By Philip Runco.
Sixteen years ago, Gary Louris made love in the Toronto.
Today, the second Friday in June, the Jayhawks frontman is back in the capital of Ontario, but his activities are far less sensational.
“I’m lying here on a couch in a bus, just doing my crossword puzzle,” shares Louris, the comfort of his supine position evident even over the phone. “That’s alllll I’m doing.”
“Better Days” was a song of regret and recognition, of wrestling with the consequences of callous behavior. It’s not dissimilar from some of the introspection that Louris has done over the past few years, a span of time in which he confronted his substance addiction.
“I was trying to kill myself – mostly through the drugs and alcohol,” he admitted to MPR News earlier this year. “I reached a point where I just wanted to die because I couldn’t envision ever being happy.”
Thankfully, Louris pulled himself out of that deep hole. And while the continuation of the Jayhawks in light of such dark times feels like a trivial matter, fans of the band were nonetheless elated by their return six weeks ago with Paging Mr. Proust.
The band’s ninth album follows 30 years after its first. Such longevity is an achievement in its own right, but Paging Mr. Proust is also arguably the band’s finest since 1997’s Sound of Lies – a similarly varied collection of songs that expand the Jayhawks’ sound to darker and moodier terrain while never escaping the warmth of the band’s unmistakable harmonies and Louris’ knack for melody.
Sound of Lies notably followed Tomorrow the Green Grass and the departure of vocalist Mark Olson. There was similar thread this around: After rejoining the band for 2011’s Mockingbird Time, Olson again left the Jayhawks – this time somewhat acrimoniously.
The rest of the band would return for Paging Mr. Proust, though: keyboardist Karen Grotberg, bassist Marc Perlman, drummer Tim O’Reagan, and on-and-0ff guitarist Kraig Johnson.
And together with Louris, they’ve made a record that reminds us that after three decades, the Jayhawks still have a lot of great music in them.
There’s more than one mood, but what this record has – in a way that’s similar to Sound of Lies – is a certain vibeyness throughout it. We hopefully give to that each record, but this one seems to be pretty steeped in it.
Overall, the mood is introspective but hopeful. It captures a lot of what the band and I have been through, but we’re not wallowing in it. In my mind, there’s a lot of hopefulness to the record.
Sound of Lies was a little more like, “I’m in a dark place, and I don’t know how I’m going to get out.” Smile was like, “I’m embracing the world, I have a new son, and everything is looking positive.”
This one has a good mix of addressing the past while trying to be in the present and feeling like there is a future. There have been other records we’ve done where I’ve felt like, “Well, this is our last record.” In this case, I don’t feel that way.
It has a lot of layers to it, just like life does. It has a bit of despair, a bit of sadness, and a lot of positivity. There’s movement, and there’s standing still and breathing in.
You’ve said the Jayhawks worked harder on these songs before going into the studio than ever before. Was something lighting a fire underneath you?
It’s not a musical thing, but I’m a drug addict, and two-and-a-half years ago, I went through treatment, and I had somewhat of an epiphany about my life. I spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to do, and I eventually came to the realization that I needed the band. I realized that they were a great band, and like many things in my life, I didn’t appreciate them as much as I should have.
With sobriety comes clarity, and with clarity comes better decisions. I realized that for a lot of my life I was expecting things without putting in the work. I realize now that you get back what you put into something. You don’t always get what you might think you deserve, but it’s good to spend more time with things. That’s part of the Proustian theory: Be where you are.
I worked harder on exploring what kind of music I wanted to make. Then, when the band got together, we spent a lot more time jamming, which we’ve never really done much of. We recorded our rehearsals, and we spent more time collaborating.
I mean, we’ve worked hard on other records. It’s not like we haven’t worked hard. But I think this was a better use of our time. It was reflective of a new appreciation for what we have, instead of thinking about what we don’t have and comparing ourselves. It was about rediscovering the band and how good we are. There was a lot newfound positivity.
You wrote a lot of these songs before you knew there would another Jayhawks record. Given the decades of experience within the band and outside of it, how do songs change when you bring them to Karen and Mark and Kraig and Tim?
There’s no placeholder or weak link in the band. Each person is very gifted in their own way. They’re strong personalities and very intelligent people. And because we’ve been around each other long enough, they feel open to give their opinions and make suggestions. Of course, they each have their own styles and ways of playing, which are different than if I was doing everything myself.
So, a song evolves with the arranging, and getting their opinions, and the way they play it themselves. There’s also just the vocals. Having two other really good singers instantly turns a song into what could be considered the “Jayhawks sound.” The vocals of Tim and Karen are really distinct. I think we have three good vocalists – if I may dare say that I am a good vocalist – and we’re all very distinctive. There’s not a generic voice in the bunch.
Maybe it’s good that I wrote a bunch of the songs before I knew that they would be Jayhawks songs because it opened doors a bit more for us. It bucked typecasting us. Some of those songs worked and turned into Jayhakws songs; some songs were just not Jayhawkian enough.
And when it became apparent there would be another Jayhawks record, I started writing it with people in the band in mind.
Are there songs you’re especially proud in terms of expanding the Jayhawks universe?
“Comeback Kids”, “Ace”, and “Leaving the Monsters Behind” – those three especially. I wasn’t sure those first two would make it onto a Jayhawks record.
There are a very diverse group of people in the band, and we have quite a diverse knowledge and taste in music. None of us grew up listening to traditional music, really. This album makes me optimistic that we can start exploring those other sides of us. They’re really more prominent than the rootsy side. I want to find ways of incorporating them into what we do, so we could eventually put out a record and nobody is going to turn their head if we do something that’s very off the radar. They’ll just say, “Oh, that’s the Jayhawks. We don’t know what they’re going to do exactly.”
That’s the kind of goal for a lot of artists: to be free to express themselves in a different way.
You’ve dismissed Mockingbird Time as “not a good record.” What about that album dissatisfies you?
Well, I don’t listen to it – not that I listen to any of our records, really. Maybe there will be a time when I’ll be able to listen to it and enjoy it. It just represents a rough time in my life personally. The chemistry of the band wasn’t working. Unlike this record, things were just a struggle all the way along. And I’m not particularly proud of my production work.
I think there are really good songs on there, but it’s hard for me to listen to it objectively without remembering where I was at the time, so maybe I’m not the best judge of this. I don’t want to diminish people’s enjoyment of it, but I personally don’t acknowledge it much at this point in my life.
You seem to be fairly critical of songcraft – yours or otherwise. Are you capable of stepping back and admiring your achievements?
I am. I think if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be able to continue writing songs, because half of songwriting is confidence. If you don’t think you can do something, chances are you’re not going to do it very well. I think of what I do as being what most people would want to do, but I find that I certainly have a different approach and style than a lot of people.
No, I’m proud of the songs that I’ve written. I have a knack for a certain style that’s somewhat out of fashion, but I still strongly believe in the way I write songs.
I have a hard time listening to other people’s songs without having a critical ear for why they went to a certain chord, or how long they took to the chorus, or how uplifting the chorus is. Many times I listen to something and I’ll go, “I would have thrown that idea out right away! I don’t why they pursued this idea.”
It’s like when a chef who goes to another restaurant: It’s hard for him to sit down and have a meal without thinking about all of the things that are happening in the kitchen.
It’s something that just happens to me with regular, song-based music. That’s why I primarily listen to classical or krautrock or drone or avant-garde music or sports talk radio. They’re not things that my mind starts criticizing so far as song structure.
Why do you think your music is “somewhat out of fashion?” What’s even in style in 2016?
I’m somewhat embarrassed about it, but I’m not really a music theory guy as much I’d like. I studied piano, but I don’t understand scales of certain kind. But it seems like the scale – or whatever my melodies are based on – seems to be out of fashion.
There was a shift in the ‘90s with Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. Melodies became darker and somewhat harsher. But I was engrained with things from the ‘60s and ‘70s. That still appeals to my ears. It’s maybe a little more uplifting – an exploding chorus with little variations. It feels like a throwback to a more innocent kind of songwriting.
I just know that’s my sensibility. There’s a certain type of song that you can just tell is mine, and I don’t know what makes it that, but that’s what I’ve been.
Given the last five years, are you in a good place now?
Oh yeah, this is the best I’ve felt in a long time. The only thing I’m sad about is that it’s taken me this long to figure out what’s important in life and to appreciate the things I have.
The chemistry is so good in the band on and off stage. I feel like we’ve made a really good record.
Personally, I’m in a really good spot. I can’t remember everything – I remember the early ‘90s being kind of a magical time, too, but this is the best it’s been for me as far as just being a human being and enjoying what I do. I’ve many times fought with myself about being on the road and not being at home, and I think I’ve learned to enjoy the road a lot more.
I had a major shift in how I approach performing. I definitely perform better straight. This is really corny, but it’s true: I used to go on stage thinking, “What can the crowd give me? What can I suck from to make me feel good about myself?” I would get a high from that. Now, I go on stage, and I think, “How can I make these people feel good? How can I be there for them?”
I don’t want to sound like a complete saint here – I still have my ego – but that’s a major change. When you try to get things from the audience to make you feel good, it’s inevitable that there’s a huge letdown and depression when they leave. I don’t have that anymore. It’s a beautiful thing. It makes you feel like you’re doing something important instead of something selfish.