Interview: Jayhawks Drummer Tim O’Reagan on New Album’s “Liberating” Creation Process

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Photo Courtesy of Jayhawks

By Simru Sonmez-Erbil, WERS Staff Writer

On previous albums, Jayhawks drummer Tim O'Reagan was solely behind the kit, banging out the heartbeat of many a Jayhawks tracks we have come to love. However, for the band's latest album, XOXOall four members of the band penned the music and stepped up to the microphone. Before the release of the album, O'Reagan took WERS Staff Writer Simru Sonmez-Erbil behind the scenes of this collaborative creation process, and also spoke about recording his own solo record, the influences of the band, and even the lunch he has with him during a writing session.

Well, to start off, I have to say, I am a big fan of your upcoming album, XOXO; It is quite stunning! Why did you guys choose to name it XOXO?

Tim O'Reagan: Well, we went through a whole list of name options, and that was one that just stuck and everyone seemed to think it was positive and went with the album cover.

Speaking of the album cover, I saw that it's a painting by Duncan Hannah called "The British Invasion." You've got that British Invasion influence in there, and I love the combo of that and country-rock. How did you come to have that mix of styles?

TO: You know, the Jayhawks originally started out as twangy and country-rock, and that's how they were pegged early on, but if you talk to Gary [Louris], he'll tell you that he was more influenced by British bands, more than Gram Parsons and all these other well-known country-rock innovators. But the rest of the band... We have kind of a wider variety of tastes, and some of them overlap; A lot of us like English pop, and a lot of Americana music as well. I think it's just a function of our taste in music.

Yeah, and it makes for a great, unique mix. I saw that you guys contributed to Ray Davies' album Americana a few years back - How did that influence your process after that, talking about both British music and Americana?

TO: I think we're more influenced just by Ray Davies and The Kinks more than that specific process. It was inspirational to meet him and work with him, so it was inspiring to see him still really invested in his work after all these years. I think we were influenced that way. But we were already influenced by The Kinks and him, so I don't really think our process was specifically influenced by that recording with him. Because we've been around a long time and we've done a lot of recording ourselves, I guess we're more influenced just by him and the band.

Certainly, there's a different music climate now than, say, in the mid-to-late '90s; Do you think your influences have changed at all since you've been with the Jayhawks?

TO: Mine have; I listen to more country music than I used to, and explore it where I wasn't exploring it before. Some of the guys and girls in the band - like I said, we have a wide range of tastes - I pick stuff up from them about different types of music and kind of get out of my shell (laughs).

It's cool to hear all those different kinds of styles depending on who's written what and how you guys are collaborating. It's great to hear you more in the spotlight vocally as well as in terms of songwriting for this album and to hear all the members more highlighted for that matter. What was that experience like?

TO: It was kind of liberating. You know, we've all got songs hanging around that we would take any opportunity to record and get out there, so it was kind of a nice airing-out process for us. Everyone was going to have some songs on the record, and it was a really open, easy, natural process that we fell into, trying to help each other with getting their songs tidied up and whipped into shape. So, all in all, it was a really positive, pleasant experience.

Does it make experiences like touring different at all? Is there a different kind of communication now?

TO: Yeah, maybe, compared to years past. I mean, the band's evolved a lot both personality-wise and how we do things, so there's generally, I think, more open lines of communication about ideas. Before it was pretty much Gary and Mark being the main songwriters, and they would just have their songs and stuff, but now it's a more open process.

I'm curious to hear what the studio dynamic is with such a collaborative effort; Could you set the scene for us, put us right in a typical Jayhawks songwriting session? What's it like?

TO: (Laughs) Well, I have a tuna sandwich next to me, some carrots, a bottle of water, Karen has her elixir in her jug… No, I think we all sit around, I'm usually strumming a guitar… And Mark was really into building songs as a group from the ground up. He would present his ideas and just kind of encourage everyone to come up with additional ideas to add to his thing; I would throw out an idea, Gary would pick it up and go with it, and it really was like a free-for-all at times, which was the fun part for me. No ideas were off the table, anything goes.

(Laughs) Well hey, it doesn't hurt to have lunch of champions along with that.

TO: (Laughs) That's right.

That's really cool to hear, and within the band, do each of you take certain roles at times? Like, is there a certain person who's best equipped for the lyrics, or chords, or melody, or is it more that everyone dabbles in everything?

TO: Well, everyone tries to dabble in everything, I think some of us are better at some things than others. I'm not great with lyrics, the other three are better than I am with lyrics. My strong point is I think coming up with catchy, rhythmic things, maybe a bridge idea. Karen's got the beautiful chord progressions because she's on piano, so they always sound more sophisticated and beautiful. Gary's a guitar player, he comes up with some great guitar hooks to go along real natural. I think everybody contributes their strong points and like I said, we're trying to encourage everyone to do everything rather than just sticking to one role.

I saw that during the Jayhawks' hiatus in the 2000s, you actually released a solo album. Was that beneficial, do you think, and what kind of perspective did it give you when it comes to your songwriting in the Jayhawks?

TO: It was beneficial, it gave me some confidence, because I think a lot of people liked it, and I learned things about keeping stuff simple and if I had to do it over again, I would simplify things. That's the first thing that comes to mind as far as what I've learned from it. It's basically how to make songs a little less self-indulgent and more pleasant to listen to.

I saw that in addition to drums, percussion, and vocals, you're also credited on the album with guitars, and even sitar! How did you come to be such a multi-instrumentalist; Which instrument was your primary one and how did that branch out?

TO: Well, I'm mostly a drummer, that's my history for the most part, and halfway through my... arc, I started picking up guitar, and I made friends with some other good songwriters a long time ago, and so I started trying my hand at it. I'm not very good at guitar, I'm mostly just accompanying myself, singing. But I think the songs that I play guitar on on the record were songs that I either wrote myself or had a part in writing, so I usually had an idea that I wanted to put in there. It was easier for me to play it rather than try to have Gary do it. It was in the spirit of everyone trying anything, including me, playing guitar instead of playing drums. 

You talked before about having friends that are also songwriters and being influenced by them; What is the role in friends and knowing other people in that musical community, and how does it shape your own songwriting?

TO: I think mostly, short of stealing ideas from friends, (laughs) it's just a very encouraging thing to have a music community that gives you the courage to try things. You see other people doing it, succeeding, and other people stumbling, so it makes it less daunting to try stuff. I'd say that that's the main thing for me as far as working with friends in the music community.

Also talking about outside factors influencing you, do you feel like the subject matter across a Jayhawks album is sort of influenced by what's going on socially and culturally in the country? On this record, there's "This Forgotten Town," which lyrically reflects a sort of long-gone glory days, then there's "Living In A Bubble." Does your outlook change depending on the era of history that we're in?

TO: It didn't influence me that much, but both those songs that you mentioned, I think, were a reflection, at least in part, of what's going on these days in our culture. So, yes, to answer the question. (Laughs) It is influenced by what's going on, at least in those cases. My stuff was a little more personal, [and] I think Karen's were too, on the record. 

The other songs that you kind of took the reins on, like "Society Pages" and "Little Victories" - "Little Victories," I gotta say, is a song that I'm rooting for to be really successful! It was cool to feel like there was almost a storyline throughout the album. Is there a particular song or moment on the album that you're particularly proud of, or even a larger thing musically, when you look back on your career, that you're proud of having achieved or created?

TO: Well, I'm proud of how long we've been able to stick with it, and I'm proud that we've been able to maintain a fanbase. Now, I'm proud of this working relationship we developed with everyone; It's all for the good, for our abilities and the vibe in the band, and it'll probably show up when we eventually play live, if we ever do again (Laughs). 

(Laughs) Speaking of that, actually, I've been hearing people saying a lot that "the music industry is changed forever" because of this COVID situation. As someone who's been greatly involved in the music industry for a number of years, do you think that's true? And if so, how so?

TO: Well, it's mostly just the limitations that the pandemic is putting on us, and if and when they can figure out ways to handle large crowds without infecting a bunch of people when they just want to go out and have a good time. It's a struggle right now, we can see it in the news; the whole idea of wearing masks and social distancing. People have different attitudes about it, so I think we need to come together a lot on that. Then, when they come up with either a cure or something to make it less contagious - I think until that happens, we're gonna be stuck with just creating ways to present the music without everyone gathering in a room.

Do you feel like, personally, this different period of time has any upsides, you know, overlooked perks?

TO: It probably does, with families spending more time together, and eating together, people are really prioritizing things in their life and questioning a lot of things they've been taking for granted. I think, in that regard, that's a positive. Beyond that, I have no thought about it.

The best you can do is make the best of it. 

TO: People are exercising more, I think that's happening, that's probably good. The dogs are getting more walks, I'm all for that!

(Laughs) Oh, it's a good era for dogs! And what do you see in the future for the Jayhawks, the future that you can see so far?

TO: Well, the way we approach this record might happen again, maybe in not such a specific way, but my guess is that from now on everyone will probably be contributing more to songs, song ideas. That's probably the main thing, and we'll be touring as much as makes sense health-wise and safety-wise. I mean, I'm not anxious to get in a room full of people (laughs), I don't wanna get sick. But at the same time, I really wanna get out and play, I think everyone does, so we just have to find a balance.

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