25 Years Ago: Soul Asylum Become a Runaway Success with ‘Grave Dancers Union’
Soul Asylum were 10 years into their career, and thinking about packing it in. Sure, they had made five records and received some critical praise, but after stints with two record labels, the Minneapolis rockers were unsigned and the way forward was not obvious. Plus, the band’s lead singer couldn’t hear.
After a decade of playing small clubs at large volumes, Dave Pirner had developed tinnitus. Without a viable plan B, the members of Soul Asylum (guitarist Dan Murphy, bassist Karl Mueller and drummer Grant Young) decided to stick with him. Pirner, also the band’s main songwriter, picked up an acoustic guitar – an instrument that was somewhat foreign to the frontman who had been reared in the Twin Cities’ punk scene alongside the Replacements and Hüsker Dü.
“I had been all about electric, loud s--- all my life and had actually thought I was going deaf. I went into a deep depression and remember thinking, ‘How can I continue to make music if I can’t hear it?’,” Pirner told Guitar World in 2016. “It was also the point where I picked up the acoustic guitar for the first time. I remember we went in with a 1/4-inch 8-track machine and made around 20 songs that were all acoustic. … Those were the demos that had songs like ‘Runaway Train’ on them and ones that got us our deal at Columbia.”
As Soul Asylum were reconfiguring their approach in 1991, alternative rock was exploding with the success of Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Suddenly, major labels were in a frenzy, seeking any and all underground bands with the stink of commercial potential. Although the folksy “Runaway Train” appeared miles away from “grunge,” the demo turned heads at Columbia Records, who signed the band to a lucrative contract. Soon, they began working with producer Michael Beinhorn at New York’s famed Power Station studio.
“I distinctly recall first hearing ‘Runaway Train,’ not least of all because it was the very first song on the demo cassette they sent me,” Beinhorn recalled to Spin in 2013. “It just had this rawness to it. It felt like the naked expression of this desperately sad person. Every sentiment, every lyric was so beautifully employed and placed. It all added up to a very intense mood, as well as something that was easy for anyone to relate to who has ever felt lost in their life. It reminded of a classic country-western song in that way.”
The melody to what would become Soul Asylum’s big hit had been kicking around Pirner’s head for years, but he had trouble matching it with the right lyrics. The dark period that came about because of his hearing trouble and his band’s difficulties led him to write plainly about his depressed feelings in “Runaway Train.” This song, and others that the band were recording, was so personal that Pirner struggled to record his vocals with a producer and engineer looking on. Instead, Beinhorn arranged for Murphy – Pirner’s bandmate and friend since the early ’80s – to run the tape machine and allow the singer to deliver in a much more intimate situation.
Not that the record that would become Grave Dancers Union was all about quiet, acoustic, intimacy. Soul Asylum merged their punk roots with melody on leadoff track “Somebody to Shove” and strutted through squealing feedback on “99%.” Meanwhile, they got a taste of the major label treatment in ways good (Booker T. Jones overdubbing organ onto seven tracks) and bad (disputes about Young’s drumming that led to former Duran Duran skinsman Sterling Campbell sitting in on half the recordings).
If the drumming situation caused tensions within the band, the label was relatively laissez-faire when it came to Pirner’s politically leaning tunes. The singer expressed his feelings about conflict, war and oil in “Black Gold,” which matched more intricate guitar parts with an ear-catching crunch of distortion.
“I had no idea how adaptable this song was. It can be interpreted as something that's more micro and macro,” Pirner told Songfacts. “I tend to take these things from a personal point of view where it’s two boys on a playground, and at the time it was an obvious reference to political leaders going, ‘My d--- is bigger than yours’.”
And pretty soon, Soul Asylum would be performing for world leaders. Grave Dancers Union became a hit album upon release on Oct. 6, 1992, spurred by rock radio favorites “Somebody to Shove” and “Black Gold.” In early 1993, the band was invited to play MTV’s Inaugural Ball alongside Boyz II Men, 10,000 Maniacs with Michael Stipe, Don Henley and En Vogue. Apparently, the band were included in the event because President Bill Clinton’s daughter Chelsea was a Soul Asylum fan. Big tours, gold record status and an appearance on MTV Unplugged followed.
But it was “Runaway Train” that took Soul Asylum into the stratosphere. The gentle melody and naked emotion resonated in ways that neither the band nor Columbia could have expected, as the album’s third single became a worldwide smash in the summer of ’93. It went to No 5 on the Billboard Hot 100, No. 7 in the U.K., No. 1 in Canada and Top 5 in many other countries around the world.
“Runaway Train”’s runaway success was also bolstered by its distinctive video, which featured the faces of real missing children, some of whom were discovered because of the clip’s steady rotation on MTV and VH1. The song was a hit, the video was a news story, Pirner became a grunge-era rock idol and Grave Dancers Union earned triple-platinum certification. Barely two years removed from giving a breakup serious consideration, Soul Asylum were rock stars. But success came with new challenges.
“The second the debts got paid off, things got crazy,” Pirner recalled. “It just escalated pretty quickly. ‘Oh, let’s get a truck.’ ‘Oh, let’s get a guitar tech.’ ‘Oh, let’s get a backdrop.’ These things just start to happen and you let them because somebody tells you that you can. Money is flying around, everybody is answering your calls, everybody wants that money, everybody is looking at you and you can almost see dollar bills flashing in their eyes. That part of it gets really confusing, really fast.”
Although Grave Dancers Union gave Soul Asylum the ability to do world tours, work with director Kevin Smith and make a big, expensive follow-up album (1995’s Let Your Dim Light Shine), it also raised expectations and pressure to make more hits. When Let Your Dim Light Shine merely went platinum, that was now considered a disappointment. Aside from how it changed the band, Pirner stands behind Soul Asylum’s breakthrough album and “Runaway Train.”
“It’s kind of crazy to think about my music life in terms of one song, but it’s not a bad thing for me,” Pirner said. “It’s not a tragic thing. It’s definitely got some tragic-comedy in it. And I feel like the song still feels relevant. It still embraces all these things I’m having such a hard time talking about. It’s a timeless emotion.”
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