The Jayhawks' Mark Olson
Published Jan 24, 2011When people talk about alt-country, there are really only two bands that immediately come to mind: Uncle Tupelo and the Jayhawks, each coincidentally fronted by two prodigiously talented singer/songwriters. While today, the relationship between Uncle Tupelo's Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy seems to be the equivalent of the one between North and South Korea, the Jayhawks' Gary Louris and Mark Olson have never lost the essence of what initially brought them together, despite Olson leaving the band in 1995. Louris carried on under the Jayhawks banner for the next decade, as Olson worked closely with his then-wife, singer/songwriter Victoria Williams. But when Olson's marriage ended and Louris decided to put the band on hiatus around the same time, the Minneapolis natives found themselves naturally drawn to working together again. A tour as an acoustic duo led to their 2009 album Ready For The Flood. Then last year, a deal was struck to reissue what most consider are the two seminal Jayhawks albums, Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow The Green Grass in expanded editions. There was no better reason to reform the band as a full-time unit, as Olson explained on the eve of his first Jayhawks' tour in over 15 years.
You're kicking off this reunion tour in Toronto, which is certainly special for all of your fans there. Was that just how the scheduling worked out?
Yeah, I think that's the way it always works with this kind of touring, whatever slots in. But we're very happy to be here in Canada. There have always been a lot of very friendly people in Toronto that have always come out to see us. Gary and I were last here in the spring of 2009 and it was snowy, so it's good to see that nothing's changed!
So what was it that got you and Gary to take that extra step from working together again as a duo to getting the whole band back together?
I would say that it was the merch table [Laughs]. At different times, the band wound down for both of us. We actually started to play music together again in 2001, and then we did some things on our own before making [Ready For The Flood]. We toured all over North America, Europe and Australia for that record, just the two of us along with a djembe player from Norway. After the shows we would talk to people at the merch table and that's always a great experience. There would be people we've known for years, and some people who were new to the band. It was an hour out of each day that I really enjoyed. But the one question that everybody asked was, when is the band getting back together? The djembe player would always say, "I'm the band!" But the people obviously wanted to hear the Jayhawks, and that early '90s era of the band in particular. You know, people don't tend to follow music heavily for 20 years because they have jobs and other interests, or maybe their partner isn't into the same kind of music they are. So for a lot of people, it's these two albums that are being reissued that represent a significant period in their lives. It's been a long time since these records have been in stores, so I'm very happy that they're available again. But what it all came down to was that enough people asked us about playing as a band again that we realized that since we're healthy, we'd be crazy not to do it.
Did the label approach you guys about doing the reissues?
I believe Gary made the first phone call and then a fellow named John Jackson at Sony started overseeing the project. They did a really great job in terms of staying true to the spirit of the original releases, along with adding the bonus tracks and some great new photos. There's also a nice essay from our producer George Drakoulias. I think the entire approach is really appealing to both people who have never heard of the band, as well as people who have followed the band all these years.
I was especially impressed with hearing all of the previously unreleased tracks from the Green Grass period.
A lot of that stuff was just recorded in a day as part of our songwriting process. It's really neat because we're grabbing a couple of those songs now and playing them.
To put all of this in context, the Jayhawks were there at the start of what was called the alt-country insurgency. Now, 20 years later, what's your perspective on that?
When we started out, we met Uncle Tupelo, and a band from Chicago that was signed to Rough Trade called Souled American. We stayed at their houses when we went to Chicago and St. Louis, and they stayed with us when they came to Minneapolis. So we started to see that there were some like-minded people playing the same kind of music. We all listened to the same records, and I've always thought of alt-country and the people that perform it as being able to pick up an acoustic guitar and write a song and enjoy it. I'm always impressed by that. Like I said, I meet a lot of people at the merch table and a lot of them play music, and I know that all of this appeals to them on a real grass roots level. They can listen to these records and then pick up a guitar and go form a band. It isn't that complicated. You just have to follow the chain; you don't have to go to the record store and just listen to what's new, you can be sort of investigative about it and go back to the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield and follow it all the way back to the turn of the century if you want to.
There have been strong hints that a new Jayhawks album is in the works. Can you say anything about that?
Yeah, it's close to being done. I'm waiting to listen to final choices on mixes now, and I'm really excited. I think it's going to be really good. I feel that it's top-notch and that people will enjoy it. If things stay on track it should be out in the next to six months.
How did the writing go, after the experience of making Ready For The Flood?
This was similar, in that we both allowed each other to do things in our own way. Sometimes it starts with a musical part and we build the lyrics around it. Sometimes it's the other way around. Sometimes it's almost a complete song by one of us, and sometimes we'll start with hardly anything and work it up. It's just a matter of, when we do write, we're not doing other things, we're just writing. I think that's important for anyone to know, that when you sit down to write songs, you kind of have to clear out everything. A lot of times you'll run into a hurdle that you can't quite get over, so you just have to put it down for a day or two, or a week, or years in some cases, and then you can come back and find that part that finally expresses what you're trying to say. I'm not professing to be any kind of authority, because pretty much every musician has a different take on songwriting, and that's what makes it interesting.