Interview date: 09/18/2008
Run date: 09/24/2008
Dan Murphy has spent far more time as a member of Soul Asylum than he has any other band, but discerning music fans who enjoy their Americana with a few rough edges may be more appreciative of his work within his side project, a little group called Golden Smog. Murphy has worked alongside members of Wilco, The Jayhawks, and other Minneapolis all-stars with the Smog, and although it’s definitely a part-time gig, the group has released enough material to warrant a best-of collection: Stay Golden, Smog: The Best Of Golden Smog -- The Rykodisc Years. Bullz-Eye chatted with Murphy about his experiences both in the Smog and the Asylum over the years, and in addition to giving us a feel for the history of the former, he also assured us that the latter is still on the road, giving audiences their all.
Bullz-Eye: Hey, Dan!
Dan Murphy: Hey Will. How are you?
BE: Pretty good. It’s a pleasure to speak to you. I’ve been a fan of your stuff for quite some time.
DM: Thank you…and thanks for taking the time to do this!
BE: Oh, absolutely.
DM: Our kind of Best Of disc is coming out…I think maybe next Tuesday? I think that’s the day. When I’ve been doing these interviews, people say, “Oh, it’s kind of been a long history to make the band.” Hey, it kind of snuck up on me! It just seems like yesterday we first got together, you know?
BE: I have to tell you, man, that although I was a fan of all the stuff Golden Smog put out on Rykodisc, I’ve clearly been asleep at the wheel for the past couple of years, because I wasn’t even aware of the band’s 2006 album, Another Fine Day, until I started doing my research for this piece. Frankly, I couldn’t be more embarrassed.
DM: (Laughs) In this business, that’s what they call “flying under the radar,” right?
BE: But just to clarify, prior to Another Fine Day, you guys hadn’t recorded anything since Weird Tales, right?
DM: Yeah. The last one, we did in Spain, and it was kind of a weird little experiment. We went to this little studio in the south of Spain, where they still had two-inch tape machines and all these funky old guitars and there were no computers around. We wanted to see what it would be like making a record that way. And then, of course, when we finished it, we dumped it all into computers. (Laughs) But it was still pretty funny; it was very typical. Usually when the Smog gets together to make a record, there’s…well, we know it’s important that we’re all together, like, in some location, because most of the writing hasn’t been done in advance. So you kind of have a vibe and have access to guitars, and people that are around can finish ideas and stuff. So we went to this little place, and it was kind of like going back in time twenty years or something. It was pretty cool. Everything is a fun experience with those guys. It’s a pretty compelling cast of unusual people, and they all have a lot of energy, so we get together and it wears people out.
BE: So what are the original origins of Golden Smog? Your Wikipedia page…which I’m sure is 100% accurate…actually says that you founded the band.
DM: I think I founded the name, if that’s possible. It was kind of like this loose thing where The Jayhawks and Run Westy Run and Soul Asylum were kind of...in the early to mid-eighties, we were all kind of in various things in their careers, and all three kind of had signed to Twin-Tone Records. It was kind of real different musically with those three bands, but we all kind of got to know each other through various friends. I think the first kind of Smog-like incarnation was Gary Louris and myself and Dave Pirner, from Soul Asylum, and we opened up for The Jayhawks at this little sailor bar in Superior, Wisconsin. It was really fun. We just did a bunch of terrible covers and medleys and goofy shit, and that kind of became this ongoing entity that was mostly covers for, like, the first eight or ten shows we played. We had Her Satanic Majesty's Paycheck, which was this Rolling Stones cover band they had, this terrible Eagles thing (The Take It To The Limit Band). And then, you know, at some point the Smog kind of developed a sound of our own, and we started writing songs and, after that, we quickly went into this great little studio in rural Minnesota called Pachyderm and we did what turned into Down By The Old Mainstream. To me, at that point, that’s when it kind of became a band and less of a wedding band or whatever it was before that. A wedding-from-Hell band, maybe. Or a soon-to-be-divorced wedding band. (Laughs)
BE: Nice. What’s the story with your credit of “David Spear” on the first album? I mean I know it was a contractual situation, since you were already signed elsewhere as a member of Soul Asylum, but where did the name come from?
DM: My boss at the time, Donny Iner, he was, like, “Well, why don’t we put out the Golden Smog record?” And I was, like, “Because then you’d make us go on tour for six months, and then we would break up.” So at some Soul Asylum tour we were at, somewhere down in Arizona or something, the bell check guy at the hotel was, like, “We just had Bon Jovi in here last week. Do you know how they check into their room?” And I was, like, “No, sir, I do not know how Bon Jovi checks into their rooms.” He said, “It’s your middle name and the first street they lived on.” So I grew up in Duluth, Minnesota, and I lived on Spear Avenue when I was a little kid. You’re screwed if you lived on a number street, I guess…like, if you were on 2nd Street. But, so, we did that for our credits, and at first it was just kind of funny and flip, and then it became relevant, as we were all on various record labels that didn’t want a competing product out there. And then I think on the last record, everyone was just kind of over it, because no-one buys records anymore anyhow, so they decided they could use their real names.
BE: Was there ever a battle over a song that somebody pitched to Golden Smog and then said, “Um, wait, maybe I should have kept that for my band”?
DM: A little bit. It’s a pretty relevant question. I think “Until You Came Along” was one of those songs. Gary’s, like, “God, I really like this song, but it just sounds better when the Smog does it somehow.” So it’s a Smog song…but then he’s, like, “Um, yeah, but the chorus I really kind of like.” That was one that I think was like that, for sure. I think some of the Smog stuff just kind of seems to have its own energy and its own life. A lot of the Smog stuff is sort of written as it goes into the studio. I mean, with Weird Tales, I know for a fact we didn’t even play with Jody (Stephens) once until we got into the studio. I had met him before, but I never sat in a room with him before. I met him on an elevator at the Mondrian Hotel in L.A. and I said, “He looks like a nice guy.” But we did no preproduction, none of that stuff. So, then, you can’t really say, “Oh, this song’s too good to give to the Smog.” You just kind of see what happens to it as it goes.
BE: Actually, speaking of Jody, how much hero worshiping was going on when he joined the lineup? (Writer’s note: for the members of the readership who aren’t obsessive power pop geeks, Jody Stephens was formerly the drummer for Big Star.)
DM: Everybody was really cognizant of what he had done in the world. The cool thing for me is that when he sat behind the drums…he’s got a certain kind of sound that he gets, and it’s not the drums, it’s the way that he plays them. I’ve never been with a drummer that plays the fills like that. It’s just crazy. We were just laughing, because you never know when he’s going to come back in on the one, but he eventually does. So it was pretty eye-opening. I mean that record, Weird Tales, we probably cut all the drums on that in maybe five or six days, so it was, like, two songs a day, and it went seamlessly. I mean, it was real fun to listen to. It was real fun to play with him, you know, and if you can capture that in the studio…? Because usually recording drums in the studio is worse than a trip to the dentist. It’s boring as sin.
BE: There’s a quote from you in the liner notes where you say “Smog is not smart guy rock.” But it certainly isn’t what I would call dumb guy rock, either. How would you describe it?
DM: I think what I meant to say was it’s not like bands that…like, I would assume that Coldplay, for instance, before they go on tour, they have a meeting about what they are going to wear, what the stage is going to look like, and when they do press, how that’s going to be. I mean, the Smog…it doesn’t really take any of that into account. The only story is that it’s a bunch of guys who kind of like each other’s bands and decided to form a buddy band. It just seems like it’s not as cognitive as, “How are we going to conquer the music world, and how are we going to sustain this?” It’s not really thought about. It’s more for the friendship and the music and the comradery that goes with it. If you don’t have expectations like that, you’re not disappointed as readily. It’s not really from your brain; it’s more just from your heart or something. If that makes any sense at all.
BE: I think it does.
DM: So it’s not like you have a smart guy committee that figures out how you’re going to maintain in this music world and stay relevant. I mean, that would never even enter our minds…and it’s just kind of refreshing.
BE: Who would you say is the most underrated member of the band?
DM: Other than me? (Laughs) I’m kidding. It’s probably (Marc) Perlman. I think Perlman is a really good writer. He wrote a lot of the stuff ,and he’s a phenomenal bass player. He played some guitars and pianos on stuff, too. I think that, in The Jayhawks, people weren’t aware of…like, a lot of that record Sound of Lies, he was a major writer on a lot of that stuff. But on our last record, the one that we did in Spain that’s not a part of this compilation, there’s a song that he wrote called “Cure for This.” I think it’s probably the best song on the record. I mean, he’s a real clever writer, and people don’t even know that he does that because when you go to see The Jayhawks or use to go see them, he would play bass guitar and not sing. So I think he’s a talented musician, but people aren’t aware that he is as accomplished a writer as he is.
BE: I love the previously-unreleased cover of “Love and Mercy” that’s on the best-of.
DM: Oh, yeah, that was kinda something we did live quite a bit, and then we did a couple of alternate versions that was part of the Weird Tales sessions.We did one with just Jeff (Tweedy) on acoustic guitar and singing like really quiet, and then we did that one. I forgot we had even done it, you know, but then there were all these tapes that got sent to us that we converted to Pro Tools, and we were, like, “Oh, yeah, that’s right, we did that.” Then Gary and I went into a little studio in Minneapolis about three months ago, added the backing vocals in the middle, that harmony where it’s kind of an eerie choir sound, and mixed it. But, yeah, that seems to be a pretty relevant message in today’s economy: “There’s a lot of people out there hurting.” Funny that that was recorded ten years ago but none of that has really changed. I really like that song.
BE: Do you remember whose idea it was to record it originally?
DM: I think the funny thing about that was, at that point, Soul Asylum had been doing a cover of that, as had Wilco.
BE: Actually, I knew Wilco had done it, but I didn’t know Soul Asylum had.
DM: Yeah, we use to do it a lot at Soul Asylum shows, too, and it was funny because I started playing it in the studio one day ‘cause someone suggested we try to record it, and we were doing different tempos and different keys on it. I think what we recorded kind of became a composite of both our versions, and it was a song that Gary had already known. I’m one of those guys who…I was never was a Beach Boys guy. I never got those guys at all. But I know Tweedy was kind of entranced with some of their recordings, and that song, to me, it just has such a simple and direct lyric, and that was totally the part that everybody got right away. They go, “Oh, yeah, I love this song!” Usually with the Smog, if people don’t resonate on a song in about five minutes, it will never see the light of day, you know?
BE: What’s your personal favorite songwriting contribution with the Smog?
DM: I kind of like that song “Ill Fated.” I think that that’s kind of got a nice lyric, and it’s earnest and heartfelt, if nothing more. I remember the specific months of my life when I was writing that, and it seemed like it was kind of shooting from the hip, you know.
BE: How much input did ya’ll have in putting together this best-of set? Or did you have any at all?
DM: We did. Quite a bit, actually. I got an email from The Jayhawks’ management saying, “Hey, Rhino is going to rerelease some of the stuff from Ryko, and here’s their proposed title, and here’s the track list. If you have any input at all, feel free to email them,” which is generally the way that that happens. But I was, like, “God, there are some other tracks we should get together and record and finish.” You know, if you’re going to put out something that is a best-of, retrospect thing, and I know Rhino has…that’s what their company is all about, so it’ll be around for years. We wanted it to be something that had special stuff on there for people that had already bought those records, and additional tracks and liner notes that were kind of competent, if not better. I sell vintage art, so I have an art gallery as my other job when I’m not doing music, and on the cover of the CD is a piece by this old German expressionist painter named Heinrich Kley that I had, which I decided to use for the art work. So we were involved every step of the way.
BE: Was it weird realizing that a group that had started as a side project actually had enough recordings out there to warrant a best-of?
DM: Yeah, I mean, in some ways, it’s an honor, you know. It always advanced past what our expectations were, and in a way, that surprised us. But, yeah, if you have a little side project band that gets together every five or six years, and somewhere down the line someone’s going to do a best-of…it’s very surprising. That’s exactly the word. And, then, you know, you start doing these interviews, and I haven’t even thought about that band in a couple of years, really, but then you go, “Oh, yeah,” and it kind of brings it all back. It certainly has been a pleasant part of my life.
BE: So what is the current status of Soul Asylum?
DM: Well, we’re playing some shows. We kind of do weekend stuff, and we’re going to Lima, Peru. So we’re keeping fairly busy. We don’t have any plans to make a record right now. Basically we’re…I was in Raleigh a couple of weeks ago, and I was in Arkansas last week, so we probably do 30-40 shows a year, which is just about right for me. I don’t want to go on the endless tour. That was the eighties and nineties, you know?
BE: Yeah, actually, one of your songs, “Cartoon” (from Hang Time), was the first song that really got me into Soul Asylum, so thank you for that.
DM: You know, thank you. Yeah, we still play that sometimes live, and, you know, I think the goofy thing about that band is that it’s hard to navigate having a big huge hit single. It’s probably like…what was that band that did “More Than Words”?
BE: Oh, Extreme.
DM: Yeah, yeah. It’s just kind of weird because you’re known for that song primarily. I love (“Runaway Train”), but it’s not really what we do or what we did. And at that time, we were eleven or twelve years into our career, and people thought that was our first record. But, you know, it’s hard to educate people about what your intentions are, so we don’t even bother to try anymore.
BE: It’s got to kill you that there are people out there who still think of Soul Asylum and go, “Oh, God, it’s the ‘Runaway Train’ band.” I mean, just completely writing you off based on the one song.
DM: Yeah, I know. I mean, before that, we were on an indie label for years, and we toured with every single band in America, and we got two records on A&M. So, yeah, I mean, after twenty some years into this, people still don’t have it right, but, you know, it’s the music business. I love our fans, but I don’t really expect much from that industry or that mechanism of promoting hits and records. We did a lot of years on Columbia where we had a couple of hit records, and we had a couple that weren’t hit records, and to my eyes, the difference is what the record company perceives as far as how well it’s going to do. That’s kind of an iffy business proposition at best if you’re in a band, you know. Not for the faint of heart, that business. (Laughs)
BE: Well, when The Silver Lining came out in 2006, did you have high expectations for it, or by that point were you fully aware of what the industry was like and were just hoping for the best?
DM: It was a really good record, and I hoped that it would sell…and it didn’t, really. But, y’know, we did a bunch of shows and got some songs in movies and on ESPN, so it got some exposure. But at that time, we didn’t expect it to...you know, musically, it seemed like it should have some legs and that it had a chance. But when I go over my kid’s house and he listens to the radio and shit, it’s, like, “Ah, of course we’re not on the radio.”
BE: Oh, yeah. I contribute to another web magazine called Popdose, and every week we take a look at various chart hits from previous years, but this week we did one with all current chart hits, and most of us were, “No! We don’t want to do this!”
DM: (Laughs) Where’s the fucking song? I don’t even know what it is anymore. It’s like a Fruitopia commercial or something. That’s what pop music sounds like to me nowadays. It’s just like candy, you know?
BE: Well, Staind was one of the groups we had to deal with.
DM: Are they the ones with the singer who’s the scary looking dude that sounds kind of all monotonic and he sings really low and he never really gets pissed off?
BE: (Laughs) Um, maybe...? I can’t say that it stuck with me beyond the one spin I gave it.
DM: Yeah, I keep up just a tiny little bit. It’s, like, I enjoy music, but I just devote so little of my time and attention to trying to figure out what’s going on in that world…and to be honest, I don’t really miss it.
BE: What do you listen to now?
DM: I’m kind of in the art business now, with the gallery, so I’m pretty involved with that. What do I like? I like Tom Waits. People that are good songwriters, I have a lot of respect for that. I mean, I like Bob Dylan, I like Sly & the Family Stone. I guess I’ve been making music for so long that I like people that can craft a song, or I like a really unusual recording. I just kind of listen for that kind of stuff more than an overall sound. Most music just doesn’t really crank me anymore. It’s, like, I listen to most stuff that people are really passionate about and will drive four and a half hours to go see them tour, and I said I would never do that, but it’s just the point I’m at in my life. I’m not a bitter old fuck. It’s just that a lot of it doesn’t move me, you know?
BE: Boy, do I. Okay, last question: looking over the resumes of the various members of Golden Smog over the years, of the bunch, it’s only The Honeydogs and Run Westy Run that never really got huge mainstream recognition. Do you have any thoughts as to why?
DM: Well, with Run Westy Run, they kind of imploded. They were wildly popular in Minneapolis. I mean they were more popular than Soul Asylum in the early eighties or The Jayhawks. And then they kind of got a record deal and they came to New York and they had members in the band that kind of had drug problems. That whole thing. And I don’t think they got a lot of recording done when they came out, and they were all real young, and…it just kind of imploded. But I think their legacy is pretty interesting. It was one of those things that if you saw them play in Minneapolis in their heyday, it was just…they were this crazy scene, you know? And The Honeydogs, there was one record where they had a couple of regional hits that got played on the radio a lot. I know that Adam Levy is Noah’s brother, who kind of writes with Aimee Mann, and he’s on her record. So they’re still making music. You know, I was telling someone earlier today that, when I think back on the music business and my life in music, what are the chances of even having a guy in any town want to call you on his phone and do interviews? It’s, like, one in a million. So I feel incredibly fortunate that I did as well as I did in this business for as long as I did. I really have very few regrets and, I mean, it’s really a crazy way to try and carve out a life. You know, you say, “I’m going to make music and go on tour with my friends in a band and hopefully I can make a living doing that”? What are the odds…?
BE: Well, it’s been a pleasure talking to you, man.DM: Thanks a lot. And thanks for the time. I appreciate it!