Photo by Danny Clinch, courtesy of My Morning Jacket
Jim James is not one for nostalgia. Indulging in it can fool one into a grander opinion of themselves. The My Morning Jacket frontman even goes so far as to call it “dangerous.” Yet his band just reissued its monumental 2003 album It Still Moves, and, by some small wonder, I found myself on the phone with James discussing it on a recent afternoon.
On the surface, It Still Moves was a mammoth success. It took a then up-and-coming band signed to a independent label into a revered major-label rock outfit in the elite class of bands to have headlined nearly every major music festival. Earwormy tracks like “One Big Holiday,” “Golden,” and “Mahgeetah” have become staples of the band’s celebrated live show because of their anthemic choruses, ripping riffs and crowd sing-along potential. But the album always nagged at James. Yes, on the rare occasions the singer listened back to It Still Moves, he couldn’t stand what he heard.
“Any time I would listen to it I would be like ‘Oh man, I wish this could have come out better’ or ‘I wish that could have been a little more clear,’” he admits. “It didn’t sound right.” So when ATO Records, in celebration of the label’s 15th anniversary, presented the band with the opportunity to reissue It Still Moves, the Louisville musicians jumped at the chance. The remixed and touched-up deluxe reissue, which also includes a handful of demos from the album’s recording sessions, was released May 27.
Now, as James reflects back with Noisey on the album’s initial recording, the remixing process, and the mountains of other My Morning Jacket demos he hopes to eventually release, he can breathe easy knowing that It Still Moves at last sounds as he’d hoped it would from the start.
Noisey: Let’s start with the obvious question: What bothered you about the original version of It Still Moves?
Jim James: Well, it was just kind of that we were rushed through the original mixing process. We were still pretty new to making records. Our first two records we made completely by ourselves at our home studio. We worked on them over the course of a couple months. So we weren’t rushed; as we’d finish a song we’d mix it or whatever. But with this record, when we finished, we just had this really short window of time before we were supposed to get back out on the road. So we were really stressing over mixing it. And when we tried mixing it at home it didn’t sound right. So we flew out to Capitol in LA and mixed it there. When we left it we were happy with it; it’s not like we were severely bumming on it. But I think we were just green and didn’t know that we should have taken more time on it rather than rushing to go play more shows. We should have waited on the record or canceled the shows to take the time to finish the record.
Has it nagged at you for the last 13 years?
Hindsight is always 20/20. It’s not one of those things that has made me lose sleep or anything. It’s just one of those things in the back of my mind. I always thought (a reissue would happen) for more of a 25th anniversary of the album or something like that. But then when ATO approached us about wanting to re-release it for their 15th anniversary it lit up a light in my head and I was like, “Yeah, let’s do that. I’ve always wanted to remix it anyway.”
Are you one to listen back to old MMJ albums?
No. I can’t listen to them. When you listen to yourself so long ago it’s such a weird experience. But there are times when I had to go back and listen to a song to learn it if, say, it was a song we hadn’t played in awhile just to re-remember how I played it or what I did. Those are the only times I listen to them. And any time I would do that (with It Still Moves) I would be like “Oh man, I wish this could have come out better” or “I wish that could have been a little more clear.” That kind of stuff.
It Still Moves came at a very transitional point for MMJ.
It was definitely a big time of change for us. We’d signed to a major-label deal and there’s always the pressure of that process and wanting to do something we believed in artistically but also hoping it would be successful. Also, after we did some touring for the record, our original guitarist (Johnny Quaid) and keyboardist (Danny Cash) left the band so it was also a lot of change and turmoil in that regard. But luckily we found (guitarist) Carl (Broemel) and (keyboardist) Bo (Koster), and they came in and have been in ever since. But yeah, it was a crazy time.
Some of the songs on the album have become live staples. Do you feel then it was a crucial one for the band?
I consider every album important. I kind of consider them all the same. I look back at them, and it’s like looking back through a time machine. At that particular moment of time, whatever album it was, that was the most important thing in the world to me other than the people I love. I know every album we’ve done I’ve put every last ounce of energy that I had into it.
When looking back at old albums I also imagine there’s a fine line of not indulging in the nostalgic aspect of it all.
Yeah. Nostalgia is dangerous. It’s fun and it’s nice, but I feel like it can be a dangerous thing if you get too sucked into it and living in the past. That’s one of my favorite things about music: It will last forever. And hopefully people will enjoy it forever. Obviously everybody hopes the music they make will stand the test of time and people will want to listen to it years from now. I looked at this project as remixing this thing and getting it the way I wanted it to be and then kind of walking away from it forever. Because the rest of our catalog I don’t really have any desire to revisit or remix or anything. Now I can set this one on the shelf.
How active a role did you personally play in the remixing?
We had Kevin Ratterman mix it; he’s worked with us a lot and played a lot of shows with us and really knows us and also knows that record really well. So he would start and pull up the old mix and then pull up the mix he was working on and get it started, and then I would come in and say “Oh, it needs more snare or more guitar” or whatever I thought. It was a pretty quick process actually ‘cause he’s got really good ears. He’d cook up a quick mix and then (drummer) Patrick (Hallahan) and I would listen to it and give him a few notes. But other than that we were pretty happy about it.
I was happy to see you guys included demos for nearly every album track on the reissue.
I think that stuff’s fun. I know any band I enjoy I really love hearing the demo recordings. It’s such a cool thing to hear. It’s usually just the person sitting there with a guitar or piano or whatever just working through the song or committing the song to tape for the first time just to remember it. I dunno… there’s just something so fascinating about that when you compare it to not only what the album version ends up being but if you listen to a live recording of how the song is now it’s even different still. It’s kind of cool that a song can change and grow over time. We’re in the process of doing another live record so another thing that I found while remixing this is like “Wow, all these songs have changed even more live.”
I’d have to imagine watching these songs evolve over time in the live setting is what keeps them fresh.
Yeah, it’s crazy. It just sounds different. We all change as people, and even if the song structurally hasn’t changed I feel like I sing it differently or we play it faster or slower or however we’ve changed in regards to that song. I think that’s pretty cool.
Back to the demos—do you guys have a backlog of them for all your material or is it pretty limited?
There are tons of demos for every record. That’s one of the fun things as the years go by: We can do a release of demos for whatever anniversary of the record or whenever that comes up. Hopefully people would enjoy that ‘cause I really enjoy that.
On a widescreen level, does a project like the It Still Moves reissue help you assess where you’re at now as a songwriter versus earlier in your career?
I mean I hope the music I make always sounds different than the music I’ve made before. I think the only reason to want to keep listening to somebody is if they are making new sounds. Obviously part of what you do will always sound like you because you are who you are. But I feel like there’s so much music in the world, and you could never listen to it all. So therefore there’s so much limitless inspiration from which to make new music. I’m not listening to what I was listening to back then or living the way I was living. I try to keep an open ear.
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