Interview: The Jayhawks discuss a true joint effort making their new album ‘XOXO’

‘XOXO’ marks the latest instalment in the musical journey of The Jayhawks, a trip that has lasted over thirty-five years and numerous highlights. For the first time in the band’s long history ‘XOXO’ really is a collaborative album from a group who in the past have been celebrated and cherished for the songwriting prowess of head-honcho Gary Louris.  Given, that among a treasure trove of delights,  ‘XOXO‘ is arguably their finest album of recent years it has proven to be a sharp move.  All talk of change may unsettle longtime fans – who are an incredibly loyal bunch – but they needn’t be apprehensive as ‘XOXO’ is unmistakably The Jayhawks but, with Perlman, O’Reagan and Grotberg let loose and given their heads it gives a wonderful insight into what a  multi-faceted and dynamic band they really are. Americana UK speaks to the band and asks how opening up the songwriting duties has affected how they work and wha they feel t it brought to the record sonically and creatively.

 The obvious starting point is how have you been coping with the lockdown these past few months? It must be very difficult – and frustrating no doubt – knowing you have an album ready and about to drop?
[Marc Perlman] Having more platforms helps. It’s frustrating that we can’t do what we do – perform to a live audience. We’re all in that same boat so that frustration is pointless.  It’s not the first time we released an album at the worst possible time for us. ‘Sound Of Lies’ we had record company issues out of our control. That was just business. This time it’s suddenly a global pandemic. Couple that with the upheaval of rewriting the social contract (tragically set in motion a mile from my house). Add to that the real and present danger to civilized society posed by our own President. It was more important we don’t wait to put out this record.

How will you be promoting this record given a lot of the normal channels may be unavailable at present? Such a situation calls for some innovative planning and ideas I guess?
[Tim O’Reagan] We’re going to be doing all the expected things –interviews, some streaming stuff, social media, etc.  Also, we’re exploring a virtual concert idea where we video some full shows (no audience) and target them for different regions.  It’s not clear to me yet how it would work logistically but until we can safely get out to play real shows it’s a good alternative.

Gary, how easy was it for you to relinquish the main songwriting duties and open the doors to the other guys so fully as you have on ‘XOXO’?  Was that something that has been discussed in the past or just seemed like the right idea for this record? 
[Gary Louris] Easier than I would have expected.   The format was driven by multiple factors and timing.   I had just completed a solo record and had not been writing specifically for the Jayhawks as I typically would.  At the time I was living in North Carolina and being away from the band gave me less opportunity to try new material out with them in advance. But most importantly I had for some time been unhappy with the disbursement of lead vocal duties in the course of a typical concert and instead of writing songs for other band members or doing covers I thought this was the time they had a chance to showcase what they could write.

You say the album feels “like a new lease of life for us.”  can you elaborate on that a little? Now the record is done and ready for the world, does it feel like this is the start of a new chapter, maybe, for the band?
[Gary] That makes it sound like we were on life support which we were not.  We have been on an upswing I feel ever since the Proust record. I will say that the process of sharing the songwriting brought us closer together as people and it was rewarding to watch the other members grow into their roles.  The primary songwriter took the helm on their song from recording through mixing which kept the interest level up but also made for a more complicated record.

I joke that I have now painted myself in a corner but in the end I always say may the best song win out.  I am not saying this is the blueprint for all future Jayhawks records but if the other members continue to write great songs it very well may be.

“Everything we do just naturally comes out sounding like a Jayhawks song”. That’s so true, you guys certainly have your own distinct sound. What do you think epitomises the ‘Jayhawks sound’ and does that really just come naturally during the songwriting and recording process? Or are there staple ingredients every time?
[Gary] Starts with songwriting, then the voices, the two and three part harmonies, then maybe the musical interplay. We make musical decisions based on what we do best and what best serves the song.

[Marc]  The originals, Mark O., Gary, Norm, myself, came from very different musical backgrounds (I never touched a bass before the Jayhawks). Maybe that lack of preconception is why it worked. With Tim and Karen we’ve been together 25 years. We share a common era and sensibility. We rarely have to tell each other what we’re looking for. We work hard, especially in the recording process, but conversely it’s not a struggle because our intuition complements each other.

The idea of all you guys holed up at some idyllic secluded studios sounds like the way every band should make a record! There is a real sense of the romantic view of songwriters giving themselves fully over to the art in that. I’m guessing it wasn’t quite like that?
Down at Pachyderm Studio we did live together for 11 days. Not exactly the romantic notion of a months-long creative collaboration, but it was a first for us; and it felt like a shift in the dynamic of our relationship as a band. We walked a short distance to the studio every day, hung out and supported each other; in the late evening we listened to music, cooked and ate our meals together, and laughed around the table.  I think a good portion of that bonding experience has remained with us.

“Gary’s pathologically prolific. Plenty of material had merit. In a perfect world we’d have the time and money to record it all.”

Ok, tell me more about ‘XOXO’.  Apart from opening up the songwriting and performance aspects was there ever a concept in mind for the album? Or did the songs just fall together and be included on the merit of the songs themselves? It just feels like a record that, given the many different inputting ideas, just sounds so well-rounded and, well, right.
[Marc] The idea was to spread around the songwriting and lead vocals. Not just song to song but within certain songs. Songs came in various degrees of completion. Some finished, some frameworks, some incepted during our “writing sessions”.  Gary’s pathologically prolific. Plenty of material had merit. In a perfect world we’d have the time and money to record it all. We chose the ones that felt right to all of us. We’re not the types who are going to push our song on the others anyways. Our only “concern” was making a cohesive album. But like I said pretty much anything we record ends up sounding like the Jayhawks.

Given the current political, social and environmental issues facing the world at the moment there is no shortage of subject matter for a songwriter these days? ‘Homecoming’ being an obvious example. Alongside the age old ‘Ways of the Heart’ it feels like a very fertile time for the songwriting mind. Do you sense that?
[Gary] I’ve never been one to write about current events.  Songs can become dated quickly.  However the deep-seeded problems with race relations in this country along with climate change are not events that are ever going to seem dated unfortunately. Writers always absorb their environments and it may come out in a song directly or indirectly. ‘Homecoming’ certainly wrote itself that way.

I truly love ‘Society Pages’, which to my ears takes the band into somewhat of a new sonic landscape.
[Tim]  The effort behind this record was for everyone in the band to contribute songs and ‘Society Pages’ is a song I had hanging around for quite a while. We’d considered it for a previous record I think and even played it live once.  It’s driven by this grinding bass sound that came from running it through some early digital device I found at a used music store.  It’s kind of a cheesy sound on its own but gives the song a forward, chugging sensation.

‘Little Victories’ is a fab slab of arse shakin’ goodness! Tell me a little more about how they came about?
[Gary] Lyrically it is me posing a question to my late parents… I have some low levels of social anxiety and depression and I am asking them “Did you deal with these issues yourself? Did you deal with them in your own ways and hide it from me?  Which one of you did I inherit this from?” Kids tend to think of their parents as parents and not people and I was trying to empathise with them as people. Musically it is a bit snakier than most Jayhawks songs.

“Gone are the days of three or four months of big-budget recording.  We do a lot of preproduction at our rehearsal space, where we explore ideas, work out arrangements, etc., and this enables us to minimise our time in the studio.”

Like everything you guys have done there is a real sense with ‘XOXO’ that there is nothing here that doesn’t belong here – no wastage, no filler  – if you know what I mean. Jayhawks albums always sound so definitively finished with everything so obviously in its place. Are you a band that is constantly fiddling and tampering with stuff or once you hear it’s done, it’s done? Do you enjoy the recording process? (Saying that, the three bonus tracks are all killer! Maybe a triple album next time?)
[Karen Grotberg] Thanks for the compliment on the bonus tracks!  As to the recording process, yes I think we all enjoy our time in the studio. But gone are the days of three or four months of big-budget recording.  We do a lot of preproduction at our rehearsal space, where we explore ideas, work out arrangements, etc., and this enables us to minimise our time in the studio. It’s often the case that certain songs morph a bit in studio, or are “fiddled” with when new ideas arise, but we seem to arrive with a solid structure for each song. Additional instrumentation—-percussion, vocal overdubs and the like—-are areas where we may create on the fly. Sometimes it’s hard to let a song go, but we’re pretty adept nowadays at getting to the finish line with a sense of satisfaction.

The thought of the Jayhawks “moving into a new era” sounds like a beautiful thing! What do you hope it will bring?
[Karen] As for the “new era” post-‘XOXO’ I hope for continued collaboration and a chance to contribute more of my own songs to future albums.  I think we have much more to explore musically as a band and as individuals.

And finally, what are the plans for the rest of the year for you guys?
[Karen] Future plans, as one can imagine, are a bit uncertain right now. There is talk of finding ways to offer some virtual concerts—-stay tuned. We’re looking forward to the time when we can tour again and see our fans up close and personal!  In the meantime, there are always more songs waiting to be written.

(Photo Credit: Vivian Johnson)

‘XOXO’ is out now on Thirty Tigers

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Andrew Riggs

A fine record to add to their stellar back catalogue