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Seeking Soul Asylum

At home with the loud fast rulers of the Minneapolis music scene

Soul Asylum

Dan Murphy and Dave Pirner of the band Soul Asylum pose for a portrait resting their drinks on a guitar in New York City, November 1992.

Catherine McGann/Getty

Midday in Minneapolis and all’s right with the world. Autumn is wrapping its arms around downtown. Suits and flannel share the sidewalks. Jacketless business execs stroll side by side with the skate punks and sweat-shirt clad slackers who wander aimlessly around the impossibly immaculate city center.

And just a few blocks away, Soul Asylum is running up a bar tab.

“I feel pretty good about things”, says singer-guitarist Dave Pirner, tipping back in his chair and glancing absently over his shoulder. “We’ve got new management, a new label. I’ve got a new apartment … And here comes Karl – bringing drinks.”

All of which is true.

After nine years’ and six albums’ worth of thinking man’s trash – overcaffeinated folk anthems ushered forth with slam-dance subtlety but always with insights offered in perfectly screamed harmony – Soul Asylum has released Grave Dancers Union, its stunning Columbia Records debut. Suddenly, rock’s biggest underdogs are poised to take over the pound.

… And bassist Karl Mueller arrives, bearing beer.

“After the last record we were just beat up, physically and mentally”, says guitarist Dan Murphy, grabbing a beer and hoisting his feet onto the table. “Our band doesn’t have a lot of self-confidence to begin with. Now it’s a really weird feeling. It’s kind of like starting over again.”

Not that a new start means repaying a decade of dues. Those – dating back to the band’s inauspicious debut as Loud Fast Rules (Mueller had owned his bass for two weeks; Pirner was the drummer) – appear to be paid in full.

After drummer Grant Young joined the band in 1985, Soul Asylum set about the task of definitively shedding hometown Hüsker Dü comparisons and then fled Twin/Tone Records for the majors, only to be met with unsympathetic production and marketing, Finally, after two terrific albums left the group feeling like it was shrieking into a vacuum, the band bolted A&M for a period of reckoning that led to Grave Dancers Union.

Even Soul Asylum’s status as the country’s best live band has been forged on a road with its share of cul-de-sacs: The early hell gig at a dental fraternity; the Tucson, Arizona show where the band wouldn’t stop playing until the last person had fled the bar; the night Pirner played a gig after being slipped a tab of acid and followed the show by spray-painting the band’s mobile home gold. At this stage of the game, success might be the only thing left that could shock Soul Asylum.

“We don’t worry too much,” says Murphy. “We were driving in Europe, and the brakes went out in our truck, and we plowed into this median. The driver was sure we were going to be freaked out, but we were just like ‘No problem.’ After nine years of this, nothing really fazes us. We’ve been through a lot of shit. Listen, we’ve played Salt Lake City three times. What else is there that could be worse?”

And while the period following the group’s last record, Soul Asylum and the Horse They Rode In On, left the band members feeling like Soul Asylum was perilously close to it’s final crash – Mueller went back to a day job; Murphy founded an antique business – Grave Dancers Union is far from the sound of a band’s blistering final “fuck you”. Instead, the album opts for a feel of focused desperation. It is, in fact, easily the band’s most diverse collection: guest star Booker T. Jones adds organ to six songs, half the tunes feature acoustic guitar, and one song even adds strings.

All of which adds up to what some will label a sellout.

” ‘Sun Maid’ is kind of an issue for me”, says Pirner, broaching the subject of said string-laden, image-offending track. “It feels the way that music did when I started out, because my attitude was ‘Everyone’s going to hate this.’ And that’s why I wrote it. At one point you have to say: ‘I’m not angry twenty-four hours a day. I don’t feel like screaming all the time. There are other emotions on my life that I should give some credence to.’ ‘Sun Maid’ is a beautiful thing, and it’s my ultimate ‘fuck you.’ People are going to hate it because it’s not punk rock.”

” ‘Sun Maid’ to the contrary, the only time anyone will be hearing Soul Asylum on an elevator is if the band is riding in it. Songs like “Somebody to Shove,” the album’s opening anthem, hark back to the days of 1986’s Made to be Broken, while the feedback-drenched “99%” screeches and claws like nothing the band has ever funneled through a Marshall amp.

Still, the fact that some of the album has toned down at the precise moment the rest of the musical world is turning up leaves the band just as exasperated as ancient charges that it was standing on the shoulders of now-defunct Minneapolis brethren like the Replacements.

“There’s a lot of bands out there that are making it that are standing pretty heavily on my shoulders, if you ask me”, says Pirner. “You’ve got to be happy for the people in the right place at the right time. The only thing that seems funny is that people are saying things like ‘We love that stuff you were doing five years ago because now it’s popular.’ It’s a little disgusting. But that’s showbiz, eh?”

Talk of music trends, in fact, runs exactly contrary to what the band is trying to put across. “I think in the past, people focused more on the fact that we’re nice guys from the Midwest wearing ripped jeans and long hair,” says Murphy. “No one ever comes out and says that Dave is a really great songwriter.”

So, in fact, is Murphy.

“People kept coming up to me after the last few records saying, ‘I love that song ‘Cartoon,’ I think that’s your best song’ ” says Pirner. “I’d just say, ‘Thanks, it’s the only song I didn’t write.’ So in a sense I think: ‘Dan, I need one of those. Get going.’ But he’s got a full-on life to deal with. Dan has his shit together. That’s why while the band is totally together, I’m a mess at all times.”

The relationship between Murphy and Pirner – two friends in a band full of close friends – perfectly demonstrates the Soul Asylum aesthetic. Murphy owns a business; Pirner doesn’t even own a car, television or CD player. For Soul Asylum, while one foot is solidly in the here and now, the other is usually planted in the amusement park.

“I have to actually look over at Danny occasionally to make sure things are still together onstage because I don’t even know,” says Pirner. “And that is our relationship. It’s chemistry, and it’s unique. I think at first he just thought I was kind of retarded. Now he accepts that that’s the way I am. And vice versa. He’s not just acting like he’s on top of things to make me feel inferior.”

Fame drawn from well-articulated alienation, however, has its drawbacks.

“It’s insulting when an old friend comes up and says ‘You’re some kind of a big rock star now,’ ” says Pirner. “It always ends up being an old friend who is, like, a lawyer. They’re a lawyer now, and we’re the same age. What do I have to show for it? I got shit. When this is over, I go back to fry cooking, I’m not qualified to do anything. You don’t sit around and say ‘What’s going to happen when this all ends?’ You don’t talk about it amongst yourselves, because you’re all afraid of it.”

So, nine years and countless tour miles down the road that led Soul Asylum from Minneapolis to the rest of the world, the only prospect scarier than achieving success is finding out the terms. With Grave Dancers Union, Soul Asylum is still very much a band on the brink.. Now, however, it’s a band on the brink of stardom.

“Guys at the record company talk about ‘the product,’ and all of a sudden you think, ‘They’re taking my life and making it a commodity,’ ” says Pirner, staring intently into his beer. “So you try to rise above it by making it so good that nobody can fuck with it. God knows it was a lot easier for Woody Guthrie. I’m sure he had his problems, but he sure didn’t have to compete with MTV.”

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