My Morning Jacket - Okonokos

...The stuff dreams are made of.

Feature by Finbarr Bermingham | 13 Oct 2006
On the eve of the release of their debut live LP, The Skinny caught up with singer, songwriter and founder member of My Morning Jacket's ever fluctuating line up, Jim James. James' personal appearance is, oddly enough, rather reflective of what is to be expected at a MMJ live show, with 'Okonokos' being no exception. His untrammelled facial hair has parallels with the omnipresent musical liberation of an MMJ gig. You are just as likely to witness extreme head banging as you are mellow, acoustic meanderings. In most cases (see their recent performance in Cabaret Voltaire) you'll get both. So, four albums in, what is the thinking behind the release of a live album and DVD?

"Well it's a big part of what we do," James offers, "We wanted to make a live album that also sounded good, like a studio album, but live. We've never been able to do that until now, it's always been a dream for us." The result of this dream is 'Okonokos', the title of which was also stumbled upon in 'The Land of Nod'.

"I wanted it to be a thing where we were playing somewhere in a forest. It didn't matter where it was, whether it was Scotland or the USA. It didn't matter at all. I got the name in a dream; I wrote it down on a bedside table. I wanted it to be open to interpretation, and I think that's how it turned out."

Okonokos as a word in itself, then, may not mean all that much. However, as most MMJ fans will testify, the essence of the band is truly encapsulated live. Despite never having "massive success or a hit single" (although sound transatlantic album reviews have ensured they haven't flourished unrecorded), their live shows have become legendary in some quarters. Eight years of incessant touring, with an unprecedented four successive annual slots at the Bonnaroo festival Stateside, have culminated with this release, recorded at the legendary Fillmore venue.

The album itself reads like a Best Of compliation, with the likes of Off the Record, One Big Holiday and It Beats 4U sounding as predictably perfect as ever. Much is made of Jim James' fondness for reverb ("I use it as an instrument to hide behind") and indeed it is to be found here by the sackful. It would be unfair though to detract from his vocals by claiming he is reliant upon it. His unique tone flits effortlessly between the older more conventional tracks and cuts from last year's more contemporary and even psychedelic 'Z'. His own depiction of his voice as an instrument seems justified upon hearing this album, reverb or no reverb.

So where does this inprov laden style stem from? If truth be told, its one that's been engendered over years of line-up changes. Jim explains, "Change is always good. The band is its own thing. Within the band we've been 5/6 different bands. And the current line up is the most positive we've ever had. Bo (Koster) and Carl (Broemer) brought a lot of energy, spirit and enthusiasm. They make it fun again. They play a lot more instruments. Carl can play steel and pedal guitar and saxophone, and they can both sing and harmonise. With the others we were going to a dark place."

And the sound itself?

"I really was inspired by a lot of 70s and late 60s stuff. Simon and Garfunkel, Neil Young Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. I also liked weird children's things like old Disney movies like Pinocchio and Robin Hood. Jim Henson and the Muppets too. Growing up Dr Teeth and the Electric Mayhem were my favourites. Also country stuff like John Prine and nowadays things like Outkast. I really wanna hear their new record. Have you heard it?"

The Skinny shakes its head, still wondering whether Jim James' favourite band is really Dr Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. Most of the other influences though are apparent. But does the release of a live album now mean we have to wait another 12 months for a 'proper album'? "Probably. At the end of the year we'll start rehearsing and recording. It'll be a while but I've been doing a lot of writing."

Guess that means we'll have to make do with 'Okonokos' then.

Thank God for small mercies.
Okonokos' is out now on ATO/RCA Records.
Okonokos (DVD), a live concert film directed by Sam Erickson, is released on October 31