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Exclusive Interview: Gary Louris of The Jayhawks

Acclaimed Minnesota band is on tour with best-ever album and coming to the Fillmore on July 22

Tell you what: you can take the Outside Lands Festival and its perfect setting in Golden Gate Park. While you're at it, you can also have the sold-out 21 Pilots shows at the Greek and those three nights with Phish at the Bill Graham later this week. I need to keep my schedule wide open to see the The Jayhawks at the Fillmore on July 22.

For my money, a Jayhawks show at the Fillmore is as good as concerts get—I've seen the band there a half-dozen times in the past twenty years, and each show has been mesmerizing. The Minneapolis-based band visits the legendary San Francisco music hall this Friday in support of their outstanding new LP, Paging Mr. Proust. The album, which came out in April, is a high-point in the band’s 30-plus year journey—frontman Gary Louris’ songwriting has never been stronger on the album’s 12 tracks, and the band just burns through power pop, electronica, psychedelia, and other genres with a seemingly effortless expertise. I can’t immediately think of another band that’s come up with such an essential new work so deep in its career, although Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind and John Prine's Fair and Square come to mind with further rumination. How’s that for high praise?

I’ve had a chance to chat with Louris a few times over the years, so when I saw the announcement of a Fillmore engagement, I put out an interview request. To my delight, I got through to Louris before a show in Montana. Here’s what happened:

I noticed that you’re playing in a lot of historic theaters across the country. Is there something about Jayhawks music that sounds sweeter in some of these old rooms?
 It really depends. There are times when I have thought that I just want to play small theaters—that they are the best fit. There is something about the elegance of the theater that can make for a perfect setting. But then, sometimes there can be too much distance from the audience, which can be distracting. Sometimes the nasty, sweaty clubs are better. It’s really night-to-night.

But do you like to see those old buildings from the back corridors, and think about all the music they have heard?
Oh, yes. I was an architect before I was in the band. I was a restoration architect for quite a while. I love the history and story of a place, I’m always interested in looking around and seeing how the building is put together.

Some of the really old places we have played in the South are supposedly haunted, so its fun to climb up in the rafters and think about the history of the place. I’ve never seen anything though.

The new Jayhawks record, Paging Mr. Proust, is my pick for album of the year. By far. As a longtime fan, it was thrilling to play it the first time, because it immediately sounded like a great Jayhawks album, but in these new ways.
Thank you for saying that. Sometimes I wish could just be a fan of the Jayhawks, or a music fan in general. The way you describe enjoying that first listen, I don’t get to enjoy music that way.

I equate it like being a chef going into a restaurant: you always see the bigger picture, think about everything that’s going on back in the kitchen, wonder what other people are thinking, rather than just enjoying the meal. When I listen to music, I think about how they wrote it, why they decided to go to that chord.

Was that the plan when you started writing and recording these songs to try out different sonic textures to surprise the longtime fans?
I have been asked about the process of making this record, so I’ve had a chance to think about this. [A few years ago,] I came out of treatment [for addiction to opiate pain medication], I had a new lease of life, and I took my time getting back into music. My slate was kind of clean and I was not sure what I wanted to do—I started writing music with no particular endgame. So, I did everything and anything.

The conclusion I came to was that I had this amazing band, this incredible band that wanted to play and had a personality and vocabulary. By then, I had written a lot of songs and we started sifting through them and figuring out what was appropriate for the band, and that actually pushed us in a few different directions.

It’s all stuff what we had dabbled in before. Sound of Lies and even Tomorrow the Green Grass dabbled in psychedelia, and Smile was a pop record. You can kind of hear all those influences in this new album.

I’m pleased to see that the song “Ace” is showing up in your concert setlists. What are your favorite songs from this record to play live?
That one, “Ace” is fun to play live, although it sort of separates the fans. You see some people really getting it, and some people saying, “Time to get a beer.”

[With “Ace,”] I was proud of the fact I could write a song in three chords. It’s really almost one chord. As a songwriter you’re always trying to simplify. [The Beatles’] “Tomorrow Never Knows” is the goal for me, it’s almost hypnotic and doesn’t have a chord-verse thing.

I recently wrote a story about a friend of yours, photographer Tabitha Soren. After our interview, I told her this story about hearing her recommend the Jayhawks’ Tomorrow the Green Grass album on MTV, then picking up the cassette in a shopping mall in Sydney and listening to it over and over in my Walkman. Thinking about some of the elements of that memory—MTV, buying cassettes, listening to music on a Walkman—I’m curious about your take on how the music industry has changed in the 30-plus years you’ve been in the Jayhawks?
 I guess I use Spotify as much as the next guy, but when you see what has happened to record sales, it’s kind of shocking.

It’s mind-boggling when you see what you have sold, and you say, “Oh. No!’ and you’re told, “No, that’s really good for what people sell these days.” The amount of records sold and what people get for free has completely changed. The number that looks pretty good today would have been an absolute disaster twenty years ago.

I guess what it comes down to is that the top tier of people are still fine, and people who are really, really indie—who di it just to do it—they’re ok. It’s a little disheartening to realize how many people in the middle are getting squeezed out of making music. It is definitely not as good for making a living as it used to be, and it’s made touring and merchandise essential to surviving. But you can’t tour all the time, it’s exhausting.

There are new things you can do—we did a pre-order on this album while we were recording, and it worked. We also made a video with Chuck Statler, this legendary guy who directed the early DEVO videos, and Elvis Costello stuff. We’re almost finished with it. It won’t be on MTV though—I guess that’s still a channel, but they don’t have music on there, it’s all shows. I do remember 1992, when the video for “Waiting for the Sun” was on MTV three times a day, and that was fantastic. That was a long time ago. You have to go with the flow.

I wanted to ask about something that I’ve seen you talk about in other interviews, which is your recovery from opiate addiction. I have been researching as story about how this problem is affecting our community in various ways. Most of the stories I have found are sad, scary, and desperate. So, I’m curious about your perspective on being one of the success stories and how getting through to the other side has been such a positive change?
It’s changed my life for the better in a number of ways.

It has changed my attitude towards playing music in front of an audience. I used to go on stage to see what kind of energy I could suck out of the audience to make myself feel better. But now I try to see what I can do to entertain people, to make them feel better. That’s been a big change.

In a general way, I try to be an example to try people that there is life on the other side of addiction. I was pretty deep into it. I was suicidal—I had a very low bottom as they say in the business. Opiates make you feel trapped and you feel like there is no way out; I remember the feeling where I could not even imagine being happy.

So, I speak about it because I want to help. For those who are struggling, I do want to say that I was hopeless. And life got so much better when I did get sober. I was so much more productive clean and sober then I had been when I was using—I am more present and much better at taking care of business. I try to show people that you can do really good work after 60. You can still be creative.

I’m looking forward to seeing the Jayhawks at the Fillmore on July 22. I’ve seen you there many times over the years—for the Smile and Rainy Day Music tours, and more recently, to promote the re-release of those albums and Sound of Lies. All spectacular shows. Getting back to the question about playing those historic venues, is there something unique about the Fillmore that stands out as a place to perform?
The Fillmore definitely feels different. You feel the history when you are there. You can smell the history, literally. (Laughs)

Because when you’re going there, you know you’re playing in one of the true destinations for a musician. It always feels like an important show—it’s not just a stop along the way. You don’t want to say that any of them are just a stop along the way, but let’s face it, some of them are.

Final question: What’s the toughest word you have come across on a recent crossword puzzle? (Louris was featured in the crossword puzzle documentary Wordplay, and contributed a song to the film's end credits)
Oh, good question. I do a lot of crossword puzzles and I have to say that The New York Times has gone downhill. I like this guy, Rex Parker, the king of the crosswords. So let me think, I’d have to go to the Saturdays … OK, here’s one. Googleplex, I guess that’s an area that’s the corporate headquarters of Google in Mountain View. But there’s also Googolplex, which is a vast number. There you go—I’ve still never heard of it.