"Runaway" Fame Makes Band Wary:
Soul Asylum Rejects "Alternative" Label

Author Doug Pullen
Publication The Flint Journal
Date August 25th, 1995

"Runaway Train," a runaway hit two years ago, was a message song about troubled teens that touched a nervein this country.

It also made stars of Soul Asylum, the grungy Minneapolis veterans who had toiled in relative obscurity for a decade.

Now they're headlining major venues for the first time in support of their new "Let Your Dim Light Shine" album. But the members of Soul Asylum are finding that mainstream acceptance has its roses - money, name recognition, bigger venues - and its thorns.

The band has been vilified in some quarters of alternative music because its new album, already a million-seller, is not the punkish, grungy assemblage some of its fans - and music critics - expected.

Instead, it's a sprawling, sometimes folkish collection of confessional ruminations on life, love and lethargy in the cyberage. It's less focused than "Grave Dancers Union," the 1992 album that did a slow burn up the charts on its way to platinum status. But it is more eclectic and ambitious.

The first single and lead track, "Misery," is a clever bit of wordplay about the exploitation of teen angst in the post-Nirvana world - anger as product.

The other 13 songs spin variations on that and similar themes as the band veers from straightahead '70's rock to rootsy country-folk to lounge-lizard slither to good, old-fashioned pop punk.

Bassist Karl Mueller says the band is all too aware of the backlash. He laughs off the term alternative as a bromide.

"You know what alternative is," he asked indignantly. "Alternative is stuff like Kenny G and Michael Bolton. You can hear Pearl Jam and Nirvana and Stone Temple Pilots on any…station now."

But the criticisms sting: "It kind of bugs me, because we stay true to ourselves. We don't follow trends."

Anyone who's followed the quartet's checkered career knows that. Soul Asylum is not a band that stands still very long. They've slowly moved away from the thrashing punk of their early days, but "Dim Light" proves that they haven't foresaken it, either.

Mueller's annoyed by the alternative nation's mindset that popularity and success are somehow criminal.

"If somebody decides that because their 13-year-old neighbor buys our record we're not cool, I'm sorry. We do what we do because we believe in what we're doing and it's what we're going to continue to do," he said.

Soul Asylum didn't hesitate to accept an invitation to perform at the Sept. 2 gala concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Mueller calls the band's inclusion on a bill ranging from Bruce Springsteen to Snoop Doggy Dogg an "honor."

But the band is more anxious about the possibility of performing there with either Iggy Pop or Lou Reed, two of punk's most influential forebears.

"They're guys I've admired and looked up to since I discovered real music," Mueller said.

Playing larger venues, however, is a bit of an adjustment for a band used to smoky clubs and crummy PA systems. "It's taking a little getting used to," admitted Mueller.

Maybe that's why the band members have invited a bunch of friends to join them on this tour, friends like Matthew Sweet, the Jayhawks and Victoria Williams (who's married to Jayhawks singer Mark Olson). "It's like a community," Mueller said. "If it feels right, why not do it?"

They're also taking a page from the Lollapalooza and H.O.R.D.E. tour books, bringing along a marketplace with merchants and information booths staffed by members of various political and social groups.

"We're trying to give people something to do," Mueller said.

"Two years ago when we did the Spin Doctors tour, they had booths, predominantly Greenpeace. It seemed like a good idea, particularly for things like pro-choice, which we're all strongly behind."

Success has taken other tolls on the band. Singer Dave Pirner - who formed the band in 1982 with Mueller, guitarist Dan Murphy and drummer Grant Young - has been the butt of jokes for dating movie star Winona Ryder and making other concessions to stardom, like answering an invitation to the White House by President Clinton, a "Runaway Train" fan.

There have been internal problems as well. Young was dumped before the "Dim Light" sessions,replaced by the more accomplished Sterling Campbell, who did most of the drumming on "Grave Dancer's Union."

Mueller is asked about a recent quote from Young criticizing Pirner for taking control of the band. Pirner writes the bulk of Soul Asylum's material and does all the singing.

"I read that," Mueller replied, deftly evading the question. "It's got to be at least as hard for (Young) to startfeeling good about this. I hope we all can, some day, like each other again."

Success may have shaken things up, but Mueller says Soul Asylum is essentially unchanged. They'll still tour relentlessly and write and record what they want, no matter how popular they are or what the musical fashion of the moment is.

"I don't think," he said, "we could change if we wanted to."