Supergroup--it's rock and roll's greatest oxymoron, where the sum of one part is greater than the whole. It's a great theory that always backfires.
It's a term that dates back to 1969, when Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, and Steve Winwood crammed their talent and egos into Blind Faith, which would have been better named Deaf Faith for all its bloated and pointless jamming. 1968's Super Session album, featuring the combined talents of Al Kooper, Stephen Stills, and Michael Bloomfield, could have been the first supergroup, but none of those guys were genuine superstars, just million-dollar sessionmen; and the Million Dollar Quartet--Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins--never actually recorded together save for a sloppy and casual "demo" released decades after the fact.
Then there were those '70s and '80s circle-jerks featuring every guitarist who ever played with Journey, Montrose, or Jeff Beck. Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue was a supergroup, but since they were just a touring band, it doesn't count for much. The Traveling Wilburys--which Dylan "fronted" alongside George Harrison, Roy Orbison, and Tom Petty--counted for even less; sounding hollow and tired, they made music the way Keebler makes cookies and Nelson Rockefeller made money.
Yet the bane of the supergroups came not from the rock arena, but from the honky-tonk: Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson called themselves The Highwaymen, but they never got off the service road. Over two records in the course of five years, the four hoarsemen nearly destroyed their own legends by proving you can't make music in a collective; they walked, sang, and shit all over each other in their race for the bank, only to find Kristofferson had emptied the account in 1978.
So it is surely with a wink and a smirk that the band known as Golden Smog dedicates its first full-length album, the just-released Down by the Old Mainstream, to the Highwaymen. After all, the Smog is something of a supergroup itself, its members hailing from such bands as Soul Asylum (Dan Murphy and Dave Pirner), Wilco (Jeff Tweedy), the now-defunct Jayhawks (Gary Louris and Marc Perlman), and Run Westy Run (Kraig Johnson), though the relative anonymity of most of these musicians makes them a supergroup in intent only. None of the boys in this band-that-isn't-really-a-band could be deemed a "super" star. If nothing else, the Smog transcends the pejorative label because it sounds like a real band that's been together forever, one in which the members never try to bury their identities by giving up and giving in to their partners.
This is a band consisting of old friends who have known each other for years, shared the stage countless times, influenced each other consciously and otherwise. These are the musicians at the forefront of the Rural Contemporary movement (especially Louris and Tweedy, having half-fronted the Jayhawks and Uncle Tupelo, respectively), young men raised on Gram Parsons and Johnny Cash and Exile on Mainstreet-era Rolling Stones but who grew up playing in the shadow of the Replacements and HYsker DY. Most importantly, they're comfortable enough with each other to have come together in a four-day period in early 1995 to write and record an entire record together--one that's perfectly imperfect in every way.
"One of the first times I ever played in St. Louis with Soul Asylum," Murphy recalls, "Jeff Tweedy was writing for a paper there and he interviewed the band. I kinda remembered him, even, and I used to go see Uncle Tupelo a lot, and I actually went to see a couple of their last shows in the Midwest before they broke up. And I'm a big fan of the Jayhawks--I've known those guys forever. I've probably seen Run Westy Run 115 times in the last eight years. And Gary [Louris] and I have been in 10 cover bands, I bet. We used to make our rent money throwing together a cover band and destroying Eagles songs and things like that."
Golden Smog actually began as a goof four years ago, a glorified bar band playing covers by the likes of Bread (which gives away the joke, even if it isn't that funny) and Bad Company. The band consisted of Louris and fellow Jayhawk Perlman, Run Westy Run's Johnson, and Murphy; when then-Replacements drummer Chris Mars joined in 1992, the band actually went into the studio and recorded a five-song EP (On Golden Smog) for the tiny St. Paul-based Crackpot Records label. Though it boasted a crack lineup of musicians, including Dave Pirner, the record came off sounding like nothing but a punch line in search of a set list, the covers ranging from obscure (the Rolling Stones' "Back Street Girl") to the obvious ("Cowboy Song" by Thin Lizzy, a band whose material was often maimed in concert by the Replacements).
"The EP was more of a joke, for fun," Louris says. "It was like, 'Someone wanted to have us record? Sure.' Then I listened to the EP and said, 'Oh, that's cool. We can kinda sound like the Stones. We can do a funny Three Dog Night song,' and some people like us like that. But we listened to it and said we kinda had a band chemistry going. The guitars kinda worked together easily, Dan and I played off each other nicely, and Perlman and Dan were tight.
"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."
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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.