Soul Asylum Finds Success
June 15, 1993, Miami It’s Day 9 of the Alternative Nation Tour, but for Soul Asylum, it’s feeling a bit more like an alternate universe.
Sure, some things never change. Onstage singer Dave Pirner is spinning out of control, dreadlocks and sweat spraying from his head in an enormous, umbrellalike arch. Safely at dreads’ length, Karl Mueller is strolling back and forth, leisurely playing his bass and soaking up the spectacle, while guitarist Dan Murphy – perched on the drum riser – pounds his guitar with the same vehemence that Grant Young uses to punish his drums.
Yet outside this island of normalcy, things are getting weird. Very weird. Forget for just a moment that the band is currently playing to more than 10,000 screaming Floridians. The weirdness begins stage right. Here, tucked in front of the Screaming Trees and various Spin Doctors, who sit watching more like attentive fans than tour mates, stands the bottom line personified – Sony Records president Tommy Mottola – watching the Soul Asylum gig with one enormous, shit-eating grin. The band slugs its way through song after song from Grave Dancers Union, the album that has finally made the masses start pricking up their ears after years of critical reverence and the minimal album sales that usually accompany such acclaim. The boss, meanwhile, peers from the wings, periodically checking his investment and then immediately glancing at the crowd full of 15-year-olds diving toward the stage like salmon swimming upstream.
You see, over their 11-year existence, Soul Asylum have been called many things: Americas best live band; music-industry misfits; punk poets; insightful adults trapped in terminal adolescence; the last great gasp of life from the early-’80s Minneapolis music scene. They’ve even been toe-tagged as dead and gone. No one, however, has ever tossed around the word marketable.
But the bottom line is beaming, and – as everyone knows – there’s no ignoring the bottom line. And then, of course, there’s the screaming. Between songs, the June night is filled with the distinct mating cry of the adolescent female – a piercing wail straight out of British Invasion-era soundtracks and horror flicks – which hovers like a cloud in the Miami air. For a band that once kept playing a Tucson, Ariz., show until it had finally chased the last person from the bar, this is certainly a new wrinkle. After the show, Murphy grabs a beer and sinks into the dressing-room couch. “There were all these shrieking girls,” he says with a sip and a shit-eating grin of his own. “I thought my monitor was feeding back.”
Because Soul Asylum have grown up loud and alone – singing about disenchantment and alienation to anyone willing to listen – they haven’t necessarily endeared themselves to the music-biz brass. More than a decade after the band first began pleading its case to the world, the group of rank outsiders is being told that it belongs after all and is taking the news with all the trust of a kid who has been beaten up on the playground for 10 straight days. On the 11th, he still expects to get smacked. Nowadays, when the music industry offers a congratulatory shake of the hand, Soul Asylum flinch.
“It’s not verbalized that it’s us vs. them, but we always have that mentality,” says Murphy. “If I look at the Top 50, I feel like we’ve worked harder than all those bands. Damn right. You can’t say, ‘Who are these guys?’ Fuck that. You can go to Tulsa, and there were a hundred people who saw us one time and maybe went out and bought a record. It’s not just some new advertising campaign kicking in.”
Advertising campaign or no, there is an incredible amount of activity whirling around Soul Asylum. It’s no wonder. While their last album, 1990’s Soul Asylum and the Horse They Rode In On, sold fewer than 70,000 copies, Grave Dancers Union has gone platinum, and the band is being treated to all the trappings that million-selling records bring. After making their network television debut last November on Late Night With David Letterman, Soul Asylum suddenly find themselves flooding the airwaves. Since Letterman, the band has played The Tonight Show, MTV’s Inaugural Ball, Spring Break special and Unplugged and Saturday Night Live. And now, with a moving video for its new single, “Runaway Train,” which features public-service-style listings of missing children, the band has become a legitimate news story – garnering segments on Today and CNN.
“I knew the ‘Runaway Train’ video would generate some interest,” says Mueller. “But this has been pretty incredible.”
Almost as incredibly, Soul Asylum will play close to 230 gigs this year, including a recent stint opening for Guns n’ Roses in Europe and, now, the 44-city Alternative Nation Tour.
When one reels off changes, however, Grave Dancers Union is the most obvious starting point. While the mood of the album is just as desperate as records past, the presentation is more diverse and, in many spots, decidedly toned down. So while hard-core fans scream that the band has sold out, a whole slew of kids buying the album are talking about the brand-new group they’ve just discovered.
In truth, Grave Dancers Union is just one step past Soul Asylum and the Horse They Rode In On, which itself was one step past 1988’s Hang Time (which, therefore, was a couple steps beyond 1986’s Made to Be Broken). The true importance of this most recent step, however, is that it’s not necessary to use the fast-forward button when listening to Grave Dancers Union. On past albums, Soul Asylum often followed their songwriting peaks with very abrupt valleys. Luckily, these days, the road is remarkably even. The topics are still personal or allegorical tales of strangers in familiar lands, the guitars are still distorted, and the tunes still rely on Pirner and Murphy’s vocal chemistry. Now, however, in between the feedback screeeeech of “99%,” the punk-and-circumstance stomp of “Somebody to Shove” or “Get On Out” and the metal-tinged posturing of “April Fool” come beautiful acoustic ballads (“Runaway Train,” “Homesick”) and songs whose urgency is balled up in one midtempo package (“Black Gold,” “New World”).
“We wrote a really cohesive record, kind of by accident, and it sounds really good,” says Murphy matter-of-factly. “I don’t think it was what people expected to hear. And the thing is, I think our band has changed quite a bit in the last five or six years.”
Pirner sees even less of a difference between Grave Dancers Union and the group’s 1984 debut, Say What You Will. “I sort of think that it’s all folk music, whether it’s really fast or really slow,” he says. “You’ve got three chords, an attitude, a story. I always thought punk rock was folk music. But when I started singing, there was no monitor, it was a million miles an hour, loud as all fuck. Everything got screamed. That was the only way it could fit. And that feels great. But it gets old. You have to start figuring out how you’re going to express other parts of your personality.”
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