For a musician who used to have his guitar gear hauled around in road cases by crew members, Dan Murphy seems surprisingly proud of his current set-up.
“Hey, it’s a nice laundry basket,” he insisted.
That’s right: Instead of having “Soul Asylum” emblazoned across the carrier in which he hauls his assorted pedals and accessories, the name on Murphy’s road case these days reads “Rubbermaid.”
A sign of how far removed he had become from the music business after three decades in two of its best loved rock bands (also: Golden Smog), Murphy’s ultra-low-tech carrier also symbolizes how unintentional and fun it is to be playing again.
“This has all been very impulsive, and I think that’s made it even better,” the self-exiled Minneapolis rock vet said of his new band, the Scarlet Goodbye, whose first official gig is Friday at the Hook & Ladder.
Actually quite a polished and ambitious new project — never mind the lo-fi hauler — the group started on a whim right before quarantine set in last year after Murphy befriended another longtime staple of Minnesota music, singer/songwriter/producer Jeff Arundel.
The proprietor of the music-friendly Aster Café and two neighboring restaurants, Arundel’s varied and variously successful music career ranges from his heartfelt novelty hit “Harmon Killebrew” to his old concert promotions company Compass to the nature-y “Lifescapes” CDs he produced for aisle endcaps in Target stores in the late ’90s.
Arundel, 63, had never actually met Murphy, 59, until the guitarist became a regular at the Aster a few years ago.
“It might be the unlikeliest matchup in Minnesota music history,” Arundel mused. “Dan would learn an entire Aerosmith record as a kid, and I’d learn a James Taylor song.”
Added Murphy, “I really didn’t know anything about Jeff’s career, and he probably knew that song about the train and that was it from my career.”
“But,” Arundel inserted, “I think that’s part of the chemistry and charm.”
The casual friends turned into collaborators after Murphy attended a holiday party at Arundel’s St. Paul home and got a look at the cozy recording studio upstairs.
“We got up there and started working,” Arundel recalled, “and Dan became wistful. He quietly said, ‘I really missed this.’ “
After some writing and demoing sessions as a duo, Arundel brought in a rhythm section from his production stable, drummer Ben Peterson and bassist Pat Nelson. They thought they’d maybe churn out a couple of songs. Instead, they eventually wound up with an entire album, which they have already sent off to producer John Fields to mix and are now shopping around to record labels.
A preview of the album, tentatively titled “Hello to the Scarlet Goodbye,” shows the balance between the two leaders’ disparate musical backgrounds alongside the coziness of their collaboration.
Arundel turns full-volume rocker in the Golden Smoggy “Sandy” and builds “Firefly” into a climactic anthem. Murphy, conversely, turns in folkier and more intimate songs than heard in his prior bands, including the pandemic-inspired “Fresh New Hell” and a gut-puncher called “Minor Things,” about his mom’s struggles with Alzheimer’s. Even their cover of Hüsker Dü’s “Celebrated Summer” is mellow and harmonious.
“Dan took a lot of chances, and he conned me into taking a lot of chances,” Arundel said, marveling at how quickly his new bandmate returned to top form after such a long break from music.
“He marched in with finished lyrics and was like, ‘All right, you’re gonna sing this one, and we’re gonna try this with this song.’ He kind of went right back to work.”
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Murphy had fully quit playing rock ‘n’ roll after exiting Soul Asylum in 2012. He had already started a fruitful side business, Grapefruit Moon Gallery, dealing in vintage pin-up art.
“I was down to all but two guitars, and I’d say I picked them up and played two hours total over eight years,” he said, reiterating that his reasons for bowing out were more about him than his bandmate Dave Pirner (who continued on with Soul Asylum; their usual Christmastime gig at First Avenue is set for Dec. 17).
“Dave’s desire to keep going out there and playing those songs night after night was bigger than my desire to do it,” Murphy said.
“I felt like music had a big impact on my marriages, on the raising of my child. I felt like I needed to distance myself from it. People would ask me, ‘Oh, did you go to that show,’ and I’d say, ‘I went to that show every day for 20 years.’ “
The Scarlet Goodbye has (ironically, given the band name) reintroduced him to the joys of playing. Look for more gigs in the coming months, including a set on Dec. 18 opening for the Jayhawks at the Palace Theatre. Murphy and the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris and Marc Perlman will also reconvene Golden Smog with Kraig Johnson and maybe another alum of the band next spring at First Ave, making up for their COVID-postponed May 2020 gig.
“It’s exciting to actually have shows to look forward to,” Murphy said, while also underlining the less-than-thrilling role the pandemic played in facilitating his new music with Arundel.
“It was a great way to spend a really [crappy] year.”
The Scarlet Goodbye
With: Butter Boys and Low Rats.
When: 8 p.m. Fri.
Where: The Hook & Ladder, 3010 Minnehaha Av. S., Mpls.
Tickets: $20, thehookmpls.com.