Clip: Gary Louris and Mark Olson on tour
So Long, Jayhawks
Co-founders Gary Louris and Mark Olson say goodbye to their
alt-country band with a duo reunion tour
Derk Richardson, special to SF Gate
Thursday, May 4, 2006
"The Jayhawks are definitely over." So said Gary Louris, who
co-founded the seminal nouveau country-rock band 21 years ago and kept
it going for a full decade after his original songwriting partner,
Mark Olson, bailed on the project. But Louris, known also for his role
in the alt supergroup Golden Smog, made that statement in a phone call
from Los Angeles, where he and Olson were about to play another date
on the reunion tour that brings them to the Great American Music Hall
in San Francisco for two nights, Sunday and Monday, May 7 and 8.
"I feel confident in saying there's not going to be a Jayhawks reunion
in five or 10 years," he continued, "because we were together 20 years
-- it's not like we were short lived. It doesn't mean that Olson and I
might not make a record and people won't try to slap that name on it
for promotion. But the Jayhawks have done their time."
In doing their time, the Minneapolis, Minn.-bred Jayhawks got a good
two-year jump on such No Depression/alt-country favorites as the
Bottle Rockets and Uncle Tupelo (whose Jeff Tweedy went on to form
Wilco and also collaborates with Louris in Golden Smog). Their Byrds-
and Flying Burrito Brothers-inspired chiming guitars and soaring
harmonies earned them critical acclaim, a devoted following and
major-label status -- none of which significantly dissipated after
Olson departed and Louris tightened his grip on the reins and guided
the band in a more explicitly pop direction.
Still, there was something especially infectious and compelling about
the blend of Louris and Olson's voices -- not precisely reminiscent
of, but in some ways paralleling that of Gram Parsons and Emmylou
Harris, or David Crosby and Graham Nash -- on such songs as "Waiting
for the Sun," "Crowded in the Wings," "I'd Run Away" and "Blue." The
former bandmates obviously agree, for they got together for a tour
(with a small band) early last year and have scaled things down to a
simple acoustic duo for their current jaunt through a few Western
Louris recently wrote a batch of songs for the Dixie Chicks and awaits
the release of the new Golden Smog CD, Another Fine Day (Lost Highway
Records) on July 18. Olson, who recorded five rootsy, homespun albums
(including the widely distributed December's Child) with wife Victoria
Williams as The (Original Harmony) Creekdippers, has spent much of the
past 16 months touring Europe and "rambling," as he called it, and
hopes to "figure out where I'm gonna live and get a piano and a
bookshelf and a bed" after this tour is over. In separate phone
conversations earlier this week, they talked about time spent with the
Jayhawks, the impetus for the reunion and what the future might hold
for them, individually and together.
On New Year's Eve 2004 you played together in something of a reunion
in Minneapolis. How did that come about?
Gary Louris: That was Mark's show, and we just kind of stumbled
onstage. In terms of the performance, it wasn't much to speak of. But
the sentiment was there that we were open to a friendship again as
well as a collaboration.
What then inspired you to get together for that first tour last year
and this one now?
Mark Olson: What happened was somebody asked us to write a song for a
movie, and Gary came out [to California from Minneapolis] and we did
that, and it came out really nice and ended up going on the December's
Child record. He hears high harmony and I hear low harmony just
naturally. It's just a thing where we really don't have to work too
much on those vocals -- they just flip together nice. We played so
much together over the years, it's just good. I know I was interested
in doing it and found out he was, too, so we just went ahead and did
Louris: It's kind of like asking, "Why did Golden Smog get back
together, when we didn't know if that would ever happen?" Life is just
funny that way. The stars align and something that didn't seem right
seems right again. I guess anything that was keeping us from being
together in the past -- any issues or distance -- just seemed to go
away. I can't remember who called who, it just became apparent that
Mark and I were interested in reconnecting, and so we did. It's kind
of the way we always worked. People ask, "Do you sit down and work out
those harmonies?" Mark and I never had a vocal practice or worked out
anything with much thought, and that's what happened here.
Mark, what made you leave the Jayhawks in '95?
Olson: I'd been in the band a long time, and I'd just gotten married
and bought a house, and I just kind of flipped a wig. I'd say that's
about it -- I flipped a wig. I probably just needed some time off. I'd
been going really hard for a long time, I was really burnt out and I
needed a break but I couldn't admit it, and flipping out was the
easiest way to get one.
How is it different for the two of you together now?
Olson: It's totally different. When we were in the band together,
there was this push-to-the-next-level thing. You're always looking
forward. And this is more like, "OK, we've written these songs and now
were performing them, and we're actually making a living doing it."
When I was in the band, we never saw very much of the touring money
because of all the expenses, and we actually did a lot of warm-up
shows -- we were on that conveyor belt of trying to make it. Now we've
made it, to a certain extent, and we're doing long shows of our own
songs. This is really nice. I'm enjoying this even better than last
year because it's just the two of us, with less hectic stuff going on.
On a personal level, it means a lot to me, it really does. It is ... I
can't ... it's hard for me to talk about it in public.
Louris: Musically, nothing's really different. We always had a certain
vocal chemistry that wasn't real planned out, and it's as easy now as
it was then. We both have lived a lot between then and now. We've both
seen the world and maybe bring a little bit of that to the stage. But
it's like the old cliche about riding a bike. You just hop back on.
Musically and logistically, the simplicity factor is great. It's just
the two of us in a car. I've never been a big bus fan. It's fun to
just throw the guitars in the trunk and hop in the car and drive to
the next show. It's a beautiful way to tour.
What are you playing in the current shows?
Olson: We're going through the main three records we did together --
Blue Earth, Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow the Green Grass. On top
of that we're adding a few post-Mark Olson Jayhawks songs and a few
Creekdippers songs, and then we're adding a couple of old songs we
wrote together but never recorded in the Jayhawks. There's this old
one called "Cotton Dress" that Gary wrote and I added a few things.
It's very bluegrass and it sounds really nice. We never really caught
our bluegrass vibe on vinyl.
Louris: We're not writing songs together again yet, but we are talking
about it. We will do it at some point. This tour is not done out of
desperation, like, "Oh God, we gotta make money." Mark and I both have
lots of plans for ourselves individually, but it seemed like we had
some unfinished business. When he walked in '95 there was a lot more
music to be made, and I think we both missed singing with each other.
Right now, we're just enjoying playing the songs a lot of people
haven't heard us perform together in 11 years, and never in this kind
Do you have any plans for a solo record?
Olson: As it turns out, I'm supposed to meet somebody today to talk
about it. I recorded a bunch of songs in Europe as demos. I'm looking
at it like a new track to be on -- kind of "Come home from Europe,
Mark!" I'm not gonna be an expatriate.
Louris: I would love to do one. I certainly have the material in the
works. But I'm not in a hurry, which sometimes can be a problem,
because I can sit there and think up about a million different ways to
do it. There's the possibility of making something myself, down in my
basement studio. I'd prefer to go to a real studio with a great reverb
chamber, like some of these out in L.A. But then you have to look at
who's gonna produce it and who's gonna play with me -- that's the hard
part, and those are real issues for me. And when I decide to start
making records, my goal is to make a number of them and not spend an
entire three years on one record, touring and promoting it. I prefer
the creative portion of my job over the entertainment side of my job.
Now that it's over for the Jayhawks, what's your sense of the band's
place in the history and landscape of American pop?
Louris: We were a funny bird, excuse the bad pun. To some people, I
think we were one of the best bands ever, and with other people we
register as a footnote. As time goes on, the music stills sounds
great. I can't think of another band quite like the Jayhawks, and I
think that says something.
Olson: It's more personal for me. It was my life. So it's hard for me
to say. My feeling is, "Gosh, why didn't he and I just play acoustic
guitars together way back when?" If anything, I think we may have been
waylaid by the rock and roll a little bit. I like rock and roll, and
at the time it was great. But still, I think we should have gone this
way a little quicker. That would be my only thought on the "landscape"
thing, other than our influence on people getting more focused on
songs and singing harmonies.
It's interesting that the Jayhawks lasted two decades, when so many of
the first-generation country-rock bands -- the Byrds, Burritos,
Buffalo Springfield -- had such short careers in comparison.
Olson: They did a lot of drugs, though. We never really plowed the
drug field too hard. We were more healthy Midwestern stock. We didn't
get all psychedelic, so that's why we had a little more longevity. I
hate to say that, but there might be some truth to it. I know if I was
to go up on a psychedelic binge, I'd be out of Gary's life real quick.
Louris: I always felt guilty for going on so long. The funny thing is,
we could have kept going. We still had a major-label deal and people
waiting to put out our next record. Our fans weren't dwindling, they
were growing, especially in terms of live audience. It is odd when you
see how short lived some of my favorite bands were. I'm a big Moby
Grape fan -- if any of those guys still live in the Bay Area, put out
the word that I'd love to meet them. They were hardly together at all.
I love the almost-falling-apart quality of records by Skip Spence --
Oar is one of my favorite records of all time -- and Syd Barrett and
people like that. To me that's much more charming than a record that's
ProTooled to death. But you can't just go out and say, "I wanna make a
crazy record like that" -- you really have to feel it. You just have
to make music that makes you feel like, if you were the only person to
ever hear it, you'd be proud of it
Gary Louris and Mark Olson perform Sunday and Monday, May 7 and 8, at
the Great American Music Hall, 859 O'Farrell St., S.F.; showtime, 8
p.m.; tickets, $25; for more information, call (415) 885-0750