The Jayhawks leaders talked apart and in depth on their new reissues and just-finished new album.
They were separate interviews from different states. Not surprisingly, then, Gary Louris and Mark Olson offered up varying answers to many of the same questions on the phone three weeks ago before hitting the road with the Jayhawks. Read the full story on the upcoming new album by Minneapolis' pioneering alt-country band at startribune.com/music, along with more details on the reissues of their 1992 album "Hollywood Town Hall" and 1995's "Tomorrow the Green Grass."
Especially with a new album to work on and other projects, why did you think it was worth the time and effort to reissue these two albums?
Louris: The idea started with the Golden Smog anthology I was working on, which Rhino wanted. I was going through possible selections for that, and it dawned on me: "I'm doing this for Golden Smog, which is technically my side band, and here the Jayhawks -- the band I poured my heart and soul into for 20 years -- has no kind of anthology or rarities disc or anything." So I called [American Recordings label head] Rick Rubin and just said it didn't seem right. And then I found out through that process that a lot of our records are actually out of print. That really didn't seem right, either.
But beyond all that, I think these records are great, and Sony/Legacy wanted to do it, and Rick was high on it. There's a whole audience of people out there now that weren't there when we were first doing it. So I'd love for a new audience to get into these records along with the stalwarts who were always there. And it's fun to repackage and find the songs that people haven't heard, a lot of which are pretty good.
Olson: On a basic level, they hadn't been in the record stores for so long. We spent so much time and poured our soul into these records, and they hadn't been in stores for years and years. That was the basic idea: to be able to walk into a store and find these records.
Having these records reissued together underlines how they're sort of companion pieces of the same era and spirit. In your mind, though, how are they different?
Olson: I don't really have a comparison of them other than that, by the time we got to making "Tomorrow the Green Grass" with George [Drakoulias, who produced both of the albums], we had learned some things in the studio with him from the album before. There were some things we wanted to try different, so we did that, and we expanded the songwriting to the level of having more space in the songs.
That's big difference I see: More space on "Tomorrow the Green Grass." "Hollywood Town Hall" is a bit thick.
Louris: I agree they're really a pair, like brothers. They're the two big L.A. records, the George Drakoulias records, the two that really put us on the map. The difference between them, for me, is I guess I see "Tomorrow the Green Grass" as leaning more in the pop and experimental direction. We stretched our boundaries a little bit. "Hollywood Town Hall" is where we really found our sound, and it's one sort of constant sound.
And then I look at them a little differently behind-the-scenes, because by the time we made "Tomorrow the Green Grass," Olson was living out in L.A., so the dynamic was different. Also, with that record, Karen Grotberg had really become a major part of the band. She joined after we made "Hollywood Town Hall" because we needed a keyboard player, and we had heard her playing with the Ranchtones, which also had a young Eric Heywood [who now plays with Ray LaMontagne and was in the last version of the Pretenders]. Karen stepped out and really became a key part of "Tomorrow the Green Grass."
The liner notes make clear how long and arduous the recording of "Hollywood Town Hall" was. What took so long?
Olson: [Laughs] You really think that comes across that way? I don't know if it had so much to do with us. We had a little voodoo going on with George and the engineer. He was waiting on this engineer to finish up another project. We had all committed to leaving our jobs to go make this record, and we felt like we were never actually going to make it, just sit around for years and years. Things didn't settle down for a while. You know, when we went out to Pachyderm Studio [in Cannon Falls, Minn.] after we spent so much time in L.A., we knocked out like two songs in two days. It was pretty easy there.
The good side of all that was we spent a lot of time in the studio, and we learned a lot about working in a studio and sounds and techniques, all sorts of things. So we got an education out of it, too.
Louris: We were green. And we were a little scared because, remember, we had been trying for years to get a record contract. We came out of the gates pretty quickly with label interest, and had interest early on from IRS and A&M and Atlantic. People were interested, so they'd give us a little money, and we'd make a few demos. Nothing every clicked. So eventually we just sort of doctored up some of the demos and put out our own record ["Blue Earth"] and kept kind of chasing and being chased on the label front.
By the time George Drakoulias came calling, we had been together for six years. So all of a sudden, we finally got the call, and we were nervous. It was the big time. We had to make it happen.
You guys had a Spinal Tap thing going on with your drummers. Why did Ken Callahan, your drummer at the time, get sidelined for session guys?
Louris: That was really unfortunate. I think it's definitely fair to say Ken got the shaft. He was the guy who had to go first in the studio. On the first day, it was just, "OK, Ken, go!" The rest of us had the luxury of settling into the situation, but not Ken, he was straight out of the chute. The beauty of that story is Ken got to redeem himself, in the end, when we made "Short Man's Room" with Joe Henry, and he played great on that record. Ken's in Milwaukee now, I believe, and I still see him when I go through there.
Olson: Ken was a damn good drummer. Norm [Rogers] was an interesting drummer on our first album, too, he had kind of CCR sound. Then along comes Thad [Spencer], who had a great groove. And then we got Ken, who was really great live, and the rehearsals went well, but he had never really been in a studio. He had a lot of pressure on him. It was very difficult on a personal level. None of us came into that with much studio experience.
How did you think up the cover photo and the whole idea of "Hollywood Town Hall" as a title?
Louris: There were these two Brits, the art director Martyn Atkins and this English photographer, who were both great. They flew out to Minneapolis after the record was made, and we started scouting locations. And let me tell you: It was cold, man. Those are not smiles on our faces, those are real grimaces. It had to be like 10-below or something. We ran to the car when we were done.
We just accidentally drove into this place 15 miles outside of Minneapolis called Hollywood, Minnesota, and drove by this kind of iconic-looking building that said, "Hollywood Town Hall," on the front of it. It was sort of fitting. After spending four months in Hollywood, California, making the record, here we were in this crossroads corn field area that really looked straight out of "North by Northwest." Something about it hit us, and it all fell together.
Olson: It was winter time, so the wind was blowing. We all kind of have this drawn look about us, because it was damn cold. So it was a true Minnesota picture in a way. I think they did a good job. It captured a bit of the feeling, and it showed that we were from a certain place, and it reflected our writing in certain ways.
Somewhere between "Hollywood Town Hall" and "Tomorrow the Green Grass," you guys recorded these so-called "Mystery Demos" [long-bootlegged acoustic demos that make up the bonus disc in the new "Green Grass" edition]. Where exactly did those come from?
Louris: They really were a mystery, because we had a hard time figuring out where and when some of them were made. There's something like 47 total, and maybe some day we'll put out a double record with them all, but at this point Sony/Legacy thought just a single bonus disc would be nice. Those tracks were made simply to lay out what songs we had to choose from going into making "Tomorrow the Green Grass." I think of Dylan going to his publisher's office singing into a reel-to-reel whatever songs he had, and that's what we were doing, mainly recording at our friend and former drummer Thad Spencer's studio. We were just seeing what we had to choose from. A few of them were also made at Hollywood Sound with George, late at night, George asking, "What else do you have?"
I don't know how the fans get their hands on these things, but they were the ones who really brought them into the light and made a big fuss about them, so when they got back to us I went and found the original tapes. And yeah, they're pretty good. Listening to them is what really fueled the [2008's duo album] "Ready for the Flood" record, just Olson and I singing with acoustic guitars.
Olson: I think there's a whole other album in there. In fact, Gary and I went on to use a number of those songs on the Mark and Gary record, and they had been on Golden Smog records. I had one on "Salvation Blues" [his 2007 solo album]. It's a nice, big document dump that I think people will enjoy hearing.
What else happened as you evolved toward making "Tomorrow the Green Grass?"
Louris: By "Tomorrow the Green Grass," we were really a seasoned touring unit. Olson claims -- and I don't know if it's true or not -- that we went to London 10 times just in that stretch. We also knew George better the second time around and were just better as a band, so it was a big difference.
Olson: We toured everywhere. We did a ton of warm-up shows and got our first taste of Europe. That was one of the really nice effects of "Hollywood Town Hall" is we found our audience in Holland, England, other countries, that was really exciting for us. Coming back to America, that's where we did the warm-up tours a lot, and we felt like we really didn't get a chance to do our thing at those shows.
We were a hard fit, especially for those times. It was hard to pull the grunge people out of their thing to come listen to us. So Gary and I got to work on another album prior to doing "Tomorrow the Green Grass." It was a Maria McKee album. So in that time we were working on a lot of songs, stuff that's in the "Mystery Demos." There was a lot of material.
We felt we had made a really good record with "Hollywood Town Hall," and it had done pretty well, so we wanted to make a better record. Plain and simple. So we came up with a lot of material on the line for it and really worked hard at it.
Any discussion of "Tomorrow the Green Grass" has to start with "Blue." Did you guys know it would be "the song" going into the album?
Louris: Yeah, we knew it. That was the song, anytime we played it before the record came out, people would come up to us after the show and ask, "What was that one song?" It sounded familiar to them right away, even though I think it was a pretty original song -- except for the title. That was the song people were talking about, even before it came out, one of those songs were it happened quickly and naturally, and we knew it was kind of the centerpiece of the record. So then we got Paul Buckmaster, who worked out a beautiful string arrangement with us for the song. He did the strings for "Space Oddity," "Moonlight Mile" and other classics.
Olson: We were playing it out at shows. We were playing it live with a full electric-guitar sound. We went into the studio to record it, and we worked really hard at it. This was the song we really felt could jump-start the new album. George organized the strings. It came out really good. In the end, I think it really didn't become a bigger single just because it was sticky in musical terms for that era. It didn't touch the radio people the right way, however that all worked then. It just didn't get on the radio as much as we hoped.
We wanted to write classic songs. We listened to Dylan, Neil Young, Nick Drake, the Band. It seemed like every song they wrote would last forever. We simply tried to write songs like that hoping they would last. Well, mission accomplished [laughs]. Here we are, and people still want to see us play.
[Louris only] It's hard to remember now -- because it became such a Jayhawks staple -- but the idea of you guys covering Grand Funk Railroad's "Bad Time" really was something out of left field back then. How did it happen?
Louris: We were covering it at our shows, just because I always liked that song. I grew up pretty much a pop guy, and I like classic pop songs, and that's one of them -- just a great, catchy song, and we always liked playing a few songs at our shows that were outside what was expected.
Somehow, George became aware that we were playing it, so he wanted it for the record. We really resisted the idea. You know, we were songwriters, we didn't want a cover on our record. And we had no shortage of original material at that time. He kept trying to get us to do it over the course of those sessions, during which we were in the big Northridge earthquake. There was a big crack down the window of the control room the day after the earthquake. Anyway, he kept asking for the song, so the last day of basics, he said, "Please, please please," and we played it maybe once or twice, so that opened the doors for overdubbing on it.
Rick Rubin's formula always had his bands doing covers, whether it was Run-DMC doing "Walk This Way" or Black Crowes doing "Hard to Handle." That was the one they thought might work for us. To this day, it's the only cover we've ever put on one of our records. And I personally get a kick out of the fact that it's a Grand Funk Railroad song and not, say, Gram Parsons or something predictable for us.
[Olson only] "Miss Williams Guitar" is another song everyone liked on "Tomorrow the Green Grass." Does it feel weird at all playing that song again, since it's about your ex-wife [Victoria Williams]?
Olson: No, not at all. She likes the song a lot. She always asks me after a show or tour if I played that song. That song came directly out of real life. She was playing a show once, and everybody was talking at the show. She had a really unique guitar-playing style that she learned from all these blues cats in Shreveport, La. She has a wonderful right and left hand and plays very succinct. Well, all these people were talking, and nobody could hear her playing. So that song is basically telling them to shut up.
I still live right down the block from her [in Joshua Tree, Calif.]. I can look out my window and see her house.
What are your memories of some of the other bonus tracks on both these reissues?
Louris: "Warm River" was a staple of our live shows. A lot of those, especially that one, came really close to making the cut on ["Hollywood Town Hall"]. The other was "Stone Cold Mess," which wound up changing into "Break in the Clouds." And then "Keith and Quentin" was a really personal song for Olson, because it was about his relatives.
We got back from making "Hollywood Town Hall" thinking we were done, and George called and said we had to do a few more. So he came out here, and we went to Pachyderm Studio, kind of at the tail end of where Brendan O'Brien was George's engineer, before Brendan's career took off as a producer [for Pearl Jam and Springsteen]. "Up Above My Head" was a part of that session, too, another one we liked playing live.
Olson: I always thought the song "Tomorrow the Green Grass" [not featured on the original album] was too good a song to be cast aside. I think we were out of our minds from being in the studio too long [laughs]. Maybe it was just too much. There's a lot going on in that song, but it's really fun to play live.
That song, and that album, shows that we have a lot of different sides. There's the acoustic side that's basically just Gary and me. There's the softer side to the full band. Then you have this big rock sound, like that song or "Waiting for the Sun" is another huge-sounding one. There are a lot of different sides, which is one of the reasons it's so exciting playing with these guys. It's really a lot of fun.
These reissues are coming out just as you're finishing up your brand new record. Is that a coincidence, or how do you explain the timing?
Louris: Yeah, it's mostly a coincidence. It really started with the first reissue, the "Bunkhouse Album," which finally came out after years of me prodding and poking to get it out. That led to the three-night stand at First Avenue [in June 2010], and that was just kind of a love fest between the band and audience, and within the band. We realized we were still a great band and felt like there was really unfinished business. That idea was something that was always lurking in the background.
Olson will probably be the first one to tell you he probably should've just taken a year off instead of quitting, just take a break.
Olson: I see it like we've still been playing music all these years, just in different ways. You know, [2003's] "Rainy Day Music" is a really wonderful album, so those guys can be proud of that. I'm proud that I've been touring Europe all these years. I look at it in a different way. We've accumulated all this different experience that we've gathered over all this time, and we applied all that to this new record. We're gonna have some fun and really lay it all out there.
Do you think it's good timing? Will these reissues help set you up as a band that deserves another go-around?
Olson: It's really a whole different music environment now that when were around the first time, so we'll see what happens, but either way I really think we're gonna enjoy ourselves.
We were a band that was always striving. When I met Gary, one of the things I saw is that he's someone who's really driven. I've been driven my whole life, too. I just like to get up and go. We worked really hard at it to try to bust out, first to be able to quit our jobs, then to go out to California and make records and find an audience. I got to a point where I wanted to try other things, and those guys went on as a band. Now, we're back, and I think we're in a situation where we're really better. All of us can play music on any level now, so hopefully we can reach a lot of people.
Louris: I think it's good timing. It's funny, because there was always a lot of time between records when we were still very active. Now, all of a sudden, there's all this material coming out after years of inactivity. But I think one thing feeds the other. If we're going to be out there touring, you can only play so many shows where you're playing the same body of work. It's always exciting as an artist and a musician to be playing new stuff.
It shows that we're not just a museum piece, but a living, breathing unit that still feels like it's on its game and can make a great record that stands next to the other ones.
It seemed like you guys were slowly inching your way to a full-blown reunion. Were you hesitant to do it?
Olson: Yeah, it was slow, wasn't it? Gary and I started playing together again way back in 2001, so that is a slow inch by any standards, as if we had all the time in the world [laughs].
I think what finally did it was when Gary came to Norway [where Olson frequently stays], and we kind of talked about what we were doing. We had done a whole series of tours with just him and I. Of course, we were going to keep playing together, because we were really having fun, we were singing great harmonies, and we were coming up with great songs together. And we had a lot of people coming up to us and asking [in annoying voice], "When are you gonna put the Jayhawks back together?"
Louris: It just gathered steam slowly. One thing would lead to another. Of course, whenever Mark and I would play shows -- either on our own or with each other -- people would say they really liked the show, but what about "the band"? So we did those three Jayhawks shows in June, and it was a love-in amongst the fans and amongst ourselves. We just felt like we owed to our fans and ourselves.
This lineup of the band just got cut short. The sum was greater than the parts. But it was other things, too. Olson and I had reconnected and really became good friends again, and we wanted to write new material. And then another big factor was the fact that Karen Grotberg became open again to playing in the band and touring -- not nine months a year, of course, but some touring. So with her on board, it was a natural progression to make that third record. We obviously aren't doing it to cash in or anything, just really felt like we could make great music together.
How did it go when you finally did get together to make the record [due over the summer]? Tell us what it was like going into the studio.
Louris: We did it all at in Minneapolis at the Terrarium, except for just a few little overdubs that were done here in Tucson. But 99.9 percent was done there over about a month of recording, preceded by various trips of Olson coming to Minneapolis and me going to Joshua Tree. We were really trying to make sure we wrote the best songs we could.
We've always been an unusual band. We've never been of a particular period. And I can't think of another band that has come back from hiatus and made its best album, but I really think we've done it.
Olson: It was quite a lot different than the way we made those earlier albums. I didn't want to sit around slowly building up the tracks for weeks piece by piece, I wanted to sing right away. We can do that now, though. I think Gary and I are much better singers now, and the band are all better players. We've all done so many different things since we last made a record together, those years of experience are bound to add up.
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658