Dim Light And Other Delights
by Eric Gladstone
The air hangs heavy over the round table, snickering band members waiting for a classic Dorothy Parker-style retort. This is not the Algonquin Hotel of yore, though, but the Sony building, and Soul Asylum are holed up for that age-old ritual: telling the people all about your new album. A tub of icy beer and a carton of cigarettes have been delivered, and the quartet is ready to talk.
Despite the Spinal Tap-ish sound of Dave's pronouncement, the singer and principal songwriter has a point or two about Let Your Dim Light Shine, their new Columbia disc. One is that the more music you release, the more you establish your creative identity. The other is that, as Pirner figures, "It's more mixed up, like the records before Grave Dancers, only it's realized. Which is what the big breakthrough was with Grave Dancers."
The realization comes courtesy of co-producer Butch Vig (and hit teammate Andy Wallace) - as for "mixed up", well à "I Did My Best" and "Promises Broken" are Dylanesque country ballads; "Tell Me When" sports '70s style mellotron; "Just Like Anyone" and "Bittersweetheart" take a page or two from Elvis Costello's classic songbook; stompers like "Hopes Up" and "Crawl" betray Vig and Wallace's thumbprints; and "String Of Pearls" and "Caged Rat" are weird hybrids the likes of which you haven't heard from this band since, oh, Clam Dip & Other Delights.
"I was reading something where you said that we were like a 'failed art band', says guitarist Dan Murphy to Pirner. "That kind of sums it up." Well, not if you follow the common narrative on Soul Asylum, which stresses their beginning as punk trio Loud Fast Rules, their legendary live prowess and their bridesmaid status in the burgeoning mid-'80s Minneapolis scene, following punk-poppers Husker Du and the Replacements. But a cursory listen through the ten years of their recorded output reveals tangents in thrash-noise, post-punk, funk-rock and psychedelia, alongside a growing talent for country-rock. Says Murphy, "It's something we heard over and over in our formative years, that we were a great band but our records weren't that great. I think a couple of things on Made To Be Broken are really interesting sounding, as sound experiments à"
"High concept, novice, lower than lo-fi," Pirner cuts in, "It's the 'what not to do' handbook."
Of course, one thing allows the band to observe its early years with such calm perspective: the overwhelming success of its last album, Grave Dancers Union. Even devotees of Soul Asylum's early country-punk, art-punk and punky-punk would be hard-pressed to argue that the 1992 Columbia debut wasn't an impressively constructed pop platter. And, with hits in "Black Gold" and "Runaway Train", the gazillion-selling album proved a major turning point for the band, bringing them platinum records, and even a performance at the White House.
Grave Dancers emerged from a period of some concern for those diehard fans: Having squirmed out of an unsatisfactory contract with A&M, the band secured major industry management, and Pirner even left his longtime girlfriend for high-profile celeb Winona Ryder (we've been told Dave doesn't want to discuss Ms. Ryder - despite the fact that he makes frequent references to the relationship). Consequently, the album that resulted seemed like a major departure (though songs as far back as Say What You Will's "Stranger" had the same country-twang vibe). In fact, there was a shift in the band, but not what anyone expected.
Yes, we're talking about the new face you've probably noticed in the band's photo. His name's Sterling Campbell, he's replaced drummer Grant Young, and he's been around longer than you might think.
"Sterling came in when we were having a hell of a time tracking Grave Dancers," Murphy explains, "7 or 8 days, we couldn't get a single track done in the studio. The longest week of my life. We were ready to give up on the whole thing, and Sterling came in and did 8 tracks in 3 or 4 days."
"It was like a dirty sock and I cleaned it," Campbell smiles.
"Something had to change," says bassist Karl Mueller, "and that was the thing." Though Young's drumming did appear on four of the album's tracks, and he subsequently toured with them, when it came time to make this new album, it was obvious that things weren't improving.
"It was something that had been coming for 8 years," Murphy explains, "Over all the time we played, it just never felt really comfortable, and we were having to over-analyze everything."
"I'd walk offstage after gigs and just be so frustrated," Pirner continues. "It just wasn't fun, working hard at making music instead of really enjoying it."
So, after some less than satisfying demo sessions for the new album, "we decided to either break up the band or find a new drummer," Murphy says solemnly.
Campbell, a New Yorker who has played with a variety of what he calls "80s decadent groups" - including David Bowie, Duran Duran and the B-52s - agreed to do another album but "took some time" before signing on permanently. Nevertheless, he says now, "I'm happy to be in a band again, and able to express my opinions, as opposed to being hired. And these guys are, as I say in New York slang, mad cool."
"Bunch of know-nothings," Pirner shoots back. Dave's smirking self-deprecation underscores the interesting personality differences in this band. Pirner still wears jeans with worn-out knees (even if he's cut and styled that infamously mangy mane) and brings a bag of alternative comics with him (everything from Dan Clowes' Eightball to Julie Doucet's Dirty Plotte). His gravely voice and tendency to lay his head on the table makes him rather an anti-frontman, but when an issue strikes him, he tackles it full-on. Murphy, by comparison, is the diplomat of the group, approachable, well-spoken and grounded - after the band considered the end with its A&M fallout, Murphy started an antiques business, and he has a secure family home life. Mueller seems the most intense; less loquacious, but eager to chime in on what matters. And Campbell, though he doesn't like to be though of as a "studio musician", has the easygoing music-first demeanor of a veteran player.
So, the question follows, was this album easier than Grave Dancers, consequently, or difficult in different ways?
"Difficult in different ways," Murphy quickly replies. Though the basic tracks came quickly, with live takes on 22 songs finished in a week, he explains, "we just had to decide what kind of record we wanted to make, what we wanted to put out on the records, out of the 22."
"Out of about 20 demos," Mueller adds.
And, on top of that, Dave had "10 more from that tape of Baltimore," says Murphy. "Dave was living in Baltimore for a few months," he explains. "The Baltimore shit was pretty out there à 'Caged Rat' and '(Don't Get my) Hopes Up'. 'Caged Rat' sounds more like a song [now]; it didn't when we started."
"It was pretty all-over-the-place," Pirner explains of this particular home studio session. "I have a pretty broad interest in what I like to do, so to get 'Caged Rat' on [the album], that's a real coup for me."
Though the question isn't specifically raised, one can sense the tension that comes with following a million-selling record.
"I think it's really self-conscious to figure out what you want your record to sound like before you make it," says Murphy. "We had ideas à"
"But a lot of them changed once we got in there," Mueller finishes.
"Yeah," says Murphy, "you've just got to let it fly."
Sure, why not? After all, the last time they pulled out their wild card, the result was the softer, more mature Grave Dancers.
"We stopped rehearsing one day," Pirner explains. "And I said 'I wanna practice without mics and without electricity, see what that's like.' So we just got two acoustic guitars and started playing in the basement. Because everything is twice removed through amps and electricity. So we practiced that way and it was a real revelation, everybody could hear everybody else. Before that, it was just this dull roar, super fucking loud in these tiny rooms. Nobody even knew what anybody else was playing."
"It kind of came back the other way this time," Pirner adds. "Now we're using the demo process to hear the songs, and I'm not so focused on acoustic guitar."
"That was something I think Butch brought to this record," says Murphy of the man who delivered those stellar peaks to Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins (among others). "Because we've all heard recorded guitars ad nauseam, so we thought 'we'll get an orchestra' and all this stuff, and he was like 'nah, nah, you don't want to do that.'"
"We had to give Butch a lot of shit," says Pirner about the decision to work with the producer. Though the band had known the producer, based in Madison, Wisconsin (not far from Minneapolis, and coincidentally where Murphy went to college) for some time, Dave continues, "Butch wasn't giving me any straight answers on what we should do. He was like 'You guys should go be Soul Asylum,' and I was like 'yeah, but you work with all these bands à' just giving him the hardest time. 'No, you just make music and try to make it sound good, Dave' 'C'mon, Butch, what's your secret?'"
"Every producer's got a vibe," Pirner explains, "that's what producer does, try and generate a vibe. And we've had really extreme personalities in the past." Yes, in fact, if you look through the stacks, you'll see that Soul Asylum, unlike most bands, has almost never worked with the same production team twice.
"We've never really felt comfortable," Murphy admits. "It's always been strenuous emotionally or musically, or we just weren't happy with the [last] record." Still, he adds, "Every time you work with a different producer you get a little more acquainted with what the options are, because they all have different ways of doing things."
"We've tried everything every different way," says Pirner, "and now we know how to get the right results, and it's really time-consuming."
Consequently, Let Your Dim Light Shine is a result of four months of six or seven-day weeks. "A lot of that is really dumb work," Murphy explains. "Sitting and playing a barre chord that's going to be in tune à That's what separates a great-sounding records from an OK-sounding record."
"We went in pretty under-rehearsed, too" the guitarist confesses. "In kind of a good way, a lot of learning went on in the studio. The first couple times you play something and it sounds good, all of a sudden there's this discovery, 'that's how the song goes.' I think it's good to have that be while the tape's running. We used to go into records really, really rehearsed. And I guess in hindsight that's not such a great idea."
"It's just a lot simpler now," says Pirner. "I think I can present songs to the band that make sense, and there's not a whole lot of intellectualizing that you have to do about it, just play the song. 'Cause I figure if I can't explain something to the band in less than half an hour, then it's too complicated an idea for a song."
On the subject of songwriting, Pirner returns to another interesting item about the last record. "When I was 'shopping the demos' for Grave Dancers," he says, making bunny-ear quote marks over his head, "I was going to all these different record labels, playing it for people, and they'd all listen to the first three songs - we'd recorded it all acoustically- and say, 'So, you guys want to make a down record.' What do you mean a 'down' record? It sounded to them like we had this concept where we were going to change our sound and make an introspective, acoustic record. It was so irritating."
Speaking of a 'down' record, one could arguably say the same thing about Dim Light, judging not by the music so much as the lyrics. Just look at the song titles: "Misery", "Promises Broken", "Bittersweetheart", "Nothing To Write Home About" - a track that was left off was even called "Shoulda Stayed In bed All Day." That sounds like a pretty 'down' collection.
"They're not though, man," Dave shoots back, "they're glib. If you really want to over-analyze the material, you can sit there and say 'there's a certain existential thing going on here,' but to me it's kind of a revelatory thing where you go 'this irritates me so much that it makes me laugh,' and you turn it into a rhyme, like nah nah nah nah, and then the joke's not on me. Everybody goes 'this song's called "Misery," it's a sad song à 'The funny thing is I had a song called 'Happy,' and it was the most musically annoying, dissonant song I could come up with. So I wrote this song called 'Misery,' and you listen to the music and it's this fun song. That's the irony of it for me."
"That always bugged me about someone like Leonard Cohen," he continues, "people always go 'It's too depressing,' and when I listen to Leonard Cohen I think it's fucking hysterical, because the way he commands the language, you can hear all this sarcasm and irony and deep emotions that he turns into words. It's fun to listen to for me."
"Happy shit, man, nobody fucking digs it, especially coming from me. Like, on 'Bittersweetheart', I tried to write an up-tempo song and I was getting this notion from people, 'It's kinda drippy, Dave.' C'mon dudes, I'm just trying to write something happy. And then I'll do this kind of dark joke, black humor, and everybody goes, 'that sounds a little more appropriate.' C'mon, man, it's a happy record, I'm telling you, an 'up with the people' kind of vibe."
Ok, now I get it. Still, it does seem like Pirner will try and sneak in a social message here and there, like in the new "String Of Pearls" ("That's a fairy tale," says Dave), which might remind you of "Runaway Train.
"It's just a song," says Pirner, dismissing the issue. "And yeah, it makes me fucking laugh that it's the most depressing song I've ever wrote and it also happens to be the most popular. To me that's weird, that's what people happen to identify with."
Still harping on the "depressing" issue, Pirner points out that Murphy's song contribution, "Promises Broken," is "the depressing song.
"Me and Murph sit around and sayà"
"Who can write the most depressing song?" Murphy finishes. Actually, that song, cowritten with the Jayhawks' Marc Perlman, brings up another interesting facet of Soul Asylum, the relentless pursuit of collaborative side projects and songwriting: Mike Watt, Victoria Williams, Brenda Kahn, even Murphy's Golden Smog, a band with various members of the Jayhawks, Wilco and Run Westy Run, which at one time featured drums by Pirner.
"I think everything you learn about music is pretty much interaction with other people," says Pirner, "so any time you can sit down with someone else and play guitar, it's a good influence."
"Definitely," says Murphy. "Plus, when you're playing on somebody else's record, your responsibility level isn't nearly what it is on your record. It's relaxing - no expectations."
Pirner also collaborated with outside songwriters for two of the album's new songs (one with Steve Jordan, producer of The Horse They Rode In On). Though that's not unusual, it is a new thing to see on a Soul Asylum record. Perhaps the most interesting collaboration, though, was one at one of Soul Asylum's warm-up shows before Dim Light's release, when Bruce Springsteen (who they'd met before) showed up at a New York gig and played "Tracks Of My Tears" with the band. "Literally five minutes before we were going on," says Murphy, "he came downstairs, grabbed a guitar and saw of he could remember the verses à"
"It's so reassuring for me to run into people like that," Pirner says with sincerity, "because I feel like, 'Oh, I can do this for awhile, it's not this tragic situation where I have to OD before I'm 27.' I see these guys, like when we toured with Keith Richards, and they're doing the same shit I'm doing, just having fun. I was talking to Bruce on the phone and 'hey, you think I should work with Butch?' and I thought, 'Wait, I'm giving the Boss career advice?' It's just reassuring to see that people can have a life and make music. Because it sometimes doesn't seem that possible."
Having seen the music industry work both for and against it, Soul Asylum seems to have a comfortable perspective now for what's important. "I think if you write a good song," Dan Murphy says, "you've pretty much done your work. That's what we try to emphasize, it's not really about mystique or anything, just about songs, what we're really focusing on. A lot of people get caught into technology, snare sounds à"
"Super-yawn," says Dave Pirner in his best Midwestern surfer dialect. "Or you focus on yourself as a player, which is the biggest crock of utter shit. Once you start featuring somebody's playing as better than the average hack sort of stuff - Who cares?
"We've gotten over our musical pretensions," he continues. "I think we've tried everything there is to try, and you kind of settle on something that feels good."
Back to articles
Back to Main Page