Take Jim James from My Morning Jacket, Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis from Bright Eyes, and M Ward. Lock them in a ranch house on Zuma Beach, Malibu. And watch, amazed, as they transform into a supergroup, Monsters Of Folk. A 21st-century CSNY? Nope… “Our harmonies,” reckons James, “are a little better.” Words: Marc Spitz. Originally published in Uncut’s September 2009 issue (Take 148).
“I slept within three feet of Jim for 10 days straight while we were making this record,” says Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst of his new bandmate Jim James, moonlighting from My Morning Jacket. “Down on the beach in Malibu. I felt like we could have crossed arms.” At present, Oberst and James are both squeezed together on a green velvet couch in a suite at Lafayette House, a Victorian pied-à-tierre turned Lower Manhattan boutique hotel. Possibly the worse for wear after a night drinking at a nearby bar – Saint Dymphna’s, formerly Café Sin-é, where Jeff Buckley was discovered – Oberst is dressed in an expensive-looking cream-coloured sweatshirt and vintage zip-up boots. James, meanwhile, resembles a petrol-station attendant. Across the coffee table sit Matt Ward, greying, bespectacled and stoic, and Mike Mogis, an owlish, behind-the-scenes genius whose credits as de facto in-house producer at Oberst’s Saddle Creek label include Rilo Kiley, Bright Eyes and The Faint. Today, all four are Monsters Of Folk, a Traveling Wilburys of sorts, finally united on record and on tour this autumn, after five years of foreplay and fan speculation.
In some circles, the notion of a collaboration between these guys, all of them now indie heavyweights, has taken on the air of a storied bootleg, like the Lennon/McCartney/Stevie Wonder jam session circa ’74. Some green tea and coconut water arrives, coffee is made, and with elecotrolytes restored, this million-dollar indie-rock ‘bromance’ is deconstructed.
“You bring that easy breezy West Coast vibe,” Oberst tells Ward, when Uncut inquires about the band’s chemistry. “Mike and I have the work ethic and Jim brings that Southern spice.”
While indeed geographically disparate, they have still managed to play on each others’ records over the years, and even went out together in 2004 on a tour billed as An Evening With: Jim James/M Ward/Conor Oberst. Monsters Of Folk, it seems, is a nickname given to them by a crewmember in cheeky reference to Monsters Of Rock, the 1988 stadium tour headlined by Van Halen and featuring The Scorpions and a young Metallica.
“We tried to make a real name,” James says. “But it all just kept coming back to Monsters Of Folk.”
You know The Blasters’ Dave Alvin had an album called Monsters Of Folk?
“Yeah, they didn’t know, but we already had the name in the future,” deadpans Oberst.