MINNEAPOLIS — Due at the airport in three hours for a gig in Washington, D.C., Soul Asylum guitarist Dan Murphy wanted to make sure his bandmate of 31 years, singer Dave Pirner, did not get lost finding the coffee shop arranged for our interview last month. It was in Uptown Minneapolis, about a half-mile from Pirner’s house.
“Let me check on Sunshine,” Murphy said, picking up his cell. He chuckled as he hung up.
“He told me he’s parking ‘right by Knut Koupee guitar shop.’ I didn’t bother telling him that Knut Koupee closed in about 1984.”
OK, so Soul Asylum is not exactly in step with the times. Some other solid reminders of how long ago the band’s commercial heyday was: They played the Clinton inauguration party (the first one); taped an “MTV Unplugged” episode (same season as Nirvana’s) and were featured on the soundtrack to “Reality Bites” (in which Pirner made a cameo with then-girlfriend Winona Ryder).
As Pirner and Murphy this week release their first album together in six years — made with the stalwart replacement lineup of drummer Michael Bland (ex-Prince) and bassist Tommy Stinson (ex-Replacements) — certain things are being done to update their old band’s image. For instance, they’re pitching for NPR radio play and taping an on-air session with Minnesota Public Radio, which has their new single, “Gravity,” in steady rotation. They even have a Twitter account, though a mention of it drew a blank, talking-in-Greek look from Pirner.
However, when they sat down to talk about the new record for a new label with a new outlook on the immeasurably changed music business, the Soul Asylum co-leaders wound up doing a lot of reminiscing about the old days. Not those heady days of mainstream fame and ridiculously large recording budgets, mind you, but the era when their late bassist Karl Mueller had to sell a truck for them to go on tour, and they had, as Pirner put it, “nothing but blind ambition.” Yes, the days when Knut Koupee was still open.
They will revisit that era with a release party at First Avenue nightclub in Minneapolis Friday. One of the few things in Soul Asylum’s world that has lasted as long as Soul Asylum, First Avenue is where the guys landed what Murphy considers their first big break: After opening for X there in 1984 under their old band name Loud Fast Rules, the Minneapolis kids were asked by the Los Angeles punks to open a short tour.
“That right there is what made Dave, me and Karl all drop out of college,” Murphy said. Some of the other bands they opened for at First Ave around that time include the Ramones, Mötorhead and Hüsker Dü. “I feel a lot more camaraderie and connection to the bands of that era, like the Meat Puppets and the Minutemen, than I do to all these bands that had minimal radio success in the ‘90s,” Pirner said.
He didn’t name names, but the comment came up after a question about the band’s new label, 429 Records, which counts the Gin Blossoms, Blues Traveler and Everclear on its roster. Soul Asylum often winds up on rib-fest lineups or casino calendars with groups of that nostalgic ilk. “None of these other bands were part of that initial SST, Twin/Tone, road-rat sort of world — that world that started in Minneapolis, and then went to Seattle,” Pirner said.
“We try hard to avoid that (pigeonhole), but we inevitably get put on a bill with some bands that are bands where the crowd only knows the songs that were fed to them on the radio. You end up by proxy in that sort of Dick Clark world, the world where people don’t dig very deep into the bands besides the song with the good beat you can dance to.”
Playing First Avenue is one way of reminding people that Soul Asylum was a band that put out five mostly strong albums and put untold miles on their tour vans before selling more than 3 million copies of the 1992 album “Grave Dancer’s Union” off the hit singles “Black Gold,” “Somebody to Shove” and “Runaway Train.”
The other way for Soul Asylum to stand out from the nostalgia crowd, of course, is putting out a new album that stands up to their best work — and to today’s hipper rock bands. They come pretty close with “Delayed Reaction,” issued Tuesday.
Of all of Soul Asylum’s 10 full-lengths, this one boasts a little of everything the band has done since its inception. Punky and slightly snotty garage-stormers such as “Let’s All Kill Each Other” and “The Streets” bump greasy elbows with the anthemic, radio-tuned rockers “Gravity” and “Into the Light.” The album also meanders into mellower territory with the Faces-like soul-twang gem “By the Way” and a charming jazz-piano ditty, “Cruel Intentions.”
Pirner wrote all the tunes but credited his bandmates for setting a high standard. He thus also blamed them for “Delayed’s” delay.
“There are the guys I call ‘The Royal They,’ which is Danny and Michael,” the singer explained with a smirk. “I just write songs and keep writing songs until I write some that Danny and Michael like. That’s really what takes so long. If those guys are not into a song full-heartedly, it’s going to seep out on stage, so it has to be good.”
The other reason for the album’s slow gestation was geographic challenges. Only Bland lives in the Twin Cities year-round. Pirner lives mostly in New Orleans. Murphy winters near Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Stinson moved from Los Angeles to upstate New York during the making of the record and eventually had to bow out of Soul Asylum altogether, mainly because of his commitment to Guns N’ Roses. The permanent new bassist, Winston Roye, from New Jersey, makes his local debut this week. Most of their touring consists of “fly-in” weekend dates, so they often just meet up at gigs.
Pirner still retains his Minneapolis house — “I’ll always feel like I’m a part of something here,” he said — but he emphasized how much of an impression his adopted hometown has had on him. Some of the nihilistic, reckless, devil-may-care lyrics in “Let’s All Kill Each Other” and the new album’s closer, “I Should’ve Stayed in Bed,” sound NOLA-induced (i.e., “There’s nothing I gotta do today except for blow you off”).
“After everything that’s been lost and done to New Orleans, people there are still fully committed to making art and leading an artistic and spiritual life,” he said. “It gets left behind in terms of business and money, but it still leads the way, I think, in art and creativity.”
There seems to be a similar, unfettered credo to Soul Asylum, which has watched its riches fade and its members come and go — or get buried — but lo and behold, the band still carries that spark. As Pirner bluntly put it: “The notion of giving up at this point of Soul Asylum’s career is just kind of ridiculous.”