Whether the Jayhawks’ day in the sun will ever come seems perhaps a moot point today. In a perfect world, one could have envisioned the Minneapolis band reaching the same kind of commercial peak as, say, the Counting Crows, but the ever-elusive big break never turned their way.
Yet they’ve hung together for close to 20 years now, surviving the departure of founding member Mark Olson in 1995 and weathering a laundry-list of record-company shuffles. (The latest shell-game found them shifting from Columbia, which issued 2000′s Smile, to what amounted to a bus-transfer tenure at Island/Def Jam, to their current home on Universal affiliate Lost Highway.)
Rainy Day Music, due out April 1, is somewhat of a return to fundamentals for the band. They’ve toned things down to a simpler sound after having gradually upped the ante (in terms of production ambitions) over the course of six albums dating back to 1986. Their new disc feels somewhat sonically akin to 1992′s Hollywood Town Hall, yet employs lessons learned from the lush records they’ve made since. Today’s Jayhawks remain primarily a pop vehicle, not a country band, even if the arrangements are less grandiose this time around.
There is, however, room for more roots-oriented instrumentation, largely resulting from the recruitment of former Long Ryders multi-instrumentalist Stephen McCarthy, whose arsenal includes pedal steel, lap steel, banjo and mandolin. Gone are keyboardist Jen Gunderman (who’s playing with Caitlin Cary and others now) and guitarist Kraig Johnson (who’s working on his own record). Original bassist Marc Perlman still anchors the rhythm section along with drummer Tim O’Reagan, a mainstay since the mid-’90s.
At the center remains Gary Louris, who proved up to the challenge of taking the reins after Olson departed by emerging as a first-rate pop tunesmith with a distinctive vocal presence. He’s become a sought-after songwriting collaborator as well, even if he doesn’t consider that necessarily one of his strengths. As often as not, he still writes on his own, and the exquisite gleam of Rainy Day Music is testament to his talent.
I. YOU REACT OFF OF WHAT YOU’VE DONE BEFORE
ND: Compared to Smile, which had a lot of co-writing credits between the band members, the majority of the material on Rainy Day Music is credited solely to you. Did this record evolve more from songs written alone as opposed to collaborating with a band?
GL: Well, it was still a band thing, but I think the germs of the songs were really based more on a guy with a guitar.…I wanted to be able to write songs that sounded good just sitting in a room playing and singing. So that’s how they started, and that’s kind of where they went.
There’s many ways to skin a cat. I hate when I read about people who go, ‘Oh, now we’ve figured it out’ — you know, dismissing everything they did, like everything else is wrong. You do what you feel like doing at the time, what feels right for you. And you react off of what you’ve done before. For the Jayhawks, we had done about ten or twelve years of what would be considered roots-rock, and of course you want to explore other things, and that’s what we were doing: reacting to what we did before.
And it’s the same thing now. We’re reacting to what we did with Smile. I loved Smile, and I think many good things came out of it.…But I think this time we just really wanted to have a more simple approach, and to say, ‘OK, this song, naked in the light of day, bare-bones, is it still a great song?’ Even without that cool mellotron vibe going on or whatever. That’s kind of how it was approached on this record.
ND: Did a lot of the songs on Smile start from everyone in a room sitting around and writing together?
GL: I think a little bit more of that. And also with the producer, who was more happy to get in there and try to stir things up with everybody in the room. Which is Bob [Ezrin], who I love dearly. But it was a different approach this time.
ND: So this one started more with you sitting with a guitar yourself?
GL: Yeah. I also think the last record was a little more of us thumbing our nose at convention, at being reverential to any particular expectation or form. And I think it was liberating. In other ways I think it was confusing. So, we’ll do this now, and who knows what we’ll do next.
I always felt like Smile and Sound Of Lies were kind of to clear the deck and make it so that we could do a lot of different things. Which I think we can do now. But, so this is what we do now, this is what I like now, this is what felt right for all of us, I think.
ND: Tim O’Reagan wrote and sings two songs on this record [“Tampa To Tulsa” and “Don’t Let The World Get In Your Way”]. Was there a specific effort to ask him to contribute more?