Were the Jayhawks the unluckiest band in the 1990s? They released one of the defining alt-country albums, 1992’s Hollywood Town Hall, yet never found as large an audience as some of their peers. Just when they were enjoying the relative success of their follow-up, 1995’s Tomorrow the Green Grass, founding member Mark Olson exited the group to make music with his wife, Victoria Williams.
“It’s funny that we seem to get lumped in with similar unlucky bands,” says Gary Louris. “It’s Badfinger, Moby Grape, Big Star and the Jayhawks. People mention that still, but I don’t believe it. We were a good little band.” Still are, in fact.
Rather than dissolve the Jayhawks in Olson’s absence, Louris kept touring, recording and releasing records. The next three may not have had the impact of Hollywood Town Hall or Tomorrow the Green Grass, but 1997’s Sound of Lies, 2000’s Smile and 2003’s Rainy Day Music portray a band determined to redefine themselves and their sound again and again.
On Tuesday (July 1), all three are getting deluxe reissues, complete with new artwork and bonus tracks. Before he reconvenes the Jayhawks for an international tour, Louris spoke to CMT Edge about his pop and punk influences, the strictures of alt-country and the joys of discovering forgotten songs.
CMT Edge: What was it like to revisit these albums, especially Sound of Lies? That always struck me as an expression of deep professional frustration.
Louris: That’s my favorite of all our records, and I think maybe for some people who are really deep into the Jayhawks, that’s their favorite, too. So it was inspiring to listen to that particular record. It has its own world. Each record does, I guess, but especially that one. I had this whole fuck-you attitude going into it. I figured it would be our last record, so we were going to do whatever pleased us. That was inspirational for me.
There’s a song on that album called “Big Star” and another on Smile called “Mr. Wilson,” which is obviously about Brian Wilson. It seems like you were engaging pretty closely with your influences on these albums.
I knew Smile was a famous album title by one of my favorite bands, and at that time the Beach Boys’ Smile still hadn’t been released. It’s only been since then that it was released as Smile and not Smiley Smile. But I guess I was inspired by the Replacements calling one of their records Let It Be. It was sort of like, fuck it. But the song “Big Star” wasn’t meant to have anything to do with that band.
You said Sound of Lies is your favorite. How do you feel about the other two? I remember the New York Times said of Smile, “What if you made a masterpiece and nobody cared?”
I thought that was fairly humorous. I certainly don’t think it was a masterpiece. Two-thirds of it was really good, and a third of it wasn’t so good. But I’m proud of what we were going for with those records. We were trying not to be pigeonholed and not to fall into all the roots-rock clichés. We could do a lot of different things. But we were all over the board, and maybe that was confusing for the listener.
So you were bristling against the alt-country tag.
I believe so. I didn’t grow up listening to country music. I was listening to British art rock, prog rock, a lot of ‘70s punk from New York and England. I was really into punk way before I even listened to a Gram Parsons record.
I stumbled into what’s now called Americana before it was really a genre, and I embraced it as something exciting and new because not many people were doing it. We felt rebellious being from a town that had great bands like the Replacements and Hüsker Dü. But it eventually got to be a bit confining.
The band that I can relate to the most succeeded more than we have, and that would be Wilco. They are kind of a rootsy, folksy band, but you can hear a lot of krautrock and noise stuff in their music. They have a very similar palette as we do, but they’ve just been able to reach a larger audience.
And yet, Rainy Day Music sounds like it could have been made yesterday. You can hear the seeds of a lot of what’s going on today.
That was a direct reaction to what we had done previously. An artist needs to feel like they’re cycling through what they do to keep things fresh. Otherwise, you just get stuck. All of a sudden, it was very appealing to strip things down and do something more acoustic and live.
To this day, Rainy Day Music is still the easiest Jayhawks album to play live. If I play a solo acoustic show, I’ll lean more on that catalog than on the Sound of Lies catalog because Sound of Lies has a lot to do with atmosphere and instrumental color. Rainy Day Music is just a guy with a guitar. I don’t see one approach as being better than the other. There’s more than one way to skin a cat.
While you were working on these reissues, were there any songs in particular that surprised you or sounded different from how you remembered them?
There are some B-sides that are really good. One that’s really pretty is called “Who Made You King?” which is from the Smile sessions. It’s going to be fun to give that one a go onstage. There are others that to me sound great, but they never really caught on with audiences, so we didn’t end up playing them that much — like “Queen of the World,” which I love and definitely look forward to playing.
We’ll definitely be playing more songs from Sound of Lies than the other two. But we’re still rehearsing. We haven’t played together in quite a while, so we have to relearn the songs and become a band again.