My Morning Jacket

The past couple of years have seen a string of American bands break big in England, landing impossibly hyperbolic plaudits in rags like NME while wallowing in obscurity at home. The highfalutin’ media blitz eventually trickles to the States, and successes like The Strokes and The White Stripes are born.

In a sense, Kentucky’s My Morning Jacket fits that mold, but with a few key differences. The band’s first break wasn’t in the U.K. but in, of all places, Amsterdam in 1999.

“A journalist over there happened to stumble upon the record (Tennessee Fire), and he wrote this really nice piece about how it made him feel like he was a kid again and it reminded him of being in high school and listening to his favorite classic rock,” singer/songwriter Jim James told POLLSTAR.

“It kind of caught on like wildfire. They decided to bring us over for a tour and make a documentary about how fucked up it must have been for us to come from Kentucky over to the Netherlands where people actually wanted to see us and talk to us and do interviews.”

For James, though, it didn’t seem especially odd that the Dutch would be the first to pick up on My Morning Jacket’s Neil Young-meets-The Band sound.

“It makes total sense to me,” he explained. “That’s always been the way things happen to me; they always happen in some weird backwards kind of way.”

MMJ began with a handful of songs James had written while playing with another local band. That group wasn’t interested in his work, so he took to playing acoustic in coffee shops.

His cousin, Johnny Quaid, offered to play guitar and help record the songs in the family barn. Soon, the cousins were joined by Two-Tone Tommy on bass and Patrick Hallahan on drums. A friend by the name of Danny Cash wanted to be involved, so he learned to play the keyboard and was brought into the fold.

James sent demos to several outlets and landed with San Francisco-based Darla Records, which released two albums, Tennessee Fire and At Dawn.

Since breaking in the Netherlands, My Morning Jacket has toured the country “seven or eight different times” and has been to the U.K. around five, with stops in Ireland, Iceland and even Japan. At press time, the band was in the middle of yet another Euro tour.

But it has only been in the last couple of years that they’ve been able to draw a crowd in the U.S., aided by CAA’s Scott Clayton and A Fein Martini’s Mike Martinovich.

About two years ago, Martinovich made a stop by the CAA Nashville office on his way to meet the band to talk about possibly managing them. He had some of MMJ’s material on hand and decided to play it for Clayton.

“I thought we’d spend a minute or two listening to a song then get back to work,” Clayton told POLLSTAR. “We went into the conference room and I put on the record, and an hour and a half later, we were still sitting there playing this music. And, basically, we signed up on the spot.

“There was no record deal, Mike wasn’t even the manager yet, and there was nothing in place, but we just fell in love with the band’s music. And then once we saw them live, there was really no question.”

My Morning Jacket

The strategy was to get MMJ on as many supporting slots as possible, which led to stints with bands like Guided By Voices, Doves, Beth Orton, and this past summer, Foo Fighters, gaining fans based on a blistering live performance.

In the lead up to the band’s major label debut, It Still Moves on Dave Matthews’ ATO Records, Clayton focused on headlining tours in the spring and fall, playing mainly 500- to 1,000-capacity rooms.

And they found the time to stop by Conan O’Brien’s little show on NBC.

“[Conan] was amazing,” James said. “It was one of the most surreal moments of my life. It was like we didn’t even play. We got up there and things exploded and lights went off and then we were done and shaking Conan’s hand. Meeting Conan was like meeting Abraham Lincoln.”

For his part, O’Brien seemed briefly in awe as well. After the band’s set, he rushed the stage and proclaimed, “I’m going to buy that CD!”

My Morning Jacket appears to have made fast fans outside of television royalty as well. Mercury Lounge/Bowery Ballroom booker John Moore first put MMJ into the Mercury in November 2001. It was a door deal and, as Moore put it, “We didn’t officially lose money but we certainly didn’t make any.”

“No matter,” he added, “by then, I was so obsessed with the band I wanted them to be the house band, or at least play weekly for me and my friends.”

Over the next two years, My Morning Jacket played the Merc several times and then moved over to the Bowery, culminating in a two-night sellout this fall.

Two nights at the Roxy in Los Angeles also sold out on the tour and rooms across the country that were half full a year ago are now packing new fans in.

“I think it’s because we’ve been touring our asses off,” James said. “We’ve been opening for so many different kinds of bands and we’ve been headlining our own shows. … People are starting to come out and have a good time and care about what we’re doing.

“It’s a growing process, but I feel like America is finally catching on to what we’re trying to do.”

Clayton said it’s the steady growing process that has separated MMJ from, say, The Strokes.

“It’s more low key than that,” he said. “They’re developing in Europe in much the same way they’re developing here, which is with credible press and great word of mouth. In other words, NME is not all over My Morning Jacket, but Mojo is.”