Interview: Golden Smog

I admit to being subjective. Golden Smog is a side project between Dan Murphy of Soul Asylum, Gary Louris and Marc Perlman of the Jayhawks, Jeff Tweedy of Wilco (and Uncle Tupelo before that) and Kraig Johnson of Run Westy Run (a Minneapolis alternative band with a little retro-metal flavor that has been going since 1985, with several good albums on SST and Twin/Tone Records). I like all of these bands, most of all Soul Asylum. 1985-1986 was a great time to be working in a record store in Minneapolis. In addition to Hüsker Dü and the Replacements at their peak, Soul Asylum broke through with two great albums in 1986, the first, Made To Be Broken, produced by Bob Mould. They made several additional excellent records before having a worldwide hit with „Runaway Train“ in 1993.

They had been playing the song for several years in concert and it was clear to me and many other fans that it would be a hit; nevertheless, some of those fans jumped off the bandwagon when it happened. These people forget that all of SA’s records had had folk, country and pop tunes as well as punk rock. They also ignored two reasons SA started to feature these styles more prominently in the early 90’s. One was that singer Dave Pirner had damaged his hearing from years of playing maximum volume concerts. Another was the growing friendship between the band and the Jayhawks, who started in 1984 in Minneapolis as a country-rock band and gradually broadened their horizons to take in all sorts of roots music, resulting in a masterful 1995 album Tomorrow the Green Grass. Soul Asylum had done as much as they could with punk rock, and rather than repeating themselves the way some other 80’s alternative-rock pioneers have done, they learned some things from the Jayhawks about getting feelings across at lower volume. The last two SA albums, Let Your Dim Light Shine and Candy From a Stranger, are very underrated and there’s no reason to ignore them if you like the music on the Blue Rose and Glitterhouse labels.

At the beginning of September I went back to Minneapolis for a two week vacation. I timed the trip around a Minnesota Vikings football game (Sieg 31:7!) and didn’t know the Jayhawks were playing at First Avenue; I went to their show and was knocked out. They played songs from their last lp Sound of Lies (also a favorite of mine) and a bunch of fine new songs, more influenced by the Byrds of Gene Clark than of Gram Parsons now that Mark Olson -husband of singer Victoria Williams- is no longer in the band. Louris seemed a little nervous about a new stage setup that put him at the front, the others in the back and the drummer off to the side, but it must have been his idea and it makes sense, because it is now his band. Between his beautiful songs, tasteful guitar and crystal singing he has more than enough talent to lead a band even if he’s not a natural born frontman, so it’s logical that he has a side project like Golden Smog.

After the show I saw Dan Murphy and told him about my vacation, and he said he and Louris would be in Germany the following week to give interviews for the new Golden Smog lp (their third release) Weird Tales (Rykodisc). I had heard the first few songs in a record store the day before, and when I told him I’d only heard the start of the album, he said, „That’s okay, we put all the good stuff at the beginning anyway.“ Only when I got back to Germany and listened to the album more closely did I get the joke: the album starts with a song of Dan’s, „To Call My Own.“

Before the interview started I didn’t know if it would be with Louris or Murphy, but it was Murphy who called from München: „Gary went to Hamburg. We were together in London in Paris and we’ll meet back in London tomorrow. It’s just sitting in hotels anyway. I went out last night though. I talked to girls, but I didn’t get in any trouble. It was a place called the Atomic Cafe and the DJ played a bunch of music I hadn’t heard yet. It was okay.“

After we exchange notes on Russian, Polish and German women, I remind him of his joke about putting the best songs at the beginning. „Yeah, welcome to my world. I thought „To Call My Own“ would be a good Soul Asylum song but those guys didn’t bite that much.“

Originally, Golden Smog wasn’t a vehicle for leftover songs, it was a cover band, without Tweedy and with the Replacements‘ Chris Mars on drums. The released an all-covers debut mini-album, On Golden Smog, in 1992 and played a few concerts. Only a few years later did it turn into a „real“ band playing original material. Murphy explains: „That was all Kraig Johnson’s fault. He was recording an album with Run Westy Run and he stayed up late with the engineer and recorded two songs, one called „Yesterday Cried“ and one called „Williamton Angel“, and he played them by himself, just singing and playing piano. And it was like, wow, what beautiful songs. And Kraig said, I think we should record these with the Golden Smog and do an album of our own songs.‘ So he upped the ante and shortly after that we did (the second Golden Smog release) Down by the Old Mainstream. I’d seen the Jayhawks do that song „Won’t be Coming Home“ and I asked (Gary and Marc), what a great song, why didn’t you guys ever record that? And they said,We don’t know, why don’t we (Golden Smog) do it?‘ On that album there’s a couple of covers, including the Faces song“ („Glad and Sorry“).

So how did Jeff Tweedy get involved?

„Soul Asylum and Uncle Tupelo did some shows together, and Tweedy is best friends with (producer) Brian Paulson, and Brian’s my ex-best man. Brian said I should call up Tweedy and I called him and dared him to come up to Minneapolis to do some songwriting; I had a studio in my basement. We got together and played a show at the Uptown Bar in Minneapolis. We called it Circle the Drain, and afterwards I said we’d love to have him in Golden Smog and he joined. And it really completed the band.“

One of Tweedy’s songs is a high point of Weird Tales, a solo acoustic country tune called „Please Tell My Brother.“ The text is sad enough to be a Ween parody if it were sung that way, but Tweedy sings it honestly and it almost makes you cry. Then at the end of the record is another slow tearjearker called „Jennifer Save Me“ and it does sound like a parody because of some distracting feedback effects in the background. Of course, this is also a reference to a man who has had as much influence on Minneapolis bands as anyone, Alex Chilton, leader of the 70’s Memphis power pop group Big Star. „Holocaust“ and other songs from the truly depressing Big Star Third album have the same feedback ambience. Which reminds me, the drummer on Weird Tales is Jody Stephens, Big Star’s drummer, and the album was recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis, where Big Star did their work. How’d that happen?

„Our previous drummer was Noah from the Honeydogs (I know you’re excited to here about another Minneapolis band, this one a little like the Wallflowers‘ style of pop, with a couple of good albums Europeans probably can only find on the internet), but he had some scheduling problems. So Marc Perlman said `It would be great to play with Jody Stephens‘ and I just called him up. He heard Down By the Old Mainstream and liked it and said he’d play with us. We never really rehearsed, we just went down to the studio and it fell into place. He books the studio and does office work there. I played drums on one song („All the Same to Me“) while he was busy on the telephone. It was pretty comfortable. He could go do his work while we were working on arrangements. He also wrote the words to „Fear of Falling“, so all six guys write on the record.“

It sounds so easy, just calling up old heroes and asking them to be in your band. I guess when you have a low-pressure side-project, everyone wants to join in the fun. Although Weird Tales isn’t exactly a party record. Going back to „Jennifer Save Me“, I ask Murphy if there is some parody intended or if the record is just bleak.

„The record is pretty dark. On Down By the Old Mainstream there was the thrill of being in a new band and guy bonding, but on this record, everybody’s lives are going through transistions, trying to figure out what we want to do with our lives and relationships. I was talking to Jeff about it after we finished, when we were mastering the record, and I said, When I heard it, I laughed and I cried‘ And he saidReally? I just cried‘. It’s definitely a darker record. I think we tried to steer away from that but we just couldn’t, that’s the way the songs were. And it seems like, when people write dark songs they invent all these characters and stories, and that’s why we called it Weird Tales“.

We wrap up with a couple of notes about the Jayhawks. Dan tells me about the U.S. tour he did with them as second guitarist. „I made a good little Jayhawk, I just stood at the back“, he says with a giggle, before proudly announcing „Yeah, we’re labelmates now. The Jayhawks are on Columbia/Sony (Soul Asylum’s label). Their old label American got absorbed into Sony. So maybe Johnny Cash will be back on Columbia now!“

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