Jayhawks' Gary Louris Clears Up the Golden Smog

If there's such a thing as a Golden Smog purist, that poor cad is probably wallowing in a microbrew in some dank Minneapolis bar, bemoaning the loss of the good old days when the Smog could be counted on for random acts of irrelevance and the sloppiest covers this side of Dread Zeppelin. Sure, each member had his regular "day job" in bands like Soul Asylum, the Jayhawks, etc., but each left all his lofty pretensions of serious songwriting at the door when he adopted his Smog alter ego.

Alas, before long Smog stopped playing around town regularly and started writing, recording and even touring as a genuine band of sorts. But at least with 1995's Down on the Old Mainstream they had the cheek to use fun pseudonyms, a la the Travelling Wilburys, and to throw in messy pisstakes like "Red Headed Stepchild" and "He's a Dick."

But what is one to make of this new Golden Smog album, Weird Tales? Damned if the songs are good enough for the Smoggers' real bands -- The Jayhawks (Gary Louris and Marc Perlman), Soul Asylum (Dan Murphy), Wilco (Jeff Tweedy), Big Star (Jody Stephens) and Run Westy Run (Kraig Johnson). And double damn, even the fake names -- a concession to their different record labels -- are gone.

"We don't do the Michael Macklyn stuff anymore," explains Macklyn ... er, Louris in a phone call from the Twin Cities. "That's in the past. That's no longer needed, and no longer cute." Sigh. Have at it then, Louris ... tell us where it all went wrong and Golden Smog started getting so damn good.

Back when y'all started gigging as Golden Smog, did you have any idea that you'd end up recording albums of original material?

Not at all. It was strictly a way for us to hang out, because it was always more fun for us as musicians to just go out and play than to sit around and watch. So here we were able to get paid, get free drink tickets and hang out with our friends who were on stage or in the audience. And it was just strictly as a goof at the beginning, but you can only do that for so many times -- after a while you've either got to take it to the next level or not do it anymore.

So when did the first incarnation come together?

It's hard to trace. I remember seeing Dave [Pirner] and Dan [Murphy] from Soul Asylum playing acoustic shows where they'd just do medleys of everything from the "The Gambler" to "Amazing Grace." Then Dan started doing things like Eagles tribute nights, with ponchos and buckets of fried chicken. Then we started doing Rolling Stones tributes, and those things got really popular, and that evolved into the Golden Smog.

With so many writers in the band, isn't it a bit like too many cooks in the kitchen?

No, surprisingly not. People somehow just shift roles, and the spotlight shifts over to the respective songwriter and everyone else steps back into the roles of sidemen. It just automatically seems to do that, and I guess it's because there's just such a mutual respect for everybody. There's no room for bad feelings in the Smog. That's more for our own bands ... no, I'm just kidding. (chuckles)

Do you come together with songs finished, or do you write specifically for the Smog?

It depends. "Until You Came Along" and "Jennifer Save Me" on this album were both tried with the Jayhawks on the last record, but for one reason or another they didn't work. So I shelved them, and later they worked with the Golden Smog. And vice versa -- I've taken songs to the Golden Smog that were strong but for some reason just didn't work. They just seem to find their own place.

Do you tend to pull your punches a bit -- i.e., withholding your best songs for the Jayhawks to get first crack at?

I've held a few things back that I thought were important. I'm not going to say that there aren't priorities, and I think everybody in the Golden Smog, if they feel like they have the gem of their crop, they're probably going to save it for their respective day jobs. But people aren't always the best judge of their material, so for one reason or another, some of the best songs you write might end up on a Golden Smog album, even though you think you're saving your best stuff. You never know.

With all the material that's been written for the band now, will there still be room for covers?

I don't know. We haven't played in awhile. We started this record in January of '97, did two weeks, and then it took a year for us to schedule ourselves so we could all be together again. So we finished it in January of '98. I don't even remember what they look like, the other guys. I know that we will still do a lot of covers, because it's still a lot of fun for us, but there is a lot of new material now that we'd like to play. But it's an odd transition -- before it was like a fun party thing, and now we're serious, so trying to balance that on stage is kind of difficult, and it can change the personality of the band depending on which night you go.

So, would you be more likely to cover something really out there like King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man" or Foreigner's "Hot Blooded"?

Uh, "Hot Blooded." I think I'm probably the only art rock guy in the band. And I'm a little older, actually -- I never owned an Aerosmith record until the early Nineties when we started having to cover it. So I discovered a lot of crummy rock from playing with the Smog, and learned to enjoy it.

Do you think you'll ever revive the Eagles tribute?

I wasn't involved in that. I couldn't even stomach that. I've never liked the Eagles, not even in a funny way. Although ... it might be fun to play "Hotel California," just to see the look on our faces as we got to the big instrumental part. But no, that hasn't ever come up.

How open are the doors to Golden Smog? Say if an Evan Dando came knocking ...

(Laughs) It's open, but there's somewhat of a waiting list right now. I can't really tell you who, other than that some of the people on the list are actually much bigger than the people in the band. But I foresee a possibility that if this were to continue and for some reason somebody couldn't make it, there could possibly be a fill-in for someone on a tour or a record. But right now I'm really happy with who we have in the band. But who knows? Maybe there will be an East Coast and a West Coast Smog.

So what's your take on the supergroup concept? I take it you were never an Asia fan ...

Oh of course not, no. (Laughs) "Supergroup" conjures up to me things from the Seventies. I guess the one that was maybe close to being anything was maybe Blind Faith, but usually you would think of it the way you might think of Golden Smog, but you'd be wrong -- that is, just a bunch of guys getting together and playing probably without a lot of chemistry and without a lot of focus. But for some reason with the Golden Smog -- and I don't think it's because I'm prejudice -- although it may not hold together as much as one singer singing an entire record, it still offers something else that is equally as strong, and I don't know how to explain it. Somehow it works, and that's the reason we do it. Otherwise we wouldn't embarrass ourselves or try to put out something that's mediocre.

Plus, we're not exactly household names. I remember reading some review in England, saying, 'I got all this press, and who are these guys with these fake names? I was just fascinated ... and finally I got the information, and I still didn't recognize anybody's name except Dan Murphy from Soul Asylum.' When you think of Wilco and the Jayhawks and Run Westy Run and combine all the record sales, it's not exactly super as far as super-success. But I guess we're just a super bunch of guys. We're a super good time.