Sound of Smile
The sounds creep in slowly. On track three, it’s a weird percussive effect in an otherwise straightforward Jayhawks song, “What Led Me to this Town.” Track four: a drum machine kicks off “Somewhere in Ohio.” Track six: “Queen of the World” is full-blown electro-pop that sounds like an MTV hit from 1983. By the time you hear the techno beat on track 11, “(In My) Wildest Dreams,” it’s abundantly clear this Minneapolis band long associated with the alt-country world is branching out a bit on their sixth album, Smile (out May 9th).
“We’ve had an interest for quite awhile to have some songs that make people move a little bit,” says Jayhawks singer-guitarist and principal songwriter Gary Louris. “We still have a lot of slow, mid-tempo songs that are based on acoustic guitar. But it’s fun to add some other textures and other sounds. It isn’t the focus of the songs… And we’re not trying to hop on any bandwagon, because I know a lot of what we’re doing is not brand new, as far as some of that technology. But we felt like they made the songs better and we felt like there were no rules.”
To accomplish the new sound, the band enlisted the legendary Bob Ezrin to produce the record. Ezrin has turned the knobs for Kiss and Pink Floyd, among others. Those aren’t necessarily bands that come immediately to mind when one thinks about the Jayhawks’ old easy-going, country-influenced style. Louris says Ezrin wasn’t their first choice, but he was a fan of the producer. The first record he ever bought was the Ezrin-produced 1971 Alice Cooper album, Killer . “I didn’t know he was still working,” Louris says. “We had tried chasing the flavors of the month, the newer, hipper producers, and they just kinda kept us on the line but never committed to anything specific.”
So the band started recording the record themselves after building their own 24-track demo studio. But they soon realized an arbitrator was needed to bring together the ideas of Louris, bassist Marc Perlman, and drummer Tim O’Reagan (the band also includes guitarist Kraig Johnson and new keyboard player Jen Gunderman, who will replace Karen Grotberg on their upcoming tour). Their new label, Columbia Records, sent them a list of producers that included Ezrin’s name.
“Although people may think of the Jayhawks as a certain way, the band has a much deeper musical past and knowledge than maybe people realize,” Louris says. “That Americana faction of our sound was something that was probably the last kind of music that I got into.”
Louris says it wasn’t until the early 80’s that he started listening to folk, country, soul and blues. “Up until that time I was a total British rocker. I was big into art rock and English punk rock and pop music. So when the Jayhawks started up [in 1985], it was kind of around the time we were just discovering American music… I think now that has kind of seeped into the fabric, so to speak, and we’re kind of starting to sound more like what we really listen to.”
Louris says Ezrin not only helped the band incorporate those other influences into the sound of Smile , but pushed him to work harder as a songwriter as well.
Some of those other influences actually started to seep into the Jayhawks’ songs on their last record, 1997’s psychedelic folk-pop gem Sound Of Lies . For some fans of the country side of the alt-country genre, it was an ominous harbinger of things to come, foreshadowing the excursions into new musical frontiers of bands like Wilco on their 1999 Brian Wilson-inspired Summerteeth . Louris says the country influences may have receded into the background a bit on Smile , but they’re still a part of who the Jayhawks are. Several tracks, notably the beautifully harmonized, mid-tempo “Better Days,” even revisit the Jayhawks sound of old. “We’re not turning our back on everything we did or on our audience… There’s still a lot of that on our record, and if you dig through the songs, almost all of them have some of that influence in there. Sometimes they have different treatments. All I can say is we’ve been together for fifteen years and we can’t keep making the same record. I’m gonna get bored, they’re gonna get bored and it’s gonna take away from the beauty of what we did in the past by trying to repeat it.”
That past included singer-guitarist Mark Olson, who left the band in late 1995 to spend more time with his wife, singer-songwriter Victoria Williams. The couple now record together as the Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers. It was the earth and sky harmonies of Olson and Louris that defined the Jayhawks sound on classic records like 1992’s Hollywood Town Hall and 1995’s Tomorrow the Green Grass . “I…don’t think we should pretend like Mark Olson didn’t leave. He was a lot of what was responsible for some of that sound. And if [fans] don’t like what we’re doing, then they should probably maybe just buy his records, which are good. And people should buy his records anyway… But the past is the past.”
The first single from the new album is “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me.” It sounds like an effortlessly catchy attempt at the ultimate Jayhawks Americana hit single, complete with mandolin, jangly guitars, tambourine, and a great sing-along chorus. But Louris says the song went through a much more arduous process than may be apparent on first listen. “I wrote that song when my ex-girlfriend walked out the door… I had a different chorus that was a little more subtle, a little more of an artist’s song that you wouldn’t even know is a chorus maybe but it was cool.”
Ezrin and the label thought the song needed a bigger chorus to put it over the top. “And that became the thorn in my side, y’know, because I had written a song I liked and it seemed like that’s what it was. This was the beginning of a long process where I wrote with a lot of different people… And I saw a lot of people I respected write many different ways on the same song.”
Finally, a suggestion from songwriter Taylor Rhodes helped Louris find the hook he needed. “So that was definitely a lot of hard work on that song. Now I love it, but for awhile I just wanted to be left alone. I didn’t want to ever hear that song again.”
As on the Sound Of Lies track “Bottomless Cup,” drummer Tim O’Reagan takes over the lead vocals on Smile ‘s Dylan-esque “Pretty Thing.” O’Reagan and Perlman were also collaborators with Louris on the new record on tracks like the Beatlesque acoustic ballad “Mr. Wilson” and “Queen of the World.” Louris is happy to have the input of his bandmates in the vision of the Jayhawks sound but it’s not exactly a democracy. “It’s still a situation where I have to make the decisions–whether I think the song is something I want on the record. I still like to control as much as I can because I was coming out of a situation [in the Mark Olson days] where you fight for as much room as you can on a record. So I don’t want it to be evenly split and everything voted equally. I think it becomes a committee and then it loses direction. I just don’t think that’s the way to run a band, unless maybe you’re REM.”
So Louris is clearly in charge as the band’s frontman, a role he found it initially hard to adjust to following Olson’s departure. He says he’s feeling more comfortable these days. “I’m still never gonna be Iggy Pop up there on the front of the stage cutting myself. But then, I look at a lot of people I respect in music, and they’re not jumping up and down either. I have to be who I am, and I have to be less self-absorbed and vain and not worry about what everybody’s thinking of me and just play the music and feel it… And it’s not all about me. It’s about the band and how we sound and what the songs mean and I think there are few bands that can do it as well as we can.”
And Louris while moving forward seems to have come to terms with the past as well. He looks back fondly on his days of sharing the stage with Olson. “Well, I think in retrospect as time has gone on, sometimes I miss being the high harmony vocal, fuzz guitar guy in the country-rock band. There was a lot of fun to that also. And sometimes I miss that. But I also really love what I’m doing now too… I think I’ve mellowed now over a period of time and come to really appreciate what we used to be without feeling embarrassed about what we are now.”