Perfect Sound Forever


1992 era Asylum- Karl, Dave, Dan, Grant

Shoving the Misery and Runaways in/out of the Twin Cities
Dan Murphy interview by Peter Crigler
(February 2023)

For a while, from about 1992-1996, Soul Asylum were inescapable. Through the efforts of songwriter/singer Dave Pirner and powerhouse guitarist Dan Murphy, the band made some of the greatest songs of the era. Coming up in the Minneapolis punk scene of the eighties and hooking up with the legendary indie Twin/Tone, the band had paid their dues by the time success came calling in 1992 and they lived up to the hype. Unfortunately, they were unable to sustain their monumental success and became more of a live band, releasing music here and there. Murphy left the band in 2012 and has enjoyed retired life and enjoyed telling the story of the band destined to pick up the mantle from the Replacements.

PSF: When did you start playing music?

DM: When I was a kid, I wasn't that musical. My dad was Irish and he'd sing "Danny Boy" and some Irish songs to us, so that was the only musical experience I had. When I was in sixth grade, my mother got divorced and she remarried a guy named Norman Sprinthall and I had a stepbrother who was this total hippie, he was three years older than me and smelled like patchouli oil and he played guitar and my ma thought a way to get a 13 year old kid to bond with a 16 year old kid, he would give me guitar lessons. So, I'd probably had four or five lessons from him, and I really just fell in love with it. In high school, it was totally my social life. I was in a really shitty band in high school called At Last, if you can believe that.

And then I went and saw Dave's band... it was called The Shitz with a 'Z'... at a little bar named Zoogy's in Minneapolis, and this is probably 1981. And I said, "Holy shit, that dude's really talented, because his band sucks." I knew we had mutual friends and stuff. And I started playing with him a little bit, but he wanted to be our drummer because he was kind of intimidated because he was a pretty raw guitar player still at that point and stuff. And yeah, I just immersed myself with music. It was totally my childhood that was... my one and only love, really. It was something I always wanted to do.

Yeah. I was so immersed with reading every review before I was reading old Velvet Underground records and everything. I was so involved with that culture.

And you know, there's some bands that kind of had bullshit detectors that you just trusted and believed. And there were some that just seemed like a farce, you know? Like when Billy Joel put out Glass Houses and you're just like, "Holy shit, who's this guy trying to fool?" And I just... When you're a kid, though, you have like an equilibrium where you can go, "Holy shit." You know what's cool, and you know what's fake.

PSF: How did Loud Fast Rules come together?

DM: I was in this shitty band called At Last and we did a talent show in about 1978. I was maybe in tenth grade, and there was four bands. It was in a place called the Southern Theater. And this woman Lisa Robinson who wrote for Rolling Stone at that time was like the judge of it. We finished fourth, so I had to quit 'cause I have a really big ego for stuff like that. And I figured anytime that she's like, "The well-dressed group At Last brought up the rear." We were the only band that was like dressed circa 1978 or like whatever. I was like I knew that was the end of it.

And then we tried to keep that little band together and I went to college in Madison in 1980, and I lasted a year there. Then, I kind of met Karl [Mueller, bass player]. I mean, I knew Karl, he was like a little disco kid in high school. But he went to England in 1978 and he came back a punk rocker. And we'd go see The Clash and Iggy Pop and Robyn Hitchcock and The Teardrop Explodes. And he was so into this and he had a just incredibly cool look. We were carry outs at Lund's, the grocery store, and it just like turned me onto this whole fucking thing.

And like, he went there, like in 1978 and it was like the burgeoning day of punk rock, Chelsea Road and shit. And he kind of came back and I was like, "Holy shit. I got to get this guy in a band." But he didn't play an instrument. I lived at his house for a while and I said, "You're going to play bass." We brought like this green Epiphone bass that some guy painted with house paint.

And within four weeks we were playing shows. We really weren't that bad. I mean, it was pretty rough. And the first song we ever wrote was called "Planet Vero," and we had this little punk rock band and I really wanted Dave to be part of it because he was really talented, but he insisted on being our drummer for the first year, which wasn't bad. We could play with other drummers that were better. And then, finally, I talked to Dave and I said, "Why don't you take this seriously, man? This is a good nucleus of a band."

Sadly, at that time, I think Dave was writing really cool songs, but it was... we were so young and fresh that we were trying to like put our stamp on it so hard. If we would've just followed his lead before we made our first record... say what you will. There's songs that I have demo tapes of where we just recording it, just beautiful... like nothing sounded like that. It would be like, funk, soul, ska, reggae, punk rock, and it was like totally unique.

We had a drummer at the time, his name was Pat Morley, and he was like... we'd go up to Canada and we'd play with The Stretch Marks and all these punk rock bands. He was hardcore and he just rushed everything. He wanted to put his imprint on the shit. And I was like, "Dude, why don't you just fucking play what you feel?" He was a good drummer, but he was so like, back then, he had to be authentic. He had to be hardcore and he didn't want to be a sellout, and that was all he thought about so everything was just like devoid of feeling and super, super, super fast. It was just boring, so we fired him like immediately pretty much.

PSF: When did the band transition into Soul Asylum?

DM: Well, we started playing shows with Peter Jesperson and for Twin/Tone, that was the only game in town and we went to some big recording place. They had a mobile truck in there... this is like, I don't know, 1981 or probably '82. We recorded this stuff live, and they brought in Paul Stark who didn't really give a shit about what we were doin'. It was kinda lukewarm. Some of it sounded okay. Some of it, they really thought sucked. So, they were very very lukewarm on it.

Peter Jesperson said, "By the way, I don't know if 'Loud Fast Rules' really gets you guys." Dave had a song called Soul Asylum that none of us really loved, but that was a cool title for a song. We kind of grabbed that, and then we signed with Twin/Tone, with Peter. We opened for The Replacements at Merlin's in Madison and he's like, over a pitcher of beer, "Welcome to Twin/Tone." For us, that was bigger than getting signed at Columbia or Big Six, because they're the only game in town. How is a label from New York or L.A. gonna find out about you, right? It's the only thing to do.

So that was kinda cool. Peter kinda soured on us. He's like, just didn't think we were great. Then this other guy started working there, named Dave Ayers, who was our manager for a long time. He really took us under his wing and the first recording we did with him as our manager... we did "Tied to the Tracks" and "Long Way Home."

"That's fucking good, good stuff. Y'know, I've got to get you guys in the studio." We made Made To Be Broken, and then we were on tour for a year. Then, he's like, "I need another record in two months." So While You Were Out was a crushing disappointment. It didn't sound good and y'know... you have your whole life to write your first record and then you get two months off of tour to try to throw something together that's 45 minutes long. It's just that's psycho.

Should've been smart and said, "You know what, I don't love this record enough to put it out and tour it." Because you gotta do that after you put it out, y'know. But at that time, we're 20-year old kids and Dave's probably three years... I was probably 21, he's maybe 18. We started the band as total kids.

So yeah, I mean, for us it was like... I think we were too hyper-diligent about like, making... we were really good live back then. It wasn't always good, because everybody liked to drink and whatever drugs were around, everybody would take. But there were moments where it was just powerful, y'know.

Yeah. Translating that to the studio was very, very tricky, because the studio is really another animal. You have to be patient, and disciplined, and your guitar has to be in tune. So we'd go to the studio and we'd be broken in four days. The whole fuckin' record; mix, record, y'know. With no pre-production. No one ever sat through the songs and would go, "I hate this part. Why don't you get rid of that?" I think I had two or three songs on that record and Dave had a bunch. We said, "Okay." From beginning to end, it was four days in the studio.

You can listen to parts of that record, but I don't know. It was frustrating, because you had bigger ideas, even when you're that age that you can make your record better. I think Twin/Tone's logo was "Where artistic dreams get dashed on the shores of fiscal reality." That's the letterhead at the time, y'know.

PSF: What was the music scene in Minneapolis like at the time? Do you think it helped the band develop the sound?

DM: Yeah. I had no idea later on, but when I was a kid. Fuck, I went to The Entry and D. Boon from Minutemen sang me "Happy Birthday" when I was 20-years old and you'd see Butthole Surfers and you'd see Husker Du. A huge band in Minneapolis that no one knows about was called The Suburbs. They were huge. They were the kings of the scene actually, and then they decided to go to disco. They're first record was called In Combo. It's all punk rock songs. So there was a huge scene and having never lived anywhere else at that point or traveled anywhere else, I thought you go to Kalamazoo, you say, "Oh, they'll have the same thing goin' on." And you're like, "Holy fuck!"

There were towns like Seattle, Tacoma, Richmond, Virginia, D.C., trying to think of other ones. There was Dallas, Chicago had a huge... like Naked Raygun and all those bands and Big Black and stuff. But it was like, before the Internet, people would do these fanzines. In Minneapolis, one called Your Flesh and they would do these rave reviews of your band. Word of mouth was in these typewritten, 15-page fanzines that you'd find at independent record stores. If you got a good review in there, the next time you went to Portland, Oregon, you'd have 180 people instead of 80 people. That's how you impregnated your vision.

PSF: How did Bob Mould come to produce the first couple of records?

DM: Well, I don't wanna bag on him, but the first day of our record, he didn't even show up, so say what you will. But y'know then we kinda met him, and played with him, and did some shows with him, and I think he's super talented but I don't know. Back then, the kick drum sounded like the snare drum. The snare drum sounded like the kick drum. In terms of, "is this physically the way you record a record?" No, we shoulda had like Mitch Easter or someone that was making better records at that time.

So, Say What You Will, to me was really disappointing. And Made To Be Broken had moments where you could say, "y'know there's a kernel here." I don't know. The studio is 1200 bucks a day, and you believe in the band, and you have an Indie record label. Why would you have a $4000 recording budget for them to do their art? It just seems crazy to me.

And in my whole lifetime, I have never gotten a single check from Twin/Tone in my life, a royalty check. Ever. And I made those records for 4000 bucks. Not because I wanted to, but because I was told to. That's fuckin' crazy.

PSF: Twin/Tone probably broke even with you guys when you started selling records on Columbia?

DM: I don't even know. We started selling records at Columbia. You'd think that we would've picked up sales, the A&M records. I think the best we ever did, sales wise was maybe 65 thousand.

For Grave Dancers, maybe, I think, and Hang Time did way better than While You Were Out. I think those Twin/Tone records have probably sold, I don't know, 45, 55, 65 thousand by now, just drivel, literally over all those years.

We had a really great sounding, little demo tape. It had "Runaway Train" and "Black Gold" and really good songs and it was very lo-fi, but you could really tell what the songs are. Everybody wanted to sign us and we met Donnie Ienner, who's like kind of a big music guy, but he's like, "Y'know what, here's the deal. If I can't fucking sell this shit... everybody I talk to is like, 'Sign that guy. They're great. They have a touring base. They're doing this for years. They have a fan base in every town.' If I can't do this, I'm the biggest fucking idiot in the music business." And I said, "Good enough."

PSF: How did the deal with A&M come about? Did it work for you guys?

DM: Terrible, I mean yeah. There's this guy named Steve Ralbovsky that was our A&R guy. He wasn't a bad guy. We put out the first record. We hired Ed Stasium, who'd produced a bunch of Ramones records.

Yeah, he did Living Color too, "Cult of Personality" was really big that year and he did Mick Jagger's She's The Boss, concurrent with this. Our concern with him was we didn't know if he was a music guy. And then we find out that Lenny Kaye from Patti Smith really loved our band and loved Dave's lyrics. We figured we'd get him in. Then, Ed could be like "this is the sonic sound we want," and Lenny could be more "this is great," like this vocal performance, kinda be the more personable person. It was great. I think that record could've been a little bit better, but Sometime to Return, Cartoon. There's good stuff on there.

I mean, it was a little bit uneven, but God, I think I was 24 when that record was finished. And we had an apartment in New York. Dave, myself, Karl, and Grant [Young, drummer] were there. And then those guys left after a month and me and Dave spent like 5 months doing all the overdubs and vocals and mixing. Then they sent us to Europe right after that for seven weeks, so we come home seven months later. But you know, we were totally into the road doc thing. I mean, one of the things that Dave and I, when we still got along, what all really united about was like, "this is a great way to get out of Minneapolis." Not that Minneapolis was that bad, but winter sucked. We're like, this is our ticket out of here. So we really, really took that aspect seriously that it was like, "if we do this well, we can actually go to New York City, we can go to L.A., we can go anywhere we want to go and people will pay us to play." That was a motivating factor as much as anything.

PSF: What was the inspiration for a song like "Cartoon"?

DM: I was reading kind of a lot of backlash that we were like a junior Husker Du band, so the first line is "Everybody's looking after me, if I'm dragging by some coat tail." I can't say I was dragging on Bob Mould's coat tail, essentially, you know? I was going out with this really pretty girl named Victoria that fuckin' dumped my ass, and that can be good for music, you know? The bitch. No, she's fine. She was actually the same girl that was in Golden Smog song called "Vee," years later. Victoria, yeah. I remember that was kind of an ending relationship. I wrote that very, very quickly. Changed a couple lines, but that was forty minute thing, and typically when I write songs, I have a notebook and I'll just do it for days and days. But that just came flowing out. One of my managers, Dave Ayers, he's like, "Holy shit, this is so good." He's the one that named it "Cartoon," I didn't know what to call it, because it doesn't really have a chorus. You know, it has that little middle thing. He's like, "Call it 'Cartoon,' dude." And I was like, "Okay I'm in." But "cartoon" is only mentioned in the song once.

PSF: Was the band dropped from A&M? And how long afterwards did Columbia come in?

DM: We said that if you make us put out another record with you, we'd rather break up. And there was this guy David Anderle that we really liked. But what happened is our A&R guy was Steve Ralbovsky. He signed us, he was all excited about us, and his big band were some shit groups called the Outfield and the Fixx, all this shit. But he was a nice guy, and he seemed to really get... He went and saw us at CBGB's, we were kind of doing a show and he really connected with a song from While You Were Out that he's like, "I get this, I want to see you guys," and so he signed us, and we did that record. Four weeks before [Hang Time] came out, he quit.

So we were fucked, you know? And then remember, we'd be on tour with Soundgarden, who was also on A&M, and we'd be fuckin' tolling around in a van to all these shows in Brooklyn. They had a tour bus and shit, I was like, "Holy fuck, you know the record company's paying for that, because you're only making 500 bucks opening for us," you know?

But I was like, "How the fuck did they get a tour bus?" And we're in this shitty Dodge van with a fuckin' sock for the gas cap, you know, and yeah. So they picked whatever band they liked better that started with S. I was furious about that, obviously, we're like, "Fuck you," you know?

And it was kind of weird, we were making While You Were Out record, we did it on the sound stage of A&M... This guy Steve Jordan had produced records, like "Hey, I'd like to do... This is a great live band, I'd like to set up a big sound stage with the mobile truck and we'll just kind of capture them playing live." But Dave Pirner doesn't like to record until 9 or 10 at night, so we'd play from 9 or 10 at night til 3 in the morning. And literally all the neighbors in this neighborhood started pounding on doors and were recording and showing up there, and the police started to come.

So we got kicked out of A&M soundstage while we were making the record and we had to relocate to A&M studios, where we did "We 3" and "Nice Guys (Don't Get Paid)." Half the record was recorded after we'd spent four weeks setting up this thing, and I was like, "If my record label can't fuckin' stand up for me and let us record at their own sound..." It just got to be where...

There was a really nice guy there named David Anderle, he worked with the Flying Burrito Brothers and shit. He really loved us but he couldn't do enough. We said, "You know what, if you're gonna make us make another record, we're just gonna fuckin' break up." And he said, "I get that. I can see you guys are heartbroken."

And then a couple years passed and Dave kind of had developed tinnitus, that ear ringing thing you get? And so he started writing some just beautiful songs. He just fuckin' floored me. He came over to my basement a couple times, I was living in a little house, he started playing this music and it turned into "Without A Trace," "Black Gold," "New World." At first, the demo tape we did was all acoustic shit like that, so... And it was just beautiful. We recorded it and then we started shopping it around to Geffen and Interscope, or whatever label was cool. Everybody seemed like they were really into it. Because everybody thought "Runaway Train" was a hit, because it sounded just about like it does on the record, not quite as hi-fi, but you know, the harmonies were there. It was nice, it was a beautiful lyric, and a beautiful song. It was like, "Holy shit, man, this sounds like a cover. I love this," you know?

And so, we kind of decided at the last minute that we really didn't want... So we started, kind of, we hired this guy, Michael Beinhorn, who was difficult, but he was a genius and he was really hard to work with but he was really, really into the band, and we had to fire Grant, which was really hard for morale, but it was the right thing to do. We had this guy Sterling [Campbell], who later joined the band, came in and played on stuff. I mean, the difference between Grant playing "Runaway Train" and Sterling, it's just infinitely better. I don't know, you can't teach that, it's just a feel, you know? Drummers have the hardest job in music because you can't piece together a good track. It's either you can play it inspiring in a way that moves people or you can't, you know?

PSF: I remember reading, I think you guys did an oral history for SPIN about "Runaway Train."

DM: Yeah, yeah, it was brutal. But yeah, so yeah...

PSF: And talking about how Grant was just more of a basher.

DM: Well, he was... Grant was, he was kind of a brand new drummer when we hired him, because he lived in this place we were practicing at. He worked really hard at it, and he played good on some stuff. Some stuff he could do and some stuff he just couldn't do at all you know what I mean? I think he played... On that record, he played on "Black Gold" and "Growing into You." I think those are the only two records he played. I mean, Hang Time, some of the drums are good, but it was a lot of piecing together two-inch tape to make those drum tracks. And the thing is, if you're in the studio, you can't play anything until you have drum tracks, so you spend two or three weeks of your four or six week budget doing drum tracks, and then I'm just like, "You should be able to do that in fuckin' four days. You're playing drums, songs you've rehearsed for seven months," you know?

So yeah, I mean, that was frustrating. And you know, when you're from Minneapolis, it's like, they don't say, "oh we can get you this drummer or this drummer." We met Sterling one night and he came in and he fuckin' played, I don't know, five songs. We hadn't gotten a song maybe in four weeks in the studio, and it was fuckin' dour. We were in New York with Michael Beinhorn, he's like, "You know what, I've got to make a change here," and I reluctantly said, "Okay." And Sterling came in. I was like, "Holy shit, this gives it a new thing."

And then we were finishing the record, we were kind of doing some post production in a little studio called Pachyderm in Cannon Falls, Minnesota, and Michael Beinhorn's like, "You know what? This record's great, but you need a fuckin' rock song." It was like 11:00 at night, Dave's like, "I got one." I never even heard the song before, it was "Somebody to Shove," and you know, Sterling's like, "You want me to play this shit this late at night?" He was complaining about it, you know? "The fuckin' bass drum, the head's so loose, the fuckin'..." He was just complaining about... But we probably only did that three times and we got that track. I was like, "Wow, that was the one that we really needed for that record." We were all kind of... It would have been a really different record without that track on it, though, you know?

PSF: Was there much pressure when it came to recording Grave Dancers Union?

DM: No, I mean, we had this guy... David Kahne was kind of our A&R guy, and a guy named Benjie Gordon, who was our A&R guy. We had a good relationship with Donnie Ienner, I mean, he really believed in us. And he was the fuckin' head of the company at that time. Whoever Mariah Carey's husband was at... I can't remember his name, that was the other guy.

PSF: Mottola.

DM: Yeah, Tommy Mottola. We called Donnie Ienner 'Bamm-Bamm,' which was our nickname for him, because he was like a Flintstones character. But he loved us, he really was into us. He believed in Dave, he believed in me, and he just let us do our thing. We went up to his office and played the record. He was like, "Holy fuck, you guys have fucking done it." He was so proud of it. I was just like... I had chills, I was like... Way up on the 52nd floor in the Sony building. We called it 'the ice box.' It was this big black glass box in Midtown. And we're up there, and he was just like... We played it from beginning, deafeningly loud, and he was like, "Holy fuck, this is so good," and I was like, "Finally, we made a good decision."

But I think in terms of whatever success we had commercially, I mean, you need someone like that that is A) powerful, B) really, really believes in you, and C) lets you do your own fuckin' thing and doesn't try to micromanage you.

See Part 2 of the Soul Asylum interview

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER