Alex Chilton, a man who knows a little something about writing pop music, once observed that it takes good pop hooks to make good pop songs. That formula sounds simple enough — but as good as his songs were, Chilton and his bandmates in Big Star never really made a pop dollar.
In a similar fashion, the Minneapolis-based Jayhawks are critical and audiophile darlings who’ve sold fewer albums in 15 years than Whitney Houston might sell in a month. That’s left a bit of a bad taste in band members’ industry-battled mouths, but they haven’t yet given up trying to produce tasteful commercial music. Their latest effort, Smile (Columbia, 2000), waxes melodic on love — both lost and found — and leaves you spinning on mountain tops with impossibly tight melodies, swelling choruses and uppity beats.
Produced by rock legend Bob Ezrin, whose resume includes Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Smile has already garnered the kind of canonized press reserved for the agonizing lows and glorious highs of Brian Wilson’s masterpiece, Pet Sounds.
Until recently, the band built its fan base on a roots-rock sound seasoned with the Stones and Gram Parsons. (In fact, some folks say the Jayhawks invented the alt-country genre, spawning numerous copy bands like the Old ’97s and Whiskeytown.) However, their last album, 1997’s Sound of Lies, detoured sharply from their twangy past and into an overcast world of heart-wrenching pop best listened to on darkening winter afternoons. Alas, Lies was sort of a stillbirth on the record charts; the band’s then-label, American, went belly up just after Lies was released, leaving the Jayhawks with no support for promotion and touring. The band weathered this disappointment by holing up in its hometown, though members Gary Louris, Marc Perlman and Kraig Johnson could occasionally be seen touring as part of the project Golden Smog — a sort of Midwestern supergroup also composed of Wilco and Soul Asylum members.
Smile, though, finds the band back together and back on the road. Via a recent phone interview from Minneapolis, here’s what head ‘hawk Louris had to say about plagiarism, “Pretty Thing” and the pros of stage-sharing with Matchbox 20:
Mountain Xpress: I’m nervous as hell.
Gary Louris: Well, you should be. I’m a tough interview.
MX: Who would you rather drink beers with, Garrison Keillor or Jesse “The Body” Ventura [a former WWF wrestler turned governor of Minnesota]?
GL: I guess Garrison Keillor. I think I could enjoy the sound of his voice a lot better. When he opens his mouth some pretty intelligent things come out.
MX: How much does it cost these days to get the Jayhawks to play a wedding?
GL: Ah, a case of good pink champagne. Are you getting married?
MX: No, but my buddy is and he needs a good band.
MX: Who are some of the weirder acts you’ve either opened up for or shared a bill with [in the last] 15 years?
GL: We played with the Cult at a museum in Stockholm, and we played with some heavy-metal/death-rock bands up in Canada. I just remember we got on their bus after the show and they were listening to Willie Nelson. It’s like, you never know. We played with Vince Neil, people like that, somewhere in Canada. A lot of weird ones were in Canada, I guess.
MX: Were any of you around [in Minneapolis] when the whole Morris Day and the Time and Sheila E./Prince thing was going on?
GL: Yeah, we were around. I was in a band called Safety Last in the early ’80s. We warmed up for Prince at a surprise show for the release of Controversy. It was at the First Avenue club, where they filmed Purple Rain.
MX: My friends say to ask you about Tom Petty’s “Last Dance with Mary Jane.” I think you guys opened for him the summer before that came out, and [that song has] always sounded like a total rip-off [of] “Waiting for Sun.” How do you feel about that?
GL: Well, we had that discussion with Rick Rubin, who was the head of our label and produced that Tom Petty record. He basically said, ‘Well, Neil Young would win that lawsuit because you guys ripped off Neil Young. Where do you get off talking about rip-offs?'”
MX: If you want to be a musician, you almost have to be willing to eat crap and blood. The Jayhawks and the Replacements are both seminal rock ‘n’ roll bands that hail from Minneapolis. Has any other city [with] such a scene gotten less respect from commercial radio?
GL: I’m sure they have at some point, [like] Boston in the ’80s, when they had some pretty cool bands … before alternative rock was in vogue — bands like Galaxy 500.
MX: I was going to ask you about them — only because I’m kind of a closet Galaxy 500 fan, and I read somewhere that you like them. To me, some of the songs on Sound of Lies, the kind of dark, brooding pop melodies, and even some of the stuff on Smile, reminds me of Galaxy 500.
GL: Wow, that’s a compliment as far as I’m concerned. I didn’t really think about it, but I think it was their use of space — kind of dark and slow, [which] is always intriguing. I’ve always been attracted to smack-sounding bands, nodding off. [But] I don’t endorse the lifestyle.
MX: Do you have a chip on your shoulder? The story [in the New York Times about the plight of the Jayhawks and their new album] says you carry heavy equipment and a chip on [your] shoulder.
GL: No, at this point, it’s really more of a badge of honor. We still make records, and a lot of my friends don’t even get that chance. And we’ve kind of made records on our own terms.
MX: What’s it like to work with a rock god like Bob Ezrin? Did you tremble at all at first in his presence?
GL: No. … We’re not 21, and we’ve been through a lot. We’re kind of like kindred spirits in a way, although he’s had more success than we have. He really made us feel comfortable. He’s a very intelligent and fiery guy, but he rarely makes you feel like he’s better than you are — even though he might be.
MX: Did you have to give over much control?
GL: No, in certain ways you want somebody to take over, that’s the reason you get a producer who maybe knows how to take you somewhere you wouldn’t know how to get to. But I feel comfortable going there. Bob had strong opinions, but if we disagreed with him, there were many times when he said, “You know what? That was the worst idea I’ve had in my life.” He was very honest about that kind of thing.
MX: From Smile, I like the songs “Queen of the World,” “What Led Me To This Town” and “Broken Harpoon.” What are the band’s favorites, and who was singing on “Pretty Thing”?
GL: Tim O’Reagan is singing on “Pretty Thing.” I think those are three good choices that you picked, for as far as what are my favorites. I’m proud of the whole record, depending on what particular time you catch me.
MX: It seems like you’ve had a lot more help in writing these songs, in comparison to the Sound of Lies. Was it hard to do the collaborations, or did you ask for it?
GL: It was something I really felt was necessary to maintain interest in the band by people in the band. Our band members are not necessarily role players — they all have ideas, and good ideas. It was kind of a compromise. In many ways I needed the help, but sometimes I don’t know it. I tend to be more insular in my writing style. However, I think once you do collaboration, you find that it makes the song better — especially if the people you’re collaborating with are good, which they are in my case.
MX: I think I read you had something like 50 songs on the original demo. What do you do with the other 37 songs? I mean, do they carry over to the next album?
GL: Well, I’m hoping that someday we’ll be able to delve through all our catalog of demos and just put it out. Not re-recording. I like our demos a lot. They really have a certain charm.
MX: How do you decide what’s going to be a Jayhawks’ song and what’s going to be a Golden Smog song? Because the [Golden Smog songs] don’t sound like reject to me.
GL: A lot of it’s timing, what seems to be somewhat out of fate. Certain songs, like “Since You Came Along” and “Jennifer Save Me,” stuff like that, were actually slated to be on the Sound of Lies — just the way we were recording, they didn’t work out right or we didn’t capture them, and were better suited for the Golden Smog.
MX: “Jennifer Save Me” certainly sound like it could have been on even this album.
GL: Yeath, that’s one of my favorite songs that I’ve ever done, even though I actually never hear very much about it, or whether it’s ever reached anybody or not.
MX: I think it’s because it was the last song on the album, and people don’t always listen that far.
GL: Yeah, maybe.
MX: Personally, I just want to say I’d love to see you guys do a guitar rock album, like Skynyrd.
GL: Well [laughing], I was thinking about that today because I was driving around listening to this compilation tape that my friend Jim in Son Volt made for me a while back. It has a lot of Neil Young, which I haven’t listened to too much lately. I was like, “I want to make more of a guitar record.”
MX: I was thinking about the tour, and unless fans caught you with Golden Smog, they really haven’t had the opportunity to see the Jayhawks much in five years. The fans are hungry. … Are you hungry to play live shows?
GL: Yeah, I think we’re getting better. Lately, we’ve been really exploring new areas as far as stretching the songs out, mixing up acoustic with electric. It’s really kind of fun.
MX: Anything crazy happen on this tour yet?
GL: Um, I’ve had my moments — some climbing down into the crowd.
MX: You ever do that before?
GL: Not much, maybe back in my old rockabilly days. It’s pretty out there. But that could be this week, and next week I could go back to standing still. It depends on the crowd, too, I think.
MX: How about opening up for Matchbox 20? I guess someone at Columbia thinks that’s a great idea. Are you going to break through to the new faces with that?
GL: Well, I think that’s the goal. We’re doing three weeks with Matchbox 20, mostly because they asked us and were very nice. [But] what we’re trying to do is play our own shows as much as possible, which is what we’ve done so far. …