2 Top 40 Hits
“It’s a crazy mixed up world out there,
Someone’s always got a gun and it’s all about money
You live with loneliness, or you live with somebody who’s crazy
It’s just a crazy mixed up world …”
(“Crazy Mixed Up World”)
Chapter 1. Every Cloud Has One
Renewed and revitalized, Soul Asylum founders Dave Pirner and Dan Murphy return to rock’s front line with THE SILVER LINING, their first new studio release since 1998’s Candy From a Stranger. That album inadvertently kicked off a seven-year sabbatical for the group, which telescoped into the death of bassist Karl Mueller in June 2005, the other founding member of the triumvirate that has steered Soul Asylum through rock’s white water for the past two decades plus.
The re-emergence of the group on THE SILVER LINING is as much a reaffirmation of Soul Asylum’s commitment to the music as it is a dedication to Karl, who worked and played on the album right up until the end. They were joined in the studio by not-so-new heavyweight Minneapolis drummer Michael Bland (who has played with everyone from Paul Westerberg to Prince). The band is now complemented by Tommy Stinson on bass, a member of fellow Twin Cities band the Replacements since age 13, and a pal of Dan’s since he was in high school and Tommy in junior high. Tommy was the only friend that Karl could endorse to replace himself in the band. This hard-driving lineup was introduced for the first time in October 2005, when they played sold-out showcase dates at First Avenue in Minneapolis and the Bowery Ballroom in New York – within three days.
THE SILVER LINING, Soul Asylum’s ninth full-length album (there were several EPs and cassette-only releases back in the indie ’80s) is every bit as quirky and off-centered cut-to-the-bone rock as their hardcore fans have come to expect, an indication that the Minneapolis -bred band has lost none of its edge. And why should they? “We weren’t Mouseketeers,” Dave says, “we never had any sort of showbiz advice that was useful to us. Everything that we’ve done has been relatively homespun and we’ve had to do it all by ourselves and we never got a lot of fake support or showbiz chops or anything like that.”
Soul Asylum’s paradigm – as the prime number opposite of whatever a showbiz rock band is in the ’00s – is unavoidable throughout THE SILVER LINING, as Dave Pirner’s lyrics ruminate on the absurdity of stardom in “Success Is Not So Sweet” and rip into the precarious nature of sanity in an insane world in “Oxygen.”
But Soul Asylum is a band of story-tellers in the Midwestern tradition, and the new album also digs deep into interpersonal relationships (“Crazy Mixed Up World,” “Lately”), the fabric of peaceful co-existence (“Good For You”), and even a couple of songs that are redolent of New Orleans, Dave’s second home-away-from-home for the past few years (“Standing Water,” “Bus Named Desire”). The downtown punk rock vibe crashes through on several cuts (“All Is Well,” “Whatcha Need”). The new album was recorded at Flyte Time and the Terrarium Studios in Minneapolis, co-produced by Soul Asylum with Grammy Award-winning engineer-turned-producer Steve Hodge (on various tracks), and with John Field (on various tracks).
Chapter 2. The Early Years
True survivors of the rock struggle, whose home-made post-punk ethos made them one of the cornerstones of the No Depression movement in the ’90s, Soul Asylum is living proof of the ‘do-it-yourself’ ethic that has always meant life or death to rock bands in the American heartland. The roots of Soul Asylum are in the group known as Loud Fast Rules, formed fresh out of high school in 1981 by teenagers Dave Pirner (songwriter, lead vocals and guitar, but originally on drums), Dan Murphy (guitar), and Karl Mueller (bass).
Born in Duluth, Dan was 13 when his mother remarried and he acquired a hippie step-brother who gave him guitar lessons and shared his record collection. “And from the age of 13, that’s what I did. I sat in my room and I listened to records, went through Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Velvet Underground, David Johansen, all that kind of stuff, and rock stuff, I liked Aerosmith, and Thin Lizzy, and went to every show that came to town. So music was my life, my social life. I was a very introverted kid, and I didn’t excel at sports, I’d sit in my room and play guitar and write really dumb songs.”
“And you do bond on certain records,” Dave adds, recalling when he and Dan first got together, “like the Velvet Underground Loaded was a record that we both had in common that really seemed like some sort of a jumping off point – if he has the same record that I have and we both love this record, we must have something musically in common.” It wasn’t until much later that Dave’s affection for folk music emerged. “Being from Minnesota, if you’re a songwriter, you sort of grow up in the shadow of Bob Dylan, he’s just part of your life.
“But somehow it never really fit into the canon of what we were trying to do as a punk band. It wasn’t until I started listening to Woody Guthrie that it started to dawn on me that this music that Woody Guthrie was playing had a lot in common with the music the Ramones were playing. And that’s where I saw this thing that inspired me to pick up an acoustic guitar.” Dave took the guitar down to the 7th Street Entry, a local club, and challenged all the assembled members of several punk bands to play along on one of Woody’s songs. “I felt this was a very defiant thing to do, to bring a folk song into the punk rock circle. But it was so easy and fun for everybody to play, I kind of took that and ran with it, sort of a no-brainer, I hadn’t really made the connection between folk and punk. It all kind of came together for me in a very quick period.” That incident may have been The Big Bang that ignited the punk-folk movement right there.
Chapter 3. The Twin-Tone Era
By the time the group signed with Twin/Tone Records in 1984, Grant Young had become their permanent drummer (until 1995) and the name had changed to Soul Asylum. They were taken into the studio by Bob Mould of local favorites Hüsker Dü. “We released our first EP on Twin/Tone,” Dan says (referring to the label that was put on the indie map as the home of the Replacements), “which actually we recorded as a record, and it got re-worked as an EP.” He bought their first van for 600 dollars from a newspaper ad, “and we made it to New York and back, and then the van died, and then we had to do a couple of gigs so we could buy another van…”
But the trip to New York, to play CBGB on the Bowery for the first time – in the last slot at 3:00 a.m. – was a badge of honor. “Minneapolis had this ‘let’s wait and see how they do somewhere else’ thing going on in the ’80s, because there was a really thriving music scene there, and you didn’t get any notoriety or attention really until you had arrived somewhere else. New York and Chicago were the towns where people seemed to get whatever it was that we were doing at the time and respond to it.”
Success is not so sweet, indeed. They humbly endured the torture of those early years. “Karl started playing bass two weeks before we did our first show,” Dan says, “so it was pretty fucking rough at the beginning, we were a band that would very often fall flat on our faces.” To Dave, success meant “maybe someday I’ll have an amp that works, or maybe someday I won’t have this problem with my jack in my guitar, or a monitor system in a club that I can hear or something.” Dan: “It was all very micromanagement. There wasn’t a whole lot of big picture going on. You had to get it fixed before the next show, because that was in Madison or some town that was really important. It was a very very funny time.”
Soul Asylum recorded three high-energy albums for Twin/Tone: Say What You Will Clarence… Karl Sold the Truck (1984), Made To Be Broken (1986, those first two produced by Bob Mould), and While You Were Out (also 1986, produced by ex-Suicide Commando Chris Osgood). Pirner’s introspective and maturing lyrical sense attracted the attention of major label A&M, who initially tried out the band with the self-produced six-song EP, Clam Dip & Other Delights, whose cover notoriously spoofed A&M’s beloved Whipped Dip & Other Delights by Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass, a move that did not bode well for Soul Asylum in the long run.
Nevertheless, the band graduated to its first level of wide acclaim with the album that followed, Hang Time (1988), produced by iconic downtown New York rock figure Lenny Kaye, erstwhile member of the Patti Smith Group. The final Twin/Tone-A&M outing, And the Horse They Rode In On (1990), was produced by another New York hipster, Steve Jordan, and found Soul asylum experimenting with new sounds, which both delighted and confounded fans, depending on how far-along the alt-rock spectrum they were at the time.
“Steve Jordan would kind of get us into this other sound,” Dan says, “like there’s a song called ‘We Three’ on that record, where Dave played piano and I played a quiet guitar. We never thought of that before, you know? But Steve Jordan is saying ‘man, you got this intense shit that goes on all the time, it’s kind of a racket, I know you guys are into it, but there’s this whole other thing out there.’ He kind of opened up my eyes to it.” Dave: “it was like, you gotta get up there with the big boys and stop being this incestuous little punk rock band and realize that you’re good, and you can play, and he pushed us to really be musicians, not just a guy in a punk rock band.” His wise counsel brought Soul Asylum its first hit single on Billboard’s Modern Rock chart, with “Spinnin’” (#15) b/w “Easy Street” (#26).
Chapter 4. The Columbia Breakthrough
Make no mistake about it, Soul Asylum was still paying their fair share of dues when they arrived at Columbia. “It’s funny,” Dan says, “because when our first record with Sony came out, it sold 200 times more than the one before it, and people thought that we were a brand new band, and that was, what, our sixth record, and we’d been around for 10 years. But that got lost on a lot of people. We really started this little thing that got a little bit bigger, a little bit bigger, all the time, and it was really self-propelled for a long time.” In 1992, Dan joined an agit prop lineup of guys from other bands – Gary Louis and Marc Perlman of the Jayhawks, and Chris Mars of the Replacements among them – to form Golden Smog, a group that excelled at cover versions and often played entire sets devoted to one band, like the Eagles or the Rolling Stones. Golden Smog’s five-song EP of covers issued that year featured guest Dave Pirner on Bad Company’s “Shooting Star.”
After more than a two-year hiatus between albums, Soul Asylum made its label debut at Columbia in October 1992, with Grave Dancers Union, produced by Michael Beinhorn (known for his work with Red Hot Chili Peppers and Violent Femmes) and featuring Booker T. Jones (of the MG’s) on keyboards. The album was destined to change the band’s career – forever. Its chart course was a dizzying see-saw ride that was indicative of the changing state of “Album Rock” vs. “Modern Rock” in the post-punk early ’90s. The first single, “Somebody To Shove,” charted immediately at Modern Rock, where it hit #1. At Album Rock however, the song took nearly three months to penetrate, but eventually rose to #9.
The album’s second single, “Black Gold” was issued in early ’93. Again, it charted overnight at Modern Rock, hitting #6; but took more than two months to cross-over to the Album Rock side, although it rose higher to #4 and propelled the album to RIAA gold in April. This shift in Soul Asylum’s audience peaked with the third single, “Runaway Train” released in May, the month before the band’s historic performance on MTV Unplugged. The sweet success of “Runaway Train” at Album Rock (#3) and Modern Rock (#13) was eclipsed by the single’s acceptance at top 40, as the song climbed to #5 on the Hot 100, was certified gold, and was even used as a Public Service Announcement to locate teen runaways, aired frequently on MTV. Soul Asylum appeared on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” and “Runaway Train” won the Grammy Award for Best Rock Song for the year. The album, which hit #1 on the Heatseekers chart, eventually rose to #11 on the Billboard 200, where it spent 76 weeks and was certified double-platinum.
Back home, Soul Asylum swept the Minnesota Music Awards as Best Artist, Best Album (Grave Dancers Union), Best Song (“Runaway Train”), and Best Male Vocalist (Pirner). The band performed at the 10th annual MTV Awards in September, and their version of “Summer Of Drugs” peaked as a Top 20 Modern Rock single (from the Thirsty Ear benefit album Sweet Relief: A Benefit For Victoria Williams on CHAOS/ Columbia). The band recorded a track for the Clerks movie soundtrack in 1994 (also on CHAOS/Columbia), “Can’t Even Tell,” which broke the Top 20 at Modern Rock and Album Rock. Also in 1994, Dave appeared in his first acting role (as ‘Phineas’) in Ben Stiller’s Reality Bites, starring Wynona Ryder and Ethan Hawke. And hardcore Soul Asylum fans sought out Dave’s vocals (as Paul!) on the soundtrack of the Beatles’ bio-pic, BackBeat (Virgin, 1994).
Longtime original drummer Grant Young departed and was replaced by Sterling Campbell (ex-Duran Duran). With new producer Butch Vig (who had worked with Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic Youth, and Garbage), and additional faces on various guitars and keyboards, Soul Asylum completed its second Columbia album in 1995, Let Your Dim Light Shine. Spurred by a new single in May, “Misery” (#1 Modern Rock, #2 Album Rock, and #20 on the Hot 100), the album debuted at an astonishing #6 in June, and was certified RIAA gold the following month. In September, their light shined at the all-star concert for the opening of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. In November, the album yielded its final single, “Just Like Anyone.”
A long break between albums followed. In late 1995, Murphy and his mates in Golden Smog (who now included Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy) issued their first full-length album of mostly original material, Down by the Old Mainstream, which rose to #14 on the Heatseekers chart. In 1997, amidst a still-busy tour schedule, Soul Asylum accepted an invitation to play the senior prom at Grand Forks High School, in the wake of a recent flood that hit the town, which straddles the North Dakota-Minnesota border. The event is documented on After The Flood: Live From The Grand Forks Prom (Columbia/Legacy, October 2004), a set that mixes Soul Asylum favorites with prom ‘standards’ like Alice Cooper’s “School's Out,” Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks Of My Tears,” Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” (which they recorded in ’93), Lulu’s “To Sir With Love,” and more. Also that year, Dave was commissioned to write the soundtrack score for the Kevin Smith film, Chasing Amy, which included two new songs, “Lucky One” and “We 3.” (In 2001, Smith’s Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back featured Dave’s “Tube Of Wonderful.)
A long break between albums for Soul Asylum (three years) was resolved with the release of Candy From a Stranger in May 1998, produced by Chris Kimsey (of Rolling Stones renown) and mixed by Bob Clearmountain. The album (which spent a fast two weeks on the chart) was heralded by a new single, “I Will Still Be Laughing,” which rose to #23 at Mainstream Rock and #24 at Modern Rock but was, for all intents and purposes, the last time the world heard any new music from Soul Asylum on the airwaves.
Chapter 5. Coming Full Circle
“It got the point where we had been working and touring a lot, playing a lot, and I think we needed just a really long breath of fresh air, creatively,” Dan observes. “We still played the occasional show. But it just seemed like this treadmill of sorts and you realize that while you’ve been doing this single thing of being in Soul Asylum, there’s a whole world that went on concurrently. So you really need to take a break and catch up, with family and find a house to live in and all that crap that you were too busy to sort out. It was kind of a long yawn, but I think it was really needed by all of us.”
“Maybe it was getting to that point where we had to step back,” says Dave. “I made a solo record and Karl got sick and I had a kid, and found myself in New Orleans, really listening to a lot of instrumental music, a lot of jazz and a lot of funk. It was probably the farthest I could get away from what I was used to doing, playing in a rock band, and I needed to fall in love with music all over again. I had to go back and learn more as a fan of music, and as somebody who is just serious about loving it and not trying to follow some convoluted motivation. I found myself loving to listen to trumpet players and really really good musicians. You hope some of it rubs off, but a lot of the times it just makes you wanna throw your instrument in the trash.”
Karl’s diagnosis with throat cancer in May 2004 hastened the band’s resolve to commit another album together. His insistence on finishing the record became the driving force behind (and in front of) its completion. “I can’t listen to this record without thinking of Karl,” says Dan. “Karl was very collected and calm and pretty much unflappable. And when he got sick, he handled it really bravely. Finishing the record was really something that he was driven to do. So for me, this record is Karl.”
“Yeah, he was extremely adamant that we had to put this record out,” Dave adds. “It was the first time Karl ever called me and told me he liked one of our records. Which just made me feel great.” Dave concludes, speaking in the present tense of his friend’s reaction to THE SILVER LINING, “If I can impress him, I can impress anybody, because he’s not impressed by much.”
biography by Arthur Levy