Remain Happy Ever After

A Conversation with the Jayhawks' Mark Olson

by Stuart Henderson

26 January 2011

L to R: Marc Perlman, Karen Grotberg, Mark Olson, Gary Louris & Tim O’Reagan. Photo © Steven Cohen. 

What was it like watching your old bandmates making records without you?

What was it like watching your old bandmates, you old band, out there making records without you?
Well, I think it would be strange except for the fact that I had a really full life. I think that goes for everybody. If something happens in their life and they go off in a different direction… You can’t sit around thinking about the past and begrudging people that you were with all the success in the world. Unless you don’t pick up and move on. And I did pick up and move on. I had a really wonderful time! Playing music, I had a really musical life post-Jayhawks. We put records out ourselves, we toured all over the world, I had two wonderful musical partners. I mean, playing with Victoria Williams was a joy! There’s no other way to describe it. It was a joy-filled experience. So, for me to be like, during that time, to be upset… it’s bad form! [Laughs]. Anyone that saw me during that time saw that when I was playing with Victoria, I was enjoying myself. It wasn’t anything like the Jayhawks, but how could it be? It was something completely different. I didn’t have any desire to re-work a band in that form. I wanted to go with the people I was around and play music. I really discovered some different paths, you know?

We loved, we listened to the Holy Modal Rounders, and kinda patterned our name after them, actually—the Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers. We were into the outrageousness of that kind of thing. We had that element, that psychedelic folky… I mean, Victoria Williams with the wah wah banjo. Just a great range of music. I felt really fulfilled. I didn’t have any feelings of angst, or whatever.

So, what brought you and Gary back together?
That started a long time ago, actually. In 2001 Gary came out to my house (shortly after you did, actually). And we wrote a song together. You’d think it wouldn’t have taken so long, but we did that in 2001 and here we are in 2011. Basically we planned at that point to do some shows up ahead, which we did, and then we got together again and wrote some songs. Then we did the “Mark and Gary record” and toured all over with that. We were… for me it was really fun to just work the harmonies so up in front. When we played with the band sometimes that was really difficult to focus in on. But in the acoustic setting, man, it’s all about the harmonies in the singing.

It’s the putting out…  I think that we all wished that they’d put these [re-issues of Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow the Green Grass] out years ago. But, in the past few years we really pushed them to put them out, and of course we’re going to play when they come out.

So, for these shows, are you going to stick with the material from the two reissues?
There’s so much material coming out on these two albums that yeah, we are focusing on those two albums. And new material we’ve written, stuff from the b-side of those two albums, and then stuff from the very first Jayhawks record too [the recently re-released Bunkhouse record].

Let’s talk a bit about those “Mystery Demos”. They are the highlight of these reissues for so many of your listeners. What’s the “mystery”?
When we did Hollywood Town Hall we had a number of songs ready for that album. I think there may have been… There were two “Mystery Demos”, actually. And I think that both of them relate more to Tomorrow the Green Grass. I think with Hollywood Town Hall there was a certain level of like: if we’re going to bust out we’re going to have to just write more songs and better songs. So we did. We wrote a lot of songs. And we put them down in two different sessions. One was in California at Geroge [Drakoulias]’s apartment, literally sitting in front of one mic. No idea it was ever going to come out. Just to have the songs on tape. And the other one was in Minnesota with a violin player [Mike “Razz” Russell] who had never heard the songs before. We were just kind of thinking we’d record the songs and jam them, and he could come along, you know. And he ended up playing on the new album. He played with the Creek Dippers, too.

So we set about writing the songs. I had the idea in my mind that I wanted to be really cranking out records. Two records a year, or something like that you know? And I had this feeling that if we presented this much material, then maybe we could get on that kind of train. But that wasn’t ever going to happen in this day and age because they wanted things “timed”, and everything is just a really long process. So a lot of songs got lost in the shuffle.

But, over the years a couple people got ahold of them on some fan page and started talking about them, and Gary and I got back together… There’s more [tracks] than are even on the new Tomorrow the Green Grass reissue. There’s more. But, some of them are just basically pieces, not entire songs. You have to realize, we played a lot of years even before we went to Hollywood Town Hall and some of them predate that too. There were a number of years we didn’t make a record after [the Jayhawks’ 1989 album] Blue Earth, before Hollywood Town Hall. There was a lot of time, and there was a bit of a direction shift. We started listening to some different stuff like The Band, even a little bit to the Grateful Dead, and we had a number of songs in that vein that never, that didn’t go anywhere. We played them a couple times at live shows. That’s it.

When Gary and I got together to make the “Mark and Gary record”,  we set about writing songs. And at the same time, we knew that we had a lot of good old songs, so we started to re-rehearse some of those and a number of them ended up on that record. We would add little parts too, that was fun. There’s “Turn Your Pretty Name Around” and “My Gospel Song For You”, and [sings: la la la] another one. The last song on the record. [“Cotton Dress”.] And “Bloody Hands”. The “Mark and Gary record” must’ve had like 14 songs on it [15, actually], so there’s a lot of songs between new songs and reworked ones.

But there were still some orphans, even after that record?
When the time came to put these reissues out, I think we just wanted to show people these songs. There’s still a few left behind, though. […] Some ended up with [Louris’ side-project] Golden Smog, some on my records, but just a trickle.

I always thought that the Golden Smog number “Won’t Be Coming Home” would have fit perfectly on Tomorrow the Green Grass. Even better than some of the stuff that made the final cut.
I know. It’s funny that that stuff didn’t end up on one of our albums. It was a difficult thing, the song selection. And I didn’t really have anything to do with, it was more involved with George [Drakoulias] because he was the producer, and that’s the way it is. We just had a lot of songs, so.

For many people, I think the biggest revelation on these b-sides and “Mystery Demos” is the song “You and I (Ba Ba Ba)”. It’s like the Beach Boys meets Neil Young. Any chance you’ll play that on this tour?
It’s a funny thing because we brought it up. We were asked by the band what songs we wanted to work up, and we gave them a little list at the first day of rehearsal. And we didn’t include “Ba Ba Ba”. But, the second day we came in, and we had actually worked on it, Gary and I, just for fun, and we said OK, we’re going to be doing “Ba Ba Ba” now, and like their faces turned white! [Laughing.] I mean, it’s got about 17 chords! You know? It was a fun song to work on for us because we were just trying to find chords that worked with different harmony la las. Yeah that song is really good. But, we didn’t work it up. There’s a limit!

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