In Conversation with The Jayhawks' Mark OlsonThe Jayhawks opened a five-city tour in Toronto on Tuesday, the same day that the band's long-out-of-print Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow The Green Grass albums were reissued by American/Legacy.
Singer/guitarist Mark Olson spoke to me a day earlier about the past, present and future of The Jayhawks. Here's how our conversation went:
Tell me about the new Jayhawks album you’re working on and the songs that will be on it.
“We started to work on songs in the springtime. Gary (Louris) came out to my place in Joshua Tree and we still wrote the way we’ve always written. We each bring in parts and pieces and put them together, and we each bring in a couple of more fully conceived things and work on bridges. We started to build a collection of songs.
"I went to Minnesota in the summer for a couple of weeks. We wrote at his house and went up to my sister’s cabin. And then he came out once more to California to work on some more songs. We got a big collection of songs together. I was going on tour with my Many Colored Kite record and I took the whole month of November off and went straight to Minneapolis. We rehearsed with the band for a couple of days and then went into the studio and started to record the songs. It’s now basically done. It just needs some final mixes.”
How many songs did you write compared to what will be on the record?
“We have 14 songs, and 11 or 12 will be on the record. We wrote more, but we didn’t record that many. We don’t have the time to go in and record like we did when we made the earlier Jayhawks records, when we’d record 20 songs or something crazy like that. That’s poor use of time.”
Is that the older voice of wisdom talking?
“Oh yeah. I learned that lesson. I think the best thing to do is record 13 songs and then pick from them.”
Can you tell me anything about some of the new songs?
“There’s a song called ‘Black Eyed Susan.’ That song’s about someone you had met more in the night life and how that type of life — living at night — doesn’t lend itself to being healthy and productive and really having a shot at a good life.
“There’s a song called ‘Mockingbird Time.’ That’s about looking back at someone’s life and realizing where you could have gone wrong and how you’re going to overcome that.
“So there are two songs with two titles and the basic outlines of the story themes.”
Are either of those potential singles, or are you even thinking about singles?
“We don’t have the final mixes done, so that would be getting a bit ahead of ourselves.”
Is there a label in place yet?
“Oh yeah. Rounder Records.”
Do you have any idea of a release date?
“Those things take time. I can tell you five or six months, but you never know about that.”
The reissues were originally supposed to come out in October, but were pushed back to now. Was that done to coincide with the tour dates, or was there another reason?
“I don’t know what the order of events was. Maybe because the records were pushed back we pushed the tour dates back because you want to tour when the records come out.”
How difficult was it for you to leave The Jayhawks in 1995?
“It wasn’t difficult. I’d reached a point in my life where I knew deep inside that I had to do something different. I’d been in the band for over a decade and felt like it was the best move. I still feel that way. I had a wonderful life post-The Jayhawks with a lot of musical experiences. I travelled all over Europe pretty much every year and went off in different directions. I went to school and did a lot of things.
“In 2001, Gary and I got together and worked on a song and made plans to do some touring in the future. Since then, we’ve been working off and on. It was finally after we made the Mark and Gary record that we decided to do this thing with the band. The reissues were coming out, so it was a good time to do it. These albums haven’t been in stores for years and years and years, so in a way it’s been kind of word of mouth as far as these albums are concerned.
"I don’t mean to make light of a decision to leave a band that had been together for 11 years, but there is a voice inside of each of us and we need to know when to try other things. There are also private things and personal lives. Once I decided to do it, I didn’t hesitate.”
How easy or difficult a transition was it when you and Gary got back together?
“I thought it was very smooth. We came up together writing songs in either his house or my apartment and bringing them to the band. We spent a lot of years in Minneapolis prior to making Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow The Green Grass where we weren’t a touring act at a national level. We were working regular jobs and looked forward to rehearsing on Tuesday and Thursday nights and our gigs on Saturday nights, and maybe a drive to Chicago to do a gig.
"That was over a seven-year period of time, so we had a lot of experience together listening to music and discovering different writers and different groups and researching back, going from the Burritos to The Byrds to The Louvin Brothers to The Everly Brothers. We kind of came up together and apprenticed together, so it was no problem getting back together and working again. We know how each other reacts to different situations, songs and ideas.
"As far as harmony singing goes, Gary has a great natural gift with a melody high and I, for some reason, had always had the counter-melody low. So it just works. We don’t really have to plot anything out. It’s just how our voices go together in the different kinds of melodies we hear.”
How do you compare The Jayhawks of today to when you were in the band in the ‘90s.
“I think the singing’s better and the playing’s better. We’ve continued to play through all of these years. There’s a bigger range of material. I feel we can play very long concerts and hold the audience. There are just a range of skills that we’ve developed over the years, and I feel that we’re better.”
Are you following a similar path musically?
“When we’ve gotten together and played recently, we’ve played songs from all of those albums. We built up a bunch of material over that period of time, and that’s what people want to hear when they come out. They want to hear songs that are off the records. We still play songs that aren’t on the records. We still have a number of B-sides that we really liked that we’ve relearned and we play them. But it fits in with all of the other records.
"It’s not some radical departure where we have a huge kick drum going with some kind of computer-generated synth sound. It’s two guitars, a keyboard, harmony singing and classic songwriting. When we started out, we wanted to try and write songs like Neil Young and Bob Dylan that would last. I can still put on that material today and it really moves me.
"‘Hey Mr. Tambourine Man’ is just this crazy song with this philosophy. I like to listen to that kind of music and I wanted to try and write music that way, so it would last. If someone wants to come out and hear us now, it’s because the music has lasted and it means something to them.”
What’s in The Jayhawks’ future for this year and beyond?
“We do this tour and the two reissues are coming out now. Hopefully there’s going to be more interest in the band. That’s why we went ahead and made another record. If there is going to be more interest in the band, these reissues will remind people that we were a really good band.
"When I was in the band, I did everything in my life to play the best music I could. Gary and the band are formidable musicians that went on to make three other records without me when I went on to do the (Original Harmony Ridge) Creek Dippers. We gave it everything we had when I was in the band, and afterward they did too. And now these records will come out and hopefully remind people of that.
"And we’re going to give them another record. We’re going to do everything we can to establish ourselves as a top quality act to tour America and Europe. That’s what they can expect. We have shows in Europe and America.”
Looking back now, can you describe The Jayhawks’ influence and legacy?
“I’m not an expert on that. We were influenced by so many different things that we followed in a studious way back and forth and up and down. We looked at the different paths that different bands took.
"I’d really like how that groove worked into that melody and different things like that. It was the sound of that acoustic guitar and that strumming pattern and finger-picking pattern and that drum beat. It’s things that make you feel good and that you try to create something on your own that makes you feel that way, even though it’s not the same thing. It’s like an historical line of music.
"For me and bands that we’ve been around, I don’t know if we’ve influenced them in the same type of mindset. I’ve always thought of this kind of music as music that people who pick up guitars and want to write songs would enjoy. It’s not like alt.country, or whatever you want to call it, has ever been a major youth movement.
"It’s generally from going out to the merch table and meeting people over the past 15 years. The people who come out and hear this music are people who have played acoustic guitar, have played electric guitar, have started a band at some point and have a regular job, but in their spare time put together a band and have some knowledge of why we’re playing this music.
"It’s joyful to play music. It’s joyful to try and write a song. When you do actually write a good song, there’s no other feeling like it in the world.”
Are the band members working on other projects at the moment, or is everyone just focused on The Jayhawks?
“There’s been so much going on with the making of this record and now this touring coming up that I’ve been focused on this all of November. And then in December I went and played in England and Italy. And now I’m back and focused on this. And then in February I’ll play America Mountain Stage and the Folk Alliance, and then I’ll go back to Spain and then I’ll come back and get ready for summer touring that has to do with The Jayhawks.
“Gary does some producing and I think he has some songwriting sessions coming up. As far as Marc (Perlman) and Tim (O'Reagan) and Karen (Grotberg), I can’t give you their exact schedules right now.”
Is there any significance to opening the tour in Toronto?
“None, as far as I know. When tours are put together, they’re put together because of offers, time, weekends and things like that. I’ve always enjoyed playing in Canada, but I have no idea. I’m glad we’re here and playing in Canada, but when they put together tours they don’t ask the band.
"No-one calls the band and says, ‘Hey fellas, where would you like to open up your tour this time? It’s been 10 years. What would make you feel special?’
"Nobody does that. Give me a break. It’s not the way it works. It’s the way the real world is. We don’t call up anybody and say, ‘We have good friends in Louisville, Kentucky. Let’s open this tour in Louisville, Kentucky because I haven’t seen these people in 10 years and I want to see them.”
How come you’re doing two-night stands playing the full albums in their entirety in New York and Chicago, but nowhere else?
“Because they made the offers for that. They wanted us to do that and I have a feeling about that.
"A lot of people listen to music for a couple of years in college or post-college. There’s not a great number of people who follow music over a 20-year period and are reading Mojo magazine and Rolling Stone and going to a record store once a week and following new releases. There’s not a huge number of people who do that over a 20-year period. Most people get into it for a period of time and then they move on to other things, like cross-country skiing or working two jobs. A lot of people have to work two jobs to keep their head above water. Or they get married and their partner really can’t stand to listen to music all of the time.
"When you’re in a band, you do because you enjoy music and you love music so much that that’s what you spend your life doing. You’re always thinking about it. You’re always trying to write new songs because it’s a joyful thing to write new songs.
“I experienced this when I was 16 years old. I went out and bought Bob Dylan’s Live at Budokan and I couldn’t believe how he had changed the songs that I loved so much. I couldn’t imagine how someone could change something that seemed so perfect and special the first time.
"Now people come to our shows and maybe they leave saying, ‘I really wanted to hear that song off of Tomorrow The Green Grass, but they didn’t play it, darn it. What’s up with those Jayhawk fellas?’
"I hear that at the merch table. They come up and say, ‘I wish you would have played that one.’ And I feel kind of bad for them because we’re trying to play new material all of the time and keep expanding our repertoire and keep working on different lyrics and different melodies. But people definitely want to hear songs from that period of time when they were listening to music. Maybe 20 per cent of people are following music their whole lives and it’s everything to them and they’re aware of all the records. But I find that most people don’t have the time.
"They listen to Hollywood Town Hall or Tomorrow The Green Grass or any of the other records, and they want to hear the songs from that record. So they’ve been telling the promoters. This is an ‘audience speaks’ moment. The audience is speaking and they’re saying, ‘When I listen to The Jayhawks, I want to hear that record.’
"So the promoter tells us, ‘The people want to hear the record and are willing to pay to hear the record.’ We go, ‘Right on, we’re going to play the record for them.’
"So we’re going to go up there and play the record and then afterward we’re going to try and break out various songs from different eras and some of the B-sides that never made it through to be recorded. I think it’s kind of a neat thing. The audience has spoken with the almighty dollar and said, ‘We’re going to go to the shows where they play the darn record.’”
What kind of a set should I expect in Toronto on Tuesday night?
“You’re going to get the full show with songs from different eras — The Full Monty. You’ll get songs played full bore with emotion and passion.”
I have one last question for you, which may be a bit of a strange one. I read an interview with Steve Wynn on the weekend where he said that you had auditioned to be in The Long Ryders.
“Yeah, I did.”
Is there anything you can recall of that?
“I was living with my grandmother and had just graduated from high school and I was really interested in playing music and being in a band. I had gone out to see The Long Ryders and Green On Red, and Green On Red didn’t have an opening for anybody or else I would have tried to get into that band.
"So I walked in there, and The Long Ryders were really nice guys and they let me play the bass. I wasn’t fantastic on the bass, but I was just starting out. That’s what you do when you start out. You go out and you try and get into a band. I eventually did get into a band. And by being in a band, I just kept learning and learning.
"I think The Long Ryders had someone else in mind. But I’m like anybody who does anything. If you just keep at something, good things will come to you. I was a little green around the ears. I was just starting. But that didn’t stop me. I would have joined any band, and I needed to join any band just to get experience. That’s what you have to do when you’re starting. You have to get out there and try to join a band. And the first instrument of choice is the bass.”
That’s what I played in high school.
“Yep. You pick up the bass and start answering ads.”
It didn’t take me long to realize that I wasn’t that good, so I gave up that dream pretty quickly.
“That didn’t stop me, and I improved. Thanks, that was a good question. And thanks for doing the interview.”
You can read my MSN.ca article on The Jayhawks here.