Long before Americana music had a name, it had the Jayhawks.
Formed during the heyday of Eighties hair metal, the band offered something different: a sound rooted in American country, British folk, harmony singing and the group’s own version of roots-rock. Today, 30 years after the Jayhawks’ debut, an entire industry has sprung up around the type of music Gary Louris and company began pioneering in a town more accustomed to Prince’s funk and the Replacements’ noisy sweep. The Jayhawks still feel like an island unto themselves, though, with a new album, Paging Mr. Proust, that downplays their twang in favor of Sixties-inspired folk and electrified krautrock.
Gary Louris, once again the band’s lone captain after briefly reuniting with Mark Olson for 2011’s Mockingbird Time, spoke with Rolling Stone Country about his post-rehab musical rebirth, trading the Everly Brothers for Fleetwood Mac and going independent.
You co-wrote every song on the last Jayhawks album with Mark Olson. When you began writing for Paging Mr. Proust, was it difficult to write alone again?
I spent a lot of time working on this record before I even knew it was going to be a Jayhawks record. I came out of rehab and was wondering what that hell I was going to do with my life. I didn’t know if I was even going to do the Jayhawks anymore. I thought I might need to pursue some new avenues outside of music. I started recording more, playing with electronics and getting more experimental — as overused as that word is — and I found I had three or four different kinds of songs I was writing and recording. Then I realized the Jayhawks were never holding me back, I was holding myself back. I realized I needed the Jayhawks and had a whole new appreciation for them. I always knew the Jayhawks were good, but I didn’t realize how great the band was until we started working on this record.
Paging Mr. Proust feels like a showcase for the whole group, particularly those who sing with you.
I had a mission to feature the fact that we have three good vocalists in the band. There’s just a certain timbre to those voices. We might not be the most trained or perfect singers, but we have very distinct vocals. Karen’s voice has a character to it that I just love. It almost has a Fleetwood Mac feel, and I love having a female voice in the band. It makes it less of an Everly Brothers thing, with two guys in front, and more of a communal sound. We can do pads. We can do calls and responses. We can just do more.
On “Lovers of the Sun,” the back-and-forth between you and the other singers feels like a tribute to classic vocal groups from the Sixties. There’s maybe even a bit of the Cowsills in that chorus.
[Laughs] It has more of a Velvet Underground thing to me, but I’m just a Sixities and Seventies pop guy at heart. I feel like it’s so out-of-fashion that maybe it’s in fashion now. The structure, the scale, the chord progressions I write — they all feel like they’re out of time with what’s “now,” but that’s not gonna keep me from doing music like this. I want to craft those uplifting, melancholic, triumphant chord progressions. I can’t get away from a good, soaring chorus.
You channel some different influences here. “Pretty Roses in Your Hair” is another song that reaches far beyond anything resembling country.
Yeah, it’s more like the Association or something. You know, you get known for something, and sometimes you get put into a box. But I was hoping this record would show people I’m not a one-trick pony.
Decades into the band’s career, though, the Jayhawks are still seen as one of the grandfathers of alt-country and Americana. During the Eighties and early Nineties, did you feel a kinship with other groups doing the same thing?
There was no scene that we felt like we were part of. If anything, there was Uncle Tupelo, but I think we were a little bit ahead of some of the other bands. There weren’t a lot of people doing what we doing at the time, and that was part of the thrill of it. It didn’t fit in Minnesota and didn’t fit anywhere else. There was never any kind of country-rock summit meeting. Even to this day, we’re still outsiders. We never get acknowledged by any kind of Americana music festival. It’s almost like we don’t exist in some way, and that’s ok. Part of it is probably a result of being isolated up here in Minneapolis.
And yet bands continue to acknowledge you. You’re often cited as an influence on younger artists.
It’s the ultimate flattery to be some sort of influence, whether it’s on musicians or non-musicians. It’s important to me that we had an effect on people.
Speaking of influences, you namecheck quite a few literary characters on Paging Mr. Proust, from Keats to Robert Frost
I have a song called “Mr Updike,” too, which is one of my favorites, but it didn’t first the Jayhawks too well and will most likely be on a solo record instead. I don’t read like my sister reads, which is basically a book every two days, but I do have my stack of books. Between those and crossroads, that’s my social life right now. But I’m not trying to show off! I just like specificity in songs. I like multiple meanings and spaces between lines, but I also like to throw something in there that people can throw their hat on.
It’s not about fast paced plot. It’s about the calm before the storm, and that mirrors my life a bit. I find myself with a lot of time to think, then I go on the road and I’m moving every day, and I’m not really alone, ever. That’s this record. There’s songs about movement and songs about sitting still and being in the moment. That seems to be the dichotomy of this record and the dichotomy of my life.
Is that why the cover art is an old photograph of JFK Airport? Because it fits with the theme of movement?
This is the first record since Hollywood Town Hall where I felt like the cover really clicked with the music within. When we did Hollywood Town Hall, I got a phone call from Rick Rubin [who] said, “I think the image and the music fit perfectly,” and I was so happy about that. For this cover, I had a friend who helped me. She was traveling overseas with a friend, and they swore they heard someone say, “Paging Mr Proust,” over the intercom at an airport. They told me about it, and I just loved that title. I’d been going through lines from the record, like you do, seeing if there was something within the record we could use. The airport idea got into our heads and we found these images, and funny enough, the specific image we used was curated by a professor at the University of Minnesota who happens to be a big Jayhawks fan. If you look closely, you see a guy in the middle of the cover, starting at the photographer. To me, it looks like the guy is looking up and asking for help. The world has gotten a bit out of control, and everything’s become smarter, faster and geared for constant updates. The Proust idea is the opposite: stop, take stock of where you’re at, dig deeper, be more thoughtful. That’s kind of the theme of the record.
You’re releasing the album independently, with help from Thirty Tigers. Do you miss being on a major label, though?
We’ve spent a lot of time on big labels, and I was usually happy with them. I liked having a label. It was nice having a crew of people and knowing they were taking care of you, in a way. But that time has kind of come and gone. I feel like Thirty Tigers is a model for the future. The business has changed. I’ve changed. I pay more attention to things than I used to, and I’m more involved with the business operations of the band. If I’m going to complain about something, I should take some responsibility. Being involved with that stuff can compete with my creative side, but I don’t write songs 24 hours a day, so if you deal with things as they come along, there’s plenty of time to do both.