Interview Date: 01/06/2011
Run Date: 01/19/2011
You’d be hard pressed to find a band as much good will and bad luck as alt-country pioneers the Jayhawks. When they dropped their major label debut Hollywood Town Hall in 1992, many presumed that having Black Crowes producer George Drakoulias at the boards would mean instant success. (It didn’t.) When they released their 1995 watershed album Tomorrow the Green Grass at a time when bands like Hootie and the Blowfish and Dave Matthews were reshaping the charts, people thought that they would surely get a piece of the pie. (They didn’t.) Entertainment Weekly was so perplexed by their inability to move up to the next level that they did an article about them, where it was revealed that their road crew at the time made more per show than they did. Ow.The band soldiered on though, with guitarist Gary Louris taking the reins after the shocking departure of founder and primary singer Mark Olson shortly after Green Grass’ release. With Olson now back in the fold and a new record, the band’s first since 2003, on the way, the Jayhawks are ready to pick things up where they left off. Bullz-Eye’s resident Jayhawks devotee caught up with Louris at an Arizona hotel, where he spoke about the new album, the recent reissues of Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow the Green Grass, the potential reissuing of the post-Olson Jayhawks albums, and the insane decision to not gouge their fans on their upcoming tour.
Bullz-Eye: So what’s in Tucson?
Gary Louris: I’m mixing the new Jayhawks record, at this place called Wavelab, with a guy named Craig Schumacher.
BE: You and I spoke when you were promoting Vagabonds, and you told me that you did not see the Jayhawks making another album. May I just tell you how happy I am that you were wrong.
GL: (Laughs) Well, I’ve been known to be wrong before. I was wrong then, and I’ll be wrong in the future, but I think it’s just one of those where you don’t know what the future is going to hold. And little did I know that certain elements would come into play, such as [Jayhawks keyboardist] Karen Grotberg suddenly saying, “Hey, I’m open to touring,” or Olson and I re-forging our friendship again. If I were to go back, maybe I should have said we were just taking a hiatus as opposed to breaking up.
BE: Prior to the reissues, when was the last time you had listened to either Hollywood Town Hall or Tomorrow the Green Grass in their entirety, and how have your perceptions of the albums changed between then and now?
GL: I never listen to what I’ve done. I’m not one of those guys who sits around and listens to old records. In fact, I had to enlist my friend P.D. Larson from Minneapolis, who’s a former rock scribe, rock fan, and great writer. I had help salvaging and rummaging through the tapes for B-sides and bonus tracks, live shows and things like that. He’s been very helpful on our web site, www.jayhawksofficial.com, which has all kinds of archival stuff that will be fed in there. But I don’t think my perception of the record has changed much, because from day one I thought it was a great record, and to this day I still do. The sounds are amazing, and I couldn’t be more proud of the record from beginning to end, really. And I still feel that way; I think it’s aged very gracefully.
BE: Are you talking about Tomorrow the Green Grass?
GL: I’m talking about both of them, really. I mean, all of our records, I feel that way about. But we’re focusing on [Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow the Green Grass] now, and I think of them as a pair, certainly because George Drakoulias produced them, and they were done in L.A., and they’re of a time and done with a certain lineup, and I think it was the peak for that lineup.
BE: It’s good to see these B-sides finally get their day in the sun. A friend made me a tape in the ‘90s with “Keith and Quentin” on it, and for the life of me I could not figure out where that song came from. So it’s nice to see it here.
GL: There was always a wealth of songs, between Olson and myself, so I’m very happy that people can hear the B-sides, because they’re really good songs, too. They were well-recorded, and they’d be fun to put into a set list and expand our repertoire.
BE: These reissues were originally supposed to come out in October. Were they moved to sync up with the tour dates, or is that just coincidence?
GL: It was more like the tour dates were synced up with the pushing back of the albums. The release has been pushed numerous times, just like the anthology was pushed numerous times. It’s just the nature of the beast; things line up better in January than they did in October. It’s always been a waiting game for the Jayhawks; we’re competing with bigger acts, and when you start getting into that latter quarter of the year, everybody and their brother are putting out things for Christmas gifts. It’s harder for bands like us to get noticed, but it’s easier in the earlier part of the year. But when you look at the Jayhawks – 20 years together, seven records – there was always a lot of waiting. And that’s the label trying to find a time to release the record with the most impact.
BE: Are there any plans to reissue the post-Olson albums, or did the bonus disc to Music from the North Country cover any unreleased material from that period?
GL: The plan is to re-release all of them. I don’t know when exactly it will happen, but they’ll definitely release Sound of Lies, Smile and Rainy Day Music over the course of the next year or so. There are also plans for some kind of DVD set, get some more of the rare stuff out there, and hopefully some vinyl. They’re doing it right.
BE: Let’s talk about the Mystery Demos [a group of songs Louris and Olson recorded before recording Tomorrow the Green Grass, many of which made the record] for a second. When you went back and listened to them, was there a song that made you think, “Damn, we shouldn’t have given up on that one”?
GL: Certainly. I think there was a bunch of them that were like that. For instance, “Turn Your Pretty Name Around,” Mark and I ended up doing it on Ready for the Flood. Or “Poor Michael’s Boat,” which he put on his first solo record Salvation Blues. There are so many songs, and even for this new record, we explored a few of them from those sessions and rewrote them. But I think this new record is going to end up being all new songs.
BE: What is the vibe of the new material? Does it sound like a Jayhawks record, or does it sound like the album you and Mark did a couple of years ago?
GL: Definitely sounds like a Jayhawks record. The plan was to make a record that would have sounded like the natural progression from Hollywood Town Hall to Tomorrow the Green Grass, had Olson stayed in the band. It has a lot of heavy rock songs, and some of the ballad-y kind of things, but it’s definitely more up-tempo, and it’s definitely plugged in.
BE: It was interesting for me to hear “Leave No Gold” for the first time, because it immediately reminded me of “Pray for Me.” Was that conscious on your part, or am I just hearing things?
GL: (Not following) Um…
BE: It’s a vocal melody. The chorus in “Leave No Gold” reminds me of the verse to “Pray for Me.”
GL: (Pause) Yeah! That wasn’t conscious; it’s the first time I’ve thought of it. (Sings lines from both songs) I think it’s the rhythm of the vocal, rather than the melody and the chords, but I’d have to sit and listen to it. I guess we’re ripping ourselves off. We’ll settle in court amongst ourselves. But that was certainly not a conscious decision. I’ve always loved “Leave No Gold,” and it’s always been one of my favorites to pull out live. Don’t know why it didn’t make the record, but it just didn’t.
BE: Let’s talk about the tour. Of the songs you’re performing in your upcoming shows, how many of them are songs that you’ve never played before?
GL: I don’t know. We’ve played a certain number of shows with this lineup in the last couple years, three in Spain and four in Minneapolis. So we’ve really only played, I believe, seven shows over the last couple years. So we have a certain body of work that we cull from, but now that these reissues have come out, there’s the bonus tracks, and the anthology, and of course new songs. We’ve all had our noses to the grindstone trying to finish this record, and trying to make it the best it can be, so we have yet to turn our attention to which songs exactly we’re going to play that we haven’t played before. That has to be decided in the next 11 days or so. We have to rehearse and see what sounds good. I don’t know how many bonus tracks we’re going to be able to pull out, or new songs, so it has yet to be seen.
BE: I just thought that in preparing to play two albums in their entirety, you probably have to rehearse more material that you’ve ever had to rehearse for a single tour.
GL: Well, certain songs you just don’t have to rehearse, because we’ve played them so many times in our life. I probably don’t ever have to rehearse “Waiting for the Sun” again. But there are certainly songs that we didn’t perform live from either album that wound up not working into the set, like “Ten Little Kids.” I have to think about the last time we played that. But there will be some homework for everyone. And it may evolve over the course of the tour, what extra songs we’re doing. It’ll mostly be the record, and a few B-sides, and a few of the new songs, hopefully. We’ll touch on both records both nights, but we’ll put the accent on Hollywood Town Hall the first night, Tomorrow the Green Grass the second.
BE: You answered my question about whether you’d be playing any new material, but I was wondering if you’d be playing anything you recorded after Mark left the band.
GL: I think eventually, as we start to tour more. Mark has never, ever said, “I don’t want to do any [Jayhawks songs recorded] after I left.” He’s very open. In fact, in Minneapolis, we did something off Smile, and even when Mark and I would play as a duo, we’d do things like [Rainy Day Music song] “Angelyne,” He’s open to it, but I don’t know how many of those will pop up; probably not on this round, just because of limited time. I’m mixing [the new album] here, and won’t get back until the day before rehearsals start, so that will dictate what we play live. But as we tour more, I think we’ll start delving into those records, especially when they’re re-released.
BE: That’s good to hear, and it’s only fair given how much work you put into keeping the band going.
GL: Yeah, he’s never said, “I won’t do this or that,” and he’s never given me that vibe. It’s just easier to get our wheels under us by working on material that we made together.
BE: I have to compliment you on the decision to keep the ticket prices low. You probably could have charged double what you’re asking for, and gotten it without question. Were there any conversations about that?
GL: There have been in the past. I’ve just had so much on my plate, between recording, mixing and producing this record, I’ve had a lot on my hands. But I’ve had discussions with our booking agents in the past, saying, “I don’t want to look back and say, ‘We were the highest priced tickets on that calendar,’” because I’d rather have more people see us than squeeze a penny out of people.
BE: “We really gouged ‘em this year!”
GL: Yeah, I have done that before – not gouged – but I’ve pulled into a town …we used to say, “We’re not going to pay attention to the business, or worry about our web site.” Of course, when we started, they didn’t have web sites, which is funny to think about. But we didn’t pay enough attention to the business side, and I’d find out later, “Oh, those tickets are kind of expensive.” So we’ve made it clear to our promoters that we want to have a fair price for the show, and we seem to have succeeded.
BE: Well, as a father of two, I have to tell you that I’m most grateful for you doing this.
GL: Yeah, you’re coming to which show?
BE: I live in Ohio, but I’m coming up for the Chicago show.
GL: Where in Ohio do you live?
GL: I’m from Toledo.
BE: Are you really? I did not know that. I’ve always thought of you as a Minneapolis guy.
GL: No, I moved to Minneapolis to go to college. A lot of my friends went to Ohio State, and Miami, and Ohio University.
BE: I’m an OU grad.
GL: I’ve spent a lot of time down in that area, so go Buckeyes.
BE: I’m sure you’ve noticed that the two shows where you’re playing Tomorrow the Green Grass in its entirety were among the first shows to sell out. What do you think it is about that album that inspires such devotion from the fans?
GL: I’d have to look at the calendar to know if it was that album as opposed to the day of the week [that’s causing those shows to sell out first], because they’ve both sold neck and neck – and funnily enough, I think Rainy Day Music sold more – but Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow the Green Grass were always neck and neck in popularity and sales. So I don’t know if it’s the day of the week, or whether Tomorrow the Green Grass, they choose that one. I mean, we’re going to touch on both records both nights, but there will be an accent on the one. Well, on Tomorrow the Green Grass, we expanded a bit and we experimented more, but I don’t think one’s better than the other, necessarily. Now, you could say that “Blue” certainly got people’s attention, but “Waiting for the Sun” was all over the place on MTV, much more than anything off of Tomorrow the Green Grass. It a tough call; I don’t know what is the answer to that, because I never thought one was much more popular than the other.
BE: My personal theory is that it’s Karen.
BE: She’s the secret weapon, because you guys harmonize so well together.
GL: Her voice is incredible, and she came on after we recorded Hollywood Town Hall. She was on those tours, but she wasn’t on that record. I think Karen’s the glue, and she certainly adds another dimension. This new record is the first one we’ve recorded with Tim [O’Reagan, Jayhawks drummer], Karen, [bassist Marc] Perlman, Olson and I, so we have four vocalists who can sing. So I think that’s really cool.
BE: Last year also saw the release of the Bunkhouse Album [a.k.a. The Jayhawks, the band’s countrified 1986 debut]. Why did that one stay unreleased for so long?
GL: Confusion, lack of priorities…there was a lot of confusion over legal rights to that one. People were confused as to who owned the right, between American and Lost Highway as to who owned it. And I think that delayed [the release], and that on top of the fact that people weren’t buying records much, it wasn’t a priority. I’d resend the same email saying, “When is this coming out?” And finally, it’s out.
BE: I’m assuming we’ll be hearing some of that in the set, too?
GL: I haven’t thought about that. We did a little bit of that when we played three shows at [Minneapolis club] First Avenue in June. We went so far as to bring up our first drummer for a few songs, and that was fun. I hadn’t thought about that, but that’s a good point. We could bring those songs in, and we have new material, old material, bonus material…all of a sudden we have a lot of stuff to cull from. And again, I think it will be an evolution as we play more.
BE: Let’s look at the year 2011. You’re mixing the record; when do you hope to have it out?
GL: Late spring/early summer is the plan.
BE: Do you have a label, or are you releasing it yourselves?
GL: Yes, it’s Rounder/Concord.
BE: Seems like a good fit for you guys.
GL: Yeah. The head of Rounder is an old friend of mine, and he just seemed to be really excited about it, and that’s important.
BE: Well, thanks again for talking with us about it. I can’t wait to see the show, and I’m dying to hear the record. I’m just glad to see you guys are working together again. This’ll be the year.
GL: Yeah, I’m excited about the new record and everything that’s going on.
BE: Thank you, Gary. Take care.GL: Thank you. See you in Chicago.