Jim’s Louisville (10/27/2022)
Ahead of My Morning Jacket’s homecoming show at the Yum! Center on Saturday, Oct. 29, Louisville Magazine editor Josh Moss talked over Zoom with the band’s founder and frontman, Jim James. Published Thursday, Oct. 27, and edited for length and clarity.
The Louisville Leopard Percussionists are opening for you guys, and my daughter, who’s in third grade, is in the group. These kids are all second- through sixth-graders. I was talking to her about practicing for the show and wondered: Who were you at that young of an age?
“I was just trying to survive, just trying to understand this crazy world. That’s one reason why we wanted to have the Leopards and why we support creativity for kids and organizations like that. When kids can get guidance like that when they’re that young, it just means the world. You see it shaping the kids’ consciousness and their life.
“I just wish we’d had stuff like that when I was young. Music really came to me more in like sixth grade, so I was a little bit older when I started getting into music. If there would’ve been programs around back then, who knows? Maybe I would’ve gotten into music even earlier.”
Who were some of those people who provided that guidance for you?
“Really for me, the Muppet Show was like the first kind of vehicle into understanding what music was — watching the Electric Mayhem band on the Muppet Show and watching Kermit sing. Real early on as a kid, I remember thinking: What is that? I want to do that. And my mom would explain, ‘They’re a band. That guy’s playing the drums, that guy’s playing the guitar.’ And so I got a little toy guitar. I loved Kermit and wanted to sing like Kermit as a kid. Then, as I got a little older, I just never felt like I fit in anywhere in the world except when it came to music. That was like the only thing that I understood, really. So it became my salvation.”
What was your childhood home like? What music was playing in the house?
“We just lived in a really lower-middle-class home, just a typical small home in Hikes Point. And my parents, I wouldn’t say they weren’t music fans, but they weren’t really deep music heads or anything. I would just kind of hear what was on the radio, and luckily back then the radio was so good. I know they listened to a lot of oldies stations, so there was a lot of variety. I remember hearing Marvin Gaye ‘What’s Going On’ as a kid or Stevie Wonder or Simon & Garfunkel. And even stuff like Bread and Neil Young.”
You wrote this essay for the magazine in 2012, and we ran it unedited, and it’s just a lot of your memories about growing up in Louisville. And one of the things you wrote, you said, “To any parents or grandparents who let your kids’ bands practice at your house, you’ve earned a place of positive entry into the afterlife of your choice.”
[Laughs.] “Yeah, that is for sure.”
It made me wonder: How has your relationship with your parents changed as you’ve gotten older and become an adult yourself?
“They try to come see me play whenever we play, and they take trips to see us play. I was so blessed with such great parents, and I feel like they did such a great job of really being supportive but also drawing a lot of lines when I was growing up. They drew a lot of lines in the sand, which, at the time, I thought was tough. But now as I look back, I’m really grateful. When you want to be a musician or an artist, that’s like the scariest thing to your parents, you know? They think you should be in college or have a back-up plan. And my dad made this really cool rule for me. He said, ‘If you’re in school, I’ll try to help you however I can. But if you’re not in school anymore, you’re on your own, and I can’t help you anymore.’
“As I look back, I’m so grateful for that, ’cause I dropped out like as a sophomore in college (at UK). I went to just a little bit of college. I really wanted to pursue music, and I had to work at Subway all the time or at Heine Bros.’ and a million different jobs to try and make music happen. And so my parents were always really supportive, but they never just gave me their support. I had to work. If they helped me get a guitar, I had to mow the lawn to pay it off. There was always something that made it real. Every single thing had such meaning and weight to it.”
On your song “Circuital,” you sing: “I am older / day by day. / Still going back / to my childhood ways.” What sends you back?
“I think we’re all — a lot of us are — trapped in childhood. I think a lot of things happen to us in childhood that we don’t ever grow out of — some good, some bad. As I’ve done more and more therapy — family constellation therapy, internal work, EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, particularly with traumatic memories) — you really realize that, as a kid, you created all of these ways to protect yourself that maybe you don’t need anymore. You really have to get in there and do the work to find out, like: How am I still running an outdated program that I ran when I was five because I was scared? I need to find that five-year-old version of me inside myself and tell them that they did a good job. They kept us safe, and we lived, but we’re not five anymore. We don’t have to behave that way anymore.
“I think we’re all kind of struggling to grow up and grow out of old defense patterns, but also retain that sense of childlike wonder, that sense of what makes kids so special — the way kids see the world is so fresh and so new, and there’s so much creativity there. It’s really just trying to walk that line.”
Can you think of a specific example of a personality trait, or a way you were as a kid, that hung around as an adult that you didn’t really understand until you did some of that work you’re talking about?
“Just being a kid is so tough. And then there’s so many things that happened to me when I was a kid in school. I was ruthlessly bullied in school, and a lot of that I still am working through. I’m still trying to convince myself that everything’s OK and that I can love myself and that I’m not this terrible thing that these bullies told me I was. I was so young, and it gets pounded in there at such an early age, that it takes a lot of work to love yourself.
“I’m trying to find that little kid version of me who was bullied so ruthlessly and tell him that I love him and that he is good enough just as he is. Just like Mister Rogers says: ‘You’re perfect just as you are.’ And I think that really is so true. Everything about us is perfect. All of our imperfections and all of our flaws and everything that we’re so hard on ourselves about, it’s all in there for a reason. It’s all part of this challenge of why we’re here right now, in this body, on this planet, at this time. I don’t subscribe to any particular religion, but I do feel really spiritual. And I do feel like there’s something behind it all and there’s some reason for it all.
“And my best guess is just: The biggest reason is to cultivate more and more love. And I think that starts with us because we can’t be a good person in the world unless we love ourselves. If we don’t love ourselves, we’re only gonna keep re-creating anger and sorrow out in the world. If you imagine a lot of the world leaders or a lot of these big billionaire businessmen, they all seem so troubled. If they could do the work and find a way to love themselves, they would see how that could apply to other people. And they could really be better to the world and be better to other people. I think that’s kind of like our sacred mission while we’re here, is to try and love ourselves more.”
What you said will resonate with people who’ve been bullied. Are there certain incidents, certain things kids would say, that stick with you from back when you were younger?
“I’m still battling. I don’t really want to go into specifics, but I was made to believe that everything about me was wrong and everything about me was ugly and terrible. When you step back and think about it, you realize, as a conscious adult, the poor kids that are bullying, they’re being bullied too — being bullied at home, dealing with all sorts of trauma — and then taking that out on other kids. I think that conversation is a big conversation that I’m glad to hear more of in the world. It needs to be a conversation that’s freely had, so we can move past it and try and stop this pattern as much as possible.
“Like I said, being a kid is tough, especially when you start getting into school and have to deal with bullies. And especially if you — I’ve always felt like just a different kind of person. I never really fit in anywhere. I didn’t fit in with the jocks and I also didn’t fit in with the nerds and I also didn’t fit in with the hippies and I also didn’t fit in with the punk rockers. I didn’t fit in anywhere. So it’s like: What do you do then? You just gotta create your own zone.”
I wanted to read you a quote from that same piece you wrote for us in 2012. “Modern-day Louisville to me is a very happy place. I have always felt extremely fortunate and proud to have been born here and cherish that as part of my own earthly identity.” So much about Louisville has changed since March 2020. I bring that up because this upcoming performance is a homecoming show of sorts. What Louisville are you guys coming home to?
“Everything is constantly changing. That’s the only thing we know: Everything is gonna change, and we’re gonna die someday. That’s like all that we really know. All that I know I can do is try and flow with the change and try to be as much of a source of peace and love as I can. And I feel like Louisville is such a magical and really, really strange place. There’s nowhere like it. And I think we’ve got this, there’s this thing that I feel like — I’m trying to think of a way to put it into words. It’s a place that isn’t talked about a lot. Obviously, it’s not like a New York or a London or not even like a Chicago or anything. You really don’t hear about it that much, like in the folklore of the world. So I think it gives us a chance to write our own story.”
Louisville was in the national spotlight while people protested in the name of Breonna Taylor. Has the conversation about our city changed when you have it with other people about where you’re from?
“Well, yes and no. Obviously that was such a tragic story, such a tragic chapter. But sadly, that’s not the only story of that type. And I feel like, as for that moment in time, there was the magnifying glass on Louisville. I’m still trying to unpack it. ’Cause I feel like that was one thing about the pandemic that was so wild: We were all frozen in this kind of suspended reality. We were shown these things that we all looked at together, and we all experienced them together. As you move out from that moment, from such an event, how do we keep that conversation about police brutality going?
“I feel like there’s this waterfall of information through social media and the internet, and everything kind of gets lost in the waterfall. Every event — a tragic shooting or a flood somewhere or whatever’s happening — it’s all being constantly washed downstream. How do we hold on to events long enough to somehow get the change we need? How do we not get lost in it all?”
And in thinking about change, Louisville, for the first time in 12 years, is about to elect a new mayor. What kinds of qualities do you think our mayor should have for this moment ? What do we need from the leader of our city right now?
“I think the main thing is that they should be a good listener. Too many people wanna talk. The world is so short of good listeners. We need somebody who can really sit down with people and make them feel seen and heard, somebody who can really take the time to process what’s going on here, what has happened, and really try to outline some concrete ways we can move forward. Louisville is a unique place in that it is so liberal and conservative. I feel like the only hope we have as humans is that, somehow, we can get together.
“All of the cable news and all of the social media is just ripping us apart. And people need to wake up and realize that that’s classic divide-and-conquer techniques. That’s the way things stay terrible. That’s the way people are conquered.
“In terms of a mayor here, we have a really unique opportunity where we could be a model, to say, ‘Hey, we are a place that the right and the left can come together in the middle and really get a lot of great stuff done.’ And then just agree to disagree on some things, but let’s get the sewer fixed, let’s get the bridges built, let’s get people feeling safe in their homes. I think we’re a place that could start that and maybe become a model as a place where we actually make some progress. That’s an opportunity we really shouldn’t miss.”
There was something really special about My Morning Jacket’s performance at Railbird last summer, summer 2021, at Keeneland in Lexington. I think it was your all’s second show since the pandemic had canceled all live performances. You all just seemed so happy to be onstage. Have you been able to maintain that sense of happiness and gratitude about performing live? Or is it easy to fall back into the rigors of the road and not appreciate it?
“Before, I ran myself ragged into the ground because I didn’t know how to love myself and didn’t know how to listen to myself. And now, we’ve really been working so hard as a band to take better care of ourselves.”
“Be better communicators to each other. And me, as the leader of the band, if I can be more kind to myself, I can be more present for the rest of the guys in the band. And we can all really show up and really learn how to say no and only do what we want to do so that we’re not getting burnt out. I’ve been injured and been to the hospital and — the touring’s almost killed me several times ’cause I didn’t know how to say no.
“We’ve got this new era of just immense gratitude and love for each other. We’ve seen that this can be taken away, and we’ve also seen before how it can be completely run into the ground if you’re not careful. All the shows we’ve played since the pandemic began have really been filled with so much gratitude and so much joy. We’re just so grateful to be here, period, on the planet, much less celebrating music with people that we love. That gratitude piece was definitely a huge lesson from the pandemic.”
I didn’t know if this would be weird, but the other day I watched My Morning Jacket’s first performance on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, from 2003 when you played “One Big Holiday” — which was the first time you did a late-night show — and I wanted to ask: Can I share my screen and play it for you?
[Clip starts playing.] What type of feedback and advice were you getting from people trying to market you guys back then? Who did they want you to be? When you see this clip, what memories does it conjure?
“I mean, it was insane. We were so terrified and so excited. Everybody knows the first times for everything are so heightened. It’s like the first time you have sex. We were just out of our minds. And it was just the craziest thing. It’s like a time warp because they go, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, My Morning Jacket!’ and then it’s over and everybody’s clapping. It happens that fast.
“But back then we were always shocked ’cause we were just like, ‘How in the fuck are they gonna try and market us? We’re almost not marketable at all.’ It was like, the songs are weird, we’re a bunch of weird-looking dudes from Louisville. We just kind of laughed along the whole way. I mean, we always worked so hard and we always believed so much in everything we did, but we were just like, ‘I don’t know if the world’s gonna understand this, and I don’t know if the world’s gonna like this.’ We were like, ‘If we don’t have to work at the coffee shop anymore, that’ll be a success.’ We always thought everything we did was gonna be our last. Every single record we made, we’re like, ‘Surely, this is our last record, so let’s give it all we got.’ We kind of had this mentality, kind of in a comic way, of: Let’s give it 150 percent because they probably aren’t gonna make any money off us and they’ll probably kick us off the label tomorrow. Being able to still be here doing is such a thrill.”
In this clip, your hair was so long, covering your face the whole performance. Was your hair almost like a shield, a way to feel safe and comfortable?
“Oh, definitely. I was terrified. I’ve been so hard on myself, and I thought I was so ugly and that I didn’t deserve to be there. It was all those bullies talking still; that’s the power of childhood trauma. It’s like those bullies were still fully present in my head telling me I wasn’t good enough. But in my heart, I wanted to play music, and in my heart, I did the best I could. But I couldn’t bear to see my face on TV, so I put my hair in front of my face and even put, like, stuffed animals in front of the microphone sometimes so people didn’t have to see my face.
“And I’m saying that only as a person now, as a 44-year-old person who’s just now beginning to be nice to himself, who’s just now beginning to try and love myself the way I am, with my imperfections and everything.” [Clip stops playing.]
How’s your body holding up in its 40s?
“I feel really great and really feel like age is an illusion. Obviously, if people have serious medical conditions or serious accidents, you you can’t help those type of things. But I feel like, if you take your health seriously and you really try to exercise and you really try to be mentally sound — meditate and go to therapy and address your physical and mental health — then, I mean, I feel better now in my 40s than I did in my 20s by far. I feel like, wow, I could run laps around the 20-year-old me. I feel much more happy and confident now. I still struggle with so much — I’ve got mental-health issues and all sorts of things that I struggle with — but, even just physically, I feel a hundred times stronger than I did when I was in my 20s.”
You mentioned how, on that episode of Conan, you guys go out there and then, all of a sudden, it’s just done.
Like 10 years ago, your drummer, Patrick Hallahan, mentioned not remembering an entire Bonnaroo set I’d raved about to him. He said he was in such this state of — if you want to call it flow, if you want to call it ecstasy, if you want to call it an out-of-body experience — and he told me, “The show started, then it was over, and I said, ‘Did we do a good job?’” Is that possible, man? Like a whole set? Not remembering a whole set?
“Definitely. I mean, some of my favorite shows are like that. A terrible show is one where you hear how out of tune your guitar is or something’s broken or you’re constantly trying to fix problems.
“And I always tell people: Think about what you do. You know, everybody has something that they love, right? People know that flow state, and it doesn’t matter what you are — a carpenter or a plumber or an artist or a basketball player or whatever. When you’re in the zone, all of time stops. That kind of flow state, to me, is synonymous with god. You’re transcending, and you’re just alive. You’re alive like a tree or a fish, at one with the universe. That’s one of the most beautiful things in this human experience.”
I’ve been loving looking at your all’s setlists recently. It seems like you’re having more fun with it, being more unpredictable with it, not always playing “One Big Holiday” last.
“Definitely, yeah. I’ve gotta give a lot of credit to Bo (Koster), our keyboard player, for that ’cause he’s really been encouraging us to shake it up. And again, I hate to keep harping on it, but that again ties into the self-love piece. ’Cause I feel like, for me, as the person who has to sing these songs, I’ve struggled so much throughout my career with having to go back to past versions of myself and perform these songs. A lot of ’em are too painful or too emotional or whatever. You kind of get tied into this pattern of this certain way of doing things. But as I’ve learned to be nicer and more forgiving to myself with the help of the guys in the band, and with Bo in particular pushing us, he is like, ‘Let’s completely keep shaking it up.’
“And if I can be nicer to myself, it’s almost like I can be two people. I can be the 25-year-old person that sang the song originally, but I can also be the 44-year-old me there with that person kind of protecting him and guiding us through the song. It’s like this new way where I don’t feel so self-conscious about it all anymore, and I don’t mind switching it up and doing different things. That’s been really fun for us. I mean, honestly, I don’t think we’ve ever had more fun or sounded better or been a better band than we are right now.”
Do you remember writing “One Big Holiday”?
“Oh, yeah. I remember being in Shelbyville in our studio. That was the last record (It Still Moves, released in 2003) we did there. We did our first three records out there, and that song kind of came in different parts. It’s like a lot of the instrumental parts came when we were all up there jamming and stuff. And then like the verses I kind of wrote, and the chorus. But yeah, I remember so viscerally being in the — we called it ‘above the Cadillac.’ It was just this little apartment above a garage.”
You’ve played that song live so many times. Are you discovering things about that song that you didn’t realize were there when you wrote it so many years ago?
“Yeah, it’s such a beautiful thing. For me, I just almost enjoy watching people’s reactions in the crowd. That’s kind of my most joyful thing about that. And when people come see us play, I want it to be a feeling of love and peace and safety and equality, a place where people come and feel like safe and loved for who they are.
“And yeah, every time we play it, something different happens. When you’ve played a song that long and you know a song that well, it’s kind of easier to go into the zone ’cause you don’t have to worry about if you’re gonna remember it or not. You just kind of sink in there and get carried away on the wave.”
This is not even a question. Really, this is so stupid. But I told my buddies I’d tell you this if I got to talk to you again. So there was this — oh, my god, this is so dumb. Don’t even feel you have to comment. But there was this football player, he’s retired now, named Joe Jurevicius, and so whenever we hear your song “Highly Suspicious,” instead we sing, “Joe Jurevicius.” That’s a small way you’ve brought my friend group closer together.
[Laughs] “That’s awesome.”
That quote I read to you earlier from the piece you wrote for the magazine in 2012: “To any parents or grandparents who let your kids’ bands practice at your house, you’ve earned a place of positive entry into the afterlife of your choice.” What’s the afterlife of your choice?
[Laughs] “Well, I like to say that because the endless fighting over religion and bickering over religion in our world is such a shame. And I’m always rooting for humanity to kind of come together and accept everybody’s view, ’cause it’s all valid. Nobody knows what happens in the afterlife. My favorite thing right now is some form of reincarnation because I really believe that our souls are eternal. I feel like our souls are this eternal just pure love. And sometimes I think our eternal souls, for whatever reason, decide to come down here and take on this experience of the human experience. Like, it’s a way for our eternal souls to gain more perspective or gain more love or something.
“I think we keep coming down here to experience this, but we forget that we’re endless cosmic eternal souls. We just get so sucked into this human experience, which, for our eternal souls, it’s like five minutes long. For us, it’s like this lifetime — some people have a short life, some people have a really long life. But up there, in cosmic time, it’s nothing. The history of humanity, in the context of the history of the universe, is nothing. It is just a speck. It is not even a blip on the radar.
“Sometimes the way I comfort myself when I see hatred and violence in the world, I think maybe those people have just come down here for the first time and they’re really scared and they’re really confused, so they have to be really violent. And then you see somebody like the Dalai Lama, and maybe they’ve been here tens of millions of times and they’re moving closer to the end, to the point of not needing to come here anymore because they’ve learned all you can learn here on the planet. Sometimes that helps me try and understand the hatred and the violence.
“And then, you know, most people are probably somewhere in the middle right now. Most people are good people who don’t wanna hurt anybody. But we’re all still kind of confused and lost, floating somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. That’s my current thoughts on the afterlife.”
Thank you so much for taking the time, man. To end, I was hoping I could set a timer for five minutes and two seconds — for our area code, the 502 — and ask you some quick-hit, Louisville-centric questions. Is that cool?
OK, timer starting now: What Louisville dish you’ve eaten more than any other?
“The salmon at Mayan Cafe.”
What closed Louisville business do you miss most?
“Oh, man, that’s a good question. God, probably Joe Ley Antiques (on East Market Street). That was just one of the most magical portals to another world. I really miss going into that world.”
Favorite Louisville building?
“Probably that Joe Ley building. It is just something else.”
Favorite Louisville street?
“I mean, really, the whole park system I consider like one big street. The heart of Cherokee Park, that’s kind of my favorite street.”
Besides one of your own performances, what’s the most memorable show or concert you’ve been to in Louisville?
“Oh, god, that’s tough. Maybe seeing Etta James at the Palace (in 2009). We were front row, and I’m so glad I got to see her before she passed away. And she just crushed it.”
Favorite Louisville smell?
[Laughs.] ”I guess really the trees, especially this time of year. The trees here are just tremendous.”
Favorite thing hanging on the walls at home?
“All my art from my nieces and nephews and my little brother and the kids in my life.”
What hung on the walls of your childhood bedroom?
“Pictures of the Muppets.”
Who’s your favorite Muppet?
Who would you shadow for a day?
“I’ve always wished I could’ve shadowed Jim Henson (who created the Muppets, and died in 1990).”
What book have you given away the most?
“Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah, by Richard Bach.”
“It’s just a really cool way of looking at life. I feel like it’s really helpful.”
Besides what you’re currently doing, what’s the best job you’ve ever had?
“I really liked working at the zoo. That was my first job.”
What’d you do there?
“I kinda walked around sweeping up cigarette butts.”
What did you like about that?
“Oh, it was just great. It was real freeing. I like to walk, and it was nice just walking around seeing the animals and sweeping up cigarette butts and trash.”
What’s your earliest childhood memory?
“My earliest childhood memory is being in the crib and there’s a giant orange Easter Bunny staring at me standing over the crib. I remember being really alone in the room, and there’s this really terrifying Easter Bunny peering in over the edge of the crib.” (In 2012, in that piece James wrote for the magazine, he mentioned this story, saying it was ”way before Donnie Darko,” which has a similar scene.)
What do you interpret that as?
“I don’t know, I’m still in therapy over it.” [Laughs.]
What’s your drink?
“MUD\WTR. It’s like this mushroom tea.”
Do you have a go-to karaoke song?
“‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.’”
We have time for one more: What makes somebody a Louisvillian?
“Hmmm, that’s hard to say ’cause I feel like there’s so many great Louisvillians who are both born here and who came here later in life. Louisville just has this magic, indescribable spirit, and I think you can only know it by having lived here and spent time here. But there’s a certain glue and just a certain way of looking at the world that is so Louisville. I don’t even know how to put it into words.”