Soul Asylum breaks musical barriers

Band refuses to conform to any category, offers individuality to please listeners

by Jake Sussman

If you were to look up the definition of "rock star", you would probably not find Soul Asylum's picture included.

It's not because they haven't sold any records - their 1992 release "Grave Dancers Union" only went multiplatinum - and it's not because no one goes to their concerts - they play over 200 shows a year to sold-out arenas all over the planet. No, the four members of Soul Asylum could be rock stars if they wanted to; they just choose not to. They have names like Dan and Dave - not Axel or Slash -and one of them owns an antique shop, while another doesn't even own a CD player or car. Ripple recently spoke with bassist Karl Mueller, who called in from the kitchen of his Minneapolis home. Soul Asylum was conceived the same way most bands are. In high school, Mueller met current guitarist Dan Murphy, who asked his new buddy if he could learn to play bass for a new band. Shortly thereafter that band was realized with the addition of then-drummer/now-lead singer Dave Pirner.

The band, then known as Loud Fast Rules, got their first big break in signing with Twin/Tone Records in 1983, moved on to bigger and better labels, and finally settled with Columbia.

"Things really went up from there," Mueller remarked.

After going relatively unnoticed for ten years, Soul Asylum shattered everyone's-including their own-expectations by surging into the spotlight with "Grave Dancers Union."

"Producers always tell you 'This is the one', but we had learned to ignore that. When he told us this about 'Union,' we were just like 'Yeah right, etc.' Looks like he was right," Mueller reflected.

Along with this newfound fame came a blitz of new fans, many of whom had not heard of the band before then. When asked if he resented the sudden surge in popularity with people who thought Union was the band's first album, Mueller firmly replied, "Not at all. A lot of folks went back and bought our older stuff to find out where we really came from and what we were all about; our earlier albums were being re-discovered." Celebrity has not jaded Soul Asylum's philosophy towards fans at all. Mueller acknowledged the mutual relationship between band and fan: "They give something to us and we give something to them."

He also noted the increased ecclectic of spectators at their shows over the years. "At first our fans were, like, all 25-year old guys. But now we're seeing pretty much every age group, our fans are pretty diverse - kind of what you'd see in a mall." Mueller attributes this to not only increased popularity, but their fans' greater appreciation of the band's music.

"Our shows have now eclipsed the idea of four guys playing loud," he commented. Nor has stardom clouded the band's vision of their purpose as musicians.

After modestly denying one newspaper's claim that Soul Asylum was the country's best live band, Mueller emphasized that "even if we are the best, that's irrelevant. The reason we started was to have a great time on stage, and that's still there. It's been there since we played in the basements of keg parties. I think that is the best part of being a band, playing on stage and having a blast."

Mueller stressed that touring is often "Grueling," but he also emphasized how much fun it can be.

"We've definitely met some weird people along the way; people will run into us and tell us how we slept on their floor after a show ten years ago- the people definitely made it interesting."

As someone who performs live hundreds of times a year, Mueller sympathizes with Pearl Jam's attitude toward Ticketmaster.

"I agree with Pearl Jam in principle; we want to keep our ticket prices low and make our shows very accessible. That's why we admire the Grateful Dead so much- they were so huge and their shows were still easily accessible."

When they're not on stage, Soul Asylum strives for variety in the studio.

"We've always been pretty diverse in order to keep ourselves interested," Mueller noted, "and we like to mix things up to keep us from getting bored. That's the whole point of music."

Mueller asserted each band member's equal status and the band's "democratic system" when it comes to recording and choosing songs for an album.

Regarding Soul Asylum's newest release, "Let Your Dim Light Shine," Mueller admitted that there was little rehearsal before its recording.

"I think we all knew that we hadn't thought much about it, and a lot of it changed in the studio. Its production wasn't as rigid as the last album's. In some ways it was a bigger pain in the ass, but I think we got more out of this one than any one of the others."

As a member of a so-called "alternative" band, Mueller realizes how nebulous that term has become.

"It means absolutely nothing. I thought it was supposed to apply to bands not on the radio, but that is not the case anymore."

Whatever you call them, Soul Asylum is unquestionably different from the flocks of other bands that flood the airwaves these days- they're normal.

Soul Asylum will appear with Matthew Sweet Wednesday, Sept. 27 in Memorial.

The Vanderbilt Hustler, 1995