It’s one of my strongest musical memories: driving through St. Paul in January 1993 in our family’s red-and-white Dodge Ram van, wearing my St. Agnes High School letter jacket. The sun was shining brightly and it was an unusually warm day, warm enough that I actually had the windows rolled down, and the radio was blasting Soul Asylum’s “Runaway Train.” I was heading off to college on the east coast that fall, and I was very excited and a little scared. Needless to say, the song sounded like it had been written just for me.
I bought the CD, Grave Dancers Union, and listened to it approximately a million times. I wasn’t the kind of kid who went to a lot of live shows, so I knew Soul Asylum were from Minnesota in the sense that I knew Scotch tape was from Minnesota: a cool fact, but not particularly relevant. My younger sister was much more in tune with the alt-rock scene, and after I fell in love with Grave Dancers Union I dubbed her cassette of Soul Asylum’s immediately preceding release, And the Horse They Rode In On. When I pressed play, my speakers roared with a clamorous thunder and I thought, “Whoa. I don’t think I’m ready for this yet.”
In the history of Minnesota music, Soul Asylum occupy a strangely slippery place. They made one of the biggest albums ever to come out of Minnesota—bigger than anything not made by Prince, Bob Dylan, or Next; and far bigger than anything made by the Replacements or Hüsker Dü—and they were hardly an overnight sensation, having paid their dues with several albums and hundreds of shows by the time they broke through to mainstream success. Yet, when the story of Minnesota alt rock in the 80s is told, very often it’s told as if the scene was a duopoly between Hüsker Dü and the ‘Mats. Whatever the reason for that omission, it’s high time to correct it.
Soul Asylum started in 1981 as a group called Loud Fast Rules featuring Dan Murphy, Karl Mueller, and Dave Pirner. Originally the group’s drummer, Pirner took the helm at guitar and vocals in 1983 as Pat Morley assumed duties on the drum kit and the group officially became Soul Asylum. The group were integral to the Minnesota indie rock scene throughout the 80s, steadily gaining fame and releasing their first records on Twin/Tone—the local label that had also been home to the Replacements and the Suburbs. Bob Mould produced Soul Asylum’s first Twin/Tone releases, and a 1985 tour with Mould’s band Hüsker Dü helped bring Soul Asylum to national attention.
The underdogs-among-underdogs mythology had already begun to take hold. A satirical article written by Steve Albini for Matter Magazine in 1984 put the purportedly deceased members of Soul Asylum on trial for eternal salvation or damnation. Despite the best efforts of the group’s attorney (“Soul Asylum were a fast, tight rock band. They were everything you could want in a band—friendly, approachable, expert musicians with an ear for the beat of the heart and an eye for the real us inside all of us”), Soul Asylum still end up damned. After extenuating circumstances are raised, though—the Replacements’ media coverage, the Suburbs’ major label deal, the “lovely things” Prince has done—Soul Asylum win a neutral judgement and are returned to Earth (specifically, to the CC Club) to continue their quest for glory.
Soul Asylum did earn their own major-label deal—signing with A&M and releasing two records, the first of which (Hang Time, 1988) “was arguably the group’s finest album,” according to AllMusic. Despite success on college radio, the records failed to take off and the label dropped the group. Pirner was struggling with hearing issues, and to some, it looked like the end of the line for Soul Asylum.
But wait—there’s more. Pirner and Murphy toured as an acoustic duo and worked up new material, which became the basis for their Columbia debut Grave Dancers Union (1992). Finally, Soul Asylum had the right music in the right place at the right time: after Nirvana’s breakthrough, alt rock wasn’t “alt” any more, it was mainstream. Crisply produced by Michael Beinhorn—who had previously worked with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Violent Femmes—Grave Dancers Union went triple platinum on the strength of modern-rock hits “Somebody to Shove” and “Black Gold” and especially “Runaway Train.” The third single to be released from the album, “Runaway Train” hit number five on the Hot 100 and suddenly, Soul Asylum were rock stars by anyone’s definition.
A follow-up at that level of chart success, however, wasn’t to be. 1995’s Let Your Dim Light Shine was produced by Butch Vig—the producer of Nevermind itself—but didn’t blow up like Grave Dancers Union had, though the top-20 hit “Misery” ultimately earned Soul Asylum entry into the elite club of artists with “Weird Al” Yankovic parodies when Yankovic remade it as “Syndicated Inc.” in 1996. When 1998’s Candy From a Stranger proved a commercial and critical disappointment, the band’s Columbia career came to an end.
You can’t keep a good band down, though, and after a hiatus—Murphy played with supergroup Golden Smog, while Pirner released his solo debut Faces & Names in 2002—the band reconvened and headed back into the studio with new drummer Michael Bland, best known for his work with Prince. During those sessions, tragedy struck when bassist Mueller was diagnosed with throat cancer, which took his life in 2005. The band ultimately completed their new album, The Silver Lining, with an assist from the Replacements’ bassist Tommy Stinson.
A follow-up, Delayed Reaction, was released in 2012; following its release, Murphy decided to step away from the band, leaving Pirner as the sole founding member. Pirner continues to rock on, solo and with the band; he’ll be at the Dakota on March 7 as part of the American Roots Revue, and Soul Asylum is part of the lineup for this spring’s popular Memphis in May festival.
Soul Asylum were, and are, an essential Minnesota band. In the 80s they tore their way through town, part of the legendary local scene that’s often cited as the birthplace of the alt rock boom that helped define music in the 90s. As their peers the Replacements and Hüsker Dü flamed out, Soul Asylum survived and thrived to become part of that boom: the most direct bridge between what was happening in Minneapolis basements in the 80s and what then happened in stadiums around the world in the 90s.
If all you know of Soul Asylum is the occasional karaoke version of “Runaway Train,” do yourself a favor and give a spin to Hang Time—or go see Soul Asylum perform live. Soul Asylum are still there for you, and for me—when we’re ready for them.
Previous artists of the month
January 2013: Andrea Swensson on Dan Wilson
February 2013: Barb Abney on Low
March 2013: David Campbell on 12 Rods
April 2013: Bill DeVille on the Jayhawks
May 2013: Lindsay Kimball on the Hopefuls
June 2013: Steve Seel on the Hang Ups
July 2013: Jon Schober on the Soviettes
August 2013: Mark Wheat on the Suburbs
September 2013: Mac Wilson on the Replacements
October 2013: Walt Dizzo on Charlie Parr
November 2013: Andrea Swensson on Information Society
December 2013: Andrea Swensson on Sounds of Blackness
January 2014: Jay Gabler on Lookbook
March 2014: Jim McGuinn on Jeremy Messersmith
April 2014: Ali Lozoff on Lifter Puller
May 2014: Mark Wheat on Atmosphere
July 2014: Jay Gabler on Prince
September 2014: Bill DeVille on Trampled By Turtles
October 2014: The Current staff on Bob Dylan
November 2014: Mark Wheat on Cloud Cult
December 2014: Barb Abney on Doomtree
January 2015: Matt Perkins on Motion City Soundtrack