Soul Asylum | Stand Up and Be Strong

“In a lot of ways, the new record embraces every element that the band has managed to touch on. If it sounds like a departure from our last record, parts of it sound like a return to things that happened a long time ago. We always hoped not to fit into a niche or try to appease a certain aesthetic.”

 

 

Every kid who picks up a broom and plays air guitar has a dream that probably looks a lot like the career of Soul Asylum. Formed by three high school friends in 1981, the band created a cult following in their native Minneapolis through a series of breakneck punk rock records on the indie label Twin/Tone. Honing their songcraft over the course of five albums, the band rode the early ’90s alternative revolution to superstardom on 1992’s Grave Dancers Union, the double-platinum album that spawned an omnipresent single (“Runaway Train”) and led to Grammy Awards and dates with movie stars. Soul Asylum released two more albums and then, surprisingly, went silent.

“We sort of hit a wall,” singer/guitarist Dave Pirner says of the time following 1998’s Candy From a Stranger. “The band had reached a point where we just needed to take a break. And that’s what we did.” Now, eight years later, the band finally returns with The Silver Lining, out this month on Columbia/Legacy. “We took our time to get this record together,” Pirner explains, “because there wasn’t a real pressing demand for it. We didn’t want to just keep on cranking out records for the sake of cranking ‘em out. It just took a while to get it right.”

In the downtime between albums, Pirner released a soul-influenced solo album, 2002’s Faces and Names. “It was kind of a relief to return to form,” Pirner says of the new album. “[The solo album is] what I had to do in order to miss it. I sort of painted myself into a corner with the whole loud, loud, loud guitar thing. So actually coming back to it was great—the way I equated it was like putting on a comfortable pair of jeans.”

“Comfortable” is a good way to describe an album that finds Soul Asylum settled, reveling in their classic-rock influence as never before. Though often pigeonholed as ’90s alt-rock, The Silver Lining is a collection of utterly timeless rock, packed with Dan Murphy’s soaring guitar solos and Pirner’s epic, melodic choruses, bursting right out of the gate with its opening track, the anthemic, positively Springsteen-ian “Stand Up and Be Strong.”

Says Pirner, “In a lot of ways, the new record embraces every element that the band has managed to touch on. If it sounds like a departure from our last record, parts of it sound like a return to things that happened a long time ago. We always hoped not to fit into a niche or try to appease a certain aesthetic.”

The mood was tense during the recording of The Silver Lining due to the illness of bassist and founding member Karl Mueller, diagnosed with throat cancer in May 2004. Mueller, Pirner, Murphy, and drummer Michael Bland entered the studio determined to finish. “There was a real urgency to make it happen and a lot of that had to do with this looming fear about Karl’s health,” Pirner remembers. “At the same time, there was a never a moment where I actually thought he wasn’t going to make it. So there’s a real strong element of hope and faith going on there where you just have to believe he was going to pull through. It never had crossed my mind that he wouldn’t survive.”

The following October, a massive benefit concert was planned to pay for Mueller’s medical treatment. A celebration of both Mueller and Minneapolis, the concert featured Soul Asylum and such Twin Cities favorites as the Replacements’ Paul Westerberg, the reunited Gear Daddies, and, together for the first time in 16 years, Hüsker Dü’s Bob Mould and Grant Hart. “To see people come out like that for Karl was stunning,” Pirner remembers. “It had a lot of positive emotion. And everybody sounded so good, too. It seemed almost like time was standing still or hadn’t passed as much as it had. Suddenly, for one night, everybody was united.”

Sadly, Mueller passed away at his home on June 17, 2005. Much of the recording already finished, The Silver Lining was completed with the only person who could ever suitably fill in for Mueller: Tommy Stinson, ex-Replacements bassist and the band’s longtime friend. “It was very important to [Mueller] that the record came out,” Pirner reminisces. “He was elated when the band got the record deal that we have. Those things were his life. He lived to rock; he loved being in a band. He was such a big spirit of the whole thing. It affected the project in all the right ways when he was there, because he was there. I don’t have a day that passes when I don’t think about him.”

Despite the hardships, Pirner is confident that the band will be sticking around. “The attitude is that it appears like it’s some sort of return. We didn’t really go anywhere,” Pirner concludes. “We’ve always said once it stops being fun, we’re not going to do it anymore, and I think for a minute there that it stopped being fun. I think that continuing without Karl is still very daunting. Adversity has always been a part of the game. It’s never been easy, it’s always been a struggle, but it’s been a struggle we’ve come to embrace and we’ll keep making music as long as people let us.”

See the next page for our complete interview with Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner!

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It's been 8 years since the last Soul Asylum record. What came about after Candy from a Stranger that necessitated a break?

We sort of hit a wall and I decided to make a solo record and I guess it just didn't seem to make sense to put out another record with the sort of atmosphere that we had created, if you will. It just was the band had reached a point where we just needed to take a break and needed to step away from it. And that's what we did. We sort of just took our time to get this record together because there wasn't a real pressing demand for it. And I think that we didn't really want to put out a mediocre record or just keep on cranking out records just for the sake of cranking ‘em out. It just took a while to get it right.

That's actually kind of honorable you know. To take your time anyway. Your 2002 solo album Faces and Names was quite a departure from the Soul Asylum sound. It kind of had a lot of R&B flavor to it. Was it hard to switch back and make straightforward guitar rock again?

No actually, it was kind of a relief to return to form, if you will. It's kind of what I had to do in order to miss it, you know. I sort of painted myself into a corner with the whole loud loud loud guitar thing and sort of exhausted it for the time being. I really really needed to take that departure and see how it would go and was sort of noticing that that was more of what I was listening to. I wanted to make a record that really featured the rhythm section and I wanted to make a record that didn't sort of bury itself in the wall of noise that we're so obsessed with, that we love so much. So actually coming back to it was great-the way I equated it with like putting on a comfortable pair of jeans on. I sort of had to miss it.

Any band that has had the big time success that Soul Asylum had is kind of pressured to repeat that. Did the time away from the band kind of lessen the burden of that for you guys?

I mean, yea, I guess it definitely did. It was some kind of strange winning-back-my -anonymity for me. The kind of feeling like that thing that you were talking about was very uncreative. It was like "we don't care what you do. Just give us a smash hit man." There wasn't anywhere to go from that other than try to appease this plateau-it didn't feel very open-ended, it didn't feel very creative. It's more of what I am and what I like to do which will always be shooting off in all different directions…too restricting. I think that it's what we had to do; it's what we needed to do. Because it just wasn't what we started out doing. We just kind of wanted to have this rock band and write a bunch of crazy songs and we had the success that actually sort of surprised everybody. And ……. it just seemed like a drag.

Did the break make things easier or harder for the group to record again?

Oh it definitely made it harder. It definitely almost made it obsolete. At the time of the last record it was like, "Alright, oh, go back in and make a live record and then we'll do all this stuff to keep trying to kind of saturate the market" and I just feel like we got kind of over-saturated it. The longer you stay away from it the harder it is to come back to it. We weren't really avoiding the issue. We were still doing gigs and we were still making demos, but again, I just think it was putting out a record just for the sake of doing it. It didn't seem to be the right thing. So yeah, it's made it more difficult. It's kind of a band that typically does not take the easy way.

Your band is permanently linked in many people's mind as that kind of early 90s rock sound, yet the new album is filled with songs that are more timeless, guitar based classic rock. Was this a conscious decision or just a result of time going by?

Well, I think that if the goal is to be timeless, which for a lack of a better way of putting it, it is. For me, I hope to create something that is not a trend or of a moment or whatever. It's nice to hear you say that, because I think in a lot of ways, the new record sort of embraces every element that the band has managed to touch on. If it sounds like a departure of our last record, at one point, parts of it sound like a return to things that happened a long time ago, so I guess that we always hoped to be there and not to try to fit into a niche or try to appease a certain aesthetic. We sort of have this music that hopefully won't seem dated at any particular point.

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The song "What You Need" from the new album echoes a lot of the soul influences from your solo album. Was it difficult to adapt the style into something that would fit into the context of Soul Asylum?

Actually, it kind of turned out the way it turned out and it was a little bit of a surprise to everyone who goes "Damn, that does sound like the stuff that you recorded for your solo record" and it was the last song that we recorded for the record. I really don't know if for me that was some sort of coming full circle or if it has just become part of the canon that I have embraced. I think the word is like orbwar (?) or something, but I don't even know it. But it was good, because at that point, everybody embraced it as some needed variety, whereas I think that if maybe that was one of the first songs that I had written for the record, people would have gone "we ain't doing that because it sounds too much like your solo shit." Uh, I mean stuff.

You mentioned in your press kit interview that "Success Is Not So Sweet" is an older song that you "don't think anybody wanted to hear it at that point" when it was written. From what point in your career does the song date, and why does it feel right to record it now?

It was I think written for the record called Let Your Dim Light Shine. I'm pretty sure. It might have been the record after that. It was the one song that was picked out of some archives, Specially Oddit, a good friend of mine who used to be our guitar tech found it on a bootleg which was the only recording there was of it. We played it once live. That was the end of it. We never played it again. Nobody really latched onto it at the time, which is kind of the modus operandi: I just keep throwing songs at the band and see what sticks and what makes it into the live set. It was funny because when he pulled the bootleg out that nobody really knew existed, my guitar player Danny Griffin was like, "Oh, that's a great song, we should record it," my manager was, "Oh that's a great song, we should record it." My reaction was, "Why didn't we put this on a record a long time ago when I needed it or something or when it was relative to us?" So it's just strange to me that the sentiment is easier to stomach now or seems more appropriate to the other guys. Those things I just let them happen as they do because I'm not trying to dictate a reaction from anybody, I'm just trying to get any reaction I can. It really surprised me how much people like that song and how much they completely missed it the first time around. As time passes, it becomes more of a fear or something. Oh God, how can people be missing things and then decide years later that they love it? It's strange. I guess it just depends how things fall.

Maybe you're just ahead of your time. "Fearless Leader" is another older song that finally made it on a record, yet the lyrics seem to refer quite explicitly to the current cultural climate in America. Has the song changed at all over the years?

I dropped a verse. But it's funny because it's talking about the exact same thing. I think that every time we try to make a record that song almost makes the record but at the last minute, it gets cut. And so here we are and we're putting it on as a hidden track and that is the compromise that I have to deal with. So, to me, it's always been a really strong song and I think it should have been on a record three records ago. A lot of it's just what I'm trying to get past the band and I guess what makes a balanced record and I was always kind of disappointed that it never made the cut.

It hasn't changed much at all, in fact its become more basic. We kept trying to record it with the whole band but it never seemed to flesh out, it never seemed to work, I guess because it was just so long. We couldn't quite get the rhythm section right. It was just one of those things where the more music you add to it, the more it seemed to distract from the lyrics. Actually, my manager really championed that song, because he was like, "I can't believe how current this song seems." I'm not going to sit there and toot my own horn and go "Yeah, well, I'm just so far ahead of my time." It does seem to become more relevant as time passes, which is odd, because I have this issue with songs like "Black Gold," which is in our set which I wrote during George Bush Sr.'s administration and it seems to apply perfectly to George Bush Jr.'s administration. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

It's troubling in a way to sort of be a songwriter that you're always trying to fight to convince people that there's a reason for this song to exist. But you know if they don't end up on records, they kind of don't end up existing. So I started actually playing "Fearless Leader" with my solo project with the band that was touring my solo record and then the guys from that band were like, "Well that's my favorite song." Once again it was kind of just funny because I was like "Why didn't I put it on my solo record?" So here it is lively, 20 seconds after the album over and it's not listed and that's the best I can do as far as getting that song on a record and that's my struggle I guess.

Your bassist, Karl Mueller, was already ill during the recording of The Silver Lining, yet the ultimate mood of the album is uplifting and not somber. What was the mood within the band in the recording studio?

Kind of like it was a life or death situation, you know, without sounding too tongue in cheek. There was a real urgency to make it happen and a lot of that had to do with this looming fear about Karl's health. At the same time, there was a never a moment where I actually thought he wasn't going to make it. So there's a real strong element of hope and faith and stuff going on there where you just have to believe he was going to pull through. But I was never in doubt; it never had crossed my mind that he wouldn't survive. At the same time, he was showing up at the studio, kind of pale and weak some days. He was going through different therapies and treatments and really really making this heroic kind of effort to be there as much as he possibly could and be a part of the record and push it through and make sure it got done to his satisfaction. He was calling me saying, "Yes, this is really great material." Which felt really good to me because that doesn't happen very often.

I think that we wanted to finish it with him and after he died, there were a few changes made. It was very important to him that the record came out. He was elated when the band got the record deal that we have. Those things were his life. I think it was a very difficult time for all of us when we were working as we had. He was affected by it. He lived to rock. That was his thing. He loved being in a band. He was such a big spirit of the whole thing; it was just a very sort of urgent situation. It affected the project in all the right ways when he was there because he was there. It's really been difficult, I don't have a day that passes when I don't think about him a lot and miss him greatly.

In October of 2004, a benefit was held for Karl that was also a veritable celebration of Minneapolis, with not only Soul Asylum performing, but also Paul Westerberg, the reunited Gear Daddies, and a reunion no one thought would happen, Bob Mould and Grant Hart of Hüsker Dü. What was it like to see so many people from what seems to have been a pretty contentious local scene put aside their differences like that?

It was beautiful. I think that's really the best word for it. There were moments where Bob Mould and Paul Westerberg were bonding and that maybe wasn't we had seen and it was very small dressing room and everyone was kind of crammed into it. It was kind of really a temp stage. It was like "Wow, here we all are." Just to see people come out like that for Karl was stunning. I didn't think Bob and Grant had it in them to get back together and play. And Paul has been a bit of a recluse at times. And the Gear Daddies. It was just an incredible night. It had a lot of positive emotion. And everybody sounded so good too. It seemed like almost like time was standing still or hadn't passed as much as it had. This bizarre element of "we're all one big happy family"-it hadn't been that concentrated in its most intense heyday. Everyone was still flying off in all their different directions and, suddenly, for one night, everybody was united. There wasn't a more deserving candidate that Karl with people coming together.

The recording sessions for the new album were completed with Tommy Stinson on bass. What was it like recording as Soul Asylum for the first time without Karl there?

It was hard, you know. It was really kind of desperate and kind of like there was always somebody missing. Like "When is Karl going to show up?" or whatever. We've been in so many recording situations that where we run into the studio and start recording like mad and we get sucked into the song and we're not really thinking of anything else but getting it finished. To that effect, it wasn't that different. It was this record that we've been theoretically working on forever. I mean, the first demos we did for this record were years ago. And at that point, it was just like "Let's get this thing finished. Let's put our heads down and play until it's done." To that effect, it was just the sort of the same old same old, the way we're used to it. Karl was always somebody who added an element of sort of calm or focus-he had a way of taking the anxiety out of things for me. He had a very steadfast demeanor that was always reassuring and always sort of added a sense of humor and lightness to what can sometimes be a daunting situation. I think sometimes we can take ourselves pretty seriously in the studio and sometimes too seriously…

What's the attitude of the band going forward? Is the Soul Asylum reunion permanent?

Well, the attitude is that it appears like it's some sort of return. We didn't really go anywhere. The attitude is to continue on to the best of our abilities. It's an open book; it's always been an open book. We've always said once it stops being fun, we're not going to do it anymore and I think for a minute there that it stopped being fun. I think that continuing without Karl is still very daunting. It still doesn't feel like it's very easy. I love what we have created with this band and I would like to continue it as long as possible. I guess we'll keep limping along just like we always do. Adversity has always been a part of the game. It's never been easy, it's always been a struggle, but it's been a struggle we've come to embrace and we'll keep making music as long as people let us.

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