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The Jayhawks Are Still Circling

The perpetually touring roots rockers want a big break--hey, they're even willing to do ads. But there's a line they won't cross.

February 04, 2001|STEVE HOCHMAN | Steve Hochman is a regular contributor to Calendar

Gary Louris is wrestling with temptation. Weary from a brief but hectic tour with his band, the Jayhawks, as he sits in a dressing room at the House of Blues in West Hollywood, he's eager to get home to Minneapolis to see his wife and 20-month-old son.

At 45 and having spent much of the past 15 years on the road with the group, the singer-guitarist is having that feeling more and more. And that eats at him--after all, the Jayhawks' livelihood is on the road.

"At our level, to make a decent living you need to be on the road a lot," he says, his tall, tired frame sinking into a sofa. "That's difficult for me. I have a baby now."

So Louris' mind has turned to potential new avenues of exposure for and revenue from the band's music--including Madison Avenue.

"I saw that thing Moby did where every song on his last album was licensed for commercials or movies," he says.

"Our song 'Blue' is perfect for the new American Express Card. Or 'Take Me With You (When You Go)'--perfect!"

But, he adds wistfully, "These things would be great. But they don't happen."

Since emerging on the national scene in the early '90s, the Jayhawks have been enshrined along with the now-defunct Uncle Tupelo as a prime mover of the Americana rock revival and rightful heir to the legacy of the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and the Flying Burrito Brothers. Jayhawks songs shimmer with alternately chiming and smoldering guitars, and the lyrics brim with equal measures of joy and yearning.

Record sales, though, have remained low and radio airplay nearly nil; last year's "Smile," the band's fourth major-label album, has sold just 83,000 copies. Its best-seller, 1995's "Tomorrow the Green Grass," topped off at 237,000.

The band also weathered the departure five years ago of co-leader Mark Olson (who formed the earthy Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers with his wife, Victoria Williams) and several other personnel changes (keyboardist Jen Gunderman replaced Karen Grotberg after the recording of "Smile"). And there was a period of label limbo as their home, American Recordings, lost its distribution shortly after the release of 1997's "Sound of Lies," before striking a new deal with Columbia Records.

Don't get the wrong idea. Louris isn't complaining about his lot. Just ask him his definition of success.

"It's changed along the way," he says. "At first it was just getting a CD out or getting a label. But for me [success now] is that everywhere we go there are a thousand people who come out to see us. There seems to me more each time, and many of them are fairly rabid fans. That's successful. And to make records that are lasting and important."

That's good enough for American Recordings head Rick Rubin.

"They sell enough to justify them getting to keep making records," Rubin says. "I'd love for them to sell more, of course. But for me it always starts with the songs, and Gary has written 10 or 15 great songs. Even some of your favorite acts, there aren't a lot who have that many truly great songs. And Gary is capable of writing songs that will connect with a big audience."

*

That, to some extent, was the goal with "Smile," for which the band teamed with producer Bob Ezrin. On the surface, he was an unlikely collaborator, best known for such rock landmarks as Alice Cooper's "School's Out," Lou Reed's "Berlin" and Pink Floyd's "The Wall."

But mostly, Louris says, the choice of Ezrin was a matter of expanding the band's artistic range, not a commercial-minded move.

The group had already been moving away from its more rustic side since Olson's exit. With Louris in charge, the soaring melodies and hook-filled pop structures of the '60s folk-rock influences came to the fore in "Sound of Lies," produced by Brian Paulson with the band. With Ezrin, the sonic shift was even more dramatic, utilizing meticulous and complex arrangements, orchestral touches and even electronic drum loops. Ezrin also participated in the songwriting, getting co-credit on three tracks.

"Bob gets involved," Louris says. "There's no halfway with him, which is why we hired him in the first place. With 'Smile,' we didn't want to do the same album we've done before."

That seemed to be fine with the fans at the House of Blues show, who cheered the new material as heartily as they did the old favorites.

"The great thing is, they've evolved through the years," says Angela Tseng, 22, a researcher in developmental psychobiology who has been a devoted fan since she was 14. "I actually like the last two albums best. It has to do with me changing as a person."

But it hasn't paid off in sales, and Louris finds himself at something of a crossroads as he contemplates the next move. He and Rubin are just starting to talk about plans for a new album, which Louris says may be more stripped down to the music's roots.

One thing that's certain, he says, is that the band will continue soldiering on, and he believes the lineup (which includes founding bassist Marc Perlman, drummer Tim O'Reagan and guitarist Kraig Johnson) has stabilized.

And although he is more than willing to sell songs to advertisers, there are clear lines that he won't cross. A few years ago, he turned down an offer from Levi's to adapt one of his songs for an ad utilizing the brand name 501. And at this stage he flatly refuses to put the band on the corporate show circuit, playing private parties for company conventions--a phenomenon that in recent years has become a lucrative "secret" side career for many rock acts.

If that means that the Jayhawks' career stays more or less as is, that's fine.

"Financial success would be nice," Louris says. "But that's not No. 1 for me."

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