There are certain things Dave Pirner, the singer, songwriter and cover boy for Soul Asylum, would prefer not to discuss, especially at such an ungodly hour as one o'clock in the afternoon. So please, no questions about what it's like being seen by the tabloid press as Mr. Winona Ryder (People magazine subscribers know that the actress has been Pirner's steady for the past couple of years). And let's also avoid dissecting a recent Rolling Stone cover story, in which Pirner came across like a befuddled, occasionally belligerent Sylvia Plath. Instead, Pirner would rather do something fairly strange in this age of journalism-as-therapy-session--actually talk about music. As he puts it in a weary croak of a voice: "The perception of who the band is doesn't feel quite right to us somehow. We want to let people know who we really are--and I think the best way we can do that is to just go out and play for people."
It's not difficult to understand why Pirner feels frustrated by the public's current impression of his band (bassist Karl Mueller, drummer Sterling Campbell and guitarist Dan Murphy). The group is far from being a newcomer to the modern-rock scene: It made its first recording in 1984 and spent considerably more than half a decade earning generous reviews and no money prior to the commercial success of the 1992 disc Grave Dancer's Union. However, that breakthrough brought with it a new set of consequences. Hipsters, many of whom pointed out that the omnipresent single "Runaway Train" bore an uncomfortable resemblance to the work of Tom Petty, charged that the Asylum had softened up in order to cash in (Pirner's relationship with Ryder and the band's decision to dump longtime percussionist Grant Young in favor of studio pro Campbell were used by some to support this theory, too). Clearly, these grousers suggested, Pirner had gone Hollywood.
In some ways, Let Your Dim Light Shine, the latest Soul Asylum release, seems intended to counter this view. The subject matter of tunes such as the single "Misery" and album tracks "Bittersweet" and "Caged Rat" is notably dour; it's not the type of material you'd expect from someone reveling in the first flush of superstardom.
"I guess some people could see it as depressing," Pirner concedes. "It depends on how you look at it. To me, I've been doing this for fourteen, fifteen years now, and I don't analyze it too much. And I don't worry about what people think I should be writing songs about, either. I just go with the first thing that comes to my head. It's not like I go, `Well, I've got a nicer pen this time, so I'm going to write a different kind of song.'"
Pirner insists, "What's going on in my life at the time has never really been the focus of what I write songs about," but it doesn't take a great deal of imagination to find autobiography in numerous Dim Light ditties. "I Did My Best," in particular, comes across like a plea for understanding from a man who wishes that people could still see him as a normal guy--"Holed up in the dressing room without a dress/Kneeling at the confessional with nothing to confess/I knew all about my surprise party/I was spoiled and depressed/But I acted surprised and told lots of lies/Yes, I did my best." In many ways, the new platter is a disappointment: Even though it features strong production (by Butch Vig), good playing and singing, and plenty of catchy melodies, Pirner's attempts to be all things to all people makes it seem self-conscious and forced. But for anyone eager to poke and prod at Pirner's psyche, it's a treasure trove.
Things were simpler at the dawn of the Eighties, when Pirner, Mueller, Murphy and Young adopted as their moniker a prototypical punk-rock phrase: Loud Fast Rules. The switch to the Soul Asylum appellation didn't presage a shift in musical temperament, though. The long-player Say What You Will..., issued by Twin/Tone in 1984, was a sonic boom of a record so abrasive that even some punk aficionados were taken aback. It was not a big seller, but it quickly established Soul Asylum as an important part of the Minneapolis scene that spawned the Replacements and Husker Du (whose leader, Bob Mould, produced Say).
The band's reputation was solidified by a pair of Twin/Tone discs (1986's Made to Be Broken and 1987's While You Were Out) that were considerable improvements over the debut. The sound on these efforts was more focused, punchier, and Pirner was stretching out as a songwriter, even managing to toss off a couple of selections that included hints of country ("We've always been a little bit different," Pirner says). A&M came calling after that, but the association with the label turned out to be a disaster. The band deserves part of the blame; Hang Time, And the Horse They Rode In On and Clam Dip and Other Delights suffered from indifferent production and a dearth of truly memorable material. But A&M never found a way to effectively promote the combo, resulting in the easy availability of Soul Asylum material in cut-out bins everywhere. Most observers assumed that Soul Asylum would wind up on the Obscurity Express, but that was not to be. Columbia signed the group, and Grave Dancer's Union rode "Runaway Train" into the hearts and minds of the MTV nation. And while Dim Light hasn't been the kind of across-the-boards smash marketers were anticipating, it has firmly established Soul Asylum on the edge of the rock mainstream.
Despite this attention, however, Pirner maintains a becoming modesty. For instance, he and his bandmates happily agreed to back up Lou Reed and Iggy Pop at the giant concert held in conjunction with the grand opening of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland last month, but unlike Bon Jovi, the Gin Blossoms and plenty of others, they eschewed the opportunity to perform a set of their own.
"That's not what it was all about," Pirner says. "I don't belong on the same stage with Al Green and Aretha Franklin.
"The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is always going to be a controversial idea. But to me, it was more about acknowledging those who came before you--which a lot of bands don't want to do. I remember when the Undertones and all those English punk groups were denouncing the Rolling Stones and the Who, and to me that's just a big laugh. How can you play a three-chord song and think you invented the three-chord song? It's just ridiculous. By taking that attitude, I think you're taking yourself out of a lot of fun. To think that you're not a part of a great history if you're in a rock band is bullshit. But I also think it's normal. There's a lot of bitter, resentful defensiveness out there. But that's something you kind of grow out of, I guess."
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Pirner's defense of the Hall of Fame isn't out of character for him; he delights in tweaking alternative expectations. For example, he's an extremely vocal supporter of singer-songwriter Victoria Williams, a vocalist and composer who some might put in the folk pigeonhole. "I think Victoria is a genius," he enthuses about Williams, who was saluted several years ago by a tribute CD, Sweet Relief, to which Soul Asylum contributed. "It's very humbling to listen to her." When he's asked why some listeners find Williams such an acquired taste, he claims, "People are generally closed-minded. Whether you're talking about the next batch of punk-rock bands or a bunch of old people who can't stomach the next batch of punk-rock bands, people are set in their ways about what they like and what they don't like. I'm sure there's something in the way Victoria's records sound or her voice sounds or whatever that some people can't get past, but to me, I'm kind of over that thing. I can see through whatever it is in the presentation that gives music the particular slant or orientation that it has, so to me there's really no difference between something that sounds a little more country and something that sounds like heavy metal or jazz. The song is the thing that stands on its own. That's the thing that lasts."
As if to emphasize this point, Pirner reveals that Soul Asylum is set to record a song for a second Sweet Relief benefit project, this one dedicated to the work of Vic Chesnutt, an exceptional artist who was paralyzed in an automobile accident during the Eighties. "It's a project to help out Vic with whatever he needs help on," Pirner says. "He's an amazing songwriter, and it's incredible to me that more people haven't discovered him--especially people interested in something as folk-oriented as rock music. Because what people have in common is more important than what's different about them."
That's a mighty sensitive observation for a punk rocker to make, but Pirner--a punk no longer--doesn't mind the contradiction. He may be wealthy and famous now, but he desperately wants to hang on to the qualities that were important to him before anyone outside his immediate circle knew his name. "When I'm writing a song," he says wistfully, "it's just me and a pencil and a piece of paper and a guitar. And that's really not going to change."
Soul Asylum, with Radiohead. 8 p.m. Wednesday, October 4, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax, $18.50, 1-800-444-SEAT or 830-2525.