A Conversation With Hiss Golden Messenger’s M.C. Taylor

The cover of Hiss Golden Messenger’s latest LP pretty much says it all: If the world is indeed headed for its final reckoning, we might as well go out grinning. On the surface at least, Jump For Joy (Merge) is bandleader M.C. Taylor at his most, well, joyful. It also may be his most fully realized batch of tunes, and it’s easily his least folky and most groove-focused—embracing R&B, reggae, new wave and a jazzy, refined rock spin that brings to mind Steely Dan.

Fifteen years in, could this be Hiss Golden Messenger’s definitive statement? It’s doubtful. Something tells us Taylor has a least another decade of great music in him. We checked in with him at home in North Carolina, just a few days after the death of yet another rock icon.

What’s your take on Robbie Robertson’s passing?
I’m a huge fan of the Band. I’d be hard pressed to think of a band that was more instructive to me at time when I was discovering the wild and wooly world of what I guess we’d call Americana now—or roots music. I definitely put on some of those Band records last night. They’re in my DNA. As a younger guy, I was kind of sucked into the Robbie-versus-Levon (Helm) thing. I talked to Amy Helm about it—the title tracks for her last two records were songs I wrote for her. When I was getting ready to have a conversation with Robbie a few years back, I asked Amy, “What’s the vibe here? I know your dad and Robbie had a publicly acrimonious split.” Amy’s position was like, “You know what? It’s all good. My dad was complicated. Robbie and I are buddies.” So I went with that vibe. I don’t know if you’ve read his book, Testimony, but it’s fucking great.

Is this album number 10 for Hiss Golden Messenger?
I’ve heard 10. I’ve heard more. I don’t think I’ve heard less, but I’ve definitely heard more. [Laughs] Often, when I’m forced to talk about how many records I’ve made, the subtext is, “Here we go again—another one.” Not that I’m not proud of my catalog. But, to me, the music continues to feel fresh and illuminating.

How was the creative process different on Jump For Joy?
When I set out to compose this record, I wanted to make something that wore the hope that’s always lurked around the edges of my music on its sleeve. The impetus for that came from living with my last record, (2021’s) Quietly Blowing It, which was deeply internal and inward facing. It’s quiet and very compact in a lot of ways, and it feels like the culmination of that strain of my music. I’ve made a lot of records that have danced in those inward places.

Jump For Joy definitely has a more extroverted feel.
Listening back to Quietly Blowing It when I was starting to write whatever came next, it occurred to that I couldn’t make a record like that again. With that album came all sorts of other stuff. It wasn’t just the emotional stuff we were collectively dealing with, but all this other shit: depression, anxiety, a lack of clarity about whether I could keep doing this. I’m getting older, my kids are getting older. I’ve missed so much at home because of this job that I have. I feel like I needed to flip my script a little bit or suffer from diminishing returns. Coupled with that is this absolutely incredible band that plays with me. Our live shows are very up, very cathartic. They groove. The path of least resistance was to chase the energy we have collectively onstage.

You employ keyboards with some interesting results on Jump For Joy. “Shinbone” has an interesting Talking Heads feel with that off-kilter synth line.
I know a lot about music, but I know absolutely zero about the Talking Heads. But I was insistent that we did a lot of melodic composition together as a band—and I know there are members who are big Talking Heads fans. That synth line on “Shinbone” is something Alex Bingham, my bass player, came up with when he was messing around with an MPC sampler. That little melody popped out, and everyone was like, “Wait, what was that?” It ended up being a really critical part of the music.

In video for the first single, “Nu-Grape,” you look like one of the Fruit Of The Loom guys.
[Laughs] That was so fun. Anyone who knows me would say, “Mike is a serious dude, but he’s also a pretty funny dude who doesn’t take things too seriously.” That’s not the picture of me you’d necessarily pick up if you listen to the first five or six Hiss records. I wanted to have a really good time making this video. We were thinking, “What would make it funny? Let’s get Jonny Fritz to be in it—he’s like a star waiting to happen.” I just wanted to keep it light.

What’s the story behind cover image?
Everything about making Jump For Joy felt easy, except for finding the cover. I was going all over the place trying to figure it out. Nothing felt like it was amplifying the music, and I was completely stumped. It was close to being problem because the deadline was approaching. There’s a picture that hangs on the wall of my house. It’s a photo I took maybe four or five years ago. We were swimming at the pool, and there’s so much there—certainly for me, because I know those two people better than I know anyone. I glanced up at it in the hallway and was like, “Wait a second, there’s something in it that feels like the emotions on the record.” I asked my kids whether it would be OK to use it, and I explained the ramifications of it. They said it was fine, but my daughter was like, “I wish I was older in the picture.” There’s nothing I could do about that.

—Hobart Rowland