Sold Asylum

America's best live band keeps charging along, even without a credit card

The truth is that Soul Asylum albums A especially Say What You Will... and Hang Time and Made to Be Broken and Soul Asylum and the Horse They Rode in On A not only stood out but stand up. So it is unsettling to read in a magazine that "it took them seven albums, but Soul Asylum finally delivers." Smarter critics, such as Ira Robbins, must be wondering if anyone ever reads what they write. Robbins once called Dave Pirner "a songwriting genius" and praised the band's ability to "roar and sigh at the same time."

Daniel Murphy says he doesn't worry about all this much. "If Hang Time would've come out under other circumstances, it could have done well. Things were never right for us at A&M. They thought they'd fail if they tried, and no one wants to do that, so they didn't try. It was like 'give them $2000 to tour, those guys are crazy, they love sleeping on floors.'" Twin/Tone, the label that launched the band, was different. "We're not real money-grubbing guys," Murphy notes. "But if you do something on a budget, you should get the money. You have to protect your self-interests 'cause no one else does. Twin/Tone was a great way to start, because there wasn't pressure and they loved the band."

Murphy's hindsight is only slightly clouded. When A&M issued the seven-months-in-the-making Hang Time in '88, the band actually got to sleep in a few hotels. On the other hand, they found themselves playing some pretty weird venues besides Club Nu. They made a shopping-mall appearance in San Jose, California, that left them feeling "like Spinal Tap," Murphy said at the time. The record itself should have been, hypewise, everything that Grave Dancers Union has turned out to be. Critics called Hang Time too slick, a little too clean, an assessment Murphy agreed with up to a point. "It's a far cry from perfect," he said then. "But I think it's the best we've sounded on record." The "slick" tag is especially ironic in that producer Ed Stasium would play back the mixes on a portable taper and through a TV speaker. "The CD thing is for audiophiles only," Murphy said in 1988. "Our recordings sound best on a carry-box." Since then a cottage-industry has developed around the reissuing of the group's old records on CD. Oh my.

Much more has happened in light of the group's two-album (plus options) deal with Columbia. (The second release won't be out for some time. Murphy says the band will take several months to write songs after the current touring frenzy subsides.) For one thing, they're booked with the Spin Doctors and Screaming Trees A other "alternative" outfits A at AT&T's place next Tuesday. ("The Trees are kinda nuts," Murphy says of his billmates. "They don't live right. But they're nice guys. The Spin Doctors I don't know much about, I've heard their songs on the radio. It's a different vibe than we're used to. I haven't done acid in a few years. I don't know if their crowds will like us, but I don't really care.")

For another thing, Soul Asylum recently spent several weeks touring under a corporate sponsorship in a sort of 18 percent versus "99%" deal. That's interest rate versus the band's anthemic tune from the latest album. Their benefactor was MasterCard International.

I should note that I've never been much for anything that requires the insertion of my name into a computer; never had a bank account or dealt with plastic money. Not that I have anything against those who do. But you have to admit this was one strange deal. During the research for this article I talked to a number of the band's handlers, including one who warned me to not mention MasterCard to any member of Soul Asylum. "They'll just hang up on you."

"It was a weird thing," Murphy says of the MasterCard deal, which sent the band to a dozen college campuses (including the University of Miami's) earlier this spring. "We got approached to do it. They gave away some posters, and got us that silly MTV beach-party show, which we were pretty disappointed with. People squishing balloons with their bellies.... Corporate America always leaves a bad taste. No, we didn't get a [tour] bus out of it. It did lower ticket prices. Part of our motivation was to get a taste of how these things work." (This reminds Murphy of another recent encounter with Corporate America. While cutting Grave Dancers Union, the band learned that a car company was using one of their videos in a commercial A without permission. "The lawyers are talking," Murphy says. "They took the ad off. We worked so long for whatever integrity we have.")

Anything to be cool, they say. For the heck of it, I called up Nancy Hemenway, the vice president of marketing for MasterCard International. She explained that the company sponsored the tour to increase "awareness." She told me the company wanted to bring "something of value" to college students. "Soul Asylum is extremely popular," she said without irony. "We took into account their background, their solid reputation. They're a little older, they have longevity, they're not extremely hard, more of a traditional rock group." Not a bad evaluation on behalf of a band that began as Loud Fast Rules and has included at least one rave-up thrash rip on each album.

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