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"Then when Tweedy got in the band we had a lot of songwriters, and there was a lot going on here, and we thought maybe it wasn't a laugh. It dawned on us we were a real band with real songs, and if people aren't happy this isn't a joke, then sorry."
Early last year, the Smog reconvened with a renovated lineup in a Minneapolis studio; Mars, now a solo artist who plays every instrument and writes every song for his own albums, declined to rejoin the band, Murphy says, because he couldn't "handle the hectic touring schedule, and he had bad memories of sitting behind the drum kit." He was summarily replaced by Noah Levy of the Honeydogs, another Minneapolis band, and Golden Smog then adjourned to begin writing and recording new songs for an actual full-length record.
Down by the Old Mainstream went from notion to actuality in a less than a week, with most of the songs being written during the recording sessions--around the studio's kitchen table, on bathroom floors, between breaks and takes. The band--who made their debut at last year's South by Southwest Music and Media Conference in Austin, where they will again perform this March--began only with four incomplete songs, yet for a record by a band that isn't really a band, Mainstream is a consistent joy: It's looser than the Jayhawks' Tomorrow the Green Grass, more passionate than Wilco's A.M., and a damn sight better than Soul Asylum's last four records. Amazingly, all four of the principle songwriters--Louris, Tweedy, Murphy, and Johnson--manage to blend their respective styles into a singular wonderful sound.
"To be honest with you, I was a little nervous going into the studio," Louris says. "We had talked about doing this for two years. We had many nights at the bar havin' meetings: 'OK, you can do it and you can do it, but Dan can't do it. Oh, OK.' It became kind of a joke for a while, like we're never going to do this, and we're only going to have meetings.
"But the Jayhawks were supposed to go to Australia and Japan, and the band we were going to warm up for canceled. All of a sudden we were available, and we all looked at each other and said, 'We're here. Let's do it.' Then the reality set it off: 'What if this sucks? We don't really know what we're doing, and we're really going to do it, and it might suck.' Then we went in there, and I don't want to sound too goofy about it, but there was this magical thing where we had this great time and everything clicked and felt like something was happening. But it could have been a total disaster."
Down by the Mainstream--for which the members had to use fake names for contractual purposes, though they receive proper songwriting credit--is nothing more or less than a folk-rock-country acoustic record; it could have been for the birds, but instead it sounds like it comes from the Byrds. It's sloppy in places (Tweedy can be heard directing the band on the gorgeous "Williamton Angel," and the intro to the Bobby Patterson-penned "She Don't Have to See You" was eaten by the editing machine), dumb fun in others (Johnson's "He's a Dick"), and simply half-finished in many spots. "I wrote 'Red Headed Stepchild,'" Murphy says, "and I don't even know what it's about."
But it showcases two sorely underrated voices (Tweedy sings like he's half asleep and half in love, and Louris is Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris in one), one overlooked songwriter (Johnson's "Yesterday Cried" is simple and moving), and a band who may or may not tour for more than a few days at a time or ever record again.
"It seems like when your band gets to a certain point, you lose a little bit about what was fun about this in the first place," Murphy says. "There's a lot of bickering amongst the fellas in the Smog, and I don't know what's going to happen with a couple of weeks on the road, but I have a lot of respect for those guys. They're good songwriters and musicians, and mostly it's good-natured kidding, but it does remind me of why I decided I was going to quit school and get into music and all that. It's kind of been a long road, but it's fun to step back and do something off the cuff and for the fun of it."
"For people who like this kind of music, it's an unexpected extra because it sounds like our bands, but not quite," Louris adds. "It's a hybrid, and you've got the pedigrees you can't deny. When we first went in, I wondered if we were going to have a band identity or if it was going to be too disjointed. But once we got in there, it kind of took care of itself and blended well. The sound does have a lot of different voices and different songwriters. There's more variety than you'd get in your average band, so with Golden Smog, there's more bang for your buck.