Above: Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum. Photo credit: Tony Nelson
In 1981 Dave Pirner began punk rockers Loud Fast Rules with high school friends Karl Mueller and Dan Murphy, playing drums in a power trio that would evolve in a couple years into alt-rockers Soul Asylum. Mueller died of cancer in 2004 and Murphy left the band on less than amicable terms in 2012.
Soul Asylum released three more albums (2012’s Delayed Reaction, 2016’s Change of Fortune, 2020’s Hurry Up and Wait) in the intervening years, and toured behind a reworked lineup featuring Pirner as the only original member. Billy Joe Shaver wrote a song, “It’s Hard To Be An Outlaw When You’re No Longer Wanted,” and it’s an apt epitaph for any creative artist, but especially one that once rode the “Teen Spirit” expressway carved out in rock radio by Nirvana.
If you’re not familiar with Soul Asylum’s 1993 hit track, “Runaway Train,” it’s only because you weren’t watching MTV or listening to the radio. It was popular not just in America, where it topped out at #2 on the pop charts and #3 on the rock charts, but internationally. It played globally, finishing #1 or #2 in Canada, Sweden, Switzerland and New Zealand. They were suddenly, a decade in, one of the biggest artists in the world.
The song was actually the third single from 1992’s Grave Dancer’s Union, following “Somebody To Shove,” which went to #1 on Modern Rock radio, and “Black Gold,” which hit #6 on Modern Radio, and went higher, to #4 on Mainstream Rock. “Runaway Train” pushed Soul Asylum into every format, even breaking the top 20 in Adult Contemporary. The video, which flashed the deets on missing children, helped find 21 lost kids. It won a Grammy for best song in 1994, two years after the album’s release.
While other acts might have stressed about their debut album for Columbia after A&M Records dropped them (for lackluster sales of 1988’s Hang Time and 1990’s And the Horse They Road In On), Pirner suggests they were nonplussed and free of expectations, not tortured by a desire to succeed.
“By the time we made Grave Dancers, we put out like eight records already,” Pirner says. “So that was the process to us. We didn’t really have any expectations because we were used to that.”
Needless to say it was downhill from there, though the fall was not as steep as it would be for artists whose first albums were not released as close to Nirvana’s sonic boom. Their 1995 follow-up, Let Your Dim Lights Shine, went to #6 on the album charts (higher than Grave Dancer’s Union hilariously) and still went platinum. The band scored another rock radio hit with “Misery,” a track lampooning the commodification of angst and alienation.
Their third and final album for Columbia, 1998’s Candy From a Stranger, fell to #121 on the rock charts, as modern rock radio was overrun with Creed and Limp Bizkit and the cool kids had already begun exiting rock in anticipation of the incipient Americana boom.
It’d be eight years until they released The Silver Lining after reuniting in 2004 to play tributes for Mueller’s treatment. They recorded the album with him, but the cancer returned and he died before its release.
A self-taught drummer and musician, Pirner is another musician lifer, who’d be playing one way or another regardless of fame or fortune, because it’s the way he’s found to express himself and he still loves it. That in large part speaks to why he’s still doing it while bandmates have moved along. It’s never been about money for him, and that’s why the rags to riches to rags narrative falls on deaf ears.
“I don’t let it affect me because I’ve seen the very, very bottom of the bowl, so to speak. I’ve seen it at its absolute worst,” Pirner says. “Actually I’m more familiar with that than taking a helicopter from one TV show to another in England…. We would go to Europe and do a press tour. I’m like, why aren’t we playing? All kinds of things, ridiculous is the perfect word. I don’t miss that. There was just a lot of kind of showbizzy obligations that didn’t make me happy.”
Mostly Pirner objected to the way it interfered with the show. “When you’re finishing a show at midnight, and then you’re expected to get up at seven o’clock to do the morning radio show or TV thing or whatever,” Pirner says. “You end up where the show becomes less and less of the priority, which is not not what you want. You don’t want to be burned out for your gig because you were on Good Morning Cincinnati.”
The odd and sad part of the whole long story is that Soul Asylum is playing and recording music similar to and on par with that of their heyday. Sure, they’ve traded some of the rawk for melody, but they’re still a loud swaggering rock act at a time when such creatures hardly exist. Thanks to modern technology these are exceptionally well-crafted songs, probably recorded for a small fraction of what it would have cost to do so 20 years ago. Not that this doesn’t come with its own challenges.
“Everybody in the band now fancies themselves as somewhat of a producer: Everybody’s got a home studio. Everyone’s got their opinions about what a snare drum is supposed to sound like,” Pirner laughs. “They’re just not things that I was thinking about 30 years ago, or however many years ago. You get immersed in the process and you learn more about what you’ve been doing.”
Which brings us to Hurry Up and Wait, the all-too-appropriately titled last album, which came out April 17, 2020, their supporting tour already canceled a month earlier by the coronavirus. It’s a shame because it’s the best of the last three albums, highlighted by the bittersweet, “Make Her Laugh.” The song lands halfway between the Replacements and Peter Buck’s 12-string jangle, while the verse strikes home for anyone that’s watched the humor seep from their relationship.
“Just when you think you’ve had enough // And you’re tired of tryin’ to suck it up
I know you can make her laugh // Like a child on a carnival ride
Laugh that mascara right off her eyes // And she’s walkin’ away, just give it one more try”
Pirner unabashedly admits it comes from a difficult place. “It was in the middle of what turned into my divorce,” he says. “I would be talking to this woman who is divorcing me, and if I could get her to laugh, it was a huge victory for me because nothing was funny at that point.”
Like his marriage, Pirner and company had to sadly move on, and rather than support a three-year old album, they are touring in homage to their memorable 1993 MTV Unplugged appearance which will be released for the first time as an album on April 22 in support of Record Store Day. The tour takes advantage of that to reimagine songs from their catalog.
“This gives me the opportunity to give all the songs that I’ve written since then that kind of treatment – with gospel singers, we’re gonna have strings section and we’re gonna have Ivan Neville playing keyboards, who played on the MTV thing,” Pirner says. “That’s the exciting part for me, to give songs that have not had this kind of treatment, this kind of treatment, and you never really know what is going to come out of it. Like I had no idea that ‘Somebody to Shove’ could be an acoustic song until we tried it on MTV Unplugged, and I was like, ‘holy shit.’ So it does kind of shed a whole new light on what the instrumentation could be or should be and it’s surprising and exciting. There’s a whole new discovery process going on.”
Forty years after he first got together with some friends and started this journey, Pirner’s still in a state of discovery. There’s something to be said for approaching life like you’re still learning, if we might be so fortunate.
Soul Asylum Acoustic with Mike Gent (The Figgs), Saturday, March 18, 2023. 7 p.m. door, 8 p.m. show. $37-$46. Greenwich Odeum. 59 Main St., East Greenwich; 401-885-4000, greenwichodeum.com.
Chris Parker is a freelance journalist (The Guardian, Undark, Daily Beast, Billboard) and author of the book, King James Brings The Land a Crown, about the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2016 championship. He lives in Providence.