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

Steve Hochman writes about pop music for Calendar

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.

"I don't know if this is the wrong thing to say, but when we turned down a feature in People magazine it was like I knew that something was going right," Pirner says with a grin.

"A year ago it would never even occur to me that somebody like that would be at all interested in people like us. So it's a good feeling to be able to call your own shots about what you do. You try to establish your integrity for 10 years and nobody gives a (crap) about it, nobody cares. And all of a sudden it's an issue."

Besides People, the band has said no to being on the Beavis and Butt-head album, for fear of overexposure. The band also said no to participating in an episode of "America's Most Wanted" dealing with the issue of runaway teens. The video for "Runaway Train" features pictures and names of several real runaways and a plea for them to return home. At least two, after seeing the video, did just that.

The band, though pleased with these results, is clearly uncomfortable with being tied to the issue, and even declined to meet with one of the returned teens before the recent MTV Video Music Awards show.

"We're not authorities," guitarist Murphy says. "We just used that on the video."

Through all this, Pirner is intent on keeping his focus.

"I never had an ulterior motive and I never will," he says. "I know where I came from, and I think that I'm old enough now that I have a perspective where I can't get caught up in the superficial nature of show business. My aim is true, as Elvis Costello would say it."

These days his aim may be a little fuzzy, though. He knows where he comes from, but he's not all that sure about where he's going. His romance with Ryder follows the end of a 13-year relationship with a Minneapolis woman, a constant through all the years of sweat and toil and futility.

"I just kinda moved into the bus and this is pretty much home for me, and I don't know where I'm going to go with it," Pirner says.

Save for a few weeks off here and there, Pirner will be able to continue that way well into next year. The band soon heads to Europe for a tour and after the winter holidays will return to the road in North America for a headlining tour. Only after that will he have to decide where he's going to settle down.

" If I'm going to settle," he says. "The other guys in the band have made it work. I'm really impressed. They've sort of established their lives in Minneapolis and they're all married and stuff. I think I was trying to make that happen for a really long time, and it just got so frustrating for me. It feels a little, I don't know, it feels a little more honest to me to say that I don't really have a life."

That restlessness is the central element of Pirner's songs, which, though more focused and direct now than in the past, have always portrayed characters who are itchy to move on but not sure where to. The brakeless locomotive motif of "Runaway Train" is hardly new to Pirner's songwriting, or to rock tradition, for that matter. Pirner himself identifies Leonard Cohen and Lou Reed, both of whom have traded in such characters for decades, as primary influences.

Pirner is reluctant to analyze his personal history to see where that comes from. His sketchy picture of his childhood is your basic suburban, middle-class life, neither remarkably enriching nor dramatically traumatizing. Through it all, music has been the prime force in his life.

Now, having achieved commercial success with that music and finding his personal life at something of a crossroads, he's a bit scared to look too far into the future.

"Really, the show that we play tonight is the most important thing in my life right now," he says. "Then I guess I'll start thinking about tomorrow night's show when that's over. For me it's very frightening and very insecure to think about what I'm gonna be doing when I. . . ."

He pauses. "I can't play in a punk-rock band forever, and it really is my true love. It's very frustrating to think about not being able to do that, to wonder what's gonna happen to me as a guy who's too old to rock, you know?

"There's an old proverb that I like: You can't change the past, but you can (mess) up a perfectly good present by thinking about the future. I'm just kind of riding it out."

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