Still wait­ing for the sun The Jay­hawks


Pasatiempo - - NEWS - Jen­nifer Levin

Pag­ing Mr. Proust, the new al­bum by The Jay­hawks, is si­mul­ta­ne­ously fa­mil­iar and new. The 12 songs hark back to past al­bums while dis­play­ing a tell­tale ma­tu­rity in the lyrics and mu­si­cian­ship. The band’s first ma­jor-la­bel re­lease, Hol­ly­wood Town Hall, came out on Def Amer­i­can Record­ings in 1992, but at that point the band had been play­ing to­gether since the mid-1980s in Min­neapo­lis. Their sound is a re­laxed and nat­u­ral ab­sorp­tion of lo­cal in­flu­ences like the Re­place­ments and Hüsker Dü, as well as other mu­si­cal styles emerg­ing at the time, in­clud­ing grunge, Amer­i­cana, and al­ter­na­tive coun­try — the last of which they are some­times cred­ited with launch­ing. Lead singer and gui­tarist Gary Louris still feels this is “grossly in­ac­cu­rate.”

“If you look at the songs them­selves — the struc­tures, the lyrics — you’ll find pop and rock songs, though they have el­e­ments of tra­di­tional mu­sic in the way they’re pre­sented. Some songs are folk songs, but we are more Bri­tish folk than Amer­i­can,” Louris told

Pasatiempo in ad­vance of The Jay­hawks’ free con­cert at the Rai­l­yard Plaza on Fri­day, July 29. “La­bels are frus­trat­ing be­cause, I al­ways think, they’re lazy, they’re clichéd, they’re short­hand, and they can elim­i­nate an au­di­ence be­fore they even re­ally get to know what you’re about. It’s frus­trat­ing be­cause there’s noth­ing you can do about it. Peo­ple just slap them on you. I don’t know who we sound like other than our­selves, and maybe that’s a good thing.”

What The Jay­hawks sound like is the back­ground mu­sic for an in­de­pen­dent movie in the mid-1990s — think Noah Baum­bach’s Kick­ing and Scream­ing or Nicole Holofcener’s Walk­ing and Talk­ing — whether or not they ap­pear on any such sound­tracks. (Freedy John­ston and Billy Bragg, who have played to­gether on the same bill, are the ac­tual artists fea­tured promi­nently in those movies. They sound noth­ing like one an­other, though they both sound just a lit­tle like The Jay­hawks.) With Louris’ ap­peal­ingly plain­tive, twangy har­monies, for a cer­tain gen­er­a­tion, The Jay­hawks are the bar band you re­mem­ber fondly for how they al­ways caught your mood. They are your older brother’s friends who used to play in your garage. They were your fa­vorite group on that mixtape you lost when you moved out of your col­lege dorm. To­mor­row the Green Grass, re­leased in 1995 on Amer­i­can Record­ings, opens with the sing-along-style lines of “Blue,” which do a lot of work to­ward epit­o­miz­ing the self-loathing malaise of­ten at­trib­uted to Gen­er­a­tion X, even though The Jay­hawks are tech­ni­cally among the youngest of baby boomers: “Where have all my friends gone?/ They’ve all dis­ap­peared./Turned around maybe one day, you’re all that was there./Stood by on be­liev­ing, stood by on my own./Al­ways thought I was some­one, turned out I was wrong.”

Af­ter To­mor­row the Green Grass, found­ing mem­ber Mark Ol­son left the band. Louris, as well as bassist Marc Perl­man, have been the stal­warts, joined in 1992 by key­boardist Karen Grot­berg, who has come and gone a bit but has been steady since 2008, and in 1995 by drum­mer Tim O’Rea­gan. The Jay­hawks took a hia­tus from 2004 to 2009, at which time Ol­son re­united with the band, but left again a few years later af­ter dis­cord with Louris. De­spite time away from each other and what Louris re­ferred to as “per­son­nel changes,” the re­main­ing mem­bers of The Jay­hawks tour and make al­bums pretty steadily.

Louris wrote many of the songs on af­ter he got out of re­hab for drug and al­co­hol ad­dic­tion in 2012. Though he wasn’t sure he wanted to be in the band any­more, he was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a burst of creative pro­duc­tiv­ity. “I wrote and I wrote — a lot of dif­fer­ent kinds of songs, drones and loops and sam­ples, all kinds of crazy synth stuff. I wrote with no par­tic­u­lar agenda,” he said. “But then it came to me that I needed the struc­ture of the band — not just any band, but The Jay­hawks. They are this in­cred­i­ble band that I am lucky to have. When we started col­lab­o­rat­ing and prac­tic­ing again, I wrote more songs with The Jay­hawks in mind. The al­bum is a pot­pourri, a stew of dif­fer­ent styles, many of which have been touched on be­fore. Lyri­cally, some of the songs are about my per­sonal strug­gles, and some of them are more univer­sal.”

That evokes a sense of ’90s-era en­nui — per­haps even more strongly than Jay­hawks al­bums made in that decade — might be at­trib­ut­able to the in­flu­ence of pro­ducer Peter Buck, bet­ter known as the lead gui­tarist of R.E.M., the pioneer­ing al­ter­na­tive rock band from Athens, Geor­gia, that formed in 1980 and broke up in 2011. R.E.M. had the bulk of their main­stream suc­cess be­tween 1988 and 1994, and were known, in their early years, for play­ing at the edge of coun­try mu­sic. “R.E.M. were heroes of ours. I was a fan of theirs since [their 1982 EP]

and Peter was a fan of ours from way back,” Louris said. The Jay­hawks played at the To­dos San­tos Mu­sic Fes­ti­val in 2015, which Buck or­ga­nizes, and he made it clear to the band that the next time they wanted to record an al­bum, he wanted to pro­duce it. In the end, they made in Port­land, Ore­gon, where Buck lives, as does the al­bum’s co-pro­ducer, Tucker Mar­tine.

“Us­ing them both worked out well. As Peter will tell you, he’s a big­pic­ture guy. He doesn’t want to spend two months on a record — he wants to do it in six days,” Louris said. “Tucker is more the pro­ducer who was at the con­trols, do­ing the de­tail work.” Buck plays elec­tric gui­tar on sev­eral songs, and Mike Mills of R.E.M. sings back­ground vo­cals on “Leav­ing the Mon­sters Be­hind,” his voice join­ing Louris’ and Grot­berg’s for the cho­rus on a rather jaunty tune about try­ing to lead an eas­ier life: “I don’t want to fight./Giving it up,/Scream­ing at mid­night./I don’t want to fight./Seems there’s no place to hide.”

Louris chalks up The Jay­hawks’ longevity over more than 25 years to stay­ing just a lit­tle bit hun­gry. “For some rea­son, we have just enough fans and just enough in­ter­est from la­bels and the mu­sic busi­ness to keep us go­ing. We sur­vive par­tially by our lack of suc­cess. Be­cause we had to climb slowly, over time, we built an au­di­ence the right way. And they stick with us, though the chal­lenge for us is to get new fans. I’ve over­come ad­dic­tion to drugs and al­co­hol, sur­vived all that, and gained a whole new ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the band and what we have, in­stead of what we don’t have.”

Left to right, Tim O’Rea­gan, Marc Perl­man, Karen Grot­berg, and Gary Louris; photo Heidi Ehalt

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