Mark Olson & Gary Louris: Flood Ready

By: Dennis Cook

Louris & Olson
“The look on your face when you start to remember…”

You’d be hard pressed to find two better songwriters than Mark Olson and Gary Louris. As the central force in The Jayhawks for a decade (1985-1995), the pair created heartfelt, jangling, shimmering American rock ‘n’ roll that’s stood the test of time. There’s something of the Everly Brothers and Gram & Emmylou to their intermingling, a life-toughened intimacy that succors weary listeners and gives shuffle to dead leg days

The duo released Ready For The Flood on January 27 on New West Records, a set their fiercely devoted fan base has been waiting a long time to hear. Outside of some scrapped songs for a movie soundtrack in 2001, the duo hadn’t been in the studio together since Olson’s departure from The Jayhawks in 1995 to work with now-ex-wife Victoria Williams. After parting ways with Williams in 2005, Olson re-teamed with Louris for two short tours in late 2005 and early 2006 billed as “From the Jayhawks: An Evening with Mark Olson & Gary Louris, Together Again.” So, with more than a decade since their last album, the obvious question is “Why now?”

“It was a series of baby steps. Some director asked us to write an Olson/Louris song for this movie, and that was the impetus. It gave a nudge to both our camps that maybe it was time, that enough time had gone by that issues that once seemed like mountains were now molehills,” says Louris. “In both of our lives, we were just ready. From there, we went through our little therapy together, let some water under the bridge, and then decided to play some shows together. But we write songs together and I don’t want to just play old songs, so we decided to write some new songs and record them.”

New Album
“We ended up doing two tours. The first one we did with two other guys and the last one we did with just he and I in a rent-a-car. And we really enjoyed it! It was just so much fun. We’d get up onstage and sing with just the two of us, and we thought it was really cool but we didn’t want to do it again until we had a new record,” says Olson. “[During the recording sessions] we weren’t wearing headphones, and so when we played with a drummer or organ player or bassist, we had to listen out to each other. That’s where you hear your natural singing tone, guitar tone, etc. It’s completely different playing with headphones. You lose some of you dynamic range. You can play soft and loud without headphones and know you’re playing soft or loud. With the headphones you don’t really get that feeling. The engineer was really into Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline record, and they cut without headphones, too.”

“[Once we began writing together again] it was immediate for us. Mark was here for a week in Minneapolis, staying at a friend’s house, and we spent five days just writing songs. So, I went over everyday and I’d start strumming something and he’d pull out the notebook,” recalls Louris. “We really feed off each other, musically and lyrically, and we wrote about 14 songs in five days. And they were good! A few didn’t make it, replaced by older ones, but there were no baby steps involved there! What you need to have in a songwriting team is trust. And Mark and I trust each other. We look at each other and know, ‘That’s a good idea. I trust what you’re putting into my song and what I’m putting into your song.’ And it becomes our song.”

The creative combination of Louris and Olson often brings to mind, for me, the poem “A Third Body” by Robert Bly, which may posit a male-female relationship but can be readily applied to the shared act of music making.

A man and a woman sit near each other, and they do not long
at this moment to be older, or younger, nor born
in any other nation, or time, or place.
They are content to be where they are, talking or not talking.
Their breaths together feed someone whom we do not know.
The man sees the way his fingers move;
he sees her hands close around a book she hands to him.
They obey a third body they have in common.
They have made a promise to love that body.
Age may come, parting may come, death will come.
A man and woman sit near each other;
as they breathe they feed someone we do not know,
someone we know of, whom we have never seen

“That’s pretty neat! I’ve never thought of it that way. I try not to think of it in mystical terms. I try to think of it in really down to earth terms when we play music together. Basically, to me, our voices naturally go well together and the fact that we’ve sang so much together, in so many situations, over the years that we got better. We learned to an-ti-ci-pate, and that comes with time and knowledge of the other person’s abilities and sound,” says Olson. “When we first started to sing together on Blue Earth (1989) it sounded really good but now it’s WAY better. We’ve been playing music for so many years and we both have a work ethic, in a way, that when we start something we have a general standard and we aren’t going to work on a song that’s not up to that standard. Both of our minds move in around the same place. We’re both trying to meet that standard, and we try to change everything a bit so each of our songs is a little different from the others.”

Mark Olson
Writing in tandem with another person is challenging but can be hugely rewarding in ways that elude the solitary creative life. If long-time Jayhawks fans have held onto the idea of a Louris/Olson reunion it’s perhaps because of the special chemistry that only occurs in their music when their molecules combine. A good songwriting team is one of the few two-person relationships outside of a marriage with such an intense level of intimacy, give-and-take and sheer emotional investment.

“If it’s the wrong coupling it’s like a bad date, but when it’s right it’s like a dream,” says Louris dreamily. “It’s always different to do co-writing with different people. But there’s nothing like the go-to relationship, the one made in heaven. While I’ve written with other people and its been great, Mark is kinda my guy. We fill in each other’s blanks pretty well. I was going to buy a blowup doll and have it sit across from me when Mark first left [The Jayhawks], just to have something to look at and bounce things off of. But my wife probably wouldn’t like the fact that I’m doing it with a blowup doll [laughs]. Hey, people do it to drive in the carpool lane, so why not a songwriting partner?”

“Speaking in generalizations, Mark’s lyrics dictate the music. If he’s got a longer line, then that line is going to be longer musically, too. I tend to be neater. I tend to want the stress to land on the right syllable, to have a symmetrical neatness to it. Over the years, I’ve learned to be less anal about that, and he can certainly write a very succinct pop song. But in general, I think I temper what could turn into meandering and he loosens me up when I could be stiff,” continues Louris. “Mark should be a poet or a novelist. More than Conor Oberst or anyone [today] considered a wordsmith, Mark kind of blows me away. He’s a really talented guy without really getting the accolades he deserves.”

“There’s certain things we balance each other on, but we’re similar in that when we get something going we want to finish it. I get excited, he gets excited and we both want to get it to this place where we can record it,” says Olson. “That, to me, is the best time of any musical endeavor, when you’ve written what you feel is a really good song for days and you record it for the first time on tape so you have it for later. “It’s like, ‘Wow, I pulled something out of the air!'”

Continue reading for more on Gary Louris & Mark Olson…

There’s nothing like the go-to relationship, the one made in heaven. Mark is kinda my guy. We fill in each other’s blanks pretty well.

Gary Louris

Louris & Olson from Reveille Magazine

High Water And Crowes

Ready For The Flood is a peculiar but cool title, suggesting Biblical upheaval but also a sense of preparedness for the rising tide.

“Well, my title got nicked. People just chickened out [laughs]. My title was The Goat and The Sailor, which comes from a lyric of Mark’s where it sounds like he sings,’The goat and the sailor,’ which ended up being ‘the coat’ and something. I got obsessed with the idea since it really sounded like an old English folk record,” recounts Louris, his voice tinged with nerdy record loving excitement. “We could be dressed up in crazy baroque outfits. We all liked it but started to think it was maybe a little too goofy. I think I was the goat and he was the sailor.”

“Things going on in the world today seem flood-ish. And I lived in the desert for 10 years (Joshua Tree, CA), so you run into survivalist types out there. Everybody knows the type of person who’s ready for the world to end,” says Olson. “I spent just one evening looking at conspiracy theories on YouTube, and I thought, ‘Oh, my God!’ I don’t how much of it is true, but if it isn’t manufactured then it IS the end of the world!”

Chris Robinson by Josh Miller
Chris Robinson of The Black Crowes produced Flood, which led to him to also helm Gary Louris’ terrific 2008 solo debut, Vagabonds (check out JamBase’s exclusive feature from last year).

“The whole reason we asked him to do it was we both really liked him over the years. We did a number of tours with him at different stages in The Black Crowes, but through it all he was this thoroughly courteous person with us. There’s this Southern hospitality thing going on, and I kind of admired him because he had so many crazy things going on in his life but when he stepped into the room to talk to you he’d be really be there. I thought that was neat,” recalls Olson. “He’s very present, and a very intelligent guy. We were mulling over the idea of a producer and we asked Chris. I hadn’t sat down to listen to anything he’d produced but I had a general trust in the guy because of his music and the fact that he always made good sounding records himself. Always a warm sound. He was very serious with us. He wasn’t goofing around. I think people judge people who are lively, and you need to have a frown on your face to be taken seriously.”

Besides the plenty captivating voices and guitars of Louris & Olson, Robinson brought in bassist George Reiff (New Earth Mud), dobro & banjo player Ben Peeler (Josh Kelley, The Wallflowers), Hammond B-3 organist Jason Yates (Ben Harper, G. Love, Taj Mahal) and drummer Jimi Hey (Beachwood Sparks), all of whom play with empathetic subtlety on these sessions.

“They played in a very understated way. Even when they played with us – which wasn’t every song – they played in the in same room without headphones, just very sympathetic to the songs. Chris did a good job rounding up these guys,” says Louris. “You just have to hope the audience expands [for this kind of quiet music] and that it reaches another generation of people. We’re working musicians, and right now folk musicians, and folk musicians have to figure out new ways to do this since they aren’t usually playing arenas. [Live], we’ll start with just the two of us and if we get enough people coming to the shows we’ll add another player or two. We certainly have a plan in mind, but at this point, we also know how cool it is to do it with just the two of us.”

Looking Towards England

The mood, even more than the mechanics, on Ready For The Flood gets down to core craftsmanship of this pair, with no song clocking in much past five minutes. There’s a loose unity of purpose to the whole set.

Gary Louris by Darren Ankenman
“About four of them are older songs I culled from the vaults. There’s certain things we used to do this [record] reminds me of, so it’s sort of seamless. But, 80-perecent of it is new,” says Louris. “We didn’t put a lot of thought into it other than we both wanted it to be recorded live, basically two guys in a room singing, not even with headphones. We’d never made a record like that and it was time. We felt like we were good enough to do, and we both came to the English fingerpicking style that we’d always touched on with The Jayhawks but never went headlong into – Bert Jansch, (John) Renbourn and John Martyn were certainly on our minds, and Roy Harper is a favorite of mine.”

Ready For The Flood captures the mood and unforced yet still artful feel of quiet classics like Martyn’s Bless The Weather, Harper’s Flat Baroque and Berserk and Jansch’s Birthday Blues. It’s a rare atmosphere to achieve, particularly amongst modern recordings but Olson and Louris are naturals in this rarefied, largely acoustic setting.

“It’s not really a moneymaker vibe [laughs]. It’s not gonna get you on the radio. There’s a certain freedom to it; it does free you from that evil master,” offer Louris. “I’m just happy we were able to work together again. Mark and I can be very synced together, and we were getting into this music on our own individually. When we got back together, we were like, ‘Oh, you’re listening to this, too?’ Like we were both listening to the Louvin Brothers and other inspirational music like that.”

“My aunt had that Lucky Thirteen by Bert Jansch way back in the ’60s. It was at my grandmother’s house and it made an early appearance, but I really discovered it later on down the road, along with John Martyn’s stuff. They do a lot of good, complex fingerpicking,” observes Olson. “When they play the blues it doesn’t sound like the blues. John Renbourn’s version is really different. A lot of the blues you hear gets to be a lot of 12-bars but his take isn’t like that. It’s his singing, too, the choice of notes, etc. It’s really great. I tend to listen to a lot of this stuff at home. I just put it on.”

“I’m not a purist at all. In the past couple years, I’ve been touring in really small groups, and this [English folk-rock] is always presented in that way. They’ll have one or two musicians, maybe some percussion, and they seem a bit more adventurous, like introducing an Indian sound on one or two tunes. I like that, when there’s stuff you don’t expect,” Olson says, who also appreciates the dark mood of many English folk songs, especially the more antique sections. “Oh, it’s very dark [ominous, appreciative laugh].”

Continue reading for more on Gary Louris & Mark Olson…

We have a general standard and we aren’t going to work on a song that’s not up to that standard. Both of our minds move in around the same place. We’re both trying to meet that standard, and we try to change everything a bit so each of our songs is a little different from the others.

Mark Olson

Mark Olson

Life’s Warm Sheets

There’s a strong fight towards the light and an embrace of everyday pleasures in Louris & Olson’s recent work, evidenced by the hard won resilience drifting through Ready For The Flood, Louris’ Vagabonds and Olson’s marvelous 2007 solo debut, The Salvation Blues (JamBase review). Having survived a painful divorce and the inevitable confusion and self-recrimination that follows the dissolution of a long-time connection, Olson’s lyrics and melodies have taken on a richness of late born of heavy things that he transforms into positives.

Some people came here to die
We came here to live
There’s a hope in our heart
There’s a future in our souls

“It’s also in the actual playing and making of music. When I pick up a guitar and start singing it tends to be melancholy. So, just in my basic melodies and basic chords, the first thing I tend to look for is something melancholy. Then, I try to build it up into melodic things that aren’t so dark, basically. That’s what comes naturally – my voice is kind of low and like that – so I try to do what doesn’t come natural, what doesn’t come easy [laughs]. That makes for a more complete song,” says Olson, who also offsets his downward tendencies with sly, offhanded humor. “Yeah, I do! That’s how I am. When I’m feeling good in life I tend to laugh a lot. It’s also talking to myself sometimes. I overhear someone and then I have a conversation with myself if I have something funny to say about it. If somebody’s around maybe I’ll say it to them, if I think they’ll get it [laughs].”

Someone who gets his jokes, so to speak, is clearly Louris. There is a down-in-the-marrow unity of voices when Louris and Olson get to harmonizing, with just-rough-enough symmetry that’s not far from the clapboard chapel music of the 1920s one hears on scratchy 78 records but given a stately, purposeful pace, each tune finding its footing with unhurried sureness.

“We don’t so much have a brother thing, but we do have sympathetic voices. But, we don’t sound the same. They’re very different voices but it’s a true sum-is-greater-than-the-parts thing. Fans call it ‘ The Univoice’ [laughs]. Tim [O’Reagan] in The Jayhawks has a great voice, probably better than Mark or I, but I think Mark’s and my voice have a unique quality where you just couldn’t plug in somebody else,” says Louris, who’s fully aware that Flood is probably not the album diehards longing for another Hollywood Town Hall or Tomorrow The Green Grass were awaiting. “Most musicians, artists, whatever, need to be ahead of their audience and not cater to it. Hopefully it leads them along. They might not get it right away but a few years later they say, ‘Oh, I see it now.’ But, it doesn’t always happen immediately.”

“I think we’ve both continued to be somewhat adventurous. That’s the thing for me, where it’s at is being curious, and each time you do something you try to spark your curiosity, which in turn sparks other people, too,” says Olson.

EPK for new album

Here’s the duo’s recent Letterman appearance, where they played one of their new standouts.

We travel back to 1995 and the old Jon Stewart show for this performance of “Blue,” simply one of the greatest songs of the past 20 years.

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