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Jayhawks

The Jayhawks fly again with ‘Paging Mr. Proust’

JOSHUA M. MILLER | Special to the Cap Times May 11, 2016

The Jayhawks don’t play Madison as often as one might think, given that for over 20 years they’ve been based in Minneapolis. But in some ways it’s a small miracle they’re playing at all at the Barrymore Theatre this Friday.

About three and a half years ago frontman Gary Louris reached a crossroads in his life when he received treatment for his drug and alcohol addictions. It made him think long and hard about the life path he had been following and even contemplated quitting being a musician altogether.

“There was a time where I blamed music for a lot of things,” Louris said in a recent phone interview. “Like maybe if I had picked a different career I would have had a more stable home life and wouldn’t be so depressed and not using drugs.

“It took me awhile to realize that it wasn’t the music that was the problem. It was just me,” he said. “Music was actually my calling and what I did best. I needed it more than anything. That was a way I could express myself and a way I could help other people and get out of my own head.

“So I’ve fully re-embraced it and just have a different outlook on things.”

Rejuvenated by this new attitude and better health, Louris got the late ‘90s lineup of the band together and sought out to record new Jayhawks music. Last month they released their ninth album, “Paging Mr. Proust.”

“It opened my eyes to how great the band can be as individuals and a collective unit,” he said. “Each member has a strong personality. They each have their quirks and they’re unique. They’re great players and I guess I took them for granted for awhile. I love playing with them.”

Louris also had a strong team of co-producers. He split production duties with REM’s Peter Buck and Tucker Martine. Special guests on the album included Mike Mills and Scott McCaughey.

“Peter played guitar, Mike sang on a few songs and Scott was on background chorus with a bunch of people,” Louris said. “Mike’s a really positive force. When he starts singing you realize how much he contributed to R.E.M., not just bass playing.”

Unlike the Jayhawks’ 2011 album “Mockingbird Time,” an album featuring the band’s original lineup, Louris feels this album came together more naturally.

“The ‘Mockingbird Time’ album was done under a lot of strain and the chemistry wasn’t there. It was kind of forced. I wasn’t in a good space and the band wasn’t in a good place,” he said. “This record everything feels like it fell into place. We worked really hard and were really focused.”

Louris wrote many of the new songs at his home studio before he knew there was going to be a new Jayhawks album, describing his songwriting process as largely unchanged over the 30-plus years and basically “catching the lightning in the bottle.” Sonically, “Proust” finds the band not sticking in one place too long.

“It was important to me to make a statement that the Jayhawks are more than just one genre and sound,” Louris said. “Musically I think I like a lot of different things. I grew up listening to British rock primarily and then pop and then art-rock. I try to express that in the music I make. People would be surprised what my interests are musically.”

A central inspiration for the album, obviously given the title, is the works of French writer Marcel Proust, who wrote the epic “Remembrance of Things Past.” A friend had told Louris that she thought she heard the writer’s name being paged while at an Amsterdam airport, hence the album’s title.

“I’ve certainly read my Proust and like what he stands for. Which is being in the moment and not rushing through life and actually being thoughtful and digging deeper and avoiding clichéd thinking,” he says. “It’s a reaction to the world today where it’s all about being smarter and faster and newer and younger. I think it’s a cry for help.”

While Louris is not one to completely cater the music to his audience, he’s thought more lately about “what it can bring to other people.”

“Music in certain ways can be selfish because you write about yourself but you find that there are common themes and issues that resonate with other people,” he says. “What’s most rewarding to me is when people come up to me and say it helped them get through this or that and ‘Your music saved me.’ And that’s the most rewarding thing.”
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