In a review of Soul Asylum’s 1992 album, Grave Dancers Union, Spin magazine referred to the group as “one of the most criminally underrated bands of the ’80s.” The Minneapolis quartet—known for wedding folk-inspired songcraft to a guitar-heavy post-punk sound—had weathered the decade as a cult phenomenon while neighborhood acts like Hüsker Dü and the Replacements rocketed to fame and then burned out. As the 1990s ushered in the age of platinum alternative success, in the form of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soul Asylum looked like the next big thing. And, in fact, Columbia Records’ support of Grave Dancers Union gave the group unprecedented exposure. But the band compromised nothing for increased sales, continuing to focus its songwriting and even toning down the aural intensity that had earned it legions of fans. Indeed, before approaching the mainstream of rock, Soul Asylum had produced a string of visceral, eclectic rock albums and gained a reputation as one of the nation’s very best live acts.
Members include Karl Mueller, bass; Dan Murphy, Ivi guitar; Dave Pirner (born c. 1964), guitar, vocals; and Grant Young, drums (replaced Pat Morley, 1985).
Group formed in Minneapolis, MN, 1981; known originally as Loud Fast Rules; signed with Twin/Tone Records, 1983, and released EP Say What You Will ; signed with A&M Records, 1988, and released Hang Time; signed with Columbia Records, 1992, and released Grave Dancers Union.
Awards : Platinum record for Grave Dancers Union, 1993; gold single for “Runaway Train,” 1993.
Singer-songwriter Dave Pirner formed the group Loud Fast Rules with his friends guitarist Dan Murphy and bassist Karl Mueller in 1981. Pirner—a trumpeter during his early youth—played drums at first but took up rhythm guitar when the band recruited drummer Pat Morley. Their first gig was at First Avenue in Minneapolis, the club at which funk superstar Prince filmed scenes from his infamous movie Purple Rain. Signed to the hip independent Minneapolis label Twin/Tone— home to the Replacements and Hüskers before their meteoric successes—the group changed its name to Soul Asylum and in 1983 released a scrappy EP titled Say What You Will, which Creem’s Ira Robbins found “raw and not altogether listenable.” Drummer Morley was replaced by Grant Young in 1985, and Soul Asylum’s first acclaimed release, Made To Be Broken, appeared the following year. Hüsker Du leader Bob Mould produced that record and its predecessor, but it was Broken that got Soul Asylum noticed. “Certainly this is high-energy rock built around that unfashionable thing, the powerchord,” observed Simon Reynolds in Melody Maker, “and the idea that this is remotely embarrassing would never even occur to Soul Asylum. But unlike heavy metal there’s no ritual, no escape into ugly sexist fantasy, but a pained and painfully sincere confession.” Robbins called Broken “an amazingly potent record of sadness and hope, loneliness and humor, with tunes that rage like hardcore and yodel like a freight train.”
The band saw 1986 out with another release, While You Were Out, produced by Chris Osgood of the group Suicide Commandos. A generally favorable reception for the album—Musician assessed it as “the kind of bold effort that might convince a daring major label (if that’s not a contradiction) to give them a shot”—and an exhaustive touring schedule helped the band edge toward a deal with A&M Records. “I don’t want to be a star,” Pirner told Musician in 1987, and for a long while, despite much praise from a variety of sources, it looked as though he would get his wish.
In 1988 the group released Hang Time, which was produced by the respected team of Ed Stasium and Lenny Kaye. Again, Soul Asylum’s effort was well received; Rolling Stone called it “one of the most eloquent guitar band albums since [rock legend] Neil Young’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.11 The video for the song “Cartoon” got some rotation on MTV, but sales were unspectacular, though some critics and fans still regard the LP as the group’s finest work. Reviewers by and large championed the band, even if the mainstream music-buying public seemed indifferent. Robbins praised Soul Asylum as “a rough and ready quartet embodying explosive energy, sloppy charm, and a reserve of musical and lyrical sophistication that distinguishes them from the vast majority.” The Village Voice dubbed them the “best live band in America,” bestowing a wreath that would be hung around their necks time and time again. In 1992 Manuel Mendoza of the Dallas Morning News, echoing the Voice’s sentiment, would call them “the world’s greatest live rock ’n’ roll band” and praise their “controlled chaos in concert.” The group released the EP Clam Dip and Other Delights in 1989; the record’s cover—featuring bass player Mueller covered in dip—and title goofed on A&M founder Herb Alpert’s 1960s jazz-pop record Whipped Cream and Other Delights.
With 1990’s Soul Asylum and the Horse They Rode in On the band seemed on the verge of a breakthrough. Rolling Stone’s Evelyn McDonnell, despite some reservations, found Horse “as strong and worthy as any of the Asylum’s six previous records.” The New York Daily News deemed it “the best record of their careers.” Featuring the funky workout “Something Out of Nothing,” exhilarating rockers like “Spinnin*,” and such ballads as “Nice Guys (Don’t Get Paid),” the album demonstrated for the first time the impressive range of Pirner’s songwriting. But instead of coasting to the top after Horse’s release, Soul Asylum took a dive. Trouble at A&M and the record’s disappointing sales led to their split from the label. Pirner owned in a Creem interview that the experience was “extremely frustrating. Heartbreaking, even, but I can’t be mad at A&M. There’s plenty of good people over there who worked their asses off for us.” He remained philosophical, stating, “The music is the bottom line anyway. It affects me in an ethereal way.” Pirner told East Coast Rocker that the A&M debacle “offered [him] an incredible learning experience and an easy introduction to the music business.”
Adding to the band’s difficulties, Pirner broke an eardrum as a result of Soul Asylum’s high-decibel performances. The problem was assuaged by creative equipment organization, but for a time things looked dire for the group. It even appeared as if the bandmembers would have to return to their old day jobs. “So there was this period of reckoning for us after the last album, but it was a real good thing, because it helped us get sort of rededicated to everything,” Pirner explained to Gina Arnold of the Los Angeles Times. This rededication included hiring hot-shot manager Danny Heaps. “Their music is great and great music is good business,” Heaps confidently told Variety in 1992, adding, “The band is in a situation where they’re almost starting fresh. They have a great opportunity now to see some real success.” Nobody was more surprised than Soul Asylum, however, when they found themselves caught in a bidding war after their departure from A&M; eventually they signed with Columbia. “They kind of let us take charge,” guitarist Murphy told Billboard. “We have been doing it for a while and we know what was wrong and right with the business end of it.” Mueller revealed to the Cleveland Report that the Columbia “A&R guy was a musician, which was nice for once.”
The group settled on producer Michael Beinhorn for their next record and enlisted soul legend Booker T. Jones to play keyboards on six of the songs. The result was Grave Dancers Union, featuring 12 Pirner originals picked from about 30 songs the band had brought to rehearsals. “They’re more soulful,” drummer Young said of the compositions in an interview with the Cleveland Scene. “Rather than trying to play a new style or something complicated, we concentrated on playing from the heart.” Pirner elaborated in an interview with Pulse!, attesting, “We stayed real focused on the songs—what they were about, what they needed. The idea was to make them come across in as crystallized a fashion as possible.” Entertainment Weekly awarded the album an “A” grade, the Village Voice judged it “a better album than anyone had any right to expect from Soul Asylum at this late date,” and Billboard praised it as “the band’s most accessible work to date.” For its part, the Boston Phoenix applauded Pirner’s talent “for spinning emotional numbers out of life’s ironies without taking himself too seriously. He sings with a passion and desperation you won’t see in any of those british shoe-gazers, putting himself on the line for his songs.”
The video of the infectious, driving single “Somebody to Shove” began playing steadily on MTV, followed in the spring of 1993 by heavy rotation of the clip dramatizing the poignant, melodic “Black Gold”; Soul Asylum appeared poised at least to move tentatively into the mainstream. Later, the single and video “Runaway Train” would earn them their greatest exposure. The Grave Dancers tour produced the usual ecstatic responses from critics: The New York Times called their performance “gloriously ragged,” maintaining, “The energy was so focused, it was almost implosive,” while Howe Glassman of Buzz magazine declared, “My faith in rock and roll has been recharged once more” after seeing the band at Boston’s Paradise. Allison Stewart of the Los Angeles Village View proclaimed Soul Asylum “not only one of America’s best live bands, but one of its best bands, period, a distinction their sold-out... show only cemented.”
If the group was less than enthralled by the prospect of fame, they were undeniably awed by Booker T. Jones. Pirner told Dan DeLuca of Pulse! that working with the venerable keyboardist was “an incredible thrill” and reported in Musician that Jones “charted everything out, so I asked him for all the sheet music. You feel like a little kid when someone like that says he likes your songs.” Though the band perhaps found Jones more impressive than the new administration in Washington, they nonetheless played the MTV Inaugural Ball in January, 1993, appearing just moments after new Vice-President Albert Gore, Jr., left the stage. Pirner made a plea for world peace between songs, and the band proceeded to whip the young crowd into the kind of frenzy that Arnold of the Los Angeles Times observed at the group’s “communally uplifting, joyous hard-rock fests.”
In various interviews over the years, the band members have indicated that this uplift comes in large part from their feelings for each other. “We really like each other a lot,” Young told the Cleveland Scene. “We don’t do anything really radical to piss each other off too often. And when we do, we talk about it. We communicate pretty well.” Pirner appraised the band’s chemistry similarly for Pulséis DeLuca: “We’re all real used to each other. Everybody knows what to expect of every one else, and we’re real sensitive to each other’s quirks. Since we don’t have to re-meet each other all the time, we can just concentrate on getting the job done.”
Say What You Will, Twin/Tone, 1983.
Made To Be Broken, Twin/Tone, 1986
While You Were Out, TwirVTone, 1986.
Time’s Incinerator, Twin/Tone, 1986.
Hang Time (includes “Cartoon”), Twin/Tone/A&M, 1988.
(Contributors) “It’s Not My Fault,” Free To Be. . . a Family, A&M, 1988.
(Contributors) “Just Plain Evil,” Lost Angels (soundtrack), A&M, 1989.
(Contributors) “Barstool Blues,” The Bridge, No. 6/Caroline Records, 1989.
Say What You Will, Clarence (Carl Sold the Truck), (EP plus tracks from Time’s Incinerator), Twin/Tone, 1989.
Clam Dip and Other Delights, Twin/Tone, 1989.
Soul Asylum and the Horse They Rode in On (includes “Something Out of Nothing,” “Spinnin1,” and “Nice Guys [Don’t Get Paid]”), Twin/Tone/A&M, 1990.
Grave Dancers Union (includes “Somebody to Shove,” “Black Gold,” and “Runaway Train”), Columbia, 1992.
(Contributors) “Summer of Drugs,” Sweet Relief, Chaos/Sony, 1993.
(Contributors) “The Break,” So I Married an Axe Murderer (soundtrack), Chaos/Columbia, 1993.
(Contributors) No Alternative, Arista, 1993.
(Contributors) Backbeat (soundtrack), 1993.
Billboard, September 1992.
Boston Phoenix, November 13, 1992.
Buzz, October 1992.
Chicago Sun-Times, November 1992.
Cleveland Report, September 17, 1992.
Cleveland Scene, November 1992.
Creem, June 1988; October 1992.
Dallas Morning News, September 24, 1992.
East Coast Rocker, September 9, 1992.
Entertainment Weekly, October 23, 1992; May 28, 1993.
Los Angeles Times, October 3, 1992.
Melody Maker, September 13, 1986; November 22, 1986; March 12, 1988; July 9, 1988; September 1, 1990.
Musician, May 1987; March 1991; November 1992; June 1993.
New York Daily News, September 20, 1992.
New York Times, September 26, 1992.
Penthouse, November 1992.
People, December 7, 1992.
Pulse!, November 1992.
Request, December 1992.
Rolling Stone, July 14, 1988; November 29, 1990; November 26, 1992; January 21, 1993; Augusto, 1993.
Seventeen, October 1992.
Spin, November 1990; October 1992; April 1993; August 1993.
Variety, October 1992.
Village View (Los Angeles), December 18, 1992.
Village Voice, March 3, 1987; October 13, 1992.
Additional information for this profile was provided by a Columbia Records publicity profile, 1992.
Members: Dave Pirner, vocals and guitar (born Green Bay, Wisconsin, 16 April 1964); Dan Murphy, guitars and vocals (born Duluth, Minnesota, 12 July 1962); Karl Mueller, bass and vocals (born Minneapolis, 27 July 1963); Grant Young, drums (born Iowa City, Iowa, 5 January 1964).
Best-selling album since 1990: Grave Dancers Union (1992)
Hit songs since 1990: "Runaway Train"
Ahit album from the early 1990s announced the arrival of Midwest pop/punk quartet Soul Asylum. To longtime fans, the band already had a ten-year history with five albums. Holding onto loyalists while trying to please new fans became Soul Asylum's longstanding conflict in its heyday. Nevertheless, the band became known as one of the most exciting live acts in the decade and the epitome of the Midwestern punk band searching for, then coming to terms with, multiplatinum success.
The foursome were all in their late teens when they came together in Minneapolis under the name Loud Fast Rules. Singer Dave Pirner sat behind the drums but in a matter of years—after a name change and the addition of drummer Grant Young—he moved to the front playing guitar. Minneapolis was the heart of blue collar garage punk, music that became synonymous with the hometown bands the Replacements and Husker Du. Soul Asylum rose on the heels of those bands. Husker Du leader Bob Mould produced the band's 1984 debut Say What You Will, Clarence . . . Karl Sold the Truck and it was released on Twin/Tone, the Minneapolis label that had already launched the Replacements.
Soul Asylum's early sound was loud and sloppy melodic rock infused with punk energy and elements of country. Pirner emerged as the band's principal songwriter and, like the Replacements' Paul Westerberg, he fashioned the band's image as a group of blue collar losers with a hidden sensitive side. Soul Asylum spent much of the 1980s establishing itself on Twin/Tone. In 1988, the group released Hang Time on the major label A&M Records with which Twin/Tone had a distribution deal. Produced by Lenny Kaye, guitarist for New York art punk songwriter Patti Smith, it was the band's most mature album to date. The band's short tenure on A&M did not result in large enough sales, and when Columbia Records showed interest, the band was released from its contract.
Soul Asylum's Columbia debut, Grave Dancers Union (1992), ended up selling over 1 million copies and earned the band a Top 10 hit song, "Runaway Train." The music was more midtempo and slick than its previous albums; after tabloids reported a romance between Pirner and Hollywood actress Winona Ryder longtime fans felt the band had forsaken its roots.
The two albums that followed did not reach the sales of Grave Dancers Union, but continued the band's new direction toward radio-friendly pop. In the 1990s members paused for solo projects. Murphy became a part of Golden Smog, a supergroup featuring participants of other rootsy Midwestern bands including Wilco and the Jay-hawks. With Golden Smog, he toured on several occasions and recorded two albums, on which Pirner makes a vocal cameo. In late 2002 Pirner released his first-ever solo album, Face and Names. It is a response to living in New Orleans, his newly adopted home. In press interviews, he assured fans that Soul Asylum was still very much alive and healthy.
Even though its early reputation was as the stepchild of wily Twin Cities' punk outfits, the Replacements and Husker Du, Soul Asylum endured, selling over 4 million records and hitting a commercial stride in the early 1990s. Although many lamented the band's straying from its roots, Soul Asylum remained a popular live act that lived up to the spontaneous energy of punk.
Say What You Will . . . Anything Can Happen (Twin/Tone, 1984); Say What You Will, Clarence . . . Karl Sold the Truck (Twin/Tone, 1984); While You Were Out (Twin/Tone, 1984); Made to Be Broken (Twin/Tone, 1985); Time's Incinerator (Twin/Tone, 1986); Clam Dip and Other Delights (Twin/Tone, 1988); Hang Time (Arista/Twin/Tone, 1988); Soul Asylum and the Horse They Rode In On (Arista/Twin/Tone, 1990); Grave Dancers Union (Columbia, 1992); Let Your Dim Light Shine (Columbia, 1995); Candy from a Stranger (Columbia, 1998); Black Gold: The Best of Soul Asylum (Columbia/Legacy, 2000).