As the founding father of one of the greatest alt.country bands ever to have walked the earth, Mark Olson really doesn't need much of an introduction. He is Americana royalty, as further proved by his latest solo album, Many Colored Kite, and the future indeeds looks bright for the 48-year old gentle-voiced singer. But that doesn't mean he doesn't have his battles to fight, as he tells Americana UK in this interview, in which he also answers the question on everyone's mind – will there ever be a new Jayhawks album?
Interview by Soren McGuire
The last time we spoke was in Copenhagen right after Salvation Blues had been released, an album written and recorded during a long journey through Europe and other places. Back then you told me you would never record an album under those circumstances again. I assume you haven't then?
Do you remeber that show I played? I had Italians and Norwegians in my band, and it was a really great experience playing with those guys. We toured a lot and really, what we did was reach a point where we started enjoying the lifestyle of touring and being on the road. When I came home after that tour, I immediately started writing these songs, because when you tour so much as we did, what happens is, you play really well. So I wrote these songs when I was playing really well from having done all those shows, and I wanted to get something together so we could keep the band going.
So this album was written under far more happy circumstances than Salvation Blues?
Yes. We wanted to capture the sound we had been working on on the road. Our live shows ended up sounding different than the record, and I wanted to have something to show for all the shows basically, something that would show the listener what we were working towards musically. And I think we were able to do that with the violin and some of the simple arrangements.
You told me you are in Oslo at the moment. What are you doing up there?
I'm going to an international school here, six weeks of people from all over the world. The reason I'm doing this, is that I've always been interested in writing lyrics, but I feel like I've reached a point where I have this one style of writing lyrics, and I wanted to try change that. I'm taking these classes and I'm starting to think about new ways of writing lyrics. It's been so much verse/chorus, maybe I want to get into more of telling a story to the ending. It's simple things, but I need to figure out how to do it. I've been writing so many songs over the years, I want to try and do it differently the next time.
Why do you think you had to travel all the way to Norway to find this sort of enlightenment?
It's more that one of the members of the band lives here, so I decided to come over here to rehearse for the upcoming record. And while I was here, I wanted to do something else, so I signed up for this class. I'm just interested in songwriting, and it's something I'm doing for my own enjoyment, not because I need to resuscitate my career or anything. I'm curious about it, it feels like I'm learning another language.
Did the other musicians freak out when they saw that Mark Olson from The Jayhawks was in their class?
Haha, no no. These people are from all over the world, Romania and so on. No one has shouted out "wow, that's Mark Olson from America!".
The cover of your previous album, Salvation Blues, read – A two-year journey through the heart of loss and redemption. Did the album save you? Did you come out the other side a happier person?
I don't know if the actual record did anything to save me, but I think in part the touring did. We just had fun. We would set up, play every day, go to a lot of different places, meet people, and everything was on a level of us doing everything ourselves, from calling the taxis to booking the flights and selling the merchandise. We were totally busy morning to night, but we just enjoyed it. It didn't leave me with any time to think about what could and should have been, and I liked that. I really enjoy life at the moment, from the minute I get up to the minute I go to bed, I do things I enjoy. When you're a musician, there are certain points where you experience a lot of downtime, and I don't like that. Keeping busy is the way to go.
Okay, so here's the obvious question on everyones mind; is there going to be a new Jayhawks album in the future?
I definitely think it's going to happen. Right now it's just about working out the time, but I definitely think there'll be a new Jayhawks album. I look forward to be doing both things right now, my own records and working with The Jayhawks.
You and Gary Louris had been playing together for years when you left the band. Does playing and performing with him change the way you yourself approach music?
Hmmm…yeah I think so. I think we took it to a certain place with the Ready For The Flood album, but in retrospect we started going down that road with the folk stuff, and some of that ended up on my new album. Fingerpicking, open tuning, that sort of stuff definitely influenced me. We did quite a few shows with Ready For The Flood, and I do think we influence each other when we play together. Any time you're actually playing, it influences what you do next.
I actually spoke to Gary a couple of years ago, and asked him about the possible reunion. He said he would like to do it, but doubted it would ever happen. Obviously he was wrong about that, but knowing Gary, what do you think changed his mind?
I think, if anything, it was the recognition that the five people who made Tomorrow The Green Grass all enjoy each others company. We got together for these reunion shows, and when we were backstage and places like that, we could still laugh. It was a very pleasant experience, we really got on well. The battles are still there, but they aren't that important anymore. They don't concern me…
Of course we also discussed the relationship between the two of you. He told me that you were "his guy", and that you just had a deeper sort of understanding of each other. In your words, what happens when you and Gary get together?
We played together for over a decade, we wrote a lot more songs than were ever released, we had a lot of time in the studio together. It's experience, basically. And the other thing, the sound people got to know us with, was very electric. A lot of people probably got to know me through The Jayhawks as well, and I never ever use electric guitars in my shows, so I can understand why people would go "wow, what's going on? This doesn't sound like The Jayhawks at all" when they would see one of my shows. But you know, then they would see me with The Jayhawks playing an electric guitar, and it would make sense to them! I get that a lot from people at shows. I have a super interest in folk music, using different instruments, but to me, it's an adventure. When I heard Live At The Budokan by Bob Dylan, I couldn't stand it, because it didn't sound at all like his records. But that's just the way it is.
Did it piss you off when he first went electric?
I was too young. Desire was really the first Bob Dylan record I bought, so I was too young to be bothered about the electric thing.
Universal recently re-released the band's very first album, The Jayhawks AKA The Bunkhouse album, from 1986. It went out of print pretty fast and has only been available on various bootlegs forms up until now. What happened to that album?
That album had been purchased from us many years ago, and I couldn't understand why that album hadn't been re-released sooner. I actually still don't know why they suddenly decided to release it now. They kind of just contacted us and said it was coming out this spring.
Did it bother you that they were re-releasing it?
No no, I was very happy about it. We actually took four songs from that album and put it into our live set, and we found out, when we were listening to the album again, that we were playing super fast back then, and that actually helped out the set, playing these fast songs. It was hysterical!
Looking back, how would you describe the version of The Jayhawks playing on this album?
A lot of it was based on the drummer (Norm Rogers), who only played on that album. He was sort of a Creedence/punk drummer, a good friend of us, and he set the tone for the more uptempo songs. I was definitely into Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, and at the same time we were also listening to a bluegrass show on the radio, learning about old country. That's how it all came together. We didn't really discover minor chords and Neil Young and other kinds of interesting things til after we had made that record. It was a learning-how-to-write-songs-in-a-traditional-way kind of record, but when I listen to it now, what makes it interesting to listen to now, is the drumming. It was just so crazy, so out of this world. Norm really had a punk attitude. Oh, and another thing was Gary's guitar playing. He had just come out of a rockabilly band when we made that album, so he applied that rockabilly sensibillity to the songs. It was just over the top. I even have Falling Star in my set now.
Did this album shape the future sound of The Jayhawks or do you remember a lot of things changing between this one and the next album?
It was definitely the beginning, but I wouldn't say it became the sound of The Jayhawks. I don't think we found that until we made our next album, Blue Earth. That's when we sort of discovered minor chords from listening to Neil Young and The Band. "Hey, there's minor chords, let's start using those!"
Imagine you have a time machine that could send you back to those days? What advice would you give the younger version of you?
I would have spent a lot more time woodshedding my own musical skills, spend more time writing myself. We rehearsed three times a week, and spent some time writing songs, but not nearly as much as I do know. But you know, we all had day jobs back then, but at the same time, hours and hours spent playing really improves you as a songwriter, and that stuff has really started to pay off now. These days I toss out things much faster if they don't work, and that's really the way to do it. Back then, you'd sit for hours and hours figuring out chord patterns…
Would you have told him to stay in The Jayhawks?
Um…there's one way I would have gone about it, and that was to have propositioned for a year break. I did need a year break, because I was totally burnt out. But after that year, I should have come back, yeah. But I also have to say, I really did enjoy being in The Creekdippers. We did a lot of exciting and interesting things.
Mark Olson's Many Colored Kite is out now on Ryko. The Jayhawks' The Jayhawks AKA The Bunkhouse Album is out now on Universal/Wrasse Records. More info at Markolsonmusic.com and Jayhawksofficial.com