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"I was in eighth grade and I'd never heard of Neil Young before," James says. "My mom and I were watching SNL, and I really loved it. The next day, my mom bought Harvest, thinking it was Harvest Moon, and I had my mind ripped to pieces."
James had been in bands before, but Young's performance, along with the then-popularity of grunge, galvanized James's desire to make music, even if the Louisville scene wasn't exactly what he had imagined. "We grew up in a time when the hardcore and posthardcore scenes were really huge, so we rebelled against that because we thought they were stuck-up and isolating," he says. "We never felt accepted. We had to create our own scene."
School wasn't James's thing either: "I always loved the concept of school, but nothing really spoke to me. I never really wanted to learn to read music, so that ruled out taking music classes."
Ultimately he landed at the University of Kentucky, where he studied art with the thought of one day becoming an art teacher or an art therapist. When the tiny indie Darla Records took interest in what eventually became The Tennessee Fire, James left Lexington after only a year and a half. The sprawling psych-folk of At Dawn and the rocking It Still Moves followed, but as the band's popularity peaked, two members abruptly quit: keyboardist Danny Cash and James's cousin, cofounding member Johnny Quaid, who owned the farm/silo in Shelbyville where the band had recorded its first three records. With yet another tour scheduled in less than two months, James himself nearly packed it in.
"We were so exhausted from touring, and we briefly thought about going as a three-piece, and if that didn't work, to just say fuck it," James says. "I thought it would be lame to bring in new members."
Despite James's initial fears, the eventual addition of Koster and guitarist/saxophonist/vocalist Carl Broemel — the first two to audition — worked out perfectly, even down to their physical resemblance to Cash and Quaid. The new lineup also augured well for the recorded material, with the band's next album, Z, marking a stunning leap forward. My Morning Jacket abandoned the heavy reverb and grain-silo recording technique of earlier albums in favor of an outside producer and a studio nestled in the Catskills.
Evil Urges, the group's fifth LP, released this past June, was one of this year's most anticipated, and it doesn't disappoint, for the band seems to find a common ground between the hazy hayseed vibe of the first two records and the proggy stoner-rock of Z. Joe Chiccarelli, the Grammy-nominated producer brought in to work on Evil Urges, ranks MMJ among the finest acts he's worked with, a list that includes, among others, Frank Zappa, Elton John, Beck, the Shins, and the White Stripes.
"Jim is one of the best songwriters in music. His lyrics are intelligent and thoughtful, and like all great rock and roll groups, the band's whole is greater than the sum of its parts," Chiccarelli says. "Everyone's strengths and weaknesses add up to something magical. When they click, they make their own noise, and as a producer, that's what you live for. I'd put them in a league with Wilco or Radiohead."
Evil Urges also finds the band experimenting with funk and soul in ways that had only been hinted at earlier with "Cobra" and a widely circulated and gorgeous cover of Erykah Badu's "Tyrone." The new direction stems from James's fascination with the idea of music at its peripheries and the constant search for that indefinable blur of sound when the concept of "genre" becomes meaningless.
"When I was writing the album, I was listening to a lot of gospel and Seventies soul," says James, who recently relocated to New York City from his longtime Louisville home. "Curtis Mayfield. Marvin Gaye. Sam Cooke. The Hot Buttered Soul album and their roots back through the church, to the point when soul, funk, and religious music became indistinguishable from one another."
The album's title, Evil Urges, reflects James's own fascination with organized religion and morality, and his personal struggles to find faith.
"It's funny thinking of human beings and their urges, and how their urges can be unrealistic fantasies at times. The whole notion of morality has been skewed by organized religion. People end up doing all kinds of crazy things and are willing to engage in all sorts of arguments about faith," James says. "I think about religion a lot, from listening to gospel music, to attending church trying to find some sort of faith for myself. I haven't been able to find it yet. I've tried hard, but something's just not hitting me."
Maybe he should go to a My Morning Jacket concert.