Just as the definition of what type of act fits within the jamband category has expanded, the alternative rock scene of the early ‘90s represented nearly any style than bands infamous for using multiple cans of hairspray. Enter the Jayhawks among the flowing river of grunge, industrial, minimalism, jangle and pure pop artists.
As myth would have it, a chance listen of the group’s second indie effort overheard by producer George Drakoulias during a phone call led to the Jayhawks getting signed to a major record label. A combination of Neil Young Topanga Canyon-era melancholy and grit, Flying Burrito Brothers country rock flair and harmonies by Gary Louris and Mark Olson infused the group’s Def American debut, Hollywood Town Hall. The follow up, Tomorrow the Green Grass, toned down the Young elements but amped everything else as founding member Marc Pearlman, Karen Grotberg and Tim O’Reagan created a disc that displayed timeless perfection.
Despite the creative triumph, Olson left and Louris moved the Jayhawks forward until 2003 when the band was shelved for solo outings. Eventually, the singing and songwriting duo reunited for tourdates and an album, Ready for the Flood, that was produced by Chris Robinson. Taking the next steps, it’s led to the re-issuing of the out-of-print Town Hall with bonus tracks and “Tomorrow” in a deluxe edition with bonus tracks and second disc of demos, a brief tour last month supporting the releases, and, most importantly, the announcement of new music by the Tomorrow lineup due later in 2011.
During my conversation with Louris we discuss those early days, the re-issues, the importance of a brand to fans and the upcoming record.
GL: Where are you calling from?
JPG: Near Youngstown, Ohio.
GL: Oh, I thought you said, ‘Neil Youngstown.’
JPG: No, but that actually sounds much better.
GL: I like that.
JPG: Maybe I should get a spray can and deface some signs with name ‘Youngstown’ on it.
GL: I’m from Toledo.
JPG: So, I don’t have to explain too much since you know where it’s at. First off, how’s the tour going?
GL: Never better is all I can say. We’re home for a few days and then two days in Chicago, two days in Minneapolis. That’s kind of the end of our little re-issue tour but it’s never been better. The houses are packed and people seem to appreciate even more what we do just like I think we appreciate more what I do, and I couldn’t be happier.
JPG: That’s great. Not one to gush…
GL: Oh, gush away…
JPG: Like vitamins, why not?
GL: Right. Can’t overdo it.
JPG: “Tomorrow the Green Grass,” I’ve probably listened to several thousand times. I used to listen to it when I’d go to sleep with the headphones and then I’d listen to it later in the day. It’s just one of those albums that just fits…
GL: …fits going to sleep. I’m just kidding.
JPG: It’s just relaxing…
JPG: Yes, soothing. Thank you. That’s a good word for it.
GL: That’s what people in Europe would always say. ‘I love your records. You sound like the wide open spaces of America.’ That’s what we represented a lot to the Europeans. Something about the music seems expansive. (slight laugh)
JPG: Back to the idea of gushing praise, you’ve received a lot throughout the years. Have you come to a point or did you ever come to a point where you felt like, ‘That’s nice and all but can I just sell a few more records and make some money at this and not have to worry about bills…?’
GL: Certainly, of course. I’ve sat across from rock stars, and I won’t mention any names, who said, ‘I wish I had what you had. We sell millions of records but you guys get the good reviews.’ And I’m like, ‘Shut up, man.’ It’s nice to reach people and there’s nothing cool about reaching an elite few. I think our band would be all in agreement that there’s nothing wrong with being successful, and that we’re not afraid of success. It’s not a sellout. If you do it on their terms maybe it’s that but if you do it on your own [terms] then it’s great. In the old days they used to go hand-in-hand. There were great records and they sold a lot and were on the radio but it’s different now. But if we can help change that that’s okay but we certainly would like to sell records. We’re not in the business to be cool we’re in the business to reach people on our terms. Definitely on our terms. We’d rather be leading than following, and that’s unfortunately what the world has become – the radio stations and the record companies, in general, have become followers instead of leaders. They used to be the tastemakers and now they just take calls and figure out what sells and then you see more of the same and that’s what’s the problem with the world of music.
JPG: In your case, using your words about leading not following, who led with the idea of re-issuing these two albums and how involved were you in the process?
GL: I’ll be honest with you, I led. And it stemmed from the situation where I was getting these phone calls from Rhino [records] saying, ‘Okay, we’ve got to pick out the best of the Golden Smog. We’ve got to find these b-sides and find what you think should be the best of.’ And I thought, ‘This is great.’ But then I thought, ‘Golden Smog, I love Golden Smog but they were always my side band, not mine, but I was part of that band and I loved it and it was important, but the band that I poured my heart and soul into is the Jayhawks and there’s no such thing going on. There’s no best of Jayhawks. Then, I researched it a little bit and found out our records were of print, basically. And I called Rick Rubin (who owned Def American and American labels which signed the Jayhawks) and I said, ‘Rick, I’m doing this thing with Rhino for Golden Smog and there’s nothing like it for the Jayhawks.’ And he was like, ‘You’re right.’ He didn’t fight me. He was totally amenable to the whole thing. When he gets into something he really gets into it. We got John Jackson at Sony/Legacy into it, and he’s a fan so everything was done right.
Immediately, we put out the anthology Music from the North Country and the expanded edition. From there it grew into the re-release all the records and get ‘em back in the stores and let’s get the bonus tracks…and so that’s how it started.