A Little Bit Of Soul Asylum
The Midwest is America, and it is the heart of rock and roll. The success of Soul Asylum as the first great Midwestern punks to break into the mainstream may or may not be that important. But to the extent that punk's legacy forces our dishonesty about what really influenced us in the past and what we really once knew to be the potential of rock radio, then the mixed critical response to Soul Asylum's latest, Let Your Dim Light Shine, raises fundamental questions. So do those who hate this album hate it because it deserves it, or because they are unwilling to let their guard down enough to appreciate it? While the long years of punk's rise to alternative rock made Soul Asylum one of the most insightful, talented survivors on the planet, did those same years make the older punk audience so esoteric and intractable that it forgets who it once was and what the music once meant to the less prescriptive ear? In many respects, the ambivalence to the band's new work is to be expected. In part, it is simply a matter of opinion about the music, but in part, it is a paradox at the heart of what it means to be a Modern Rock band (format term, not mine) from the Midwest. The trickle of British punk albums (as well as, of course, Americans, like the Ramones) that found their way into the hands of Midwest kids inspired an explosion of guitar tribes to challenge the rock status quo at the end of the '70s. I emphasize Midwest because, though this happened in pockets all over the country, the need to challenge the status quo was perhaps most necessary to those of us who grew up in the great wide open with only rigid formats and discount house record racks to expose us to new music. This generation of punks fans became Husker Du and the Replacements and their fans (and later, Babes in Toyland), these punk proteges who would be given various labels-from hardcore to post-punk to riot grrls to grunge. Nirvana's burst into the mainstream with Nevermind placed closure on and suggested a new beginning for what was once called punk. That story ended with a shotgun blast to the head that cruelly reminded all of us that punk never thought this far ahead. When the injection of vitality into our music comes from rebelling against the pop status quo, what happens when you become the very symbol of that status quo? The price paid for survival by a band like Soul Asylum cannot be overestimated. It is a loss of old audiences, with some reward in gaining new ones. But the toll on the musicians themselves remains enormous. What do you do when people loved you for making a bold, yet accessible album that finally places you in the mainstream, and now they seem to hate you for staying there, and, ironically, for taking more chances? August 14, I saw the second night of Soul Asylum's tour in Lincoln, Nebraska at Pershing Auditorium, and this ambivalence toward the band was actually visible. The young, new audience was down on the floor, just wanting to rock and knowing this was the best place in the world to be right now if that's what the heart desires. The first and second level seats, the rafters, were filled with those who had seen Soul Asylum playing mid-size clubs for years; they seemed to sit with their arms crossed, resenting the new popularity, refusing to give themselves over to the show. The wondrous thing about it all was that the house would feel unified before the night was over-the kids were alright, and the oldsters were rocking, too. The Let Your Dim Light Shine show is a sprawling musical journey, with massive shifts in dynamics that make full use of the potential of the large venue, while somehow still seeming to be performed by the most unassuming bar band in America. The shift from club to arena is a huge one, and it's a hard jump to make while hanging on to your integrity and power, but Soul Asylum seems to make it with ease. It's Midwest rock come full circle-inspired by the arena, kept alive against all odds by a meager club scene, and finally taking hold of its own mass audience. Minneapolis, of course, is the home of Prince, the focal point of one of the most invigorating music scenes of the last 15 years. At the same time, it spawned post-punk legends like Husker Du and the Replacements and great roots bands the Gear Daddies and the Jayhawks-all of whom owed a great debt to mainstream rock radio, a debt they often repaid with reverent covers of some of the most easily dismissed Top 40 singles ever-from Rick Springfield's "Jessie's Girl" to Coven's "One Tin Soldier." Even Prince was probably able to capture the mainstream with Purple Rain in part because he was a Midwestern kid who grew up collecting FM rock albums.Two phone conversations with bassist Karl Mueller and lead guitarist, second songwriter/vocalist Dan Murphy reveal that they genuinely believe in this album. The elder members of the band's original trio, they are both married (Murphy has a five-year-old son) and have a clear-headed perspective on the issues surrounding their fame. They not only remember who they once were, but they seem to have a pretty healthy outlook on the conflicts they face today-honesty, a certain glibness and a sense of humor carry these embattled pop stars a long way toward sanity at a crazy time in their lives. I remember reading an interview with Paul Westerberg [of the Replacements] that he always felt they had to act like punks on the surface while, inside, they all wanted to be Thin Lizzy. Can you relate to that personality? Murphy: Yeah, well how that relates to me is that, when I was in the fourth grade, I'd just moved to Minneapolis. Stuff like "Maggie May" and "American Pie" was on the radio, and that's when I first started getting into it. I remember I asked my mom what "American Pie" was about, and she told me a little about Buddy Holly. Then I discovered rock and metal.When I discovered punk, it was like I was embarrassed to like all those things. But that was always a part of us. We've always been a band that's a bit of everything. Yeah, you always did those covers of '70s pop songs, and even if they were tongue-in-cheek... Murphy: We always knew them. How tongue in cheek could it be?What was the record that inspired you most? Mueller: Probably the Clash, London Calling. Dan and I were good friends in high school, we knew all the same people and he played me early Tom Petty and Stones records, but I had some friends in England that played me stuff, too. Murphy: Karl was the first guy in our high school that was a punk. He went to London in '78 and came back and was wearing bondage pants. He didn't really have a background playing music. His mother made him play a little piano, but he didn't stick with it. Karl and I were working as carryouts in a grocery store, and Pirner was going to our rival high school. I went to see his band, the Shitz, play at Club Zoogies, and they were doing like punk covers of "Sounds of Silence." I was in this band At Last, a typical high school band, and I thought Dave's band was better. He kept giving me tapes, and I really wanted him in the band Karl and I were putting together. He was more serious about the music than the other band members, who were on vacation one time, so I asked him to join our band. He said he was only going to play drums. In college, me and Karl had an apartment together, and I gave him four weeks of lessons on the bass, and we were performing. Pirner drummed, and that was Loud Fast Rules. We literally had to change the name of the band to play anywhere because we'd had too many shitty shows.All of you kept second jobs throughout the band's history didn't you? Weren't Dave and Karl both cooks? Mueller: Yeah, I didn't quit my job as a cook until six months after Grave Dancer's Union was on the shelf. Were you a better cook than Dave? [Pirner is relatively famous for being such a bad cook he even had food thrown at him by a patron on at least one occasion.] Mueller: Oh yeah. I can still get a job back there if I need to.How would you describe your different roles in the band? Mueller: Dave is a songwriter and very creative, and most of his thought goes to music. Dan is good with business. I just do what I have to do. If someone is in a terrible mood, and I can say something that'll help, I'll do it, so we can really focus if need be. There are times when somebody's got to step up and tell someone else or our manager that's he's overreacting.Have your always felt you had enough control over your music? Does that have anything to do with why you have changed producers with almost every album? Mueller: I think we've thought about self-producing, but we need a referee and an impartial ear. We really need someone to stop and say, "we've been pounding at this way too hard. Let's step back and take a break." But we can't fake it; we can only be who we are when we play.But Made to be Broken sounds like a Bob Mould album. Mueller: There's something to be said about that. He has a very distinct style, and some of that probably rubbed off on us. Hang Time was the first album that really sounded like you were your own band to me. Mueller: A lot of that had to do with the environment. Lenny Kaye and Ed Stasium at the helm worked us a lot harder than we'd worked before. We'd never recorded at first class studios. It was an entirely new process. We had more time, and we had more money. It's all on the technical end. Many of your old records, like And the Horse They Road In On are much stronger than I thought they were at the time. They wear well. Mueller: I can't say much about that because I don't play them. Dim is the first record I can play after finishing it, but it is still pretty new.How would you say your musical approach has evolved? Is it fair to say you underplay more now than before? Mueller: It is fair to say. We consciously simplified things. It makes it more powerful rather than trying to outplay ourselves like we sometimes did.Was this effort to simplify things part of the reason for hiring Sterling Campbell and letting go of Grant Young? Mueller: That's one of those intangibles. I don't really understand why it works one way and not the other. I can't play drums to save my life, and I know it is the hardest job in the band without a doubt. It can be the same drum kit and have a completely different effect. We like to mix it up, and it's a matter of having the right people there, people who can be confident and do it one way and be able to switch.How would you describe the difference playing with Sterling? Murphy: It's intuition. It's listening. I don't want to knock Grant, but it's like he wasn't letting anyone else inside his head. Sterling listens to everything and gives us different dynamics. It feels more like we are all a part of a band.While Dim's musical approach is often simple and direct, it takes some surprising chances. Mueller: We just decided to step out a little on this one.Is it true that Pirner had to fight for "Caged Rat"? Mueller: There were some dubious looks all around. I don't think Dan was really into it. I was excited because it was like nothing I'd heard. But the songs that were questionable are some of the ones that go over best live. The audience loves "String of Pearls." They're both really powerful songs, powerful in their simplicity really.Has playing arenas changed what works and what doesn't work for you? Has it changed the way you approach playing? Mueller: Arenas are weird, but the only things you have to adjust are on the production end. We're just guys up there having a good time like we always were. There is more space so I don't bump into Dave as much.Are you surprised at what songs go over with the kids on the floor? Murphy: Some of them. I mean, "Misery" kind of made us laugh when we thought about it, it seemed like such a sucker punch, you know, "Frustrated, Incorporated..."But its amazing when an arena full of kids sings along with. Mueller: Yeah, it is. But, for the most part, sometimes it seems like it is all bells and whistles. People have come to shows to socialize, even going to club shows, it's more social than musical. It was the same thing with us when we were going.You [Murphy] seemed a little unnerved by the moshing at Pershing. Murphy: Well, I just don't want people to get hurt. Some of the people who are down in the front are there because they really came to see the show. It becomes this frat rock kind of thing, you see these bloody faces, and that makes me angry. But you never know what to expect. When we played Jones Beach in New York the audience was just sitting there politely clapping, while, in Lincoln, a security guard fainted and had to be carried out. I never know what's going to happen.The new show seems well suited to an arena. Murphy: It is different. We used to be a bar band and we could just get up and play sloppy, and it worked. But you can't just get up there and play like that for 90 minutes. You figure out that the quieter, slow stuff really helps to make the over the top stuff more fun, like when you play "Somebody to Shove" and cut loose. We just had to put some kind of production together. We paid attention to the theater lights. Sterling and I had a long conversation with the lighting people this time out.The extreme reactions to the album, do they bother you? Murphy: (laughs) Yeah, they love it or they hate it. I guess I would be lying if I said it didn't. But this is what we decided to do. You know, we were a band nobody really noticed, and then Grave Dancer's Union came along, and we got his recognition. I see this album as just a continuation of what we've done all along. I wouldn't have put it out if I wasn't proud of it. I don't long for the old days. It is not for everybody, but it never was.Songs like "Hopes Up" and "Promises Broken" seem to reflect feelings that come with maturing and giving up on a lot of things, but also finally having things that you're afraid to lose. Murphy: Yeah, you get his tunnel vision. Security is a scary thing. Those songs come from being on the road. We've got these good lives but we can't live 'em because we're always too busy or something. You're writing in these places where you feel out of your element. We'd gone round the world with Grave Dancer's and those songs came from some pretty weird places.Dim is great in that it takes not having answers and turns that into something that sounds triumphant. Murphy: I think Dim is more optimistic than some of our records, but we aren't a band that feels it has to come to some kind of conclusion in the third verse.[Asked of Dan Murphy, who generally has one song on each album] What about your own writing, do you do a lot more of it than we ever hear? Murphy: Yeah, I'm working on this side project called Golden Smog with two members of the Jayhawks and Jeff Tweedy from Wilco (who used to be in Uncle Tupelo). I'm really happy with how it came out. The album's called Down By the Old Mainstream and it should be out around the first of the year. Sometimes, with Soul Asylum, it just doesn't fit. I mean, I had one other I wanted to get on this record, but Dave had 14 or so, and mine sounded too much like something else. On G.D.U., we had just had my son, and I kept writing kid's songs, you know they all sounded like "Cat's in the Cradle" or something so nothing ever really fit. But I think it's good when I do write them; it's a challenge for Dave.[Again, directed at Murphy] You've talked about the future in ways that sound pretty bleak. Do you think you might not stay together? Murphy: I just don't know. We never thought it would get his far. It's hard to step back and enjoy it, without worrying about our so-called careers or whatever. It's like why worry about all this shit we can't control. Who is this for anyway?Does it hurt that you are spread out all over the country now? Mueller: No, actually, the distance might actually help. For a long time, we practiced five or six days a week, and, at some point, it becomes routine. Now, with this separation, it's new all over again. Of course, maybe if you were talking to me tomorrow I'd answer differently [laughs]So, though Murphy has sounded doubtful about making another record, you think you will? Mueller: Oh, we'll make another record. There are things that didn't make it on this record, that hopefully will see the light on this next one. Hopefully we'll tour for another six to eight months and then get back into the studio. We were on the road over two years last time, and it was hard getting back at it.How has the show changed since Lincoln? Mueller: We've gotten more comfortable, and we've gotten tighter. It's a comfort level thing that helps you open up and play with more feeling.Finally, do you find it ironic that the kind of music that inspired you has taken over the mainstream today? Like maybe you came along at the wrong time? Murphy: When I started this band, I was a different person than I am now. If I didn't acknowledge that, I'd be a liar. Others do what we did before better, and a lot of the stuff on the radio is pretty inspired. Let 'em do that. That's progress.