buzz86.gif (11830 bytes)Buzz, May 1986

What are you doing in my nightmare? Soul Asylum, by Michael Welch

Reprinted Without Permission

Nothing seethes under the surface. Nothing about the members of Soul Asylum, when they're off-stage, screams "ROCK BAND!" Sure, songwriter/guitarist/pianist/singer and erstwhile saxophonist David Pirner has some pretty out-of-line locks, but to the average man on the street they probably just look like four kids with bad hair cuts and old clothes. (Except drummer Grant Young, the proclaimed cutest member of the band, who tends to look pretty clean cut most of the time -don't worry though, he's young, he'll learn. According to guitarist/songwriter Dan Murphy. "The best rock bands are really ugly".)

There's no point in trying to feed you some kind of line about how there is an aura of greatness that literally envelopes there four young, determined, committed, brilliant, exciting, blah, blah, men both on and off the stage; because the aura doesn't exist. Young, Pirner, Murphy and bassist Karl Mueller are jut four guys who happen to compromise one of the best damn rock bands this town has ever had.

They come from the distinctly midwestern school of rock that doesn't believe in overt posing, extensive non-musical trappings and industry hype. It's a school that hold onto the notion that all you need to do is write a song, sing it and believe in it. If you're good and you have something to say that's real, the people who want/need to listen will listen.

Once you decide to listen, Soul Asylum isn't hard to hear - they were made to play loud and their latest Twin Tone record, Made to be Broken, sounds best that way. Sonically, the LP owes as much to Led Zeppelin and Lynyrd Skynard as it does to the first generation of fast punks like the Ramones; lyrically, as much to Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan as to Paul Westerberg and Bob Mould, two other members of the aforementioned school.

With influences that span the last 20 years in music (i.e. it's obvious that these guys have listened to a lot of records in their combined 85 or so years), their choice of cover material reveals a wanton disregard for stylistic continuity. Over the course of one set they might do a Guthrie tune, "Play That Funky Music White Boy" and Aerosmith's "Seasons of Wither".

Their own music drives, lurches and screams. Young can deliver a thoroughly relentless 4/4 -most half decent drummers can- but he can also lay down stylish syncopations (the chorus on "Tied To The Tracks"), soulful back beats ("Never Really Been") and probably a lot of other rhythmic wonders he hasn't discovered yet. Murphy loves the guitar, one spin through Broken proves that. His flying/cascading runs on the albums title track fuse the song together and sends threads of excitement through the listener's nervous system. The sliding fills he adds to "Ain't That Tough" are just plain perfect.

Murphy and Young's playing is tighter than two coats of paint, making bassist Mueller's job easy. He is what every competent bass player should be: solid. Even though you can't always decipher what he's doing amidst the wash of aural gyrations going on around him, Mueller's growling sound sometimes sneaks up and throws the song head-first into a headlong pace -"Don't It (make your troubles seem small)" is the easiest example.

Not to be overly laudatory (are you convinced yet that these guys are the best band in the world yet?), but David Pirner is one hell of a musician -though he passes his skill off as the result of hard work, not talent. He writes and sings most of Soul Asylum's material, plays piano, guitar, and played saxophone during the band's appropriately and popularly termed "heavy metal/saxophone" period, which ended some time ago.

Murphy ain't a bad singer in his own right at all - his slightly thin-sounding voice highlights his "Long Way Home", a single released last fall, and his backing vocals offer cool accompaniment to the ragged, scorching voice of Pirner that is an Asylum trademark. Pirner sounds like he's going to scream his lungs right out of his body (put "Whoa" on for your mom and watch her bum out), but he's been doing it for five years, so it doesn't look like they're going to give for a while.

Pirner fills his lyrics with intricate word-play. They're always clever - "Who is that hound at the downtown dog pound/Who speaks English when the watchman's not in sight" ("Never Really Been"), sometimes profound - "A guitar's a man's best friend" ("Made to be Broken"), occasionally devoid of tangible meaning - "Like a bulb without a socket/You're finger trigger's itchin'/but you forgot to cock it" ("Ain't that Tough") and sometimes downright sad. The man who once played trumpet in his high school symphony orchestra says that he writes about "anything. When I go out the door of my house and see things - I just write about what's around me, things that have a strong impression or strike me as weird".

Soul Asylum started as Loud Fast Rules during the summer of 1981. Originally, Pirner played drums but he moved out front as soon as Pat Morley picked up the beat. LFR was "a bad name for a band," Murphy says, because it gave people a ready-made label and made getting gigs tough. But that was when they were young and inexperienced in the wily ways of the music business and after surviving two years at Goofy's Upper Deck and as a perennial opening band at First Avenue and the Seventh Street Entry, the name was dropped. Meanwhile, the band started improving and went into the studio to record late n the summer of '83. Over a year later Say What You Will , a nine-song record, was released. Say only whiffs at the possibilities that they later realized. It sounds like a band struggling to learn their way away from the constraints of their original name and their still rough playing. It took more than two years and the replacement of Morley with Young to turn Soul Asylum into the combo that recorded Broken last winter.

Bob Mould of Husker Du produced Made to be Broken (and the band's two other vinyl excursions) to the benefit of the LP's power sound and to the detriment of the band's attempt to establish a name for itself. Comparisons to the Huskers (and the Replacements too, for that matter) were inevitable and have come in flourishes. "I don't care," Pirner says about the comparisons. "I'm sick of it. I don't even like talking about it."

Journalists tie Soul Asylum to the tradition the 'Mats and the Huskers have laid down -mostly when they're on the road. And since before Broken was released, they've been out of town more often than they've been in town. First, there was a sic-date tour with X, then a trip out west, then a month and a half stint opening for Husker Du on their "Wig Out East" tour. After that, they did a short run through the midwest and right now they're in the midst of another tour of the East Coast. "That tour we did with the Huskers helped us out a lot," Murphy says. "We did a lot of shows -it was super good practice." Their last show here in town - at the Entry - validated Murphy's claim that all this touring has made them a much better band. Early this month they will headline New York City's Irving Plaza, the current Big Apple music hot spot and the same place where they performed as an opening act just two and a half months ago.

Still, Soul Asylum remains relatively unknown, even to the music writers who plug their shows because, as Murphy puts it, "they don't want to miss out on something. It's the Minneapolis thing. It's just Minneapolis name-dropping mania, or 'These guys are maniacs and they're nutty and you gotta go check 'em out 'cause they hang out with the Huskers and the Replacements - it's just such a weird approach to getting people to go see a band."

For now though, they're going to have to get used to it. They plan on continuing their relentless touring schedule until it's time to come back to Minneapolis and record their next album late this summer. That's OK though, they say that they feel more comfortable on the road than they do here at home. Pirner says, "(Touring) offers all the things the army offers. You get to travel to exciting places, meet exciting people " "Yeah, and you don't have to kill them," Mueller adds. "All you gotta do," Pirner continues, "is bum 'em out with your hummin' and strummin'."

Ask me a question and I'll tell you a lie

Like most good American men, David Pirner's heart is directly wired to his stomach. Unlike others, his ability to speak is also linked to his food and drink intake level. Buy him a hamburger and he'll tell you a story. Actually, it's not that easy 'cause Pirner doesn't like to talk about himself and what he does. What some people might call aloofness is actually embarrassment over the ever-increasing media attention Soul Asylum is getting.

Before the band took off for another "tool" (as in "tooling", their word for touring), he sat down, over lunch, loosed-up his low, rough voice with a couple of beers, and tried to avoid lying:

You've been getting lots of rave-ups lately. How does that make you feel?

Kind of embarrassed. It makes me kind of wonder - but there's a real important distinction there - because sometimes I'll just be sitting down, hanging out, and someone will come up and go "you guys are great" and I won't even know what they're really talking about. I mean, whether it's some weird dude that likes the way somebody's hair looks or some fuckin' - I don't know. But then again every now and then someone will come up and they'll say something really sincere, like "I really dug this line in this song" and they'll actually know the line and it's actually a real personal thing, it's really quite flattering. They're saying that I communicated to them in one way or another and that's really what it's all about.

Has anybody ever come up to you and said something about you that you never though of before?

Yeah, a couple of times people have come up and said stuff that I could barely understand. Once, this girl came up to me and started talking about where all the energy in the room was congesting and she talked about it for quite a long time and she was using all this psychy language. I was trying to groove on what she was saying but it was pretty funny.

A couple people have said weird stuff to me and I just laugh - once somebody told us "you guys are hot as love."

How is Soul Asylum changing?

The band is growing up, basically. I was 17 when we started (as Loud Fast Rules) and I don't know what everybody else goes through between the ages of 17 and 22, but there's a lot of stuff that happens to you and there's not much you can do about it. People expect different things out of you -that's probably why I got into a band when I was 17, 'cause it's a good way to do whatever you want.

We've learned to use our instruments a lot better. I mean we're pushing our limits but I think we're always going to be kind of a hack rock band. I don't think there's any virtuosity happening.

I'd like to think we're growing closer together.

If you got signed to a major label you'd have to do a lot more interviews and the like, would the exchange of more of that "music biz stuff" for greater exposure be worth it to Soul Asylum?

I don't know. Doing stuff outside the band, that is actually working for the band, is just something you have to do because it's going to help out the band.

It's kind of funny because I figure I have to deal with it 'cause if I don't go out and talk to people there's just going to be more people (journalists) trying to interpret it themselves and not really knowing. It's kind of a drag and it makes me uncomfortable sometimes and sometimes I wonder what it has to do with what I'm doing, but it seems pretty harmless, kind of fun every now and then.

Do you want to be a rock star?

No. Why would I want to be a rock star? It's no fun. I associate "rock star" with somebody who fucks a lot of girls and does a whole bunch of drugs and makes a ton of money. I don't know man, I don't know what a rock star is.

Maybe you're already one.

Oh, wrong question, man. It's really depressing when people give me shit about it too 'cause I have all my old friends and they have to see my picture in the paper and they give me all this garbage about being a rock star and it's embarrassing, it makes me feel really stupid - we don't have any money, if there's one thing we're farthest away from it'd be any kind of glamour at all. I've smelled more smelly socks.

Murphy: We're really good house guests, or so I've been told.

Mueller: We've got some pretty OK manners, we pick up our own beer cans and stuff.

Murphy: Yeah, Karl even did the dishes in San Francisco. You did 'em twice didn't you Karl?

Mueller: No, I only did them once - but it was a pretty fierce load.

Pirner: Let's do some serious, quick and easy controversial questions. You ready Karl?

Mueller: You ready to go to war, Dave?

Pirner: Oh, that's pretty controversial.

Mueller: You know what would happen if you went to war? I'd have to join the Del Fuegos.

Pirner: Yeah, that's the only reason that would keep me from going.

Pirner: What do you think Dead Heads are all about? They're all dudes who don't know how to play guitar but they go on tour (with the Dead) because it's fun.

Mueller: Oh, come on, Bob (Weir) can play the shit out of a guitar.

Murphy: Bob's not a Dead Head, dude. He plays in the band.

Mueller: Well, he's a Dead Head too.

Pirner: No, no, no, no, somebody who plays in the band isn't a Dead Head.

Murphy: They're "The Dead".

Pirner: Karl, I shouldn't have to explain these things to you.

Special Thanks To Rafs and Ron

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