Long before Soul Asylum struck platinum in 1993 with the prom-rock ballad “Runaway Train,” the band was growing up in public in the shadow of fellow Minneapolis bands the Replacements and Hüsker Dü, playing its own brand of high-octane, punk-influenced rock.
For the fans who missed the band’s early years – or those who need a refresher – Omnivore Recordings will release expanded and remastered versions of the band’s first two albums, 1984’s Say What You Will… Everything Can Happen and 1986’s Made To Be Broken (both originally released by Twin/Tone Records) on July 20.
For frontman Dave Pirner, who is touring this summer with a reconstituted version of Soul Asylum, looking back at the band’s early recordings brings mixed emotions. “I listened to them so much it was exhausting,” he says. “It’s like reliving your whole teens and twenties again.”
While digging up tapes for the albums’ bonus tracks, Pirner says he had a sense of déjà vu, sometimes remembering the time and place where the song that didn’t make the album was recorded, only to later disappear. “I don’t want to feel too nostalgic about it, but I think it shows who we are and where we came from and that we’ve been around for a long time working on this thing,” Pirner says.
While he does have some fond memories of the early days, Pirner doesn’t sugar coat the band’s past. “We were going into the hardcore thing,” he recalls. “Our contemporaries were Black Flag and the Butthole Surfers. It was very do-it-yourself and brutal. It wasn’t glamorous or easy. We were living like animals, sleeping in crazy people’s houses, living in a van. It built a lot of character or characters.”
When Pirner first listened back to the early records his initial reaction was “absolute embarrassment,” he says. “I was trying to stay true to the aesthetic, but at the same time, I hadn’t figured out how to sing yet or tune our guitars.” The outtakes featured in the bonus tracks were even worse, but Pirner was convinced to release the material by Peter Jesperson, the one-time co-founder of Twin/Tone Records who originally signed the band, and co-producer of the reissues, along with Ominvore co-founder Cheryl Pawelski. “He was very nurturing,” Pirner says. “He talked us out of the embarrassing part of it and convinced us it was a historical document or something and there was not a real reason to hide it anymore.”
It was Jesperson who signed Soul Asylum to Twin/Tone in 1984. Pirner still remembers the night it happened, when the band was opening for the Replacements at a gig in Wisconsin. “We were absolutely thrilled,” he recalls. “We thought we finally made it. I remember getting the news after we played.”
Not long after, Hüsker Dü singer/guitarist Bob Mould signed on – or more accurately – volunteered to produce the band’s first album. “I remember hanging out at Oar Folk [the famed Minneapolis record store that Jesperson once managed] and Bob came up to me and said, ‘Who’s producing?’ I said, ‘What’s a producer?’ I didn’t even know what the term meant or understand what it entailed. Bob said, ‘I want to produce’ and everyone was into it.”
Pirner says that Mould and Hüsker Dü were “an important part of the band’s evolution,” not only serving as the producer of the band’s first two albums, but inviting Soul Asylum to open for the Hüskers, allowing Pirner to quit his job as a fry cook.
The bonus material on Say What You Will has songs recorded under the band’s original name Loud Fast Rules, and alter-ego Proud Crass Fools. The former moniker was dropped after Pirner and company realized it was too one-dimensional to represent the band’s evolving sound. “I never wanted to get pigeonholed into that. Everything has to be a million miles an hour and two-minutes long, though I’m sure we had a few songs like that,” he says. As for the latter, Pirner doesn’t remember specifically, but thinks it was adopted because the band was in the process of changing its name, or it used the moniker when it was doing covers, such as the version of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising,” included as a bonus track.
While Say What You Will does include plenty of Soul Asylum’s rip-roaring, two-guitar assault, even in the earliest days, the band showed signs of branching out. As Robert Vodicka, the author of the liner notes of the reissue, astutely points out, “Stranger,” which features Pirner blowing saxophone, is a forerunner to “Runaway Train,” an assessment that Pirner agrees with.
Pirner’s entry into music was in third grade, playing trumpet in a school band. His foray into the world of punk rock came in a band called the Shitz in which he sang and played guitar. “It was very punk rock,” he says. “We really didn’t know how to play. The songs were like, ‘Screw, screw, screw. Is all I wanna do.’ We were very Ramones.” His new friends and future bandmates, bassist Karl Mueller and guitarist Dan Murphy, went to a different high school. “Karl was dating a girl from my high school,” Pirner recalls. “Karl and Danny went to England. Karl came back with a leather jacket and went to all the clubs while they were there, so they have a lot of stories about the British punk rock scene…Karl just seemed like the coolest fucking punk rocker in town. It was a very Sid Vicious type of situation. He wanted to be in a band, but when we met, he really hadn’t started playing yet. Danny kind of nursed him on the bass and he became a bass player.”
By the time the band got around to making its second album, Mould was back in the producer’s chair and original drummer Pat Morley had been replaced by Grant Young, but that wasn’t the only change. When Morley left the band for rehab, there were fears that Soul Asylum was finished, but the break turned out to be a blessing. “I had a period of time to write way too many songs,” Pirner recalls. “Made to Be Broken was radically different and I honestly think that’s because we played so much and practiced so much and it was evident. We really worked hard to make the songs what they are. It was very different than the first record and it was a huge step for us. And people noticed. It was like, ‘What the hell is this? Who are these guys?’ So there was a point of reckoning, which was nice. We hadn’t quite been recognized after the first record, but by Made to be Broken it was like, ‘These guys aren’t fucking around.'”
The band went on to record one more album for Twin/Tone, While You Were Out, before recording two albums for A&M Records, where it continued to build a following at college radio and the underground scene. It was after the band split from A&M and was picked up by Columbia A&R executive Benjie Gordon that Soul Asylum experienced its greatest success with the 1992 album Grave Dancers Union, featuring the Billboard Hot 100 top 5 hit “Runaway Train.”
But with the massive success came a new set of struggles. Young was given the boot, replaced by studio pro Sterling Campbell, who actually played on much of Grave Dancers Union.
Soul Asylum rolled on, but was unable to duplicate its massive commercial success. In 2005, Mueller died from throat cancer. He was replaced on a temporary basis by former Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson, while one-time Prince drummer Michael Bland rounded out the lineup and remains in the band. In 2012, Murphy opted to hang it up.
While Pirner continues to lead a new version of Soul Asylum (featuring guitarist Ryan Smith and bassist Winston Roye), he admits that there was something magical about the band’s core trio of he, Murphy and Mueller. “It was kind of like the three musketeers of the local punk rock scene trying to make something out of themselves,” he says. “We had an amazing amount of blind ambition. We didn’t give a fuck about anything, but those things don’t last forever.”
Soul Asylum live dates
(Tied to the Tracks Tour is in support of the reissues)
(Rock & Roll Express dates feature Collective Soul and Three Doors Down.)
June 22 Power Plant Live – Kansas City, MO – Tied To The Tracks Tour
July 6 Chastain Park Amphitheatre – Atlanta, GA – The Rock & Roll Express Tour
July 7 Dailey’s Place – Jacksonville, FL – The Rock & Roll Express Tour
July 10 Mizner Park Amphitheatre – Baco Raton, FL – The Rock & Roll Express Tour
July 11 Al Lang Stadium – Tampa, FL – The Rock & Roll Express Tour
July 13 Oak Mountain Amphitheatre – Pelham, AL – The Rock & Roll Express Tour
July 14 Mississippi Coast Coliseum – Biloxi, MS – The Rock & Roll Express Tour
July 15 Cynthia Woodlands Mitchel Pavilion – Houston, TX – The Rock & Roll Express Tour
July 17 The Pavilion @ Irving Music Factory – Irving, TX – The Rock & Roll Express Tour
July 18 HEB Center @ Cedar Park – Cedar Park, TX – The Rock & Roll Express Tour
July 20 Zoo Amphitheatre – Oklahoma City, OK – The Rock & Roll Express Tour
July 21 Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre – Maryland Heights, MO – The Rock & Roll Express Tour
July 24 Huntington Bank Pavilion – Chicago, IL – The Rock & Roll Express Tour
July 26 Armory – Minneapolis, MN – The Rock & Roll Express Tour
July 26 Washington County Fair – West Bend, WI – The Rock & Roll Express Tour
July 31 All American Rock House – Findlay, OH – Tied To The Tracks Tour
August 4 Wings Stadium – Kalamazoo, MI – The Rock & Roll Express Tour
August 7 Michigan Lottery Amphitheatre – Sterling Heights, MI – The Rock & Roll Express Tour
August 9 Cowboy Coast Saloon – Ocean City, MD Tied To The Tracks Tour
August 10 Bank of NH Pavilion – Guilford, NH – The Rock & Roll Express Tour
August 11 PNC Bank Arts Center – Holmdel, NJ – The Rock & Roll Express Tour
August 14 The Pennysaver Amphitheatre – Brookhaven, NY – The Rock & Roll Express Tour
August 16 PInz – Kingston, MA – Tied To The Tracks Tour
August 17 Penns Peak – Jim Thorpe, PA – Tied To The Tracks Tour with Fuel
August 18 Club XL – Harrisburg, PA – Tied To The Tracks Tour
August 21 Stage at the Bay – Savannah, GA – Tied To The Tracks Tour with Fuel
August 22 White Oak Amphitheatre – Greensboro, NC – The Rock & Roll Express Tour
August 24 Ascend Amphitheatre – Nashville, TN – The Rock & Roll Express Tour
August 25 Heritage Park Amphitheatre – Simpsonville, SC – The Rock & Roll Express Tour