Kentucky Mystique

A Conversation with Johnny Quaid of My Morning Jacket

by Matt Gonzales


What would My Morning Jacket be like if there were no such thing as reverb?

“The band wouldn’t exist at all. That’s for sure.”

So said Johnny Quaid, My Morning Jacket guitarist and first cousin of lead singer and chief song architect Jim James. Anyone who listens to My Morning Jacket is well aware of James’ fondness for reverb. Fans delight in telling stories about how James has recorded his vocals in a grain silo for optimal reverb effect.

“Jim actually has a chemical imbalance where he cannot survive without reverb,” Quaid said. “It’s like oxygen to him. He won’t even have a conversation with any of us unless he’s talking through a small amp. He walks around with a small amp on his belt and a mic, and talks to us all the time in reverb. It’s kind of disturbing.”

Quaid is your quintessentially affable Midwestern man, although “man” is really too serious-sounding a word to describe a guy who exudes such an easy-going, youthful charisma. And it’s not just his personality, but his looks, too. He’s handsome in that unmistakably Midwestern way. The guy looks like the lost Duke of Hazard. It’s a point of pride for My Morning Jacket that they don’t strike glam rock star poses for press pictures, but Quaid still usually ends up looking like a model out of an Americana-chic fashion ad. The guy can’t help it, and his bandmates make sure to point it out.

“I guess I’m flattered that my bandmates find me attractive,” Quaid said. “My girlfriend might be a little jealous about it, though.”

He paused.

“Or maybe she’s into that. I don’t know.”

Practically every syllable that falls out of Quaid’s mouth is laced with laid-back humor. That’s not surprising considering how well things have been going for My Morning Jacket these days. It Still Moves, the band’s third and newest album, is getting all kinds of love from fans and critics the world over. Their reputation as an unparalleled live outfit keeps getting stronger as they make circle after circle around the globe. And at the end of every tour, the group gets to head back to the rambling hills of Louisville, Kentucky, where they spend time with their families, girlfriends, and the lush grandeur of the Midwestern landscape that so informs their music. Like the rest of the band, Quaid pledges heartfelt loyalty to the town that shaped their sound.

“Tons of people have asked us, ‘Are you guys leaving Louisville now that you’re taking off?’ In my mind, our success is even a bigger reason to stay here. We tour so much that by the time we’re done, we want to go home. We’ve got so much more space there—fresh air, lots of room to breathe. It feels great after being in all of these congested cities, where you feel kind of suffocated. There might be one or two of us that are interested in trying out somewhere else for a short while, just to get a new vibe; a new perspective. But Louisville is home, and our studio out in the country is our creative haven.”

It would be interesting to see if My Morning Jacket could survive a geographical transplant. They don’t play bluegrass, but their mystical brand of roots rock is inextricably tied to the ethos of northern Kentucky. But if the band was forced to move, there’s a good chance they’d end up in the Netherlands.

“It’s like our second home,” said Quaid.

Shortly after the release of their first album five years ago, a journalist in the Netherlands got his hands on the record and had what must have been a transcendental experience. He went on to write a long, gushing story about the band, and the rest just snowballed from there.

“The writer had a friend who worked in a record shop who gave him a copy of Tennessee Fire and said ‘You need to listen to this,’” Quaid said. “Then he went on to write this article about how the album made him feel like a kid, and how amazing it was. The next thing we knew, we’re sitting in Kentucky working our day jobs, and we get a phone call from someone who wants to fly us to the Netherlands. The first thing we did was get a map to figure out where it was.”

What is it about My Morning Jacket that resonates with people half-way around the globe? Quaid reckons that their Kentucky heritage probably gives the band a certain mystique for Europeans who typically get the impression that interesting American music only comes out of bigger metropolitan areas.

“I think it might sound kind of exotic to them. Everybody in Europe is used to hearing all about New York, L.A., and Seattle. Kentucky probably sounds like an exotic place, and it might hold some kind of mystery for them.”

Quaid also thinks the listeners over there might be a little hungrier for innovative sounds than the mainstream American audience. “The people there are really open-minded and really searching for new, up-and-coming music,” he said. “They really have their ears to the ground.”

The band might not be as big in America as they are in Holland, but they’re quickly making progress. Now that they’re on Dave Matthew’s ATO label and enjoying the distributing power of RCA, My Morning Jacket is drawing ever closer to household-name status. Music critics have grown especially fond of them. From mainstream music writers to critics who delight in denouncing anything that reaches more than one-eighth of the population, My Morning Jacket has won nearly universal high praise.

“It makes me kind of nervous,” Quaid said, laughing again. “It’s just amazing. I really had no idea. We just made the record, and we all looked at each other the day we were finished and were like, ‘Wow. We’re really proud of this. If people love it, great. If people hate it, great too.’ Obviously it’s nice to hear people enjoying it and understanding what we were trying to do.”

Still, Quaid isn’t so naïve to think that the band is one a one-way trip to mainstream radio. When he talks about the possibility of My Morning Jacket getting heavy rotation on the airwaves, he recites the usual mantra of “We’re not worried about that. We just make the music we like.” But he also takes care to point out that radio wasn’t always dominated by anti-septic guitar pop and gauche, by-the-numbers R&B.

“You know, there was a time and a day when there were really amazing songs on the radio. A song like ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ for example. It was on the radio, and it wasn’t just a classic rock song—it was a great song by a contemporary artist.”

I suggested to Quaid that quality radio music seems to comes in cycles. Since it’s been over ten years since Nirvana and its ilk raided the airwaves, perhaps My Morning Jacket is cresting at just the right time. He reflected on that for a second.

“I agree that something’s got to change. I’m not saying that we’re the guys that are going to do it. But something’s got to give somewhere.”

Even if My Morning Jacket ends up radio regulars, don’t do yourself the disservice of missing their live show. It’s an entirely different experience than listening to their albums.

“When we’re in front of an audience, it’s just more natural for us to rock just a little bit harder,” Quaid said. “We get really excited, so everything is a little bit louder, a little bit faster—it’s just the right time and place to turn it up and go for it. That’s one thing we’ve always wanted to do, just to have a really exciting live show, and give everybody a good time. We still love to turn it down and get into a kind of dreamy atmosphere, but we also can’t help but want to rock out too.” In the end, it’s all just a matter of acting out the band’s collective childhood fantasies.

“We all grew up listening to Zeppelin, the Stones and AC/DC, and we all air-guitared to all of those things in our rooms with the lights out, jumping off of our beds and everything. We just try to recreate that every night. You close your eyes, and you’re thirteen years old again, jumping off your bed to a Led Zeppelin song.”

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