Flashback to the late Sixties: A prepubescent Dan Murphy is drooling over the cover of an album from his parents' collection. It's a Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass record featuring an unclothed Hispanic beauty slathered up to her false eyelashes in whipped cream. Murphy calls the provocative cover of Whipped Cream and Other Delights his "introduction to sex."
Flashforward twenty years: After being signed to A&M Records, guitarist Murphy and his band Soul Asylum decide to take a pot shot at their new boss--Herb "Don't Call Me `Lonely Bull' Anymore" Alpert. The group, scheduled to shoot the cover for its final album with the indie Twin/Tone label, opts to spoof the much-salivated-upon Whipped Cream photo. But instead of a comely Latina wallowing in Reddi wip, gangly, sideburned bassist Karl Mueller squats buck naked in a vat of foul-looking fish dip. It's rumored that upon seeing this cover of Soul Asylum's Clam Dip and Other Delights EP, Alpert spat up his coffee.
"We were trying to show that we were independent and had a sense of humor," explains Murphy in a telephone interview from New York. "It was a calculated thing. We were saying, `Watch this!' But no one was really offended. I guess even Herb ended up thinking it was pretty funny. I hear he had a cutout of the album in his office for a while."
Obviously this isn't the kind of band that bows to company bosses. All the more reason Soul Asylum was leery about being under the thumb of executives at megalabel A&M. Murphy was fully prepared for the company to try sanitizing the band. He was expecting Alpert's henchmen to make a litany of unreasonable demands, like asking band members to get regular haircuts or wash their jeans more often. He was worried that the label would try to spruce up the Soulsters' sound as well.
But, as it's turned out, A&M has pretty much let the mangy band be. No one has forced vocalist-guitarist Dave Pirner to take a comb to his head of greasy pseudodreads. His fellow Soul skags also look as happily unkempt as ever. But best of all, there's been no scrub and polish job on the band's music.
"A&M has been pretty good to us," admits Murphy. "I think they . . . God I hate to say it, but I think they almost believe in us. I think they believe what we do is semi-important and unique.
"I don't know, it seems like bands that can function and go out and tour and get along on a daily basis and take care of all the business ends are really a rarity," he adds. "I think the fact that we're fairly reliable and a pretty good live band, I think A&M is kind of jazzed by that."
Murphy claims his band has even gotten to the point where it can make a few modest demands of Alpert and the other label honchos. Not bad for a band that upon entering the A&M building was afraid it would be mistaken for the office cleaning crew. "I guess we've finally gotten to the point where we just ask for things," acknowledges Murphy. "You know, if you don't ask, you don't get anything. We ask to make enough money to live, and we ask for a new guitar when we need one. And if everybody else gets to hire whatever producer they want and take as long as they want on an album, I figure we should, too."
Soul Asylum took its own sweet time making 1988's Hang Time, the band's A&M debut. The album showed it, too, with its uncharacteristically polished musicianship and carefully arranged tunes. Hang Time even had raspy-piped Pirner singing in key, more or less.
"Hang Time was a good record for the time," asserts Murphy. "The rap on the band at that point was that we couldn't really play or write songs very well. Everybody thought our Twin/Tone Records were really charming, but they didn't want to listen to them."
Even Murphy admits that, as listenable as Hang Time was, it didn't really capture the band's, um, soul. To ensure that its latest album Soul Asylum and the Horse They Rode In On would have an earthier sound, all the songs were tracked live. "More than anything," states Murphy, "I think it sounds loose. You can hear a whole band playing together and looking at each other and smiling. It's like you can hear us saying, `Oh shit, this sounds pretty good. We're almost through with this song, and no one's screwed up yet!'"
While making and the Horse They Rode In On, the band claims it was thrown out of A&M's Los Angeles recording studio for being too loud. But actually, this group that began gigging under the name Loud Fast Rules has gotten a lot less noisy over the years. In fact, Soul Asylum's growing melodicism is disconcerting to some fans. There are those listeners who would be content for the band to crank out album after album of the same sonic histrionics that comprised its Bob Mould-produced debut, 1984's Say What You Will . . . .
Critics and fans alike have accused the group of forsaking its punk roots, but the truth is that Soul Asylum has never really considered itself a punk band. Murphy claims people mistook the band's inability to sing or play its instruments as an allegiance to punk. Maybe Pirner's hoarse shout did seem to ape Rotten or Strummer or Ramone in the early days, but he was just trying to mask his wimpy teenage whine. Given his druthers, he would have loved to sound like Roy Orbison.
"The only thing about punk that inspired us was that it allowed young ungifted musicians to make music," claims Murphy. "I mean, when we first started, we literally played in a garage. Karl had played bass for, like, four weeks before we did our first show. The only thing we could do was play really loud and really fast. That's easy. Playing slow is hard because you have to lay back, and you have to play in time. I can get satisfaction out of that kind of playing now."
Some of Murphy's favorite performances these days are the all-acoustic shows he does with Pirner. But this duo doesn't treat the acoustic format with the reverence of some folkies. This is obvious from a few of the names the pair plays under: Sunshine on My Shoulder, Jukebox From Hell, and--for its special Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young tribute--Baldy, Pills, Hash and Bong.
Murphy and Pirner always bring their guitars along when A&M requires the band to go on "brown-nose seminars," visiting radio stations and retail outlets around the country. "The more we play, the less we have to schmooze," Murphy explains. These shoulder-rubathons aren't the only major-label responsibilities the band would sooner shirk. Alpert--maybe to seek revenge for the Clam Dip cover--also occasionally requires Soul Asylum to play on the same bill as people it wouldn't want to share a prolonged elevator ride with.
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"We're going on a hockey-rink tour opening for Kingdom Whitesnake or somebody like that," groans Murphy. "I'm sure it will be embarrassing. We want to get people to come see us that would never come see us otherwise so they can throw stuff at us. They say a little humiliation goes a long way, and we're going to find that out the hard way, I can guarantee you."
Soul Asylum will perform at After the Gold Rush on Tuesday, November 13. Showtime is 7:30 p.m.
The group opts to spoof the Whipped Cream photo. Bassist Karl Mueller squats buck naked in a vat of foul-looking fish dip.