Q&A with Gary Louris: Surviving 30-Plus Years with the Jayhawks and Still Going Strong
May 1, 2017 | by Greg Gaston
Not many great bands survive 30-plus years together and still make music worthy of their prime. Bloated, classic-rock beasts still stagger through the years, somehow groggily intact — minus a few original members and their hair — but the music has long lost its raw potency, having typically devolved into fuzzy, power-chord nostalgia. Is it even possible to endure so long, and still retain some of that vital spark from the beginning? If so, what would that sound like?
Well, it might sound like the Jayhawks, a band who — despite exemplifying the rock ‘n’ roll template of relentless road trips on the heels of revitalizing studio records, inevitable break-ups, intermittent reunions, and substance abuse issues — still produce some of their best music and possess the will to keep on keepin’ on.
This longstanding Minneapolis band, formed in the mid-1980s — and often acknowledged as one of the forefathers of alt-country — released their ninth record last year, the galvanizing Paging Mr. Proust, an exuberant echo of past glories swirling in fresh sonic textures with hints of krautrock and looped synth electronica alongside their more familiar pop-rock. It's their first release since 2011's uneven Mockingbird Time, their brief reunion with co-founder Mark Olson. Co-produced by Peter Buck of REM and Tucker Martine, Proust was one of the most welcome surprises of the past year.
Lush, burnished harmonies resonate through Louris' tunes. Keyboardist Karen Grotsberg's and drummer Tim O'Reagan's elegant vocals shade Louris' reedy timbre on Proust's anthemic opener, “Quiet Corners and Empty Spaces.” Co-founder Marc Perlman's bass burbles out melodic leads to open the lovely throwback, “The Devil is in Her Eyes,” and Louris' ragged guitar coda closes it. “Comeback Kids,” a loping electronic mantra, tumbles out like some infectious, art-rock overture, all dissonant lead guitar and synth-swirl surprise.
From the title, Paging Mr. Proust, to certain lyrics, the rich, literary allusions imbue nuance and depth to a master songwriter's craft — blues guitars and remembrances of things past.
Blending diamond-hard hooks, rock classicism, and an infallible sense of harmony, the Jayhawks still radiate an artful bliss. I have seen them on their recent tour, and for two hours they lift Louris' bittersweet pop nuggets up in cathartic crescendos — songs that should have been bigger contenders in a better world. They play Minnesotan twang and crunch classics from Hollywood Town Hall like “Waiting for the Sun,” which crowned them on the Roots map in the early '90s, to the Beatlesque soul-swoon of “Trouble” from 1997's Sound of Lies, the first post-Mark Olson album, and still possibly their best — a psychedelic-pop dream of disillusion awash in jaded poetry and majestic chords stacked in sky-blue melancholy.
As a bonus this year, the Jayhawks support Ray Davies, one of their heroes, and play as his backing band on the new Americana record. Befitting Davies' memoir of the same name about his career-long travels in America, he wisely chose the Jayhawks, a quintessentially American band, to lend their patented, Midwestern harmonic grain to his wry English delivery. This suits them, for — as always — they serve the song rather than the ego, and early Brit Invasion has always influenced Louris. This isn't the first time; they backed up artist/producer Joe Henry in the early '90s on a few of his dusk-twang classics, such as Kindness of the World.
Most of the time, the Jayhawks' music strikes a vintage too often ignored by the pop world at large. Like many a pioneer band — the Big Stars, the Velvet Undergrounds, the Uncle Tupelos — their influence trumps record sales by far.
Between releasing solo records, including a duet with Django Haskins called Au Pair, and producing records for bands like the Sadies, Louris consistently delivers with a veteran's grace. Still, the Jayhawks are his first love, and in speaking by phone with Louris from his Minneapolis home, it's easy to hear his inherent pride as he discusses his band and Paging Mr. Proust.
NO RECESS!: At this stage in your career, and after a few recent changes in the band [adding Jeff Lyster on second guitar], is it a relief to return to the fold, so to speak, and tour in support of a new Jayhawks’ record?
GARY LOURIS: I worked on my own, but at this time in my life I needed structure in a band with these particular people. I think going through a lot of stuff that I went through, like rehab, you find a new appreciation for things you have, instead of always thinking of what you don't have or what you could have. I realized this band is fantastic and they're my home — and I needed them. Whether they needed me, I don't know… musically maybe [chuckle].
NR!: Between the record title and various lyrical allusions, there are many literary references sprinkled throughout this record. How did you come up with such an enigmatic title?
LOURIS: I do read, though I'm not a huge reader. What I do read is usually heavy. The Proust reference came from a friend of mine who knew the material, and she'd been traveling and happened to be in the Amsterdam airport and thought she heard Marcel Proust being paged in the airport. I got to Proust through John Updike — Proust was his hero. She told me that, and I just loved that.
NR!: How do these allusions help thematically shape the record? Do these authors share a common vision with you, in your view?
LOURIS: I don't know, you know, I have a lot of books, though I don't always read them. I have them around me. I wasn't trying to present myself as this grand intellectual — it just sort of happened. I hadn't read much David Foster Wallace, but I read a good quote by him, and it sang so well... I've since read his stuff, and there's a thread between John Updike, Wallace, and Proust — they all tend to write about the quotidian life in a way. Very, very detailed and very much about staying on that subject and really digging deep, and uncovering details you would never see if you just skimmed along the surface. I think that became part of the concept of the record, after some reflection that the world has kind of lost its thread. Time is the most important thing now, everything is about getting faster. And I don't see where it's really benefited the world. In general, I think people would benefit by slowing down and being more appreciative of what they have, rather than getting to some place faster.
NR!: In considering these writers, there’s an obvious melancholy, contemplative tone connecting much of their fiction. The Jayhawks definitely share this core of wistfulness in the music. Do you naturally gravitate toward writing about the more reflective concerns of life?
LOURIS: I can't seem to get away from the melancholy. I'm never going to be the one who writes party songs. I had a friend who sent me some happy songs to cheer me up, and she asked me to send her some of my favorite happy songs, and I was kind of stumped and couldn't think of any — maybe some James Brown — but I had trouble finding something more contemporary. Even the happy songs I love have some kind of melancholy, and I'm drawn to that kind of person. I find my son is drawn to the same stuff. I think it's because there's a kind of depth with melancholy (that might not be there with your good-time party songs) that reflect what the world is, and it's not always a happy place. But it's kind of this feeling that you're looking back and taking stock — whether it's things like “Moon River,” I love that song, or Ennio Morricone's theme to “Once Upon a time in America,” or “For the Good Times” by Ray Price. Looking back, they're kind of sad, but they're also beautiful — and to me, that's kind of life. I try to write faster, happier songs, but they usually are forced.
NR!: Strong, inventive melodies characterize the Jayhawks’ catalog, and have been a constant feature in your work even during the ‘90s’ grunge years. Is melody consistently the main ingredient in your songwriting approach?
LOURIS: I always felt like we would be huge if it was 1970. I am drawn to a certain song structure, I'm never trying to write a song that recalls the ‘60s or ‘70s. I can read music, but I never took theory, but there's a certain sort of melody scale used in older music. I saw it kind of go away in the grunge period, where the music got dark and had a much uglier sound. I'm drawn to an uplifting sound with money chords, chords that turn your head a bit, and I'm always going to be that way. But yeah, mixing the somewhat triumphant, uplifting chords with somewhat darker lyrics is the right chemistry, because otherwise you get too much sweet like the Archies or something, or too much darkness and it's just a bummer to listen to. I like to do a song that is somewhat cathartic and gives you some hope, and allows you to purge a little bit so you walk away feeling better instead of worse.
NR!: Lasting 30-plus years off and on through turmoil and turnover is a feat for any band, especially without the benefit of mainstream popularity and sales. Have you found your niche? Do you pride yourself on being a bit of a cult band, and still lasting over three decades?
LOURIS: I identify with Big Star and the Velvet Underground. I don't necessarily say we're as good as them, but there's a list of bands that appear to be much bigger than they actually were — certainly with the public — but proved to have lasting impact. I've come to the acceptance that we're a cult band and we probably always will be. People say, “That's cool,” and I say, “No, it isn't.” It just means you have just enough fans to keep you going, and it almost drives you nuts to keep the boat afloat as a business. But musically we always feel we have something to say and nobody is quite like us. It seems like the people who love us really love us, and other people don't know who the hell we are. I was shocked that in the last few years the Ramones' first record finally went gold, taking 30 or 40 years to go gold, while these other bands sell exorbitant amounts.
NR!: The Jayhawks’ sound changed after Mark Olson left the band after Tomorrow the Green Grass for the first time. Did you intentionally emphasize the pop-rock elements of your music then instead of the more roots-laden sound you shared with Olson during his tenure in the band?
LOURIS: Mark Olson certainly had less of a rock leaning, although he wrote some great rock songs and has it in his DNA. Certainly when he left the band, we felt we could explore some other territory. When the Jayhawks started, country was a new discovery for us. I was in this British cover band, and somebody exposed me to the Elvis Sun Sessions, and that was all new to me, because all I had listened to before that were the Sex Pistols, the Vibrators, Buzzcocks, Bowie, the Kinks, Led Zeppelin, and the Beatles. Those were the bands I cut my teeth on. Those were my roots.
NR!: Minneapolis, your hometown, had such a vibrant, rocking indie music scene back in the ‘80s — certainly, at least the equal of Seattle’s later grunge decade. Did the Jayhawks stand out in that scene because of the twang in your music?
LOURIS: The Jayhawks kind of tapped into this period where Olson and I both came upon all this American music. We defined our own little pocket, and from there we found our own voice. But it was always a little restricting. To me, it's a small part of what we do, the soulfulness of traditional American music that is sometimes lacking in pop music. I absorbed that and tried to put that in pop songs. At the end of the day, I don't listen to any music that I seem to make, and the rootsy side of it is there, but there's so much more there, pop and rock and krautrock and British stuff.
NR!: Did you always find the alt-country label too limiting or reductive for your music?
LOURIS: I think alt-country is a bit misleading, and probably more applicable to us early in our career. I mean, would you call Wilco or Beck, people like that, alt-country? No, I wouldn't say that. Beck can turn out a record that's country-rock but then turn around and do something completely different. That's what I like in an artist, someone who crosses the genres, mixes it up and makes it his own. That's kind of what we are. I grew up listening to King Crimson, early Genesis and Yes, way before I ever heard of Gram Parsons or Gene Clark, and that's what I tend to listen to now. I can't stand listening to any [music like ours], which reminds me of work. Alt-country can be a very cliched genre. I would rather much listen to Hawkwind or krautrock any day.
NR!: Do you envision the Jayhawks continuing indefinitely? What are your future plans?
LOURIS: The idea is that we keep going. I don't know what it is, but most bands seem to peak at an early age and put out their best material early on. Let's face it, very few bands put out their best work later in their careers. I think we're carrying the flag a bit for people who do their best work later in life and are not 21 anymore. The plan is to continue to make another Jayhawks record, though I will probably put a solo record out first. I don't want to be on the road in 10 years. Part of it is out of our hands; if we can make enough money to survive we will continue, but it's always a bit day-by-day for us.
For me, the creating is much better than the entertaining, meaning it's fun and I'm a ham and like to get up on stage. We're not a jazz band, we're not creating something brand new every night. Our show is a different deal where we're creating something every night. Performing is kind of like the requirement I enjoy, but if I could I would rather be in the studio creating things — that's my first love.