Marc Perlman has provided a steady rhythm for two of the most unassuming and excellent bands on the alt-country scene. He joined the Jayhawks in 1985 and, along with Gary Louris, was the only member to play on all of the band’s recordings. Four years later, Perlman was in the right place at the right time when the loose collective of Minneapolis musicians that would become Golden Smog decided to go electric.
After releasing an EP of covers, the band evolved into what some have called an “alt-country supergroup,” made up variously of members from the Jayhawks, Wilco, Soul Asylum, the Replacements, and Run Westy Run. In its different incarnations, the band released four albums of original material, featuring the songwriting talents of the likes of Jeff Tweedy, Dan Murphy, and Perlman and Louris. Stay Golden, Smog was released on September 23 from Rhino Records.
How involved was the band with selecting the songs for the compilation?
The band was very involved in the process. Gary and Danny probably did the most work on the project. Gary has always been the archivist in the bands we’ve played in. I defer to him on that stuff. Dan did more work on the artwork on the cover. He’s taken the lead there for most of the albums.
What song do you think is absolutely essential to the album?
That’s a tough one with Golden Smog, because there are so many songwriters in the band. If I had to pick one, though, it would have to be “Until You Came Along.” That song exemplifies what the band is about and the feel we tried to capture when we recording.
Why didn’t anything from On Golden Smog make the cut?
That was a legal thing, I think. There was some problem with getting the rights to put the songs on the compilation. All of the songs on On Golden Smog were covers, which was where the band started. We included “Love and Mercy,” which is a cover, and I think we had enough good originals to fill out the record.
You continually refer to Golden Smog as a side project. Why have you been able to keep that distance?
It’s because there’s something about having that release from the pressure of your main project. You would never want that project to become a full-time gig. There’s nothing fun about going on vacation every week.
What spurred the change in attitude from On Golden Smog to Weird Tales?
We decided that there was enough happening to take Golden Smog to the next level. We were too good to be a novelty act. If we were going to be a real band, we needed songs. They came from all over. Some of them were written for the Jayhawks but didn’t quite fit. When we would go in to record, there would be so many songs, and only a few of them can go on the album. When you play a new song with a group of musicians, it’s obvious when it’s going to work. You could say that they didn’t make the cut. That was a really important aspect to Golden Smog. It kept a lot of these songs alive. Later on, we would write some of the songs together. We’re all friends, so instead of going to the bar, we would be doing something constructive.
What effect did Golden Smog have on the Jayhawks?
Really none. It definitely didn’t cause any friction in the band. We all were always working on a variety of projects. Musically it was a chance to combine a lot of really good bands. I think the real thing with Golden Smog was that it married the sounds of all our bands.
What was your “Smog name”?
I’m not even sure I remember. . . . It was Raymond. Raymond Virginia. The only reason we did was because we were all under contract when we started putting out records. Danny knows all these different name things, and we did it to get the album out and to be funny. Eventually the band became more serious. We could have taken it the humorous route, but we had too many good songs to leave it at that.
Some people call Golden Smog an alt-country supergroup. You’ve responded by saying you’re not that famous anyway. After opening for the Black Crowes and getting MTV airtime with Hollywood Town Hall, are there any regrets the rock-star thing didn’t happen?
That quote about not being famous was only true until Tweedy showed up. As for regrets, I feel like we deserved to make a living at this, make enough money to be comfortable, and that didn’t exactly pan out. We toured with the Crowes, Tom Petty and Matchbox 20. We’ve had that rock-star experience, but the Jayhawks sound didn’t match those venues. I don’t have any regrets about the music we made. I think it will age very well, and it’s something to be proud of.
You and Gary Louris have a long history of collaboration. Which one of you was the first one in Golden Smog?
I sort of fell into the band. Kraig [Johnson], Danny, and Gary were playing acoustic shows around town, kind of a three-guitar thing, and they decided to do some electric shows. I was hanging out at somebody’s apartment, and I was sitting near the bass. I was living with Dave Pirner at the time, and he was supposed to play drums but he backed out. We told him that he had to find a replacement, and he thought we said the Replacements. He calls them up, and that’s how Chris Mars ended up being the first Golden Smog drummer.
Has there ever been a time when you just didn’t want to look at Louris?
Working with Gary didn’t bother me. It probably bothered Gary. That’s a joke. We’ve got enough stuff going that we never really got on each other’s nerves. When the Jayhawks did get claustrophobic, we simply called it a day. It wasn’t personal. Every band gets sick of itself at some point. It’s just the nature of working together so closely.
What have you been working on since the Jayhawks have been on hiatus?
I’ve been working with a singer named Janey Winterbauer. Ed Ackerson, who I’ve worked with before, is also involved. We’re putting together an EP of six songs. It’s really a labor of love for me. It’s not rock or alt-country, just a beautiful song and a beautiful voice. If you have a significant other, it’s the perfect music for an intimate evening. We were going to call it Volume One, but M. Ward beat me to the punch with that She & Him record. We had to go back and totally redo all the artwork. I hate that guy.
I have one final question. Are you comfortable with your role as the brooding sex symbol in two different bands?
I’ve never heard that one before, but I’ll take it. It’s been a long couple of weeks. I’m not going to let it go to my head, but I’ll take it.