Subtle Soul Guided By Dave Pirner’s Eclectic Brilliance, Soul Asylum Has Moved Beyond Punk To Something Far More Intriguing
It’s been a very long, strange trip for Soul Asylum - the Minneapolis band that paid its punk-rock dues in the last decade, but is now embracing a much wider spectrum of music.
All of which is ironic, because punk is suddenly back in vogue, yet Soul Asylum has already been there and wants to break new ground.
“We’ve already played a million miles an hour,” says Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner, who’s known in rock circles as an enigmatic genius, but in the celebrity pages as Winona Rider’s boyfriend.
“You want to earn yourself the opportunity to play whatever you feel like playing - and putting whatever you feel like on your records,” says Pirner, whose band has a masterful new disc, “Let Your Dim Light Shine.”
The new album cuts across genres, from hooky, Beatlesque rock to country, funk and Tom Petty-like acoustic pop, as well as some punk. It’s an impressive step forward from Soul Asylum’s 1992 “Grave Dancers Union” album, which yielded the hit “Runaway Train” and broke the band nationally after years of banging away in tiny club caverns.
“You kind of hope you’re being as progressive as you can (be),” Pirner says in a recent phone interview. “To say there isn’t that much difference between a country song and a funk song might be bold for some people, but it’s all just music to me. Hopefully, I won’t get into that trap of sounding eclectic for the sake of eclecticism. It’s more like trying to sound like Soul Asylum and trying to say we can have fun with whatever music feels good at the time.”
Make no mistake, the new album indeed feels good. The band’s heightened melodic skill is evident - and Pirner’s idiosyncratic lyrics have never been more tongue-in-cheek. He writes about everything from a waitress who once served Elvis Presley to Siamese twins who go on to become president. The latter is a surreal outgrowth of the day two years ago when Soul Asylum played on the White House lawn for Bill Clinton, who loved the song “Runaway Train.”
“I just don’t know what’s on Dave’s mind,” says Soul Asylum guitarist Dan Murphy, laughing, in a separate interview. “He’s got all these characters weaving in and out of the album - priests and presidents and Siamese twins. It’s a pretty impressive work. I hope it makes sense to people. Some of the record, like the single, ‘Misery,’ is supposed to be pretty tongue-in-cheek. The single is supposed to be making fun of ourselves in the line ‘frustrated incorporated.’
“Sometimes I hear people say, ‘Gee, the record is so depressing.’ But I think a lot of it is very funny. If you take the song titles literally, I think you’re in trouble - ‘Misery,’ ‘Don’t Get My Hopes Up,’ ‘To My Own Devices,’ ‘Shutdown.’ And another one, ‘Caged Rat.’ I’m telling you, man, Dave pushed that song through. I think it’s hysterically funny. Dave even plays trumpet on it and we call him Miles David.
“Dave’s songwriting is really challenging to try to play to because it’s all over the place,” says Murphy. “It’s a big task. You’ve got to be able to take on a lot of different styles and sometimes within the same song. It’s a tough gig.”
Pirner is often viewed as a raggedy-haired eccentric, but there’s no disputing his encyclopedic knowledge of music. The new album is filled with subtle riffs and bits that you think you’ve heard before, but that are laced together with an entirely fresh perspective.
“I think I have a tendency to string things together in my head,” Pirner says. “I’ll hear an idea on the radio and think, ‘Hey, that sounds just like this passage out of a Bach song.’ It’s all kind of one thing to me. I’ve been a huge fan of music for my whole life.
“When I sit down with other guys my age in bands, we’ll sing songs to each other and try to name what they were and what they came from. I started off with jazz and tried that, but wasn’t very good at it. But I’ve always got my ear to the tracks. I’m fascinated with what other people are doing. I can hear something in an elevator and start laughing, because I’ll know what it is.”
These days, Soul Asylum is on an upward curve for many reasons. One is Pirner’s joyful relationship with Rider (“She’s as much a muse as any guy could ask for,” he says succinctly, choosing not to pursue the subject). Another is that the band is comfortable with its label, Sony Records, after having to fight to get out of a contract with A&M; Records in the late ‘80s.
“We felt beat up and neglected,” Murphy says of the A&M; hassles. “When you get into a band, you always think it doesn’t matter what label you’re on because it’s just music, right? So you can be really naive. But at this point, we’ve been through our cynical stage.”
Right now, the band is back to enjoying music again. In a creative spurt, Soul Asylum wrote a staggering 40-plus songs for the new album, before whittling the list down to 14.
“With our band, it all comes down to the songs,” says Murphy. “It’s not about guitar sounds and snare drum sounds and all that kind of crap. I guess the biggest compliment is if in five years I can still put on one of our records. It’s not supposed to sound good for one summer while a certain kind of music is in vogue. It’s supposed to be something that’s a little bit timeless. Someday, when they have ‘Runaway Train’ on one of those stupid, late-night TV compilations like ‘The Early ‘90s,’ I hope it will still sound like it’s a cohesive song. That would be the ultimate compliment.”