Andy Downing for RedEye
9:27 PM CDT, August 16, 2012
My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James likes to keep himself busy.
In addition to his work with the Louisville, Ky., rockers, who released their sixth album, "Circuital," last year, James has evolved into an in-demand collaborator, recording with everyone from Son Volt singer Jay Farrar (the recent Woody Guthrie tribute "New Multitudes") to his Monsters of Folk partners Conor Oberst, Mike Mogis and M. Ward.
"I've been fortunate to have the best of both worlds," said James, 34, in a phone interview. "We get to have the familiarity and family of My Morning Jacket, but then we all also collaborate as much as we can with other people, which brings in the new spark and the new blood."
Reached on the road in Detroit, James opened up about the band's earliest visits to Chicago, his infatuation with the Muppets and what listeners can expect from his solo debut, which is expected out early in 2013.
Do you remember the first place you guys ever played in Chicago?
Yeah, a couple of 'em. Phyllis' Musical Inn. Is that place still around? We played there. Fireside Bowl was another of the early ones.
Is it surreal to have started out playing those kind of dives and now be performing in Millennium Park in the heart of downtown?
It's amazing. We've worked our [bleep] off, but we also feel very fortunate.
Do you have to take a different approach to outdoor shows? Is it more of a challenge to pull off some of that mellower material?
A lot of it is out of your control. It depends on the spirits and the vibe in the air. A lot of outdoor shows are just as quiet and peaceful as indoor shows. I'm excited about the Pritzker [Pavilion], though. I've walked through there as a visitor several times, and it's a beautiful place.
Do you still write out set lists? Or do you let those spirits dictate the directions the music takes?
We make a set list in advance, but we're doing this spontaneous curation series on this tour where fans can email and tweet in their requests for the set and we try and make the set list based on what people are requesting.
I read a quote from a past interview where you said, "When I look back over the records, I remember eras from life." In that spirit, what first comes to mind when you think back to an album like "At Dawn?"
I try to stay focused on today, so I'm not really thinking about those records or times on a regular basis. But when you have to relearn songs from those records it really does put you in that time machine, and then you kind of see it all. You see things you were happy with. You see things you wish you could have done better. You think back to what you were doing at the time and who you were in love with and where you were going and all the things that were happening back then. It's a very strange process.
You worked with a handful of childhood friends on your first solo album, which is set to be released early next year. How do you think they would have described you as a kid?
[Laughs] I don't know. The guy who played drums on the album is my buddy Dave, who I've been friends with since fourth grade. We're really good friends, so hopefully [he'd describe me] positively.
Working with someone you've known since childhood, did you find forgotten bits from your musical past surfacing in the songs you were writing?
Yeah, in some ways I guess. There's a lot of childhood still there in our connection. And a lot of it is present in the people we are now. I feel we carry certain parts of our past with us all the time. Music is weird. I feel it's this big, long chain of events that is always connected. You're always carrying these lessons with you that you've learned over the course of your life.
A number of years back you covered "The Rainbow Connection" at the Lollapalooza kids stage, and I remember being struck by how much you sounded like a Muppet.
[Laughs] Yeah, that was fun. I love the Muppets. They're one of my biggest influences.
What about the show did you connect with as a child?
I just feel like it encapsulates so much of what is possible with art. It seems like nowadays people want to put art into all these boxes. If you're a band, you're a band that's only supposed to do this one thing, and if you're a kids TV show, you're supposed to be so dumbed-down adults won't care about it. With "The Muppet Show" it's like they were trying to reach everybody. I remember watching it with my parents and everyone enjoying it. It's a goal more people should shoot for: making something that can reach any person from any walk of life.
My Morning Jacket, 6:30 p.m. Wed. at Millennium Park, $20-$64.50
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC