By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
Golden Smog began its life as what singer-guitarist Dan Murphy describes as "the cover band from hell. We'd learn, like, twenty or thirty covers in two days. And we'd just barely learn them. We'd play requests, too--like 'Freebird.' There'd always be some wiseacre who'd call out for that one. But we usually wouldn't play the whole thing. It gets kind of boring when it goes into the guitar solos."
Musicians in literally thousands of bar bands from coast to coast have similar tales to tell, but Golden Smog isn't just any bar band. Rather, it's a bar band with a pedigree, albeit one obscured by the liner notes of 1995's Down by the Old Mainstream, the Smog's full-length debut for the Rykodisc imprint. Murphy, whose main gig is as a member of Soul Asylum, is identified on the cover as David Spear, and his five bandmates also sport noms de plume. Jeff Tweedy, the co-founder of Uncle Tupelo and current leader of Wilco, is dubbed Scott Summitt; Kraig Johnson, of Run Westy Run, bears the alias Jarrett Decatur; Jayhawks Gary Louris and Marc Perlman are called Michael Macklyn and Raymond Virginia, respectively; and Noah Levy, of Honeydogs fame, operates under the unwieldy moniker Leonardson Saratoga. These pseudonyms suggest a Traveling Wilburys-like cheekiness, but Murphy, who's pretty cheeky himself, insists that this act of obfuscation was forced upon the combo.
"It definitely had to do with contractual problems," he says. "I would have rather used my own name, and so would everyone else in the band. But Soul Asylum is signed to Columbia, and Wilco is signed to Warner Bros., and everybody else is signed to other labels, and we couldn't work it out. Like with Columbia, I respect them for wanting to keep everyone on all their rosters there, because they have kind of a family thing. But I don't think the Smog is a Columbia band. It's smaller than that. Sales-wise, there'd be all this anticipation, and I don't think the Smog could handle that."
Hence the need for liner-note disguises. Murphy credits a concierge at a Phoenix hotel where Soul Asylum stayed during a tour with suggesting a solution. "He was like, 'We had Bon Jovi in here last week, and the way they check into their rooms is they use their middle name plus the name of the street where they grew up.' And I thought, 'If it's good enough for Bon Jovi, it's good enough for us.'"
That's where any comparisons between the Smog and the outfit that gave us Richie Sambora end. Mainstream and its five-track predecessor, On Golden Smog, are shaggy excursions into country-inflected rock of the sort that Wilco, the Jayhawks and Son Volt have been championing of late. But whereas many of the recordings by the aforementioned acts (and others that emulate them) brim with a relentless seriousness that goes down smooth with many critics but tends to ossify upon repeated listening, Golden Smog's platters exude a refreshing sense of fun that previously seemed beyond these guys. The Tweedy-penned "Pecan Pie" ("Sometimes I get so hungry/I think about pie all day") is far more informal and lighthearted than his usual efforts, while Johnson's goofy, lackadaisical "He's a Dick" and "Red Headed Stepchild," a collaborative rocker by Murphy and Perlman, are as engaging as they can be. Moreover, the playing and arrangements are far less fussy than one might expect from a sextet dominated by players with so much studio experience. The good time that was had in the making of the cuts wasn't blanched out prior to its arrival at your friendly neighborhood record store.
"You can hear the mistakes and whatever," Murphy admits. "Our producer, Brian Paulson, was like, 'You guys aren't making a Soul Asylum record, and you're not making a Jayhawks record.' But even so, at first I was like, 'Jeez, we can fix that later.' But we never did. We just put it out, and everything worked out fine. There's a level of musicianship that I'm proud of. Even if it's not perfect--and there are guitars that are out of tune and singing that's flat--it sounds like we know what we're doing.
"That's kind of the beautiful thing about this band. Everyone in the Smog is in other bands, and the expectations for those other bands are way high. But the expectations for the Smog are nonexistent. So when we listen to something, we're like, 'Hey, that was better than I thought it was going to be.'"
This attitude is perfectly in keeping with Golden Smog's origins. The group began as an opportunity for peers on the Minneapolis music scene to get together outside the confines of their usual musical configurations and play whatever popped into their heads for appreciative drunks in local dives. The players' repertoire recognized no boundaries of taste or quality. They willingly tackled the good, the bad and the ugly.
"We'd do 'Guitar Man,' by Bread, which is a pretty good song," Murphy remembers. "And 'Operator,' by Jim Croce--that's a classic. We would kind of do it to bug people, I guess, but we were completely in on the joke. It wasn't like we were up there acting like we were hot stuff. And the best part was, when we would play those songs, people would be like, 'I hated that song twenty years ago, but tonight it sounds all right.'"