My Morning Jacket’s Jim James loves the season of the witch. The frontman is a big fan of Halloween, this year slated to be even more exciting as MMJ will make their eagerly awaited hometown live return with a very special Halloween Costume Ball and Celebration set for Saturday, October 29 at Louisville, KY’s KFC Yum! Center. The band’s first hometown live date in six long years, the much-anticipated concert event follows the digital release of LIVE FROM RCA STUDIO A (ACOUSTIC), recorded solo by James at the famed RCA Studios in Nashville, that collects seven tracks from last year’s acclaimed MY MORNING JACKET. Ahead of their Yum! Center return, James spoke of his love of the cultural holiday, the encroachment of modern technology, and the continuing specter of COVID hanging over the industry.
With the glut of information available one click away to anyone on the internet- setlists, endless streaming, full concerts- how difficult it is to put on a homecoming/Halloween event show like this? How hard is it to keep a secret?
It’s funny. I’ve thought about it so much. I’ve written songs about it. I’ve struggled and grappled with technology. At the end of the day, it is what it is. All we can do is roll the best we can. I feel like in a lot of ways, for us as a band and for me as an individual, how we can embrace it; use it to make what we do fun and hopefully tie people in more. For example, with the Halloween show we’re doing it’s been a really cool and fun trip down memory lane: digging through and looking for old photos and sharing that on social media; like here’s when were the Ghostbusters seventeen years ago or whatever.
How much of a role do you play in those decisions?
I really try to defer to some of the people we work with. There’s a lot of people that are really tuned in to the consciousness of social media, of what’s going on; like TikTok or YouTube. With me, sometimes I can’t be…, my brain just doesn’t work that way. But, I don’t want to not use technologies that people love or enjoy. We’re really lucky to have guys in the band and some people in our management that are really engaged and really enjoy working with people that way. So, we’ve kind of, in the last year or so, opened up and really embraced technology and try to have as much fun with it as we can.
Sometimes I think if all this content was around when I was 15, I may not have made it out of high school. It would’ve been hard to pull myself away from all that is so easily accessible.
I’ve been really torn about it. For a long time I’ve seen it as a distraction; something that’s taking away from reality. I’ve really struggled with it. One thing I have realized lately is that it’s the fate of every single generation of beings to feel like the next generation that’s coming up is moving too fast; doing things too differently. Whether it’s the advent of the phonograph, or the advent of the radio, or the advent of the telephone, the television; all these things where technology comes along and speeds things up. I feel like people who were there a generation before are always prone to feeling like things are too fast or it’s too much. Definitely, a lot of times, to me, it all feels like too much. It feels like it’s too fast. In a lot of ways, it’s not really my place to say. If it feels right to the current generation, they’re more in tune with it; they’re more in touch with it than I am. So it’s hard to say.
Is there an aspect of it that’s more concerning than others?
I do think the capitalism of it- the way they’re reaching us in crazy new ways to sell us more stuff- that kind of relentless hammering side of it is pretty brutal. I wish there could be some way we could get more in touch with nature and more in touch with the people around us. I can just try to follow my heart and pray that everybody can follow their own hearts, learn to listen to themselves, and know when it’s too much for them and put it down. It’s tough. The people that invented the algorithms; I feel the algorithms are running away. It is a really intense time.
How do you feel about playing a show around a cultural holiday like Halloween?
I love it. I love Halloween. Over the years, we’ve loved playing on Halloween; just the spirit. That time of year is so powerful. It’s a great time to celebrate life and be grateful for the people that you love who are here on the planet now and the people who aren’t on the planet. For us culturally, we haven’t done a good job with death. We need to make death something that’s okay to talk about; something that’s not to be feared; something that needs to be embraced; embracing the loved ones we all have who have died. Having this time to let the spirits have a part in the discussion- for us that’s something we’ve embraced and loved musically.
And how does it feel to play Louisville at the Yum! Center? Is that something that you’ll hold with any special memories?
It’s wild. The Yum! Center is a relatively new venue. I think we were one of the first ever to play there when we played there the first time. Since then, over the years, it’s meant a lot to me. I’ve seen Bruce Springsteen there. I’ve seen Janet Jackson there. I’ve seen Beyonce. I’ve seen The Eagles. I’ve seen so many tremendous concerts there. It’s really an unbelievable place. To be able to play there, we’re really excited about it. Our first show in Louisville was like in 1998, at a place called Twice Told coffeehouse, that doesn’t even exist anymore. For Louisville, now, the Yum! Center has had a decade or so to be filled with memories. I saw the Dalai Lama there. So there is a lot of beautiful, crazy memories people have from there.
You have been doing this now over several decades. Is there an artist’s model of success from the past you look to- like The Beatles or Grateful Dead or Led Zeppelin- for any reference of where to go from here, what to and not to do? Or have you basically established your own model at this point?
We all kind of need to forget about the past in a lot of ways. I feel like the past is so romanticized. Something I’ve thought about and I tell people sometimes is that our consciousness as a whole has been shattered by the internet. People used to look into one mirror together. That was, like, television. Or maybe two mirrors: television and print media. The Beatles were such a phenomenon because everybody was looking at the same mirror. If The Beatles never existed and just came out tomorrow- they produced the exact same music and had the exact same career- they’d be like a moderately successful indie rock band. They wouldn’t be a cultural phenomenon because the culture has been shattered into all of these fragments. I feel like we’re living within this fragmented world. Occasionally, there are things that reach more of the population- like Harry Styles- so there’s still a bit of a chance for some huge pop crossover. But, if you think about artists who still have that huge cultural pull, pretty much every single one of them happened before the internet.
As an artist, then what do you focus on?
In the landscape now, I just love to create music. And that’s really all that I focus on. I’m just struggling and working to find peace with myself; peace on this planet. The way careers go- one year you feel people don’t like you as much, the next year they like you again- I really can’t even begin to understand all that stuff. We just try to make music that we love and surround ourselves with creative management, creative booking, and people who kind of do understand more career trajectories. We talk with them and listen to them, and listen to other artists and what they’re going through. It’s all a wave. It’s all going to go up and down. Hopefully if you’re making music that you love there will still be people that want to listen to the music we’re creating or whoever’s creating.
You just issued a new album and series of videos of acoustic renditions of My Morning Jacket songs you performed solo at Nashville’s RCA Studio A. That wasn’t the initial plan. Did playing in that unexpected way change the way you thought about how you approach those songs now?
Yeah, it did. That was the first time I’d ever played those songs like that. When the pandemic first happened, people kept saying, ‘I can’t wait for things to go back to normal.’ Things have changed. Things are never going back to normal. For the concert industry, and live music, it has added this new level of unbelievable stress and tension. Now there’s this new thing that can take you out at any moment. There is no COVID insurance, so when people have to cancel shows it is a gigantic financial loss, and an emotional toll. You feel like you’re letting everyone down. That particular day (at RCA) was so stressful. We had everybody in-band and crew- and we were going to film these songs, and someone gets COVID and suddenly everything grinds to a halt. That was the first time we’d had to deal with that. And it’s literally like an hour before I’m getting ready to go to the studio. I thought, well, everything is set-up. And I do acoustic stuff all the time. Let’s just go and I’ll try my best. And it was really beautiful. I really enjoyed it. So just overall, that’s kind of the new deal now: everybody’s got to be completely ready with all these big changes that happened from COVID.
As COVID has become an endemic virus, is there a role to play or a perspective to have that’s best?
I’m trying to talk more about the mental aspect of it. The mental health part of it is crushing, too. Lots of people are having to cancel entire tours. You feel you are letting everyone down and that everyone is going to be mad at you. Part of our job as artists, and your job as the press, is to talk about this; to keep stating that people’s physical and mental health are the most important things. All of us have to get used to this being around.
How do you plan tours now? Do you feel like you have to wait until you’re relatively sure when planning a lot of dates?
You can’t be sure of anything. I don’t think you can think about it that way at all. What we’re trying to do is book the amount of shows that we feel comfortable with, as people and as a touring band. We are more conscious of that, in general, even if COVID had never existed. We ran ourselves ragged in years past. That really, really seriously caused me some major health issues over the years. So we’ve been more conscious of that. Hopefully fans understand that; if somebody has to cancel a show, obviously they don’t want to cancel, but you just have to accept sometimes that it’s out of your control.