Q&A: James Vincent McMorrow

Joe Kellen

BY ROBERT LARSON

How has tour been going?

It’s been really good. I’ve done five shows solo, and then down in new places I haven’t been before. I think this is fourth show with the full band. Beautiful rooms. This is the opportunity I’ve been waiting for all year to present the show how I’ve pictured it in America. It’s been going pretty well, the reaction has been pretty incredible.

You’ve been touring since February, right?

We’ve actually been touring since I think December now, and pretty non-stop, so the last show is in Ireland, so that’ll be just over a year of touring.

Are you starting to get a little tuckered out from that?

No, not at all. Not in the slightest. I love touring, it’s my favorite place to be. I love it, I wouldn’t wanna be anywhere else. It’s tiring but it’s the thing you love. You’re tired for a minute and then you come to the venue and it’s exciting again. You move past the tiredness pretty quickly.

What’s different about touring with “Post Tropical” as opposed to “Early in the Morning”?

Aesthetically speaking, onstage, it’s night and day. It was very simple, very straightforward on the first record. With this one, there’s a lot more thought that goes into making it work live. It’s way more interesting for me, musically speaking, because you have to do a lot more, which is a lot more challenging. I don’t like to just coast during a show, I like to be completely in it. So you always have to be thinking three or four steps ahead in order to make the show work. We’re playing bigger rooms with a big lighting show, and it’s on a much bigger level.

What are you doing on this record that you couldn’t or didn’t do on “Early in the Morning”?

The first record, I would never even consider it a production. It was more of a guy in a room whittling an album into existence. The second record, there was much more thought that went into it, a lot more planning, and a lot of deliberate moves in terms of where I would go to record, how we would mix it and what we would record on. It was all very deliberately thought out. The first record, I had no options, and I made the best thing that I could with what I had. The same principle is true of the second record, but I had a lot more opportunities. I also had three or four years of really solid touring and traveling and growing as a musician, and achieving success. That changes your whole mindset. It’s a very different animal. It’s almost like two separate careers, but they’re forever linked.

How did you react to the success of the first album?

I didn’t really. The success of the first album was incredibly slow and incredibly deliberate. There was no eureka moment. I put the record out, a year went by, and a few people were turned on to it. Everyone that heard it liked it, but not that many people actually heard it. That was the first year. I’m always ambitious but I’m realistic. If I don’t have any money and I don’t have any people behind me, there’s only so much I can do. I’m always patient in that respect, but I always believe in the work completely. That first year it was about trying to establish a base, and then when I found labels to partner up with, it was about getting down and playing as many shows as possible.

We did a year and a half of that, and by the time we were done the album had sold 150,000 copies. Coming from zero that was amazing, but it happened over two and a half years so there was no “wow, this has suddenly changed and flipped.” I found myself slowly going back to places where there once was 200 people and eventually there ended up being 1,500 or 2,000 people. I feel quite lucky that it happened that way. I got to bypass the nervous aspect of a second record. I didn’t think about the success but I didn’t really feel it, I knew it was there but it hadn’t really pushed down on me in any way which was a really nice feeling.

When did you start writing “Post Tropical”?

We were touring. I’d written that song “Post Tropical” in that first year, in 2010. I wrote it and played it once live. It was very different than how it ended up on the record, but that was the first time I’d written something with the second album in mind. After that, I very much got down to the first record because things started happening at that point. Things started getting really busy and I didn’t really have time to focus on a second album. Toward the end of 2011, I started to think about it again and I had a little more free time so I went to the house in Ireland when I was back and used it as my studio. Eventually I found a studio in Ireland. Every free moment I had I was working on it, and when I was on the road I was working on it on my laptop. The ideas came together in bits and pieces here and there. I eventually had to run around and consolidate everything on one hard drive, go through them all and pick out the best ones. That’s always how it is with me. I tend to have a lot of my ideas scattered to the winds, and then I need to go back and gather them together and put them into some linear fashion. It was a two year process with “Post Tropical” before I actually started tracking.

You’ve said that you want this album to feel like the hip-hop records that you love. What are some of those records?

I’m a big Mobb Deep fan, I’m a big Nas fan. Even soul records that have a strong hip-hop influence, my favorite album of all time is Voodoo by D’Angelo, which has a very strong overt hip-hop influence. Hip-hop is a fairly rigid structure, but when you hear someone like J Dilla, who rather than looping an 8-bar drum loop, he would go and play the entire beat live on an MPC from start to finish, so there was this unquantized, unrigid fashion to it. That’s something that people like Questlove adopted and brought to records like Voodoo. Those are records that really resonate for me, that I still hold up today.

When I say hip-hop influence, people think “well you aren’t rapping on these records.” Rap and hip-hop to me are different things. Hip-hop is the aesthetic, the connection between those chords and those static beats, trying to find rhythm within quite static patterns and the idea of layering on top of layers. If you listen to a great hip-hop song, the chords rarely change. You listen to a lot of those [The] Neptunes songs, and when they get to the chorus and nothing changes. They don’t go to a B minor and say “this is the chorus now,” it’s still the same chords, they just layer on top. That was something that always fascinated me and something I wanted to explore on Post Tropical, the idea of layering pieces on top and not just having a huge cymbal crash to tell everyone the chorus is here.

What’s your opinion of “Yeezus”?

I love that record, I think it’s amazing. It’s a difficult record to listen to for sure, I think it’s an important album. My favorite Kanye album is 808s and Heartbreak, and people that love Kanye love it. What Kanye does brilliantly these days is he curates, he brings in the best people. The best people in the world do that, especially in hip-hop. I think Drake does that beautifully too. They find really interesting collaborators and they fold what that person does really well into the aesthetic they’re trying to achieve. I think Kanye has this clear vision for what he wants to do, he can just flip a switch and make a record like that and it’s completely brilliant. I really admire that. I think that it’s a beautifully dense, beautifully complicated, really aggressive piece of music that a lot of people found quite hard to listen to, but  I think the fact that it exists is worthy of celebration.

I think you’ll look back in three or four years and realize just how important [“Yeezus”] was. When “808s and Heartbreak” came out I don’t think people appreciated just how brilliant it was, and how important it was that a musician like that at that point in his career decided to strip away all of this production and limit himself to this really strict palette, and say, “everything I create is going to be with this drum machine, and everything is going to be very minimalist.” I think that [“808s and Heartbreak”] changed the landscape, and I think “Yeezus” has done that again. It probably won’t be fully seen for another three or four years just how important it is.

I loved that record, I thought it was an amazing departure from what he did on “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.”

Which is an incredible record, but they’re like different animals. It’s like he’s doing it so that in three to four years’ time it’ll make perfect sense. I don’t think Kanye’s doing something so that it will immediately — with that album, with “Yeezus,” I don’t think he was doing it to be a massive smash hit, I think he was doing it so that it paves the way for what’s to come next, which is what [“My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”] was. With [“808s and Heartbreak”] it was like, “let’s clear this palette, it’ll probably freak a few people out but when the next record comes you’ll understand it,” and I’m pretty sure that’s what’s about to happen [with Kanye’s upcoming record].

What’s behind the name “Post Tropical”?

I had that song first of all, the name of it was “Post Tropical.” It came from nowhere, really. It hit me when I wrote that song that it was very different from everything I had written up to that point, structurally speaking. The chords were a lot more complex, and the timing structure of it was different. So when people started asking me about the second record, I just kind of idly said that the music was sounding quite post tropical. Because I’d almost plucked it from the ether, I wanted to give it something that wasn’t like “oh, it’s leaning more toward aspects of my past.” I didn’t want to start going on and on for ages. The great thing about this day and age is that there’s so many subgenres, and if you say to someone “it’s post tropical,” they don’t wanna go “oh, what’s post tropical?” So they would just go “ok cool, that’s great.”

It just started as this really easy and quick way to get out of talking about the second record. And then it was at the top of every piece of paper, and everything I was writing started to feed into this idea of what “Post Tropical” actually meant, and the aesthetic of it, and the idea of sounds and pieces of music and ideas that were quite disparate in isolation, and folding them together in a way that made them cohesive. If you look at the album cover it looks like a very unified piece of art, but there’s elements in there that don’t belong together. That was again something that carried into the music, the idea of taking these things, like my love of bands like The National and Sufjan Stevens; really beautiful, broad, depthful chord structures, and trying to put that on top of a song like Glacier, where if you strip away all the music on top of that, the pattern is essentially a trap rhythm. That’s not something that would necessarily occur to a lot of people to do, but that was the idea, to fit something really beautiful on top of what essentially is a strip club rhythm. There was a lot of that thinking when I was making this. It all fed into this idea of Post Tropical. But it’s an album title, you know, people name their albums all sorts of things and they don’t mean anything. With this, it fed back into the idea of it as I went along.

You mentioned Sufjan Stevens and The National. What are some of your other current favorite acts?

I started listening to the Arca record a bit, and it’s very difficult. It’s really beautiful but he’s got a very forward-thinking mind and it’s almost too far ahead to catch up to sometimes. There’s moments in it where the songs just disintegrate, and it’s really jarring and strange. I think again, and not unlike “Yeezus,” I think the existence of music like that is important right now, and in four to five years’ time. You can already see it in records like the FKA Twigs record, which I really like, and aesthetically speaking I think she gets it better than anyone else gets it. I like those two records a lot, and I really love the Jessie Ware record. I’ve been a huge fan for years, and a lot of friends of mine ended up working on the record so I kind of got an insight into it before it came out. I think she’s an incredible singer, and I think it’s so thoughtfully worked out and so pure aesthetically, it just sticks to its motif brilliantly. I love that record. I also have a real soft spot for, like everyone else in the world, the Taylor Swift record.

Anything you can tell us about the next record?

I’m sitting in a room working on it right now. It’s, I think it’s pretty, I think people will like it. I’ve put a couple of songs out in the world recently, a song called “When I Leave” and there’s one called “You Know,” which have now gone onto the reissue of “Post Tropical.” The reason to put them out was to create the foundation for the third record, because I’ve been writing with a lot of people this year for their records, and that meant that I ended up writing a lot for what will eventually be the third album. The idea of sitting on records for years and not putting them out feels a bit redundant to me. I love the idea of making records and sharing them quite quickly, so this one’s coming together fast.

It’s much more simple, it’s much more direct, and it’s got a lot of the same aesthetic feels of Post Tropical. I think it digs into the R&B aspect even more, and it digs into the hip-hop aspect even more. The drums are a lot bigger and a lot more aggressive in places. There’s a lot of good choruses on it. I know it sounds really ridiculous to say “I just want to sing,” but I think that the greatest thing about this Post Tropical tour has been really stretching myself as a vocalist, and realizing it’s not about just wrapping it up in really thick production, it’s about really connecting a lyric and connecting a melody. That’s definitely where this third album is, is just big melody. They’re not big ideas, they’re very simple ideas and very direct ideas. I’ll see what people think. What I’m gonna do with it could surprise people, and it might come out quicker than they think. I’m just having fun with it at the moment, so we’ll see what happens.