It's high hopes for new CD by the Jayhawks // THE GREEN, GREEN GRASS of HOME

Jon Bream / Star Tribune

Get the Jayhawks in a roundtable discussion and you get a lot of silly joking around, reminiscent of those early Beatles news conferences.

"We're not like an English band. We don't specialize in press, attitude or whatever," said singer-songwriter-guitarist Mark Olson of the Minneapolis country-rock band. "We've always been worried about getting together and playing the music."

"You got a good attitude going with that thing on your head," singer-songwriter-guitarist Gary Louris said about Olson's ad-hoc winter hat - a wool scarf wrapped around his head.

"Talk about attitude," bassist Marc Perlman chimed in sarcastically.

Olson, Louris and Perlman just returned from two weeks in Europe on a promotional trek for the Jayhawks' new album, "Tomorrow the Green Grass," which arrives in stores Tuesday amid great expectations.

Rolling Stone and Billboard both published prominent stories about the album two months before it was due to hit stores. "This may be the album that breaks the Minneapolis-born band beyond its base of critics and country-rock connoisseurs," Rolling Stone wrote. "The Jayhawks are delivering the finest album in their nine-year history."

The band's record label is optimistic, too. "I think we have a big potential for pop hits on this record," American Recordings general manager Mark Di Dia told Billboard, the music-biz bible.

"I thought we were their Great White Hope," said Olson of American Recordings, which has scored hits with black rapper Sir Mix-a-Lot, white rockers the Black Crowes and Slayer, and rebounding country veteran Johnny Cash.

"I don't think we're their Great White Hope," piped in Louris, as the Jayhawks sat munching nachos to taped music of the Gear Daddies last week at a bar on Minneapolis' West Bank.

"We're their legitimatizing factor," opined Perlman.

"They're really behind us; they always have been," Louris continued. "If there's any problem with the label, there's too many people there who care too much about it. So you get a lot of people with their input and it gets very confusing."

Commuter rehearsals

The Jayhawks are a democracy, with each member having a say, even newcomers Karen Grotberg on keyboards, who signed on in '92, and Tim O'Reagan, hired late last year as the band's fourth drummer in 10 years. Eventually, however, the conversation is dominated by Louris, 39, and Olson, 33, who write the band's songs together - even though for the past year or so they have lived on opposite coasts.

When the Jayhawks aren't working, Louris is usually in New York, where his wife works in the film industry and shares an apartment with comedian Lizz Winstead, even though Louris and his wife pay a mortgage on a house in St. Paul. Olson lives in Los Angeles with his singer-songwriter wife, though he pays rent on an apartment in the Twin Cities (which he sublets to someone else).

Like an old married couple, Louris and Olson often finish each other's sentences, and sometimes they disagree. One thing they agree about is that in Europe, "Green Grass" seemed to be sprouting all over the place: England, Sweden, France, Holland, Italy. The three Jayhawks did some heavy-duty schmoozing, performing on radio and TV, chatting up magazine and newspaper critics. Without a crowd to play for, however, the trio didn't feel they got any genuine feedback.

"I'm just not convinced it does any good," Louris said of the promotional trip. "It's like rock cult hero Alex Chilton once said, `It's nice if you get reviews. Let me sell some records.'"

Benelux big shots

The Jayhawks have found many converts during their five concert trips to Europe since the release of "Hollywood Town Hall" on American in 1992. In Paris, fans ask about the music scene in Minneapolis. In the Benelux countries, the Jayhawks won the Edison Award - the region's equivalent of the Grammys - for best rock album, beating out U2 and R.E.M.

In the United States, the Jayhawks get a lot of respect, too, especially in the music industry. Various Jayhawks were asked to play on albums by Mick Jagger, Soul Asylum, Counting Crows and such underground heroes as Uncle Tupelo, Joe Henry and Victoria Williams, Olson's wife. The Jayhawks were invited to perform at Farm Aid VI in Ames, Iowa, in '93, and they opened concerts for Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Johnny Cash and the Black Crowes.

The cost of success

Despite all the respect, acclaim and that shining Edison prize, the Jayhawks are in debt to American Recordings. The way it works in the record business is that the label gives a band an interest-free loan with which to make a recording and cover other expenses. The loan is repaid by withholding the royalties the band earns from album sales, though many bands never sell enough to repay the loans, and they are not responsible for the money after their recording contracts expire.

"Hollywood Town Hall" sold about 250,000 copies, decent for a national debut. "We spent a lot of money to make it sound like it was done in a week," Louris explained. "It was labored over."

Compared to "Town Hall," Louris and Olson agreed that the recording sessions for "Green Grass" were more relaxed, the songwriting more focused and the sound "unintentionally commercial."

"Green Grass" is full of pretty country-pop with sweet vocal harmonies, catchy hooks and a mysterious moodiness. If "Town Hall" sounded like Neil Young backed by the Flying Burrito Brothers, "Green Grass" comes across as alternative-rock version of the Everly Brothers.

"I've sort of gotten to the point where I enjoy making records and I love writing songs and playing," Olson said, "but I don't really analyze the records we've made."

"He's a simple man," Louris interjected.

"You can print that," Olson said.

"We've never been a band to sit down and talk about stuff very much," Louris continued. "The more you start thinking about the stuff, the worse it gets. You have to put some thought into it, but you don't have to analyze it."

"I think our records have some sort of story/spiritual aspect to them, but it's nothing to be sat down and discussed," Olson said. "In Europe, people asked us a lot if this was a concept album."

Discovered by phone

Olson grew up on country, folk and blues music, deciding at 17 he wanted to be a musician, not a scientist. Louris studied piano and classical guitar and, at 7, wrote a paper about George Gershwin. Nevertheless, he got a degree in architecture and didn't get involved with music again until he was 26.

Louris was playing with Safety Last, a Twin Cities rockabilly band, when Olson, who had played in the rockabilly group Stagger Lee, asked him to join Perlman and drummer Norm Rogers to form the Jayhawks in February 1985. The band gigged at such rock bars as the Uptown Bar and 400 Bar, serving up country-folk - not exactly fashionable in those hip hang-outs.

The Jayhawks released an album in '86 on their own Bunkhouse Records. Three years later, they put out "Blue Earth" at the suggestion of then-Twin/Tone Records executive Dave Ayers. He also played a part in the Jayhawks' big-time deal with American.

Ayers was talking to American Recordings producer George Drakoulias on the phone but was called away for a few minutes, during which Drakoulias heard "Blue Earth" playing in Ayers' office. Eventually, Drakoulias signed the Jayhawks to American Recordings and became their producer.

Although the Jayhawks have built a sizable audience in the Twin Cities, they feel they've never fit in with any particular scene. They're not sure where they fit in nationally, either. "I can't say we sound like any other band that I can put my finger on," said Louris. "We're not Nine Inch Nails, we're not Weezer. We're not the Counting Crows or Sheryl Crow. I don't know what we are."

"What we don't have is a really singular person in front to sell," Olson said. "We don't have Dave Pirner, Soul Asylum's lead singer. We have more of a group effort."

All over the map

The Jayhawks will spend this weekend in New Orleans at the Gavin Convention, performing for radio big-shots. In March and April, they will be opening concerts for Tom Petty for six weeks. They plan to be on the road for eight months this year, not 14 months as they were after "Hollywood Town Hall" was released.

Louris has three goals for "Green Grass" - to go gold by selling 500,000 copies; "to get out of debt" to American Recordings, and to become "self-sufficient."

Olson feels "Green Grass" is a success already because he's pleased with the quality and confident that it will give the Jayhawks the opportunity to make more recordings. It looks as if Louris and Perlman will have a chance to release their side project, Golden Smog (which also features Twin Cities musicians Dan Murphy of Soul Asylum, Craig Johnson of Run Westy Run, Noah Levy of Honeydogs and out-of-towner Jeff Tweedy of Wilco). The band has recorded 19 songs for an album expected from Rykodisc in September.

Meanwhile, the Jayhawks are trying to figure out when they can do a hometown gig to celebrate the release of "Tomorrow Green Grass." A concert tour of Holland is penciled in for spring, but if they don't go, the Jayhawks will perform at Minneapolis' First Avenue in April. If not, look for a summer concert here.

"We still think of ourselves as a Minneapolis band and we're proud to be from here," said Louris. "We don't want people to think that we're this international band running around . . ."

"Jet-setting," Olson finished.

"I plan on living here," Louris said, "for the rest of my life."