By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
In the beginning it was Dan Murphy's band, and a kid named Dave Pirner was tring to cut it as a drummer. But that was a long time ago—12 years and six albums, to be precise: before "Runaway Train" and the meeting with the president; before the paparazzi shots of Dave and Winona and the firing of longtime drummer Grant Young; before the platinum records and before the backlash.
Actually, Soul Asylum's day in the sun almost didn't happen. After their fourth album, ...and the Horse They Rode in On, stiffed in 1990, the band found itself caught in a bad relationship with A&M Records and figuring it might be time to look for day jobs. After six months of tortuous back and forth with the label, they were finally allowed to shop themselves around. They landed at Columbia ("partly," notes Murphy, "because [label exec] Danny Ienner's kid liked us, and he thought we were bigger than we were. I think he was dumbfounded later when he found out we'd only sold 35, 000 copies of our last record"), and the rest—well, you know.
So this is a happy story, right? No. Not today anyway. When I met Murphy at a Minneapolis bar to talk about the band's new record, Let Your Dim Light Shine, he's disgusted with the backlash against the band—fueled by the hit records, the Winona connection, and Young firing—and fantasizing about packing it all in. "You can't worry about everything you read or hear," he sighs, "but it gets to the point that if this is what people think we're about, it's just... embarrassing.'"
City Pages: After Grave Dancers Union came out, you talked about what an arduous process it was to make that record with all the personal tensions and the professional instability the band was enduring then. Was it easier this time?
Dan Murphy: It was easier in the sense that musically, we were more together. On the last record, I think it was tough on [former SA drummer] Grant [Young], which made it tough on everybody. It was a hurdle we couldn't get over as a band. The first two weeks we were fighting and were trying to get drum tracks down and that's kind of how the record started. It was brutal.
This time it was a different setting, but it's still tough. When you write songs, you're really attached to them, and you want them to be better than you can make them. We spent four months trying to outdo each other and outdo ourselves. Toward the end everybody was just crazy—we didn't sleep, we got way behind, we had three studios going at the same time. But I think that's a good atmosphere for making records. If you get really comfortable and complacent, you make a Paul Simon record or something.
CP: Let me just toss out a thought and get your reaction. Through the years it's always seemed to me that the songs Dave wrote, and the band's sensibility in general, never quite meshed with the alternative-rock mindset—which has a lot to do with irony and distance and a certain kind of cynicism that says the world is screwed anyway, so goof on it or rage at it, but don't get too attached to anything in it. It always seemed that Soul Asylum was largely about seeking out connections.
Murphy: Something to believe in, or whatever. It's been pretty well-chronicled, but this band's always been out of place and out of time, and it hasn't really changed . It's so weird to compare yourself to what's happening in the current of music because most of it-bands like Green Day and Offspring, it's a freak of nature that 10 million people found out about the bands and bought their records. It's almost impossible to gauge public perception, so we don't even bother to try. I think if a song is really good, it's a timeless thing. It doesn't matter what the snare drum sounds like on it, or who produced it. It just works as a song. And hopefully in a couple of years, someone will put on "Runaway Train" or one of those other songs and say, "That still sounds pretty good.·
I think Dave has gotten more optimistic a time has gone on. I think he wants to find solutions to the things he keeps writing songs about. It's not like, "I'm going to piss and moan about not finding anything that appeals to me." You get tired of that after about four records. Doesn't everyone want to be happy at some point? It might not be good for your art, bur it's something that you still would long for as a human being. You want to be accepted, to be cared for, to have things out there that you can relate to.
CP: As the band has become more successful, Dave bas been the lightning rod for a lot of attention, flattering and not so flattering. What's your sense of how he's handled that? And has his being out front made things harder or easier for you?