Back on Track
By Carl Kozlowski
Imagine spending a decade in a rock band without seeing a glimmer of commercial success, despite fighting your way out of the indie world and onto a major record label. Then suddenly your lead songwriter crafts a tune that's nothing like anything else in your oeuvre and it becomes a smash hit that's so influential it earns your band a Grammy and a personal visit to the White House with President Clinton.
Suddenly, you're riding a wave: two straight platinum albums put you in the club of million-selling superstars, your lead singer is shacked up with movie star Winona Ryder, and you're voted Best Live Band in America in Rolling Stone polls. You think all those years of hard work have paid off with good times that may never end.
But then they do, thanks to an album that spends an embarrassing single week on the charts and which gets zero airplay. You and your band mates get the alarming feeling that it's time to check out and live the "real life" everyone else around you has been stuck with all along: kids, marriage, running other businesses.
To top it all off, your bass player – whom you've been great friends with since high school – finds out he has throat cancer.
For most bands, dealing with these ups and downs would mean the end. But Soul Asylum isn't most bands, and in the face of such overwhelming adversity, its members regrouped to honor their bass player Karl Mueller's dying wishes and record another CD in the hopes of showing they still had "it" – a fact they proved in July when they returned with their first CD in eight years, The Silver Lining (Pick this up!), and managed to sell it to the same big label they had in their heyday.
Nearly 25 years after their formation, Soul Asylum embody the spirit of so many of their best lyrics: a never-say-die attitude that finds strength amid the weakest moments of life.
"We needed a break from it all, because we were sick of the road. We wanted a two-year break and it extended to four years," says guitarist Dan Murphy, recalling the dark period that started in 1998 with the belly flop of its last CD, Candy From A Stranger. "Then Karl got sick, and we dealt with that too, recording around his illness and his chemotherapy needs. We managed to finish it before he died, but that's a heavy toll to deal with. Before you know it, eight years went by."
One key element of Murphy's ability to bounce back with lead singer, guitarist and songwriter Dave Pirner was the fact that even at their peak, Soul Asylum was never known for egos and drug rehab. Aside from Pirner's two-year relationship with Winona Ryder, they never really adopted any traditional rock star traits, so when the time came to slow the ride down, they were able to get off safely.
Murphy started an art gallery in the band's native Minneapolis and devoted himself to being dad to his now 16-year-old son. He also recorded a CD with alt-rock supergroup Golden Smog.
Pirner felt drawn to explore another part of the US and wound up jamming with jazz musicians in New Orleans, releasing a little-known solo album in 2001 that reflected his new city's laid-back energy, and having a young son of his own. (He also had to flee that city when Hurricane Katrina hit, though he's returned to find that his own home was unscathed.)
And Mueller faced off against cancer in a strenuous battle that he ultimately lost a year ago. Before he passed, the band had taken out a $60,000 bank loan and vowed to record on their home turf in Minnesota with John Fields and Steve Hodge, producers they chose themselves after enduring an insanely long and bloated recording process on their last big-label CD, Candy.
The resulting release of The Silver Lining underscored how much respect the band had garnered years before, as The Tonight Show hosted a live performance of their new single "Stand Up and Be Strong" the night before its release. And with a mix of tunes that some critics have termed the best since their breakthrough 1992 CD Grave Dancers Union, Murphy says he and the band feel the new set has plenty of worthy songs to tour behind.
"We started as a college band on an indie label, and then our seventh record broke it for us, but in the school we come out of, having a hit record ruins your credibility in a way," says Murphy. "We found that people were not happy, and were kind of fleeting. The kind of music we helped create was college rock, and it turned into grunge. We were seen as a band with a pop song on the radio and people not thinking it was cool."
That pop song was "Runaway Train," a midtempo acoustic song with haunting lyrics about a teen living a harsh life in the streets. It became a worldwide hit, won the band a Grammy for Best Rock Song, and even today remains a staple of many radio stations -- all despite the fact it was an almost total anomaly for a band that had built a reputation on rapid-fire rock and blistering live performances.
The song's video had the biggest impact. Rather than focusing on the band performing the song, it was filled with stark, milk carton-style images of actual runaways above their names and the dates in which they were reported missing. The results seemed positive, as the band received an invitation to meet President Clinton at the White House after several of the video's youths were reunited with their families. But Murphy recalls even the best of intentions can go awry.
"Some weren't the best scenarios. I met a fireman on the East Coast whose daughter was in the end of the video, and he'd been in a bitter custody battle with his wife over her," Murphy said. "It turned out the girl hadn't run away, but was killed and buried in her backyard by her mother. Then on tour, another girl told us laughingly 'You ruined my life' because she saw herself on the video at her boyfriend's house and it led to her being forced back into a bad home situation."
Even as the band rebounds from its own travails, Murphy noted that lead singer Dave Pirner is still involved in helping the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and that the band performs benefits for the Jacob Wetterling Foundation, which helps missing and sexually exploited teens and children. While he hopes that most of the kids who reunited with their families have overcome their issues and developed into "twenty-somethings who are OK and contributing to society," he has come to realize that happy endings often can come about only through hard work.
"My recognition was that there's a reason that young kids run away, mostly because of abuse. There were some happy results from it, but you have to resolve the situation that caused an 11- or 13-year-old to think the harsh world is better than their home," said Murphy. "I don't think people are genetically wired to leave a loving home situation, but rather a harsh abusive situation. You have to fix that dysfunctional situation before you can truly say everything's OK."
These days, having overcome their own array of dysfunctional situations, the band appears to have rediscovered the sheer joy of playing music for fun, rather than as the force driving the treadmill of touring and recording. Judging from a jovial, high-energy performance at the Los Angeles Tower Records store and a fiery show at the world-famous Troubadour club on the new CD's release date of July 11, they're fully recharged.
The CD itself opens with a furious five-song volley of tunes that mix Pirner's defiant lyrics with Murphy's often-astounding guitar licks, a potent combo familiar to anyone who's heard band classics like "Somebody to Shove" and "Just Like Anyone." While the ballads on this CD pale somewhat in comparison to tunes like "Train," at least their presence is limited as the band makes leaps away from the sentimental glop that formed much of "Candy From A Stranger."
Driven by the furious beats of Michael Bland, who served a long run with fellow Minneapolis native Prince, Murphy and Pirner play with a sense of purpose that seemed to go missing at several shows I'd seen them perform during the wilderness years. Bland could easily be the best drummer they've ever had, and Pirner and Murphy are eagerly awaiting Tommy Stinson, who played with fellow Minneapolis legends The Replacements and recorded a couple of the new CD's tunes. Stinson is currently on the road as a member of Guns n'Roses.
But even with a potentially strong lineup, Murphy notes that losing Mueller has affected him on both an emotional and musical level.
"To be totally frank with you, it's all weird to me. I'm used to Karl and Dave as the core of the band, and there's a connection you expect. The band sounds great; it's a little emotional for me and Dave but it's in the Soul Asylum tradition for sure," Murphy muses. "Karl was a founding member and a really dear friend of mine and was my ears into punk rock. Back in 1978, he went to England and saw The Damned and The Cure and said there's this whole other kind of music out there that got me out of Aerosmithland. I miss him dearly, we had so many shared experiences. We never assumed [his cancer] to be life threatening."
Will rock fans and radio station programmers still care about them, no matter how good the music is? Judging from Murphy's everyman demeanor, it doesn't matter if they reach the heights of "Runaway Train." They'll be happy if they can make a living through the band again, and regain the acclaim they enjoyed prior to Candy.
"I think this CD is tuneful and I consider it a continuation, but it's fuller and more realized, more fun to play live and somewhat political, but not something to read as a treatise," Murphy says, referring to songs like "Lately," a galloping, catchy rocker that tells the story of a man who's watching his best friend's marriage unravel due to his extended tours of duty in Iraq. "I'm cautiously optimistic... This record is fine to play but this business is tough, we've been through a lot of shit with the band, but we've made it through the other side. It's time to see what's next."