by Paul Freeman [interview of July, 2006]

Despite enduring tragedy, Soul Asylum has found “The Silver Lining” (Legacy Records). Their first new studio album in early eight years, it ranks among their best.

Just as the band got together to record, bassist Karl Mueller was diagnosed with throat cancer. His courageous battle to finish the album before succumbing to the illness in June, 2005, imbued the music with an extra dimension. [Mueller's widow has established "Karl Fund," for research, visit www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=130296286993363&v=info]

“It affected it in a profound way that I’ll never entirely comprehend,” says vocalist Dave Pirner. “It gave a sense of urgency to the record. It brought a whole new meaning to ‘this is a life-or-death situation.’ You want to take that approach, because you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. Rock ‘n’ roll by nature is a reaching-into-the-ether kind of thing, where you can’t have a lot of expectations. You have to go with the flow.

“His personality was one of perseverance and an undying enthusiasm for the band. While me and Danny Murphy (guitarist) had a tendency to be a little more cynical sometimes, Karl was never like that. He loved being in the band. He was very into this record and very proud of it. He was a real believer until the last day.”

During the past eight years, there were points during which Pirner wondered if Soul Asylum would ever record again. “It didn’t seem worth putting out a record that was sub-par by our standards, just for the sake of putting a record out. It had to be something special. We’d like to think that’s what we ended up with.”

Despite bleak circumstances, “The Silver Lining” offers a glint of hope. “We all started out as dreamers and fans, people that had this askew vision that it might be fun to be in a rock band. Redemption comes from writing a good song, completing a good record or having a good show. That’s why we got into this in the first place. But along the way, it’s easy to forget and wonder, ‘Why am I putting myself through this?’ You have to always believe that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. You can’t just punch in and punch out and live with yourself.”

Pirner penned “Success Is Not So Sweet” during the band’s platinum heights of the ‘90s.

“I don’t really think it’s a blessing and a curse,” Pirner says of success. “It’s just often not what people think it is, especially when you’re dealing with an art and commerce situation. When you’re trying to create something, a definitiion of success is much more elusive. I don’t want to sound pretentious and call it ‘art.’ It’s just rock music, after all. But you have to believe in it.

“When you get to a certain impasse, you stand there and go, ‘Is this what the band set out to do or something that we’re just trying to get to in order to survive?’ There are people suddenly making money off of you and they’re suddenly your best friends. Things like that can be unsettling. You have to have a sense of humor about it, though there’s not a lot of humor in that particular song.”

Some songs that appear cutting edge were written years ago. “Fearless Leader” applies to our current administration, but was actually sparked by George Sr.’s reign. “Standing Water” would seem to depict Hurricane Katrina’s destruction of Pirner’s adopted home, New Orleans. But he wrote it two years before the disaster.

“It never sounds quite right coming out of my mouth, but trying to bring a timeless element is an objective.”

He welcomes listeners to apply their own interpretations to songs. “There was a line in a song called ‘Black Gold,’ where I was talking about a wheelchair and people in wheelchairs really responded to it. That’s not what I was talking about there, but if it works for you, great.”

Many fans think the new CD’s leadoff song, “Stand Up and Be Strong” is about Mueller. “That’s the most touching thing I ever heard. Even though it was written five years before he was diagnosed, I find that to be a beautiful interpretation.”

Though Minneapolis remains Soul Asylum’s business base, Pirner maintains a residence in New Orleans. He moved there to reinvigorate himself musically. “I needed to find my inner fan and become a little more awestruck with music again. Musically, it’s a mecca. It’s where the roots of so much of what I do for a living comes from. It was like a magnet. I love the city and the music that comes out of it. It just seems to ooze from the cracks in the street.”

Though Katrina didn’t decimate Pirner directly, he has seen the devastation. “Some musicians have been displaced, but they’re going to take the city with them, wherever they go. You can take the musician out of New Orleans, but you can’t take New Orleans out of the musician.

“I don’t have a lot of cheery things to say about the way things are there right now. I’m missing the positivity that people had, of a renewal. It gets more tragic every day. It’s not a lost cause. The city has to come back, but it’s going to be a lot slower, more agonizing, than anybody imagined. We’re continuing to rebuild and to have all the hope in the world for our for friends and relatives that are still living in FEMA trailers. It’s a resilient place.”

At the moment, Pirner is on the road. He’s thrilled with the work of two new bandmates -- drummer Michael Bland and former Replacement Tommy Stinson, Mueller’s hand-picked successor on bass.

When Soul Asylum is on stage, Pirner senses Mueller there beside him. “It’s the time when I feel closest to Karl. I feel like I’m conjuring him, like I am carrying on in his honor and it’s what he wants me to do, so he can laugh at us and be critical of us and be proud of us.

It’s a weird thing, but I can’t really do it without feeling that way.”

His bond with fellow founding band member Murphy has never been greater. “ We were playing at a cancer benefit the other day. Both of us could barely make it through the song. That was probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever experienced. I thought I was going to lose it and have to stop.”

But perfomring brings elation, too. “There’s nothing more satisfying than playing a good show. It happens less and less that we don’t play a good show, which is a real sign of progress to me,” he laughs. “We’re just back from the East Coast and I’ve got to say, we sounded pretty f---ing good! The audience responded in a way that made us feel it was worth whatever it took to get here, all the struggle.”

For the latest Soul Asylum tour dates, check www.enterthesoulasylum.com