In Advance of Music Box Concert, Jayhawks Frontman Gary Louris Talks About the Band's New Collaboration With Ray Davies

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Life has quickly moved beyond the “quiet corners and empty spaces” that singer-guitarist Gary Louris mentions on the opening track of the same name from the current Jayhawks album, Paging Mr. Proust. They’ve spent a lot of time on the road over the past year playing shows in support of the new record. But they’ve also been operating as musical double agents, working in secret as the backing band on Americana, the upcoming solo release from Ray Davies which will be released on April 21.

“We’ve become the session players,” Louris says with a chuckle, during a call from his North Carolina home. “[We have] an excellent friend named John Jackson, who is an executive at Sony/Legacy. Over the last few years, John has sat in with us a lot. He comes out and tours with us at times. He plays guitar, mandolin, fiddle and stuff. John is the A&R guy on this whole Ray Davies thing, along with other projects [at Legacy]. He started working with Ray and obviously, his project is called Americana. John knew us so well, and he just thought it was the perfect fit.”

The chance to work with Davies was a big thrill. Louris admits that it took some schedule juggling to make it all come together — and a lot of it involved pinning the Kinks legend down. Often, when they found the right moments that would work for Davies, it coincided with the time that the road-weary band would be coming off of tour and looking forward to a break. But it was a sacrifice that Louris and the band were more than willing to make.

“I mean, I grew up, it was like who is the greatest band, the Beatles or the Stones? And I’d say, ‘Well, the Kinks!’ That was the quick answer to that,” he laughs. “But yeah, the Kinks have always been my favorite. So there were times that we were in the studio and maybe I was singing the harmonies to Ray’s vocal where I certainly had to pinch myself, saying, ‘How did I end up here?’ Walking into Konk Studios [was another one of those moments]. I thought the band fit the bill perfectly.”

The collaboration worked so well that Davies and the band recently got together to work on a second album together this past December that will be the next chapter of Davies’ developing vision, which Louris indicates has lots of layers.

“It’s a bigger project than just a record, you know? It’s connected with the book [Americana: The Kinks, the Riff, the Road: The Story, the memoir from Davies which was released in 2015], multiple records and who knows what else. He’s much more than just a rock dude. He’s kind of an artist and in multiple facets. You know, he’s a writer, there’s a play [Sunny Afternoon] that is based on the Kinks that’s ongoing in London. He’s got his fingers in a lot of different things, so I see this [being a] multi-faceted project that’s not just one record and not just a record.”

Davies had been working with guitarist/musical director Bill Shanley, who had already spent a good amount of time with the songs and could do a lot in a short period because of his familiarity with the material. Louris says that he stepped back from his traditional lead singer role, calling himself “probably the least important player on those records,” adding additional guitars and “a lot of singing.” The other members of the band found themselves with no shortage of things to do — and Davies took a particular shine to Jayhawks keyboardist/vocalist Karen Grotberg, who became “very integral for him.”

“I think Ray has a history of liking a female presence on his records, going way back to the early days when his first wife [Rasa Davies] would sing on his records,” Louris says. “I think he had a real affinity to Karen and Tim [O’Reagan] and Marc [Perlman]. I mean, we just did what we do, but what was more challenging is that he pretty much knew what he wanted or would find it as he went along. But it was very much orchestrated by him, what everyone played. It wasn’t like we just got there and jammed. He wanted a certain thing and we had to help him find it.”

Louris hopes that the band will get a chance to do some shows with Davies in support of the music, but he admits that he’s not sure how those plans might shake out.

“I know that we’re in discussion with that a bit, but I don’t think he’s going to be that guy who hops on a bus for two months at a time,” he says. “I think there’s just going to be some select weekends or weeks or something like that. If we got the call, it would be hard to say no. But I know we’ve built a good relationship with him and I think what he liked about us was that we were a band. I think he’s attracted to that and we represented some part of his love affair with the United States, as we are a fairly American band. We’re an American band with some British roots, and he’s a British musician with a lot of American roots.”

Besides the Davies albums, Louris and the members of the Jayhawks also recently worked with singer-songwriter John Wesley Harding, a longtime friend and associate now recording under his real name of Wesley Stace, on his new album, Wesley Stace Presents John Wesley Harding, which Louris co-produced. He’ll be on the road with the band when they arrive in Cleveland for their show at the Music Box Supper Club on April 13, playing a solo acoustic opening set.

“We were a great fit for what he wanted and we’re pretty adaptable,” he says. “Wes is one of my favorite people in the world and I’m excited to have him along [on the tour]. The record turned out great, I mean, I don’t know if I deserved a producing credit, but I’ll take it. I love that record too.”

Things are in a good place presently for the Minneapolis-bred band that has found itself have found themselves quite busy over the past year and a half, working not only on the album sessions with Davies and Stace, but also their own album, which was released in April of last year. The fact that they made it back into the studio to record Jayhawks material is a somewhat unexpected development. During a 2014 conversation with Scene, Louris was quick to admit that he was “a little gun-shy” about the idea of doing new music after the negative experience he had working on Mockingbird Time, the 2011 album which officially reunited Louris and his one-time collaborator Mark Olson under the Jayhawks banner. (Louris and Olson eased into the subsequent band reunion with the Chris Robinson-produced 2009's Ready For The Flood, which was credited simply to Mark Olson and Gary Louris.)

“Last time, we wanted to recapture the gold, and the chemistry wasn’t there. It was a fiasco and left a bad taste in my mouth,” Louris said then. “I’m a little wary. I’m trying to think of bands that regrouped and made their best record and the list is very short if any. We’re doing [shows] right now and enjoying it. If we started writing songs and have some material, it would work. The material has to be there rather than us thinking we need to have a new album and writing the album. If there’s stuff that’s just kind of happening, then we’ll do it.”

When things first broke apart in 2012 after the band had completed touring behind Mockingbird Time, the future of the Jayhawks appeared to be in doubt for a short time. It was reissues of three post-Olson albums, 1997’s Sound of Lies, 2000’s Smile and 2003’s Rainy Day Music that brought the band back together for a run of 2014 tour dates that were well-received. The group continued to tour and heard from R.E.M’s Peter Buck, a longtime fan, who expressed interest in helming sessions for an album.

“I didn’t trust myself to produce it, because you can get kind of lost with the big picture when you’re sitting there recording and producing. We trusted Peter’s aesthetic,” he says. “What we also liked about him is that he’s made all kinds of records and I think that at this point in his life, he agrees with us that it’s vibe over perfection. It was more like, ‘Let’s make a cool record. We don’t have to have everything tuned and edited to make it [perfect] and spend months doing it. Let’s just make a really cool record.’ Peter was good to bounce the songs off of and he helped me really sort through what were the best ones.”

Co-producer Tucker Martine helped to steer the ship from a recording standpoint, according to Louris.

“Tucker was the day to day in the trenches guy who would be manning the board. You know, Peter is not a knob twiddler,” he says. “It was Tucker’s studio and he knows the gear and he knows how to get the sounds. It would be kind of like an architecture firm, Peter would be the design architect and Tucker was like the project architect. He was the detail guy and really was invaluable and became a good friend. Put together, they were a good team — they didn’t seem to have an ego thing and that can happen if you have two producers.”

Paging Mr. Proust, the album which emerged quickly out of the sessions with Buck and Martine, ended up being a positive experience for all involved and Louris is keen to explore further writing and recording with the group — and also some additional solo work, collaborations and producing — after he gets the chance to take a bit of time off.

“I’m just kind of recharging, after a year of a lot of time on the road. I haven’t written a lot, but I’d like to get the band more involved in the writing. Because I think everybody in the band can write and they’ve been interested [in that]. It would be nice to have more songs for Karen to sing that aren’t covers. Tim is a great singer and it would be great for him to have some other songs on the list [of potential songs for the setlist] that are his compositions and [Marc] Perlman has co-written or written some of the best Jayhawks songs in our catalog. I think it would be good for us [to have everybody] be more involved, and I’m ready to open the door a little bit more, I think.”

The Jayhawks, Wesley Stace, 8 p.m. Thursday, April 13, Music Box Supper Club, 1148 Main Ave., 216-242-1250. Tickets: $38 ADV, $42 DOS,

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