An Interview with the Jayhawks' Gary Louris

Paul Caparotta
THE JAYHAWKS -  L-R:   Karen Grotberg (keyboards & vocals), Tim O'Reagan (drummer), Gary Louris (electric guitar and vocals), Marc Perlman (bass),  Kraig Johnson (guitar)
The Jayhawks kick off 2015 with a short west coast tour and swing through San Francisco on January 8th -- playing the Fillmore. Tickets are still available as of this writing -- click here for tickets. Gary Louris took the time to speak with us just before the holidays and reminisced about San Francisco, their back catalog, and the creative process. Check out our interview below and be sure to catch their show at the Fillmore in a couple of weeks.

SFBAC: I was thinking about the Fillmore recently, and all the different bands that have been there and the rich history that's part of it, much like the Jayhawks, so what do you look for when you're searching for a venue?

Gary Louris: Well, if it can be like that Fillmore, then I don't have to look any further. It's everything, it’s the chandeliers… It’s a club… And it's not called sneakers or shooters or bumpers or anything like that. I like sit-down theaters and things, but I mean it does tend to make the show — lend itself to a more sedate kind show. And you wanna have a club that's big enough that you feel like you’ve arrived in a way, and of course if it has history, it’s even better. There’s an elegance to it (ed. the Fillmore) and a real… I was an architect for nine years, I was restoration architect, I wanted to be an archaeologist at one point… I chose music over grad school for restoration architecture at Columbia; so I love old… I love history and I love something with lineage, and I mean the Fillmore is one of those places, you know, you can pull into a town and say ‘why aren’t we playing that theater? I guess we haven’t really made it’ or ‘why aren’t we playing this place or that place’, but with the Fillmore you feel like no matter what level you're at, you feel like you've arrived there. Even though it's a club, it really is a theater in its own way. It’s big enough, but it’s not too big… I love it. To me, in my mind, it’s this gigantic elegant old dirty place and it’s great.

SFBAC: Do you have a favorite memory of playing San Francisco with the Jayhawks?

Gary Louris: I remember we played Slims once, and Boz Skaggs I think owns Slim’s, and I guess he came, he heard that the Jayhawks were playing, so he came down to the club, and he got there and he was confused because he was expecting this 50’s band called the Jayhawks, which was like a doo-wop band. An all black doo-wop, and here we are up there, and I think he left. I don’t think he watched us — or watched for long! haha. I remember that.

SFBAC: I was listening to Mockingbird Time (iTunes) constantly when it came out, and it struck me that it felt very fresh, but completely linked to the past. What inspires you?

Gary Louris: Well, it’s funny you should say that because I’m really not happy with that record. And I think it kinda scared me away from making anymore records with the Jayhawks right now, but that’s changing, because the line-up has been so much fun and we’ve been so creative on and off stage. But as far as keeping inspired, I’ve done a lot of, I’ve actually taught a little bit, and I’ve been doing a little bit of research into the creative process and why people… you know there’s a lot of questions I have… like why should I think we should continue when I can’t name another rock band in the history of all rock that has done its best work later in their career? I can’t think of one. I can’t think of a rock band. Yeah, you can say Dylan’s done some great stuff. Tom Waits, Neil Young, but even they, I would say, haven’t done, what I would call, their best work they ever did, and they’re over 50 or 60. Certainly jazz musicians, classical musicians have… But, and I was thinking about this because I’ve noticed, and I’ve read this, about the brain… the brain… We could talk for hours about the brain, and the creative process and inspiration, it’s a personal obsession of mine. It is proven, as time goes one, as people get older, it’s harder for them to be blown away by things. Impressed. Awed. I think some of that has to do by having seen it all, or comparing it, you don’t have that fresh eyed look, and I think that can happen with a person’s personal output like writing songs… I’ve found it’s harder for me to just write songs because it’s like 'I’ve already written that song', or 'here I go again', and 'I do that all the time', or 'is that as good as I’ve done before?' So I find myself doing a lot of… trying to write in different ways… lately I’ve been recording a side project with my friend Jango Haskins and where we spend about 10 minutes singing the body of the song, and we spend most of the time adding and taking away things that create happy accidents, instead of the other way, which is spending days getting the vocals perfect and the drums and everything and then at the last minute start adding some things… You know, I think and from what I read about a lot of people, you have to reinvent yourself, you have to do things that are different to keep you going and make things new again, or else you just start falling into too many cliches. I think it’s also that we’ve got a lot to prove. I have. We’ve never really reached the mountain top, you know? We’ve always been almost… could’ve would’ve, the band that should have, the band that could have… maybe a slight chip on our shoulder… and also being a little more appreciative now than we used to be. I think with time… and with sobriety for me… I’m less bitter about what I don’t have, and a little more appreciative about what I do have. And that makes it more enjoyable again. Now, we’ll see if we can make another record.

SFBAC: Let’s talk about your recent re-issues. What went into curating the re-releases?

Gary Louris: Well, I’m the beholder of everything ‘Jayhawk’, I’ve always been ‘the guy’ who has all the cassettes from the very first Jayhawks rehearsal, I have everything, I have the posters, I have the set lists, I have the photos, and the practice tapes, and those kind of things… But, I didn’t want to be the one who listened to everything! I keep ‘em, but I don’t listen to everything. Because I wanted to be an archeologist, you know? I used to hide little notes with what time it was and that I was there when I was 10, and I’d like to find them like 6 months later… ‘I was here!’… just weird things about passage of the time that I’ve always been interested in, and I was working on the Golden Smog Best Of CD (iTunes) for Rhino I think it was… And it struck me that the Jayhawks had nothing like that out for themselves, so that was my main day job kind of thing… So I picked up the phone and called Rick Rubin, and I said, not only do we not have a 'best of', but a lot of these records are out of print, I’m finding out. And I think we deserve a little bit better than that.. And he agreed, you know? He doesn’t sit there and keep track of everything. He’s got a lot going on. But he agreed, and I give him a lot of credit, he got the ball rolling pretty quickly. And I was put in touch with this guy named John Jackson at Columbia/Sony who was part of Sony Legacy and he took charge, and I got this guy named PD Larson who without him, there’d be none of this. He’s my friend from Minneapolis and continues to work for us and is an archivist and always a music scribe from way back to the Sweet Potato (ed. City Pages), the (Twin Cities) Reader and Minnesota rock papers, and hung out with The Replacements and REM and all those people back in the day, and just collects everything. And I said, ‘PD, here you go. Here’s these boxes of stuff, would you help me?’ And he did, and he went back and cataloged everything. He’s got great tastes. He’s an audiophile. He cataloged everything and told me what I — I mean I kinda pointed him in the right direction, but — he helped sort it, catalog it, and presented what he thought was the best of the best, and from there, I kinda sorted through those. Then he did everything. He was our liaison. He went to the re-mastering sessions in New York, those kind of things… and John Jackson.

SFBAC: Was there anything that just had to be part of the reissues? Or was it clear what was going to be part of the mix?

Gary Louris: It was pretty clear. I mean, depending on the record, there was material to be had, but some was like Rainy Day Music (iTunes), there was a fair amount of B-sides, but not compared to… Smile (iTunes) was a period where we had a practice space that we just had ADATS and DATS and we were set-up kinda like a studio, and we were experimenting a lot, and from that record, there was a lot of stuff that we could’ve chosen. Sound of Lies (iTunes), not so much. Sound of Lies, we used most everything we recorded we put on the record. We just didn’t have a studio set-up and we did record a lot of stuff with different people that might have joined the band, we had a steel player for a while… cool stuff… but unlistenable. The material was just… cassette, distorted, whatever… it was fine if we were just trying to get an idea. But we couldn’t put it out.

SFBAC: Sound of Lies is probably my favorite Jayhawks album. What were you going through when you recorded the album?

Gary Louris: It’s probably our favorite album as well. It is the 'fuck you' record. It really is the fuck everybody record, I really remember Olsen had left, he had quit, I was going through a divorce, I was a mess, I was drinking too much, I was unhappy… I really felt this was the last Jayhawks record, and why not go out with a bang, so fuck it? There’s pictures of us, we have these art 96 posters above our heads, think art. Like pretentious but fun, we had a bad art gallery set-up outside the studio where we did really bad art that we put up for sale for ridiculous amounts of money. We were… It was the first record that we drank on… I don’t drink anymore, but it was the first one where we drank really heavily during the recording. I don’t recommend that, but it was just the vibe. I think I almost got into a fist fight with the producer at the time, there’s a lot of shit going on, but we were also having a lot of fun, and we felt like Olsen’s gone, we’re not gonna try and find a replacement to just slip him in there, and nobody will notice kind of thing, so we’re gonna go for more with what I grew-up on, which was not traditional music, I grew up listening to art rock, and British, everything British. Prog-rock, power-pop… all that stuff… I had never heard of a banjo until i was like 26. So, we just went for it. It’s amazing when you don’t care what other people think, as much as you just wanna do what you wanna do. That’s kind of a lesson learned. It’s not like we didn’t care about what we were doing, we just didn’t care about what everyone else was going to think about it, because we figured everyone was going to hate it anyway. Smile was like, oh ok, we’re still alive, I got married, had a new kid. Life was looking good, let’s go for a big splashy pop record, and really take it even further than we did with Sound of Lies, and go really big production. And Rainy Day Music was more of a retreat, saying, well, uh, I saw a lot of that going around, with bands I knew, peers of mine, and people that I knew who were making really weird experimental records, and I just kinda felt like making a really simple record. A simple record was the first record that I sang live, or any Jayhawk had sung live vocals on. Even those 'rootsie' records back from 85, 86, 89, 92, those were all overdubbed and pieced together. 

SFBAC: Do you have a favorite song or songs from your catalog?

Gary Louris: Well, when people ask me that, I usually say that I don’t have one because they’re like my children, and it really is true, but if you were to say is there one that’s undeniably a great song, I would say “Blue” (iTunes). And again, that’s an example of a song that didn’t take a long time to write, which is usually a good sign… Not always! You can work on a song and labor on it forever, and it can come out great. I mean “Good Vibrations” wasn’t written in 5 minutes, and it’s a great song. But “Blue” and a lot of songs aren’t hard to write. And it’s a song that people would come up to us after we’ve played it, even before it was released, what’s that one song? And we always knew that they were talking about that song. Because it sounded familiar to people, and I know people, to drop names, I know Juliana Hatfield once told me that song saved her life. It’s just one of those songs. And people say ‘why don’t you write another ‘Blue’?’ And I’m like, 'I’ve tried', it’s just not that easy! If it was that easy, other people would have done it by now. I’ve tried reversing the chords, doing everything kinda like it at some point in my life!

SFBAC: I’m optimistic that one of those inspirational moments will happen for you in the future! 

Gary Louris: Yeah, I’d like to think that some of the things I’m doing now are — well, everyone always say they’re excited about what they’re doing now — but you never know. It’s certainly fascinating to me, the whole creative process, and how things happen, but I believe in inspiration, and that certainly was an inspired song.

SFBAC: Thanks so much for your time and we can't wait for your Fillmore show in a few weeks!

Gary Louris: Thank you!

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