Sonic Reducer

Author Dan Murphy and Tom Beaujour
Publication Guitar
Date August 1995

Soul Asylum guitarist Dan Murphy assesses his band's rocky recording career with disarming candor.

Say What You Will (Twin/Tone, 1984)

"People think that we must have been very excited about getting signed to A&M or Columbia records, but what was really exciting was getting signed to Twin/Tone, because we were 20 year old kids. We were terrified to be in the studio making our first record. As a result, we were very self-conscious and afraid to let our guard down, so everything sounds really rigid. In the final analysis, Say What You Will has a lot of attitude and not a lot of content, which is a bad combination. Believe it or not, we actually performed one of the songs 'Stranger' on MTV Unplugged. That's an amazing song with one of the best lyrics Dave has ever written".

Made to be Broken (Twin/Tone, 1986)

"Made to be Broken was an ambitious record, and recording it represented a huge growing process for the band. We were really happy with the way it came out, and I think that Bob Mould did a really good job producing us - the record sounds a whole lot better than we did as a band. 'Tied to the Tracks' and 'Can't go Back' are really great songs.

"Dave was really into us being an art band back then - songs like 'Whoa!' had 'art breaks', which is what we called it when we made a lot of weird noise. Dave would say 'Then we'll have a two bar art break'. None of us knew any music theory, so we would answer, 'Just tell us when the two bars are up'. I wouldn't mind learning 'Whoa!' again because I think it has a great guitar riff. And you'll have to excuse me for sounding snotty, but I think that I've heard that riff turn up in some other band's song over the years"

While You Were Out (Twin/Tone, 1986)

"There was only a seven-month gap between the making of Made to be Broken and While You Were Out, and we were on tour the whole time. I don't think that the band was sonically or emotionally ready to make that record, and we were all pretty disappointed with the way it came out. I remember being on tour in Europe about a year-and-a-half later, when the record had just come out over there. People would play it at these little parties that we'd go to and we would be thinking, 'Oh God, this record is terrible'.

'Closer to the Stars' is one of the most poignant songs Dave's ever written. I'm just embarrassed at how badly we recorded and played it - it really sounds like pure shit. It's ironic and sad, because if that songs was on Let Your Dim Light Shine and was well performed and recorded, it would probably be our lead-off track. There are a couple of other good songs on there as well: 'Freaks', 'Never too Soon' and 'Passing Sad Daydream'- which we still play sometimes- come to mind'.

Hangtime (A&M, 1988)

"Hangtime was our first album for a major label and our first album with a major budget. I think we spent $100,000 on it, which in those days was a lot. We were working with Ed Stasium and (ex-Patti Smith guitarist] Lenny kaye, and we were intimidated as hell because Ed had produced Ramones records and stuff. We remember feeling a lot of pressure -we weren't even sure if we were a real band. I remember having conversations like 'What if Ed finds out that we can't play?' But we hung in there and made a good record, although, unfortunately, the whole thing was recorded to a click track so it's pretty stiff.

"I had really high hopes for the two singles off that album, 'Cartoon' and 'Sometime to Return'. They really captured what the band was trying to accomplish at that point in time. I wrote 'Cartoon' one day while I was sitting in my basement, and it was done in 15 minutes - I didn't even have to change any of the words. I don't know what happened. Usually, I'm so picky that it takes me forever to write, but that just came piling out one day. I was real proud of it and had the highest hopes for it. But it kind of landed on deaf ears, I guess. That's the breaks".

Clam Dip and Other Delights (Twin/Tone, 1988)

"Clam Dip was an EP of Hangtime outtakes that we went and re-recorded because we still had a contractual obligation to Twin/Tone. Besides, we had a brilliant concept for the cover art that was a real dig on signing with A&M. It totally made fun of them, which in hindsight was probably a very bad idea.

"A&M's president, Herb Alpert, had been in a band called Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. They put out a record called Whipped Cream and Other Delights which pictured a naked secretary with whipped cream all over her titties on the cover. We thought it would be really funny to copy that cover, but have Karl, our bassist, on the cover instead of the woman - we copped the graphics and everything. To us, the whole thing was hysterical, but maybe A&M didn't share our feelings".

And the Horse They Rode In On (A&M, 1990)

"Recording this album marked the beginning of a dark period in our lives. We were working on the A&M soundstage and fighting with them all the time. Then they kicked us out in the middle of tracking because they said it was too loud or something. It was really a struggle for Steve Jordan, the producer, to make us concentrate; we had recorded all of the basic tracks live but were not up to the task of finishing it. We were just pissy, whiny guys that no one wanted to listen to because we complained about everything.

"Even though the record didn't come out well -the backing vocals sound like the Beach Boys or something- there were some really strong songs, and a lot of the material sounded great live 'Nice Guys Don't Get paid' is a beautiful song, and I really like 'Grounded' and 'veil of Tears as well."

Grave Dancers Union (Columbia 1992)

"Although nobody talked about it at the time, we all knew Grave Dancers Union was a make or break proposition. It was our first album for Columbia, and there was an amazing amount of pressure on us. While we thought we were the shit and had always told people that we were the shit, it had never really panned out: it was time to be the shit or get off the pot. Ultimately, I think the record was successful because it was hands-down better than anything we had previously released. Michael Bienhorn, who had previously worked with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, did a great job producing, even if we ended up not getting along and had a miserable time recording.

"It's weird that now I feel like I have to justify the success of the single 'Runaway Train'. A lot of people have this misguided notion that you can write a hit. Dave didn't write a hit, he just wrote a song. Someone else made it a hit".