Soul Asylum's Dan Murphy thinks the band is making the best music it's ever made--and wonders if it's worth it anymore
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?
Murphy: I think it's real tough . What do you do? You quit reading the press, that's one option. Or you kind of wage a war against everybody. I think when people are as familiar with your history as they are with ours—mostly just journalists, not the music fans; most of them don't know our history-it gets to the point that they have this perception about what you should be doing because you were important to them seven or eight years ago when you weren't important to anyone else. "I was listening to you in Lincoln, Nebraska, working in the college paper, and it meant so much to me. How dare you guys sell records and be on MTV?" You get that whole battle. I kind of thought we had won it, when that last record came out, but then this record comes out and I'm reading so much about the past.
Everybody wants to live in the past, and I've been through that shit, and it wasn't that good. We were a pretty mediocre band a lot of the time. There were a couple good moments on those records, but it ain't that great. It was a learning experience. But you sell a few records, and people's perception of what you're trying to do changes. You haven't really changed; you're just trying to make music. I guess we should have known it would happen. The only band everybody seems to love forever is R.E.M.
CP: The backlash is interesting. It's as though everybody wanted to think it was one, big, happy family until the hit record, and then you take a bite from the apple and fall from grace.
Murphy: If Disney was going to make a movie about a punk rock band, they'd be all from the same school, they'd grow up together, and then some big, evil, corporate machine would get their hands on them and they'd fire their longtime drummer, sell lots of records, and the singer would dump his longtime girlfriend. That's what people like. It sounds like a Montel Williams episode. Bur nothing could be further from the truth; we'd been fighting with Grant from day one, from record one. The way I look at it, he got an incredible deal out of the whole thing. He got a cash settlement, he got paid for this record and the last record. Plus, I think when people start speculating a bout private lives, that's ridiculous.
CP: And you'd been together eight years-plus when you had your first hit record. You'd already been through a lot of shit and a certain amount of estrangement from each other.
Murphy: Yeah . [Bassist] Karl [Mueller]'s had his darker times, and I've had years where I wasn't into doing this. Dave's kind of been the rock of the band, weird as that may sound. He's been the one who put his best foot forward, and he never pissed and moaned during the lean years about how we should be doing better. He was a trooper about it . He kept us together for all those tours-sleeping on people's floors, dealing with broken-down vans. To think we should want to go back and do it again is absurd.
CP: It's got to be a be a lot more fun at some basic level to know that a few million people are getting off on this song or this record, as opposed to a few thousand.
Murphy: That's the whole "Runaway Train" thing. I just can't believe that people expect us to be embarrassed about that song, and not to put it in our sets. I mean, why? It's kind of an no-win thing. If you have a hit, you lose your validity or whatever. To me, it's kind of comical. Because it's still what it is—a well-written song that people seemed to identify with.
CP: It's kind of ironic you're dealing with this reaction now, because prior to making the hit record it looked like Soul Asylum might be through, and you all might have to find something else to do with your lives. How did you deal with that time?
Murphy: It had gotten kind of miserable, so I thought I probably wouldn't miss it that much. I guess we'd been ignored for about four years, and you begin to think that you're being ignored for a reason. We were filled with so much self-doubt that it was almost impossible to function. We could still draw 600 people at the Cabooze, and that was our big, bust-our-nuts gig, to play the Cabooze every four months. And all of our contemporaries had gone on and punk rock was starting to happen again. It was pretty devastating personally. But it made making the demos for Grave Dancers fun. We didn't have a record deal or an agenda at all. We just got up and made music. Were getting along and laughing and recording shit that sounded really good.
CP: Did going through that time make it easier to deal with success when it finally came along?
Murphy: It was easy to deal with because we felt like we deserved it. And when the record started to get successful, we were so fucking busy with endless tours. It was an ongoing thing. It was a pretty humbling experience in some ways; we were opening for Spin Doctors when the record broke, so no matter how cool we thought we were, we still had to listen to that at the end of the night. So it never really went to our heads.
CP: How have the last couple of years changed things for you personally?
Murphy: I don't get a chance to be home much. That's devastating. It's amazing how little semblance of a social life or private life you have. It's so much getting bugged by people—it's just the work, and the phone. You come home and there's 20 messages, and you know you need to take a lot of them. It's like having a job. Which is ironic, considering the nature of the band. The whole situation is different. Now if you decide to change your plans, it affects a lot of people. We employ a lot of people about 20. And a lot of them have kids. That's a frightening thought. It changes; it's higher stakes. You have to keep up or fuck up.
CP: There's been this notion floating around that Soul Asylum might have ceased to exist if it weren't for this kind of dynamic tension between Dave—the guy who's kind of a bare wire—and you, the more grounded, business-like one.
Murphy: I think Dave has more patience than I do. I'm the guy that's like, "Fuck this, I'm outta here." If I don't like a country, I have a hard time playing the show. If I don't like the press or the food in England, I think, fuck it. I'm that kind of guy. And that's a bad thing. But Dave's like, "A show's a show. He considers himself fortunate to be a musician.
CP: Like he feels some debt to the audience.
Murphy: Yeah. I think he realizes that people going to the shows at our level, that's a pretty serious obligation; you gotta get there and wait in line to get tickets because it might be sold out. You know, if you owe anything to anybody, it's to those people.
I don't think Dave takes business things very seriously, like photo ops and press ops, but I think musically, in terms of the show and the band and the songwriting, he's a careerist in a good way. He works really hard at writing songs. He has a real constructive healthy attitude, it's not like having a tyrant or prima donna at all. It's real open. He takes criticism well. He really carries his weight.
CP: What do you see in the future for Soul Asylum?
Murphy: Sometimes it feels like it's falling apart again. It's real fragmented right now, in terms of what the plan is. We don't have one. We're putting together a tour for this summer, and Dave and I have argued about who should be on the bill, how long they should play. But I think we're going to tour through the summer, and I'm sure we'll make another record, and then from there...
At a certain point, you wonder if it's worth it. You just want to go play shows and not deal with it. Or not play shows and not deal with it. It just feels like we've been fighting with everybody for 12 years and we're kind of sick of it. I guess we thought we were out of the woods, but no.
CP: How's it been internally?
Murphy: I think for Dave it's been hard, to be seeing someone who's famous. And it's a real relationship. I think his girlfriend feels bad for the band and thinks she's no good for our careers. All the things you should never have to worry about becomes an issue. I think it's embarrassing for Dave and Winona.
It's frustrating for the band because we've always had this mentality that we weren't fleecing people; we were what we were. We didn't try to have an image. And we still try to be that way. You go out and try to play a show and it sounds great and people are like, "Holy shit, this is a real band." And you can see that it moves them.
That part is good, but I don't know. If we ever start to question our motivation, we're in big trouble. And I think we are at that point. We want to have records that are successful enough that we can maintain—pay our bills, tour, maybe have a bus in stead of a van. It's all these little things we think about—the whole struggle to maintain your credibility, it's a worthwhile struggle, but after a while, you lose. I think it's over. We've lost.
CP: You've lost?
Murphy: I think so. Because our records don't sound like our old records, and they're not made for the budgets of our old records, and people buy our records now, and people that are 14 come to see the band, and we don't have the same drummer—all of these things. Like I saw in the paper, this picture of Dave with the caption "pre-sellout Dave Pirner." What in the fuck is that?
I don't think we're up for it anymore. It used to be a real righteous cause, to defend yourself, and I just think that period's over. Fuck people, just fuck 'em. I mean, how would Rancid have found out about the Sex Pistols if they were on fucking Buttmunch records in Chico, California, if that was all that exposure they'd gotten. A lot of it is about exposure." I've just been through too much shit to deal with that. The band's been through too much shit.
It's easy to say, "Well, this doesn't affect me," but it hurts your feelings. And kind of breaks your spirit, in a way. You think of people who've had a music career and have been able to pull it off, and they're few and far between. Like R.E.M., the Boss, James Brown—there are some people who can do it but it's like some people don't want you to grow or become something other than what they want you to become, and that gets to be real boring.
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