Remain Happy Ever After: A Conversation with the Jayhawks' Mark Olson

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

Reunited with the Jayhawks after 16 years, Mark Olson couldn't be happier. On the eve of their first tour together since his departure, Olson chats with PopMatters about influences, quitting the band, and the mystery that is life unfolding.

The Jayhawks

Hollywood Town Hall

Label: American/Legacy
US Release Date: 2011-01-18
UK Release Date: 2011-01-17
Artist website

The Jayhawks

Tomorrow the Green Grass

Label: American/Legacy
US Release Date: 2011-01-18
UK Release Date: 2011-01-17
Your words hung high in the rafters

And settled down like rain

Remain happy ever after

Happy ever after

-- "Settled Down Like Rain", Hollywood Town Hall (1992)

Shortly after the tour behind the Jayhawks’ 1995 album Tomorrow the Green Grass, co-leader Mark Olson quit the band. He had had enough. Enough of the touring, the studio hassles, the pressure from executives. But, mostly, he had had enough of the disappointment that comes when you craft a heartfelt piece of work which stubbornly refuses to find commercial success. Four excellent records into a decade-plus-long career, and Olson felt like he just couldn’t keep this train moving any longer. As he recalls today, “it wasn’t a joyous ride, man.”

Olson’s band would continue on, helmed by his longtime co-conspirator Gary Louris, a gifted pop singer-songwriter and melodious lead guitarist. Under his direction, they would craft two very good, and one great, Jayhawks records before disbanding in the mid-2000s having never achieved the success that most of their listeners believed was owed them. But, even during this frequently rewarding period, most of those same listeners harbored lingering the belief that the band had been irretrievably diminished by the departure of Mark Olson. His humble vocals, cryptic lyrics, and Gram Parsons-conjuring acid-country feel had slipped away with him down to his new home in Joshua Tree, California (literally across the highway from the motel where Parsons took his final hit).

I went down there to meet him and his then-wife Victoria Williams back in 2000, and was struck by the simplicity of his life in the desert. They had a few animals, donkeys and chickens, and a wide and dusty view of endless hilly sand. They also had a home studio, and they recorded spare, ramshackle records right in their living room (most of which would be released under the moniker Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers, to scant public notice, despite the fact that they are simply wonderful folk records). I recall his telling me that they taped some vocals in the bathroom. Special effects, man.

By the mid-2000s, following the demise of the latter-day Jayhawks, Louris and Olson began to collaborate again. Olson’s marriage was breaking up, and Louris was looking to try his songs in new settings. (He would also record a beautiful if slightly uneven solo album, Vagabonds, in 2008.) They began to run through the old numbers, try their hand at writing new material as a duo, and even dust off some old tracks that they had been considering for the post-Green Grass album that never was. The result was the simple, folky, and highly welcome 2008 Ready for the Flood, recorded mostly as an acoustic duo, and sounding for all the world like a raft of great but forgotten demos circa 1995.

In reality, just such an animal actually existed: the so-called Mystery Demos, culled from two early '90s sessions, had been floating around the internet since the early 2000s. Now that Gary and Mark were back together, playing, writing, and sounding as good as ever, it seemed time to take a look at that stuff, and think about making it available to the general public. Thanks to the folks at Sony, that’s just what we got this past week, as both Hollywood Town Hall, the Jayhawks 1992 masterpiece (among the very best records of the decade says this reviewer), and its tremendous 1995 follow-up Tomorrow The Green Grass have been reissued with all the b-sides included. On top of this, the latter release comes with a second disc comprised of about 40% of the so-called Mystery Demos. It’s a treasure trove for fans and neophytes alike. But, good as this was, nothing made fans more happy than when they heard that the Jayhawks were getting back together in the same classic lineup that toured Tomorrow the Green Grass: Louris, Olson, Marc Perlman, Karen Grotberg, and Tim O’Reagan. A new album is on the way. The Jayhawks are back.

As the reconstructed band prepared to open a short tour in support of the new material, I caught up with Olson at his hotel in mid-town Toronto. A warm, generous, and thoughtful guy, Olson was plainly brimming with excitement on the eve of his first bona fide tour with the old band in 15 years.

You know, this neighbourhood you’re staying in is called Yorkville. It was the Haight-Ashbury of Canada in the '60s, the centre of the folk music scene and hangout for the hip kids. Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Bruce Cockburn…

Then they must’ve torn it all down! I played in a club just last year in Boston where Joan Baez got her start. I forget the name of it but it’s still there. It’s been in Cambridge all these years. It’s just this little tiny place, but that’s where it all started, those little cafes.

What about you, that how you guys got started, as folkies?

I mean definitely, all the songs were written with acoustic guitars. And Gary [Louris] and I would work on the songs with two acoustic guitars. So we could sing them that way and they sounded nice -- that’s why we ended up putting out the “Mark and Gary record” later on [Ready for the Flood (2008)]: because we enjoyed writing songs that way, and we wanted people to hear how they sounded when we first wrote them. That was part of it. And taking it to the band completely changed them, but they still had those roots.

We definitely sat and listened to so many groups. The Band. Joni Mitchell. Neil Young. And we wanted to try to write songs that were as good as theirs. But, I mean, come on. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”? Very difficult to write a song that good. But we tried. And, now we’re down the road a bit and people still want to hear these songs. They’ve lasted, at least a little bit.

Why, if your songs were that good, didn’t you guys ever break?

I don’t know. There was a lot of violence in the music [at the time, the early 1990s]. It’s the only way I can put it. If you were to put on a lot of records from when we were around, and that were really popular, like when Lollapalooza and all these things were going on, there was a certain amount of violence, glorification of drugs, and self destruction underlying these things, and our songs weren’t anything about that. So, you put us up against groups that are drawing thousands and thousands of people, and here come the Jayhawks, and it’s like: it didn’t really work with those people. That was an overarching youth movement at the time.

Sounds pretty bleak.

I’ll put it to you that, ah, it wasn’t so much fun, really. It wasn’t a joyous ride, man! [Here, Olson laughs. Hard.]

Well, I mean, you did quit after all.

That had to do with: I’d been in the band for quite a while. I’d just got married. I found a house down in Joshua Tree. And, I wanted to try something else with my life. I felt like we’d given it 100% on those two records, and we’d landed where we’d landed. And those guys wanted to go on, and I wanted to stop. And they went on.

You’d been together by then, what, ten years?

It was over ten years. Playing in Minneapolis in the bars. For years and years and years. Drove around in a van to a couple of different cities, New York, Chicago. With no success whatsoever. So we had done that. I had been, from day one, in it 110%. But I just reached a point… you know, that happens to people.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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