By Mark Guarino
The Jayhawks are a band more tested than Job. In 2000, after a 15-year history, the band finally looked poised for a commercial breakthrough with its ambitiously crafted pop album “Smile” (American/Columbia).
But radio wouldn’t have it. Instead, programmers were latching themselves onto teen pop, rap rock and bands like matchbox twenty and Creed, a trend resulting in the dominance of artists who were good only for hit singles, not complete albums. The Jayhawks had a hit too, but it stalled.
After that, the band turned several corners. Guitarist Kraig Johnson quit and keyboardist Jen Gunderman was fired. They switched labels. Founding member Gary Louris toured as a trio with bassist Marc Perlman and drummer Tim O’Reagan. But in January, Louris was hospitalized with pericarditis, a life-threatening heart infection. He cancelled a tour and retreated to his home in Minneapolis to rest for a month.
Today, Louris takes the past few years in stride. “I didn’t think we had an expectation that we were going to be on the cover of every magazine and every kid in junior high was going to have a Jayhawks T-shirt, but that’s okay,” he said recently. “I’d rather have a great record that didn’t sell as well and have some success than have something I’m embarrassed of.”
In two years, the Jayhawks will be celebrating their 20th anniversary and an artistic legacy that outshines its commercial one. Over the years, the band has been trumpeted by the music press and its cult of fans as a consistently adventuresome pop band with hallmark American roots. With its high woven harmonies, well-crafted guitar melodies and the lyrical lonesomeness of Hank Williams, the band turns out albums at such a continually high level of craftmanship that they are assured to be latter day classics, much in the way vintage albums by the Kinks and Big Star were lost and are now cherished.
On “Rainy Day Music” (American/Lost Highway), the band’s seventh and most recent album, similar Jayhawks themes rise to the surface: the isolation of suffering heartbreak alone, the courage to stand up once more, the beauty of simple moments and the wonder if redemption is waiting around the corner. Returning to the same well might put another band in a stalemate. But under Louris’s direction, the Jayhawks keep creating jeweled melodies and universal truths. For the album’s opening song, he points the personal struggle outward. “Everybody’s stumbling through the dark,” he and O’Reagan gently harmonize, a fact of life this band has passionately built a body of work around.
“We see life as being somewhat bittersweet, especially nowadays. The carefree, bouncing around days of childhood are gone but (at the same time), I’m attracted to beautiful melodies,” Louris said. “I like the mixture of dark and light. To me, that seems to represent the apex of music, reminding me of songs like ‘Moon River’, that (kind of) summing up, sitting back and looking back at life and reflecting and accepting. To me, that’s the heaviest and most important music.”
For a brief period in the band’s early days, they were turning up the noise, aiming to fit in with the Twin City underground punk scene that was popularized with the Replacement and Husker Du. Louris and co-founder Marc Olson became the band’s chief singers and songwriters and Louris remembers Olson was “really snotty and hyper and completely different than he was two years later.” The band gravitated towards acoustic music because they realized they couldn’t compete with their peers. “You can like that kind of music but sometimes you can’t play that sort of music,” Louris said. “I don’t have a screaming sort of voice. I love Joe Strummer and the Clash, but I can’t personally play it.”
In 1991, the band signed to Def American, the label with music industry impresario Rick Rubin at the helm, best known for his work in hip-hop and hard rock. The Jayhawks made two critically acclaimed albums of pure blue-eyed soul, but they were not the commercial breakthroughs the label expected. The band ended up saddled with a highly publicized debt to American and Olson quit.
The crossroads proved temporary. Without skipping a beat, Louris regrouped the band and pushed it further in a pop direction. Fueled by a divorce Louris was going through, “Sound of Lies” (American) was a dark masterpiece exploring disillusionment. It was followed by “Smile,” produced by Bob Ezrin, the ‘70s producer responsible for Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.” Both albums were big-sounding, highly-textured pop albums with rustic undertones. They sunk the band into further debt.
The music proved to be the band’s safety net. In an industry of disposable stars, the albums the Jayhawks were making cemented their reputation as a vanguard of high quality songcraft. Strangely enough, Rubin — more known for his work with Slayer, System of a Down, the Beastie Boys and the string of comeback albums by Johnny Cash — is more interested in the band today than he was when he first signed them. “Rainy Day Music” is the first Jayhawks album he executive produced. He became involved early on in the songwriting process and urged Louris to get back to keeping things simple.
“He developed into a big fan,” Louris said. “Rick’s changed a lot since I’ve known him in 1991. He wasn’t really a folky. He’s naturally become a fan working with Johnny (Cash). I think he honestly gets it.”
“Rainy Day Music” is more acoustic and although its stripped-down setting is a throwback to the albums made in the Olson era, it surpasses all of them. These new songs are some of Louris’s best. Producer Ethan Johns was determined that the band forget overdubbing and drum loops and he made them record everything live and together. The results are looser and more organic performances as well as harmonies that cling together intimately.
“I think the last couple of records we were kind of busting loose out of the box and I think the box looks kind of fun right now,” Louris said. “Some of our fans patiently watched us take some twists and turns and … I wanted to give them a record that more represented why they got into the Jayhawks in the first place.
“With ‘Smile’, we really were getting into cool sounding demos and cool equipment and I must admit I got a little confused. I made 50 songs and couldn’t tell how good the song itself was.”
Louris said the new trio version of the Jayhawks is temporary (guitarist Stephen McCarthy will join the tour in May), but it’s an experiment the band tried last year and discovered helped give them a new perspective to their catalog of songs. Songwriting, he says, remains “as still as a big of a mystery.” “If you asked me how to write a song now, I’d say ‘I don’t know’. It’s one of those processes that drive you nuts,” he said.
He’s been revisiting his own albums through his son, who is listening to them for the first time. Louris’s own favorites vary (he would take three songs off ‘Smile’) but he said the different routes the band took are “the beauty of the Jayhawks.” “I remember sitting in Stockholm having to settle an argument between this girl and her boyfriend. They were arguing over our records. I was smiling the whole time thinking ‘there’s not one record that everyone just writes off’.
“I don’t get people coming up to me saying ‘dude, we were partying all night long to your music and got loaded’. I get people coming up and say they buried someone, married someone, it was the way they met, fell in love. People have proposed onstage and our music has been played at funerals. It’s really heavy stuff.
“That sustains me. There are days when I say ‘this is a silly business and I don’t feel like an entertainer’. You travel and get away from your loved ones and ask, ‘why the heck do I do this?’ You realize you’re helping other people. I don’t help anybody. I don’t donate my time to soup kitchens. I don’t do anything except this. My one work of community service I guess.”