Although I cannot fully explain why — maybe the diversity of the songs and a vocal harmony or two — I mention to Jayhawks leader Gary Louris that I detect The Beatles (White Album) in the excellent new Jayhawks album, Paging Mr. Proust.
“I am flattered,” Louris responds. “It’s probably my favorite Beatles record, along with Revolver. There are a lot of scene shifts in Paging Mr. Proust. The record shows a lot more who we are and who I am musically.
“We are many things,” he continues. “I have a lot of different musical interests, and it’s a challenge to get them all to hold together.”
Louris says he is “a big fan” of French novelist Marcel Proust. “I stumbled into him by reading [John] Updike. I found Proust’s biography — the golden standard of detail. Proust believed in slowing down and digging deep — being where you are, opening your eyes and looking at where you’re at. I was inspired by this after getting clean and sober. I’ve embraced meditations and New Age-y types of things.”
The front and back covers of Paging Mr. Proust may inspire anyone who treasures architecture. They feature black-and-white retro photos of the then-futuristic Trans World Airlines terminal, which was designed by famous Finnish architect Eero Saarinen and opened in 1962 at New York’s Idlewild Airport to usher in the Jet Age. The airport was later renamed JFK International, and the terminal, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is being converted into a hotel.
“It’s the first time since Hollywood Town Hall [the Jayhawks’ 1992 album] that the cover and the record are in complete harmony,” Louris says.
There’s “a bit of serendipity” in the cover, he says.
Louris, who was born in Toledo, Ohio, in 1955, was an architect before becoming a full-time musician. He studied architecture at the University of Minnesota and worked at a drafting board during the day and as a musician at night.
The Paging Mr. Proust cover photos were shot years ago by a Detroit-based architectural photographer named Balthazar Korab and cleared for the Jayhawks’ use by University of Minnesota architecture professor John Comazzi. Comazzi, a Jayhawks fan, wrote a book about Korab, who was employed by Saarinen and had a renowned photography career until his death in 2013.
Adding to the “serendipity,” Louris says a friend was in an airport and heard “Paging Mr. Proust” over the public-address system.
Paging Mr. Proust is a wholly different animal than its predecessor, 2011’s Mockingbird Time. That album featured original Jayhawks founder Mark Olson returning to the group and once again meshing with co-founders Louris and Marc Perlman and long-time Jayhawks Karen Grotberg and Tim O’Reagan.
“Mockingbird Time was a completely different recording process and a major struggle,“ Louris says. “There was different chemistry, and it was a bad time for me personally.”
The album drew critical raves, but Olson left the group again after it was released, and Louris battled an opiate addiction.
“It was a dark period of my life from 2005 through late 2012,” Louris says. “I was hooked on opiates and drinking but could still function. I hid it very well. Drug addicts can hide very well.”
Louris says he became addicted to opiates while recovering from surgery. His business manager steered him to MusiCares addiction recovery services, and he was in rehab for 29 days.
“MusiCares came through,” he says. “I wasn’t really me back then. It was a hell, and it’s been lifted. I’m now trying to speak out to tell people that there’s life after such an addiction.”
When Louris started working again, he wasn’t sure it was time for a new Jayhawks record.
“I came out of rehab and didn’t do music right away,” he recalls. I had to rewire my brain. Then I realized the Jayhawks were the best vehicle for the songs I had. I was a little lost without the structure of the band. I walked in the door and said this is the place where I want to be. This is perfect. And with Tucker [Martine] and Peter [Buck], the vibe felt right.”
Martine, a Grammy-nominated producer and musician, and Buck, co-founder and lead guitarist of R.E.M., co-produced Paging Mr. Proust with Louris at Flora Recording and Playback in Portland, Oregon.
Louris says there was “no artistic tension” working with Buck, whose guitar playing has been cited as the most notable aspect of R.E.M.’s music. “We found a happy sweet spot,” Louris says. “He was not heavy-handed. He would let Tucker do a lot of the work and oversee it.”
Louris calls the Jayhawks “a retooled band” after Olson’s second departure and the “most organized and deliberate we’ve been since the early 1990s. I have a certain drive to prove you can do some of your best work later in life — particularly in rock music.”
Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Tom Waits are proof, Louris says, that musicians very deep in their careers can still create important music. He cites Time Out of Mind, Dylan’s brilliant 1997 album. Dylan was 56 years old when the album was released, and reviewers are now praising Fallen Angels, which was released last month, days before his 75th birthday.
Louris says he already has some new songs “bubbling under” and wants to release a solo record. “I have a lot of weird stuff I would like to get out, maybe by streaming.”
In 2008, he released a solo album Vagabonds and an EP, Acoustic Vagabonds, as well as a duo album, Ready for the Flood, with Olson. Last year, he and Django Haskins of the North Carolina-based band Old Ceremony joined together as Au Pair and released One-Armed Candy Bear.
Paging Mr. Proust “doesn’t feel like a last one” for the Jayhawks, and there might be a new release for the group next year, Louris says.
But now the Jayhawks are in the midst of a long tour that takes them throughout the USA and Canada through the end of July. Then a European tour with 20 concerts scheduled begins in September.
Louris says the most influential concert he has attended as a spectator was a Flaming Lips show at Minneapolis’s First Avenue club because “of all kinds of crazy things” that happened on stage. He says cassette players were handed out to audience members.
The show he was apparently referring to took place on April 20, 1998, and was dubbed Boom-Box Experiment #10. Up to 40 volunteers with modified boom-box cassette tape players became an instant orchestra and were directed to vary the volume or tone of the Flaming Lips tapes in their players.
Two other concerts stand out as the best ones he has seen.
One was an Elvis Costello show in Jay’s Longhorn Bar in Minneapolis on Feb. 14, 1978 — one month before Costello released his highly acclaimed second album, This Year’s Model. The other was Nirvana — with My Bloody Valentine as the opening act — at First Avenue.
“Both concerts were at a time when in those musicians’ careers where they were just breaking, and it kind of felt like something was happening,” Louris says. “A lot was the crowd as much as the band.”