2000 / Interviews / Music

Interview: Jayhawks Try To Make You ‘Smile’

Minneapolis Band Tries To Break Through Again

The story of the Jayhawks has been that of “the little band that could,” although they never quite make it over the hill to pop superstardom.

jayhawksSince forming in the mid-1980s, the Twin Cities-based band has evolved from a country-rock outfit — structured around the twin vocal harmonies of Gary Louris and Mark Olson — to today’s more pop-rock incarnation. Along the way, the Jayhawks have seen plenty of lineup changes.

After delivering a hat trick of exceptional albums in the ’90s — all of which failed to register with the general public — the band has just released “Smile,” its most blatant attempt at a commercial record to date.

There’s only one problem: “Smile” isn’t a commercial record.

To be honest, “Smile” is not going to make the Jayhawks superstars. It’s not going to produce any hit singles, nor any videos that MTV or VH-1 will touch. Especially not in the era of Britney Spears.

As Jayhawks bassist Marc Perlman said in a recent interview: “It’s like an old pop record. They don’t make them like that anymore.”

Such harsh realities aside, “Smile” is another hook-filled masterwork for the band, and like their previous efforts, it deserves a place of honor in any rock fans’ CD collection.

When you look at their old albums, you realize that the Jayhawks really have made a career of being near-misses.

Founded by guitarist/vocalist Olson and Perlman, the group recruited lead guitar player Louris early on and employed a revolving cast of drummers.

Stressing the vocal interplay between main songwriters Olson and Louris, the group pioneered the current roots-rock revival back when the Eagles were still synonymous with country rock.

Their first two major label efforts, “Hollywood Town Hall” and “Tomorrow the Green Grass,” were a country-soul revelation — full of harmonies, folk music chords and Neil Young-ian guitar breaks.

Although the albums’ songs never landed on the radio, they did kickstart the group’s cult following. (Last year, Rolling Stone magazine called “Hollywood Town Hall” one of the best of the 1990s.)

“Tomorrow the Green Grass” did gain them some exposure. It yielded the band’s best single, “Blue.” (For those scratching their heads, the song’s signature sliding
guitar lick was most prominently featured on the VH-1 show “Crossroads.”)

When “Tomorrow the Green Grass” didn’t click with music fans, Olson decided to leave the band and strike out on his own. After some downtime, Louris and company decided to continue on.

Their next effort, “Sound of Lies,” was seen by some as commercial suicide. The band shed any twang in their sound in favor of a more power-pop approach. The record was also darker and melancholic.

“Up until ‘Sound of Lies,’ it was Gary and Mark,” Perlman said of the band’s songwriting. “(They) were primarily the songwriters. And also the focus of the music, in the sense of the two harmony voices. (It’s) sort of what we were known for.

“When Mark left, it opened different avenues for us to express ourselves. Gary did encourage us to get involved a lot more than Gary and Mark had in the past.”

“Sound of Lies” received mixed reviews. It’s a shame because it might have been their shining moment.

Listening to “Smile,” it’s clear that the band strove to make the new record shine as well. Besides being their most ambitious release thus far, the music has a glossiness and sheen without sounding syrupy or fake. The band really wanted to make the perfect pop album.

Much has also been made of the group’s decision to choose Bob Ezrin to produce “Smile.” Ezrin is the man behind Alice Cooper, KISS, Pink Floyd and Lou Reed’s “Berlin,” and his presence behind the boards is being credited with giving the record its ’70s rock sound.

“He did have a lot to do with it,” Perlman said. “He put a lot of our different ideas into a certain context.”

Perlman said Ezrin played a crucial role in arranging and mixing the album. He said the producer’s strength was in managing the nuances of the music.

“He’s a genius in that respect,” Perlman said. “He knows how to make big records that way. We never really went that far into the record process (before).”

Ezrin has presented the group with a wider sonic palette. Where once the band might have used a piano or generic keyboard in a song, they are now employing a mellotron. The instrumentation is more distinct, and you can hear each part play off the others. (The only musical mainstay is Louris’ shimmering guitar.)

“We didn’t want to make a record that we’ve made before,” Perlman said. “(We wanted) just a bunch of great pop songs recorded in a beautiful way.”

The record’s title track is a perfect example. As it builds slowly, you really can hear the song blossom. Guitars, vocal harmonies and strings swell and overwhelm each other during the choruses.

“Mr. Wilson” and “What Led Me to This Town” are the kind of slow, spooky songs that creep into your throat when you’re washing the dishes or driving alone.

“Broken Harpoon” is the album’s emotional epicenter. In the song, stripped back to only an acoustic guitar and a fragile, Beatlesque organ, Louris sings of youth and lessons learned the hard way. Cryptic in its simplicity, it’s made more mysterious with lines like: “When it seemed no matter what you gave/I took my secret to my grave.”

Drummer-vocalist Tim O’Reagan is the group’s secret weapon, underpinning the group’s lavish melodies. When he joined the Jayhawks near the tail end of the Olson
era, his dusty voice and potent drumming filled a void in the band.

On “Sound of Lies,” he stole the show with his song “Bottomless Cup.” (Perlman said the song is a personal favorite and one of their most requested songs live.)

“Tim’s probably the best singer in the band,” Perlman said. “Tim’s an amazing singer. (And) I’m not saying that as an insult to Gary or (former keyboardist) Karen (Grotberg) at all.”
On “Smile,” O’Reagan again has only one vocal appearance. (Perlman insists that there are no similarities to Ringo Starr.) With “Pretty Thing,” O’Reagan’s husky voice conjures an extra air of lewdness in an already nasty put-down song.

“Gary and I thought his voice would be right for that style,” he said.

Louris’ singing is the record’s most surprising element. For most of the Jayhawks’ career, his voice was incorporated into their trademark harmonies. On “Sound of Lies,” he stepped out as the group’s leader, but still sounded like he was holding back. On “Smile,” he seems more confident and moves from a gentle croon to an all-out wail, usually in the same song.

His finest hour might be “Baby, Baby, Baby.” He sings the mini-epic like his back’s against the wall, while crunching guitars and feedback collide.

In many ways, the record sounds like the Jayhawks’ most emotional record, or at least the most emotionally convincing. And although it sounds thoroughly well-rehearsed, there’s a sense that anything goes on “Smile.”

Listening to the effort that the band put into this record and to the interviews that other band members have given to promote “Smile,” you can detect an air of desperation, or at least tentativeness in respect to the Jayhawks’ future. There’s a sense that money-hungry major labels may not be willing to shell out dough for more Jayhawks albums that will connect only with musical connoisseurs.

Pearlman all but admits it.

“We’ve been together for 15 years,” Perlman said. “I don’t know how many opportunities we’re going to get afforded to make records for mass distribution.”

The future aside, Perlman said that Columbia Records is pleased with the album (the group had been signed to American Records, but the label was absorbed by Sony, Columbia’s parent company).

“Our relationship with Columbia is great,” he said. “They wanted us to give them a record that they could work with, and we did.”

With a tour of the U.S. in progress, Perlman said the band will make a brief jaunt to Europe this summer and then decide what to do from there.

Despite the prospects of an uncertain future and a past of secret triumphs, Perlman said the group is determined to keep trying to make it over that hill.

“We’ve had a lot of tough stuff happen to us over the years and sometimes, the good stuff happens,” he said. “We’re pretty thankful.”

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2000 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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