At the end of 1995, Gary Louris had a problem. A big one.
His band, the critically acclaimed Minneapolis-based Jayhawks, was just starting to gain some commercial traction after a decade of existence at the front of the No Depression/Americana/alt-country pack. Their release earlier that year, Tomorrow the Green Grass, was (and is) considered a masterpiece, and single "Blue" seemed to have them poised to break even more.
Then, Louris's fellow singer/guitarist/songwriter Mark Olson quit, relieving the band of their co-leader and, more importantly, one half of the harmony vocals that were their trademark.
"It was a shock when he first left, but it wasn't entirely unexpected." Louris says today. "I could see it coming, and the initial thought was to [disband]. But in the ensuing weeks, it became clear that the band was eager to continue. And we took it as an opportunity to explore our real roots, which in my case was English rock and art rock. Roots music for me came later."
The Jayhawks have just released remastered versions of the three post-Olson records, Sound of Lies (1997), Smile (2000), and Rainy Day Music (2003). All are replete with bonus tracks of alternate takes, demos, live cuts, and unreleased songs from the band's voluminous archives, of which Louris is the keeper.
"I have every DAT tape, poster, and set list," he says. "Even a cassette of the band's first rehearsal."
Louris has also reconstituted the band's 1997 touring lineup of himself, co-founder Marc Perlman (bass), longtime member Tim O'Reagan (drummer/vocals), Karen Grotberg (keyboards), and Olson's guitar replacement, Kraig Johnson. A worldwide tour going into 2015 will concentrate on material from these three albums.
Louris was kind enough to discuss the three reissues and where they fit into the band's discography.
Sound of Lies A radical, fairly shocking departure from the band's traditional sound, this psychedelic/art-rock effort has nonetheless grown in stature over the years. Though its creation came out of a what-the-hell desperation.
"We thought this would be the last record we'd ever do," Louris says. "And it's very liberating to have that feeling. You end up doing what's true to you."
He notes he was "liberated, scared, excited, and depressed at the same time" about taking over leadership of the band in the wake of Olson's departure.
"It's a band favorite and a lot of diehard fans' go-to record," ," he continues. "I don't think we've ever surpassed it. And it's atmospheric and very vibey."
Louris notes that he also "struck gold twice" when it was discovered that O'Reagan, a singer-songwriter in his own right, could create different but still solid harmony vocals.
"I got this drummer who has a better voice than me, really!" Louris laughs. "And I love the singing-drummer thing. It's so Levon Helm!"
Smile This foray into more straight-ahead rock and power-pop territory was produced by the unlikely choice of Bob Ezrin, who had made seminal records for Alice Cooper (Billion Dollar Babies), Pink Floyd (The Wall), Lou Reed (Berlin), and KISS (Destroyer and, uh, Music From "The Elder").
Ironically, the "King of the Concept Album" had to convince Louris out of making one with this effort.
"Bob talked me down from the ledge on that one! But it was funny that it was him of all people, I mean Mr. The Wall!," laughs Louris, who had also sent letters to Phil Spector and the team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis to possibly produce.
"But Bob had done so many albums that I loved, he represented a great sound," he continues. "And he responded to our [initial tapes] with pages and pages of notes. He was all about rolling up your sleeves and doing the work. And he was all about breaking rules. He said you didn't need to be reverent to any audience or genre."
The Jayhawks also thought they had finally found their breakout mainstream hit in "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me." The flawless execution and perfect pop sound of the single, complete with catchy melody, chorus, and sunny disposition, should have been a big hit. It wasn't.
"A lot of people thought we should have broken big," Louris reflects today. "But I guess I don't think we were showy enough as a band, or I wasn't captivating enough as a lead man. And I was a tenor, which was seen as odd."
"We just didn't have the swagger or the danger visually," he notes. "And as much as I thought we were great and wanted a big success, I wasn't shocked how things turned out. The Jayhawks were always a glass-half-empty band."
And, in a strange turn of events, "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me" was eventually heard by tens of millions of listeners, albeit on an oft-repeated Ralph Lauren television commercial.
"We did make some money on that song in the end!" Louris laughs.
Story continues on the next page.
Rainy Day Music After the radical departures of the previous two records, Louris and the Jayhawks, whose lineup continued to shift a bit around the axis of Louris, Perlman, and O'Reagan, had only one place to go. Back.
"People say that it's a return to our original sound, but sometimes I think of it as a retreat," Louris says. "We licked our wounds and said, 'Well, that didn't work.' And, I mean, we weren't going to go in another direction of, like, weird shit and drony music."
Instead, the band's more stripped-down, country-tinged sound was a purposeful switch, as Louris was eyeing material that could be performed acoustically or with a reduced band lineup or even solo. Ethan Johns was producer.
"Ethan was really into the idea of me singing and playing guitar live," he says. "And for all its rootsiness, the Jayhawks had never recorded live vocals on any of our records -- even the first one -- until this record."
As a result, Rainy Day Music is a perfect Sunday-morning kind of record.
What happened next...
The Jayhawks went on hiatus in 2004 as the members pursued solo projects, though Louris and Olson did later reunite for a duo record and tour. Interest in the band continued to boil up again with the release of the 2009 anthology Music from the North Country and then remastered reissues of albums Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow the Green Grass.
"I felt burned out after that last time, and I did not like that record at all," he says. "It takes away from our catalog."
As for the band's future after the tour to support the reissues, he's not sure.
"I love that we are now playing some songs we haven't done in 10 or 15 years, or at all," he says. "But I don't know how I'm going to feel in six months. I don't want to make [new] Jayhawks music or keep the band going out of desperation."
"And I'm working on all kinds of crazy stuff," Louris adds. "Solo music. Side bands. Producing. Teaching. Like Marconi on acid! The Jayhawks may never be my number-one focus. But what a gift it is to have it."
The Jayhawks. With Trapper Schoepp and the Shades, Communist Daughter, and Davina and the Vagabonds at HazelFest. Saturday, August 2, at Hazelden in Center City. Tickets and info.
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