Tuesday, August 2, 2011

"I'm never gonna be a histrionic crazy man!" The sad confession of The Jayhawks' Gary Louris

There's a new Jayhawks album coming. While I wait for it arrive, I thought I'd post this interview I did with Gary Louris (first published in The Scotsman, 09 May 2003) 
In his teens, before reality set in, Gary Louris had a dream. "I used to picture myself being a frickin’ rock star. Even though I was incredibly shy, I felt like deep inside I had what it takes."
Fate had different ideas and made Louris the joint leader of the Jayhawks, trading harmonies and sharing songwriting chores with Mark Olson. Together, they made some of the best records of the last decade, most notably Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow the Green Grass, which would have been mileposts in the road to alt.country if they weren’t classics in their own right. Those records were the bridge between Neil Young and Ryan Adams: brilliant examples of what happened to country rock after it got over the Eagles.
To appreciate their timelessness, look at the bands which started alongside them in Minneapolis: Husker Du and the Replacements. Both are seen as seminal, both have long since fractured. Their leaders, Bob Mould and Paul Westerberg, may be respected solo artists, but the fire and vim is long gone. The Jayhawks remain and their latest album Rainy Day is among their best work.
"I don’t know if there’s many bands that can say their seventh record is one of their best," Louris asserts. "Or that they haven’t lost it. A lot of it is just the type of music we play. I don’t think Husker Du could still be Husker Du. It’s a burn hot and burn out fast band. And the Replacements were like that. Paul’s continued to make records but he can’t be the crazy Replacements at this point.
"Our music, for some reason, whether it’s more mature - I hate that word - it’s easier to play for a longer time. It’s like soul, I think. It takes a little longer to develop it. Our first record wasn’t our best - you learn how to do it. It’s like the blues."
It has been a bumpy ride. Every time the Jayhawks issue an album, they do so with a mixture of high hopes and weary fatalism. Every Jayhawks record feels like the last one the band will make.
"It’s a good way to make a record," Louris says, "desperation. What I mean is we have nothing to lose. We’ve proven ourselves over time. We’re not just trying to see what it would be like to have a life in the music business. We’ve done it. We’re not trying to get into the business and get another record made. So, that’s a certain amount of freedom. We’re not trying to get on the radio. The only thing we’re doing is we’re trying to make great music. That’s made somewhat in a vacuum away from outside influences.
"I approached this record as take this or leave it. We’ll make a great record. If ten people listen to it we can walk away and know that someday somebody’s gonna dust it off and go, ‘Oh, this is amazing.’" He pauses and allows himself a smile. "I think we’re fooling ourselves. I’d miss it if I walked away from it."
Louris almost had to retreat last year when he was diagnosed with pericarditis, an affliction he is proud to share with Bob Dylan. "It’s a virus that attacks the heart lining and it tends to cause an irritation. The heart lining fills up with fluid and you feel like you’re having a heart attack. It can be life-threatening but it’s easily treatable. They couldn’t figure out something about my blood level. It wasn’t coming back - whether I was internally bleeding somewhere, or I had cancer. They started opening me up and checking me out. In some weird way I got a complete clean bill of health out of the whole deal."
Surviving this trauma seems to have given Louris a sense of optimism about life which is at odds with the world-weary sheen of his lyrics. Ageing, he says, is not all bad. "There’s some great things about it. You have to have the whole package. It sure wouldn’t be bad to have a 21-year-old body. But I have a secret: you marry a women who is much younger than you and she tells you not to think old. I’m not recommending that for everybody, but it works for me."
Sound of LiesThe breakdown of Louris’s previous marriage was recorded on the 1997 album Sound of Lies, which also marked the departure of Olson.
"Some of Sound of Lies was the things that followed the divorce: a relationship I had that was pretty stormy. I seem to have had a pattern of being together with a very solid, together woman, and then the next one will be crazy. Luckily, I’ve married someone who’s really together. But there’s a lot of things surrounding that divorce. I’d been married, I was in a band with a guy, we were a team, and all of a sudden all of that was thrown away. I had moved out of my house during the recording of Sound of Lies, so it was a tumultuous time."
Musically, the loss of Olson was particularly difficult. "Sound of Lies was really like ‘Fuck you. If you can’t take me, I don’t care.’
"I really felt like ‘I’ve gotta have this attitude to project myself’. I’ve gotta just be able to say: ‘This is what we are and if you don’t like it, tell me, and that’ll be it.’"
The violence of this assertion seems at odds with Louris’s placid nature.
"Placid? Those are the ones that you’ve gotta watch out for. Heavy metal guys, screaming: pussycats. Pretty straight. It’s the soft-spoken singer-songwriter guys that are fucked. They don’t headbang or whack through their set and feel like they just did a work out. They’re still holding a lot of it inside. But I like to think of myself as a good person. I’m not without feeling, without passion about stuff."
As he speaks, a clock chimes. I suggest that his writing could be summarised by the phrase "triumph over melancholy".
"Well, we’ve always been triumphing over melancholy. It’s always there. For me, life is never going to be all peaches and cream. There’s beauty in everything but it’s not a perfect world. So, you can’t help by musically touch on that. Somehow we continue to go on and have lives, and not get lost.
"I’m attracted to beauty in songs and I think that shows hope and positivity. I’ve always liked the yin and the yang; of the uplifting sounding song with very dark lyrics, or a very dark-sounding song with somewhat happy lyrics."
Songwriting, he says, is cathartic. "If I write a great song, I feel like that’s who I am, and that’s what I do. I feel like I have worth, I guess. It is cathartic also. It’s expressing yourself, which tells you about yourself. I can’t imagine what I would be like if I hadn’t written any songs ... I might have killed somebody by now."
The themes, he says, remain constant."The big issues. Spirituality: is there a God? Good and evil. It’s still mindboggling, I get up every morning and I think: Why are we here? What are we doing?
"Or struggling with attraction to other people, when maybe you shouldn’t, because you’re with somebody else. A lot of it is about love, about men and women, and about relationships that you’re having, or shouldn’t have had, or hope to have."
Writing, he says, is his favourite part of the job and despite his teenage ambitions, it is still a surprise to find himself in front of a rock band. "Playing’s fun but I’m never going to be Iggy Pop and I will forever be sad that I can’t be.
"I’m never gonna be a histrionic crazy man. I’ve got a lot to do up there. There’s the guitar, the singing, remembering all the words. Iggy didn’t have to play guitar."