The Road To Wellville: Our 1993 Soul Asylum Feature

Snowflakes shake from whitewash buckets down a grainy Indianapolis sky as shaggy, leonine Soul Asylum frontman Dave Pirner rides toward his band’s sound check. We’re on the fringe of Winter Storm Wally, or whatever, and for the next three days the snow will shawl and drift and grow around us “like a dumb, numb thunderstorm of white, torn Christmas cards,” to quote some Dylan or other. Pirner scarcely notices; his band is in the middle of one more in an endless series of club tours, and his casual conversation betrays a world-weariness greater than his 28 years should allow. Put plainly, Pirner is jaded—he’d be the first to admit it (“How on earth did I get so jaded?” he sings, in fact, on “Runaway Train”). Endless club circuit slogging has burned the glamor and glory of touring down to its purest essence, which is the only thing, now, that keeps Pirner and his bandmates going: the music. 

Nothing, not the adulation of fans, not the excitement of seeing faraway places, not the demise of Cheers, nothing fazes Pirner, and nothing matters to him except writing songs and playing them as well as possible. It’s an extension, a logical continuation of what mattered to him as a 13-year-old kid: “The beauty of the situation,” he says, “is that anybody who gets involved in music starts out as a fan. That’s just the way it is.” Even though his band’s audience is growing, in general terms, younger and less sophisticated—due largely to the influence of MTV— it just doesn’t matter: Pirner honestly values the chance to make a living playing music, and whoever gets it, gets it. 

“I really appreciate it when someone’s into our music, but I’m having a hard time getting excited about meeting myself 15 years ago,” quips Pirner, referring to his neophyte audience. Just then the van pulls up at the back entrance of whatever dark, black hole Soul Asylum is playing tonight. A small crowd is patiently gathered at the backstage door, waiting for autographs. Among them is a nervous, shy 13-year-old kid holding a shiny red guitar, accompanied by his indulgent mother. Pirner signs the guitar—obviously, heart-breakingly, the high point of this kid’s rock’n’roll life—murmurs a couple of encouraging words, then darts hastily through the back door. A narrow escape: If he spends a moment longer with himself 15 years ago, all the painstakingly compiled layers of world-weariness might slough off his soul like the snow he brushes from his jacket. 

Soul Asylum reminds me of Mary Tyler Moore, or at least her character on The Mary Tyler Moore Show: Both are talented, hard-working Minneapolis locals who live for their jobs—to the detriment of their personal lives—but apparently without their due dollop of recognition or success. Neither seems bitter or resentful despite this neglect. Both are indefatigable in the face of reversals of fortune, of which both have had more than their fair share. Both have had to work with less-than-ideal officemates (Mary with incompetent anchorman Ted Baxter, Soul Asylum with indifferent former record company A&M). And perhaps most importantly, both are relentlessly sweet-natured and funny. 

The band’s tortuous decade-plus journey to somewhere near the top of the alt-rock heap may have something to do with Soul Asylum’s current even keel. After all, you don’t weather years and years of cramped-van touring if you can’t get along with other people to some extent, nor do you stick together in the face of record company apathy and an uncertain future if you don’t really love what you’re doing. Then again, things are looking up for the band at present: new record company, successful, gold-plated album (in excess of 500,000 units shoveled) fueled by a couple of MTV Buzz Clips, appearances on MTV Unplugged, Saturday Night Live, and a summer-long tour with Spin Doctors and Screaming Trees sponsored by MTV’s Alternative Nation. Pirner, ever the realist, keeps his enthusiasm well in check: “If you’re a band for 12 years and you’ve had a streak of bad luck and things finally start to turn around, you just go, ‘Man, we’re gonna fuck this up.’ ’Cause we fuck everything up.” 

Anyway, it’s not like Soul Asylum puts a real premium on the type of success doled out by increased video airings. “You’re not going to sit there and go, ‘Oh, thank you for congratulating me on our marginal success. This is really meaningful to me,’ ” says Pirner. “I mean, it doesn’t mean anything to us. So that’s the funniest part about what’s happening to our band right now, I mean, people will congratulate us not for making a great record, but like, ‘Congratulations that people are starting to listen to your band.’ ”

Pirner is right: The number of music industry people swarming around the band at the shows in Indianapolis and Cincinnati is a decent measure of the band’s coalescing Thingness, but probably has little to do with any sudden leap of corporate appreciation for Soul Asylum’s music. Which is, you know, okay, because expecting your record company to appreciate your music is a little like expecting your mom to appreciate your haircut.

Soul Asylum’s music isn’t difficult to appreciate, actually, on a superficial level at least. The band’s latest, Grave Dancers Union, was recently added to the mostly classic rock jukebox at my fave local Dayton, Ohio, bar, and I wasn’t really surprised to find that “Black Gold” and “Runaway Train” blended seamlessly with the usual Stones and Creedence Clearwater Revival numbers. Soul Asylum long ago outgrew its punk roots; central now to the band’s aesthetic, rather than the destruction or reconstruction of established forms, is the notion of the “player,” not in the Robert Altman sense but as a term of respect for any musician who devotes him- or herself wholly to his or her craft. This has nothing to do with technical competence (and thus still fits comfortably within the punk credo), and everything to do with heart. Soul Asylum wears its collective musical heart on its collective musical sleeve.

This is borne out both in Indianapolis, when after a less-than-inspired performance I find Pirner slumped backstage with head in hands, taking every flubbed note and sloppy change personally, and the rest of the band milling around subdued and cheerless; and, most emphatically, in Cincinnati, where the splendor of Soul Asylum’s show brings the capacity crowd to euphoric heights I’d almost forgotten were possible.

As with many bands, the music is an extension of the personalities of the four musicians, but live, Pirner provides most of the audience connection. He’s got a nice cross-gender appeal: While he’s “rock” enough for guys to identify with, he also emits a certain vulnerability that appeals to women ordinarily bored with the four-white-boy-rock-band thing. He looks like the cowardly lion from The Wizard of Oz and he shakes and dances and sways like a kinder, gentler Axl Rose. “It’s strange,” he says about performing, “because you end up feeling you’re doing something that’s so dependent on this sort of reckless, sort of naive, kind of innocent abandon thing. If you start learning about that, though, start understanding what it’s all about, and you try to embrace it and make something out of it… I’m experienced at being naive.” 

Of course, it’s that naiveté, that sense of “innocent abandon,” with which the audience connects; and it doesn’t just come from Pirner. Bandmates Karl Mueller (bass), Grant Young (drums), and Dan Murphy (guitar) bring essentially a lower-key version of Pirner’s intense artlessness, an unlabored love of the music they play that—when it clicks, as it did that night in Cincinnati—fulfills your rock dreams. Judging from, among more traditional signs, the young man in front of me who expressed his approval by means of beery eructations, the crowd understood that it was getting something very special. By the time the band lumbers—sweat-drenched—off the stage, there isn’t a dry T-shirt in the house.

“Congratulations that people are starting to listen to your band, guys,” I say as we meet down in the lobby of an Indianapolis hotel (INDIANAPOLIS, INDEED! reads a booster dub sign at the airport). All right, maybe I didn’t really say that, but I sure wish I had—it’d be the sort of irony Soul Asylum has grown to appreciate over the years. The band—birthed in the fabled early ’80s Minneapolis scene led by the Replacements and Husker Dü (whose Bob Mould produced the first Soul Asylum album)—seemed star-crossed from the start, unable to entirely shrug off the shadow of its legendary forebears, even as it outlasted them and developed a reputation as one of the best live bands in the country. When TwinTone, the band’s Minneapolis-based record label, signed a deal with major label A&M Records in 1987 (resulting in two A&M-distributed Soul Asylum LPs, 1988’s Hang Time and 1990’s Soul Asylum and the Horse They Rode in On), things, as usual, seemed to be looking up. But not, as usual, for long.

“[A&M] just made some decision that we weren’t privy to apparently—we were kind of this novelty band that they needed on their label to gain street credibility,” explains Murphy, an unpretentious, flannel-shirt kind of guy with a lively, dry wit. “This guy came to town and just flat out said, ‘Well, I didn’t think your last record [Horse] was very good, and I’m not going to give you guys money to make another video so you can play it at your friends’ party.’ ”

A&M’s official statement on Soul Asylum is “no comment,” but Steve Ralbovsky, formerly at A&M, now senior vice president of A&R at Elektra, and the man responsible for signing Soul Asylum, says, “I think A&M undervalued what they had—not the people who signed the band and were closest to them—but I don’t think the people who were running the different departments there understood what the hell they had. These guys got fucked. I couldn’t be happier for them now.” The band subsequently informed A&M that it would rather break up than make another record for the label, and disbanded temporarily, returning to Minneapolis and day-job hell. Murphy even opened an antique store in anticipation of the end of his musical career.

“In my case there was some self-doubt,” adds Mueller, probably the nicest bass player I’ve ever met. (In fact, he later confided to me, that’s his motto: Be nice.) “It was like, Jesus, do we really suck? Does anybody really want to bear this besides our basic fan base?” 

In the meantime, Soul Asylum watched Nirvana ascend to chart heights previously unknown to scruffy punk rock bands, whetting the appetite of major labels far and wide for loud tuneful punky anthems at a time when Soul Asylum was turning to a more sophisticated, rootsier, acoustic-based sound. But Columbia signed ’em anyway, and the rest, as they say, beats the hell out of losing at cards.

“There is a black cloud that hangs over Soul Asylum,” insists Pirner much later that evening. We’re in a Cincinnati hotel room at about 5:30 in the morning, having traveled here after the relatively lackluster Indianapolis show. On the short bus ride to Cincy, I watched most of the band beat most of the crew at poker, turning down numerous offers to join in the “fun” while we perused the Rolling Stones’ Cocksucker Blues with the sound turned down. Pirner and I have stockpiled five or six beers from the bus and are attempting a not-entirely-linear dissection of the nature of Soul Asylum and all things rock.

“Do your experiences with the music industry over the years make you at all bitter?” I ask.

“Look,” he replies wearily, “I’m 28 years old. I started out when I was 16, so I’ve been doing this for 12 years. Every band that’s sold four million records used to open up for us. And that doesn’t make me feel bitter, it really doesn’t, it makes me feel good for those bands. If you grow up listening to music, you realize that if someone plays the right riff at the right time, it’s just going to strike a chord with the general public, and it doesn’t matter how similar that Nirvana riff is to ‘Wild Thing.’ That’s not what it’s about. It’s a folk ethic, and people will pick up on it, and when people finally come around to it, then I guess that’s your time.”

Isn’t it kind of ironic that you guys might actually end up more successful than anybody else who came out of the Minneapolis scene?

“It blows my fucking mind that we might be the biggest white band ever to come out of Minneapolis. Now that, to me, is astonishing, and really, I don’t think I’ll ever have a good grip on that. Because that’s my world, my universe. And to come out of that, and to take a really hard look at what I started out to try to do, which was to get a gig at the 7th St. Entry, that amazes me. To me that’s a dream come true—but still, that’s not what it’s about, and it somehow understates the importance of everything that I grew up with.”

After the Cincinnati show, we head across the street from the venue to a laundromat bar (cleanliness is next to drunk and disorderliness) and drink Mind Erasers, a wickedly potent concoction that entirely lives up to its billing, and watch some horrible glam band insult the audience (“I’d rather look at the scabs on the bass player’s ass than you people!”). I query Pirner about his supposed tinnitus problems, first shouting “Hey! Dave!” in his ear a few times (“A rumor that got blown out of proportion,” he says. “I had an inner ear infection and I had to take a quick break. It was really nothing”), and ask about the band’s recent tour supporting Keith Richards. (“To be around someone like Keith kind of helps you grow up. It was great. He’s completely unpretentious; like Karl said earlier, ‘You’d never know that he’s the person he is if you didn’t know that he was.’ He’s just there for the music.”) To Soul Asylum, Richards is the ultimate “player,” an embodiment of everything the band wants to represent, foster, emulate. 

Later, Pirner, Young, and I went back to the tour bus parked outside the hotel, where we attempted to remember the words to some drunken ditty or other accompanied by Pirner plinking away on Stella, his completely untunable practice guitar. We talked for long, incoherent hours about music, and how important it is, and how easy it is to become jaded in this business and lose sight of, well, how important it is. It’s something you don’t have to worry about, I tell them, as I head for the door. You guys are players.


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