The huge sales of Soul Asylum's 1993 album "Grave Dancer's Union" brought to a sudden end an era of struggle and slogging for the Minneapolis post-punk band, whose decade of hard touring and string of albums for the independent Twin/Tone and the major A&M; had brought it a loyal but limited following.
"Union," the quartet's first album on Columbia, included "Runaway Train," a ballad that made the Top 5 on the pop charts, paving the band's path into the mass audience. The album sold 4 million, singer and songwriter Dave Pirner began dating actress Winona Ryder, and Soul Asylum appeared poised to take its place as an alternative-rock success story. (The group plays Monday at the Hollywood Paladium and Tuesday at UC Riverside.)
The current album, "Let Your Dim Light Shine," was met with mixed reviews, and its sales of around a million leave it far short at this point of industry expectations. More troubling for Pirner, guitarist Dan Murphy, bassist Karl Mueller and new drummer Sterling Campbell is the possibility that the commercial breakthrough has removed them from their core audience without giving them a secure spot in the mainstream.
In a recent interview, Pirner, 31, whose relationship with Ryder has fanned some fans' belief that the band is abandoning its alternative roots, addressed that issue, as well as the rewards that keep him going.
Question: Do you think the success of "Grave Dancer's Union" put Soul Asylum in a zone somewhere between the mainstream and the underground?
Answer: Yeah, but we've always been not punk-rock enough for the punk-rockers and too punk-rock for the non-punk-rockers. I think we're always gonna be there . . . and that's pretty much by design. The records sound that way. You get a country song right before a jazz-influenced hard-core thing. You have to be open-minded, I guess, to stomach it all at once.
Q: Did you find the sudden popularity disorienting?
A: I think disorienting is an excellent choice of words. The risk that you run is just spoiling yourself, and that's really the worst thing that can happen. We used to have these credos and stuff that were like, "Don't ever have any expectations, don't expect people to be there or like it." And they always proved true and it was always a good frame of mind to be in. So when suddenly everything starts working out right, it's like there's something wrong.
Q: How do you react to the slower sales of the new album?
A: Each record has its own life. . . . and it's not a business proposition. So that becomes a conflict of interest between art and commerce, and that's a classic breakdown that will happen forever.
Once you start trying to sell creativity, you're always going to run into the problem that the people selling it aren't as creative as the people making it, and the people making it don't know how to talk business with the people trying to sell it.
Q: Do you think things would be very different for you if "Grave Dancer's" hadn't sold well?
A: I probably would be where I am right now, and I would not have had the experience of win ning a [expletive] Grammy, which meant very little to nothing. The attention you receive is because you're generating cash. People don't even review our records anymore. People kind of review our success. We might as well be in [expletive] Forbes if we're gonna be in [expletive] Rolling Stone. It's America, man, the capitalist country. People are interested in business first and art second. Of course amidst all this we are getting the opportunity to let this sort of thing bring us to the people we really need, and the people who really need us.
Q: Who are they?
A: They're like [screwed]-up 14-year-old kids that just--they need my songs, and I need them to hear them. Maybe there's something in this big mess that lets that happen. I feel very lucky to have this connection with this person who's listening to every song over and over again and really taking it to heart.
I don't know, that's what it was always about for me, finding that record and locking myself in my room and shutting everybody out and having that be my education.
Q: What do you want to say to them? What do you offer?
A: Sometimes I have moments where I do feel like I was put on this earth to kind of spread my own kind of understanding or something, or to promote some sort of--I don't want to attach words like peace and love and things like that because it seems like a cliche, but I want to instill some hope and faith, something that's not what you have to be exposed to every day when you're growing up. Because you don't have that many choices. You pretty much get shown what people decide you're supposed to be shown, and sometimes buying a record is your chance to have a choice.
Q: Despite the humor and irony, your lyrics tend to depict a disintegrating social fabric. Does that reflect your view of the world? Are you hopeful at all?
A: I'm a little worried. And I'm a little disappointed with a lot of reforms that tried to happen in the last few years but didn't happen. On a political level I'm very concerned and very worried. On a spiritual level, that's always gonna be the same. So, yeah, I mean there's really not a whole lot left to hold on to, but some general hope and faith that you're gonna persevere.
Q: On a more personal level, does it bother you when your credibility is questioned because your girlfriend happens to be a movie star?
A: Well, yeah, think about it. Everybody who's got a girlfriend should think about it. It's not any different for me than it is for anybody else. It has nothing to do with why your work is out there. It surprises me that more people don't take a look in the mirror a little more often and assess their own relationships. I mean, don't people in the paparazzi have girlfriends and stuff? Where's the common courtesy? Pretty simple stuff.
Q: Balancing these low points with the highs, are you happy with where you and the band are at this point?
A: It's very erratic. . . . It's never been where we want it to be, and it probably never will be, and that's a hard thing to accept, because I think you fool yourself into believing that you're actually trying to get somewhere, you're actually trying to get a perfect situation for this whole thing to work out. But it never has been and I don't think it ever will be.
* Soul Asylum and Radiohead play on Monday at the Hollywood Palladium, 6215 Sunset Blvd.; 7:30 p.m.; $21; (213) 962-7600. Also Tuesday at the Student Recreation Center, UC Riverside; 8 p.m.; $20; (909) 787-3626.