Soul Asylum originally formed in 1981 under the name Loud Fast Rules, with the lineup of Dave Pirner (drums), Dan Murphy (guitar/vocals) and Karl Mueller (bass). Later, Pirner was moved to lead vocalist, and guitarist Pat Morley took his place. Morley was later replaced by Grant Young in 1984. Under this configuration, two of their songs were released on the 1982 'Reflex Records' cassette compilation Barefoot and Pregnant. On the following 'Reflex' compilation, Kitten (recorded live at Goofy's Upper Deck), they were named as Proud Crass Fools.
Their 1984 debut album as Soul Asylum, Say What You Will... Everything Can Happen was originally released on LP and cassette by local record label 'Twin/Tone' as a nine-song EP. It was later re-released on CD as Say What You Will, Clarence...Karl Sold the Truck, which included five additional tracks that were cut from the original album.
Grant Young then joined the group, taking over the drums from Morley.
In 1986, Soul Asylum released three albums, Made to Be Broken, Time's Incinerator (on cassette only) and While You Were Out.
The band toured relentlessly in its early years, opening for other American bands and later performing as a headliner act after gaining exposure on the Flip Your Wig tour with fellow Minneapolis band Hüsker Dü in early 1986. Their onstage swagger, scruffy Midwestern appearance and extremely loud, frenetic sound, mixing tuneful but unrestrained punk, hardcore, 1970s rock, country and self-effacing kitsch impressed audiences and stood out from alternative rock bands of the time. The band would be described as a "grunge precursor", a claim often recited in comparisons between pre-Nirvana Minneapolis and Seattle bands.
After signing to 'A&M Records' in 1988, their first offering would be Clam Dip & Other Delights in 1989, the title and cover art being a parody of 'Whipped Cream & Other Delights', by 'A&M Records' co-founder Herb Alpert. Hang Time followed in 1988, with And the Horse They Rode In On in 1990. Because of poor sales and Pirner's hearing problems, the group considered disbanding soon after.
After playing a series of acoustic shows in the early 1990s, they were picked up by 'Columbia Records'.
Their most popular album was 1992's Grave Dancers Union.
On January 20, 1993, the group performed at the first inauguration of United States President Bill Clinton. Later that year, they performed Sexual Healing for the AIDS benefit album No Alternative, produced by the Red Hot Organization.
Joey Huffman (keyboards) joined in the summer of 1993; he toured with the band until joining Matchbox Twenty in 1998.
Soul Asylum won the 1994 Grammy Award for Best Rock Song for Runaway Train. The music video featured photographs and names of missing children, in the style of a public service announcement that was edited to show pictures and names of missing kids for each region outside the USA the video would be shown. At the end of the video, Pirner appears and says while a missing children's helpline telephone number is displayed, "If you've seen one of these kids, or you are one of them, please call this number". The video proved instrumental in reuniting several children with their families.
Grant Young was fired to be replaced by Sterling Campbell. Campbell had been credited as providing percussion on Grave Dancers Union; a credit was the least that could be offered because he actually did about half of the drumming!
The next release, Let Your Dim Light Shine, included the track Misery, which reached the Top 20, but the album overall was not as successful as the band's previous.
In 1997 Soul Asylum performed a benefit concert for North Dakota students whose prom had been cancelled because of the Red River Flood of 1997. Some of the songs played during the prom were later released on After the Flood: Live from the Grand Forks Prom, June 28, 1997 in 2004.
Candy from a Stranger arrived the following year. The album was unsuccessful, and 'Columbia Records' dropped them. Pirner said, "It's sort of sad to say, but you could see the whole grunge-rock-band thing getting totally over-saturated and people were looking for something new."
Pirner became friends with the film director Kevin Smith, a longtime Soul Asylum fan. The band subsiquently contributed music to three Kevin Smith films, Clerks, Clerks II, and Chasing Amy; Smith also directed the music video for the song "Can't Even Tell.
In May 2004, Mueller was diagnosed with throat cancer and underwent treatment. In October 2004, a benefit concert was held for him in Minneapolis at The Quest nightclub, featuring popular local groups and musicians. At the time, his cancer was in remission, and he played with the band during the show and soon later participated on the The Silver Lining. However, the cancer returned, and he died at his home on June 17, 2005. The band subsequently released the album on July 11, 2006.
In late 2005, ex-Replacements/of-Guns N' Roses bassist Tommy Stinson and former Prince drummer Michael Bland joined.
In November and December 2006 they opened for Cheap Trick on that band's American tour.
Stinson became a permanent member until 2012, but in 2006 and 2007, while he was on tour with Guns N' Roses, his place was temporarily filled by George Scot McKelvey.
Delayed Reaction arrived in 2012.
In November 2012 Winston Roye replaced Tommy Stinson on bass, with Justin Sharbono replacing Dan Murphy on guitar.
The band was relatively silent for several years until the release of Change of Fortune in 2016 on the 'Entertainment One' label.
June 16, 2016 they co-headlined on stage at the Sound of Music Festival at Spencer Smith park in Burlington, Ontario, Canada, the largest free music festival in that country.