When Pirner reconnected with guitarist Dan Murphy and bassist Karl Mueller to revive Soul Asylum two years ago, they still had neither a drummer nor a label, but they forged ahead anyway — only to soon lose Mueller to throat cancer. To make matters worse, Hurricane Katrina tore through Pirner’s adopted home just a few months later. Still a bit shell-shocked from both tragedies, the band reconvened to finish the album, though it took a few more twists and turns along the way.
Recorded in their Twin Cities hometown, the album contains Mueller’s final recordings, performed while simultaneously battling severe chemotherapy treatments. “It was a positive thing for him to know that we were going to complete this record,” says Pirner. “As heartbreaking as the whole situation was, I believe it gave him a greater sense of hope and a sense of completion. It was important to him that we put this record out.”
SORTING IT OUT
When they first rehearsed Pirner’s mixed bag of new songs, they weren’t sure how the new album would take shape. “We found ourselves at a crossroads,” says Pirner, who was toying around with different musical ideas during the Soul Asylum hiatus and released his first solo album, the R&B-informed Faces and Names in 2002. “We were free; we didn’t have a record deal, but we didn’t want to make a record that was remotely mediocre or experimental. Well, I wanted to make an experimental record, and that wasn’t flying. I had to realize, ‘Dave, you’re never going to be a great trumpet player, or put a bunch of hip-hop beats in your music. Just do what you’re good at and come up with some solid rock tunes.’”
After bringing in drummer Michael Bland, another Minneapolis native and seven-year veteran of Prince’s band, not only did they have some solid rock tunes, they were excited again and ready to record. And this time, they could to it their own way . . . and with their own money. “I could only see the positive side of making a record without a label,” says Pirner. “As frightening as that is when you’re putting your own money into it, it’s the purest way to record. You get more honest results because nobody’s looking over your shoulder. We could do a lot of things that we always should have done. Like record in Minneapolis. It costs a fraction of the price, and the majority of the band lives there so they can go home at the end of the day.”
ROUND 1: AND TRAGEDY STRIKES
For the first round of recording, the band teamed up with co-producer/engineer Steve Hodge, longtime engineer for super-producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and the technical whiz behind albums for Janet Jackson, Usher, Mariah Carey, and Mary J. Blige, among others. Jam and Lewis were in the process of relocating their Flyte Tyme Productions operation to Los Angeles, but Hodge still had the key. They worked out a schedule to cut basic tracks, and then Mueller found out that he had an advanced case of esophageal cancer.
Mueller’s commitment to continue propelled the band forward. As soon as he felt well enough, the team entered Flyte Tyme’s spacious Studio A for three days of tracking, which yielded 19 songs. Hodge positioned Bland and Mueller in the main studio, Pirner in a large vocal booth, and Murphy in the control room. He recorded everything through the Harrison Series 10 console and a Pro Tools HD3 workstation. With the exception of drums and a few random tracks, they replaced most of these parts later, reconvening at The Terrarium, Flyte Tyme, and Master Mix Studios A and B, part of Institute of Production and Recording, for overdubs.
They fleshed out guitar parts at The Terrarium, a well-known local studio stocked with a Neve 8128, Pro Tools HD3, loads of guitars, and more than 50 amps. In addition to having The Terrarium’s collection at their disposal, Murphy and Pirner pulled from their own inventory and vintage gems brought in by Nate Westgor, owner of Willie’s American Guitars. “There were a lot of really inventive and cool guitar sounds going on,” says Hodge. “The stereo effects on the guitars were all created live; we split guitar sounds to two amps, each with multiple mics, instead of creating effects after the fact” — miking electric guitars with a Lomo 19A19 tube mic and Beyer M-160 ribbon mic. Acoustic guitars, recorded with a similar stereo setup, were miked with Neumann KM 84s.
Hodge caught Pirner’s “gargling-with-broken-glass” vocals with an AKG C12 recorded through his Great River mic pres and dbx 160sl compressor, into The Terrarium’s Neve. More importantly, Hodge makes sure to immediately “start recording and save everything, because often the best take is the very first one.” When editing, Hodge avoids cutting and pasting by syllable. “Most songs are comps of three to five takes,” he says. “Danny was in the control room as well, and he knew when we were going in a positive direction and when it was time to move on to something else.”
As they had no real deadline, the band spent time experimenting with bass, guitar, and keyboard parts. “We really took the ‘kitchen sink’ approach — whatever it takes to get that sound, or that idea,” says Pirner. “There wasn’t anything that we couldn’t try, because we were on our own lost voyage, as it were.” The only schedule that mattered was Mueller’s. Hodge promptly sent him home if the hours wore on too long, no matter how good he felt that day. Mueller made it through all of the sessions with Hodge before he passed away on June 17, 2005. Devastated at the loss of their best friend since high school, the band put the album on hold for a while.
ROUND 2: NEW SONGS, NEW PLAYING FIELD
John Fields, another Minneapolis native, had moved to L.A. in 2002 and had been working with everyone from Switchfoot to Mandy Moore when he got a call from his old friend, Michael Bland. Soul Asylum had a full-length record in the can, but after spending a few months “living” with the material and grieving Mueller’s death, they decided to record a few more songs. Bland recommended Fields, who had worked for years in Minneapolis’ indie scene as owner/engineer of Funkytown Studios. During the first day of preproduction, they worked out three songs that “weren’t even on the docket,” as Fields recalls. “We went in the studio the next day and cut two songs. By the end of the week, we had four really great ones.”
Tracking sessions took place at Master Mix and the Terrarium, keeping Jeff Victor and his keyboards in an iso booth and Bland in the spacious live room. Fields used an AKG D112 for the kick, a 460 on the top snare, a C24 on top of the kit, and a pair of Neumann KM84s and another C24 “supercrushed through some compression” for the overheads. For toms and room mics, he used “whatever nice mics the studio had around,” he says. “To me, it’s more about how the kit sounds and how it’s tuned.”
Like Hodge, Fields knew to get Pirner’s first vocal take; in this case, using a Telefunken 251 mic, into a Manley Stereo ELOP limiter into an Empirical Labs Distressor. Murphy’s electric guitars got miked with a Royer 121 through an API mic pre and then a UREI 1176 compressor, while acoustics, overdubbed later, were usually captured through a small diaphragm condenser such as a KM84. With the exception of Bland and Victor, everyone convened in the control room during basic tracks.
“I like to keep the guitars and bass in the control room and make it sound nice and loud and thick,” says Fields, who shared bass playing duties along with ex-Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson. “I’ll put a nice compressor on the mix, so when you’re playing, it sounds like the radio. Generally, we’d have a vocal on tape (or disk) already as a guide vocal, which most of the time would be replaced. Because Michael Bland is so fast, literally after two or three takes we’re done. After that, we would just work on guitars for the rest of the day.”
MIX, REMIX, MOVE ON
“It really worked kind of spookily, if that’s a word,” says Pirner. “It resulted in some different songs going on the record and a remix by Chuck Zwicky.” Zwicky mixed one song, and the band liked the results enough to let him remix the entire album. He shuttled various versions of the mixes as MP3s via iDisc, iChat, and FTP. “I was listening in Minneapolis, John was in L.A., Dave was in New Orleans, and Chuck was in New York,” says Hodge. “You couldn’t possibly be more spread out in the States and working on the same thing. It’s a good example of how technology has changed the way records can be made.” Pirner, an artist accustomed to mixing in large commercial studios, didn’t realize until he arrived in New York to approve the final mix that Zwicky worked out of a home/project studio on Apple’s Logic Pro system.
“It was frightening as hell when I got there,” says Pirner. “I got to his tiny apartment and thought, ‘This is where he makes that big sound?’ There was no console, and we’d just had all these arguments about why we should mix on a Neve. He’s got a rack of stuff that goes to the ceiling that’s all modified by him, and these speakers that he sort of made himself. On one level, it had continuity with the goofiness of the way the entire record was made. But we also realized that you never know what’s going to work, and if you just go by what you hear, it doesn’t matter what the studio looks like, or what your preconceived notions are of what gear you’ve got to have. You think you know so much, but your own ears will tell you something different.”
They had to look pretty hard, but Soul Asylum found their “silver lining” in the 12 songs that make up their newest effort — an album that serves as a strong testament to their commitment to music making, and to the strength and dedication of their founding bass player.
Heather Johnson is a San Francisco-based professional audio and music journalist. Her first book, If These Halls: A Historical Tour Through San Francisco Recording Studios (Thomson Course Technology) is available now on Amazon.com and other retailers.