Gary Louris - Alone together again
Is there, perhaps, a distinction between stopping and ending? Maybe stopping is the absence -- intentional or otherwise -- of future plans to continue with what had been an ongoing concern. Ending feels more like a deliberate act calculated to ensure something ever happens again. Of course, a stop can turn out to be an end in hindsight. And not every ending pre-empts a sequel. Gary Louris spent the last twenty or so years as leader or co-leader of the Jayhawks, one of the seminal bands of the roots-rock amalgam that passes for a genre and encompasses hundreds of artists covered and not covered by this very magazine. He did so first in partnership with Mark Olson, then on his own after Olson left the Jayhawks to start the Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers with Victoria Williams. But it wasn't quite that simple. The Jayhawks version 1.0 ended in late 1995 with the completion of a long tour in support of Tomorrow The Green Grass and a meeting that followed between Olson and Louris to discuss the next record. That conversation ended with Olson saying he didn't want to do it. After a bout of soul-searching, Louris (along with bandmates Mark Perlman, Tim O'Reagan and Karen Grotberg) elected to continue, and the Jayhawks version 2.0 was born with the release of 1997's Sound Of Lies. The band thrived artistically (if not commercially) on through 2003's Rainy Day Music. Fast forward to 2008: The Jayhawks have stopped (see above); Louris is releasing his first-ever solo album, Vagabonds; and on the heels of that record will come Ready For The Flood, which reunites Olson and Louris as a duo and formally restarts, in terms of new writing and recording, what had ended (see also above) a decade ago. By its very nature, analyzing why a band goes its separate ways is a delicate matter. Like personal relationships, there are multiple and sometimes contradictory points of view, not to mention an undeniable truth that none us know what the future holds. Louris seems conscious of all this as he addresses how the Jayhawks "stopped" (let's continue to use that word) after the tour for Rainy Day Music. "Well, depending on who you talk to, it was pretty mutual," he explains. "It felt like we were spinning our wheels a bit, looking at this bizarre life for the rest of our existence. [I've since read] things from other people saying they wanted to continue, but at the time everybody [agreed], 'Let's put this to bed. We've been together twenty years.' People still come up and say, 'You gotta get back together.' I won't say that I don't miss certain things about it, but there are tradeoffs. I remember back in the day talking to Joe Henry about the benefits -- how it would be great to be a solo guy and do whatever you wanted any time with no responsibilities to anybody. And Joe was saying how great it would be to be in a band and know who your people were. So there are certainly positive and negative aspects. But I think we all felt we needed to do something different, even if it was just for the sake of doing something different." Save for a short, one-off set in celebration of the 35th anniversary of their hometown club, First Avenue, in 2005, the Jayhawks' final performances took place at that same venue in Minneapolis in December 2003. The three-night stand was recorded and filmed for what was to be the band's first DVD and live album, though four years later the project remains unseen and unheard. "You'd think it was some kind of lost John Lennon album," Louris says with exasperation, "because it has gone back and forth between Rick Rubin and Lost Highway." The limbo is due to the Jayhawks' catalogue reverting back to Rubin's American imprint (to which the band inked its original major-label deal). The quagmire is also holding back reissue of the Jayhawks' self-titled 1986 debut, commonly known as the Bunkhouse album for the label on which it was released. "The live record, we're working on," he promises, "but I'm never going to open my mouth again until I know it is in stores. Same with the first record." Not the news Jayhawks fans were hoping to hear, but Louris does offer one tantalizing tidbit in terms of the vaults: "Rick Fuller [part of the filmmaking team of Harder/Fuller] has done a lot of rock documentaries, and he has all this footage of the history of First Avenue, plus a thing called Seven Nights At The Entry which I was involved with back in 1982 with all these bands playing. He's given me a bunch of footage of the Jayhawks from 1986, '88, '90 and '92. So there's a lot of old film and video plus what we did for the live record in 2003. I'm hoping we can finally get some DVD footage out in association with the live album or the Bunkhouse album." The album title Vagabonds is fitting given the varied ways Louris contemplated making his first solo album, a process that eventually brought him to Los Angeles in the spring of 2006. "I had four or five scenarios," he recounts. "One was to do it in Spain with my friend Paco. We dabbled a bit but I felt a little isolated. Paco is incredibly talented and I'd like to do more work with him, but I was already a bit insecure about how these songs were going to pan out. So I discarded that idea and thought about doing all of it myself in my basement." He further considered working in England and even recording in Prague with a full symphony orchestra. "But I kept being pulled back to the idea of L.A.," he says, "because I've made almost all my records there. You feel like you're in the best place you could be: the best studios; the best support network; so much history." A big part of the L.A. support network was Louris' good friend Chris Robinson, lead singer of the Black Crowes turned album producer. Robinson had helmed the Olson/Louris duo sessions (which were recorded before Vagabonds), and through that project, Louris says, "it became evident that I liked working with Chris and he put me in a good headspace." "I've known Gary for eighteen years," Robinson recalls in a separate conversation. "The only two bands George Drakoulias ever signed [to Def American] were the Black Crowes and the Jayhawks. When Hollywood Town Hall came out, we were on our second album tour, and we took them out in the States [to open for us]. That's where our friendship started. We like a lot of the same roots music and have a lot of the same influences. And of course, he's sat in on my solo gigs and with the Black Crowes; I've sat in with the Jayhawks a few times. Music has always been the catalyst." For Robinson, getting Louris into "a good headspace" involved encouraging him to be "more visceral," especially given the nature of the material. "[If] the songs are intimate," Robinson says, "and there's a lot of dynamic emotional ground, then you want to [create] a place where he really shouldn't be thinking, he should be feeling. "I tend to do that, because I'm a musician first and foremost, so I have a good relationship to the vibe. There's no reason to be uptight about this stuff: Making a record should be fun. Getting to those places where you are expressing yourself should be enjoyable." In Los Angeles, Robinson introduced Louris to some kindred souls for whom that vibe has become a bond. He cites shared influences of folk, country, blues and psychedelic music in what he calls, "a pretty fertile community, at least the group of us that gets together occasionally to shake off the cobwebs." The result allowed Louris to be, and Robinson chooses this word thoughtfully, "trusting." "Chris hangs out with this group of musicians who are really cool and love playing off each other," Louris echoes from his side of the story. "I've never been a big jammer, but I found myself getting into it and enjoying these people. They had a musical vocabulary born from Wednesday night jam sessions, not from studio sessions. And while they are not necessarily new kids on the block, they didn't come with a lot of baggage. They were earnest about the music and it wasn't about any agenda. So that was all happening in L.A." And more specifically Laurel Canyon, both literally and what those two words together evoke mythically in terms of musical history and the spirits of Gram Parsons, Crosby Stills & Nash, et al. circa 1970 -- but only to a point. Louris fell in not with the legends of the canyon, but its new residents, players such as bassist/multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Wilson, drummer Otto Hauser (of Vetiver), pedal steel player Josh Grange, and keyboardist Adam MacDougal (a new member of the Black Crowes). "It's not like we went up there and played a bunch of Flying Burrito Brothers covers," Louris asserts before conceding, "there's a little bit of that retro vibe." It would be hard to deny the CSN vocal-harmony homage applied to the end of "We'll Get By", while "Omaha Nights" moves up the coast into Skip Spence territory. "I'm a bit all over the board," he contends justifiably, "which has always been my strength and weakness as far as genre-hopping. But I certainly have a soft spot for that period, and it was a touchstone [for the sessions]. I don't think any other era eclipsed it. There were great things in the '80s; late '70s punk and the New York scene; England [around the time of] Joy Division. But for my voice and what I do, 1970 was a good year." Vagabonds should sound familiar to any Jayhawks fan, but fresh, too. "I've had some musician friends say the record sounds like me, but it didn't sound like I was waiting for the other guy to come in and sing harmony," Louris offers. "What also makes it sound a little different -- and this came out of the Olson/Louris record -- is we got into a folk-picking style more than just strumming." One of the album's best tracks, "D.C. Blues", glides on just such a bed of picking. Though a solo album represents a departure in terms of going it alone, Louris faced similar uncharted waters when he assumed leadership of the Jayhawks following Olson's exit. "We started playing shows and I was the lead guy," he recalls. "I remember having a bit of a 'fuck you' attitude: If they like it, they do, and if they don't, they don't. [It's the same thing] in this case, as I have very humble expectations. But I think people who get the album are really gonna get it. And hopefully there are enough of them to make it worthwhile for me to tour." Is that really in question? "Everybody I talk to says it's tough out there," he admits. "Tough to get people to come to shows, to buy CDs. Everything is free. And I know the reality of what happens when you're in a band and you go solo -- not everyone who bought your CD in the band is gonna go out and find you solo, no matter how many stickers you put on the front." To that end, Robinson's production approach isn't all vibe, it is pragmatic, too. "Part of my solo career was about getting out of a Black Crowes place," the producer says, "which is bigger budgets, more people, more stuff, and into a self-sufficient thing, which I think is the future for those of us who want to continue making music and do it outside of the system that is given to us." That new world order includes such pesky matters as making one's peace with the means by which so much music gets broadly exposed these days, with television and commercials supplanting radio. Louris calls the situation "a necessary evil," and he already experienced the concession first hand when "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me" (from The Jayhawks' Smile) was featured in a TV advert for Ralph Lauren's fragrance Polo Blue. Call him a pragmatist with standards. "As long as it is not for adult diapers or something to do with a four-hour erection, I'm probably not going to say no," he says. "We have said no, way back in the day when it wasn't cool. In the early '90s Levis asked us to write a song about 501 jeans in the style of 'Waiting For The Sun.' At the time we were like, 'No, that's a sellout.' And Levi's was a cool company. But things are different. If they asked me to write a song now I'd probably say yes because times have changed so much." Ready For The Flood, set for release in late summer on Hacktone/Rykodisc, is a record many thought would never happen after Louris and Olson parted in 1995. The seeds of their reunion were planted in late 2001 when Louris visited Olson's place in Joshua Tree for a little post-9/11 catharsis. Around the same time, the pair received an offer to co-write for the soundtrack to the movie The Rookie. "So we wrote two songs and hashed through a lot of personal issues," Louris recounts. "[They were] emotional, heavy-duty sessions and it brought us together again. "I had missed Mark in the band; as proud as I am of what we did after him, there was a void for me as far as a foil or a partner in crime. But the most important thing is I regained an old friend. To have someone who can share moments and memories with you from way back in the early '80s is hard to replace." The material written at those sessions didn't make it into the movie, though Olson did release one of the compositions, "Say You'll Be Mine", on his 2002 disc December's Child. Louris and the Jayhawks returned to the road that same year (with "Say You'll Be Mine" also in their sets) and released the critically acclaimed Rainy Day Music in April 2003. With their friendship restored and the songwriting partnership rekindled, did they ever ponder Olson rejoining the Jayhawks? "Not really," Louris replies before reconsidering. "Well, there was some thought at one point, maybe, but it was kind of confusing, especially for people who became fans post-Olson and all of a sudden we're Jayhawks mk1 instead of mk2." Once the Jayhawks had grounded, Louris and Olson kept talking and eventually toured together in 2005, joined by Mike "Razz" Russell on bass and Ray Woods on drums, and in 2006 as a duo. By then it was clear they were not only ready to write together again but to record an album. It took a mere four afternoons at Russell's house in Minneapolis to pen fourteen complete songs. "When we work together it is fast, good and natural," says Louris. "It wasn't like we had to be in the perfect spot with the perfect mood -- when we get together we write songs, and we complete each other pretty well." Though they have always been complementary songwriters, Louris calls the batch of songs for the forthcoming album their "most collaborative" to date, truly "writing together." That differs slightly from the past where each might bring in a partially or nearly completed song for the other's final input or approval. "Mark is a little more excited about doing the lyrics," Louris says of his partner. "I tend to be a little more excited about doing the melody. But that changes; it's not so black and white. I've learned a lot from Mark [about] lyrics....It is his gift." While their individual talents may be meshing, their pal Robinson sees -- and relishes in -- the differences between the old friends. "All you have to do is be in a room with the two of them," he asserts. "Mark is a little more disheveled, his boots are dirty, his shirts have holes in the elbows, and his guitar looks like it has been dragged behind a car. Gary comes in immaculate, he's kind of a dandy, and his guitar is perfect. They are juxtaposed in a classic, archetypal songwriting duo." Robinson's involvement in the Olson and Louris project began when the pair asked him to come by and "write a couple of tunes together," then later to produce. "Besides our friendship, I'm a fan," he says unabashedly. "To be asked to help facilitate what they're feeling and what they want to say in their music was a great thrill." Pre-production rehearsals convened in Joshua Tree (where Olson has lived for many years), and Robinson had a clear vision for the record almost immediately. "When you have a group of songs that are born out of a spontaneous place," he contends, "you definitely want to round them up and get them right then and there. [This is not] pop music. We're not talking about remixes and that kind of thing. You want to adhere to the most authentic place." One material way this vision deviated from how Olson and Louris had recorded together in the past was Robinson's direction that "everything is going to be live, one take, no headphones" in an attempt to capture in the studio what he had heard during the Joshua Tree rehearsals. With the producer focused on shaping "great material, great sounds and a great performance," all that was left was to get a great recording, which was entrusted to engineer Thom Monahan. When it came time to pick songs for the record, the pair had a wealth of new material, but "we didn't use them all," says Louris. "We ended up doing three or four older songs that we really loved but had never been released, and they came out great." Two of the songs, "The Trap's Been Set" (a line from which supplies Ready For The Flood with its title) and "Turn Your Pretty Name Around", date back to 1990, and Louris says the blending with 2006 is seamless: "They could have been written the same day." With a new album together and two tours under their belts, Louris is clearly bonded with Olson going forward. Unprompted, he cautiously suggests, "If we ever did do anything -- and I don't want to stir up any ashes here -- but a [Jayhawks] show someday, just for the hell of it, I would want to do it with Mark." Erik Flannigan interviewed Gary Louris for previous No Depression cover stories on the Jayhawks and Golden Smog.