Audio: Listen to this article.
In May of 2016, I drove four hours across the Ohio Turnpike from my then-home of Ann Arbor, Michigan, to my hometown of Youngstown, Ohio. I picked up my dad, and we drove another hour-plus to Pittsburgh to see The Jayhawks perform at Mr. Smalls Theater. To some, a ten-hour roundtrip journey for a concert might seem excessive, but it was worth it. My third time seeing The Jayhawks, it was their best show yet — and one of the best concerts I’ve seen before or since.
For the majority of the band’s nearly four-decade run, guitarist Gary Louris has been The Jayhawks’ leader and primary singer-songwriter. With a publishing portfolio that overflows with perfectly polished pop, Louris surely ranks alongside artists like Aimee Mann and Elliott Smith as one of the quintessential post-’80s songwriters’ songwriters.
Yet Louris’s career has been equal parts Chris Bell and Forest Gump. Like Big Star’s more pop-oriented — and, in this writers’ view, superior — singer-songwriter, Louris’s masterpieces have rarely been met with the commercial success that they deserve. Thanks to label missteps, bad luck, or both, seemingly can’t-miss singles and albums slipped through the commercial cracks. Like Tom Hanks’s serendipitous everyman, Louris nonetheless has consistently been in close proximity to the most important musical trends of the past 40 years. Years before Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar formed Uncle Tupelo, Louris and Mark Olson set the alt-country movement in motion with The Jayhawks’ eighties indie releases. In 1991, The Jayhawks become one of the earliest signees to Rick Rubin’s new Def American label, a transition that coincided with Louris’s growing songwriting duties. As Louris was penning classics like “Blue” — practically “The Weight” of the alt-country movement — for The Jayhawks, he was also crafting power-pop gems like “Until You Came Along” with the Golden Smog supergroup. When Olson departed The Jayhawks, Louris took the band in a more experimental direction with producers like Bob Ezrin, Brian Paulson, Ethan Johns, and Peter Buck. Outside of The Jayhawks, Louris has released two masterful solo albums, as well as a collaboration with Django Haskins under the Au Pair moniker, and written hits for the likes of The Dixie Chicks and Nickel Creek.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Louris began hosting the cheekily named “The Sh*t Show“ livestream, where Louris and guests chatted with fans and performed Jayhawks favorites, an eclectic collection covers, and obscure fan requests from throughout Louris’s career. As The Sh*t Show became more polished, it evolved into Louris’s $54/year Patreon. Always a great way to support artists in the age of streaming, such sites often feature little more than the occasional blog post or archival find. Not so with Louris’s frequently-updated blog. He’s performed the entirety of The Jayhawks’ 1998 masterpiece, Sound of Lies in acoustic format and covered artists from The Kinks to Gordon Lightfoot. Beyond the (mostly studio-quality) live performances, Louris has posted a variety of archival demos, outtakes, and unreleased tracks. But perhaps the most interesting entries on Louris’s Patreon are the “My Musical History” and “Deep Dive” series. On the former, Louris takes fans through the music that’s shaped him. On the latter, he does everything from giving a rundown of his favorite guitars to recounting how songs were written to teaching fans how to play “Blue” on guitar.
In this interview, Louris told me about the good and bad of major labels and streaming, his love of prog, his favorite studios and producers, his thoughts on digital versus analog, and how going through treatment for opioid addiction has improved his songwriting.
Josh Mound: I want to start by asking you about your sense of the evolution of the music industry over the arc of your career. Obviously, The Jayhawks started with some indie records, then got signed to a major label, then had to go through this transition to the downloading and streaming era. So I was wondering about your summary of that experience, your sense of the good and the bad of how the music industry’s evolved, and what it’s like to try to exist in those different modes.
Gary Louris: Well, it’s funny, because at the time, when you’re in it, all you do is complain, and then you start looking back at the good old days. In ‘85, we started, and we had a lot of interest immediately. We kind of built a following pretty quickly in Minneapolis, and then labels started checking us out, like Atlantic and IRS and a few other ones — A&M, maybe. I don’t remember who. They started giving us money to make demos, and then they wouldn’t take it any further, because Americana didn’t really exist exactly. People didn’t really know what it was. So, you know, we made our own record. But to skip ahead, then we got signed to a major label. It was exciting, of course, just to have that family of people around you and a support team. Yeah, there was a lot of fat. There’s a lot of waste. There were articles written about us in Worth magazine, for instance, about the indulgence of big-budget records and being in debt and how we were one of those bands, who, as our producer once said, “You’re never going to recoup.” Which was true. On the other hand, you felt like there was an extended family, and you’re out there with people helping you. Whether you were in Boston, or you were in New York, or you were in Chicago or LA, there was an extended team that was part of Def American, which became American. For us, when we first signed, American was connected with Geffen, but we never put a record out and Geffen. Then it went to Warner-Reprise, then Columbia, and then Lost Highway-Mercury. So we went around wherever Rick [Rubin of Def American] went. But, you know, it was a time of excitement for us. I think it was the time where we felt like maybe we’re going to conquer the world. We’re going to be big, you know — [music videos] and things like that. Looking back, you can see the waste and the expense accounts and the misdirection of funds. Do we really need to spend four months to make a record? No. But I did like the merit system then, that doesn’t exist as much now, which was you had to earn it to put out a record. I mean, yeah, you could put out a little indie record. But to really put out a record, you had to earn it, and there were less records that came out. So I felt like the quality level was maybe higher. Certainly, it’s cool that anybody can make a record [today]. Just like anybody can make a painting. Should it hang somewhere? I don’t know. It’s cool that people can do stuff like that. But it’s a glut. I don’t like it personally. I mean, it’s too much music. Anything can be released. In certain ways that’s liberating. In other ways, it’s confusing. So, of course, I felt like back then, to be on a label, it really meant something. And to put out a record was a huge deal. Along with that, again, [it was] imperfect. You’d have to wait a long time to put out records, because we weren’t a big seller. They’d say, “Well, blah-blah-blah and blah-blah-blah are putting out records in the fall. So we’ll wait until January.” So in the course of our time, we put out I don’t know how many records. Eleven or 12 or something Jayhawks-specific records. Maybe was more. But we could have put out 20 or 30. We had a lot of material. We had a lot of music. But we’d always have to wait. That was a downside. So a lot of pluses and minuses. It was a fat cat [system]. It was a bloated system [with] bloated companies. On the other hand, now you just float there, kinda on your own. We put out records on a cool label called 30 Tigers, which has a cool model of ownership for the artists. So that’s cool. And there’s a beautiful thing about streaming, if only we got paid like we should. Streaming is a beautiful thing, you know? I love being able to go look something up and not have to go look at ugly CDs anymore. So, again, there’s pluses and minuses, good and bad. I would say the bad outweighs the good for me. But then I’m 67, you know, and I’m like, “Ah, the good old days!” You know, I’m a little nostalgic for that. And sometimes you remember the good stuff, but you forget the bad stuff as you age.
JM: I have two follow-up questions to that. One is about the major label era, and then the second is about the present. But the major label thing that you talked about was the debt. You mentioned the Worth magazine article, which said that around the time of Tomorrow the Green Grass, The Jayhawks owed the label like a million dollars or something like that. You were kind of used as an example of how labels could load up bands with debt and not deliver benefits for them. What was it like in that moment, and how did that impact your relationship with the label going forward with Sound of Lies, which was probably my favorite record...
GL: Yeah, it’s probably our best, right?
JM: ...and then Smile after that?
GL: I don’t think it affected our relationship with label oddly enough, looking back. I mean, for a while, that’s what everybody wanted to talk to us about was the debt. We’d have interviews, and they wanted to talk about that article. Because we talked about lot of a lot of things in that article and interview, but he focused on one thing [the debt], and I think he was right in many ways. But that was the way the system was back then. I don’t think it really affected our relationship with label that much. I mean, the reason Sound of Lies kind of failed commercially was maybe it was less accessible, but also the label was going through internal problems. American was dealing with Warner-Reprise, and there was a big fallout between the two. And so they actually said, “Don’t tour. We can’t do anything right now.” Relations weren’t good and things weren’t set up properly between the two. There wasn’t a lot of coordination. So I think that was more of a problem than that the label didn’t like what they read, and they got upset with us. I don’t remember that.
JM: Today, as you said, streaming doesn’t pay artists hardly anything. It is the viability of kind of making a living in music more for you about touring or more about publishing?
GL: Well, for me, who doesn’t wanna tour that much anymore, it’s not as appealing to me. I have always felt more like a writer and a creator than a performer. As much as I’ve always taken pride that we’re a band that is good live and makes great records at times, I still prefer to create new music than to go out and play the same songs over and over again, especially since I’m a very structured kind-of musician. If I come up with a part I like — a [guitar] solo structure — it’s hard for me to break out of it. I think if I was like a jazz musician or jam band or something, maybe touring would be more fun, because each show would be different. For me, the only thing that changes when I tour is the venue, really, and the audience. The shows are pretty similar. So, yeah, it’s tough for me now and for a lot of people. If you want to tour, it’s getting better [post-COVID]. But it’s the Bowie quote, which is, “You used to tour to promote a record. Now you make a record to promote your tour.” People make money out of merchandise and touring, number one. Of course, for me, and for a lot of people who don’t want to tour, you start chasing the syncs, the placements, the co-writes. And then I do things like Patreon, which helps, but it’s not a be-all and end-all. So a lot of it’s publishing. And for me, that’s still the appeal, the dream. It’s to write something that somebody big covers, or else is sync’d somewhere. As opposed to getting on another tour, which I still do, but we limit it to 30 to 50 shows a year. That’s about enough for me. At least with a band. If I did something solo or with my son or something, I might get out there some more.
JM: With the jam band thing, are you gonna try to replace John Mayer in The Dead & Company’s next iteration?
GL: Yeah, that’s next.... [laughs] No, I don’t like I don’t like jamming that much. I like it more than the rest of my band, who just roll their eyes if we ever tried to extend a song.
JM: I read in one interview that at the time you thought Sound of Lies might be your last record, because of the issues with the label. Is that true?
GL: Yeah, that’s partially true. Yes, I thought it was the last record, and that’s why it’s good, I think. I try to use that in every situation. But it doesn’t always happen with every recording. Part of it was like, “Fuck it! I don’t care. We’re not trying to please anybody. We’re just gonna do it.” I mean, we’ve always been left to our own devices. But I think in that particular case, up through Tomorrow the Green Grass, we were kind of chasing that carrot of trying to be a big band, you know? And when Olson left, it was a relief in certain ways, but it was also scary. Because I’ve never really felt comfortable as a frontman — the only frontman. I liked being one of two. But I’m not Springsteen. I’m not James Brown. I’m not a showman. I’m a musician. I’m a writer who performs. So it was a lot for me to digest. But the band wanted to keep going, and we have a lot of material. But it wasn’t because of the label. The label never said, “We’re gonna drop you.” I just felt like nobody would get it. It was a departure from what we did, and so we’d alienate our fans. But this is what we wanted to do. Because I was never a roots rocker growing up. I was an art rock guy. I was a prog rock person. I was a British rock fan. I was an ambient music guy.
JM: I’ve got my Yes 1972 tour box here [holds it up to the camera].
GL: Excellent. I’m jealous of that. Yeah. I love my prog. So it wasn’t really the label, but the label had its own problems with Warner-Reprise at the time. But it was liberating to feel like, “Oh, we’re just going to do what we want.” But I will say that, in general, the labels have always let us do what we want to do — partially because we don’t sell millions of records. We’re like a cache artist, or whatever you call ‘em.
JM: Speaking of taking things either even further away from roots rock, Smile, on the one hand, had some stuff that was really poppy, really radio-friendly, and then, on the other hand, had stuff that was really weird. It was just a huge departure in both directions. What was that partly trying to figure out, “How do we try to get a radio hit, but also push ourselves further away from the alt-country image?”
GL: Yeah. I think we felt a little hemmed in and typecast, and nobody ever wants to be that. Especially since it really wasn’t our identity. I thought what made us interesting is that Americana was kind of a flavor that we added to our stew, but it wasn’t really the main ingredient. I mean, if you break down a lot of the material, they weren’t country songs. But they had kind of that sound, as some of the treatments were more rootsy than British. But I remember Smile as one of those things where I kind of flipped. I said, “Let’s go for a big pop record.” We were working with Bob Ezrin, one of my heroes. Bob said to me, “You don’t owe your audience anything. So don’t feel this reverence towards what they think or what you think they want you to do. Do what you want to do.” And I think we were just kind of like, “Let’s go for something big and splashy.” And that was the one time the label did try to steer me in a direction, and that was for “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me.” They loved the song but didn’t feel like the chorus was strong enough. So that was one time the label said, “Can you try to rewrite this? Let’s put you together with somebody, and let’s rewrite this because this is going to be your single.” That’s the only time I did that. And I’m glad I did, but my bandmates made sure to let me know that they thought I was I was selling out.
JM: I’m glad you mentioned prog, because I saw the one quote from you where you said that you were more into Brian Eno than Gram Parsons.
GL: My quip was “I’m more into Alan Parsons than Gram Parsons.” I thought that was more clever. But more accurately Eno was [a favorite]. I don’t think I really listen to Alan Parsons except for what he did with Pink Floyd.
JM: Particularly on some of the bonus tracks on Paging Mr. Proust and on the new solo album, Jump for Joy, I feel like some of those prog influences are coming through a little more. Was that a conscious attempt to let that show? Or in the core in the case, I guess, of the bonus tracks on Proust, those were home recordings that weren’t necessarily meant for the public.
GL: Some of them were home recordings. I don’t remember. I’d have to go back and look. Certainly “Ace” [which appears in a shortened band version on Paging Mr. Proust and a longer solo version on the bonus-track release of the album], that song I think we cut it down to six or seven minutes, but it went on for 12. Yeah, that was certainly something where I was kind of poking my prog head out a bit. But, again, I’m working in a band situation, and the band isn’t really a prog band, or wants to go there. So I only go so far with them. I mean, my solo record there’s a little bit more. On Jump For Joy, there’s a little bit more synth and programmed arpeggiated stuff and virtual instruments. I’m not saying I’m really that good at that kind of thing, but I do enjoy pursuing it. At the end of the day, I’m best on an acoustic guitar and a quiet vocal, I think.
JM: What’s the appeal of prog, for you? Because you write really tight pop songs for the most part, but then prog is, obviously, the opposite of that. I read that with the Patreon you were debating covering Tales from Topographic Oceans or something like that. Is the appeal partly that this is what you grew up with and it’s the polar opposite of what you do, so it’s easier to get deeper into it because it’s not like what you write? I guess I’m just asking what do you love about prog music? How would you sell a prog skeptic on prog?
GL: Well, prog is for lonely teenage boys who will never get a date is how I always think of it. Guys in their room with their Yes posters and their big headphones. I mean, you never walk up to a girl and say, “Do you like Gentle Giant?” [both laugh] It’s definitely a guy thing. My wife gets some of the prog. But I think it’s a nerdy kind of music. I’m a nerd. I like the precision of it in certain ways. That is a lot different than organic loosey-goosey acoustic guitar kind of music. I like certain sounds of synthesizers. The worst parts of prog are the lyrics usually. So I don’t look to the lyrics. But I like the textures. I like the non-verse/chorus, verse/chorus kind of thing. That’s why I like krautrock and things like that or ambient music. At least nowadays. It doesn’t apply to why I liked prog when I was 14 or 16. But I think for me a lot of times songs that are not anything like what I write are appealing to me — whether it’s classical, whether it’s sports radio, whether it’s ambient music or Krautrock. I don’t judge. It doesn’t feel like work. I envy people who are music fans, who can just listen to music. I equate — and it’s pretentious, but it’s true — I equate being a musician to being a chef. A chef can’t go to a restaurant and just enjoy a meal. He’s gonna think about ingredients. “Why they chose that?” “Why did they use that?” I mean, they think differently than a typical person going to have a meal.
JM: Does that make it harder to just listen to music for enjoyment?
GL: Oh, definitely. I don’t listen to music that much. I have to get back to it more. But I start thinking about, “Well, why did they go to that chord?” “I hate that drum sound.” Or “It would have been better if they would have repeated that line.” Or “I hate that line.” I started thinking and analyzing it, and I can’t listen to it vicariously. I can’t casually listen to it. Of course, I can if it’s just stuff that I’ve loved for a long time. I’m also not great at listening to the same thing over and over. I have friends who just keep listening to the same 20 to 30 records. I don’t really like it. Actually, I really like hip-hop for a lot of reasons. But I’m never going to be hip hop artist. It’s great to work out to. Like you never go work out to an Americana record. [Laughs] I really enjoy hip-hop production. Not necessarily the songwriting, but the production is usually pretty cool. So I listen to things that are usually not like [what I write]. I would rarely listen to anything in what would be called the Americana genre. Maybe if it’s like Neil Young or some classic stuff, that’s great. But like new Americana bands? Eh. It’s just too much of the same thing I’ve lived in for a long time. I kind of built this little world of The Jayhawks that I didn’t really need to build in a way, you know? I think in certain ways I wanted it to be more experimental or whatever. That word is overused.
JM: That’s actually a good segue. Because I was gonna ask you: From what I’ve read and from the bonus tracks on the Proust album, I was wondering if you have a lot of home recordings and if they’re really different from Jayhawks stuff. I don’t know if you saw, but a couple of years ago World Party, Karl Wallinger, released this multi-disc box set of all these home recordings he did and it’s great. Have you ever thought of doing something like that?
GL: Yeah, I have. Especially nowadays with [Bandcamp]. I haven’t delved into it, but it’s on my list of things to do. Putting more things up on Bandcamp is something I can really start taking advantage of. I have lots of recordings of really just bizarre shit that I did that I feel are probably vanity recordings. Nobody else would care. Like I record things off the radio and manipulate and cut it and paste it into really bizarre sounds. I have a lot of that stuff. Because before I ever was in The Jayhawks, I was doing all kinds of weird recordings of my own on reel to reels. I think I’m more interested in creating new music. I’ve been writing a lot. But it’s been pretty straightforward stuff. I feel like I’m at a good place there. But, yeah, I have a bunch of stuff I could put out. It wouldn’t please anybody, probably, but a handful. But it was so much fun to do.
JM: I’d probably be in the center of that Venn Diagram of your Jayhawks plus prog and Krautrock fans.
GL: I don’t even know how good it is or how well done it is. I mean, one of my favorite bands in the world is Cluster. I don’t know if you even listen to Cluster. Their first two records, I mean, I’ll put them on, and I don’t know who else would [like that]. My wife heard that, and she was like, “What are you listening to?” I find it very calming. I certainly have my own share of anxiety, and that kind of stuff is just like meditation.
JM: There’s something I think about the repetition in a lot of prog rock and Krautrock that. I have OCD and anxiety, and I find that very calming, too.
GL: Yeah, definitely.
JM: You’ve worked with kind of a lot of well-known producers like George Drakoulias, Rick Rubin, and Bob Ezrin. Then also some really great Minneapolis producers and engineers, like Brian Paulson and Ed Ackerson. What makes a good producer for you? What do you look for in a producer, and what have been the highs and lows of the experiences of working with those various folks?
GL: Well, I certainly learn a lot from each of them. And I certainly have a soft spot for all of them in their own way. George was our first big producer, you know, and he’s a larger-than-life kind of character. I learned that he didn’t hand out compliments easily, but when he did, you knew he meant them. He just was a big personality as far as if there was gonna be a guitar solo, he’d crank it all the way up. He was a very good hands-on engineer, too. Even though he wasn’t the main engineer, I think he knew a lot about twisting those knobs. I worked less with Rick. Rick was more of a big-picture guy. Rick would kind of not be there and all of a sudden he was there. And if he was there, he’d be locked in. He got really locked in on things like mastering or artwork. I think we must have had Rainy Day Music mastered like 50 times ‘til he was happy. He got really involved with the artwork. He didn’t like the cover I come up with. He completely took over the artwork, and he was obsessed with that. So when he locks in, he’s great. Rick is not somebody who suggests chords or things, He’ll just say, “That part there? Make that better.” And then you’ll sit there and try something, and he’ll go, “Okay, it’s better.” He’s very into bringing people back to what they do, in his mind, best. One time he said, “Gary, quit trying to be so arty.” I know he said that to me when we were going through songs I had for Rainy Day Music. But he’s just big picture guy. I was an architect. There’s project architects, and there’s designers. Rick was more like the designer. He wasn’t the day-to-day, let’s twiddle the knobs guy. He’s more like the big-picture guy. He’d come in and come out. He was really good at finding — this is another important thing about producers — a really good engineer. Like he had Jim Scott do a lot of the work. And Jim is a producer in his own way, but he’s great. Bob Ezrin is just kinda brilliant. Old school, but forward thinking. I saw him do some weird techniques with the tape machines, like making things flange just by touching the reels going around, which is so cool. Just like old school. But he was all about irreverence. [He taught me that] you don’t owe anybody anything, really. I mean, if you do start [thinking that], you’re going down a dangerous path. Ed Ackerson was just like the mad scientist. He just knew everything from Spiritualized to Ralph Stanley, you know? He was very well-versed in all kinds of music. I’m sorry that we lost him because he was just a treasure of music, information. He always felt like what you were doing with him at the time was the most important thing in the world. Brad Paulson, I think looking back got maybe, if not my favorite, one of my favorite record sounds that we ever got. I don’t know if that was Brian, us, or the studio. That was Sound of Lies, and that was the first major label record we made outside of L.A. And it wasn’t really the greatest studio. It was just a big warehouse basement. You’re stuck in a basement. And that was certainly the first record we drank on. You can hear that a little bit. But it sounds incredible. Part of is because Jim Scott also mixed it. Who am I forgetting? Ethan Johns. Ethan Johns could play everything better than we could. But he was the first person who talked me into singing and playing live. All those other records are always overdubbed — my vocals or our vocals. Even the really rootsy Hollywood Town Hall stuff? Those were all overdubbed. Rainy Day Music was the first record where I sang and play guitar live and kept the vocal and the acoustic. And that was liberating. Because he taught me something important. He said, “When you play and sing at the same time, the dynamics happen. You sing around your guitar playing, and you play your guitar around your singing. When you overdub them, they’re kind of a flat line.” So they’re more warts that way, but I think there’s more emotion, and that’s why I’ve pretty much done that since then. I’m not saying it’s the only way to do it. But certainly for rootsier music, I think it’s a superior way to record. Paco Loco, my friend in Spain who I worked with, he’s like the George Martin of Spain. He’ll try anything. And I just love working with Paco. Who else am I forgetting here? Tucker Martine and Peter Buck. I don’t know if I can think of anything specific about that. But, you know, a producer is really there to instill confidence in the artist. He’s like a restaurant manager who’s gonna keep everything going. Make sure all the waiters have their schedules. I mean, it’s kind of thankless in a way. It’s exciting if you are a big-time producer and you’ve got a bunch of people doing stuff for you. But as a producer, like the roles I’ve been in, it’s more about keeping everybody on schedule. Even with XOXO, I was the executive producer. It was a lot of charts and things. “Do we get this done? Or do we get that done?” I’d rather not. I’d rather have a producer producing what I do then to do it myself, but I can’t always have that luxury. As far as low points. I don’t really have a lot of low points.
JM: As an aside, I think it’s funny that Rainy Day Music was mastered so many times, because I think it’s actually the album that benefited most from the remasters you did.
GL: Oh really?
JM: Yeah, I think the remaster is substantially better than the original. Though have you guys found the master tape for “Save it for a Rainy Day”? I remember when the remaster came out your archivist [PD Larson] posted about how you used the digital file for that because the tape wasn’t found.
GL: For that particular song or the whole record?
JM: Just that first song.
GL: I’ll ask PD. I actually don’t know. I don’t know that, but I thought what was interesting about that session for Rainy Day Music [is that we] were at Sunset Sound, which is a great studio. We have worked at some great studios: Sound City, Sunset Sound, Village Recorders, Ocean Way — mostly in L.A. But we were working at Sunset Sound, which is a legendary studio, and there was a little kind-of kitchenette in our studio with like a coffeemaker and kinda crappy cupboards. And we opened up the cupboards one time with Ethan, and we were like, “What’s down there?” There was like a two-inch tape box. We pulled it out it and was The Who by Numbers. It was one reel of, like, 16 takes of “Squeeze Box” and maybe another song. Just floating around on its own! We were gonna put it on one day, but we never get around to. But, yeah, I don’t know much [about our tapes]. To be honest with you, PD is our archivist, and I kind of don’t pay enough attention to that kind of stuff as some people do.
JM: What was your favorite studio to work out of all these studios?
GL: There’s a lot of great ones. I mean, I loved working at Sunset Sound and Village Recorders. But, I mean, Sage & Sound where I made my first solo record was like a mini Ocean Way, and that was cool. Ocean Way was cool, but we were working in a specific little room doing overdubs. This guy Scott Litt, the producer, opened a small room. So we didn’t use the big rooms at Sound City. Sound City was cool, but it was kind of a dump. But a cool dump. We were there right when the earthquake happened. It was in Reseda. Sound City is in Northridge. Reseda was the epicenter of that 1994 earthquake. So it was crazy.
JM: How do you feel about working on tape versus digitally?
GL: Tape, by far. It’s a bit of a romantic medium, but it’s also more tactile. Digital is for lots of things. You can fix anything. So that makes you feel like you can always put off decisions until later with digital. And if you do that too much, you end up with a pile of stuff you have to sort through. So it’s better to use digital and think of it as tape when possible. But it is great if you need to grab a bunch of things and fix things later or if you’re working with people who don’t sing well and you know you’re gonna have to fix a bunch of stuff. I mean, I love it. But at the end of the day, the ideal thing would be to have a two-inch tape machine and people good enough to perform live. The sound quality is different. I don’t care what people say. There is a difference.
JM: You have such a vast catalog of songs, and some deep cuts are among my favorites. I love “Jennifer Save Me,” which is buried at the end of the one Gold Smog record, and “Dead Man’s Burden,” which is at the end of your recent solo record. Are there tracks of yours that you think, “These aren’t the songs that people necessarily think of when they think of me” but that are among your favorites or songs that you think deserve more attention?
GL: Well, “Dead Man’s Burden” is a good one to reference because it’s like stream-of-consciousness lyrics, and I look back and [wonder] “How did I write them?” because I’m proud of them. And the song is a house of cards. You can’t take one part out. It was too long, and I tried to edit it, and it fell apart. Yeah, there’s certainly songs [that I’m surprised aren’t more popular]. Off the top of my head, I can’t think why people don’t seem to go crazy for that one, but they do for other ones. Like I have a soft spot for the song “Working Girl,” which is like a B-side [from Louris’s first solo album, Vagabonds]. I think it’s a beautiful weird song. There’s certainly songs like that where nobody’s ever requested it in my life, and I think, “Does anybody even like that song?” So there are songs like that. Although I still say that when people go, “Oh, ‘Blue’ is your best song,” I mean in certain ways I agree with them. It’s certainly one of them. I’m not bitter. Some people don’t want to play their hits. It wasn’t a hit, but I’m still very proud of that song. Certain songs play better live, you know? Like a lot of the songs off of Rainy Day Music are better live. We don’t do as many songs off of Sound of Lies: A) because it’s a mood that sometimes gets a little heavy, and B) it’s just certain songs work better live. But that doesn’t mean they’re my favorite songs that we perform.
JM: My dad quit drinking when I was six, and I experienced the benefits of that. So I appreciated that you were open about going through recovery for opioid addiction in 2012. There’s always been this harmful mystique about artists needing to suffer for art, but since that point, at least by my count, you’ve been a lot more prolific. I wonder, how has that process of recovery changed you as an artist and maybe changed your thinking about that stereotype?
GL: Well, it is a stereotype. I’m sure that there have been things in my past that I have created because I was maybe a little out of it, but I think I’ve had much more creativity waking up in the morning half asleep than being drunk or something like that. I think opiates or opioids are very unhelpful. They dull you and they tend to make you feel okay. So why write a song if you feel okay. Usually, you write a song because you need to. With drinking, I don’t drink now anymore, but I have. But I just enjoy not doing it. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with it. But for me, I don’t. I think [the tortured artist stereotype] is just a cliché, just like people who have chains and bracelets and have all the things that you’re supposed to do to look like you’re a rocker. It’s a bit of a cliché. Certainly, people are in pain. But alcohol is a depressant. So I do feel like I was more creative when I stopped, especially with the pills and stuff. With Proust, it was very much like, “Wow. I can do anything. It’s fun. I can write.” Although I don’t look down on anybody who enjoys a cocktail, I do worry about people who take pills unless they really need them. I’m lucky I got out of there. Look at all the people, whether it’s [Tom] Petty or Prince or anybody else out there who couldn’t make it. I’m just thankful that I’m still alive here and feel great.
An Introduction to Gary Louris: Apple Music Playlist
About the Author
Josh Mound has been an audiophile since age 14, when his father played Spirit's "Nature’s Way" through his Boston Acoustics floorstanders and told Josh to listen closely. Since then, Josh has listened to lots of music, owned lots of gear, and done lots of book learnin'. He's written about music for publications like Filter and Under the Radar and about politics for publications like New Republic, Jacobin, and Dissent. Josh is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia, where he teaches classes on modern U.S. politics and the history of popular music. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife and two cats.