Interview: Dan Murphy of Golden Smog

Yesterday, I sat down with Dan Murphy, Golden Smog’s affable guitarist, to talk about Barack Obama, Brian Wilson, the band’s early days, Soul Asylum, The Jayhawks, Jeff Tweedy, nonexistent Swedish brides, and the music industry.

Murphy’s Midwestern supergroup will release Stay Golden, Smog on September 23. The record is made up of tracks from the band’s early years, but also features two unreleased tracks: a demo version of “Until You Came Along” and an unearthed cover of Brian Wilson’s “Love and Mercy.”

Owl&Bear: Are you planning to tour for Stay Golden, Smog, this best of compilation?

Dan Murphy: There’s talk of doing maybe three or four shows, but probably not even a Golden Smog-linked show. We played a show about two months ago at a Barack Obama rally in Minneapolis, and that was fun. Every time we play, you get everybody together and they go “God, this is great.”

It’s really easy, the music comes together easy, you don’t need to rehearse, it’s just the logistics of getting five people together who live in different cities, in different bands, who have different management. It’s tough, but every time we do get together, generally we want to do it again, and then five years later, it’ll happen. But really there’s nothing in the works.

Owl&Bear: I wasn’t sure if I wanted to mention election politics in this interview, but one thing that I’ve noticed about this release is that it’s refreshing—it’s a great pick-me-up during an intense and discordant time. You can just put on the album and feel better instantly.

Dan Murphy: The funny thing is, too, Gary [Louris] and I went into a little studio in Minneapolis and we put up four additional tracks and started mixing and doing minimal overdubs. One of those songs was “Love and Mercy.” Talk about a song that still resonates.

Owl&Bear: Definitely.

Dan Murphy: There’s still “a lot of people out there hurting.” When that song came on, I hadn’t heard it for about ten years, and God, it’s just about as poignant today as it was when Brian Wilson wrote it.

Owl&Bear: I was going to mention something about that too. It’s really nice to have on this CD because there was a live version circulating out there for a while, but it’s great to hear a studio version too.

Click here to download the live version of “Love and Mercy”.

Dan Murphy: Honestly, I’d forgotten that we recorded it. I remember doing it now, but it had slipped my mind all those years. We were listening to a bunch of two-inch tape, and I thought “Oh, that’s right,” and it sounded pretty good. I’m glad we dug it up.

When you do these compilations, you can have as little or as much involvement as you want, and for us, it was fun to throw together some tracks that maybe weren’t finished. So it was good to get involved, and I think Rhino’s a good catalog company and it’s something that will be around for years. We wanted to make it something that we’re proud of.

Owl&Bear: So “Love and Mercy” was polished a little for the compilation.

Dan Murphy: It was actually recorded during the Weird Tales session, but Gary and I went in and put some harmonies in that little middle part that sounds like a choral kind of thing. I think we mixed a total of four tracks from the Weird Tales session. I think two tracks are going to be on a Borders Bookstore version that has two extra songs. So on that version there will be four unreleased songs, and the version that comes out on Rhino will have two unreleased songs.

We spent maybe two or three days just listening to stuff and did minimal recording for stuff that was all originally recorded for Weird Tales. I was surprised at how good it sounds. I hadn’t heard it for ten years, and we put on the tape, and I thought “now there’s a drummer who knows how to play.”

Owl&Bear: Indeed. But it was definitely good to see those bonus tracks, and “Love and Mercy” definitely fits the times.

Dan Murphy: It’s a good time for it, I’m sure.

Owl&Bear: So I guess if Obama wants to use a Golden Smog song in one of his ads, you’re not going to oppose it, like how John McCain used Heart’s “Barracuda” despite the band’s objections.

Dan Murphy: I’m in. I’m down. We just had the [Republican National Convention] in Minneapolis, where I live part of the time. It’s funny the acts they got to play. I think they had the Red Rocker, Sammy Hagar, and I think they had Styx, and Toby Keith, so yeah. But for me, it was an honor to play the Obama rally. I’d rather play an event like that than try to put out a record that’s politically heavy-handed. For me, that’s “Love and Mercy.” It’s such a resonating message in a profound way, even though it’s the simplest song. It almost could’ve been written by a seven-year-old (laughs), but what great lyrics.

Owl&Bear: It is said that Golden Smog originally formed as a response to the punk scene in Minneapolis. Since you’re an original player, is that how you guys viewed the band in the beginning, like a breath of fresh air?

Dan Murphy: It was almost supposed to be a kind of weird performance art. We all hated the Eagles, so we thought it would be funny to have a band called Take It to the Limit and play in a little punk bar. I wore a poncho. There was this thriving punk rock and hardcore scene, and in a typical night, they’d have a band like Mudhoney. At that time Soul Asylum was kind of part of it, and Run Westy Run was definitely part of it, and the gag was to play the songs earnestly—to not take the piss out of them. It was all this shit that we all grew up listening to, like terrible Jim Croce songs, and we’d get together and play, and you’d realize that part of it was palatable, and then part of it was people asking us “Why the fuck are you playing this?”

It was kind of a gag, but that was the spirit of the band, originally. We had a loose configuration of various members of the Jayhawks, Soul Asylum, and Run Westy Run, and it turned into Golden Smog a couple years after we were doing these things.

I think Kraig Johnson was the first guy to say “God, if we’re really going to be a band, we should start writing some songs,” you know, “Buck up, guys.” He brought in these two songs—one was called “Yesterday Cried,” and the other was called “Williamton Angel”—that he wanted to record with Golden Smog, so those were the first two songs we recorded. That was the very beginning of the record Down By the Old Mainstream. We did that record in like six or seven days in a little studio in southern Minnesota. That’s when the band became a band in my eyes, and less of a wedding-from-Hell-band (laughs).

Owl&Bear: It sounds like it was more of an impromptu thing in the beginning. I know that in the beginning, a lot of critics commented on the “loose” sound of Down By the Old Mainstream as being part of the charm. It’s always seemed like you guys were doing it for fun.

Dan Murphy: In the studio, in the early days, that’s completely spot-on. But at some point, like when we went to make Weird Tales, we went down to Ardent in Memphis, and decided that we wanted to be a real band. We took four or five weeks recording it, which is sort of a long time, and we insisted that the drums sound really good and we got a producer, and we wanted to be more like a real band at that point.

[Weird Tales] is probably my favorite record. It’s either that or Down By the Old Mainstream. I like both, but they’re really different. Down By the Old Mainstream is very spontaneous, very loose, and has people sometimes playing not all the right notes (laughs). It’s still very musical and tuneful, but with Weird Tales, the perspective was to make a more real record. I think that record’s more moody; somehow it’s not as much “fun,” but it’s a little more poignant; there’s a compromise between the two.

Owl&Bear: Do you still follow the music scene in Minneapolis?

Dan Murphy: I don’t at all. I’m sure there’s a lot of good shit out there, but my wife is from Manhattan, so we have a little apartment there in New York, and I still travel quite a bit with Soul Asylum, so I’m not up on any of that stuff. I enjoy the freedom of not having to care. If I go see a band play that’s great, I’m totally into it, but I don’t keep up at all. I think there’s an underground hip-hop scene, and I know there’s still a big punk scene. I think Minneapolis is still pretty vibrant, but if you want to stay up ’till two in the morning to see a band…

Owl&Bear: Since you mention spending time in New York and traveling, I wanted to ask about a few conflicting things that I’ve read—such as that you’re a social studies teacher and a softball coach in Minneapolis, and an antiques dealer. Is any of that actually true?

Dan Murphy: You know, I absolutely love that someone put that out there. The only thing that’s true at all is that I’m an antiques dealer. There is also a rumor that I married Miss Sweden. That never happened. But I think it’s fucking hysterical. Anything that’s on the Internet has to be true, so just keep telling people that, alright (laughs)?

Owl&Bear: I’ll keep your answer to that question off the record.

Dan Murphy: I just think that’s hysterical (laughs). I’ve had an art and antiques business since the early eighties—off and on between records—and I travel around for that as well as for music. I have a pretty busy and full life, and I consider myself pretty fortunate to have survived the music business for 25 years. In itself, it seems like a miracle.

Owl&Bear: That’s one thing I realized when I was getting these questions together—that Soul Asylum formed 25 years ago.

Dan Murphy: Yeah (laughs). I know. That hit record we did was like thirteen years ago.

Owl&Bear: Still awesome, though.

Dan Murphy: Yeah, I have very few regrets about the whole thing. We had a pretty good run, and seeing the world on someone else’s credit card is not a bad way to live, you know?

Owl&Bear: How would you describe Golden Smog in 2008? You did the Obama show, are there plans for new recordings?

Dan Murphy: I don’t think there are plans to do any recording in the foreseeable future. There is some talk about doing shows this fall, maybe corresponding with the release, and I’d love to do that. But I’d like to get with the whole cast—I’d like to play with Jody [Stephens] again and Jeff [Tweedy]. It’s just so damn hard having five different management companies involved and five different cities that people live in, so I never really know what to expect.

But I know with that Barack thing specifically, we got together, we didn’t rehearse once, and we just started playing acoustic guitars. Next thing you know, there’s literally 22,000 people. We’re up playing, and it sounds just like Golden Smog, so it comes together in a really good way, it’s just a matter of trying to figure out the logistics to all get in the same town. I have high hopes, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we never played again all at the same time.

Owl&Bear: Saying Jeff Tweedy is busy is kind of an understatement.

Dan Murphy: That’s what they call an oxymoron, right (laughs)? He’s the toughest one to pin down on that stuff, but I totally understand. I was so busy in my band for all those years, and there’s just no way. And the last thing he’d want to do if he took a month off would be to tour with another band. I get it, but I see it as a privilege when we can get together and play. I don’t expect it. It’s just in a world of its own, and when it happens, it’s great, but all the planning in the world won’t make it happen, you know?

Owl&Bear: I remember someone speculating that after the breakup of the Jayhawks, Golden Smog might become Gary Louris’ main project. But now that he’s back together with fellow Mark Olsen—

Dan Murphy: Yeah, it’s hard for me to say. I think Gary is doing three things. He’s been producing records under the radar. Actually four things. He’s been writing—he wrote for the Dixie Chicks, he’s been playing solo stuff, and the Jayhawks just did a show in Spain. They got the Tomorrow the Green Grass version of the band together and Karen [Grotberg] and [Mark] Olsen, and they played a big festival, so maybe there’s more like that in the works. With any band, or with anything, it can get to be a grind. You’re constantly on this gerbil wheel where you’re making a record, promoting a record, touring, and starting over again. I can see where anyone would want to break that cycle. I think the Jayhawks and Gary specifically were at that point.

Owl&Bear: That’s something that seems to come up a lot—where a lot of bands really enjoy playing the shows, but they don’t really like the actual touring, and they don’t necessarily like to sit down and do the record.

Dan Murphy: The part I always hated the most was going out after you made the record and doing the promotion part of it, like going to the radio station, and saying “Hey, I’m Dan from Soul Asylum…” It’s just this shameful promotion. You feel like you’re a Cadillac dealer or something.

Owl&Bear: These are the things that idealistic high school kids never hear about.

Dan Murphy: Yeah, well, you know there’s a whole lot of ass-kissing in the music business on every level (laughs). But yeah, when you have a record that people like and it resonates with them, it’s easy. But you can’t really convince people if they think otherwise, no matter what you’re doing in the music business.

Sometimes it feels like everything is for naught—if you catch a break, you can’t screw it up. Seems like everything is predestined before you even put your record out and you’re just reacting to what happened. It’s not for the faint of heart (laughs).

Owl&Bear: Before I let you go—what are you listening to these days?

Dan Murphy: I like Tom Waits a lot. I can listen to his stuff through various stages. I like his early stuff a lot. I also like weirdly produced 70s R&B music, like Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Going On. That whole record to me is amazing. Everybody seems like they’re so fucked up yet there’s this cohesive feel to the whole record. To me, it just feels like a moment in time. As a guy who’s made a bunch of records in my career, I can listen to every sound on there, like the funny sounding blown up bass, and the weird drum sounds, and the way it all fits together is somehow seamless. I guess being around music so much, and making music—usually when I listen to music, I pick it apart and dissect it, so I usually go for well-crafted songs. Or I listen to people who can play a Hell of a lot better than me, and I just sit there and shake my head. But I don’t have any insights into what the cool tip is, it doesn’t feel relevant in my world, personally. I wish it were.

Owl&Bear: No, that’s okay. I’m just interested in what you think is good.

Dan Murphy: I just haven’t heard that much stuff that moves me. I listen to the radio and probably have the same response you do.

Owl&Bear: Oh, God.

Dan Murphy: This is what passes? It seems like it’s from another planet.

Owl&Bear: It’s like 1984 or something—they’re just manufacturing this dumbed-down stuff to keep our brains occupied.

Dan Murphy: It’s like a Fruitopia commercial from the 80s (laughs). Bright colors, kaleidoscopes, and bubble gum.

Related Downloads:
Golden Smog – July 25, 1994

Golden Smog – April 18, 1996
Golden Smog – December 12, 1998
Golden Smog – September 19, 2006

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