Soul Asylum Tries Rock Stardom on for Size and—Big Surprise!—It Fits
Backstage at the terrace in Austin, Texas, Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner is still damp with sweat from the evening’s performance. The room is filled with relaxed laughter and chatter as he cools down with a cold beer and talks with business associated and old friends. But he’s also a little concerned. What’s bothering him is that the crowd was unusually reserved during the band’s set; only smatterings of applause met the new songs (although the audience - industry insiders present for the South by Southwest music convention and the ticket-buying public - wholeheartedly rallied around the group’s hits), as Soul Asylum debuted its fleshed-out lineup (which includes new drummer Sterling Campbell and returning tour keyboardist Joey Huffman) and the bulk of Let Your Dim Light Shine, the highly anticipated follow-up to the multiplatinum Grave Dancers Union.
To these ears, there’s little doubt that Let Your Dim Light Shine will assist the band in continuing to conquer the music world at large. What may have taken the crowd by surprise is that the songs represent a huge leap from Soul Asylum’s punk-rock roots, revealing a mellower side with pop-rock aplomb. The public’s acceptance of the band’s quieter side is what is weighing on Pirner’s mind. His comments about the crowd’s lukewarm response are greeted with comforting smiles by the backstage hangers-on. If nothing else, this illustrates just how much things have changed. No longer sloppy, tough punks scrapping for a nod of recognition, the members of Soul Asylum are rock stars now, and with that comes the expectation, adulation, and attention that initially, serve as an inspiration for hopeful musicians and later, when attained, frequently repel them. It’s a bitch, as Pirner might say.
There’s little disputing how rough things can get. Trying to locate the members of Soul Asylum for an interview is an exhausting mission. Granted, the band has been busy mixing the new album, playing at the convention, juggling various press requests, and working on side projects. But the day after the Terrace show, Pirner and bassist Karl Mueller have an open block of time in their schedules (guitarist Dan Murphy is at a sound check with his side project, Golden Smog, and since Soul Asylum’s members prefer to do interviews in pairs, that also leaves Campbell out of the loop). When I pick them up at their hotel, it seems as if they’d rather be doing anything else, and they surely have been in the interim; their bottle-fed, feel-good buzz is unmistakable. We head out of downtown Austin to a little bar a few blocks away. Mueller talks amiably about his rude-food collection (the rudest of which us pork brains in milk gravy, and no, he doesn’t eat the stuff), but Pirner looks around the car and out the window, as if he’s anxious to be done with the whole ordeal. At the bar, as we settle into a booth, it becomes apparent that Pirner would rather talk about almost anything other than Let Your Dim Light Shine. The waitress takes our order, asking Pirner and Mueller if they care for limes with their beers (this is Texas, after all), which prompts Pirner to lay out one of his fantastic tales, swiftly avoiding the topic at hand.
"Ok, can I tell my lime story?" Pirner says.
"Yeah, go ahead," Mueller replies.
"Ok, so I woke up one morning, and I had this big, huge blister on my finger. I had been out the night before, and I though to myself, ‘God, my cigarette burned down, and I, like, burned myself’. I probably had a couple of drinks. I couldn’t really figure it out, but it was right there [he points to a knuckle on his right hand], so it wasn’t where that would happen. I had a gig the next night, and my finger was stiffening up, and I started getting worried. So I called my mom, and she goes, ‘Well, I got a friend whose kid is a doctor.’ So, I’ll see this guy. Actually, he’s the brother of the first girl that I ever kissed - strange but true. So, I get there, and he looks at my finger, and he goes, ‘Looks like syphilis’."
"On your finger?" Mueller says.
"He goes, ‘We’re going to have to do a few blood tests.’ And I’m like, ‘Fine, dude, but I need a better explanation.’ So he goes, ‘Do you ever drink gin and tonics?’ Not too often, as a matter of fact.’ ‘Ever have a lime with your gin and tonics?’ ‘Well, whenever I have a gin and tonic, I usually have a lime with it’. So he goes, ‘Maybe you’re allergic to limes.’ Now, how does that make you feel whenever somebody asks you if you want a lime with your Corona? You go, ‘I might get syphilis!’"
Mueller laughs while Pirner segues into an a cappella rendition of a Byrds song, which prompts Mueller to say, "Let’s talk about us, Dave". After more than 10 years, Mueller is keenly aware of Pirner’s hyperactive grasp of hyperbole, and throughout the interview he reminds Pirner of questions asked, calls his bluff, groans, argues, and laughs openly at his bandmate’s gaffes and goofiness.
After Mueller’s directive, Pirner is willing to discuss the new album. "Making this record was just a bitch, quite frankly," he says. "It’s just hard to make a good record, because most of your resources have been thoroughly f___in’ exhausted in 1995. Everybody’s made every different kind of song, and it’s all pretty much been done before."
Pirner’s frustration derives in part from his responsibility as the group’s pointman, the one who stays all night to work on mixing tracks while the rest of the band goes home. "We just finished the last mix, and my f___in’ drummer, Sterling Campbell, he goes, ‘This mix sounds like shit.’ And I know. But we had to finish the record, and after four months, I had to say that to him. That pisses me off to no end."
Pirner reserves the highest praise for Let Your Dim Light Shine’s producer, Butch Vig, referring to him as the "most anal-retentive guy" he’s met, albeit one that’s also a "gentleman and a scholar" with Midwestern sensibilities that he can relate to. Vig is also the only producer that Pirner would consider working with again.
But that Pirner already is telling his newly recruited cohort to back off begs questions as to why the band fired longtime drummer Grant Young and hired Campbell. It was surprising that the band ungraciously dumped Young after a decade. This was, after all, a band whose members proudly displayed their friendship as if it were a fraternal brotherhood. More than a few punk-rock fans have written off Soul Asylum, in part because they view the band as a media darling and major-label sellout, but a good share of the venom is a response to Young’s firing. And it didn’t help Soul Asylum’s credibility in those circles when it enlisted Campbell, whose resume reads like an ‘80’s pop chart: Cindy Lauper, Cameo, the B-52s, Duran Duran, and David Bowie.
"We made the mistake of having Sterling come in and play on [Grave Dancers Union], and it was a very tough moment. This is why making records sucks, man," Pirner says. "Eventually it came down: [We] had to get Sterling in there. All of a sudden I heard the song I wanted to hear, for the first time, and it was shocking. And it was nice. And Grant, who was my best friend, my drummer for 10 years - I love the guy still, and I always will. It sucks, and I don’t even want to talk about it. That’s what happened."
How did Young take the news? "Well, of course he’s rightfully pissed off," Pirner says. "He should be mad because we f___in’ bailed out on him. We didn’t have the faith in him that we should’ve had, and we really took an easy way out: We just got another guy. It’s lame, and I understand any kind of shot anybody wants to give me about it. I have no idea why, rhythmically, I identify with Sterling Campbell more than I do with Grant Young, but hey … Am I talking too much?"
"Well, no, at least you’re making sense, Dave," Mueller says.
Soul Asylum earned a reputation early on for its wild, raggedy live shows; the band’s gigs even included inspired medleys of Barry Manilow and the Cars long before kitsch was cool. Pirner maintains that the only reason he makes records is to play live. "I can go out to the people and I can deliver my little art moments," he says. "Let’s say I’m in the middle of a song and I’m rockin’ along, and all of a sudden I get this little weird feedback or I burp in the middle of something. I kind of laugh and go, ‘That’s never been done before,’ And I have a certain sense of responsibility about being a progressive musician."
Feeling the pressure of Grave Dancers Union’s success, he laments the fact that the album was marketed on its singles. The band’s label, Columbia, expects Pirner to follow suit with Let Your Dim Light Shine. "You saw how [Grave Dancers Union] was marketed. It was marketed on singles, and quite frankly, it’s not too comfortable, because I don’t want to be a singles band, because then I’ve got to have singles, right?" Pirner says. "I’d rather just do my own thing, just be in this band, and just be left alone and be able to sustain it. At the same time, I want to write music that is universal and timeless and all that stuff. I’m not saying that’s what I do. That’s my aspiration."
If Let Your Dim Light Shine is any indication, Soul Asylum is closer than ever to universal rock domination. From the folk-style melancholy of "To My Own Devices" and the pleading pop forgiveness of "Promises Broken" to the plucky rock of "Misery", the ambitious storytelling of "String Of Pearls", and the punky sprawl of "Crawl", Let Your Dim Light Shine will likely leave the kids clamoring for more.
While the straightforward rock may disillusion longtime hardcore fans, the band’s previous nine releases vividly illustrate that this is where Soul Asylum had been headed all these years. The band’s 1984 debut, Say What You Will, Clarence … (now coupled on CD with the sessions omitted tracks and titled … Karl Sold The Truck) took a stab at jazz ("Masquerade") and punk ("Sick Of That Song"), and displayed and underlying fondness for roots rock ("Money Talks"). Yet it also proved the band was adept at pop rock ("Stranger"). 1986’s Made To be Broken captured a frenetic energy on tracks like "Whoa!" and exhibited Pirner’s balladry and roots-pop songwriting skills on "Never Really Been". After the band signed with A&M in 1988, Lenny Kaye and Ed Stasium, two well-known powerhouse rock producers, fleshed out its more mainstream sound on Hang Time. While that major-label deal didn’t last long, the group’s A&M swan song, 1990’s Soul Asylum And The Horse They Rode In On, cemented the band’s status as an everyman’s rock’n’roll outfit. 1993’s Grave Dancer’s Union had a slick, multilayered sound added depth to songs that ranged from ‘70’s influenced riff rock to earnest discourses.
Every Soul Asylum record has had a different producer (excluding Bob Mould’s duty on two albums in the 80’s), a problem that fuels Pirner’s current recording frustrations. And while Pirner is quite capable in the studio (he’s produced three Minneapolis bands, the Coup de Grace, ZuZu’s Petals, and Toadstool, in addition to a couple of demos), he’s unwilling to take the production helm for his own band. Sound technique aside, what has always elevated Soul Asylum above its contemporaries had been Pirner’s ability to pen songs that are filled with despair and self-consciousness, songs that bare scars and are wrought with emotion. And a he sings in his raspy, pain-soaked voice, it seems as if he is just a guy at the corner saloon lamenting a precisely detailed story of this modern life. He’s trying to create the same kind of easily identifiable, idealistic radio rock that permeated his childhood. He’s succeeded.
As the success of Grave Dancers Union and his headline-making relationship with screen star Winona Ryder (about which he remains pointedly evasive) have shed a bright light on Pirner, he has grown relatively comfortable with his newfound status. While he doesn’t like the poster-boy aspects of fame, Pirner has never been willing to quit music, and where he is now is where he’s always aimed to be. The band members have grown (everyone is at least 30) and become more accustomed to clearing their own paths. Pirner is moving from New York City to San Francisco, and Mueller likes to relax with a good thriller novel and putz around his Minneapolis home. Murphy also lives in Minneapolis and elects to spend his free time with his wife and his six-year-old son from a previous relationship, while Campbell retreats to the anonymous environs of his native New York City.
The physical distance between Pirner, Murphy and Mueller makes Pirner lonesome at times, but he maintains that he’s basically happy with his current station in life. Point in fact, on a plane he was able to be at peace with himself even as air masks dropped from the overhead compartments. "The masks come down and there’s a stranger sitting next to me, and I’m thinking, ‘Maybe I should do a little bonding with this stranger since we’re going to bite it together’" he says. "I’m thinking about that, and then I whipped my notebook and I did a little bit of writing, just a few last words, you know. The whole thing was kind of accepting. I was just going, this is it.
"If I walked out of this door and got run over and died, I’d feel totally like I fulfilled my mission on this planet. Absolutely. That’s got to be a good feeling, don’t you think?"
"Well, then, you’re a fortunate person," Mueller says.
While much was made of the band’s public-service-like video for "Runaway Train", Soul Asylum’s politics have long been apparent. On 1988’s Clam Dip And Other Delights EP, Pirner wrote "P-9" in honor of striking Hormel Foods workers in Austin, Minnesota. The song later was used to raise money for the striking union. Murphy says that the best thing about "finally making some dough" is that it allows the band to contribute to charities. Soul Asylum’s appearance on 1993’s No Alternative compilation generated $30,000, which the band donated to a Minnesota AIDS organization, and Pirner has a passionate interest in the American Indian Movement. But the band’s political stance hasn’t always been well-received. Pirner laments how Europeans tend to think the group panders to Americanism, and Murphy related how he and Pirner were confronted in a German bar by anarchists with propaganda proclaiming, "’Runaway train’ leads to empty promises". There’s also the band’s high-profile White House gigs and Pirner’s performance at President Clinton’s Inaugural, jokingly referred to as the Inaugural Fall, due to the singer’s onstage misstep that landed him in the audience. And sure enough, the talk in the bar turns to politics, with Mueller and Pirner debating the NAFTA agreement. Nothing gets resolved, although Mueller concludes by offering to kick Pirner’s ass to get his point across.
But Pirner wants a breather. Mueller is enticing him with Irish whiskey to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, and Pirner’s nervous about his ability to perform later that night with one of his idols, Victoria Williams. "If I get too drunk, I’m going to be really mortified if I go up there and embarrass her on my behalf," he says. "She’s my hero and my idol. I can’t even talk about her without getting all misty. Can you tell? Look at my eyes. I love Vic." Indeed, his baby blues are watering.
"About six months or a year before [the multiple sclerosis diagnosis] happened with Vic, I thought I was going deaf", Pirner says. "So when I heard that she was having this problem where she might not be able to play anymore, like she couldn’t play, I really identified with that part of the trauma. I was like, ‘Oh God. I’m going deaf, I’m never going to be able to hear or play music again.’ And I freaked out. It was like one of those black curves of depression". Mueller tries to pipe in, but Pirner shushes him and continues. "She’s a trooper. She rocks. She mostly is just in touch with her spirit and everything. That she can rise above just about anything, it’s totally inspiring".
Mueller concurs, and if Pirner is inspired by Williams’ attitude and mindset, he oddly seems to ignore his own problems. "I’m totally over [the hearing problem]. I can’t talk about it anymore, because, actually, Request magazine tried to bust my chops on that [October 1993]. They said I denied everything. Which I do, Categorically", he says. When he’s reminded that he admitted such problems without any prodding, Pirner laughs and says, "I just kind of did ‘fess up, but I’m going back to denying it now".
We’re on our way to the ballroom where Williams and Vic Chesnutt are performing. We’ve picked up Mueller’s wife, Mary Beth, and a couple of friends at the hotel. Pirner is in the front seat and asks if he can use the tape deck. Reaching inside his jacket, he pulls out a copy of Let Your Dim Light Shine. "Look what I have", he says. "I haven’t been able to find a boom box. I haven’t heard this yet".
He cranks up the tape and occasionally calls out a complaint about the album’s mix to Mueller, who’s in the backseat. When we arrive at the venue, Chesnutt is already performing, and Pirner, Mueller, and the rest make their way backstage. Soon, Williams takes the stage, and Pirner joins her for a rendition of a song they wrote together, "My Ally", that is included on Williams’ Loose. Later in the set, Williams also performs "To My Own Devices". But it takes a while for Pirner to hit the stage. Sitting outside of the ballroom and chatting with a friend, Pirner recognized the song and runs to the stage, joining Williams midway to harmonize and add hand flourishes that make him look like a vaudeville performer, replete with fudged choruses. The scene is oddly reminiscent of Soul Asylum’s early days, when Pirner’s hyperkinetic stage antics received as much attention as the band’s music.
The next day, I pick up Pirner at his hotel to take him to the airport. Tour manager Bill Sullivan brings down the tired-looking singer, gives him $40, and tells Pirner he’ll get the other $100 he owes him soon. I’m asked to note the transaction. In the car, Pirner spends most of the ride glumly staring out the window. He’s on his way to L.A. for the Academy Awards ceremony - not exactly his idea of a good time. Really. What he’d rather do than attend the Hollywood glitzathon is move into his new pad. He’d also like to pursue his notion of becoming a househusband. It’s a subject that came up the previous evening: Pirner would like to have kids (three’s a good number) and spend his time working on "crafty little art projects" with them, teaching them finger painting, and going to the zoo and museums. It’s stuff that he loves to do but for which he has little time.
He seems to regret most of what transpired the previous evening, referring to himself as a loser and feeling embarrasses that when the Jayhawks’ mark Olson joined his wife, Williams, onstage, Pirner wept. As we’re searching the terminal for the airline’s check-in counter, Soul Asylum’s manager, Danny Heaps, is spotted jumping up and down in line, waving his arm, calling out Pirner’s name. Pirner looks over and mutters disparagingly, "What is he doing?" It’s a bitch.
More than a week later, in Minneapolis, Dan Murphy is sipping tea in a local coffee shop, providing a clear-eyed antithesis to his bandmates. We’re across the street from a house Murphy occupied for seven years. This neighborhood is where it all began, where Soul Asylum hooked up with idols Hüsker Dü and the Replacements, and worked on creating its own sound, eventually releasing four locally distributed records. The intersection at which the house sits represents a historic crossroad in Minneapolis musical lore. On one side of the street sits indie record store Oarfolkjokeopus, where you could find Soul Asylum's records. On another is the infamous C.C. Club, a dive bar the Mats immortalized. But the distance between then and now is great. Even the camaraderie that once existed between like-minded musical souls has dissipated. In regard to Soul Asylum, former Minneapolitan Bob Mould was quoted last year as saying, "I'm happy that their talent as players and writers has been recognized. It's unfortunate that people didn't recognize it when it was really evident".
When asked how he interprets such a statement, Murphy replies, "Sour grapes. I don't know. It's so easy to say we used to be great and now we suck. I mean, success does that to everybody, we get that a lot. If we were so great before, how come I didn't even know it? I thought we sucked most of the time. I think that Bob did a lot for us. He produced our records, and he gave me a pretty, kind of bird's-eye view of how to survive the music business. I mean, he had a pretty manic band, and they were having all kinds of personality problems, and he just survived them. He's a survivor, and I respect that.
"I heard some Bob Mould quote, how we'd lost a lot more than we gained by our success. But I think we're the only ones that know what this band has to do and what songs are appealing for us to play. And actually, I feel really good about where I'm at and where the band's at. I'm proud. I don't feel like we don't deserve it, I don't feel like we're unworthy of it. We worked our asses off. And there's a certain amount of talent. I always tell people, 'There's like two inches of talent and 12 inches of ambition in this band'. That's all it is".
Even though Murphy is contemplating leaving the area, he recalls the old days fondly. There are the stories of crappy short-order cook Pirner (he was so bad that right before he quit his job, a dissatisfied customer winged his steak at him), bagging groceries with high school friend and token-punk Mueller, and traipsing cross-country for years in a van.
And Murphy is quite satisfied with Let Your Dim Light Shine, comfortable discussing the album's finer points. He's quick to applaud Pirner's and Mueller's work, but mostly, he seems relieved. He acknowledges the problems in the studio during the recording of Grave Dancers Union, in particular between Young and producer Michael Beinhorn; there was even a point when Beinhorn asked Pirner to write with pop songsmith Desmond Child, to which Pirner smartly said no. "In hindsight, I think he made a great record, and we were in a position where we needed to make a really great record. I don't think up until [Grave Dancers Union] we even made a good record", Murphy says. But recording gives him about the same amount of pleasure as it does Pirner. "We get pretty manic. Both Dave and I are pretty much perfectionists. We drive people nuts - each other nuts. I can't say it was a whole lot of fun. We have pretty high standards and we’re very critical of ourselves.
"I think one of our problems, and maybe one of our strengths, is that we've always been sort of ambitious in that we try to do too much. And it's either really charming or it's really annoying", he says with a laugh.
When things were tough, after A&M dropped the band and Pirner was dealing with his hearing problems, the future didn't hold a lot of promise for Soul Asylum. Murphy says he was ready to quit, "disgusted with the whole music industry". Instead, he found a secondary profession in antique refinishing and continues to buy original American illustrations while on tour. ("Someday I'm going to open the Sanford & Son of all junk stores", he says). In addition to the stress created by the folded A&M deal, the band members had begun to grow apart. "You know, we hung out so much, we don't even have stories to tell each other, I mean, it's like there's really nothing to talk about", Murphy says.
While he admits the band isn't as close as it once was, the distance between himself and Pirner served to alleviate the staleness of their relationship while freeing up creative tensions. These days, when the two get together, there's not as much time spent drinking and playing covers (the band hasn't practiced together in "three or four years"), and when they do hook up, the looseness of earlier days is replaced by more focused professionalism, with Pirner and Murphy spending time honing Soul Asylum material.
Murphy also notes a certain finality that has infiltrated the band's structure. "It's already remarkable that we've been around this long. Shit, this is like our 12th year or something ridiculous. I don't know if we'll survive. I'd love to make another record, and I'd love to make another two, if it's fun. I guess I just always feel there's this sense of impending doom with the band. Nothing's ever written out, like we don't have a contract with management, everything's just day-to-day".
Adding that Campbell's provided new blood to the band, Murphy also acknowledges the fallout from Young's dismissal. "I haven't talked to him personally," he says. "I think he kind of decided he hated me, but I can understand that this is pretty traumatic for him - it's what he spent a lot of his life doing. I got a lot of shit about it. The guy at Super America would say, 'What did you do to your drummer?' But it was a move that we had to make, and you know, we could have done it a while ago. I don't know if he understands what our motivation is, but we're pursuing some type of settlement, which is tedious as hell - you get lawyers involved and everything starts to not make any sense. So I think that Grant and Karl are just going to sit down and figure out what's fair and write out a check and be done with it".
Perhaps as an outlet, Murphy has pursued Golden Smog, a side project with the Jayhawks' Gary Louris and Marc Perlman, Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, Run Westy Run's Kraig Johnson and the Honeydogs' Noah Levy, that provides an enjoyable respite and a forum for Murphy's songs that don’t fit the Soul Asylum repertoire. Golden Smog has recorded an album of roots-rock-influenced material tentatively titled Down By The Old Main Stream that will be released this fall by Rykodisc.
Aside from that, Murphy is a doting father who likes to spend as much time with his son, Kelly Patrick, as possible. He has no desire to teach his child to be a musician, end even removed a drum set from his house. "Why would you teach your kid to be a drummer? It's like shooting yourself in the left foot," he says.
Murphy seems oddly unfazed by Soul Asylum's rising fortunes, casually talking about his desire to continue writing songs. But he laughs at the ides of a solo album - he's only penned 12 songs he likes in the last decade. Considering himself "generally lazy", he's just as interested in talking about a trout-fishing trip he took with his father as he is about the band.
If you had to tag any member of the band the responsible one, it would be Murphy. As we leave, he graciously apologizes for the band's unavailability in Texas. With that, he's out the door, on his way to run a few errands before returning to the home he doesn't see as often as he'd like.