They say once you fly first class, it's hard to go back to coach. And with the breakout hit "Runaway Train" — the 1994 Grammy Award Rock Song of the Year — Soul Asylum jumped to the front of the plane. But for Dave Pirner, the trip to first class wasn't quite so grand. These days he doesn't seem to mind riding coach.
"You're just working all the time doing a lot of things that aren't playing music," Pirner says from a Los Angeles studio, where Soul Asylum is currently recording. "We're making videos, doing photoshoots, doing meet and greets, in-stores, radio shit. All this stuff that's not making music. And that part of it feeds on itself and is necessary to do, but it keeps your head spinning where you don't want to talk about yourself anymore and you just want to play the music."
Perhaps Pirner doth protest too much. His fame undoubtedly helped land him on the radar of Winona Ryder, who has a thing for musicians (Dave Grohl, Beck, Blake Sennett, Pete Yorn). They dated for several years as the band went into steep decline. Not that it was Ryder's fault. The band simply succumbed to the trappings of success.
"It wasn't that good of a thing for the band's creative development because once you start generating that kind of cash, that's all anyone is interested in. And when it started becoming people in the band, it's like, that's not right. That's not why we're here," says Pirner. "It turned into a money thing, and it just turned me off."
Pirner's stance shouldn't surprise anyone. The band came of age during the high tide of the Minneapolis punk scene, alongside such legendary acts as Hüsker Dü and the Replacements. Their first three albums were on Twin/Tone Records, the label of the Replacements' manager Peter Jesperson. Like the 'Mats, Soul Asylum favored tuneful, crunchy, ragged guitar rock with an anthemic undercurrent.
Their last Twin/Tone album, 1986's While You Were Out, is among their finest ever, and the following major label debut, 1988's Hangtime, was even better thanks to crisper production and tightening songcraft. The next album, ...And the Horse They Road In On, wasn't as good thanks to some production choices designed to capture their estimable live power (which failed), but the slicker, more commercial Grave Dancers Union followed in 1992 and went triple-platinum.
"What led to Grave Dancers Union was spending five years almost always on the road, so at that point my bearings were just out there," he says. "I suppose there were days where I was, 'I guess it doesn't get any better than this,' and that's pretty good for me. But I was never really in my element. It wasn't something that I have ever pursued, just to think it's cool to get out of a limo onto a red carpet. I could care less."
Things started going down hill from there as Pirner and Co. embraced the life of a mainstream rock act, writing introspective ballads and watery, over-produced mid-tempo rockers. The next disc, Let Your Dim Light Shine, went platinum, but by 1998's Candy From a Stranger, it sounded like Soul Asylum was punching a clock. That would be their last album until 2006's The Silver Lining, which was hardly any better. It was a disappointing send-off for original bassist Karl Mueller who died of cancer during the album's recording.
The world probably figured this was the last they'd see of Soul Asylum, but Pirner had different ideas. Beginning in 2008, he began recording new songs. Then last summer, the band released Delayed Reaction, their best album in at least two decades. While it doesn't attempt to reprise Soul Asylum's youthful sound, the rhythms are more propulsive and the compositions much tauter sonically and lyrically.
Pirner says he approached Delayed Reaction like this could be his last album. "I set it up as a life-or-death situation just because I need the drama," he says. "It's more of a psychological thing, like every day is your last day. This has to be my greatest show because it might be my last. This has to be my greatest record ever because there is no point in making a record that's not as good as the last one."
Pirner succeeded. But the return was a little bittersweet in that it was accompanied by the news in November that founding guitarist and songwriting foil Dan Murphy had left the band. Murphy and Pirner had first played together in Loud Fast Rules, the forerunner of Soul Asylum.
"I sort of had a talk with [drummer Michael Bland] and Dan and said I don't want to be on stage with anybody who doesn't want to be there. That was kind of the last confrontation I had with the situation," Pirner says. "It made me sad when he decided to quit, but you know he's like, 'I'm too old for this shit.' And I said, 'You were pretty much too old for this shit when you turned 18.'"
Pirner enjoyed his moment, but he isn't holding onto it. These days he appears content to move on with his life and his music, as Delayed Reaction indicates. And as for that Grammy? Eh.
"It just impresses your mother or impresses your kid," he says. "I was kind of into sports when I was a kid, but I got into music because it's not supposed to be a contest. You can't really judge art well. So all that stuff about getting a trophy for art? I just see that as a little bit silly."