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Since Minneapolitan alt-country pioneers The Jayhawks disbanded in 2005, former leader Gary Louris has kept busy as a songwriter (including work on Dixie Chicks' Taking The Long Way) and producer, as well as touring and recording again with his old Jayhawks bandmate Mark Olson, with whom he has a duo album set for release later this year. This month, he releases his first solo record, Vagabonds, which explores the sound of the 1970s' California singer-songwriter scene. He'll embark on a U.S. tour in March. On a snowy day the week before the album's release, he talked to The A.V. Club about producing other people, the possibility of a Jayhawks reunion, and why he doesn't write songs about the chick he wants to bang.
The A.V. Club: Do you feel it's important with Vagabonds to establish a solo-artist identity that's different from your work with The Jayhawks?
Gary Louris: Well, that wasn't my intention. You try to do things without a plan, unlike most jobs. You try not to think too much about what you're doing—if you can hear yourself thinking, it's usually not the way it should be. But I think it's important, in a way, to separate myself, even if it's without trying. And I think it's a natural progression—when you're not working with the same people, you tend to sound different. Even if my personality is the same, it's reflected off different people. I know people have heard this record and said "It sounds like The Jayhawks," but it doesn't sound anything like it [to me]. And to be honest with you, I wasn't trying to do anything. Part of it was, I think, I got into some English folk and psychedelic music, and just got sort of fascinated with the "man and his guitar" kind of thing, and things grew out of that.
AVC: It's not like you were trying to jump into a completely different genre, like "Gary Louris' hip-hop record" or something.
GL: No, but it would be my kind of thing that I would probably get into rap right when it was going out of style. [Laughs.] But I think I tried to make this record have a unified feel. I had a lot of songs and other demos—and some of these will come out on bonus tracks—that sounded a lot different, that had synthesizer or more of a pop feel. So I was kind of all over the board, but these songs [that made it onto Vagabonds] kind of held together the most.
AVC: The last time you had such an opportunity to redefine what you sound like and who you are as an artist was probably when Mark Olson left The Jayhawks around 1995, and you stepped into the primary songwriting role. Can you compare what that situation was like with the end of The Jayhawks in 2005, and your subsequent solo career?
GL: It is kind of similar, from what I remember. Sometimes I question how I got through that, because that was hard, to go back to Nashville or Atlanta or Chicago after 10 years with Olson and have him not there, but still be The Jayhawks. It was a little bit gutsy and some may say stupid, but I felt like I needed to do it. And I remember my mindset was basically "Fuck it." That was it. "If they like it, cool. If they don't, fuck it. What can I do?" You know, am I going to go home and hide in my room? I want to do this, the band wants to play, and we have a lot of songs we believe in. And I think that's a similar feeling to what I have now. Not so much as in fuck you, it's more like fuck it. I can only do what feels right. If I try to figure out what people want and give it to them, it's a failure. If I try to please people and figure out what's going to get me from point A to point B, I fail. But I think if I do what I want to do, in the long run, maybe not tomorrow, but at some point, I think it'll pay off and it'll at least feel honest. So I think that's a similar point between Sound Of Lies and this record. I'm trying to honestly do what I want to do, in the most honest way, and not worry about the consequences, because what's the worst thing that can happen? People don't like it, I go home. I'm not going to get hung by my thumbs. And as long as I don't read the reviews or care about what people say on a website or worry about those kind of things, then I'll probably be very happy.
AVC: You recorded Vagabonds in Laurel Canyon, which is famous for being the center of the 1970s' singer-songwriter scene. How do you think your album fits into that genre?
GL: I think it is definitely an extension of what was going on then. It's not necessarily like I'm trying to go back to those days and pretend, like dress the part and drive the car and grow my hair. I'm not trying to pretend it's 1970. I just write a certain style of song—it's what I'm best at, like I've tried to explain. I've listened to a lot of art-rock, experimental rock, and classical music, and I was a big punk-rock guy—I just can't perform those things. My voice doesn't work with that kind of music, I don't write that kind of music. I write what I would consider pretty music—it's uplifting, a little bit sad. And when you do that kind of music with a guitar, and you record in an old studio with musicians of like mind, or you're playing live, it's going to sound like that time, that era. Without almost trying.
AVC: And you recorded it with kind of a loose-knit group of friends, including Susannah Hoffs of The Bangles and Rilo Kiley's Jenny Lewis.
GL: The vagabonds, I guess. [Laughs.] I should've called them The Vagabonds.
AVC: How did the sessions work? Did you have specific people in mind for specific songs, or was it more like "Come in on Tuesday, we'll see what happens?"
GL: No, this is what happened. We had a lot of songs. If anything, my problem is, I'm not a genius, it's just that I can write songs very quick. I have a lot of ideas, let's put it that way—I have too many ideas. And my problem is, I stockpile ideas and I get lazy and I don't finish them, and next thing I know, I'm looking around and I've got a hundred song ideas, but are any of them any good? I don't know. That's how the producer comes in. I liked Chris [Robinson of The Black Crowes, who produced Vagabonds] because I trusted his judgment. He's an old friend, he'll tell me if it sucks or it doesn't. He'll tell me if it's mediocre. And we like a lot of the same music. He likes a lot of the stuff you wouldn't expect him to like, either. But he knows who Stockhausen is, and he knows who Big Star is, and he knows who The Band is, and all those things that fall in between. He helped me sort through the songs, and I ended up with a big list that I whittled down to like 40 songs.
And then he helped to assemble this group of musicians. I'd known Otto Hauser, the drummer, just because I'd seen this band, Vetiver, that Chris had recommended, and I liked them. And Josh Grange, who plays pedal steel, I'd considered as a possible Jayhawk back in the day, but at that point, we had too many people onstage already. Beyond that, I didn't know the keyboard player, Adam McDougall, he's a Chris Robinson friend. And Jonathan Wilson, who was going to be the guitar player, but when our bass player's mother was injured a week before we were going to record, he stepped into the bass-player role. I'd met Jonathan just from being at his jam sessions up in his house, he runs all those Wednesday-night jam sessions. So, really put together a bit by Chris Robinson, that band. I went out to a place called The Alley, this legendary rehearsal spot in the Valley in L.A. We had five days, and the bass player, drummer, and me for three days going through, finding out which songs sounded the best with Chris and Thom Monahan, the engineer/co-producer.
And then on the fourth day, I think, the keyboard player came in, and like the fifth day, the steel player came in. So after five or six days, we had congealed as a band, but really, we had only played as a band, all five people, for maybe two days. We took the weekend off, and then we went into the studio and it was like, bang—we'd record a song, and it'd sound great, went to the next one. And there was something magical between the keyboard player and the steel player, this kind of weird chemistry where what they play just mixes so beautifully. And Jonathan was playing this cool bass stuff, and in eight days, we recorded the whole record, almost, plus another five, six songs. And then we [added] a little percussion here, [and] a choir with a group of people that just kind of came together. In two weeks, we had pretty much finished the record.
AVC: Was there anything that surprised you, that you thought was going to take a different shape than it did in the final version?
GL: The song "I Wanna Get High" used to be new-wave kind of chugging, you know—jun-jun-jun-jun-jun, kind of like that. I had done it differently when I did a little acoustic tour of Spain with Craig Johnson and this guy Paco Loco, my friend over in Spain. We were doing one of these kind of crazy backward loops, weird, it was just more of a modern-rock sound. And Chris suggested to break it into a slow, dirgey blues thing that seemed to fit the record better, and also turned it into this weird stomp. And the song "Vagabonds," which was maybe the last thing I threw on my compilation tape of demos for Chris to listen to; it was really an afterthought. I performed it live at Orchestral Hall here once [at a 24-hour music event]; I played a half-hour at midnight, six songs. The recording by my friend P.D. Larson, who was out in the audience, it was all natural reverb, so it sounds kinda cool. I just threw it on at the last minute, never thinking that would be the title track and one of my favorite songs on the record. Funny little things, you never know—songs I thought were going to be the heart, the core, and the foundation of the record ended up not being on the record at all.
AVC: It's interesting you say that, because "Vagabonds" seems to be the center of the record.
GL: I think it is. It's got the majestic mixture of my favorite kind of stuff, the Dylan-meets-The-Beatles kind of stuff. It's dark, but it's kind of heavy. And who knew? I could have just not put that song on the record, and I almost didn't. Some of it's fate and some of it's luck.
AVC: Did you have an overall theme in mind for what the record would be about?
GL: Not really. Day to day, when you have a lot of time, when you're not working a full-time job, you have a lot of time to question things and think about things. Some of it's about romantic relationships, some of it's about drugs, about religion, about this mass of humanity traveling through life doing all this crazy stuff, not really knowing why or for what. I guess that was a theme, but it's not like I sat down and wrote it on the top of a piece of paper and said "Now I have to construct a record." It's a good thing to write about, because it's one of the big issues. I'm not 18, and I'm not writing about Betty Sue and how much I want to sleep with her. The big issues are interesting to me, without getting preachy, and yet you don't want to talk too much about your life, or about aging—nobody wants to hear about those issues. But you can fit in a lot of it if you can wrap it in things people of all ages can understand—why are we here, and what are we doing, and will I ever figure it out? Will I get up in the morning? That kind of thing.
AVC: That kind of lyrical theme fits well with your style of music anyway.
GL: I think so. I think that's a good point. I think my music is a reflection of what I think life is. Which is beautiful and sad, you know. I'm a bit of a sad-sack, in a way. I try not to be a mope. But life is hard, you know, and life is weird. Not to get too depressing. But it's also beautiful and gorgeous, and I'm glad I'm here. I think you're right, the lyrics seem to follow the music, and that's usually how I write. I write more about what comes out of my mouth while I'm writing the chords, and that seems to work better than filling up notebooks of what I think is really cool poetry, and try to put it on a song. That usually sounds like it's taped on.
AVC: The collaborative album you recorded with Mark Olson was actually finished before you did Vagabonds, I believe, and is waiting to be released later this year.
GL: We're waiting. We don't know when [it'll be out.] We're looking forward to it, I think it's great. I don't want to say too much more, but in a way, it's a little easier for me, because it's not all me. With Vagabonds, it's like "Oh my God, it's me, me, me!" And with the Olson record, a collaboration, you can be proud of it without feeling you're being narcissistic. It's one of those records with just two people in a room, no headphones, just singing and playing guitars. We did a tour where he and I just hopped in a car with two guitars, and it was so much fun. I wasn't like "Okay, let's sound check, let's hit the kick drum, let's hear the snare, where's the bass player?" It was all about the music and what it was like to strip down to the basic guitars and vocals. I like the big productions too, don't get me wrong, but it led to that record, and from that record, it led to my record, kind of a chain thing.
The songs are mostly new, or newer. Mark was here in Minneapolis, not last year, but the summer before; we wrote like crazy, we wrote like 13 songs in six days. Complete, with all the lyrics, and they were good, they were really good, and it seemed like we never stopped from where we left off. And then we scoured the old Jayhawks coffers and found songs we had demoed in an acoustic way in about 1990, and picked what I thought were the best candidates for recording. We did some of those, and those seemed to be joined at the hip with the new ones, they seemed to be seamless. It ends up being, I don't know what the count is, probably nine or 10 new songs and three or four old songs on the record. Hopefully that will come out this summer, it's just been waiting for my record and his record to come out first.
AVC: So it's almost like a lost Jayhawks record, in a way.
GL: In a way. I would have to go back and count how many new ones vs. old, but it was about nine and four. The old ones just never saw the light of day. They weren't even played with the band. It became known to the über-fans as the Mystery Demos. We did them at our ex-drummer's studio; he had opened up a commercial jingle studio. He's still doing it, and has done very well. He just gave us free studio time, me and Mark and this violin player and Mike Russell did about 30 songs in about three hours. Some of them are great, and we never even played those with the band—some of those [will come out] on this record.
AVC: A couple of other Jayhawks projects have been bubbling on the back burner for years—a live record and a reissue of the first Jayhawks record from 1986. Any progress on those recently?
GL: No, it's just such a mess. You know, I've tried everything. You'd think we were trying to get out some lost Beatles or Guns N' Roses. It's a record that's going to have a limited audience, and maybe that's the problem, people don't feel like it's worth it. I always thought it was kind of a crime how underrepresented The Jayhawks have been. Every band in the world has some kind of weird boxed set or B-sides or live stuff. The Jayhawks really haven't. I've come across some old footage of us, I have some great DVDs of Jayhawks from '85, '86, '88, '89, '90, '91, some '92. All of the stuff is falling into my hands, and has really been taken care of and done right. That and the fact that we're trying to marry that with some of the first record's release, which has never been out on CD, along with this live record, the final stuff we did as a band. I really can't tell you. Every two months, I get on my management, they get on the label to try to get something hammered out, and it always comes back. It's stuck in some kind of mire. For a while, it was stuck in Rick Rubin's hands, and when it's in Rick's world, it kind of disappears until he turns his eyes on it, and then he's all there. But he's got Linkin Park and whoever else, the Chili Peppers, and 20 other things he's doing. But then he signed off on it, and he said "Okay, Lost Highway can have it and put it out," and then there was some kind of legal problem with Universal/Island/Def Jam lawyers. Now we're trying to get somebody else to put it out. I've promised for many years, "It's coming out this year," and it hasn't. I'm still trying, but for some reason it's an uphill battle.
AVC: It's too bad you can't just release it yourself on iTunes or something.
GL: Well, we did have the rights to the first record, but we sold it to Lost Highway with the idea they were going to put it out, and then it got stuck. So we should have hung onto it, at least for that part of it. But of course, the Jayhawks name is kind of stuck. Anything that's released with the Jayhawks name is technically still under contract to Rick Rubin, so it's not like we can just go start putting out Jayhawks records. We would still be begotten to our contract.
AVC: You've also been producing other people's records quite a bit lately, including The Sadies.
GL: I'm supposed to do some more with The Sadies because it went so well. They have some more things, and they have some free studio time that they were granted by the Canadian government, I believe, and they have a great studio opportunity up there. And then there's Johnny Irion and Sara Lee Guthrie, who I've worked with before; they've been sending me more songs. It's more of just a time issue for when I can do that kind of thing. I've done some songwriting and recording with Carrie Rodriguez, but I didn't produce her. So I've still been doing some co-writing and things like that. Producing, mainly, just The Sadies and Sara Lee and Johnny.
AVC: What kind of creative muscles do you get to flex as a producer instead of a musician?
GL: I think my strength is in shaping a song—you know, making it feel like it reaches its peaks and valleys, and ends when it should end. Sometimes it all seems obvious to me, but a lot of people don't seem to know when to get in and get out, so I help. You want to preserve the musician's ego; I think it's very tentative and touchy at that point, they're laying out their heart and soul, and you want to keep them pumped up, and you have to make sure you're constantly giving them your full interest, and not look like you're on the phone or so forth. But basically, you're just trying to help shape their idea. And yet—it's their idea, but it's never only theirs at that point, they hand it off to you and they have to let go a little bit and trust you.
AVC: What are the chances of a Jayhawks reunion?
GL: Well, as I say to people, never say never, but I don't want to be one of those nostalgia acts, or people with bad judgment deciding, "Oh, we can do this " You know, if I feel like we have something to offer, maybe. It would be fun, but in other ways, it could be sad, trying to relive the old glory days. The beauty of The Jayhawks is, they were never incredibly successful, so it would never be for financial reasons, most likely, that we'd get together. [Laughs.] It would be more like it'd be fun to do it.
AVC: It's probably way too early to think about things like that in any case.
GL: Yeah, I have this solo record to deal with, and then the Mark and Gary thing's going to be fun, and by then, I'll probably be interested in making another record of my own, or doing something else. I just think it's a different chapter. I love The Jayhawks, and the people I played with. We can be proud of the music we did, and we're all still friends. It just seems that there comes a time when you're supposed to do something different.