While My Morning Jacket take a short break from recording and touring, founder and lead singer Jim James continues to surprise his listeners with the recent release and drastic sonic departure of his solo debut, "Regions of Light and Sound of God."
We spoke with James shortly before last month's SXSW Music Conference in Austin, Texas, but we had to enlist him for another conversation after taking in his performance.
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While James has been known to step out onstage for a solo set or collaborate under the moniker Yim Yames, this project marks his first official solo record. But don’t expect a return to the stripped-down, warm warble of the 4-track tapes that were characteristic of My Morning Jacket’s early years. Instead, James has produced an epic collection of songs that seem as though divine intervention and production value have led the songwriter to explore new and sacred soil.
“A couple of these songs had a few seeds that had been milling around for a few years,” says James. “Then I got this book called ‘God’s Man’ by Lynd Ward that really inspired the songs to change shape. I almost became hypnotized by it and songs just started coming out of that. The best way I can describe it was more like scoring a film and less like writing an album is. It brought the record into focus.”
Published in 1929 and credited as America’s first wordless novel, “God’s Man” is comprised of 139 woodcuts transferred to paper telling the story of an artist and his struggle to free himself from the bonds of the business world. Attempting to give lyrics and sounds to this silent novel, James is still able to disguise his intent and make the songs stand on their own. At the helm, playing almost all of the instruments on the album, James leads the listener on a voyage of sound that bounces back and forth between R&B and soul, rock 'n' roll, funk and electronica.
“That’s the cool thing about the book,” says James. “It’s from 1929, but it’s so fresh. There’s something about that Art Deco movement that survives with a timeless quality. It still has this power. I realized I wanted to build a sound upon that that was modern, but was still old and crackly at the same time. I wanted it to be the sound of future past — like I made it to sound like the year 4000, but I made it in the year 3990.”
Taking the record on the road, James is joined by Dave Givens, who played in Jim’s first band Month of Sundays (drums), sound engineer Kevin Ratterman (guitar/keys/samples), Dan Dorff on piano and Alana Rocklin on bass. With a far more electronic feel than the My Morning Jacket shows you are used to, the backing band gives him the freedom to be a frontman and a showman, dancing around and occasionally picking up the unlikeliest of instruments, as this reporter witnessed at SXSW last month.
“I love it,” James admits. “Even at Jacket shows, one of my favorite parts is when I get to put down the guitar and walk around. There’s something about that right now that feels super natural. I love playing guitar, but it’s so nice to be free of it. Then when you play it again, it becomes a very special reunion. It’s where my head’s been at. I’ve been more into dance and soul music and things that aren’t as guitar oriented. It made more sense for me to travel in that vein for now.”
Final question: What is the difference between Jim James and Yim Yames?
There is no difference. I just got tired of dealing with it. People just didn’t get it and didn’t see the humor in it. Humor is not appreciated today in our modern music world. People want musicians to be so f—ing serious all the time. It just turned into a snowball of people being like “WHY WHY WHY WHY WHY!?” I mean, I don’t know, I just thought it was funny. Sorry.