“Grunge f#@ked it up for everybody. It wasn’t fair at all. We were never a grunge band. You have a whole bunch of guys that used to wear plaid shirts because they were warm and now we can’t wear them anymore. It screwed everything up,” Dave Pirner says jokingly. “I’m glad you understand that because you’re the only person that does. So why don’t you print that [laughs]? “
As lead singer of Soul Asylum, Pirner can rightfully be a little jaded over their mislabeling in the early 90s. Seattle’s “grunge” era was just beginning to take shape: flannel shirts, leggings, cut off shorts and Doc Marten boots became the uniform for the impressionable Generation X. A few years later, bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Mother Love Bone, Mudhoney and Soundgarden became integral components of the soundtrack. But Soul Asylum wasn’t on it. The Minneapolis natives had come along way before Kurt Cobain or Eddie Vedder were household names.
Forming in 1981 under the name Loud Fast Rules, the initial line-up consisted of Dave Pirner on drums, Dan Murphy on lead guitar, Karl Mueller on bass and Pat Morley, who would eventually take Pirner’s place so Pirner could do vocals. Amid all the line-up changes, Soul Asylum was on its way to carving a niche for themselves. However, their major label debut, 1988’s Hang Time, didn’t exactly perform well on the charts. In 1990 And The Horse They Rode In On had a similar fate, and Soul Asylum considered breaking up. Instead, they signed with Columbia Records. And in 1992 Grave Dancers Union was certified platinum three times over.
The Grammy Award-winning single “Runaway Train” resulted in their superstar status. Next thing you know, they were performing at President Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration. Anyone with MTV at the time of the song’s release may recall the video for “Runaway Train”, which was directed by Tony Kaye (American History X). It involved the names and photographs of missing children, delivered in a PSA fashion.
“The song stemmed from depression. It was all about that. Then the video gave it a whole other context. It was interesting to be part of that era where people put out a video and it interpreted the song. In retrospect, it’s fascinating. I’m more sensitive about missing and exploiting children,“ he says. “It’s connected to this strange time. The director suggested we use milk cartons. We thought that was a cool idea. The song really didn’t have anything to do with the video, but it was all swept up into a certain time and that’s fine.”
“The stars can only align that much. There was nothing insincere about any of it. There was nothing sideways about any of it. There was no ulterior motive,“ he continues. “Tony Kaye was kind of a messed up genius artist kind of guy. The way it all came together was amazing. He goes for very strong imagery and graphic visuals.”
1995’s Let Your Dim Light Shine, while not as commercially successful as the previous record, was still certified platinum and produced another Top 20 hit, “Misery.”
Then things started to go somewhat south. In 1998, they put out Candy From A Stranger which flopped, and the band was dropped from Columbia’s roster. Eight years would pass before Soul Asylum broke their silence with 2006’s The Silver Lining. During that time, Pirner was trying to do his own thing and reassess where he wanted to go with his music career.
“We lost our bass player and I made a solo record. All of that stuff was going on. It was a period of reckoning, for sure,” he recalls.
Fast forward five years and Soul Asylum has reconvened. Pirner, lead guitarist Dan Murphy, drummer Michael Bland and bassist Tommy Stinson are inching closer to releasing their new record as well as going back on the road.
“I guess we just figured ‘What the hell?’ It was sort of just what I do, you know? The motivation part of it is puzzling at best. We were looking for something to do other than our jobs,” he explains. “I gotta tell you something really exciting. We’re all going to get back in a bus. We’ve never been in a bus together so I’m going to have my way with these sweet, young things [laughs].”
Although their absence might not have been noticed all that much, it’s a welcome return to long-time fans. They’ve learned some hard lessons along the way; and they’re better musicians and people, for that matter. Everyone knows it’s a different market now, and sales of physical albums have plummeted. The digital era is upon us, something Pirner is not necessarily for or against.
“I’m a fan of content. I don’t think that it’s sick and wrong to share music or anything. I started buying vinyl again because it sounds better. I think the compromise that’s been made with the mp3 is terrible. They’re just going to sell you that music back in a better format in another three years and everyone’s a chump,” he exclaims. “They’re going to keep selling you Jimi Hendrix, just on another format. It doesn’t make any sense. I think it’s really insincere.”
“It’s putting a lot of people out of business. I don’t know how analytical you want to be about it. You have Steve Jobs kind of selling out the whole music industry,” he goes on. “I think the thrill is in the analog search. You should make it a mission. Go out of your house and go to a record store. There’s a whole world out there. The non-virtual world is awesome!”