Five years ago, when Jim James, Mike Mogis, Conor Oberst and M. Ward first toured together, they were a study in contrasts as well as in camaraderie. Ward, hauntingly delivering his own blues and folk-based tunes, took a spare, intimate approach. My Morning Jacket vocalist and guitarist James, on the other hand, was already reaching for the rafters with his keening, echo-laden voice. Oberst — with his long-time producer, multi-instrumentalist and Bright Eyes mainstay Mogis — offered both candor and drama in songs that fell somewhere between confession and fever dream.
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That was a rare, up-close opportunity to watch the interaction among these young artists, a send-off, in a way, as each went on to greater individual acclaim. But it was also just the beginning, a prelude to the collaborative adventure of making their first record together — an album years in the planning and months in the making, one that has turned out to be far more than the already impressive sum of their parts.
“It was never a question of where or how – it was just when,” say Ward of Monsters of Folk’s studio debut. “We knew we wanted to record an album after seeing that we had good chemistry on tour. I think we were all curious about what we could do if we went into the studio and recorded original songs. And now we have a built-in platform, which is Mike’s studio in Omaha.”
“We did it three parts,” explains Oberst. “The first session we did at Mike’s and my studio in Omaha, basically in Mike’s back yard. We built it a couple of years ago; we took all the money we ever made and created a really nice studio. That was cool because it was very low key. There’s great equipment but it’s really like our house. We did the first session there and we did the second session maybe three months later in Malibu, at a studio called Shangri-La, which is kind of old-school – the Band, Neil Young, all kinds of people recorded there.”
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“Having our studio in Omaha,” Mogis elaborates, “has helped me hone in on my skills as an engineer, and in particular, as a mixer. It’s also helped make the process more efficient, with three studios and with a guest house connected to them. We were able to create music in a variety of spaces, whether it was jamming out ideas in the guest house, where Jim and Matt stayed, or rehearsing and/or tracking some stuff in the B studio while we got other work done in the A room.”
There was just one rule for these sessions, Oberst explains: “We only wanted the four of us to play on it, no hired guns. We took turns playing drums, bass — it was really fun. It reminded me a lot of when I was a teenager and I’d get together on the weekend with some of my friends and we’d have a four-track and a practice space full of whatever. You weren’t really a band but you made songs together – we used to do that a lot in Omaha to kill time. The sessions were kind of like that but way more souped up, with a lot nicer stuff and a lot more experience. It had that feeling of adventure and experimentation, with everyone cheering each other on, encouraging each other to do things they don’t normally do.”
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James, who has lately been producing solo material under the moniker Yim Yames, concurs: “It was very peaceful and hilarious. No ego. No drama. Just a lot of song-trading and ideas floating around and good times. We worked hard on the songs and the ideas, but it never felt strenuous or rushed. There were several moments during the Malibu sessions where we would all be in the room recording all at once – on ‘Map of the World,’ for example, or ‘Losin Yo Head’ — and they were really magic. I think we all felt like we were in high school again, picking up new instruments for the first time and just losing ourselves to the moment and having fun.”
“We all experimented with instruments we had never touched before,” adds Ward. “I know I had never played some of the synthesizers that Jim brought in. Conor had never played steel drum before and it was a severe pleasure seeing Jim and Mike and Conor behind the drum kit.”
The wide-ranging instrumental palette is one clue that their name, Monsters Of Folk, should not be taken literally. It’s deliberately off-kilter, dashing expectations from the get-go. It also introduces a subtle, recurring theme of spiritual yearning/questioning that deepens, occasionally darkens, but finally uplifts the mood of the entire album. Though there are elements of country, blues, easygoing rock and, yes, folk to be heard throughout, the overall sound defies instant categorization.
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Laughs Oberst, “The name is very misleading, which I like. I think it’s good to have a little bit of misconception. If I had heard that name, I would think, first, that it’s a terrible name, and then I’d picture guys on bar stools, unplugged style, playing songs like that. But I think the record has a lot of different dimensions and I’m pretty happy with how it came out.”
To Mogis, the atmosphere of the disc “was just a natural thing that seems to occur when the four of us get together. There was never really any talk of any vibe or general direction for the album as a whole. We just were kind of making stuff up as we went along, so there was sort of an improvisational feel to the capturing of the songs. It also helped that we did the tracking sessions quickly — about eight days of tracking for the first session and six days for the second. I think that kept us on the same page and tight with one another. A session can get bogged down with too much analyzing, and indecision; we didn’t go there. And because it was just the four of us, I think you can hear our individual personalities all over the record, but coming together in a new, unique way that doesn’t sound like any one of our individual bands.”
“One thing we talked about,” says Oberst,” is that it had to be a band with its own thing, separate from each of us. We’ve all sang on each other’s records and we didn’t want this to seem like, here’s a Matt song with a cameo of Jim, we wanted it to be more cohesive and have its own identity. Each of the songs started with one of the songwriter’s ideas. Some songs were more fully formed insofar as structures, but a lot of them would have maybe a verse or a chorus, and we would play them for each other and help each other finish them, toss lyrical ideas back and forth. M would be like, what if we changed this chord to that one or extend the bridge? It would start with one person’s idea but then go through the filter of all four of us. And we would have equal say once the song was in motion.”
Each of them has described the project as a chance to discover something new from the others, to view the recording process from an altered perspective. Says Ward, “I learned about record production from everyone. There were a lot of twists and turns along the way because the record has four producers, but that was part of the thrill. I think those twists and turns stayed on the finished production and it makes for a good, wild ride for the listener – one where you are not exactly sure what’s around the bend.”
“It is such an amazing experience to be able to watch the way that other people work in the studio,” James agrees, “the way their minds solve problems and build from the ground up. Our voices are so different and some of our ideas are different, but we all share a profound love and joy for music and the creation of music and we all have a deep respect for each other in our similarities and our differences.”
Concludes Mogis, “The camaraderie and mutual respect between the four of us opened the doors for a uniquely creative experience. It’s something I haven’t experienced before and it’s really enlightening, I felt the energy I had when I made my very first record. It’s an invigorating feeling.”
Monsters of Folk embark this fall on a tour of big cities and hometowns in the U.S., with European dates to follow.
— Michael Hill