Golden Smog – Hawks & Dogs Run West and Wilconvert your Soul
The rumor’s been goin’ ’round town for a while now: Those happy-go-lucky Golden Smog dudes are gettin’ serious on us, fer chrissakes. I guess being a comedic cover band on a lil’ ol’ indie label just warn’t good enough for ’em; they’re movin’ on up to a big ol’ indie label, and they even wrote their own songs for the new record. And they might even go on tour.
One wonders what kind of effect all these changes have had on their music, a question guitarist Dan Murphy is happy to answer.
“It sounds more like Hootie & the Blowfish,” he deadpans. “But don’t print that.” Oops.
Murphy’s remark is the kind of crack that epitomized the spirit of the olden Smog days, back when the members of this loosely-defined Minneapolis stuporgroup first began doing one-off shows every six months or so at local hangouts such as the Uptown. Murphy, who moonlights with the Smog when he has time off from his day job at Soul Asylum Incorporated, remembers those days well.
“This was like the late ’80s, and everybody was really big on punk rock and hardcore in Minneapolis. We went to this place and we brought, like, driftwood lamps, and wore ponchos, and we did all these Eagles covers real quietly, and we sang harmonies. And people just flipped. They didn’t know what to think. That was the whole spirit of the thing — I mean, fucking with people for amusement.”
It was also about old friends. Golden Smog’s ever-devolving lineup has, at some point or another, included Minneapolitan members of Soul Asylum, the Jayhawks, Run Westy Run, Son Volt, the Replacements and the Honeydogs. Some of those bands have gone on to bigger, perhaps better, things; in any case, the increasingly demanding commitments of their respective bands has meant that they spend less time hanging around in clubs together playing shows and going to see bands. The Smog became a sort of reunion device to help revisit and renew the ties that bind in a tightly-knit musical community.
What began as a lark — an evening of Eagles covers here, an evening of Stones covers there (under the banner of “Her Satanic Majesty’s Paycheck”) — became slightly more serious when a small local label, Crackpot Records, released On Golden Smog, a five-song EP of cover songs, in 1992. The recording project was as off-the-cuff as the shows — except that the final product came out sounding not like a throwaway souvenir, but rather a really good record.
Sure, the closing cover of Thin Lizzy’s “Cowboy Song,” featuring Soul Asylum road manager Bill Sullivan on lead vocals, was predictably trashy. But the rest of the disc was a minor revelation. Murphy unearthed a remarkable tune called “Son,” a lost ’60s gem from a band called Michelangelo; it’s precisely the kind of long-forgotten tune more bands should seek to dig up when they’re looking for cover material. Soul Asylum singer Dave Pirner made a guest appearance on Bad Company’s “Shooting Star,” giving it a soaring vocal boost that puts it up there with the best tracks Soul Asylum has recorded in the ’90s. And Jayhawks conspirator Gary Louris turned in perhaps his best vocal performance ever to make Three Dog Night’s “Easy To Be Hard” the highlight of an already surprisingly strong EP.
Even so, Golden Smog remained primarily a sideshow curiosity, especially as the profiles of both Soul Asylum and the Jayhawks became increasingly conspicuous. There was talk of doing another Smog record if everyone ever got around to it, but no definite plans — until finally Run Westy Run’s Kraig Johnson brought in a couple songs he had recorded at the tail end of a Westy recording session. Surprise, surprise — they were originals.
“He said, ‘I want the Smog to record these,’ and I was like, ‘Wow, Kraig just upped the ante,” Murphy remembers. “And they were great songs. So then I thought, ‘Well we need a songwriter,’ so I called up Jeff Tweedy, the guy from Wilco,” Murphy continues, explaining that he and the other Smog members had known Tweedy for years — dating back not only to the days when Tweedy was in Uncle Tupelo, but to an interview Tweedy had done with Soul Asylum for a St. Louis zine when he was just a wee lad.
Tweedy gladly accepted the key to the kingdom of Smog and headed to Minneapolis. “I had him come by my house — I have a little recording studio in my basement — and we spent about four days together writing songs,” Murphy continued. “He wrote some stuff [on his own] and we wrote some stuff [together], and Gary Louris had some stuff. And then we did the record in five days.”
“A lot of the songs we didn’t play together until we were down in the studio,” Johnson said. “We practiced the day before we went down there, but Jeff wasn’t here to practice with us, so that made it more interesting. We hadn’t heard at all what Jeff had. On a couple of songs, I just said, ‘Well, let’s try recording this.’ And that’s kind of what made it fun, was that it was a spontaneous thing.”
Spontaneous, yes — but it’s clear that Down By The Old Mainstream, due out Jan. 16 on Rykodisc, was given more careful consideration than the On Golden Smog EP. The Smogsters realize that may rub some fans the wrong way, but they don’t seem to mind. “It’s taken more seriously, and if people don’t like it, then that’s tough, if they want us to be a joke band,” Louris says. “We’re still pretty funny because when we play, we’re not very good. But I think the songs are good.”
Good enough to elevate Golden Smog to the level of a going concern? After all, the Jayhawks’ situation is up in the air now, given the recent departure of Mark Olson from the band. As the Minneapolis music community mutates, will the Smog rise again?
“It’ll definitely give us a little more time to do things,” Johnson said in early November, just a few days after Olson’s departure from the Jayhawks became public knowledge. “We were kind of worried about not being able to get together and do a tour. But now those guys have a little more time on their hands, obviously.
“But everybody else is kind of busy doing other things too. I don’t think we’ll ever step up-front, but we’ll be able to do more than we thought, probably. We really wanna do a tour, so that looks like a good possibility. And there’s probably a chance that we could do another record. Because the songs are there.”
And if the well of original songs runs dry, they could always become a Hootie & the Blowfish cover band.