By Dan Weiss
Single Again is a column on Radio.com where Dan Weiss investigates chart hits of the past and present, their stories and what they meant and how good they really are.
For this edition of Single Again, we spoke to Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum about the top 20 single “Misery,” which was the follow-up to their GRAMMY-winning 1992 smash hit “Runaway Train.” They’re currently on the Summerland Tour this summer along with Eve 6, Spacehog and Everclear.
I figured I would give you a break from “Runaway Train” interviews and talk about “Misery.” I think it’s way better. And that album is amazing, but Wikipedia says it’s your least-favorite Soul Asylum record.
Wikipedia says that what’s my least-favorite Soul Asylum record?
Let Your Dim Light Shine.
Well, Wikipedia also says I’m from Wisconsin, but that’s what you get for believing Wikipedia.
What sort of expectations were on the band after the success of “Runaway Train?”
Uhh…write another song like that one, pretty much. I was like, I already wrote that one. I think some of the material I wrote for Let Your Dim Light Shine is some of the best material I’ve ever written, and none of it ended up on the record because they just—I didn’t really understand at all what the hell was going on but, in retrospect maybe it’s completely obvious, or maybe I was just stupid or naïve or something. I had no idea what the f–k we were doing. But they signed us because we knew what we were doing.
It came time to make the follow-up record to that, they were like, “Blah blah blah, Butch Vig wants to work with you now…” Actually I’d known Butch Vig for quite a long time but…I guess the point is I wanted to expand in a way that nobody understood. So I was writing all this really, really good material in the natural direction I was going. I wasn’t really terribly aware of like, ‘Oh, there’s these expectations happening.’ But with Let Your Dim Light Shine, the weirdest thing about it is there’s this like, heavy stuff going on. And those were chosen because Alice in Chains and bands like that were selling records. I made songs like that too, but I wrote like, I don’t know, 60 songs for that record.
So I ended up with “Misery” and “I Did My Best” and I think that those were the songs they were looking for apparently. Personally, songs like “String of Pearls” were more like the direction I was trying to go, and I don’t know, I wrote some really interesting songs for that record that nobody gave a s–t about and were like, what the hell was that? Even the guy who was my champion over there, who signed me to the label, who was like 21 at the time, he was in tune with what I was doing but I think he got fired over it. The label was just like, [affects K-Tel commercial announcer’s voice] “More smash hits! What the f–k is this?”
The songs that got cut from it that you really liked, are those ever gonna see the light of day or have they surfaced?
Umm…no, I’ve pretty much completely lost track of them. They’re recorded on a cassette tape somewhere…I don’t know where they are anymore.
Was “Misery” taking the piss out of the popularity of grunge at the time?
Well, now I like to introduce it as about the great state of Missouri. “They say Mi-ssouri…” [laughs] Whatever, you know. I was in Vancouver and I was in a music store and the Stanley Cup was happening, the Canucks were up, I was staying at a hotel. I needed to get some s–t to write with so I went to a music store and I didn’t even know what I wanted. So I rented a keyboard, a cassette 4-track, a microphone and two other things. So I started playing the piano and the first thing I started playing was that. I don’t even know where it came from, I guess I was lonely. Can’t remember what, but somebody was telling me something about that song yesterday. And now on this tour, Art from Everclear likes to come out and sing on it. And yeah, I think I was totally making fun of the whole f–king sad-sack songwriting s–t. “Frustrated incorporated,” that whole thing was hilarious. I almost had Mike Judge make a video for it.
Which would’ve been awesome. The other guy’s concept was like, people are in a factory and they’re crying and their tears go into a tube?
Why didn’t any of those videos end up happening?
We ended up making the video with a guy who was, I guess a hot video director at the time? I actually got a phone call from the president of the label and he asked me to take some shots out of the video that he didn’t like because they were making fun of like, mass producing s–t. And I just said no. I didn’t care at that point. I was just like, ‘hey, f–k the president of the record label.’ He didn’t really want me to do that much but I was just like, nobody’s gonna tell me what to do, and I didn’t give a f–k what he thought about the f–king video. But if it were me now, I’d go, sure, I don’t care, take whatever shots you want out of the g–damn video. Who gives a f–k about videos anyway?
The fact it’s so funny is such a stark contrast with your other hit being associated with missing children.
Well, the other video was associated with missing children, but that was the video director’s concept. The second verse is about AIDS, does that make it darker for you? “We’ll create the cure, we made the disease?” You know, there were all those theories going on at that particular time, that AIDS was created in a f–king lab to get rid of f–king gay people. That was a real conspiracy theory! So if that makes it darker for you… [laughs hysterically]
It was so rare to hear something that tongue-in-cheek subversive on the radio at the time.
Well, the worst thing about trying to implicate subversive is just like anyone, that really made me proud. I got a song about taking a s–t on the radio, dude!
What did you think about Weird Al’s version, “Syndicated Incorporated”?
People ask me that. Being in the entertainment industry, I said when Weird Al covered one of our songs, I don’t know how much further you can go! Coolio had a problem with it but even the dude from Nirvana thought it was cool. The guy who was our webmaster on our fan website, I didn’t know this but, he discovered us through Weird Al.
I think I might’ve too actually. The Weird Al one probably did more good for you guys than the label promotion.
Well, that’s really…way off. But we did a show where we were playing an acoustic set in San Francisco, me and my guitarist. And in the back row we see Weird Al and I’m like, “Isn’t that f–king Weird Al?” Doing his research I guess.