Soul Survivors

Author Tom Beaujour
Publication Guitar World
Date August 1995

For 10 years, they traveled the college-rock wasteland in search of success. Now, at long last, Soul Asylum have found a home on Easy Street.

Before the multi-platinum success of 1992's Grave Dancers Union (Columbia), Soul Asylum were accustomed to life at the bottom of the music industry food chain. In fact, after a decade of touring and recording that had culminated in two failed albums for A&M Records, the band was positively resigned to its lowly status. "I thought that was the way things were: you signed with a major label and then they ignored you for the rest of your life," recalls Soul Asylum frontman Dave Pirner.

Today, it would be hard to ignore Soul Asylum. In fact, ever since "the musical milk carton" video for the band's smash hit "Runaway Train" landed Pirner's cherubic face squarely in MTV's heavy-rotation, the golden-dreadlocked singer/guitarist probably can't leave the house to buy a pack of cigarettes without being harassed by a bevy of reverent well-wishers.

Let Your Dim Light Shine, Soul Asylum's blindingly vital follow-up to GDU, promises to make the band's star burn even more brightly. And, at least for now, Columbia Records, the band's current label, is only too happy to send someone to buy cigarettes for Dave.

Before the salad days, the band endured a string of lean years as alternative rock also-rans . According to Pirner, however, overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds does have its unique rewards: "In hindsight, I think our dues-paying -even though it fucking sucked at the time- gave us credibility and stability. I have no guilty conscience at all about our success."

Soul Asylum was spawned by the same fertile Minneapolis scene that produced the now disbanded alternative rock legends Husker Du and the Replacements, both of which enjoyed years of fawning critical adulation. While the Replacement's Paul Westerberg and Husker Du's Bob Mould were regularly recognized for their songwriting genius, Pirner and Murphy's compelling tales of hope and betrayal were all but overlooked.

But with skins thickened by the bitter cold of one too many a Minnesota winter spent cutting school to play pick-up hockey, Soul Asylum refused to be discouraged. Instead, they embarked on a decade-long cycle of tireless touring and recording. After making a less-than-stellar debut with 1984's frantic Say What You Will Clarence … (Twin/Tone), in 1986 Pirner and Murphy, along with bassist Karl Mueller and now departed drummer Grant Young released two albums on the Minneapolis-based label. Made to be Broken and While You Were Out were fast-paced collections of meticulously crafted post-punk that defied classification and challenged the ultra-conservative expectations of the Minneapolis hard-core scene. As Murphy recalls, Pirner's very appearance was a slap in the face of punk convention: "Dave was the first singer I saw in a punk rock band who had long hair, which was totally taboo back then. He was being unabashedly heavy metal in a circle where that was a total no-no."

Like their critically revered Minneapolis peers, Soul Asylum soon graduated to a major label, leaving Twin/Tone to sign with A&M. 1988's Hang Time, their A&M debut and perhaps the band's most consistently brilliant album to date, fell on deaf ears despite the release of two infectious singles, "Sometime to Return" and "Cartoon". According to Murphy, the album has sold less than 100,000 copies to date. And the Horse They Rode In On, the band's second major label effort, while eminently palatable and graced with many of the folksy mannerisms of its blockbuster follow-up, Grave Dancers Union, was equally ill-fated. "A&M's president, Herb Alpert, didn't even know that we were on his label when we were there," Murphy recalls. "Literally!, And A&M's not a big label. Dave walked up to him once backstage somewhere and said, 'Hey nice to meet you, I'm Dave from Soul Asylum.' Herb was like 'Great, whatever'. He had no idea who we were!".

Drained and discouraged by a decade of what appeared to be thankless toil, Soul Asylum were at the end of their rope. "It was a very dark period", says Pirner. "We felt like we had been beaten down by the system and just couldn't crack it". The time had come, it seemed, to throw in the towel and send their battered van -and dreams- to the junk heap.

"It came down to us sitting around a table in a restaurant," says Pirner. "I was very blunt and asked, 'Okay, who wants to quit?' And everybody decided to keep going. I was like 'All right! Let's go write some new songs!"

And so, with the blind determination of lemmings hurling themselves into the sea of rock and roll oblivion, Soul Asylum decided to press on. The band left A&M, secured a new contract with Columbia Records and after 10 years of toil, hit paydirt with Grave Dancers Union.

As Benjamin Franklin once said, "No gain without pain".

Guitar World: Does it bother you to be eternally associated with the "Minneapolis scene"?

Dave Pirner: I feel really intimately attached to the scene. The midwest has a long tradition of dudes playing loud guitars that somehow got transferred to Seattle for a couple of years. There's a similar climate in Seattle -it's kind of an out-of-the-way place where there's nothing to do but play in a band and practice. It was really funny for us when the Seattle bands and loud guitar rock began to be portrayed as this "new sensation".

Guitar World: Soul Asylum were frequently compared to Husker Du, presumably because Bob Mould produced your second record, made to be Broken. Do you think that, ultimately, it did the band a disservice to employ such a "celebrity producer"?

Pirner: Not at all. For sure, having him produce us did put a certain spin on things, but we didn't want to do the record on our own, and we needed somebody to help us who had more studio experience than we did. I remember laughing when Bob asked me if he could produce our record. I was like, "Produce what?" I didn't even understand what the job was about! Besides, Bob wasn't a celebrity back then.

Dan Murphy: He was famous in Europe, though. [both laugh] We got over there and all people had to say about us was: "Sounds like Husker Du".

GW: What was your relationship, if any, with the Replacements?

Pirner: I always felt like the Replacements were one record ahead of us, so although we'd open for them we had a pretty healthy, equal relationship. The way I see it, we were their contemporaries. I was in a band called the Shitz when the Replacements started out, which was about a year before this band formed.

Murphy: I was a pretty big fan of theirs in my formative years. The Replacements were great.

Pirner: I have the utmost respect for Paul Westerberg's songwriting, and I think that they were the greatest. It's just that at the time. it sort of irked me that everyone thought they were the cat's pajamas because I felt we had to do our own thing and believe that it was cooler than what everybody else was doing.

GW: What are your feelings on the recent death of Bob Stinson, the Replacement's original lead guitarist and wild man?

Pirner: Bob was a player who was beyond fashions and trends. He was a freak, and he would play stuff that was so unique that sometimes you couldn't really understand where it was coming from. He was a guitar player, pure and simple, who never got too involved in songwriting and the scene.

The rest of us were all trying to develop some sort of shtick, writing songs and building a band identity, but he was closer to a jazz cat who was just completely absorbed by his instrument. He'd play a good solo and then he'd go, 'That's my gig, and he'd literally pat himself on the back.

Murphy: I remember Bob used to have a different amp every time he played. One time he had this Silvertone PA system that he was dragging around as his rig. It had this little lighted VU meter that just peaked in the red the whole time he was playing.

The Replacements were a different band after he left. Bob was the one who determined how zany any given show of theirs was going to be -like if he was naked or not, that was a big variable.

GW: Soul Asylum left Twin/Tone to sign with A&M in 1987, only to be almost completely ignored. In retrospect, would you have been better off staying on an indie label?

Also, are today's bands young "alternative" bands signing to major labels too early in their careers?

Murphy: You've got to realize that major labels are completely different now from what they were then. A band like us would go to a major label and be sent directly to what they called the "punk rock ghetto".

Pirner: Otherwise known as the back burner. [laughs] The punk rock ghetto also had an official name: the "Alternative Department".

Murphy: They had two people working back there who actually liked the band.

Pirner: The Alternative Department had all the shit the label didn't do anything about -because they didn't know what to do with it.

Murphy: We never had a very close relationship with the powers that be over at A&M. They would never sit down and formulate a game plan for us, so we had no idea what was going on. Which is unfortunate. It's our own fault too, because we watched the situation get that way. Coming from a punk rock background, we always thought that if the record company didn't bug you, you were winning the battle. We would say, "They're not even bugging us. We just finished our record and they're not even calling us". We never realized that it meant that nobody gave a shit about us.

Pirner: Having an "Alternative" band on the label was almost like this fucking street credibility issue. They would sign up a couple of crappy punk garage bands just to make themselves feel cool. There was never any intention of selling records or anything like that. The labels just liked to tell their friends, "Oh, we've got this hip young band called Soul Asylum" And then their friends would answer, "Oh? Mmm. Ooh! Scary, spooky, underground stuff! How hip!".

Murphy: "Alternative" used to be an ugly word that meant "different from what everybody else was listening to". Now it's got different connotations.

GW: So you do think you would have been better off staying on Twin/Tone?

Pirner: Nah.

Murphy: I don't think so either.

Pirner: But I look at all these bands that achieve overnight success and think to myself, "Those dudes don't even know what it's like to get out there".

Murphy: After working at it for so long, I don't feel like I have to justify our success. I sleep well at night. I don't feel like I've fleeced people. I don't have any of the "success issues" that some musicians have these days, because we fucking punched it out for 10 years.

GW: There must have been times when you felt amazingly frustrated. Weren't you on the verge of breaking up when And the Horse They Rode In On, your second and last record for A&M, failed to sell.

Pirner: It was pretty dismal.

Murphy: We were extinct.

Pirner: We felt like we had tried everything and worked our asses off for 10 years and had nothing to show for it. It wasn't really even about commercial success, but more, "I wish I had a record I could be proud of". We just couldn't get to a point where we were comfortable making music -it was always this super-struggle.

GW: Financially speaking?

Pirner: Just to get the gig and make it happen. Just to have a guitar that was in tune, just to have a van that worked and just to put out a record that sounded good. It was like, "I put my fucking life and ego on the line and I worked my fingers to the bone and now what do I get? Bony fingers".

Murphy: We seriously considered breaking up, but we decided to stick it out. So we got out of our contract and started making music again. It was actually very liberating not to have a record contract because there was no agenda except to enjoy ourselves.

GW: The album that ultimately arose from ashes of your A&M deal was Grave Dancers Union, which seemed to follow a single artistic vision. Let Your Dim Light Shine has more of a split personality, seeming to mix the folksiness of GDU with the heavier, riff-oriented material on Hangtime.

Pirner: Grave Dancers Union was really focused because it was written and recorded while I was in one frame of mind. The new album may not have the same cohesiveness. It seems a bit more schizophrenic, and I can only hope that we can get away with that. [laughs].

GW: Did you make an effort to write more dissonant, heavy material like "Caged Rat"?

Pirner: No, it wasn't deliberate. Songs like that just happen to be a big part of my musical personality. There are probably 28 outtakes from this record that are much closer to "Caged Rat" than to the "simple folk song" material. It was a personal triumph for me to get that song on the record. I always try to push for songs like "Caged Rat", but they usually don't make it onto the records because they're too "out".

The truth of the matter is that I want the best of both worlds. I want to have a band that has songs that I can sit on the porch and sing with an acoustic guitar, but I also want songs that just rock like crazy.

GW: Has your new-found success and celebrity affected the way you write music?

Pirner: I've actually become more introverted, oddly enough. I basically just stay at home and write more songs than I ever did before. So fame is actually affecting my music in a positive way. I think it's worked out kind of well that in the last two years I've lived in weird places where I didn't have any friends, because it prevented me from becoming distracted.

GW: Is becoming a rock star something you've always dreamed of?

Pirner: The people that I aspired to be like were songwriters, not rock stars. And I didn't see the whole show business aspect of the music business going on around the people that I thought were writing the best material. The spectacle of rock and roll and all that stuff seems like a pretty shallow aspiration to have. I mean it's never been about making money or getting laid or anything like that for me.

I wanted to be respected for the material that I wrote, to receive the kind of respect that good songwriters get. I'm not really sure if I've gotten it yet or not, but that's kind of what I've always tried to do.

GW: You were recently joined on stage by one of rock's most respected songwriters, Bruce Springsteen. Are you fans of his?

Pirner: Not really. But my older sister was a big Bruce fan, so I had always heard his music. I actually went to his shows and thought he was the shit for a while. Then I lost track of him when Born in the USA became such a huge record. I was in my punk rock phase, so I refused to listen to anything that was popular.

But to meet him and talk to him now is really refreshing. It's great to talk to someone who's led a successful life of music. I talked to Bruce on the phone for a while and was amazed to be talking to him as his peer. It's funny because I felt like a fan, yet there was mutual respect. It was incredibly reassuring.

GW: Getting back to the new album, why did you choose Butch Vig to produce?

Murphy: We very much wanted to make a record that sounded good from a technical standpoint. We wanted to work with someone who was on the same wavelength as us, who could preserve the band's identity on tape and who wouldn't want to make us change our way of doing things. We also wanted somebody who would work very hard.

Everybody thinks that when you make a record, you go in and toot up a little blow, smoke some pot and you're done. But the truth is that it's a lot of work, and you have to find a producer that's going to be as into it as the band.

Pirner: Butch was always there for the project, 14 hours a day, seven days a week. He was tireless -he just kept going, "Dave, it's going to take us another week to do this". And I'd be like, "Oh fuck, Butch -let's just get it done." And he'd just answer, "Nope. Don't rush your own material." You've got to realize that that's a guy saying, "I've got to spend another week on your fucking song, buddy". It made it seem like he almost cared more about the record than we did.

I really identified with Butch because his career -and I hate to use that word- has developed almost just like ours. Basically he came out of nowhere in the midwest and worked his way up. If he's worked as hard on every project he's done as he did on ours, the guy has paid some pretty amazing dues.

Murphy: Butch has a serious Midwestern work ethic.

GW: In addition to producing multi-platinum albums like the Smashing Pumpkins' Siamese Dream (Virgin), Butch Vig produced Nirvana's Nevermind (DGC), probably the most important record of the nineties. What's the secret of his Midas touch?

Pirner: It's quality control, man. Butch isn't the kind of person who would be so presumptuous as to say there was some trick to producing the Nirvana record. He'd just go, "It sounded good and it had good songs". That's what it takes to make a good record.

GW: The guitar arrangements and sounds on Let Your Dim Light Shine are more fully realized than they were on Grave Dancers Union.

Murphy: We've learned through experience that when you make a record you really have to exaggerate dynamics for them to be conveyed properly. If you have a section of a song that's supposed to be quiet and weepy, you have to really underplay it in order for it to have an impact. But if you want to make something really wild, like "Caged Rat", then you shouldn't be shy; just pile on 20 fucking guitars and hit all the stomp boxes.

GW: It does sound like you used some pretty rude fuzzboxes on that song.

Murphy: We used all of the "Seattle boxes," as we call them -the stun guitars. But, generally, Butch insisted on keeping the guitar sounds very natural and unaffected. That got a little tricky, because, as usual, Dave insisted on playing his Telecaster, which is a real mixed can of worms when you're trying to play punk rock - Teles can sound awfully bright.

GW: I've often wondered how Dave manages to make his Tele sound even halfway normal through a Marshall.

Pirner: It's like the Holy Grail of guitar playing. If you can make a Tele and a Marshall work together, you're doing something that has never worked for anyone before. Come to think of it, it still doesn't work! I mean the guitar is still fucking out of tune, squeals like a motherfucker and feeds back. But when I harness it and get the amp tuned up just right, my rig sounds exactly how I think an electric guitar should. But it can be pretty horrendous -it took 10 years for me to figure out how to make it sound listeneable. It was brutal for the rest of the fellows in the band. Luckily, Murph always had his sound together, so he would fill out the band and I would just add this abrasive noisy fucking thing on the top.

GW: Besides the notorious Tele, did you use a lot of different guitars and amps on the record?

Murphy: We just brought in a couple of nice amps and a couple of nice guitars, including another old Tele I just bought and a white SG Junior of Dave's. If you bring too much gear to the studio, it ends up taking too long to weed through everything.

Getting good sounds is one of the most important aspects of making a record. It's really crucial and it's kind of fun. You have to have the patience for it, though.

GW: The process must be a little less nerve wracking for you now that the band can afford to spend some money on making a record.

Murphy: It definitely is. I mean, Made to be Broken was recorded and mixed in four days. We spent four days on parts of this record.

Pirner: Making records seems to get harder and harder for us. Luckily, though, the more difficult it is for us to make an album, the better it seems to come out. I was really hoping that it would be easier, because Grave Dancers Union was such a bitch.

Murphy: It turned out to be the same old grind, which I think is inevitable. A lot of the shit you do when you record an album is just grunt work. There's an enormous amount of very simple stuff that you just have to get right.

GW: It seems you're quite the perfectionists.

Murphy: Unfortunately for us, our perfectionism reaches far beyond how well we can play [both laugh].

Pirner: It's the classic scenario of knowing how good things can be without knowing how to get there. We sit there in the studio, hear an idea and go, "That's pretty great -I wish I could play it". [laughs]

GW: Apparently, you're both aware of your limitations as guitarists. Both of you have in the past expressed the wish that you could play as well as the Jayhawks, another Minneapolis band.

Pirner: I think once you realize that you're not that great …

Murphy: That's when you start getting good.

Pirner: Yeah. Exactly.

Murphy: It's really true, because you'll realize, "I'm never going to be flashy, I'm never going to blow people away". Audiences don't leave a Soul Asylum show thinking "God, that Dan Murphy fucking blew my shit away" So you go from there and try to figure out what you can contribute.

Pirner: Another thing you discover is that you're never going to be able to play like somebody else. You either have to embrace the fact or you spend your life going "Man, I wish I could play more like [Jayhawks guitarist] Gary Louris".

GW: Are there any areas in which either of you would like to improve your playing?

Pirner: Any area would be fine, really.

Murphy: I'm not comfortable playing solos. I never really dug it. Other bands probably fight about who gets to play the solo, but Dave and I are always trying to unload them on each other. Neither of us is a particularly flashy player, but I think that we've learned how to give each song the right treatment. A lot of players don't know how to do that, and it's a fundamental problem with music. Being so caught up in your own chops that you can't even think what the person next to you is playing is as bad as cancer.

GW: How do you divvy up your parts?

Murphy: It was real different this record. Dave played a lot of electric, whereas on the last record he was mainly playing acoustic.

Pirner: We each do things that we're best at. When it comes to guitar solos it's usually like, "Murph's the better guitar player, he should play the solos." And he still kind of goes, "Ah, fuck you, you play the fucking solos."

Murphy: Solos make me nervous, especially when we're recording. It's really difficult to play a solo because you're trying to be creative.

Pirner: The studio is absolutely the worst place to have to try and improvise. When you're playing a song live every night, you do whatever feels right. Some nights you play this amazing thing and other nights you just can't pull anything out of the hat. But in the studio it's, "How am I going to make the most killer solo ever?" And you're fucked right there because you're thinking about it too much, so you lose that sense of improvisation and spontaneity … The one solo that I did on this record, though, is my chops tour de force.

Murphy: "Caged Rat."

GW: The jazz-fusion "exploration".

Pirner: I sat there for hours, flock shooting. We just kept running the track over and over. It felt like, "Oh Christ, I suck. Aw, fuck. I hate the electric guitar." It totally destroyed my self esteem as a guitar player.

Murphy: In truth, guitar solos are not a big part of the band.

GW: You say that, but your second and third records, Made To Be Broken and While You Were Out, have some extremely challenging riffs on them.

Murphy: We used to call that Accu-Core instead of hardcore. Playing some of those songs was like playing exercises.

Pirner: That was part of the era. We were trying to outdo every aspect of rock and roll. It was a noble concept, but at times it didn't really work. There are a few songs on those record that are just so out that you think "Why would anybody …"

Murphy: " … bother to learn this shit?"

Pirner: Bother is the operative word. It took so much time to get those songs right. Every little note was dictated. But when you listen to it now it's like, "Wow, impressive. But it is music?" I don't know. [laughs]

GW: Who were your first musical influences?

Murphy: I remember watching the Midnight Special television show and seeing Golden Earring and David Bowie with Mick Ronson and thinking they were cool.

In high school, I was a huge Aerosmith and Thin Lizzy fan. Then I started playing in this band and it was completely punk rock: Johnny Thunders, the New York Dolls, the Ramones, the Clash - we covered all that stuff. The great thing about punk was that we could go to the garage and play five Clash songs and sound almost as good as they did.

Pirner: I was inspired to play guitar by the Ramones and the Vibrators - it was so simple. Before that I was into jazz and played trumpet and saxophone. I also listened to Hendrix and thought that the guy was a genius. But I didn't really think of the guitar as a possibility because I thought it was like the trumpet, where you have to spend six years playing exercises before you can do anything. Then I heard the Ramones and realized that you could learn a song, practice it for five minutes, then play it with your friends and make it sound like music. That changed everything for me-I was just stunned at how quick and easy it was.

It blew me away man, I asked this dude Chris Osgood, who was the guitarist in the Suicide Commandos and produced While You Were Out, to teach me how to play. He said "Bring in your favorite records". After the first lesson, I walked home knowing five songs.

GW: Do you remember what songs they were?

Pirner: They were mostly instant gratification songs. I think I brought in a Ramones record.

GW: Your teacher must have been relieved.

Pirner: Yeah. I also brought in "Little Wing" and he said, "Oh man, this is going to take a while".

Murphy: That's another bag altogether. I still don't know how to play that song.

Pirner: It all boils down to how much time you want to spend copping someone else's shit. When you go into a guitar store and see some guy who plays Verbatim Hendrix licks, you're kind of impressed because he has some good chops, but …

Murphy: That has nothing to do with music.

Pirner: I was talking to this 13 year old kid the other day, and he said "I want to be a singer in a band - I want to do covers". I was like, "all right dude, but cut to the chase- you've got to start writing your own material. Might as well get started now".

GW: You used to play quite a few covers at your shows.

Murphy: We have, historically.

Pirner: At the height of the whole Minneapolis punk explosion we had an Eagles Tribute band called Take It To The Limit.

Murphy: We were awesome.

Pirner: We had six rehearsals and I was playing drums.

GW: Were you singing too?

Pirner: Yeah.

Murphy: He sang on "Best of My Love".

Pirner: It was so weird - we sat down to practice and we all knew the songs because we'd heard them so many times on the radio. We were singing these three-part Eagle harmonies.

Murphy: Pretty flawlessly. I was amazed.

Pirner: We only played one gig, but we kicked ass - it was unbelievable. Our friends got a kick of it, but then there was also this fringe contingent of weirdos from the suburbs, Eagles fanatics, who were like, "Hey, this band is pretty good. These dudes can sing!"