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Old friends up to new tricks

By David Bauder

Associated Press

NEW YORK -- The creative process of the rock band Golden Smog can be tough to witness.

"If people don't like a part you're playing, you're going to hear it pretty quick," said Dan Murphy, the band's guitarist.

Maybe that's because their time together is always short, and there's no time to lie, or go back and erase it later. Since its inception in the early 1990s, the Minneapolis-based Smog has always been a side project around steadier gigs. Murphy's first priority was Soul Asylum. For Gary Louris and Marc Perlman, it was the Jayhawks. For Kraig Johnson, it was Run Westy Run.

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The Jayhawks are now defunct, never reaching the stardom some had assumed. Soul Asylum's star has cooled. Life has changed, but the semi-serious nature of Golden Smog -- serious enough to put out occasional discs and play gigs, but never their members' top priority -- hasn't changed.

The band's most recent disc, "Another Fine Day," is another strong collaboration between old friends who are now old pros, who keep the door open for Wilco's Jeff Tweedy to contribute two songs.

Louris, Murphy and Johnson are all singer-songwriters. Perlman writes, too; his "Cure For This," sung by Muni Loco, has a fragile beauty reminiscent of Velvet Underground.

When one of the songwriters plays a composition for the others and it's not up to snuff, the silence in response will tell him pretty quickly.

"It's not like a lovefest all the time," Louris said. "We get on each other. We don't all have the same vision, but we find spaces for compromises in the music."

He's not a big fan of democracy in bands, reasoning that too much time worrying about feelings can lead to watered-down music. Golden Smog's dynamic might change if it became the top priority, leading to power struggles, he said.

But with side project status, it isn't an issue. In fact, there's a real freedom in not having the pressure to carry the load, he said.

The disc was recorded in Spain and Minneapolis. The title, "Another Fine Day," is a reference to the monotonous beautiful weather they had in southern Spain, which covered up some difficult sessions. The band had some amplifiers confiscated by the Spanish government, requiring a tariff to get them back, and couldn't get the recording tape it wanted until the last few days.

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"It was kind of a nightmare in Spain," Murphy said. "It gave the record a kind of scrappy feel."

Instead of writing many of the songs in advance, the Smog tried the tightrope-walking approach of writing during the sessions and thrashing things out.

"I like that because I have full faith in myself to get something done," Louris said. "I feel confident -- cocky even -- to the point that if we get an idea, then we'll get something great. The main thing is that we get an idea that's not overworked, or over-demoed."

Louris said he seems to work better under such pressure. "The clock is ticking, the red light is on and we have to come up with something," he said. "It's more like a game."

Although all the members involved in Golden Smog are old friends, Murphy said he was curious to see how Louris and Perlman would get along following Louris' decision to disband the Jayhawks. They seemed OK, he said.

It was a sad decision for that band's loyal fans. The Jayhawks survived the departure of co-leader Mark Olson and, behind Louris, turned out a handful of superb discs. But when they couldn't expand the audience beyond a loyal cult, Louris said it was time to move on.

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