As instantly recognizable as the Everly Brothers or the Bee Gees, the yearning harmonies of Jayhawks singer-guitarists Gary Louris and Mark Olson became a touchstone of alternative country-rock in the '90s. Olson left the Minnesota band for the California desert in 1995, forming the Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers with his (now ex-) wife, Victoria Williams. Louris led The Jayhawks without him for another 10 years, recording three more harmony-drenched alt-country discs including Sound Of Lies and Smile. Olson and Louris reunited recently as an acoustic duo, collaborating on Olson's 2007 album, The Salvation Blues, and together releasing this year's gorgeously stripped-down Ready For The Flood. They'll perform with The Jayhawks tomorrow, July 10, at the Basilica Block Party in Minneapolis, the first reunion of the classic lineup on American soil in 14 years (with founding bassist Marc Perlman, longtime drummer-vocalist Tim O'Reagan, and keyboardist Karen Grotberg). The show celebrates the release of Music From The North Country: The Jayhawks Anthology, the deluxe edition of which collects 14 previously unreleased recordings. Speaking over the phone from Norway, Olson mused about the past and future of his widely beloved band.
Decider: Let's cut to the chase: Will you be reuniting with The Jayhawks to record a new album?
Mark Olson: Well, right now the only thing that's solid is that we're going to play some festivals next summer in Europe and America. As far as making another album, I'm open to that. I haven't really thought that much about it because I've been on the road for almost two years. [Laughs.]
D: Tim O'Reagan took on more of the singing after you left the band. Will you be singing with both him and Gary at these live shows?
MO: Oh, yeah, everybody sings. Karen sings, Tim sings, Gary sings, I sing. It hasn't been that different because we haven't really gotten into the material that I wasn't on. But I know Tim and Karen well, and I love their voices, so I don't have any problem playing those songs.
D: Will they join you on the old songs?
MO: Well, we kind of keep them the way they are. There's a limit to background vocals. You can't have people oohing and ahhing on every song.
D: Going back to the start of The Jayhawks, why did you want to be in a band with Gary Louris?
MO: I was rehearsing with Marc Perlman, and a drummer named Norm Rogers, and we were trying to do up-tempo Woody Guthrie stuff. I knew Gary had played in a rockabilly band, Safety Last, and had some feeling for the country stuff. At that point in time in Minneapolis, there was all this loud punk. So he was one person I knew who had listened to country, and that interested me.
D: Did the same crowd go to all those different shows in the '80s?
MO: Well, that's what was neat about that. There was a core audience of about 150 people that you would see at the Longhorn, First Avenue, and the Uptown Bar, and you would see them at the Safety Last shows and the punk shows. They'd go out swimming afterwards in a lake.
D: When did you know that you and Gary would work well together?
MO: When we did the record for Twin/Tone [Blue Earth], we started to really sing the harmonies and use minor chords on the progressions. That was when it felt like there was a sound there. I remember listening to The Youngbloods during that period, and The Band. We were off the country thing by then, and were moving backwards and upside down.
D: How did you come by harmonies like the one on “Settled Down Like Rain,” which has that unresolved quality that adds a whole other dimension to the song?
MO: It just came natural to me to do low harmonies. I can't necessarily do cover songs very well, sing someone else's melody, but for some reason I can just make up these droney lines below other lines, moving them around in weird spaces. I just hear it that way. So there are some weird harmonies on those records. But they seem to work. Gary's very good at it, too, and we listen to each other. One guy sticks and one guy moves.
D: What records were you listening to when you started?
MO: Gary actually had The Louvin Brothers record called My Baby's Gone, and it had all these songs on it that weren't straight country—they had a little Beatles in them. That was a huge influence on the early stuff.
D: Why did you lose contact with Gary for so long after you left The Jayhawks?
MO: We'd been down in the trenches of the band life for 10 years, really on an everyday basis, and I think there was just some psychological break that we both took. To my discredit—I should have called more. I moved to a new state and embarked on a lot of crazy projects, but I should have called. It was a psychological break from the band, not so much from the person. I never felt any animosity toward anyone in the band.
D: Any reason you've been hesitant to reunite?
MO: I really like playing music with Gary, and I like playing music with everybody else. But the thing is, I play the acoustic guitar, and in a band setting, you just don't hear it. So I went on to do more stuff at a lower volume. We [began] in the days of Soul Asylum, and our band tended to be at volumes that were comparable to that. And I don't really like that.
D: Did you take part in compiling the new anthology?
MO: My contribution was to look after the “mystery demos.” There's this idea that if there's ever another Jayhawks record, there might be a couple old songs that we want to gather from that. So I pulled out a number of songs that I consider very good songs from the past that maybe we should hold on to in case we ever record again.
D: Does anything strike you about the collection, hearing all these songs together again?
MO: Nobody's sent me one yet! I suppose they'd have to send it overseas. I've been home for three days since January. I like to play music every night. I love the feeling of the acoustic guitar and listening to the other musicians in the group. Gary and I have been touring with this djembe player, and I like to see that progression of people challenging themselves onstage. It's sort of a jazz thing that I learned from Victoria, playing all the time under different circumstances.
The Jayhawks play "Blue" on The Jon Stewart Show, April 6, 1995: