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Jayhawks founder Olson recalls Bunkhouse debut

For The Jayhawks, the foundation was the Minneapolis band’s Charlie Pine-produced, self-titled debut album, released in 1986 on Bunkhouse Records

By Chris M. Junior

Elvis Presley had Colonel Tom Parker, The Beatles had Brian Epstein and The Jayhawks had Charlie Pine.

Even some longtime Jayhawks fans might not know much about Pine, who was the alt-country band’s manager during its early days. Like Parker and Epstein did for Presley and the Fab Four, respectively, Pine played a key role in helping his act build toward a long recording career. For The Jayhawks, the foundation was the Minneapolis band’s Pine-produced, self-titled debut album, released in 1986 on Bunkhouse Records.

Only 2,000 vinyl copies of “The Jayhawks” (a.k.a. The Bunkhouse Album) were originally pressed. But on May 18, Lost Highway will release the album on CD for the first time ever, and the CD version will include a booklet with photos of the band from that era as well as a new essay by Jayhawks founder Mark Olson.

Olson recently checked in from Norway to talk about his memories of Pine, the recording of “The Jayhawks” and the Minneapolis music scene around that time.

In writing the essay for the reissue and revisiting this early period of your music career, what did you rediscover about yourself and the band that maybe you had forgotten about or didn’t realize at the time?
Mark Olson:
When they asked me to write something, I really thought about it for a while. And I basically recalled this manager of ours and what a crazy character he was and how we had kind of lost touch with each other. I thought that would be the best thing to write about because it’s hard to write about, “Oh, the guitars sounded this way and the vocals sounded this way, and we rehearsed up in this space.” I thought that the angle of how people form bands and what mechanisms are involved, when you start out with having a manager – that was kind of interesting, and I had not thought about that for a while.

The Minneapolis music scene of the mid-1980s was quite fertile – and diverse, too. Given the country-leaning sound of The Jayhawks, did that make it tougher for the band to get gigs and sell that first album in and around the city?
Wow, that’s a pretty pertinent question because we were on the outside with that stuff there. I think one of the reasons both [fellow singer/guitarist] Gary [Louris] and I were attracted to country or folk and that kind of music was because the other stuff was pretty well taken up. I mean, I wouldn’t want to try to get up and compete with Husker Du, The Replacements and Soul Asylum in the loud, rocking department. They had it; there wasn’t any room.

So we started down this different avenue, and it didn’t go over so well in the rock clubs to start with because that’s where we started [playing]. There was kind of a blues/folk scene in a place called the West Bank, which was in a different part of town than the rock clubs, and that’s where we were able to get gigs. We started to do three sets a night and work our way up to the weekends over there, and we ended up playing enough that we could keep improving. When things were going very well over there … and we generated enough excitement, our manager decided, “It’s time for us to make a record,” and that’s what we did.

We didn’t really get going in the rock scene until a little later, and in fact, we never really were a top draw until we came back from California, [after] we did the “Hollywood Town Hall” record. To me, that isn’t anything other than we were trying to do something different, and it was a little bit out of time and a little bit not with the time. But I think that serves any group or musician well in the long run versus doing what a lot of other people are doing in the same time and place.

In your essay for the reissue, you write about Charlie Pine as a man of many talents. As the producer of the first Jayhawks album, was Pine hands-on, hands-off or a little bit of both, depending on the particular song?
He was definitely hands-off in the way that he really liked the band. When we were playing well, that guy was happy. Basically, he got us in the studio and said, “Go.” It’s like everyone’s first record: You go in there, you set up and you play just like you play it live. Obviously, you can hear that in the tempos – it’s like a rocket taking off (laughs). I sat down [recently] to relearn a couple of the songs, and I started to play along with “Falling Star,” and it’s so fast.

So that’s what we did. We were hyped, and we just cranked them out. And I don’t think we did any overdubs. I can’t really remember that; I think it’s basically live. The whole process was a little mystifying to me. [Pine] was in the studio, and he picked the tracks he wanted to use, and we added a couple of things. He wasn’t barking out orders or anything, but he was definitely in charge as far as, “OK, we’re going to use this track.”

Describe Control Sound, the Minneapolis facility where the album was recorded. Was it a legit studio, or was it an ordinary room with equipment in it?
It was a regular studio, but it was very small. There was a control room and a [tracking] room. We were all in the same room, and they stuck the amps off in various bathrooms. They had isolation booths for Gary and me, so we were playing and singing at the same time.

[Pine] found that studio. I never heard of it before or sense, to tell you the truth. It was in a neighborhood by the Mississippi River that I never spent time in before or since.

The album cover is similar to that of the first Crosby, Stills and Nash album. Talk about the house that’s featured on the cover and what you remember from the photo shoot.
That’s actually in another strange topographical area in Minneapolis: Nicollet Island. It’s right in downtown Minneapolis. … There are a couple of old buildings that are now restaurants, but there’s also a little hidden neighborhood back there. It was sort of a hippie neighborhood, kind of an alternate lifestyle neighborhood, where everything was rundown and almost spooky. Since then, I think it’s been fixed up a little bit, but back then, we were looking for something that, I guess, said country-rock (laughs).

I just remember it being a fun day. We had hired the best photographer for music in the city, and it was very exciting: We were doing our album.

Was Pine there directing how you guys should look?
He never directed so much as he encouraged. That was his thing. What I hope I got across in the essay is what went on between us and Charlie, there was a level of personal enthusiasm coming from him that I haven’t really seen since or really expect to see again.

Do you still have any copies of the original vinyl pressing at home?
I believe I have two copies that have been opened and played at various times. I run into [other] copies in foreign countries. … Every now and then someone will come up with one and ask me to sign it, or if I go to a record collector [show], I’ll find it in the bin, and it’s pretty high-priced.

So, there are no sealed copies anywhere in your basement or attic?
Olson: No (laughs).