Soul Asylum had reached a dead end. No hits and no new studio albums in years. Disgust with the music industry. Not even a record deal.
Then bassist and founding member Karl Mueller was diagnosed with throat cancer. Mueller's health crisis gave the Minneapolis rockers best known for the 1993 hit "Runaway Train" a sense of urgency as they headed back into the studio.
The result was "The Silver Lining," a strong CD that comes out just over a year after Mueller's death.
"Definitely I felt it's what Karl wanted and the band has his blessings. And the new record is pretty much a tribute to him," said guitarist Daniel Murphy.
Mueller's illness "kind of lit a fire" under Soul Asylum, Murphy said. After leaving Columbia Records, where Soul Asylum hit it big with 1992's "Grave Dancers Union" and its successful 1995 follow-up, "Let Your Dim Light Shine," Murphy said the band took "a very long yawn" — one that ended up lasting eight years.
"We really needed it. We were sick of each other, we were sick of the music industry, the business," Murphy said.
Murphy said the band, whose last studio album, "Candy From a Stranger," for Columbia in 1998, had stiffed, already was planning a return to recording when Mueller was diagnosed with cancer in 2004. Mueller had been feeling sick when a fist-sized tumor was found lodged against his esophagus, Murphy said.
Before his diagnosis, Mueller had quit drinking and was trying to give up smoking, said frontman Dave Pirner.
"He was really making an effort, you know, a really big effort to straighten it out," Pirner said during an interview in Soul Asylum's dank rehearsal space, littered with empty beer bottles and cigarette butts, in northeast Minneapolis.
"He actually was very inspired to get the band up and running, hiring a manager and all that stuff. He was like, ‘We got to get back to work.’ That was before he was diagnosed," he said.
Initially, Mueller responded well to chemotherapy, and the band was optimistic he would return as its touring bassist.
"I sure thought it (recording) was gonna keep him alive, you know, because it was very important to him," Pirner said. "I mean, it had this great sense of ‘We're gonna make this record and we're gonna go back on tour, we're gonna be just like we were, and everything's gonna be fine,’ and it was a real earnest belief that things could be normal again."
But a little over a year after he was diagnosed, Mueller died in June 2005. He was 41.
"He was really a pillar in the band," said Pirner, who formed Loud Fast Rules — the band that would become Soul Asylum — with Murphy and Mueller in 1981. "He just made it doable. He made it easy. He made it fun."
Mueller played bass on the majority of "The Silver Lining," Murphy said, but his playing was "wildly erratic depending on the day, because he was on a ton of medication and he was really sick."
"I mean, some days he'd go in and say, `You know what? I can't do this today.' And other days he'd come into the studio and be on a super good roll and be feeling good and we'd get three or four things done," said Murphy, who credits co-producer Steve Hodge for working with Mueller.
"The Silver Lining," released Legacy Recordings (which like old label Columbia is part of SonyBMG), features the familiar Soul Asylum melodic crunch on such songs as "Stand Up and Be Strong," "Success Is Not So Sweet" and "Oxygen."
Ex-Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson helped out on singing and bass on a few tracks and filled in on bass at club dates after Mueller died. Currently touring Europe with Guns N' Roses, Stinson is expected to rejoin Soul Asylum this summer. Meanwhile, the band is touring with bassist John Fields, who also played on "The Silver Lining."
Besides Mueller's death, Pirner, 42, also had to deal with Hurricane Katrina last year. Pirner was back in Minneapolis when the hurricane hit and worried about his New Orleans home, but found the house was spared because it was on higher ground.
"I'm still trying to get over things," Pirner said.
Peter Jesperson, who signed Loud Fast Rules to its first record deal at independent Twin/Tone Records in 1984, expects Soul Asylum to endure.
"They're a real band. They're in it for the long haul," said Jesperson, now senior vice president/A&R at New West Records.
Along with a Mardi Gras parade bracelet, Pirner wears a yellow LiveStrong wristband that the Lance Armstrong Foundation sells to raise money for cancer research. He hopes to carry on somehow without Mueller.
"I find myself at different times during the day missing him for different reasons. I don't even understand, you know, how I'm supposed to carry on without him. I don't get it. And I believe that he does not want me to be a big baby about it."