Five years ago, Dave Pirner had every reason to feel as though he were on top of the world.
After spending more than a decade in near-obscurity, the singer-songwriter's band Soul Asylum had suddenly emerged as a darling of the post-grunge pop scene. Fueled by the rootsy, accessible Top 5 single "Runaway Train," the group's album "Grave Dancers Union" rose steadily to the multimillion sales level. The wheat-haired, scruffily handsome Pirner became an MTV idol and began dating actress Winona Ryder, with whom he appeared at the 1994 Oscar ceremony and in countless gossip columns and glossy photo spreads.
Pirner was a reluctant star, though, ambivalent about the media's focus on his love life and haunted by accusations that his band, with its roots in the Minneapolis punk-rock scene that spawned such underground heroes as the Replacements and Husker Du, had sold out. "We've never fit in, we still don't, and we probably never will," he told a reporter in 1995.
His words proved prophetic. Despite expectations that Soul Asylum might join Pearl Jam and the Smashing Pumpkins at the forefront of American rock, "Let Your Dim Light Shine," the 1995 follow-up to "Union," sold only slightly more than a million copies in the U.S. To make matters worse, Pirner's relationship with Ryder dissolved shortly after the album's release.
Pirner, 34, appears humbled, and perhaps liberated, by his fall from pop glory. There are still traces of the troubled Gen-X icon in the singer as he eats dinner in a Manhattan soul-food restaurant. He chain-smokes, is occasionally restless, and is clearly loath to discuss what happened with Ryder. "It's important to leave your personal life at home," he says firmly.
But he also smiles often as he sits with longtime bandmates Dan Murphy, 35, and Karl Mueller, 34, to discuss the new Soul Asylum album, "Candy From a Stranger," and he seems comfortable describing the trickiness of rock stardom.
"It was funny," Pirner muses, picking at his rice and beans. "In retrospect, 'Let Your Dim Light Shine' had an incredibly cliched sort of backlash that was really odd to bear witness to--though you could kind of see it coming.
"It's difficult to be making music this long and be concerned about what people think of our credibility. I mean, we're obviously pretty devoted to what we're doing."
In fact, despite Soul Asylum's origins, it wasn't punk credibility or alternative chic that propelled the band into the mainstream.
"They didn't break through as a punk band, or a grunge band," notes Rolling Stone music editor Joe Levy. "They broke through as a rock band, the way they used to make rock bands. They broke through with big, big songs and old-fashioned values, and as a compassionate, caring band."
Like "Grave Dancers Union," which was the band's first album on Columbia Records, and "Let Your Dim Light Shine," the new "Candy From a Stranger" showcases the band's well-honed chops through folk-based, guitar-driven arrangements, while Pirner's flair for channeling both angst and tenderness into infectious melodies is evident throughout. (See review, Page 61.)
Will Botwin, general manager of Columbia Records, is optimistic that such catchy tunes as "See You Later" and "Close" can help reestablish the band's commercial prominence.
"Soul Asylum has passed through so many trends that have come and gone," Botwin points out, "and they're still here making great rock 'n' roll records. We think the new record has quality and depth and, yes, singles. . . . We have every belief and expectation that we can bring them back to the point they were at and beyond."
Rolling Stone's Levy is more measured about the band's prospects. "What you're looking at is a band that's growing up and getting older," he says. "I think they make more sense now as a VH1 band than an MTV band. I don't know if the fans they connected with them because of 'Runaway Train' are ready to make that transition with them. . . . If [the new album] works, it's gonna be because they connect with another hit single or because there's an audience that has come of age and is ready to take a step forward with this band."
Even before its roller-coaster ride through the pop stratosphere, Soul Asylum's career trajectory had not been free of toil and trouble. When the band started out, guitarist Murphy recalls, "We were deep into the whole punk-rock ethic. We played in Karl's mom's garage, toured in a van, and were really loud and obnoxious."
Later, prior to signing with Columbia, the band lost a contract with A&M Records, which had picked up the group's deal with the independent label Twin/Tone in 1988. There were tensions within the band, too. Shortly before sessions for "Let Your Dim Light Shine" began, Pirner, Murphy and bassist Mueller dismissed original drummer Grant Young--for artistic reasons, they maintained--and replaced him with Sterling Campbell, who left the band amicably after finishing work on the new album.
"I went through a period where I was like, '[Expletive] this,' " Murphy admits, pondering his 17 years in the band. "But I got through it, and now I'm thankful."
At the moment, the three old friends at the core of Soul Asylum all profess to be in good spirits, pleased with their latest effort and eagerly anticipating a summer and fall tour. (No new drummer has been announced, but Ian Mussington has been playing on some club dates.)
"When we're on tour, I have something to look forward to every day," Mueller says. "I know that time will come where we're on stage and doing what we set out to do. That's what it's all about, right there."
"Honest to God, I just can't wait to see my friends," Pirner says with a grin, referring to Soul Asylum's fans. "Just goin' out and seeing all those faces with their heads bobbin', singin' along--it's a humbling experience. Somebody's gonna be there. It may be just one person, but that person will be there, and I'll get to play."