On April 1, Gary Louris and Vetiver put on a fantastic show at the Somerville Theatre for about fifty people. I had mixed feelings, enjoying such a great night of music, wondering why one of America’s best songwriters can’t draw more people on the strength of his catalogue with the Jayhawks, not to mention Golden Smog, and with a solid, tuneful solo album – his first – in stores for a couple of months.
Louis and company started out with “Omaha Nights” from the new Vagabonds album, and meandered through Louris’s considerable history all night long. Jayhawks classics “I’d Run Away,” “Blue,” and “Waiting for the Sun” pleased longtime fans, as did the lost nugget “Everybody Gets By.” But no one got antsy during the new stuff, either. The traditional country of “She Only Calls Me On Sundays” and the delicate “D.C. Blues” were much enhanced by Eric Heywood’s ace pedal steel playing. “To Die a Happy Man” and “Vagabonds” fit well with one-offs like the Dixie Chicks co-write “Everybody Knows” and the pure pop joy of “Every Word” from the movie Wordplay. “I Wanna Get High” went from psychedelic folk to blistering acid rock.
Louris was relaxed and in good humor throughout, pointing out his in-laws in the audience (his wife is from Worcester). He came back out for a solo encore, introducing the Golden Smog song “Listen Joe” by saying it was a happy little tune, and now every time he says “surprise, surprise” his young son replies, “everyone dies.”
I had tried to see Louris with a friend of mine a couple of weeks prior when I was visiting L.A., but his gig at the El Rey was canceled due to poor ticket sales. In light of that and what I saw, I would urge any Louris fans to see this tour. Vetiver is a more than capable backing band, and their nimble, earnest folk rock set is a perfect opener to the show.
To familiarize you a bit with the new album, here is an interview I did with Louris last October, while he was still mixing Vagabonds. Part of this wound up in an article for Harp Magazine (which, sadly, just ceased publication). I had only gotten to listen to a few unmixed tracks, e-mailed to me by Rykodisc so I could ask more specific questions. I was more than pleased with the final version, once I got a hold of it a month or so later. New Seasons, the album he produced with the Sadies last year, is also well worth picking up. And I look forward to the new Louris/Mark Olson record, due out within the next few months, which Louris also talks about here.
Has it been strange to be in the studio without the Jayhawks?
It wasn’t. I’ve been in enough other situations in recording studios with different people. Maybe that was part of the reason I was surrounded by some friends on this session. With Chris Robinson, I felt comfortable. Some of the guys in the band I had known before. So there was already a camaraderie built up.
Who are the other players on the album?
A guy named Otto Hauser, he plays in bands like Vetiver, and I believe Espers and bands like that. A guy named Jonathan Wilson who’s kind of an L.A. friend of mine who kind of hosts the infamous Wednesday night jam sessions up in Laurel Canyon every Wednesday which really has become kind of a clearing house for a lot of L.A. musicians and people who are passing through. Any night, there might be like four different drummers, three different keyboard players, different singers, guitar players, and bass players. Everybody from Maroon 5 to Beachwood Sparks to anything. There are a lot of different people who go up there. That’s kind of how I got to know a lot of people who play on the record.
And also Adam MacDougal, keyboards. Jonathan Wilson played bass and guitar. Josh Grange played pedal steel. And then we had this group of people who sang depending on the song. There were a few songs where everybody sang, and it was like Jenny Lewis, Susanna Hoffs, Chris Robinson, Jonathan Rice, and Andy Kick-Havic, he’s the lead singer in Vetiver. The Chapin sisters. I’m trying to remember who else. That’s mainly the main voices on it.
It’s amazing how that Laurel Canyon scene persists, going back to the days of Frank Zappa and all those folks.
Yeah, I was just at a party last night at Frank Zappa’s house, the famous log cabin. I thought it burned down, but I guess it didn’t. Yeah, it persists, you know, because it was such a magical time and a convergence of all different kinds of musicians. It’s hard to let go of. IT appeals to me just because of the music that came out of it. And you know I just found it’s just really a great group of people. They’re into the music, there’s not a lot of posturing that sometimes you get in rock bands. People just want to play and hang out and I’ve made some real good friends.
Do you live around there?
No, I live in Minneapolis. I still live in Minneapolic, but I come out here. I love it out here, actually.
Where was the album recorded, mostly?
It was all recorded at a place called Sage and Sound in LA. It’s a little kind of old school LA studio right near Ocean Way off Sunset.
Is there any particular reason behind choosing that spot?
Chris Robinson had been aware of it and I had actually been there in the 90s when we were recording at Ocean Way. I walked in and remembered it. It was a good deal, and had a vibey-ness to it. Those two things worked for us.
How did you collaborate with Chris? Who did what?
Well, Chris was kind of the executive producer dude. I trust his musical ear, because I don’t know anyone who’s more into music than Chris, and who’s been a supporter of mine since the early nineties. So there’s a trust factor you have to have with a producer and I just had it with Chris. And I didn’t need anybody to tell me necessarily how to record, because I’d been in enough and I’ve produced things on my own. I just needed somebody who would get the vibe going, you know, who I could lean on if I was unsure of a song or whatever.
Chris basically helped me sift through the numerous songs and kind of whittle it down and kind of helped to assemble the band. And Thom Monahan, who was the engineer and really kind of co-producer was brought on board through Chris. He assembled a lot of the players and helped me sift the songs. I can be somewhat unsure and a little bit negative and he was always a positive energy in the studio. He’s a high energy guy, you know? And I think that was good for me.
Did you share a producing credit on the album?
No, I think it was really Chris and I think Thom might have some production credit on it. I’m not sure how that works.
Did producing the Sadies make you approach this album differently?
No, not really. I’d done things in the past, production-wise. I suppose there are things that creep in. I know just from producing bands that I try to walk the walk, you know? If I tell them I believe in something and tell them that’s the way it should be done then when I go in and make my own record I should really do it. In this case, I really wanted to do it in as much of a live situation as possible. I just feel like, if that can be done, that’s the best way to do it. It’s the peak of creativity. If you get people playing together and off of each other, you get that synergy or synchronicity or whatever you want to call it, I think it makes the most important music. Obviously you can spend two years like Brian Wilson with ‘Good Vibrations’ trying to make something magical if you have the players at your disposal. But otherwise, if you can make it live and quick, it’s the most inspired kind of music.
Was most or all of the album recorded live with everybody playing in the same room?
Yeah. I’d say 90%. My lead vocal and guitar, the steel guitar, keyboard, drums, and bass were all live. And then the choir, I call them the choir, but the background vocals, were overdubbed. Percussion or occasional guitar parts or keyboards were overdubbed. But I’d say 90% was recorded live.
Is that the way you’ve generally recorded in the past, with the Jayhawks and other bands you’ve produced?
Not always. I think starting with – Sound of Lies I don’t remember. A lot of that was live. But Rainy Day Music was when I was working with Ethan Johns and he really convinced me that I can do it, that you can sing and play and keep it. You don’t have to lay down a scratch and go back. You can do it. When play at the same time as you sing, you sing around your guitar playing and you play your guitar around your vocal naturally. If you overdub it, you kind of mainline everything. It’s very solid, but the dynamics aren’t as good. So I kind of try to do that with whoever I can whenever I’m producing. But it doesn’t always work. With the Sadies we didn’t do it that way. It just wasn’t the way they wanted to do it. And it worked out great. You know, there’s many ways to skin a cat. When possible I like to do it live. But the early Jayhawks records weren’t that way. They were all overdubbed.
Hollywood Town Hall and --
Hollywood Town Hall, Tomorrow the Green Grass. Those were all done where you just go out and sing scratches and you keep the bass and drums and not much else and you build back up.
Did you feel any pressure, either internally or externally, to make this record sound any different than the Jayhawks?
I did want it to sound different but I think it wasn’t a pressure situation. It was just that I was just in a different mode of working and songwriting. I think most people who have heard the stuff think it sounds like me but doesn’t necessarily sound like the Jayhawks. I guess that’s a testament to the Jayhawks, to the other members, that they just couldn’t be replaced. It’s me and it still has a Jayhawks element because I was a large part of the Jayhawks, but different at the same time.
And the other reason to use that studio and Chris was because I’d made a record in January of last year with Mark Olson. To do that, we really wanted to get somebody who would make us feel comfortable in the studio because we hadn’t played together in a long time. And Chris was just a friend and he got us in Sage and Sound and everything went so well. And that’s when I thought, well, I think I could do my own record with Chris also, in this studio.
I have about five tracks that were sent to me today, so if my grasp of isn’t so deep, I apologize. But your voice is a lot more up front on this without quite as much harmony. That’s what impressed me about the songs I’ve heard so far. Was that purposeful, or was that just a function of this being your record as opposed to a band record?
It wasn’t really purposeful, it just came naturally out of what I was writing and feeling more like a solo guy. I know that a good friend of mine who’s a musician came in and listened to what we were doing as we were doing it, and he said, it’s you but it’s different. It doesn’t sound like we’re waiting for the guy to come in and sing his harmony on it like a Jayhawks song. It doesn’t sound like that, it doesn’t sound like we’re waiting on that other track that you sang on to make it that dual harmony thing. And I did that, Mark Olson and I did that total duo harmony thing and it was great and I still love it. But for this record, I was embracing the singer/songwriter dude in me, I guess.
I haven’t put my finger on what’s different exactly, yet. I have “To Die a Happy Man,” and that’s more delicate maybe than what I’ve heard in the past. I can’t put a better description on it just yet, I have to listen to it a bit more to get the vibe.
I think part of it was I got into the finger-picking, kind of the English and straight folk finger-picking and some alternate tunings. I don’t think there is on that song, but on a couple of other songs. I think that changes the feel. I’ve never done that before on any Jayhawks record, where we actually got the real folky finger-picking.
“She Only Calls Me on Sundays” was a bit more traditional country. Was that something you were eager to explore?
I guess I’ve always felt like we have touched on it, but I think that’s probably the most traditional country song I’ve ever written. It wasn’t like, I’m finally going to get to do this or that, it wasn’t that kind of approach. Just kind of happened. I wrote these songs, and these were the ones that made the final cut. There were a lot of other ones, maybe some sounded like the old Jayhawks that didn’t make it. I didn’t sit down and plan it. Although I did plan for kind of a more folky approach. It ended up becoming a bit more of a rock record than it had originally planned to be. Just naturally kind of grew out of it once the band started playing together. But I didn’t even really have a band until a week before I showed up to record. I came out a week early and we had a few days with the bass player and the drummer, and the keyboard player joined us a few days after that. And the last day the steel player joined us for rehearsal. So after four or five days we kind of coalesced as a band kind of organically. Put it that way.
Should I say there are plans to tour?
There are plans to tour. In today’s world if you want to sell any records you kind of have to get out there. I don’t think I’ll be one of those guys who tours ten months out of the year. But I miss playing and I’d like to do a fair share. And I’d also like to do a little bit more where I go out on my own, like a one-man person – [laughs] a one-man person – like a solo show kind of thing once in a while, too. That’s something I’d like to develop. A lot of these songs, I was in an isolation booth, and if you just put those two mics on, it’s just me and the guitar, a lot of those songs work that way. Si I’m hoping to do some things like that, I hope.
The things that I’ve heard so far seem like they would adapt well to a one-person sort of environment.
That’s how they were written and they weren’t demoed into big productions. I have some songs that we didn’t record with the band that I demoed. They’re a little stranger, a little more experimental. Those I might use as bonus tracks or b-sides that I just played in my basement.
Were any of these songs you had kicking around for a while that didn’t quite fit other projects?
None of them have are old enough to have been around for a Jayhawks thing. They’re all things that I’ve written in the past year or two. Nothing was like leftover from a Golden Smog thing or a co-write. These are all things I wrote for this record.
Are there any more electric tunes on the album?
Not knowing what you got already… I didn’t play a lot of electric guitar. There’s only a couple of songs I actually played electric guitar on. And maybe on the next record I’ll do something where I become more of a lead player again. But right now I wanted to be the guy singing the song with the acoustic guitar. That was my vision at the time. It still rocks, but it wasn’t intended to be a rock record.
Was that with an eye toward doing solo shows?
I think I really started getting the bug for it when I went out with Olson on some tours and just the simplicity of being a guy with a guitar, just showing up. It’s not out of laziness, but at times, it’s just a great way to tour. It’s really rewarding to play without having a wall of sound. And also, I just found over the years, I don’t have a loud voice. I don’t have a rock voice. I have a softer voice and sometimes it’s been hard over the years for people to hear me. And I think this approach is going to be better for the singing. And that’s my own damn fault, because I used to be the loudest guy onstage with the electric guitar. And I’m not saying I don’t want to do any of that, but I do like the idea of, I think my strength is my singing and songwriting in a quieter form.
Was that maybe how the Jayhawks style formed, with the harmonies being so prominent? You felt your voice wasn’t quite loud enough to handle it by itself?
No. I don’t think that was it. I think it was just a natural progression or the kind of music that we were listening to, the fact that Mark and I found we could sing well together and we complimented each other. It wasn’t anything to do with volume. Mark had a pretty good voice, and as long as I was singing up high, it kind of cut through. But as far as the lead male voice, sometimes it was a struggle to hear me.
That’s something I hadn’t thought of, that I hear more of your lower register on this. Is that where you’re more comfortable singing?
No, I think I have a higher voice, and that’s where I get my power. But when it’s quiet, I can get down there and people can hear it. I think it’s a range that some people aren’t really familiar with me singing. That’s what maybe people are finding makes it sound so much different from the Jayhawks.
Do you enjoy singing down there a bit more?
I like being all over, but there’s nothing like hitting the high notes for me because that’s where I can really push it. The low notes have to be very breathy and kind of almost spoken because I’m not naturally a low singer. But that just seems to be how my songs work. You have the low verse and the high chorus kind of thing.
Did you do anything in the studio this time that was a huge departure from what you’d done before?
Only the fact that I was playing with a bunch of people I hadn’t played with, it wasn’t a Jayhawks situation. On Rainy Day Music on that song “Madman,” we really got kind of a group ensemble playing all at once. On this record, all the songs were like that. And I think the players all kind of rose to the occasion. When I listen to it, I’m just amazed at what good parts everybody came up with and how they played off of each other. “Rainy Day Music” we played it mostly live but it was mostly just the three of us, and then we augmented it with overdubs afterwards. This is more of a pretty much the song was done almost when we took off the headphones and walked into the control room, the song was 90% there or complete. Other than that, we had just a little bit more instruments that you might hear on an English folk record or a psych-folk record. Harmoniums and some weird kind of ear candy kind of celestes and things. But we didn’t do anything really bizarrely experimental as far as the recording goes.
Seems like with your solo album and the new album with Mark Olson, it would be tough to avoid the shadow of the Jayhawks. Especially with the duo album.
That’s okay, I’m not trying to totally escape. I’m really proud of who we were and I’m not going to be one of those guys who never plays a Jayhawks song because that’s kind of silly. I don’t want to hide from it, I don’t want to confuse people, either. If you feel like making a record with a guy who used to be in your band, you just can’t worry about those things. It’s just something we wanted to do. If that confuses people, then so be it.
But it was deliberate that you wanted it to come out after your solo album was out?
Well, it wasn’t my idea so much as the label’s. I think they wanted to, again, not confuse people and say, this is Gary’s thing, and then there’s also Mark and Gary. But I think they wanted to the first thing that comes out post-Jayhaks to be my solo record. And Mark has his record out, which is a great record. So he’s doing his thing and I’m doing my thing, and then we’re going to join up.
For me, part of the reason that I got out of the Jayhawks was to be able to be free to kind of move around and do a number of things and not be beholden to other people. When you’re in a band, you have to do things as a group, you have to consider other members, if they want to play shows or tour, and I just couldn’t do that anymore. I needed to spend more time at home and those sorts of things. And have more time to work with some different people, even it’s somebody I had worked with in the past, or produce somebody. I just wanted to have that freedom. There was no real problem with the band itself.
So you don’t see either the solo stuff or any other albums as sort of your main gig.
I think I see my record as being a bit more of my focus. But the Olson/Louris record is also very important to me.
I mean past that, I mean down the road, from here on out, seeing yourself more as a solo player.
Yes. I think that’s fair to say. I still like a band situation, and if I can float in and out of some band situations I would still do that, too. I just can’t be in one thing, doing the same thing over and over again.