Several dozen empty beer bottles are scattered across a large table, accompanied by about ten pounds of leftover appetizers and hors d'oeuvres. It looks like the fallout from a large, rowdy party, but the wreckage is the result of a video meeting between record company honchos and their bright, shining stars Soul Asylum, a band that knows the value of a good party - and the power of a good video.
Launched from alternative obscurity to worldwide adoration on the celluloid back of their "Runaway Train" video, Soul Asylum have become celebrities some ten years after giving up on any hope of mainstream success. It's a situation they've never been in before and aren't sure quite how to deal with. After all, celebrityhood brings with it a whole set of demands and expectations foreign to musicians who have become used to scrounging together enough change to buy a six-pack.
As Soul Asylum prepare for the release of their sixth full-length album, Let Your Dim Light Shine, the group are understandably apprehensive. Instead of trumping the disc as the worthy, enjoyable pop record it is, vocalist/guitarist Dave Pirner downplays it, shrugging it off as just another Soul Asylum record. "I just hope people remember it as the record that came after Grave Dancers Union and before the next one".
Even though the man is laying prostrate on the ground with his T-shirt pulled up almost to his left nipple, Pirner is no dummy. By denying the great pressure attached to the project, he frees himself from having to explain the band's motives. It's a crafty move, and perhaps the only way to escape a no-win situation. To old-school Minneapolis punk fans, Pirner and his bandmates -guitarist Dan Murphy, bassist Karl Mueller and drummer Sterling Campbell (who replaced old stick-swinger Grant Young midway through recording) are the ultimate sellout: one-time anarchic heavyweights turned glossy Top 40. And to pristine pop fans, Soul Asylum are being looked upon to create "Runaway Train" Mach II. Both will likely be disappointed.
Aside from the radio-prostitution of 'Misery', which is likely to be blasting from car speakers for at least the next year, Let Your Dim Light Shine is a rootsy, heartfelt record that captures the essence of rock and roll in an era of plastic, pseudo-rebellious rock. While the band was once influenced by and aligned with Minneapolis bands like Husker Du and the Replacements, these days they're more turned on by the bluesy twang of the Jayhawks and the folksy jangle of Victoria Williams. In other words, Pirner and company aren't gonna rip your soul or land you in an asylum through sheer volume alone.
"Is this the mellow question?" asks Pirner, laughing and rubbing his eyes with his palms. "It is kind of mellow, man, and that kind of freaked me out. But it feels like songs I could play for the rest of my life and not be embarrassed about playing them.
"I do actually like to rock", he adds, a bit too defensively. "I like to plug in the electric guitar and let it roar and play up-tempo sort of things. I came offstage recently going, 'Geez, we played a lot of mellow shit tonight. What the f*ck was that?' Then somebody looks at me and says, 'Well, that's the kind of stuff you're writing, Dave'".
Still, when it comes to kicking out the jams, Soul Asylum are hardly handicapped. "String Of Pearls" has a few moments of Aerosmithian amp overload, and when the band are onstage, even their power ballads sound pretty potent. And Pirner is quick to add that he's still writing heavy songs, a dozen or so of which didn't make Dim Light Shine. But in the final analysis, none of this will really matter to fans who want to hear the band retrace their early steps.
"We don't want to do anything we've already done", affirms Pirner. "I've learned that there's a lot more to music than speed and volume". Besides, there are great experts in the field out there. I haven't been to a Slayer concert recently, but I think they've probably got that genre covered, and the Ramones have beaten every three-chord rhythm out there into the ground already. The challenge of the whole thing to me is, What do you do to stay fresh? If it sounds mellow, sorry, but this is what we've decided to do".
For the past few days, Soul Asylum have been running around expressing such sentiments to gaggles of saber-toothed press people eager to sink their jaws into Pirner's unwashed dreadlocks. As stressful and draining as that can be, it's nothing compared to the last time the band were in the Big Apple and nearly got whacked by a Mafia boss in a crowded Italian restaurant. "Some guy kept coming over to our table and asking us if we were in a band, and we were having a real serious band meeting", explains Murphy.
"So, Dave goes, 'Yeah, we're in f*cking Pearl Jam, leave us alone'. So then the guy goes around telling everyone at his table that we were Pearl Jam, and this other girl says, 'That's not Pearl Jam!' So the guy gets all indignant and comes back to our table and goes, 'Are you disrespecting me? You busting my balls?' And everybody at the other table just stops eating and looks all tense".
"I know that shit from those Godfather movies", interrupts Pirner. "I thought I was gonna wake up with a horse's head in my bed".
"Our road manager smooth-talked everybody back down", adds Mueller. "he did a real good job keeping us alive that night".
For many rock stars, integrity is a dirty word. Maintaining integrity often means losing popularity, and when you've already been hoisted onto the big stage, when you've experienced the roar of 40,000 fans a night and been able to reap the financial rewards of platinum-selling albums, having the floor drop under you seems about as appealing as going cold turkey. But for Soul Asylum, integrity isn't the issue. If it were, " Dim Light Shine" wouldn't contain country-inflected numbers like "I Did My Best" or "To My Own Devices" or "Caged rat", which switches between lounge swing and stomping hardcore in a way Faith No More would approve. The bottom line? Music is simply too important to Pirner to sacrifice creativity to commerce, which is why when his own record company came to him asking him to spruce up the record with a few high-voltage tracks, Pirner flipped them the proverbial bird. "They wanted it to be more punk or something. We used to play that shit because people hated it. We did it just to irritate people, and now that everybody's paying money for it, people expect us to start doing that again. We actually could have put out a f*cking totally kick-ass Green Day f*cking punk rock record. We probably would have sold five million f*cking copies and marketed it to the f*cking Offspring crowd. But we didn't want to do that".
To a large extent, what the band did instead was something far more closely tied to punk rock's screw-'em-all aesthetic. Soul Asylum feel much more content on the outskirts of a genre than bound in the middle of it. A decade ago, when acts like Huey Lewis & the News and Steve Miller were heating up the airwaves, and Soul Asylum were banging out rip-roaring riff-rock in a garage, much of "Dim Light Shine" would have sounded like everything else on the radio dial, but today it sounds like a bit of an anachronism.
"We were oddballs before oddballs was a genre, dude, and that's the whole problem", explains Pirner. "To me it seems just as out of context as everything we've always done. I don't know why the last record sold a lot of copies." He pauses and lifts his head for a moment, seemingly unsure of whether or not to continue. He shrugs and finishes his discourse. "I'm sure it had something to do with MTV. I think they had a lot to do with making Clinton President, and if they can get someone in the White House, they should have no problem helping a band sell a couple of records. But this record is pretty f*cking different to us, and I don't know if people still have time for us in their busy schedules".
Let Your Dim Light Shine may sound pretty folky and traditional, but lyrically it's as confused and turbulent as anything by Pearl Jam. Even the hit single, "Misery", rings with confusion: "They say misery loves company/we could start a company and make misery/Frustrated Incorporated".
"I think a little bit of desperation is good", drawls Pirner. "Everybody is a little bit desperate. And if it sounds like somebody bitching and moaning, that's the great blues tradition".
Yet Pirner insists the overall message of "Dim Light Shine" is positive. "Sometimes it makes me happy to write a sad song. Anyway, I think the sentiments are fairly celebratory", he says. "Even the sad songs are about looking back and laughing almost. There's absolutely a sense of humor within it. I think if you miss that, you miss the record completely".
For Soul Asylum, humor can almost always be found in tragedy. In their view, no matter how bad things get, as long as you can still laugh at yourself you're at least a few steps from taking that fatal plunge. "There's so much funny shit, it's hard to even take anything serious", says Pirner.
"In the last Rolling Stone poll, we were listed as 'comeback of the year' and also as 'best new band'", laughs Murphy. "It was the same f*cking poll, which was totally hilarious".
While ignorant MTV viewers might think Grave Dancers Union was Soul Asylum's first record, it was actually their fifth in nearly ten years. The band was formed by Murphy in his sister's apartment, where he and Mueller were living at the time. Inspired by a wild Iggy Pop show, Murphy suggested that Mueller pick up a bass so that they could form a band.
Soon after, Mueller asked Pirner, who worked as a takeout delivery man with Mueller, if he wanted to play drums. They toured for a while using the name Loud Fast Rules before Pirner switched to guitar and vocals, and the band changed their name and recorded their first disc, Say What You Will.
Years of exhaustive touring and tense recording followed before the band was finally signed to A&M in 1987. It was nearly their undoing, and after just two records, neither of which were strongly promoted, Soul Asylum severed their ties with the label at a cost of $200,000.
"I definitely think we've paid our dues," says Pirner. "We've been successful just because we've been so f*cking persistent. When Bruce Springsteen won his Grammy, he said, 'Well, you stick around long enough and they throw you one of these', and I kind of knew what he meant.
"You could have a whole Lollapalooza tour of bands that have opened for us over the years that later went on to eclipse us. Pearl Jam and Pixies and Soundgarden. Suddenly we sell a couple of records and we're supposed to feel guilty about it. It never even crossed our minds".
As Soul Asylum finish up a club tour and prepare for a small arena jaunt with fellow Minneapolitans the Jayhawks, the band harbor the usual insecurities that accompany change. Will new audiences react favorably to the band's new material, and will old fans be able to adapt to the mellower sound?
"It's the same shit that's always there," says Murphy. "We try to persevere, and we doubt ourselves as much as we ever did. We doubt our material, and we're righteous about it all at the same time. I think being really critical of ourselves is a defense mechanism. That way, when someone else is critical of you and attacks you for something, you've already thought of it. There's some standard that we try to adhere to that's really elusive, and we try to create something that's excellent. We can't explain it, but we know it when we hear it. It's kind of like losing every battle but winning the big war".