Formed in 1981, Soul Asylum emerged from the streets of Minneapolis into the mainstream spotlight in the early 90’s. The hit song, “Runaway Train” propelled the band’s 1992 release, Grave Dancer’s Union to triple platinum status. The band’s rich back catalogue has solidified their place among the most enduring and consistently excellent bands of the 90’s.
In 2005 while in the midst of recording their 9th studio album, The Silver Lining, the band suffered a huge loss with the passing of the band’s bassist, Karl Mueller. Soul Asylum assembled a Minnesotan dream team of musicians with Tommy Stinson (Replacements, Guns & Roses) on bass guitar, and Michael Bland (Prince’s New Power Generation) to finish the album. This is the official lineup since 2006.
In the following interview, founding member and lead guitarist Dan Murphy tells us about the gear that defined the Soul Asylum sound, the passing of Karl Mueller, and the plans for a new album with the current all-star lineup.
Guitar.com: What does your live rig look like these days?
Dan Murphy: Live, I will usually just use a couple AC-30s. But in the studio, we’re pretty specific about what we use. For all three of the Twin Tone Records (Say what You will, Made To Be Broken, While You Were Out) I used an Ampeg V4, which was a monstrously loud amp head that had a really peculiar sound. Dave would always use a Telecaster which had a very bright tone and was so sharp that I wanted to get a loud bassy roaring low end tone to counteract that. For guitars then, I played a Les Paul Jr. and Les Paul Special with P-90 pickups in them – they had a lot of mid range and a lot of buzzing between songs but that was the sound we were going for back then.
You can really tell the difference between the tone on those records and our newer records like Hang Time, which was the first record I used a Standard Las Paul with two humbuckers on. I think that was when I started using Gold Tops. It’s a really different sound - you get a little more control over the tone with humbuckers than with P-90s. The Gold Tops, at the time weren’t really a big deal, it’s just what Gibson was making at the time. I bought them in the early 80’s and they were about four years old when I got them. What I liked about them was that they had Maple necks instead of Mahogany so I didn’t break them on tour all the time. I still have those two Gold Tops I bought back in the early 80s and they probably have 600 shows on them, maybe more.
Guitar.com: They made guitars to last back then.
Murphy: Yeah, I think the key was the Maple necks, every guitar with a Mahogany neck, I broke. And I’m pretty careful with them. I had a beautiful 1969 Les Paul Special TV Model. It was a gorgeous guitar that made it only a few months on tour before the headstock broke, which was a pretty typical place for a break on those guitars. The changes in climate makes things so brittle and the way the airlines handles that stuff, things like that happen.
Guitar.com: Minnesota doesn’t have the best climate for touring and caring for guitars either.
Murphy: I remember one time, we were driving to a show in Wisconsin and we had all of our equipment loaded in the back of our van. We got to the venue late and had to unload our equipment right away and it was like 85 degrees inside this club and it was like 30 below out in the van. I got the guitar inside and opened up the case and you could just watch the finish crinkle up right away. Its par for the course though, when you live in Minnesota in the winter, it hard on your hands, and your skin, and your back and your guitar all at the same time.
From '92 - Grave Dancers Union
Guitar.com: Do you think the harsh climate up here has anything to do with why Minnesota has always had a thriving music scene?
Murphy: There wasn’t really a whole lot to do except for make music. You could go out and see live music every night at 7th Street Entry and Duffy’s. At that time I had no idea that Minnesota was such a cultural experience and that there was such a scene going on. We had the Replacements and Husker Du and then we had Timbuktu and some weird pop bands – a wide mix. This was before we had the internet and as we toured, we found that there were little pockets of great bands in places you really might not expect. In Minneapolis we had Twin Tone Records which was a great asset for us.
Guitar.com: So then, back to your gear, what do you currently use in you’re live rig?
Murphy: Yeah, the Ampegs tended to blow up a lot. For a while I was using a Mesa Amp that they don’t make anymore. I didn’t really like their Dual Rectifiers; they made it sound like we were in a hair band or something. So, I bought a Bogner which I like quite a bit. When we’re on tour, I typically use a couple AC-30s.
Guitar.com: Do you ever use vintage gear in the studio or live?
Murphy: Dave and I have some nice guitars that we don’t dare tour with. I have a ‘57 Esquire and a ‘63 Jazzmaster, an old Epiphone hollowbody; we’ve got a lot of really beautiful guitars that we only use for studio sessions. The vintage stuff is really fun to play. They all have little quirks like some sound good with a capo, some sound good up the neck and some don’t. We usually have 6 or 7 on the rack that we can pull out for various situations.
Guitar.com: Are there any specific examples of songs where you’ve used some of your vintage equipment?
Murphy: Sure, “Cartoon” - that was played my Les Paul Gold Top and believe it or not, that was played on this little tiny Ampeg Reverb Rocket from the 60s. Ed Stacium was our producer at the time and he told me that I needed to try out this amp. I was like, “No fucking way”. We were under the impression that you needed a Marshall or a big Ampeg and you had to play at 120 decibels in the studio. But when you’re doing that, you’re usually putting a microphone up to the amp that’s not capable of receiving that much output and it’s limiting what you’re doing. So I finally plugged into that Reverb Rocket and I wasn’t too impressed because it didn’t fill up the room or make my ears hurt. But we put a couple mics on it and then I came into the control room and listened to what was actually going to tape as I was playing and once I did that, I have never recorded any other way. Before that, I was duct taping my headphones on so they wouldn’t fall off and blasting out the guitar parts. But this way I can hear the tone that is going on the record. Every record we’ve done since then I will sit in the control room with my effects pedals and the producer while my amp is in another room and that way I can get a better sense of the tone and decide what is a good take. Another thing we do in the studio is we try to record the guitar, drum, and bass tracks right away to maintain the dynamics and interplay within the band.
Guitar.com: Are there any effects that you’ve used consistently over the years?
Murphy: I use an Ibanez Tube Screamer – I’ve used that on all of our records. I use a Delayla pedal. If I need tremolo, I like to use an amp that has tremolo on it. It seems like you get a warmer tone that way. I try to stay away from those pedals that change octaves and stuff like that. I don’t want it to sound too synth-rock, to me, that’s not how a guitar should sound. I keep it pretty simple. I don’t know if our sound has really evolved that much over the years but I like to play smaller amps now and open them up a bit. I think the guitar sounds on our last record were pretty phenomenal, especially on tracks like, “Stand Up And Be Strong” – I thought that turned out really well.
Guitar.com: Were there ever people who told you that you weren’t going to make it?
Murphy: Yeah, we played our first show in Dave’s mom’s garage. And from there we just focused on putting on the next show and we kept getting better. Dave was a really gifted writer, even back then, in 10th grade in high school, he’d bring in some pretty cool songs. Our biggest goal was to get enough of a following where we could get out of town.
I think the first time we toured nationally was in 82 or 83 and we played at CBGBs. We played fifth out of five bands which we all thought was cool because we were headlining. But that was actually the worst slot because we had to go on at like 2 in the morning and the crow had thinned out to like 5 guys from other bands by then. But being on the road and playing somewhere different every night and meeting people made it all worth all the effort. We all fell in love with it at the same time and we realized that we had to put out another record and keep touring. It was really a home spun band with very humble beginnings.
Guitar.com: You grew up playing music in a really pivotal and exciting time. Today’s up and coming bands are sort of made-for-TV and they just don’t seem to have the heart that bands seemed to have back then.
Murphy: Yeah, it was an exciting time, the scenes were popping up in different places that you wouldn’t expect and people were putting out zines to support their scene. It was a very quaint time to be twenty years old, driving around in a van, playing punk rock music. To me, those were the happiest days of my career in music. We worked hard but in some ways, it was the most rewarding and the most fun.
Guitar.com: Nowadays you’ve got the dream team of Minnesotan musicians.
Murphy: Yeah, I still miss Karl. That was really hard to go on without him. But Tommy, I knew him when he was just a kid – I’m four years older than Tommy. I knew him when I was 18 and he was 14. Tommy was Karl’s girlfriend at the time’s younger brother and she told us that her younger brother was in a band so we went and saw him and that was the first time I saw the Replacements. They were playing a party somewhere. Then through the 80s and 90’s we weren’t very close because they were busy and then they broke up around the time when we got sort of big. We’d only see them once or twice a year. It wasn’t that we were really good friends but I felt that there was a connection there.
Then we have Michael Bland who is easily the best drummer I’ve ever worked with. He’s kind of a task master but its good for us because we can get sort of sloppy sometimes. He’s got perfect pitch which is amazing for a drummer and he’s got a photographic memory. Any song on any Soul Asylum record that he’s only heard once, he can tell us what key its in which is pretty amazing.
Guitar.com: That must be pretty nice for you to have a rhythm section like that to lean on.
Murphy: Yeah, it really is. I find myself playing less and getting a fuller tone. It was a mutation of the band. When Bland came into the studio with us, we knew it would be more accurate. The first song he played in the studio was a song from the Grave Dancers album. And he was able to interpret everything spot on. Not just the beat but the little fills between the lyrics, he would do these Ringo Starr drum solos on the toms to fill those spaces. You can fake being a competent guitar player or bass player sometimes, but the drums need to be right on all the time.
From their '98 Release - Candy From A Stranger
Guitar.com: I heard rumors that Soul Asylum might be working on a new album.
Murphy: Yes, actually we are working on a new album. We all get busy with other projects and things and then one day your manager calls you up and tells you its been five years since you’ve put out an album and you think, “Shit, has it been that long already?” It sneaks up on you.
We have been working quite a bit on the new album. We’re working at Flowers Studio in Minneapolis with Peter Anderson and Dave’s got a studio that’s quite nice at his house in New Orleans. I’d say we are about half way done with the new record. We’re going to do a couple more sessions this spring and summer and it’s possible that we might have a new Soul Asylum record out by October or November of this year.
Guitar.com: Will it be Tommy and Michael on the new album – is that the new official lineup?
Murphy: Yeah, we’ve also done some work with Pete Donelly, I guess you could say he’s Tommy’s understudy and he’s in a band called The Figs. Some of the stuff we recorded on the first session in New Orleans featured him doing some stuff on piano. But the core lineup that we’ve been touring with is myself, Dave, Tommy, and Michael. That’s the official lineup.
Guitar.com: This will be the first record without Karl.
Murphy: Yeah, on the last record (Silver Lining) Karl was really sick. He got better for a while and we did some recording. There were only three or four songs that Karl was not on. The majority was him on the last record but we needed a last burst to get that record done and Karl’s cancer relapsed and that’s when Tommy came in.
It was tough because Karl was always there when I’d look over to my right and he was my room mate on the road. Tommy really respects the band and what we’ve been through. He went through it with his brother Bob, who also died under pretty tragic circumstances so it felt like he was really there for us when that whole thing was unfolding.
Guitar.com: Are there any songs that you won’t play anymore without Karl?
Murphy: We recorded a lot of music with Karl. Last time we played First Avenue, it was kind of cool, we had a big screen in front of the stage and we showed the video for “Artificial Heart” while we played behind the screen. We just started playing “Marionette” again. But Dave and I like to play newer stuff and keep our shows current while mixing in some old songs.
Guitar.com: Dan, thanks for taking the time!!
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