Say What You Will: Dave Pirner and Soul Asylum (Part 1 of 2)

It can take years to become an overnight sensation; just ask Dave Pirner. His band began in Minneapolis in 1981 as Loud Fast Rules. Renamed as Soul Asylum, the group released its debut EP Say What You Will… in fall 1984. Produced by Bob Mould (then of alternative rock heroes Hüsker Dü), that release enjoyed success in the band’s hometown, but went largely unheard elsewhere. The record did attract the attention of Twin/Tone Records, a local outfit that would establish a reputation as the label of record for Minneapolis’ punk and alternative scene.

And while Pirner looks back fondly on that local scene, he believes it was somewhat insular, not greatly influenced by (or even taking much notice of) what was going on in music elsewhere. “When one band would play, most of the 30 people in the audience were in bands,” he says with a laugh. “That was your group of friends, people you were meeting and hanging out with through the connection of music.”

Pirner notes that there was a collegiality, an “all for one and one for all” mentality among that Minneapolis community. “When a band like Hüsker Dü got discovered and started to play bigger and bigger gigs, not only did they take us along as their opening band, but the scene in Minneapolis was 100% on their side,” he says. “‘Go on, fucking go for it, man. You’re representing our scene!’”

In contrast, Soul Asylum’s rise to fame would prove to be a very slow burn. But that didn’t bother Pirner. “It was kind of important to not think about the future,” he says. “That was not only sort of a punk rock credo, but there was a kind of [thinking that] ‘If you’re making plans for the future, you’re wasting your time.’”

Twin/Tone reissued an expanded version of the first LP, following up with two more albums (Made to Be Broken and While You Were Out, both 1986). Positive critical notices would earn the band an offer from A&M Records. Signing with the nationally distributed label in 1988, Pirner’s group would release two more albums, 1988’s Hang Time and the 1990 LP And the Horse they Rode In On. But when those records failed to sell in satisfying numbers, A&M dropped the group.

Yet Columbia Records A&R representative Benjie Gordon believed in what Soul Asylum was doing, and signed the band to the major label. Popular tastes had been changing, and the time seemed right for Soul Asylum’s brand of thoughtful and melodic yet ragged-edged alternarock.

With a solid clutch of new songs and a strong push from Columbia, the band recorded and released Grave Dancers Union. And where none of the band’s first five albums had even made an appearance on the national charts, album number six did, and then some. Debuting in October 1992 – a full decade after the band played its first gigs as Soul Asylum – Grave Dancers Union rose to the #11 spot on the Billboard 200.

Pirner describes that period as “an immense fog of constant activity.” Every day seemed filled with phone calls, gigs and bus travel. (“I know I don’t want to be a bus driver,” he emphasizes.) It was mostly fun, but the non-musical activities could feel like work. “The thing that was strange to me was how much time we spent not making music,” he says.

Meanwhile, Soul Asylum’s “overnight” success – they were new to a major label, anyway – extended beyond American shores. Grave Dancers Union would chart in nine other countries in Europe and Australasia, going Gold in several while eventually earning double-platinum status (2 million units sold) in the U.S. The band’s runaway success included four singles from the album, led by the #5 “Runaway Train.” The band toured widely, which suited Pirner’s goals. “This is my opportunity to see the rest of the world, so I’m going to take it as far as I can go,” he recalls thinking at the time.

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