June 18, 2015 Remembering Soul Asylum’s Karl Mueller – A Musician, A Fighter
A decade after his passing from esophageal cancer, the loss of co-founding member and bass player of ’90s Alternative Rock band Soul Asylum, Karl Mueller, is still felt not only through the group, but their many fans as well. At just forty-one years of age, Mueller was young and in the prime of his life. Born Karl Herman Mueller on July 27th, 1963 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Mueller’s love of music began at a young age, buying his first bass guitar for just one-hundred dollars. From then on, Mueller dedicated his time to learning his craft, and by the time he was an adult, his life was devoted to music. In 1981, the band that would become Mueller’s driving force, Soul Asylum, began its origins as a group called Loud Fast Rules when it was co-founded by himself, vocalist/guitarist Dave Pirner, and guitarist Dan Murphy.
In 1984 they released their debut album, Say What You Will, Everything Can Happen, and thus began an extensive career in Rock-n-Roll. Sadly, the original album is now out of print, but a CD was released under a different but similar title, Say What you Will, Clarence ….Karl Sold the Truck, playfully referencing that Mueller sold the truck the band used. Before the release of their second album, Grant Young joined the band, replacing Pat Morley on drums, and this change had a positive effect on the group, resulting in the 1986 release of three albums; Made to be Broken, Time’s Incinerator, and While You Were Out. Mueller and Soul Asylum’s continued success was maintained by constant touring and opening for other more successful bands. The exposure ensured they quickly garnered a strong and loyal fan base as they performed around the Minneapolis-St Paul Area, and Pirner even admitted they thought they reached the pinnacle of success after initially signing with Twin/Tone, a Minnesota based label which also housed legendary band The Replacements.
Soul Asylum’s music and feel was unique, even being considered a precursor to the Grunge era made most famous by Nirvana. They were loud, had a working class look, used a mix of music genres and styles to create their style, and did not quite fit in with other bands of the time. Their style could also possibly be attributed by Mueller’s intrigue in the Punk Rock movement, introducing his band mates early on to it. Despite their talent, they had not yet managed to hit the big time in the majority of America, and while the band’s finances may have suffered, Pirner and Mueller’s friendship went from strength to strength, and they formed a lifelong bond. Pirner has been quoted on several occasions lamenting the loss of his dear friend, who in the early days, when there was little money, slept side by side.
Signing with A & M Records prior to the release of their 1988 album Hang Time, with a combination of lack in sales, and Pirner experiencing hearing issues, the band seriously considered disbanding for the first time in their careers. Fortunately their perseverance paid off, and after a series of acoustic shows in the 1990s, they signed with the prestigious Columbia Records. The ability to keep it together could be possibly due to the overall positive attitude of Mueller. The band’s A&R with Columbia Records stated, “I remember seeing Soul Asylum at the Whiskey in LA on the ‘Horse They Rode In On’ tour. Karl had injured his ankle the show before, and it was so bad he was on crutches. They could’ve easily cancelled or postponed the show, but Karl wouldn’t do that and played the entire set sitting on a stool since he couldn’t stand. That’s how much Karl cared about the fans, as long as his fingers worked and he could play the songs, there was nothing that was going to keep him off the stage.” His own bandmate, Pirner, has stated to CrypticRock, “I don’t know how we could have made it through a lot of that stuff without the sort of level headedness he had about him. He just wanted to be in the band, that was it.”
The group consequently released their most commercially revered record to date in 1993 with Grave Dancers Union. Featuring the signature ’90s hit “Runaway Train” leading the way with other standout cuts “Somebody to Shove” and “Black Gold” among the mix, the record has since went three-times platinum. A number of performances followed the release of Grave Dancers Union, and before they knew it, Soul Asylum were performing at Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration in 1993, and on an AIDS-Benefit album.
At some point the band’s profile allowed the opportunity for Pirner to become friends with highly acclaimed Actor/Director Kevin Smith. This friendship lead to Soul Asylum’s music being featured in three of Smith’s cult films; Clerks, Clerks 2, and Chasing Amy. Seeing all their hard work paying off, Soul Asylum were now a household name in every Rock fan’s vocabulary. Until this point, Mueller was still only in his late thirties, had reasonable good health, and enjoyed being one of the remaining original members of Soul Asylum, a group that had become fundamental to his very being. Mueller, his wife, and their friends were completely shocked when, in 2004, Mueller was diagnosed with the cancer that would tragically, abruptly end his life a little over a year later on June 17, 2005.
Unwilling to give up so easy though, he immediately began costly treatment, and in response to the news, his bandmates and the Twin Cities rallied around him. Together they organized a number of benefit concerts that raised $50,000.00 toward his medical costs. He was in remission at the time, and he managed to join his band on stage. One of the benefits in Minneapolis in September of that year brought together Grant Hart and Bob Mould of Hüsker Dü for the first time in seventeen years. Mueller appeared alongside his other love, Soul Asylum, in his last public performance.
He survived to record the release of his last album with Soul Asylum in 2005, The Silver Lining released in 2006. Heartbroken Pirner carried on Soul Asylum, and while it would never be the same again, Soul Asylum gradually regained their footing, releasing several albums since including the critically acclaimed Delayed Reaction in 2012. Pirner has also stated, “I make sure I always keep him in the front of my consciousness. I had written a song for him that I started literally the day of his funeral. It was in my eulogy, I started singing during the eulogy. I then opened a set in Minneapolis with that song and it was very difficult for me to get through. The cathartic nature of keeping his spirit alive inside of me, I don’t know, it’s just something I feel. I miss him every day. I think even though it’s hard for me explain, he was not so much a creative force in the band as he was a moral force. That’s what sort of fell through the cracks when he left. He just had this spirit about him that was incredibly positive, incredibly able to laugh in the face of adversity, incredibly essentially to the fiber of what we were doing.”
Not only does Pirner and Soul Asylum keep his legacy alive, but so does his family. His widow, Mary Beth, began the Karl Fund using leftover funds from the benefits to found the KillKancer Foundation. A research endowment was created at the University of Minnesota, followed by an organisation focused on prevention, called The Karl Fund. KillKancer has evolved into an entire community of people volunteering their time to educate people about cancer, and maybe making some steps towards finally finding a cure. Mary Beth has said, “Ten years has passed since I got to look into Karl’s eyes and I miss him every day. KillKancer was established in his honor. KillKancer provides information about the eight ‘preventable cancers’ and the 4 simple ways to KILL cancer: eat better, stay active, get screened, and don’t smoke. We just say it in our own special way. We spend our Summers spreading the prevention message at every street festival and Rock show that will have us. For me, the most rewarding thing KillKancer does and the part of this scheme that is so “Karl” is the community action we participate in. We sponsor community gardens in food deserts and we use bike couriers to distribute produce to food shelves and healthy prepared food to homeless youth drop in centers. What is a simple matter of choice for some cannot be achieved by others due to income and that is entirely unacceptable. Why can’t we just live better and not get cancer?”
To this day, at each of Soul Asylum’s shows, frontman and close friend, Pirner introduces Mueller with the other members of the band, and they dedicate a song to him. Pirner continues to keep Mueller’s memory alive and regularly speaks of Mueller during interviews. Colleagues in Urge Overkill, Nash Kato and Eddie “King” Roeser said, “We knew him way back when the band was called Loud Fast Rules, and Urge was living in Minneapolis, MN, the state being where they were both raised. We remember him as a steady, calm presence in the scene, and much missed. We hope that KillKancer will help fight the fight.” Mueller remains in the hearts of friends, family, and fans, assuring he will never truly be gone.