If there were ever a corollary to that John Cougar Mellencamp song and car commercial "Our Country," it would be Gary Louris' "Vagabonds." Sometimes the shiftless aren't idle, but moving, and their broad brushstrokes evoke just that—a restless nation, longing for something they haven't seen. Befitting any song that leaves such a dust-filled wake, "Vagabonds" opens to harmonica and a light strum before the piano slowly joins with foreboding strikes.
Louris sings of drummers marching in the rain, immediately setting a slightly wanton scene. A man wakes up in a car, and Horace Greeley's admonition—westward—resounds as Louris note, "Red Camaro can never get its fill/ The feeling of freedom just west of Chapel Hill." (He's presumably not talking about Carrboro.) One assumes he's talking state troopers and not a '70s porn convention when he invokes a "mustache warning" for pulling over, casting a subtle outlaw air.
Louris builds on that romantic, road-worn notion, inviting the listener to "roll me over, tell me I'm alive/ Shallow breathing, right between the eyes." As the angelic chorus suggests, he carries on. For the cast alone in the world, there's little choice.
We caught Louris in a tour bus with Vetiver just outside of Madison, Wis.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: I understand "Vagabonds" came at the end of putting the album together?
GARY LOURIS: It was a song that I had written and performed at an obscure all-night music program they were having in Minneapolis at this beautiful orchestra hall. I think it was 2005, and a friend of mine in the audience recorded it. I never much thought I liked the song, though I didn't think hard about it. So, I assembled all these new songs, and then right before I went to L.A., I threw that recording in with my demos and sent them on to Chris [Robinson, producer]. Chris loved the song, and said "We have to record it. Maybe we'll just put it on like it is." So we went on to record it and that became a very important song in the record. It's a good example of not always being the best judge of your material. That's one of the reasons you get somebody with another set of ears to help you notice a nugget, or to tell you something you think is great actually isn't.
The song employs a Dylan-esque string of evocative images rather than a narrative.
That's what it is, although it does have a meaning to it. There are little cinematic snippets of people traveling and searching, whether they're sleeping in their cars or under a bridge or around a fire, or whether they're in an office but their minds are drifting far away. It is supposed to be more imagery than saying what this means. I don't know exactly what it all means.
It's a nice centerpiece for the album because it echoes a lonely but resolved aspect present in many of the songs.
It's got a certain majesty. It's not a dance record, and it's not a party record. Things get amped up more live, but as far as the recording I think there is a certain somber majesty to the thing that's like a soulful march through life. I don't know why, it wasn't initially planned but it's definitely got a kind of apocalyptic feel to it.
In the song you sing "The feeling of freedom just west of Chapel Hill." Where's that reference come from?
I have certain friends in Chapel Hill that I know, and also my friend Jonathan [Wilson] who played bass, is out from that direction. He and his friend husky, they actually migrated from North Carolina—I don't know exactly where it was—to California and ended up living in L.A. They were the owners of the Camaro [mentioned in the song]. So it kind of came out a little bit of the east to west migration and the traveling motif. They're two pretty extreme points on the map, Los Angeles and Chapel Hill.
Where did the Vagabond choir (including Jenny Lewis and Susanna Hoffs) come from?
I think originally I knew that I wanted some female singers because I know that they sound good back to when Karen Grotberg was in the [Jayhawks]. Then Chris just knew a lot of people. So we just kind of put a call out. They started singing and they instantly blended beautifully. I'll never forget it.
The album was made in Laurel Canyon, and there's maybe a little bit of that in there. It's got a very sweet, '70s pop feel to it, and yet very organic and rootsy, never getting too ornate or baroque.
I've had people complain on my webspace that there's too much stuff, it's overproduced, and there are other people that feel it's stripped down. If you were there you know how honest and organic it was. Just five people playing in a room, and a couple days where some groups came and sang some big vocals, but that was about it. Thom [Monahan, engineer]—we all listen to crazy music and we're not all Bob Dylan and Neil Young. But I like that Thom can get some weird noises and do some crazy things, but mostly we tried to respect the song and where it led us.
There are only 10 songs on the album. Was it tough to pare it down?
Those were the songs that worked the best together, and also I was determined to have a shorter record this time. It just seems like people put too much stuff on their records. It's a little bit self-serving, and it doesn't really contribute to the records so much. I like the old records that were here and then they were gone, and if anything you wanted more. You never got tired of it. It wasn't easy though, because I had 50 to 60 songs—a lot of stuff, not all good. I'd gone back and listened to some of our old Jayhawks records, and I wish I had left 3-4 songs off almost every one of those records. Not all of them, but [2003's Jayhawks album] Rainy Day Music could easily have done without four to five of those songs. [2000'a] Smile certainly could have left four to five songs off. I think this time I was determined not to have a bunch of songs on there that didn't deserve to be on there. That and I wanted the best ones that worked together.
How is Vagabonds informed by finger-picked folk and an [as yet unreleased] album you made with [former Jayhawks co-writer] Mark Olsen?
I've just been getting into the folk-picking, which is something the Jayhawks didn't do that much of. But Mark and I always seem to find ourselves getting into things at the same time, and we both kind of got heavily into the picking aspect and that leads your songs into a certain area, which was somewhat, more introspective. That's where that went, and that fed into my desire to do more of that when my record came out. In addition to the fact that we used Chris Robinson, the same studio, all those things when making the [Olsen/Louris] record, about 15 months in front of my record. It sort of planted it in my head that I guess I really do want to make my record in L.A. I really did like that studio, and I really did like working with Chris. So one led to another.
I understand no really knew the material and you only had a couple rehearsals?
We had five days. Some of the musicians had heard the material ahead of time, but there was a large songbook of material that they needed to be a little familiar with. We whittled it down in those 5 days to 19 songs we were going to concentrate on. It started with me, the bass player, Jonathan Wilson and the drummer Otto Hauser, at a rehearsal space in the valley. Thom Monahan and Chris Robinson were there to listen to the songs develop. Then after 3 days the keyboard player came in, and he had 2 days with us and I think the steel player had just one. We had a couple days off, and then we just started upon the following Monday. Everybody was so good. I can't say enough about them.
Do you like that unfamiliarity?
There are arguments on both sides. I know that it's efficient to have a band rehearse, rehearse and rehearse until they have the songs down and even possibly take them on the road, test them out. On the other hand they can get stale. There's just the creation aspect, that when everyone's just kind of making it happen, [there's] that initial spark which you get. So I think that's the best way to do it: Catch it when it's just beginning, as long as the players are good enough to hang in there and not going to keep making mistakes and having to go over and over.
How is it playing with Vetiver on tour?
It's really great because they're such a tight-knit group, and they're such a great band. We really get along well. There's a certain musical chemistry that happens with people that play together on a regular basis as opposed to picking one from here, one from there, and throwing them into a room, and hoping that happens. Chemistry doesn't always happen even if they're all good players. So I knew they already had chemistry and they were coming from a similar spot as I do, a rootsy background, but they hadn't been through the ringer for 20 years. They still have a real positive attitude.
Gary Louris and Vetiver play Friday, April 4, at Cat's Cradle. Tickets for the 9 p.m. show are $20.