By Sabina Mollot
Soul Asylum, an alternative rock band known best for the 90s smash hit “Runaway Train,” is in the midst of an East and West Coast tour to promote its last album, “Delayed Reaction,” and one of its next concerts will be played in Stuyvesant Town.
The event was announced by CompassRock earlier in the month as part of the annual summer event series for ST/PCV residents. The concert is set for Saturday, June 8, starting at 3 p.m. on the Oval with local band Skyfactor opening.
The tour comes at a time after the band has seen a number of changes, including the departure of two longtime members, Dan Murphy and Tommy Stinson. However, after regrouping – current members are lead singer Dave Pirner, Michael Bland, Winston Roye and Justin Sharbono – and even some work on the band’s next recordings, Pirner said he believes that the band’s sound is the most solid its ever been.
“It’s better than it’s ever been from where I’m standing,” he said. “Everyone is better attuned to what it takes to pull off being in a band. It’s all coming together. You just figure out how to do things more spontaneously and in a way that sounds good.”
And that’s saying a lot considering the band was formed in 1981 in Minneapolis, as an offshoot of another band called Loud Fast Rules. The rock band was labeled both alternative and grunge around the time of its triple-platinum selling album “Grave Dancers Union” in 1992. However, these days Pirner said he finds the music more influenced by musicians who play in marches in New Orleans, where he’s lived for the past 14 years. Those musicians, he’s noticed, tend to have families who’ve passed down the tradition of performing.
“They’re like, ‘We play to live, but we love it,’” he said.
As for Soul Asylum’s latest release, Pirner described it as “trashy art” or “closer to trashy art than fancy craft.”
“Delayed Reaction,” with songs that range from a piano ballad to the more rough-edge rock Soul Asylum has always been known for, is the band’s first album in six years. The last one, “The Silver Lining,” came out in 2006.
Throughout the band’s lifetime, which spawned 10 albums, there have also been five record labels. The journey from album to album was a bumpy road with some albums doing well commercially (the biggest was “Grave Dancer’s Union” though “Let Your Dim Light Shine,” released in 1995, also went platinum) and others not so much. After “Candy From a Stranger” was released in 1998, it’s been reported that Soul Asylum was dropped by Columbia. Its last album was done sans label for most of its production, though the band is now with 429 Records. The company used to be a jazz label under another name.
Reflecting on the on and off mainstream success, Pirner said, “It’s sort of become this situation where you’re living out your dream and it doesn’t matter what that dream is compared to everyone else’s, and you’re trying to get heard.”
The toughest part of being in a band over the years, noted Pirner, isn’t even the business aspect so much as it is all the complaining that goes around, especially on tour.
“If you’re going to have a complaint ledger, then you should have to listen to someone else’s complaints,” he said. Then there are various unexpected troubles a band can run into along the way, especially while touring, but Pirner added, “You just get used to it. Like firefighters, you just hope nothing’s going to catch on fire.”
Additionally, Pirner is also quick to say he’d prefer Soul Asylum to be with a label than not. From what he’s seen, it takes at least a $100 thousand to produce an album properly (including things like equipment and hotel stays) though ideally it would be $1 million — of a label’s money that is. Unlike some bands, who’ve felt they were going to the dark side when going that route, Pirner said that doesn’t have to be the case, or at least it wasn’t that way for him.
“When we were first signed to a major label, we had already been established,” said Pirner. “I had already been doing this for 12 years and they wanted me for my experience. I was never in a situation where I had to compromise to appease the budget. Maybe I’m just lucky or I thought f— it, I’m going to impose my esthetic on things. People tell you if you go to a major label, they’re going to tell you what to do that you don’t want to do, but if you don’t want to be in that position, don’t be. Labels don’t make you do anything. You submit to it.”
That said, on the state of the music business now, which has been dominated by online sales, Pirner has mixed feelings.
“Kids have their genres explained to them by Macintosh,” said Pirner. “This is good, this is bad, this is whatever Apple says it is, this is jazz, this is alternative.”
As for the music the band is currently recording, Pirner declined to discuss details, saying simply, “It’s just a bunch of stuff we don’t have any diabolical plans for.”
Through the ups and downs of his career, Pirner said he credits his biggest hit with reminding him of the impact music can have on society beyond influencing trends. With “Runaway Train,” the music video, which included numerous photos and names of missing children, was responsible for several of them being reunited with their families.
“I still kind of can’t believe that we had that much, I don’t know if power is the right word, but influence,” he said.
Other memorable career moments include performing at former President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993 and contributing music to three Kevin Smith films, “Clerks,” Clerks II” and “Chasing Amy.”
As for the upcoming show in Stuyvesant Town, this would be the first time Pirner said he’s aware of the band playing in the middle of a residential complex. But, he added, “Over the years, we’ve played just about anywhere you can put a rock band. We hope we’ll have something for every person in every single one of those buildings.”