Regular readers of God Is In The TV will be aware of how blown away I was by The Jayhawks‘ eleventh studio album. I sent them a handful of questions about it, and here, the main men, Gary Louris and Marc Perlman, have given me a fascinating insight into the way it works, and what makes them tick.
I never thought I’d be saying this, given that you’re the band who recorded the legendary Hollywood Town Hall, but I think you’ve somehow BETTERED it with XOXO, and hence I believe it’s your best album yet. Given that you had a kind of ‘free for all’ approach to the songwriting this time around, how did you go about making sure the record was cohesive?
GARY LOURIS: At the end of the day it was still the same people interacting and creating with each other. The difference from our past records was a shift of focus from song to song depending on who was the primary writer. Whoever was the initiator of the song really became the producer of that particular track. I was the executive producer which means I was the task master and kept things on schedule and organized the daily tasks to make sure we got it done. I was fairly concerned that the record would not hold together as an entire piece of work with so many different moving parts. I only felt like it all worked once the mixes were done and the sequence was in place.
There are all sorts of musical references I can hear on XOXO, from The Beach Boys to Steely Dan, from Queen to Joni Mitchell by way of The Band and Elvis Costello, as well as various others. It all makes for a fascinating listen. What was the main goal you were aiming to ultimately arrive at?
MARC PERLMAN: Gary’s primary goal was to include the band more in the songwriting. That’s going to make for a more disparate album. We never intend to write a “Dylan” or “Beatles” song”. But we do identify with how certain artists from a certain era approach(ed) writing and recording. To us that’s what the artists you mentioned have in common, rather than what musical genre they’re associated with.
Like The Beach Boys we work a lot on harmonies. Of course we love The Band – who doesn’t? Like them we have three distinct vocalists and we understand how they paid attention to which voice works best on or in a specific song. Not while writing it, but in arranging ‘Illuminate‘ we had The Moody Blues’ ‘Question‘ in the back of our minds. You might hear a bit of Christine McVie in Karen’s singing and piano, or Joni Mitchell and Karen Dalton in how she plays around slightly with time in a verse line or transition. Yet it’s perfectly clear Karen’s songs are hers and hers alone.
The artwork of XOXO is stunningly gorgeous. It’s my favourite sleeve I’ve seen in years. What’s the story behind that?
MARC: Gary is friends with the artist Duncan Hannah, and suggested something by him. I was somewhat familiar with him from his being a part of the CBGB scene and also his Minnesota background and me being a “homer” and all. We perused his catalogue and connected to his painting “The British Invasion”. We asked permission and he graciously agreed. It was a thrill to meet him last time we played New York.
For all XOXO‘s shimmering beauty, there’s an awful lot of frustration hidden behind the lyrics of songs like ‘This Forgotten Town‘ and ‘Living In A Bubble‘. The world’s a dark, scary place right now. What do you think has to happen in order to change that? How do we turn it around? And how positive are you about the future?
GARY: I don’t think anyone can feel particularly sunny about the future right now unless they are eternal optimists. The Jayhawks have never been a “glass half full” sort of band.
However I hope that the unrest that has finally erupted here in Minneapolis and across the country will bring to light the incredible disparity between rich and poor and will finally start the process of real change. The youth of today are less jaded, and they will be the ones to lead us forward. Obviously the leadership in the USA has many of us disgusted and perhaps when we oust the current administration i can start to feel more optimistic.
What are your plans for the rest of 2020, either music related or otherwise?
Wait out the storm, try to be as Zen-like as possible. Like everyone in our situation we’re figuring how to promote a record and survive financially. No easy answers.
The Jayhawks’ superb new album XOXO is out now on Thirty Tigers.