Interview With Gary Louris from The Jayhawks: The Hawks Are Out

In a conversation a few days before Christmas, Gary Louris of The Jayhawks informs me that the snow has just began to fall where he lives in Minneapolis. His dog, a yorkie named Benny, has just finished rolling around in the fresh powder on the ground, and I remark to Louris that he certainly must be accustomed to the winters of the North by now. Louris is forthcoming when he tells me that Benny is more welcoming of the snow than he is.

“Still for the life of me, I don’t know how I ended up here. I’m an Ohio boy, and I visited here first in the summertime—because my sister lived here. I sort of came on a whim, unaware of the music scene that was here. Now, 30 years later, here I am.”

There are plenty of people who are thankful that Gary Louris landed in the Twin Cities, home of The Jayhawks—co-founded by Louris along with Mark Olson in 1985—substantiated as the framework upon which alt-country music was built upon. Music that paved a way for many other bands, like Uncle Tupelo and Whiskeytown. Their releases, Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow The Green Grass, the Jayhawks albums released in 1992 and 1995 respectively, are now receiving the highest honor in the form of Sony Legacy Edition reissues, detailed with full remasters of the original albums and a host of bonus materials that should excite any Jayhawks collector.

The idea of the reissues, which will be released this month, first came to Louris when he was working on a best-of project for his side-group, Golden Smog, the alt-country “super-group” that

featured Louris, members of Soul Asylum, and other genre alumni.

“As I was doing it,” says Louris, “I was thinking to myself, ‘this is great; I love being in the Golden Smog.’ But, they’re not my career, you know? They’re my side-band.” Further reflection revealed a most-glaring oversight. At the time, there were no Jayhawks compilations to be had, be it a greatest hits or a B-sides collection. Louris, looking to change the situation, called Rick Rubin, head of American Records, the label that released five of The Jayhawks seven albums, and now the co-president of Columbia Records.

With some help from the staff at Sony Legacy, and some invaluable input solicited from Minneapolis-based writer PD Larson (who witnessed The Jayhawks’ very first show), Louris set out to listen through the endless collection of DAT tapes and demo recordings that he had collected. From that exercise first came Music From The North Country: The Jayhawks Anthology, a two-disc compilation released in 1999 that included album tracks and previously unreleased demo recordings. “We did Music From The North Country concurrently with planning for the legacy editions of Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow The Green Grass,” says Louris. “We had to spread out what B-sides went where, you know, so that’s pretty much where we stand now. As usual, things come out much later than you think, but they’re coming out now, and it’s a good time for us.”

The Hollywood Town Hall reissue is notable for the detailed 2,000-word liner notes written by producer George Drakoulias, which details the producer’s first encounters with Louris and Olson, as well as a virtual track-by-track recollection of the recording of the album. “I think of George, of course,” says Louris, reflecting further. “He’s a strong personality and a friend to this day. There was a lot of blood spilled and sweat poured out and feet stepped on. But I just remember the time being an exciting period, because it was just our transition from being kind of a regional band to being internationally known.”

In comparison, Tomorrow The Green Grass is simply a listen deeper into the core of The Jayhawks. “I just remember us all kinda rubbing our hands together going ‘I think we’re on to something here.’ I think we pushed it a little bit more on that one,” says Louris. Tracks like the gut-wrenching “Red’s Song” and the irresistible “I’d Run Away” are staggering beauties, and this landmark album gets the double-CD treatment as part of its release. Its counter-part, The Mystery Demos, is comprised of two different Olson and Louris sessions from 1992. Many Jayhawks die-hards will no doubt recognize some of the tracks, as many would later find their way into other Louris or Olson projects. The Mystery Demos features a version of “Poor Michael’s Boat,” a track that ended up on Mark Olson’s album, The Salvation Blues, and many more versions of songs that would ultimately find their way onto the 2007 Olson/Louris Ready For The Flood collaboration.

Louris agrees that, at least for the particular line-up featured on the albums, both Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow The Green Grass represent what The Jayhawks were all about, and certainly where they were coming from with their influences.

“Some people tell me their favorite record is [Jayhawks’ first release] Blue Earth,” says Louris, “and I just throw my hands up and go, ‘what the heck are you thinking?’ Only because of the sound of it; the songs are great, but the recording of it gives me the creeps… for the Olson/Louris, tandem lead vocal line-up, these two albums are the ones. But we’ve put out ones after that that I’m also very proud of—they’re just a slightly different animal, but still a Jayhawk.”

After the release of Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow The Green Grass, The Jayhawks would experience line-up changes, and they would experiment further with their sound, not always to positive reviews. Olson left the band on Halloween of 1995, and in 1997, The Jayhawks released Sound Of Lies, featuring new members Kraig Johnson on guitar and Tim O’Reagan on drums.

“I don’t know if things were perfect and then all of the sudden they were imperfect, but things were just different,” says Louris, about the album. “I think we felt a certain amount of freedom, only because we felt like [Sound Of Lies] might be our last record. Kind of like, ‘what the hell,’ you know? I look back at that period and think ‘how did I ever do that?’ Going back to those places we’ve played, all of the sudden standing onstage without Olson….” Louris trails off for a moment, but then continues, “I think we just had a sort-of ‘fuck you’ attitude at that point. Like, we were gonna do what we wanted to do, I hope you like it. And if you don’t, tough. That’s the way it’s gonna be.”

Freedom and determination aside, the chemistry of the group without Olson altered, and though The Jayhawks would continue to release records after Sound Of Lies, Louris and the other members would officially take hiatus in 2005.

Both Gary Louris and Mark Olson have continued to collaborate with each other since their days in The Jayhawks, both performing on each other’s solo releases, and in 2009, they released the album Ready For The Flood together, produced by The Black Crowes singer Chris Robinson. But the reissues of Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow The Green Grass have brought the complete Jayhawks band back together for a round of shows, with the highlight being two at Webster Hall, where on the first night Hollywood Town Hall will be played in its entirety and the following night Tomorrow The Green Grass will be given the same presentation.

Just this fall, the group recorded a new album in Minneapolis, with hopes of releasing it sometime in 2011. But for now, the focus is on the release of the reissues and the upcoming shows. There is also the hope on behalf of the fans that more archival material will be released. Listening to Louris reflect once more on the period in which these albums are made, there is no doubt in my mind there is plenty more to be heard.

“Creatively, we were on fire. I think we started developing our own real style, which became the blueprint for us for the rest of our career. I think with both records, Olson and I were writing a lot of songs and it was a very fertile period.”

The Jayhawks will play Webster Hall in New York City on Jan. 20 and 21.