Interview with Gary Louris (The Jayhawks)
The Jayhawks are without question one of the most important roots rock bands of the last 25 years, yet they remain under appreciated for reasons that escape conventional logic.
Gary Louris and Mark Olson have been the band’s chief songwriters and vocalists over the years, however Olson has been a part of only five of the band’s eight studio albums (the first four and then again on 2011’s Mockingbird Time). Though the band’s mid-90s albums Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow the Green Grass were the group’s most successful commercially, the three albums that came next (without Olson on board) cannot be overlooked, and highlight the strengths of Louris as an able front man, with or without Olson’s presence.
Earlier this year, the band reissued all three of these albums (Sound of Lies, Smile and Rainy Day Music), along with demos and outtakes left on the cutting room floor of each session. To celebrate these reissues, the band spent much of the Fall touring the East Coast and Midwest, playing mostly music from those three records. And now, beginning in January, it’s our turn. The group will be doing a mini West Coast tour that makes a stop at Portland’s Aladdin Theater on January 7th.
We had the chance to catch Louris on the phone a couple of days ago to discuss the current lineup and more. Here is that interview.
Portland Live: I’ve noticed that the Jayhawks lineups have changed here and there over the years can you talk to me about the current lineup of the band that’s going to be on this West Coast tour?
Gary Louris: Yeah, because we’ve been a band for so long it’s just kind of inevitable unless you’re U2, you know, to have some changes. We’ve had a pretty stable lineup for the most part but this lineup is the lineup that made Sound of Lies so it’s the ‘96/’97 lineup through like 2000 with some changes… Karen left in ’98 or ’99, you know because she had a baby and she’s back now. It’s Kraig Johnson, Marc Perlman, Tim O’Reagan, Karen Grotberg and Jessy Greene. And we have an additional person, a guy named John Jackson who’s playing mandolin and fiddle. He’s just a big fan and friend and he’s a great musician and he was our point person at Sony Legacy. Out of the goodness of his own heart he just signs up and plays with us… kind of a big lineup.
PL: Is that kind of a new thing, having a mandolin in the band?
GL: Yeah, yeah it is. On The Sound of Lies tour we had Jessy and she played violin but we’ve never really had a mando player and John knows every song, whether it’s “Somewhere in Ohio” or “Angelyne,” you know he’s on there playing mando just because we love having him up there.
PL: What can fans expect you guys to play on this tour? Are you going to be covering songs from just the albums you’ve reissued lately or is everything kind of on the table?
GL: We are concentrating on those three records because that’s really the purpose of these tours. We don’t have any new material out. The reason that we got together in the first place to do this was because we wanted to celebrate the reissues of Sound of Lies, Smile, and Rainy Day Music, and in addition to that, these are records that haven’t been performed much lately or at all. The Sound of Lies touring was pretty minimal. When we got together in, what was it, 2009 or so to celebrate the reissues of Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow the Green Grass, with Mark Olson, he wasn’t on those three records so we couldn’t really find a place for him in that music and it was hard to figure out how to do it and so a lot of these songs are songs that haven’t been performed that much in the last ten or fifteen years. We will play other songs from our whole catalog but the majority of the material will be from those three reissues.
PL: Are there plans beyond the West Coast tour? I know you guys were touring in the Fall playing with roughly the same lineup.
GL: Yeah, well not with Jessy. It’s a lot for us to have seven people but you know, Jessy is a special honorary member and she lives out in L.A. and it just seemed like it made sense to have her come out. We’re out in her turf and whenever we can have her, we can but usually it’s a luxury to have six people let alone seven. We go directly after this West Coast tour down to Mexico and we’re there for five days and playing at this festival called Todos Santos. It’s a festival put on by Peter Buck (R.E.M.) who lives down there in this small town in the Baja area and we’ll hang out there for five days and play and hang out with a bunch of other musicians like Old 97’s are down there and the Autumn Defense and Joseph Arthur and Chuck Prophet. I think Conor Oberst is coming the following week and Drive-By Truckers so it’s kind of this big confluence of like-minded people, it’s fun. Beyond that we have some sporadic shows and we’ll see, we may start getting in a room together and see if we still got it.
PL: That’s what I was kind of leading up to, it sounds like there aren’t any concrete plans to get into the studio but it sounds like that’s a possibility?
GL: Yeah. You know we’ve done this now with this lineup and it’s just been really fun and we really love playing together. The last record that we made leaves a little bit of a bad taste in my mouth, we just didn’t have it… we didn’t have it. That record was probably made for the wrong reasons, we felt like we should have a record because we were going out to promote reissues and now it’s more like we really like playing together and let’s see if we can write some cool songs and then maybe we would make a record and if not we won’t do it just to make a record. You know we all have a lot of other things we’re doing, I don’t think the Jayhawks will ever be like 90 percent of my time like it used to be but I think that there’s a place to do it and it helps to feed other things like solo projects and things like that. I just enjoy it a lot more than I used to.
PL: At Portland Live, we obviously focus on live music, I wanted to get your two cents or can you speak to me maybe a little bit about the differences for you between playing live and playing in the studio. Do you prefer one over the other?
GL: I think I prefer the studio just because the creation is always the most exciting (part). I see myself more as a composer and a recording artist than I do an entertainer. I’m not gonna be James Brown ever, I’m not gonna be Iggy Pop, so we’re not going to be the jump around entertainers but neither were The Band, people like that, I think they were just great musicians. From way back I think the Jayhawks always had the aspiration to be both a great live band and a great recording band because let’s face it, there are a lot of bands that made great records who weren’t that good live and a lot of great live bands that didn’t make very good records so we always wanted to be both and I think we’ve achieved that but if I had a choice I’d rather sit and make new music and make records than to go out and promote something that’s already been recorded, however it is fun to get out there and play because the synergy of the audience and amongst the musicians themselves is always a rush.
PL: So that being said, have you had a show that you guys have played in the past that you really had a desire to release as a live record?
GL: We have, though I don’t know that we’ve captured that magical night or nights. There was a time in 2005 or so when we were kind of winding down and we had played some really great live shows, in fact I think Luke Lewis of Lost Highway (Records) saw us in Nashville and we were really kind of on fire and he suggested we make a live record but by the time we organized all that, we had been off the road for a month and then we had a series of like three farewell shows in 2005 I think it was at First Avenue in Minneapolis and they at the last minute got an engineer in there and a board and mic’d everything and we had a choir and we did three nights and that started to be mixed and then that got kind of shelved. As time went on it just didn’t coalesce for some reason. It’s hard for me to know whether those shows had the magic or not because we never really got far enough in the mix. You know maybe it was just one of those things where I didn’t know if those were the greatest shows but if you go back and time passes and all of those things that get in your way go away, sometimes you go, you know, those were great shows! So those exist but they’re just in some kind of disarray. It’s always work for us just to get our regular stuff out, I mean some of the reissues– Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow the Green Grass–I think are already out of print again and it’s like we have to fight for it because we didn’t sell enough records to have people see it as a commercial venture to keep these records out there so we always have to keep pushing the record companies to say, “hey, we need these out again,” so a live record is a little bit further back on the priority list.
PL: Understandable, we’d love to see it but I completely understand. Well I’d really like to thank you for taking some time out of your schedule to chat, we look forward to your show upcoming at the Aladdin Theater.
GL: Yeah! I love Portland. I definitely love Portland. Every time I watch Portlandia I feel like I’m back there [laughs].
PL: Yeah it’s been fun to watch a comedic take on how weird we are.
GL: Yes it is and it’s always felt a little bit like Minneapolis, it’s got a great music scene and definitely has an artistic bent to it so it’s always one of those cool towns to come to.
PL: Absolutely! Well thanks again Gary, and Happy New Year!
GL: Yeah, you too, be well.