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The Jayhawks

The Minneapolis band The Jayhawks has been together since 1985, and its popularity has grown with the release of each successive album: Both 1992's Hollywood Town Hall and 1995's terrific Tomorrow The Green Grass were significant sleeper hits. But The Jayhawks' career trajectory was derailed in the fall of 1995, when co-frontmen Mark Olson and Gary Louris decided to go their separate ways. Now the members of The Jayhawks have regrouped—minus Olson—and will release a new album, Sound Of Lies, on April 22. The Onion recently spoke to Louris about all of this and more.

The Onion: So, what the hell happened to your band?

Gary Louris: We regrouped. We're a group that regrouped, basically. It's a band that kind of played out its original concept in a way. I shouldn't say that exactly, but it had gotten to a point where we had a certain way of doing things, and things started to get stale. I think it got boring for the two songwriters, who basically were sharing a band—it was a singer/songwriter kind of thing with a band behind it. Now it's more of a band, I think, so it's more open. We work on stuff together. I'm still the primary songwriter, but now Mark and I don't have to share space on the record as much as we used to. Or rather, we don't have to at all. So Mark was ready to move on—one of us was ready to move on, one or the other—and he ended up leaving. It was a very friendly split, and we felt like it was for the best for all of us. So after that happened, I took a little time to think about what I wanted to do, and I decided, "Gee, I want to play with this band." It's a great band, and it's just a matter of me getting up the gumption to actually lead the band as the sole lead singer. And after doing that, and making a record, I'm really excited about it.

O: So it's worked out well for you.

GL: Yeah, I'm thrilled. I think we made a good record, and we've played two shows now, and it's been well-received. I guess I feel like we're getting a new identity for ourselves.

O: What's up with Mark Olson?

GL: Uh, he's making his own record, I believe. I think he might be working with his wife, but I'm not sure.

O: And it was an amicable split?

GL: Yes, totally. Ten years is a long time, 2.8 years longer than the typical marriage.

O: Do you feel like this is a new band, or is it like the old band minus one person?

GL: It's an old band with new life, I think. I mean, it still sounds like The Jayhawks, but I think some new directions are being explored. I think we're kind of going back to our roots before we got into the roots. When we got into country music, I don't know if there was much, if any, alternative country. That was 1985, and it was different back then, and we really felt like we were doing something unique and kind of strange, and it was our own. We didn't want to just be copying The Replacements and Husker Du and bands of the time in the area, as much as we loved them. We knew how good they were, and we didn't want to just copy them. We wanted something of our own, and we just happened to have been listening to country and folk music anyway, and kind of just incorporated that into our rock experiences. Now there's a lot of that alternative country, and we've kind of done it as much as we feel we... We've taken it to certain areas, and now we want to take it different directions, which at this point are not very country anymore. I'm not saying we'll never do it, or that we're denying our past, because we aren't. But we're definitely excited about doing something that for The Jayhawks is kind of bizarre. And I think we were kind of moving in that direction anyway: If you listen to the progression of records, I think Tomorrow The Green Grass gives a little hint of where this new record was going to go.

O: Is the new record your rock record?

GL: Well, it's not our one rock record; it's a rock record. It's not like it's the only one we have in us. It's not very twangy, and it has a different type of vocal harmony going: As opposed to two male lead vocals, there's a lot of three-part and more creative vocal arrangements. There's a little bit less lead guitar, and more little atmospheric touches, I think. It's darker, weirder.

O: So your record is good, then.

GL: Uh, I think it's probably the best record made in the last 80 years. I don't know. I'm very proud of it, as usual. I'm always ready to go make another one, and just keep making records.

O: Is it going to be a smash? Because you know, it comes out the same day as the new Richard Marx and the new Boz Scaggs.

GL: Wow.

O: Are you afraid you're going to be overlooked?

GL: I'm afraid, yes. Programmers are going to look at that stack of new records and... Well, I would reach for Marx. I don't know about you.

O: Radio programmers who get those records, you know, they're only going to be able to add one a week. And they're going to be, like, "Boz Scaggs..."

GL: We're screwed. Let's face it. So it's not going to be a smash, because of those two people.

O: Do you get tired of being lumped in with that whole alternative-country thing, especially now that you're moving away from it?

GL: Uh, well, you say moving away from it, but I wouldn't put it past us to make a country record again some time, you know. We can do it. We have the tools and the knowledge. I think musicians, if they're confident in themselves, are very reluctant to be lumped together with anything. I think everybody works mostly in a vacuum, and doesn't look at it as some kind of statement or movement. And whenever you're put in a category, it's like anything: Whether it's religion or nationality or anything, you become something, and that means you're not something else. You're pigeonholed, or told you're one of "them." And it's not fair, because we're all very complex people; I know other people in other bands who have the same problem, and they love all kinds of music. I grew up listening to rock music; I didn't listen to country. So there are a lot of different sides to the band, and I think whenever you give someone a label, you're shortchanging their abilities.

O: Why should anyone buy your record?

GL: Well, we have this little IRS problem that I'd like to take care of, and my grandmother, of course, is terribly ill in the hospital. And, of course, the little ones need some clothes, and I haven't eaten in about two weeks. Otherwise, I'd just like to make some cash, personally, so I can buy a bunch of blow, you know? Um, why should anyone buy my record? Because I think it's a record that they could listen to for a long time. It's a good value for your money. It's a good investment—it'll go up in value. I just think we're a good band, you know? And unlike many bands, we write good songs. We know how to play. We actually have a band sound that works pretty much independently of what's going on. And I think we're somewhat of a bridge between the decades—between the '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s. We're definitely not a '90s band, but we're not a retro band either. I'm 42, and other people in the band are like 35, and we're not baby boomers, but we're not Generation Xers either. We're in this unique situation of being kind of in between. I have a good perspective about what's going on in music right now, and there aren't a lot of bands out there that are knockin' me out, to tell the truth. I think we're one of the best bands out there, you know? We make great records, so buy the damn thing and shut up. [Laughs.] Shut up and buy our goddamn record!

O: What other bands are you liking?

GL: Um, new bands? I guess I always like Matthew Sweet. I like bands like Guided By Voices—they knock me out with at least six of the 28 songs on each record. I like Nick Cave a lot; I'm a big Nick Cave fan. I don't know, those are the ones I can think of. Of course, all my friends' bands are good, but I don't like to get into too many names. I just gave you more than I usually give.

O: Is there a tour planned?

GL: Uh, yes. I don't know the details or the exact days, but my drummer gets married April 12, the record comes out April 22, and we'll go out sometime after April 22. [Tour dates have since been announced; the first show takes place April 24 in Toronto.]

O: The album comes out on the 22nd? I thought it was the 8th.

GL: No, it's April 22.

O: Oh, well, then you're not coming out on the same day as Boz Scaggs.

GL: Oh, whew. Thank god. Because, you know, we are kind of like the new Boz Scaggs: We incorporate a lot of Boz Scaggs and Richard Marx into our songs, so basically, people can buy our CD and get two for one. They're getting both the Marx and the Scaggs. But getting back to the touring thing, our policy with the new Jayhawks—The Jayhawks '97, like Sergio Mendes—is to be much more self-contained. We're working much more from Minneapolis. We made our record in Minneapolis, and we have our management in Minneapolis now instead of all this L.A. stuff. We're going to do our own touring and play our own club shows, so people who want to see us can see us, instead of paying 25 bucks to see us for 40 minutes and then have to sit through Tom Petty or something. So that's kind of our new thing. We're doing it more grass-roots. I mean, after 40 minutes of playing, you're just getting warmed up, and half the people are just walking in. It's much more fun to play a club, really.

O: So, what do you have to say? This is your soapbox.

GL: Um, boy. Love everyone everywhere. Go Gophers, is all I can tell you at this point. [This interview was conducted prior to the Minnesota Golden Gophers basketball team's entry and quick exit from the college basketball Final Four.] I'm not really... You've caught me totally unaware. It's a beautiful thing to think that I could say anything to anybody. I would say... Okay, this is what I'm saying. You can print this in big letters. I want to tell Ashley Judd: "I saw you on SportsCenter, jumping up and down for Kentucky, and I'm telling you, 'Leave that dolty Michael Bolton and come to me. Come to papa. Come to the man who's gonna make you happy for the rest of your life.'"

O: What else do you want to talk about? What has no one ever asked you about that you want to talk about? People have to always be, like, "Alternative country this, Mark Olson left the band that, your new album this..." What do you want to talk about?

GL: Why am I so underrated? Why don't people appreciate me as the genius that I am? [Laughs.] This is going to look really ridiculous when you print this. Why are women afraid to talk to me? Is it the glasses? Boy, I really don't know. I don't really have anything, although I will tell you that in general, in a typical interview, people usually ask questions about what happened to the band—they're looking for stories. Why is it that people always have to ask about alternative country? Why isn't the first question, like, "What about the music?" The main thing I am is a songwriter and a band member, and I'm not really out here trying to preach; I'm just trying to get through my own life, you know? If you gave me a little time ahead to think about it, I'd come up with a better answer.

O: So tell me about the songs on the record.

GL: Oh, no. I'm not in the mood now. [Laughs.] You have to hear them.