Still waiting for the sun The Jayhawks
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