okay. When I saw you a while back it was all hair and bare feet and v-neck guitars, and why did you get rid of the hair? Practical reasons like you couldn’t see?
It was the tour before, where I went to the emergency room twice and Jim went to the hospital like the day after the tour for pneumonia after we got home and I felt like we were still carrying the weight of when John and Danny had left the band and Carl [Broemel] and Bo [Koster] joined the band two months later or something so there was all this kind of unresolved frustration that I had about the band and them leaving and how we had all handled it and also that transition from the band being something that you do for fun into something that is now fun but also pays the bills. So cutting the hair was like shedding the past five years of the band off in a way, like getting rid of the person that I was and trying to see what would happen. The same thing applies to switching up places every time we record or trying to make a different experience.

Any neck problems?
Yeah, at first I did and then I realised, "I can’t play that way anymore.” So, I don’t know what I do now. That’s a good question. It was fun, but scary. It was really scary when I first cut it. I didn’t know what to do and didn’t have anything to hide behind.