Many a musician has been unmade by commercial success and rock super-stardom, but Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner isn’t one of them.
These days the singer and guitarist is having more fun — and arguably playing better — than he was when Soul Asylum was topping the charts and selling out arenas.
The band has come full circle from their humble beginnings, touring clubs and a playing hard-edged, punk-infused rock like they did 30 years ago. Pirner, long disillusioned after the band’s mid-’90s success, says he feels creatively fired and right at home doing what the band is doing now.
“It’s not particularly glamorous and it’s really hard sometimes,” he told me from a tour stop in California. “But the way that we support each other and play together is really something that I cherish at this time in my life. And I didn’t see it coming.”
You know the hits — “Runaway Train,” “Misery,” “Somebody to Shove” — but you likely don’t know the unlikely three-decade-long story of Soul Asylum, which plays Belly Up on Friday.
The band formed in Minneapolis in 1983, playing a blend of punk, hard rock and country in a style that would later be dubbed by record executives as “alternative.” They gigged around Twin Cities clubs and made five albums before they released “Grave Dancer’s Union” in 1992. Coming just a few months after Nirvana’s “Nevermind” knocked Michael Jackson off the top of the charts, the album’s ragged rock songs came out just as a mainstream audience realized they wanted to hear them.
Soul Asylum sold millions of copies of the record, became MTV darlings, won a “Best Rock Song” Grammy for “Runaway Train,” played arenas, and then made a hit follow-up two years later in “Let Your Dim Light Shine.”
Still an indie punk kid at heart, though, Pirner quickly tired of the commercial demands of rock stardom. Their hard-core pre-fame fans branded Soul Asylum sell-outs, while the mainstream ones lost interest as the grunge fad faded. And after the disappointing 1998 album, “Candy From a Stranger,” Soul Asylum took a break and fell off the map.
Pirner moved to New Orleans, soaked in the unpretentious jazz club scene, made a solo album, and wrote songs for Kevin Smith’s movies.
He eventually picked up fellow Minneapolitan Prince’s drummer Michael Bland, and reconvened Soul Asylum in 2004. But those plans were scuttled when their bassist, Karl Mueller, was diagnosed with throat cancer and died within a year.
With a new Soul Asylum lineup around Pirner, the band made “The Silver Lining” in 2006, got back to touring clubs and playing live as much as they could. Last year, they released “Delayed Reaction,” which returns the band to its hard rock roots and has Pirner more excited about Soul Asylum than he’s been since before their star turn two decades ago.
After the unbridled success of the uncharacteristically mellow “Runaway Train,” he says, the band fell into a “mid-tempo malaise” — making tired, softer rock songs without heart. Teaming up with Bland brought Pirner and Soul Asylum back to its high-volume home.
“I’m not the kind of guy that likes to play a ballad,” Pirner laughs. “I want some action. And he’s incredibly good at it, which makes all the difference in the world. ... He’s the main inspiration. It made me write some really fast rocking songs.”
On the new album, Pirner also tries his hand at New Orleans-style jazz for the first time. The brassy song, “Cruel Intentions,” serves as a clever palate cleanser on an album rooted in driving rock cuts like “Gravity” and “Let’s All Kill Each Other.”
The Gulf Coast city, where Pirner’s lived since 1999, reconnected him to music when he was at a creative low point brought on by the band’s commercial success.
“I think the music I was playing and the places where it was going, and where I was finding myself — the more that got sort of impersonal,” he explains, “the more I craved that intimate setting of a jazz club where nothing’s plugged in.”
The current Soul Asylum lineup, rounded out by bassist Winston Roye and guitarist Justin Sharbono, Pirner says, has elevated it to a new level of high spirits and skills.
“It’s like I always wished it would be,” Pirner says. “But never thought it would be. ... I really like being the weak link in the band.”
In recent years, Pirner has even come around to enjoy playing “Runway Train” live. He had removed it from their sets as they tried, in the ’90s, to move out of its iconic shadow.
“I said, ‘Look, we need to re-challenge the audience with our new material and I don’t want a song that’s that dependable,’” he recalls. “That’d be like, ‘Here’s a couple soft balls.’”
That stance, naturally, disappointed and angered fans who came out to hear Soul Asylum’s biggest hit.
“I’d try to explain it to them, but by the time the conversation was over, I could’ve just played the f---king song,” Pirner laughs. “So now I’ve just embraced it. Why not?”
Going back to playing their best-known song has been unexpectedly fulfilling for Pirner, now 48. It’s a nostalgia piece for millennials whose tween years were soundtracked by it. And it’s one of those songs that, through some kind of cultural osmosis, everybody knows the words to and can sing along with.
The guy who wrote it, and long turned his back on it, enjoys playing it today and hearing fans drown out his voice with their own.
“It’s almost surreal how it’s maintained with time,” he says. “It doesn’t seem to change, it’s this thing that makes people feel the way it’s always made them feel, and they want to have that feeling.”
And the song, though it’s more of a ballad than most anything Pirner’s written, is a pretty excellent song, he admits.
“Overall, I’m just glad it’s the song that it is, and it’s not something stupid,” he says.
with Matthew Moon
Belly Up Aspen
Friday, April 12
$22 general/$35 reserve