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This Smog is Golden

By Brian Baker, December 1998

For nearly a decade, a close-knit group of musical denizens of the Minneapolis scene have periodically forsaken their primary band affiliations in order to play together as a distinct unit known as Golden Smog.

The line-up of the country rock band has altered slightly, but the core remains essentially unchanged.

Everything about Golden Smog is unlikely. The name was appropriated from a character on an old episode of the Flintstones. The band has been a viable entity since 1987, but has produced only three recordings to date, including last October's "Weird Tales."

And although the bands that contribute members to Golden Smog are among this generation's most influential with regards to rock, pop, alt.-country and folk, the individuals that claim Golden Smog as their own and bring all of those qualities to Smog material and performance, barely register a blip on most fans' media radar.

Perhaps the band's single most visible member is Jeff Tweedy, whose Golden Smog membership has survived the rising fortunes and eventual breakup of alt.country groundbreakers Uncle Tupelo, and his subsequent and current high profile gig as frontman for Wilco.

This year has been hectic for Tweedy, with sessions for the new Wilco album and finishing touches to the Smog recording requiring a delicately juggled schedule. Then there's Tweedy's extensive promotion for the brilliantly conceived and executed "Mermaid Avenue" project with Billy Bragg, where Wilco and Bragg wrote new music to existing lyrics by legendary folk performer Woody Guthrie.

The Smog's other members are just as busy, if not as noticed.

Dan Murphy has been touring with his full-time band Soul Asylum, as well as working on their new album, released earlier this year.

Gary Louris and Marc Perlman have been hard at work on the next Jayhawks album, due in 1999.

And Kraig Johnson has been swamped, working demos with his brother Kirk for their next Run Westy Run album, contributing to the Jayhawks sessions, assisting ex-Geraldine Fibbers' violinist Jessy Greene (who's also on the new Smog album) on her home studio recordings and working demos with yet another side project called the Ojeez (with Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner).

It's amazing that Golden Smog happens at all.

Johnson succinctly explains the logistics of assembling all of the pieces of the Golden Smog puzzle. "Scheduling can be a problem," he says laconically prior to a Boston sound check. "That goes with the territory."

The planets have been favorably aligned for Golden Smog this year. Everyone's schedules were clear at the two most critical times: when the album needed to be finished and when it came time to hit the road. Although their touring possibilities are limited, they did assemble for a handful of December shows and planned to do the same for a West Coast jaunt in early 1999.

December marked the first set of dates that the band has played with new drummer Jody Stephens. Stephens, of course, comes with his own impressive lineage, having played with Alex Chilton in the legendary and influential Big Star. Stephens was Smogged after a recommendation from the band's manager when they were without a drummer, and Stephens was available. He had already sat in with the band during a New Year's Eve show in Chicago in 1996, and everything clicked. Stephens accepted the invitation without hesitation.

The brief winter tour yielded a few surprises, according to Johnson. "Yesterday at soundcheck, we learned a couple of new songs," he says. "It's fun when you can do that. Learn a song at soundcheck, play it twice, then play it live that night. Everybody's switching off, singing different songs and playing different instruments. Tweedy played piano live for the first time last night. Stuff like that happens, and it's great."

The chemistry that exists between the members of Golden Smog makes that possible, a camaraderie borne from years of toiling away in the Minneapolis music scene, long before lucrative record contracts and national cover stories and headlining tours. Since the 1991 show that featured Johnson, Louris, and Murphy performing acoustic versions of '60's and '70's hits under the name Golden Smog for the first time, members have included Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner and the Replacements' Chris Mars, among many others.

The covers gave way to original material, beginning with songs brought to the group and eventually leading to full fledged collaboration, which further reinforced the bonds between the members.

"We're all good friends, and we like being together, to be able to create together," Johnson explains. "One of the songs on the new album, "If I Only Had a Car," I had most of that written, but Gary had some other lyrics, and he came up with another part, and we sat down and kind of did that together. It's just fun to be able to do that with your friends."

Another benefit of the Smog is the individuals' ability to lose themselves in the group democracy. "I am here more as a sideman," says Louris, referring to his Jayhawks' frontman status. "This is more of a shared frontman. I love The Jayhawks. They are my main band. I love this band, too."

One of the evolutionary developments characterizing membership in Golden Smog is the separation of songs written for the primary bands and songs for the Smog. All members have found themselves setting aside snippets of songs or entire pieces, to bring to the next Smog gathering for evaluation or further work.

"Murphy's good for that," Johnson relates. "I'll play him some of my demos, and he'll pick one out and go, 'I think that's a really good Smog song.' Something just tells us that we have to play it with those guys. I don't know what it is."

Louris agrees to a point, but has a different perspective on his motivations. "I have a lot of songs that haven't seen the light of day, and this is an opportunity to do that," Louris says. "You just write songs and certain songs find their way. I really can't explain it."

Perhaps just as importantly, time considerations can drive the songwriting decisions, as the Smog membership can't call a meeting on the spur of the moment. That compressed schedule demands a unique creative solution. "You have to get a handle on it a little quicker," Louris says of the process. "Sometimes it makes for real good songs."

1992 saw the release of the covers EP "On Golden Smog," and four years later came the full length original debut, "sown by the old mainstream." By that time, Tweedy, Murphy, Louris and Perlman had all found some measure of success with their other bands, and so, for legality's sake, they recorded under pseudonyms.

But when the time came to begin work on "Weird Tales," everyone agreed that they should stick to their real names.

"Besides, we could record under our real names, and people still wouldn't know who we are," Johnson says with a laugh. "We see all these things calling us a supergroup, and Dan says, 'Don't you have to be super to be a supergroup?'"

Jeffrey B. Remz contributed to this story.