By Ray Chelstowski
The Jayhawks are the consummate American rock band. Their music is inherently Midwestern, providing an honesty, appeal and modest sense of wonder that has made them a critic’s darling since their debut almost 30 years ago. Lately, they have been quite busy operating as the backing band for Ray Davies’ two critically acclaimed Americana releases. They also have begun a new label relationship with Legacy Recordings, a division of Sony Music Entertainment. With Legacy, they released Back Roads and Abandoned Motels, a new studio album, in July.
Back Roads and Abandoned Motels is The Jayhawks’ tenth studio album and a stunning example of an approach to music that has found them often compared to bands like The Byrds and The Beatles. The record was produced by band leader Gary Louris, John Jackson and Ed Ackerson at Flowers Studio in Minneapolis, and delivers The Jayhawks’ take on seven songs co-written by Louris with artists like the Dixie Chicks, Jakob Dylan and Ari Hest. In addition to these tracks, the record also includes two of Louris’ latest compositions. The result is a collective, cohesive expression and a complete representation of the rock, folk, country and harmony-rich sound they have trademarked. From a sonic perspective, it delivers largely in the spirit of the 2003 classic Rainy Day Music, and promises to be as important an entry to their catalog.
Goldmine had the chance to speak with Gary Louris and discuss the making of this record, working with Ray Davies, the songwriting process and what might be in store next for The Jayhawks.
GOLDMINE: I love the new album. It reminds me a lot of Rainy Day Music. What was the inspiration behind choosing these song collaborations?
GARY LOURIS: I agree with you. I think this record reminds me a lot of Rainy Day Music in that it’s acoustic guitar driven, mostly live. I can tell that it’s going to be one of those records where it’s going to be easy to put these songs into set lists. For instance, maybe my favorite Jayhawks record was Sound of Lies, but it’s harder to play those songs live because they’re just dark. It always seems like the songs from Rainy Day Music were just easy to play live.
How I picked them, that’s a good question. It was kind of assembled by me, but the idea of the record actually came from John Jackson. I had started writing for a new record and he said, “A lot of people would love to hear your band’s take on the songs you’ve written with other people.” So between me, John Jackson, and our manager and our confidant PD Larson, we just kind of assembled a group of songs that were pretty obvious. I mean, “Everybody Knows” is a song we had started playing ourselves anyway. Some of these songs I played solo. There are a number songs that I had written with people I really liked but hadn’t been released. We tended to lean towards things that were recorded and released, to focus on stuff that was already out there.
GM: How do you take a bunch of songs all written with different people and attack them so that they fit neatly into a single album expression?
GL: There were a few songs that we did and we didn’t feel like they fit. Certain songs just fit the band better than others. We did kind of take the approach of a Rainy Day Music template, which is the first record where I think we mostly recorded live. Mostly we just play. I really wanted this to be “this is what we sound like when we get in a room together.” That made it hang together.
GM: The record is sonically bright but thematically a bit blue. How does that inspire the title, Back Roads and Abandoned Motels?
GL: The (album) cover photo I had seen on Facebook and I had saved it. When I was thinking of titles I decided I wanted to use that and learned it was from a film director who had done the movie Wings of Desire, which I was a huge fan of. And he had taken a lot of pictures for the movie Paris, Texas. So we contacted him and it turned out he was a fan.
I think that photo evokes the wide open spaces kind of thing that fans, especially those overseas, think of with The Jayhawks. They think of us as a very American band, and think of wide open spaces and driving. I didn’t just want to use a lyric from the record. So I started kicking things around and I realize now that it’s our longest album title.
GM: The playlist is heavy on Dixie Chicks collaborations. What do they bring specifically to the songwriting process that you admire most?
GL: “Come Cryin’ To Me” ended up being on Natalie (Maines’) solo record, but it was one of the first things we worked on in Austin when we got together. I had brought down a bunch of ideas, and played them for them and they really liked it, but realized it was too much me and not enough them. So we kind of started from scratch and nothing really came of it. A couple of nights later I got the call to come back to L.A. and we started writing some more and that was just the four of us up above Village Recorder in a big room with a bunch of recording equipment, couches and we just kind of hung out. They had a bunch of things on their minds, most of it political and the fallout from their criticism of (President) Bush. So it was me playing guitar, strumming melodies and together trying to write lyrics because I wanted it to be their voice. I remember for “Bitter End,” Martie (Maguire) had a violin riff that she liked and that’s what that song took off from. But mostly we would be sitting around, talking like sisters, family and friends, thumbing through magazines and just hanging out. That was a good way to write because you’re not staring at a page. It’s not easy to write with four people. It’s hard enough with two. But with four you have to get everyone on board. I was pretty happy in the fact that we were able to come up with things that everyone was into.
GM: You share lead vocal duties on this one. Why did you decide that one of those tracks, “Come Cryin ‘To Me” with Karen Grotberg, would open the record? Is this also the first time you guys have used horns in the studio?
GL: I immediately thought of her singing it, especially because it had been sung by a female voice when it was recorded with Natalie. I always wanted to have Karen have some lead vocals, and have more than one or two songs in her repertoire when we’re making set lists. I think it’s nice for the audience; it’s nice for me and for the band. In fact I’m hoping the band will go more in that direction — kind of open it up to more of a cooperative. I originally didn’t think of that song to start the record but the more we were shuffling things around, the more it felt good. It was kind of a bold move to make it not only her first vocal but to have that open the record. It also is the first time the band has used horns. We’ve used strings, but never horns — so we’re gonna have to find a horn section to show up at some of these shows. I always try to get those background vocals up to where it’s almost like The Byrds.We really made an effort to make sure those vocals were right up there and not just padding. Karen wasn’t around for Rainy Day Music, so this is kind of Rainy Day Music with Karen Grotberg.
GM: You added two new songs that you wrote alone: “Carry You To Safety” and “Leaving Detroit.” What about these tracks made them right for this album of collaborations?
GL: “Leaving Detroit” definitely was somewhat of an ode to the Burt Bacharach/Jimmy Webb kind of genre that I love. It was written toward the end of demos for Paging Mr. Proust and it just didn’t fit the record. This was just different from what we had (for the new record) and we wanted to mix things up.
GM: The Jayhawks have operated as a backing band for some big name talents like Ray Davies. What was that like and how do gigs like that come about?
GL: I can’t quite believe that that happened because Ray is my hero and someone I have really been such a huge fan of really since the late ‘60s. In the ‘70s I saw him many times in the United States and always thought he was the greatest pop songwriter of all time. All of a sudden, we find out that we are playing with him and we become friends. I think he likes that we are “a band,” that we aren’t just five musicians who got together. That we are a band with our own dynamic. He likes the interaction that comes from knowing each other so long. So, he felt comfortable with us. I’m real proud that we are part of these two records.
GM: The band lineup has changed over the years, but in the end the same group of folks tends to move in and out. What is it about your personalities or the band dynamic that make this feel/look like family?
GL: There’s a certain family aspect to it. I think we all love each other, we all hate each other and we all like each other. We’ve been told by people who’ve hung out with us as a group that we’re all like an old married couple. We all seem to think that we know the other person better than they do themselves. (laughs) But there’s a very high level of respect musically. It’s a very intelligent group of people. I’m not necessarily including myself, but there’s no weak link or dull knife in the drawer. Everybody’s really sharp and funny and they have their quirks, and everyone has learned to accept them, which is a big deal. There’s something about knowing someone for a long time musically and personally, and that’s what we have.
GM: It’s been said, “If you want a chorus, you’d better call Louris.” Is that what tends to happen when you get a call asking for songwriting help?
GL: Not necessarily. I think that I’m known for melody and for a pretty big chorus. I’m somewhat famous for my bridges. On the Dixie Chicks album there are definitely some “bridge offs,” as we call them. But I’m definitely the more “melodic guy” than the gritty riff writer — although I wish at times I could write more like that.
GM: Where’s the Minneapolis rock scene at these days, and who should we keep an eye out for?
GL: Well, I don’t live there anymore, so I’m of out of touch with the music scene there to be honest. Even when I lived there I was gone half of the time. But I do like Chastity Brown who’s really, really good.