Mark Olson and Gary Louris live in harmony once again
When great bands dissolve, there is always a feverish anticipation for a great resurrection. And while the Jayhawks, grand pioneers of the alt-country sound that is oozing out of the pores of rock these days, aren’t hitting the pavement in full form, the original singing and songwriting duo at the core of the band is. We can give thanks for Mark Olson and Gary Louris’ latest blessed reunion that’s coming to town this Friday at The Crepe Place, to Ready for the Flood—the pair’s first studio recording in 13 years. Whereas the Jayhawks rattled and swung across stages since the band’s inception in 1985, Olson and Louris have gone back to the basics: soul-stirring acoustic folk. Two old friends, two unplugged guitars, and two vocals so familiar with the other that they flow together in lucid streams of perfect harmonies. Still living in the Joshua Tree desert, where the roots for the new album were born when he and Louris first sat down together to write the material they’ll perform this week, Mark Olson talks with GT about new beginnings.
GOOD TIMES: What is it like to look back at when the Jayhawks formed and see how much the alt-country scene has grown since?
MARK OLSON: When we started out playing, our idea of why we didn’t want to do punk was because we wanted to do something we could do over a long period of time. A lot of the music we were listening to was The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Byrds, and even The Kinks, and it was pleasant and they were talking about real life issues with their minds while being humorous and poetic. It was just a sound that seemed lasting to us and we tried to do that. As far as the alt-country scene, I think it’s the kind of music that you can sit down and start playing yourself, and the more you play the better you get. And I think that’s what attracts people to it.
Ready for the Flood sounds like it could be straight from the ‘60s or ‘70s.
MO: Yeah, 1969-1972 range. Without trying to be too retro, I think that’s where we get a lot of the inspiration as far as a cultural thing. And though the drug abuse with the hippy thing didn’t work out, at the same time, I don’t think the great Reagan years were in everyone’s best interest.
The album’s sound is organic, and so was your process of recording it live in the studio rather than overdubbing each part.
MO: Most people that casually listen to music now have been trained to accept the perfection that has arrived with the ProTools thing in which everything is perfected. If they hear something that isn’t perfect they think something’s wrong. So it’s a little bit of a struggle to go ahead and just do it, because if you sit and play live you’re going to have imperfections. People aren’t perfect like a machine but that’s sort of what the ear training has become now. The main thing with modern music that I don’t quite understand is the over emphasis on super loud drum kits. We didn’t wear headphones [in the studio], we just sat right next to each other with two microphones, played the guitars and sang the songs. It’s kind of like climbing a hill; you start off on a couple takes getting warmed up and usually around the fourth or fifth take you find one you keep.
You’re known for your harmonies with Gary Louris. What is it like to sing together again?
MO: It’s a strange thing, we don’t have to think about it because we’ve done it for awhile. For us, what’s interesting is when we find new things. Our voices are different, so when we sing in unison it tends to be this whole other thing, and then we break off from unison sometimes and now I go above him and he goes below me, which isn’t normal, and it just seems to have a spark that we’re both glad is there. And in this format, it’s there even more. With the band it was hard for us to hear each other singing, so we sang blind for a number of years. We were in a loud rock band and that’s not the most conducive thing to tight harmony singing. So when there isn’t all that sound happening we can really hear it and it’s a whole other thing. I think that’s why we wanted to do this.
You left the Jayhawks in 1995, got married, and have since been through a divorce and gone solo—personally and professionally. Now you’re reuniting with Louris. It almost seems like you’re “ready for the next flood” of experiences, the next cycle.
MO: Yeah, I think so … I think my general take on it is that there’s a certain point in people’s life when everything changes again. For me, and I notice this in other people, you build something up and then it’s like, oh boy, you’ve got to start over again. That’s just the way it is and it happens to pretty much everybody. Some people build from the time they’re 18 and they never have to rebuild again, and I salute them, but for most people it’s an up and down thing throughout life when you run into things and you have to start over. Definitely builds character, as they say.
Lastly, is there anything about the two of you that would surprise people to know?
MO: Gary likes to collect butterflies and I like to collect rocks. [Laughs] I’m way into it and my rock collection is part of the reason I still live in the desert. Easy access to rocks.
Mark Olson and Gary Louris perform at 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 10 at The Crepe Place, 1134 Soquel, Santa Cruz. Tickets are $16 in advance and $20 at the door. For more information, call 429-6994.
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