Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Early Morning


This weekend, My Morning Jacket will make a triumphant homecoming, playing for thousands in their native city. It didn't start out that way, of course. We talked to the people who were there at the beginning.

by Peter Berkowitz and Joseph Lord

photo by Frankie Steele

My Morning Jacket leader Jim James wasn't always Jim James. To those who grew up with him, he was and will always be Jim Olliges of Hikes Point, Louisville, Ky. With MMJ poised to play its biggest Louisville show ever on Saturday at Waterfront Park, we take you back to the beginning, when a big gig meant playing for 20 friends at a local pizza parlor.

Ben Blandford played bass in Month of Sundays, a band he formed with Jim Olliges, Dave Givan and Aaron Todovich. Olliges and Todovich were the principal songwriters.

We all grew up together in Hikes Point. We went to school together. Around age 13 or 14, we just started talking about making music together, making a band. We didn't know what we were doing. We just started getting together at Dave Givan's house, in his garage, and found our instruments one way or another. Every week, whether it was 90 degrees or 10 degrees, we'd be in there.

Danny Cash was a friend of Olliges and Todovich, and later played keyboards in My Morning Jacket.

We went up to Highland Grounds on Baxter and saw his band play. It was Aaron and Jim and Aaron's older brother, Mike, singing. Their friends Ben and Dave were playing bass and drums. Any coffee shop back in the '90s was open to kids who would come in and buy an espresso. That was sophomore, junior year, maybe. 1992, '93, something like that. They were called Chains of My Own at that point -- it was a lot of spoken word from Aaron's brother, a real high school kind of thing. But then Aaron's brother said, "Um, I don't want to do this anymore." Aaron was, like, "I don't wanna do it," so Jim was the next in line to do vocals because he was already playing guitar. So he (Olliges) just kind of took over and they became Month of Sundays.

Ben Blandford

I think Jim was always interested in vocals. When we were kids, different people sang. I guess at some point, Jim was ready to be the vocalist. When you're 15 and you're on stage, 100 people looking at you, you'll be uncomfortable. The older Jim got, the more comfortable he got, and the more he was able to command that role as the front person for a band.

Drew Osborne played drums in Todovich's next band, the Helgeson Story

Jim has such a strange, wonderful sense of humor. It's just bizarre. It's completely, unpretentiously strange. No one remembers this but me, but they used to do this song called "Mr. George" where they had these boards with the lyrics written on them. Lance Spaulding (a friend of the band) would drop them, like that INXS video. No one remembers that but me.

Dennis Sheridan went to St. Xavier High School with Olliges

The first time I ever hung out with Jim, we were with a group of people and we were trying to figure out what to do. We were about 16 or 17 or 18. You know, when you're in high school the world is not set up in a way where there's much for you to do. Jim asks us if we've ever gone "buckling." We were, like, "What does 'buckling' mean?" Apparently, it's a game he invented where you run really fast and you dive in the bushes. He was really into the bushes at Joe Creason Park. He's a goofy guy.

Drew Osborne

I know that he and Aaron had always talked about, "We are going to be musicians." I remember him saying that "I am going to be a musician." We were all in high school. "Well, what are you going to do?" Aaron was like, "I'm gonna be a rock star." People would be, like, "Well, what about a back-up plan?" And he's like, "No, I'm going to be a rock star." So, I think he was always inclined to make music. What kid doesn't want to be a rock star, y'know? But of course the Louisville style -- that Month of Sundays stuff is totally different than MMJ stuff, but for f---ing 16- and 17-year-old kids, it's amazingly complex. It's just good stuff.

Jeremy Johnson played guitar in the Helgeson Story

I think Month of Sundays were respected, but they weren't big. They were an indie rock band, but only when Aaron was involved. Not as much later. The impression I got from Jim was that was always turned off by the concept of indie rock. I think the perception of Month of Sundays as an indie rock band was why he broke that band up.

Ben Blandford

Hardcore was big in the scene at the time; we went to those shows and we liked a lot of that music, and we'd play with a lot of those bands. That's just what the scene was -- we knew we didn't quite fit in, but it's not like we were outcasts or anything like that. We were just kids; we were just playing what we liked. I think a lot of the hardcore fans grew up in the scene. I guess we grew up out of the scene and we found it through playing music, so we didn't have a lot of the same local influences as a lot of the other bands.

Carrie Neumayer is a guitarist for the band Second Story Man

Month of Sundays did seem a little bit more out there, but that's because they chose to separate themselves. Maybe they felt like they were too different.

Danny Cash

We had this little collective of bands who didn't belong, 'cause, you know, any time Endpoint played in town -- massive people. Kinghorse -- massive people. Scott Ritcher had his private school friends who would all come see him but, man, we had nothing to do with any of this (laughs). If we played some place, most of the crowd was just the guys in the bands.

Brandon Skipworth co-owned Shakin' Sheila Recordings, which released two Month of Sundays recordings on vinyl

They were definitely different than what was going on around at that time. Louisville was in the throes of emo and hardcore, and they were definitely a different breed than that. They had two sides to them. They definitely had a pop sensibility to them, in terms of melodies and songwriting. You can still see some of My Morning Jacket in those early songs. They also had a harder edge to them, too. Noisy, freakout stuff. It was definitely different, set apart from a lot of the bands at that time.

Meanwhile, Olliges experimented with styles and sounds. He briefly fronted a heavier side project called Hotel Roy.

Sean Bailey played drums in the band Plunge, which was also on the scene at that time

I remember one Sunday being handed a copy of the Hotel Roy "Helicopters" album by my friend Brian Brooks; his label, Omnicron, had just released it. Initially, I couldn't quite get into it -- not because I didn't like it -- but because it was different than most everything I had laid my ears on up to that point. There was an unrelenting chaos that somehow managed to seamlessly blend itself into catchy pop-inspired tunes.

The relationship in Month of Sundays became strained. Todovich eventually left to form the Helgeson Story, which broke up in 2001 on the eve of a U.S. tour. In 2003, Todovich committed suicide. He was 25. Jim James would later dedicate the song "Dondante" (on "Z") to his friend.

Ben Blandford

Aaron was a guy we knew since we were little kids. We all hung out together, and we played in this band together. Jim and Aaron would come in with the ideas. The older we got, the more we started thinking broader. We did a few out-of-town shows, weekend trips to Atlanta and Charleston, S.C. That's when we were getting older, and things started coming apart, I guess. We were together for eight years, and we ended up living in a house together in Lexington -- me and Jim and Dave. You can't pin the breakup on one thing. Being in a band is like being in a relationship. We were in that relationship for eight years, and, as you could imagine, there were a lot of good times and a lot of bad times.

Jeremy Johnson

Jim and Aaron were like best friends growing up. You know, Aaron was a very dramatic person. He definitely had a way of attracting it. And he would make situations maybe seem a little more dramatic than they really were. When he first joined our band, we were like, "Why would you leave Month of Sundays? That's crazy." And he was very diplomatic. He would say, "It just wasn't working and I don't want to talk about it." The impression I got over the years was that they both had really strong ideas of where they wanted to go, but neither of them were willing to let go. The impression I got was that they were probably going to kick Aaron out. I think it was a "you-can't-fire-me-because-I-quit" kind of situation. That's the read I got. But Jim and Aaron stayed friends. I think it was weird for a while.

Drew Osborne

Jim and Aaron had been friends for so long; they had a very complicated relationship. It seemed to me like it was very brotherly (but) they didn't want to be linked forever.

Jeremy Irvin plays guitar for Second Story Man

I think it's really cool that Jim re-released that Month of Sundays stuff. That was crazy, about Aaron and all that. … That'd be insane pressure for anyone … y'know? He was really hard on himself. Insanely hard on himself. I think he definitely had some social anxiety, stuff like that. Other than that, hanging out with that whole crew was awesome, so much fun. It was cool.

Drew Osborne

I think the Month of Sundays records are amazing, but they're sort of difficult to listen to. Just because it brings up some weird, weird emotions to the surface. I have to be in one of those wistful moods to listen to it.

Carrie Neumayer

Aaron was always doubting himself all the time. Aaron could never see how great he really was … wouldn't let himself see it. Jim just went out and did it. I always had a lot of respect for Jim. I always thought he was a really nice guy. He's very much the same when I talk to him now as I thought he was when we were younger. That's always impressed me about him.

Danny Cash

Eventually, Aaron left Month of Sundays to join Helgeson Story, or to start Helgeson Story, however you want to look at it. Then Ben left, because I think he was going back to school in Lexington. So eventually it became Jim and Dave. They just called themselves Two Shotguns. They were just drums and guitar and vocals, before that was cool. Before the Black Keys or the White Stripes or whatever "the" bands are now. It was just out of necessity. They were living together, and (current MMJ drummer) Patrick Hallahan was living there. It was a whole communal, collective kind of thing. We didn't know anything about it, but Jim had already talked to people at Darla, and he was already working on the record and everything. He was already working with his cousin John McQuade out in Shelbyville to start up a live band.

Jeremy Johnson

Jim would make these mixtapes that he'd hand out to friends. Just weird and unusual stuff. He probably realized that what he wanted wasn't going to happen with that group. He moved to Lexington (to attend the University of Kentucky). I didn't hear from him for a while. He'd be in town over the summer and he'd give me and Drew these weird mixtapes he'd made on his four-track. The next thing we heard was that he was putting a record out on Darla and was putting a band together. We were, like, "That's weird. How'd that even happen?" As far as we knew, he was just hanging out at school. I think the way Jim saw it was, "Why wait? Let's just send it out to everyone." He was always sending out demo tapes.

Drew Osborne

Jim would send us these tapes from Lexington, these really amazing tapes. A lot of it would go on to be "The Tennesee Fire." … [That's] really what is on those tapes. I mean, it was "Tennessee f---in' Fire," ya know?

Danny Cash

Some of the tapes said "My Morning Jacket." Some said "Mi Morning Jacketa," like in Spanish or something. They were real lo-fi, just Jim, kinda like his side project thing from Month of Sundays.

James Agren co-owns Darla Records, which signed My Morning Jacket to its first record deal

It was a Sunday morning. I woke up early and got out a big box of demos that came in the mail -- this huge pile of cassettes and DATs -- and gave each a 20-second listen. And then I'd throw them in the trash. That's the routine. It was February, and Jim had sent a valentine that said, "Darla, be my valentine." It was amazing. The vocals -- I was, like, "holy s---!" It was a whole bunch of songs Jim had recorded. Him and a guitar, and him playing drums and other instruments. I immediately woke up my wife, my partner in Darla Records, and said, "Help me find this letter. I've got to find this letter!" because this pile was just one huge mess. We found it, and I immediately called Jim up. I said, "I want to make a record with you." It was 1998 and everyone was still into post-rock, Tortoise (or) electronic, left-field, experimental artists. There was just nothing like this on the market. It turns out that the month before, we had been in Spin magazine -- a little feature on Darla. Spin wanted to get a photo of us, so we went and had our photos taken at the mall. It was really dorky and clean-cut. Jim said he sent the demo to us because he thought that was funny. He asked that we buy him a four-track, which we did immediately, and he did more songs.

Danny Cash

We had no idea. I didn't know Darla was a label out in California. I though it was a local label, some guy or some girl. I didn't have a clue. Darla said, "This is great. Here's 300 bucks -- buy yourself a 4-track and send us some better demos."

James Agren

Then he said, "I'm going to put together a band." We were, like, "Yeah, right." And then he put together a killer band. They were putting on shows that people were losing their minds over.

Danny Cash

There were a few shows where it was just Jim playing acoustic and John McQuade (aka Johnny Quaid) playing electric leads. I think (bassist) Tom Blankenship (aka Two Tone Tommy) came on next, 'cause I think he was in a band with John. John was from Shelbyville; Jeremy Glenn (the original drummer) was from Pleasureville, which isn't that far from there; Tom's from La Grange; and me and Jim are from Louisville. John and Tom had played together, and me and Jim's bands had played together. It's just that weird thing Louisville has where it's cohesive.

After Olliges left UK, he returned to Louisville and got a job at National Record Mart in Mall St. Matthews.

Paul Steven Brown was an assistant manager at National Record Mart

Jim was hired in 1999. He was genuinely just a swell guy. The first shows I heard about were at Twice Told Coffee on Bardstown Road. I went to one of the gigs there. The first half of it was the whole band playing, and then Jim played by himself for a while. He did "Tyrone" (a cover of an Erykah Badu song). Then the guys got back on stage and they played together.

Jeremy Johnson

It was 1999, and the Helgeson Story played a record release show with them at the Mercury Paw. I thought, "Who are these dudes? I don't know these dudes. I know Jim, but I don't know these dudes." Jim wore pants made out of stuffed animals. He was dating my now-wife's best friend, and she made him these pants. There wasn't a sense that this was some weird event happening, it was just a solid show. We weren't bands that were cool, so there wasn't a huge crowd of people there to be seen.

Carrie Neumayer

I remember them being kind of laid back; they certainly weren't doing the rockin' kind of songs they've done since. So it was just this really mellow thing, with this guy wearing stuffed animal pants.

Danny Cash

Half of 'em weren't wearing shirts. It must've been a hundred and something degrees. Steaming hot. I recognized Jim but none of the other guys. They didn't sound like kids playing. I thought, "Man, I wanna be in that band."

Paul Steven Brown

It was early on, when only a handful of friends would show up. I showed up and Jim said, "Paul's here. I guess we can start." After the Mercury Paw shows, things started picking up. "Tennessee Fire" was out, and they were getting a lot of buzz through the Internet and magazines like Alternative Press and Magnet. I sort of lost touch with them -- Jim quit just before the store closed.

Will Russell, co-founder of Lebowski Fest, was an early fan

I first heard about My Morning Jacket from Jim's sister, Jennifer, who worked at Highland Coffee. I checked them out online and was fairly indifferent to it at the time. A chance to see them open for the Pennies at Headliners came up so I thought I would check it out. I went into the show and didn't expect anything special. When they took the stage, I was blown away. I could not believe that this band was from Louisville. They were playing on such a different level than any other local bands. Jim was able to transmit the euphoria of playing great music to the audience. I remember watching that shaggy-haired guy thrash around stage with his Flying V guitar and a blanket wrapped around his neck and thinking, "These guys are going places."

c. 2008 Velocity Weekly

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