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The Jayhawks soar again

By Brian Baker, November 2011

Each step of The Jayhawks' resurrection has been a little more unexpected and incrementally better than the last, culminating in perhaps the most unlikely and joyously welcomed result of all - "Mockingbird Time," the first new Jayhawks album in 16 years to feature the band's co-front men Gary Louris and Mark Olson.

After a five-year period when everyone associated with the group was busy with band projects, solo recordings, tours and production assignments, the past few years have been a relative beehive of Jayhawks activity.

It all began almost informally in 2005, the year after the band went on "hiatus," when Louris and Olson announced that they'd be touring a show called "From the Jayhawks: An Evening with Mark Olson and Gary Louris, Together Again."

Two years later, the early line-up of Olson, Louris, keyboardist Karen Grotberg, bassist Marc Perlman and drummer Tim O'Reagan (who had joined shortly after Olson's departure) reunited to play the Azkena Rock Festival in Spain, and in 2009, Olson and Louris released the acoustic album "Ready for the Flood."

"By touring with the acoustic guitars, we really focused in on the vocal harmonies and timing," says Olson. "We'd always done so before, but we really honed in on it at that time, and did some really good singing together. It was great prep work for the new album. Music is a process of growth, as you know, so we were taking out the talk and just singing and playing, always the best way of working out ideas."

The Jayhawks sing

The Jayhawks were suddenly thrust back into the spotlight with the 2009 release of the anthology album "Music from the North Country," the 2010 Lost Highway reissue of the band's 1986 eponymous debut (dubbed "The Bunkhouse Tapes," for the label that had released it) and the 2011 Legacy expanded reissues of "Hollywood Town Hall" and "Tomorrow the Green Grass."

"(The Azkena Festival) and all the reissues of our older albums that came out in the last year or so have been real instrumental in the idea of introducing the band to a new audience," says Olson. "The idea now is to try a new approach now that the times have changed and to see how lasting the songs can be, both the new ones and the older ones."

A year and a half ago, Louris and Olson made the decision to collaborate on what Louris described in a press release earlier this year as "the best Jayhawks album that's ever been done." Working in a variety of locations in a relatively compressed period of time, the pair accomplished their lofty goal.

"We got together for four different stints, at my house in Joshua Tree, his house in Minneapolis and my sister's house in northern Minnesota," says Olson. "So, the writing process was pretty normal for us, and like our previous albums, it all came together fairly quickly. Gary and I had decided to write a Jayhawks album, and that's what we did, working through ideas and various parts to each song. We even had a good laugh at one point pretending we were songwriting on a radio talk show in which we were asking the audience to dial in with suggestions. Now, this could potentially work in theory, but may lead to problems down the road."

After such an incredibly long gap between writing sessions, it seems natural to assume that the pair might have required a period of readjustment to accommodate each other's evolution since their last collaboration. No such adjustment was even remotely necessary.

"The chemistry is the same between Mark and myself," notes Louris. "We still work the same way or should I say ways. There are many different ways to write a song, but one constant is we like to work fast before the conscious mind catches up with us, and we like to enjoy the process. We finish what we started and then move to the next song, rarely revising. What is different is the passing of years, which has resulted in the accumulation of new experiences and influences which find their way into the songs."

Obviously, the physical process of making "Mockingbird Time" was very different than when Louris and Olson worked on "Tomorrow the Green Grass." Louris had become a skilled producer, and Olson had never worked with O'Reagan. In the end, the band's new synergies combined to create a stunning work that most critics and fans agree is a return to the Jayhawks' finest form.

"This time we were more in control," says Louris. "I was acting producer, and we could dictate our own pace and method. Schedules formed the process a bit more this time around as Mark was in the middle of touring his solo record, 'Many Colored Kite.' He had about 12 days. So, we focused on getting the drum tracks, the acoustic guitars and then tackled all the keeper vocals. We were not a working band with a rehearsal space and PA, so we used the studio as our rehearsal space, developing the songs as we recorded them. It was great for Mark to get a chance to record with Tim, who is just such a great drummer."

Even though Louris and Olson quickly fell back into their patented songwriting brilliance, The Jayhawks as a whole have had to adjust to working together as a band again and doing so in a completely different musical environment than the one that existed when the band first started in the late '80s.

"Everyone has been out doing their own thing, and we have learned the value of being part of something," Louris says. "Sometimes that means giving up a bit, but in the end you gain a ton. But the biggest difference is outside the band. The climate of the music industry is what we need to adapt to - social media, loss of intellectual property rights, etc. But we are more hands on then we have ever been."

As The Jayhawks hit the road to play the brand new songs from "Mockingbird Time" - from the baroque roots rock sweep of Hide Your Colors to the Americana melancholy of Tiny Arrows to the soaring jangle of the first single She Walks in So Many Ways - as well as the classics from their diverse and beloved catalog, the band is applying old wisdom to their new material and finding new methods to translate their old songs. Well, not too new.

"You are talking to a pretty structured person," says Louris. "If I like a song, I don't change it out of boredom. I would rather write a new song. But that is just me. I know the old songs make people happy, and they have aged well so I still enjoy playing them. Our sets are still a work in progress. We are integrating more new songs and trying to find places for songs from Sound Of Lies, Smile, Rainy Day Music, Ready For The Flood and various Mark Olson songs. We hope to be able to have a more varied set as this band becomes a real touring entity again."

Photo by Marina Chavez