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Monsters of Folk are just playing around

Forming a supergroup seems an unlikely way to relax, but that's how indie darlings Conor Oberst, Jim James, M. Ward and Mike Mogis do it. They come to the Greek Theatre Oct. 18.

September 20, 2009|Margaret Wappler

At the Viceroy Hotel in Santa Monica, the Monsters of Folk pounced upon bottles of Kombucha tea with an enthusiasm befitting an '80s Juicy Fruit commercial.

All four members of the indie rock super group -- My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James; troubadour Conor Oberst and producer and multi-instrumentalist Mike Mogis, both from Bright Eyes; and M. Ward of six lovingly crafted solo albums and the duo She & Him (with actress Zooey Deschanel) -- are devotees to the fermented elixir that most would consider an acquired taste.

It's one of the many quirks the group bonded over while making its first album of sun-warmed and wind-swept folk-rock, out Tuesday on Shangri-La Music. The self-titled record, deceptively simple in its relaxed flow, is the byproduct of an idea that first germinated when Bright Eyes toured with M. Ward in 2001.

To the musicians' credit, the album's 15 robust and earthy tracks sound distinctively like each member but in service of a tight-knit, familial identity.

Starting next month, the Monsters of Folk, named with a wink by their road crew, will launch a 25-date tour, playing a little bit from each member's repertoire, to be figured out on the go. They'll come to L.A. for a performance at the Greek Theatre on Oct. 18.

Although it might be easy to make a comparison to the Traveling Wilburys, the late '80s collaboration among George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison, don't bother. When asked if they ever thought of the boomer power ensemble, Oberst breezily answered, "Oh, no more than we usually do."

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Monsters band together

The idea for Monsters of Folk, according to Oberst, who first presented it to his future bandmates, was simple: Get the four of them in a room and see what happens.

"It was different than our own separate projects where you might have a fierce vision of how you want it to come out and you struggle with that," Oberst said, tucked into one of the suite's mustard-colored chairs. "This was the opposite. We were all looking forward to seeing what the other would contribute."

In that first session, each musician came in with three song ideas, and the others fleshed them out with suggestions about lyrics, tempos or chords.

"There was a little bit of pressure, at least for me," James said, his voice tinged with a Kentucky accent. "I wanted to feel like I was bringing in a song that could hold up. I love all of their songs so much that I hoped mine were good enough."

The band is reluctant to pin individuals to songs, instead preferring to assign group credit to each composition, but many of the songs retain the fingerprint of their respective creators. "Slow Down Jo" has Ward's pristine yet scuffed sense of lullaby; "Temazcal" bears Oberst's visionary churn. The cheekily titled "Dear God (sincerely M.O.F.)" rings with James' soulful, spiritual wonder. "Goodway," which sounds like the sonic embodiment of a twinkling Midwestern night, includes a couple of solos and a bit of spoken word at the end.

Each member had a hand in production, though Mogis steered the proceedings. After an initial 10-day recording session in the Omaha studio Oberst and Mogis share, the musicians scheduled a weeklong follow-up in Malibu at Shangri-La Studios, a location tailored to the specifications of Bob Dylan and the Band.

The group worked fast, recording demos as soon as they had a shell. They each took turns with instruments they weren't familiar with -- playing the drums, James said, was akin to "riding a bucking horse, but that's what was fun about it. It was like going back to high school and starting your first band. It's not exactly accurate, but you're really stoked."

"It's fun to see your friends stretch," Ward said. "It doesn't matter who they are or what they do for a living, it's just inspiring. If they can try something new, maybe you can too."

Mutual admiration goes a long way in forming the glue of the band. "At one point when I was on drums," Oberst said, "and Jim did one of his amazing howls, I thought, 'So, this is what it's like to play in the Jacket.' "

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A vacation record

Throughout the process, which ended with a two-week mastering session in May, the guys kept an "anything goes" policy. They didn't belabor concepts or the vibe of the album; they just kept the atmosphere loose, drifting in and out for walks or rides into town.

"It felt like a higher level of camaraderie versus other records I've been a part of," Mogis said. "We were just kind of excited about making this group of particular songs come to life. It was way more collaborative and open than I'm used to seeing amongst bands."

Maybe part of the reason is that there was no sense of obligation hanging over the group. "If you're lucky enough to get where we've all gotten, which is a place where you can make money off your music," James explained, "you're grateful to be there, but it does turn into this thing where you have to make it work and provide for everybody. With this, it was like, go ahead and screw around. Have fun."

The result is an album that feels suspended in the kind of easy ramble that comes with vacation time. And it's rich with details that feel worn-in like the corners of a beloved book.

The Monsters of Folk plan to carry on in the future, but they haven't carved out time yet for the next recording. They want to keep it catch-as-catch-can, light and easy.

"As you get older," James said, "everything works that way. You're just squeezing in space for anything."

"It should always be as fun," Oberst said, "as it is right now."

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margaret.wappler@latimes.com

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