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Soul Asylum: Still Seeking Refuge : The biggest change in the alternative band's 12-year route to 'overnight' success? Now they've got a technician to fix their guitars on the road

October 03, 1993|STEVE HOCHMAN | Steve Hochman writes about pop music for Calendar

DEVORE — In the sunbaked parking lot behind the stage of the Glen Helen Blockbuster Pavilion, Soul Asylum frontman Dave Pirner stands beside a beaming young Japanese woman. Pirner's familiar matted blond hair brushes against her head as her friend snaps a photo--a prized memento from a trip halfway around the world to see the band.

Minutes later, that same hair is caressing the face of actress Winona Ryder as she and Pirner cuddle in the band's luxury tour bus before Soul Asylum performs for thousands of fans on the latest stop of the touted "MTV Alternative Nation" tour.

This is the life of Soul Asylum, 1993.

And it's taking a little bit of getting used to.

"We had been aimlessly flailing around for 12 years, just kinda thinking that we were doing our own thing and people were either gonna get it or not," says Pirner, 29, chain-smoking as he leans his head lazily against the window of the bus' back bedroom.

These days, guitarist Dan Murphy says later, they run into people who are actually getting too much of the band.

"There was this kid I met the other day down South somewhere," he says. "He was like 6 years old and with his mother, and she said that her son told her about Soul Asylum and that he's a big fan. And he looks at me and says, 'Dude, I'm burnt out on (the Soul Asylum hit) "Runaway Train." ' Six years old! That's way too much perspective."

Many, if not most, of the fans at the show this night--the "MTV Alternative Nation" tour sandwiches Soul Asylum between the headlining Spin Doctors and opening Screaming Trees--are unaware of the history. All they've heard is the band's latest album, the million-selling "Grave Dancers Union," and at best they are only vaguely aware that there might be a couple of earlier albums.

"It's a big laugh for us," Pirner says. "People come up to us and say, 'What a great debut record. You guys are incredible!' "

In fact, the group started in Minneapolis in 1981, in the same punk clubs that spawned Husker Du and the Replacements. Husker Du's Bob Mould was an early supporter of the band--originally called Loud Fast Rules--and produced its early recordings for the Minneapolis-based Twin/Tone label. The band won critical praise and a small, loyal following, but not much more.

After a decade of slogging it out on the underground rock circuit--countless miles crammed together in a van, thousands of dingy club dates and seven albums barely selling a grand total of 200,000--the quartet was facing a possible dead end two years ago. Bands that had once opened for Soul Asylum--including Nirvana and Pearl Jam--zoomed past them up the charts on the way to fame and fortune, while Soul Asylum was being dropped from the roster of A&M Records.

But the band, which also includes bassist Karl Mueller and drummer Grant Young, resolved to stick it out, ultimately found a new home at Columbia Records and "overnight" became an alternative success--with Pirner's movie-star girlfriend, MTV adoration, fans flying in from Japan and the whole works.

Pirner, though, shrugs off everything but the music.

"Having a guitar tech to keep the instruments in shape on the road has been the most meaningful progress the band has made," he says.

"It wasn't like that back then. Equipment was always falling apart. These little technical difficulties that make all the difference in the world. We used to go out and play and everything would fall apart and we'd get frustrated, start smashing things up, and it was so self-defeating.

"The band was hateful, and the crowd couldn't understand why the band was in such a bad mood. It's very non-musical, and everybody thinks it's like 'punk rock,' but you're just pissed--because nothing's coming out of your guitar."

Everything works fine this night. The band plays a fiery, confident set that, all in all, is closer to Tom Petty than nasty punk.

"We feel very much at this point of our life as a band that we're doing the same thing that we've always been doing, and when we get up to play it doesn't make any difference where we are, who we're playing for," Pirner says.

"You can rock anywhere, you know? You can play for five people or 50,000 people. The gratification you get out of it is extremely internalized. Whether we had a good show or a bad show, that's the bottom line."

But the bigger the crowds and the fame, the bigger the stakes seem to be.

"Everything we do can be seen as compromising our integrity," he says wearily. "Selling records, being on the Spin Doctors tour, being on a major label, having a lawyer, having a manager, even who your girlfriend is, for Christ's sake! This is ridiculous. . . . It's disappointing and kind of humiliating and really demeaning to what we've been working our asses off for for 12 years."

Still, the fact that after all these years the band is in a position where anyone cares about its integrity is oddly satisfying.

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