Rumors and allegations have always been a constant for the Minneapolis band Soul Asylum. Whether it was being called “the little brother band of Husker Du and the Replacements,” questioning whether or not they had broken up, or even getting personal with lead singer/guitarist Dave Pirner’s personal life, someone always seemed to have something to say about them.
Whatever you may read or speculate, an often overlooked fact is that Soul Asylum has been together for more then 20 years and released over a dozen albums since their inception as the Loud Fast Rules.
“Yeah, it’s been a long time,” Dave Pirner tells me in his husky baritone from the phone in a nondescript hotel room somewhere in Oklahoma. “I didn’t think we would really last this long. It has been precarious all along the way. It is certainly an insecure way to try to make a living, but it’s a good job if you can get it. The odds of you making it, well those are plenty slim.”
As Pirner wrestles with his words, it strikes me that he either hates interviews or is a deep thinker and weighs his thoughts before they reach his lips.
Soul Asylum is in the middle of an endless tour in support of their ninth full-length album The Silver Lining (Legacy Records). The record is more balls out rock, reminiscent of their early efforts on the legendary indie label Twin Tone. The retro Soul Asylum sound could be attributed to the new rhythm section on The Silver Lining. Former drummer Sterling Campbell went back to playing with David Bowie after the band’s last studio recording Candy from a Stranger. But more devastating, original member and co-founder Karl Mueller passed away from throat cancer in June of 2005.
“The album was mostly pretty much done except for tracking when Karl passed away,” Pirner says with a somber tone. “We had to have some friends come in and finish some stuff, but they all knew Karl so they knew what he wanted.”
It was hard for a band to carry on after the death of a member, let alone a founding member. Soul Asylum never broke up. They stayed busy with writing and recording. Pirner put out a solo record, and Murphy played with the super group Golden Smog. But Soul Asylum never threw in the towel.
“It was hard when Karl passed away. Really hard to believe, it still is,” Pirner said as he was trying to find the words. “I can’t believe it really happened and it has been more then a year. It was… it was a big shock and I don’t think I will ever get used to it…
“But yeah, it seems to be a fascination with the people. I don’t know why they want to know if we broke up or not. We always did weekend gigs around town and taking our time with things, we just never aggressively pushed it.”
It’s been eight years in between Candy from a Stranger and The Silver Lining. A lot has changed in that time, not only in the band, but in America. There was 9/11 and the war overseas, but Pirner is an adopted son of New Orleans where he has a home. He was lucky, very lucky with Hurricane Katrina.
“It’s, well that is difficult. After Katrina was over, the city had a rejuvenative period that it was going to get back on track. Everyone in New Orleans was hopeful. You can’t expect things to happen over night. People are still devastated; the city is still wrecked. It doesn’t make sense that the city, the country isn’t doing anything to help. There’s nothing really you can say. Just that Katrina sucked. That’s the best answer I can give, the whole thing just fucking sucks.”
Overcoming the death of a best friend and a national disaster, Soul Asylum soldiered on and wrote a new record between all the chaos. The songs and themes on the appropriately titled record are diverse, but all in all, when you boil it down, there is hope. Not only with the songs, but also with the band.
“I guess, in a way, life teaches you that you have to sort of monitor things in a way to make them comprehensive on a human level,” Pirner explained. “On this record there is an effort to speak plain and simple while neither being rhetorical or over dramatic. In a way it can be very therapeutic to write a record after all that stuff that went on. I think to a degree I got a lot of things out of my system from doing my solo record. I know what we wanted to get back to with Soul Asylum with the loud, loud, loud guitars. That made it better.”
Lyrically, Pirner has always been one for storytelling. It could come from his Midwestern storyteller mentality. Even though quirky at times, Pirner has always had the knack to put himself inside his words in writing a song.
“If you can be a storyteller you kind of have to be a part of the story. If you can be the narrator you can be part of the game you can make things up as you go and all along you are the main character in the story. But if you don’t live part of that story, you have nothing.”
Perhaps this is occurring on the album title itself – The Silver Lining. With everything they have been through, there is in fact a silver lining for Soul Asylum.
“Actually for years there has been this long running joke in the band that there is a black cloud hanging over Soul Asylum. I didn’t even think about how it would be a play on words. When I recalled that joke making the album title, I guess it kind of fits. One day I just wrote it down on a match book and called Danny (Dan Murphy) and he liked it, too.”
More then a silver lining, there was a bright sun rising over Soul Asylum in the mid 1990s. Their breakthrough album Grave Dancers Union went platinum behind the huge single “Runaway Train.” Pirner was in a few movies and was in the tabloids because he was dating actress Winona Ryder. It was a crazy time for the band, but they carried on and released another hit album entitled Let Your Dim Light Shine.
“It is hard to understand why it matters that much. You try to continue to do music and the past is the past, and I like to think the music is evolving and has a sense of wisdom. Maybe I can’t give a shit about perception of others because gets a little too painful or annoying. It’s a trap. People need some sort of touch tone or something it fluctuates on how much I really care what the critics say.”
After setting many milestones and continuing on through adversity, Soul Asylum has maintained their stance musically. They have toured the states in a truck named Clarence and now are back at it again. Except Mueller sold Clarence decades ago and they are now flying coach.
“We are ready, willing and able to do what we have to do survive. It’s funny now because you now have all these formats, like we have satellite radio and direct TV and there are so many ways to get information. It’s hard to say if it matters really. Will these companies be around in five years? Hell, I don’t even have e-mail. You do an interview because someone told me it was important. But what is important to us is the same thing that was important 20 years ago and that is touring. There is nothing I can compare it to. It’s like what’s not to love having people sing along to your songs. I guess there is good that comes out of everything.”