Soul Asylum was part of a contingent of Minneapolis bands, with the Replacements and Hüsker Dü, that altered the rock & roll landscape. Founding member Dave Pirner still leads a formidable version of the band, which just released a new album, Hurry Up And Wait, and were tearing it up on tour when the COVID-19 pandemic brought that to a halt. Pirner has also released Loud Fast Words, a book of his collected lyrics. Todd McGovern spoke with Dave about his nearly four decades with Soul Asylum.
With successful shows in New York, Detroit, Chicago, and Los Angeles behind them, Soul Asylum was in San Diego, preparing for a show at the Belly Up Tavern, when their tour did exactly that – went belly up. Tour manager Jeneen Anderson knocked on founding band member Dave Pirner’s door with a crushingly direct, “Tour’s over!”
It was Friday the 13th of March. The coronavirus was in the air and the country was closing down, large gatherings dispersed. “We just had this empty feeling,” Pirner said. “You get this momentum going and you want to finish the job. So we walked away from it feeling a little incomplete.”
Their aptly titled new album, Hurry Up And Wait was released at the end of April and Loud Fast Words, Pirner’s book of collected lyrics and the stories behind the songs is newly published by the Minnesota Historical Society. Normally, Soul Asylum would be as busy as they’ve ever been in their long, successful career. But these are not normal times. When I first spoke with Pirner recently at his home in Minneapolis, he’d just begun the “Quarantine Sessions,” with the band’s lead guitar player Ryan Smith. The duo plays acoustic versions of songs from the new album, deep cuts from the band’s 14 other studio albums and some choice cover songs. (The Quarantine Sessions can be found on the band’s Facebook page as well as on YouTube). Our second conversation took place in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of the Minneapolis Police.
Soul Asylum’s “If I Told You” from the album Hurry Up and Wait is out now.
Ask anyone from the Twin Cities and they’ll tell you the police department has long been heavy-handed. Soul Asylum, who formed in Minneapolis in 1983, sang about it in their song, “Black and Blue,” based on their own run-in with the cops after their very first show:
Make my plea, I’m down on my knees
Street cowboy with a badge that says can do what you please
Do what you please, do what you please, do what you please
Pirner has lived in two seemingly different worlds: He grew up in the polite Scandinavian-influenced world of Minnesota and spent 14+ year in the the raucous, celebratory Southern world of New Orleans. Below is my conversation with Dave Pirner and his thoughts on racism, playing music during the pandemic, his nearly four decades in rock-n-roll, and why he didn’t want to write a memoir.
PKM: On your website (www.soulasylum.com), you posted a statement of support for George Floyd and his family and for the Black Lives Matter movement. How did Mr. Floyd’s death hit you – a born and bred resident of the city?
Dave Pirner: I lived in New Orleans for 14 years or so and One of the things I love about it is that the city is made up of all types of people from everywhere. It’s like New York City in that regard. It’s one of the things that attracted me to living there. But it’s still the South. I heard the “N Word” uttered a lot. I never heard it used once, growing up in Minneapolis.
This does feel different. It really feels like there is a real movement building in terms of talking about and dealing with racism as well as working on a different way of policing.
PKM: Since your tour was cancelled, you and Ryan Smith have been posting songs on YouTube under the name “The Quarantine Sessions” and doing live streams every Friday. They’re really great, but you and Ryan are not staying 6 feet apart. What kind of example does this set for Soul Asylum fans?
Dave Pirner: Ryan and my tour manager, Jeneen, are the only people involved in this project. We are so used to living in close quarters. If we get each other sick, I think we’re all willing to take that risk. That said, Jeneen is always trying to stay at least 6 feet away from me!
PKM: As part of the Quarantine Sessions, you play a couple covers – the MC5’s “Shakin’ Street” and the Ewan MacColl song (made famous by The Pogues) “Dirty Old Town.” Over the years Soul Asylum has done a number of covers – “To Sir With Love,” “Sexual Healing,” “Gone To November” “Rhinestone Cowboy,” and a personal favorite, “Summer Of Drugs.” What do you look for in a cover song?
Dave Pirner: It sort of changed over the years. We don’t play “Sexual Healing” anymore, I’ve got a better band and it lost its “dumb white boy” charm. [laughter]
If I heard something on the radio that I liked on the way to practice, I’d think, “I can figure that out pretty quickly.” We’d start playing what I’d just listened to on the radio. It was kind of a fun thing. We did it in the same tradition as The Replacements played covers. We’d play things we didn’t really know, but you get the idea…[laughter]. But Michael [Bland, drummer] is not really like that. He’s more professional. He’ll say, “If we’re going to play it, we’ve got to play it right.” It’s hard to argue with that.
PKM: Your new album, Hurry Up And Wait hit your highest chart position at Billboard in 25 years. What does that feel like?
Dave Pirner: Well, it’s very difficult to decipher. I’ve never really looked at those stats and numbers. Actually, I try to avoid it, although people do seem kind of excited about this. I’m like, “Which chart are we talking about here?” I don’t even know how the industry works anymore. What kind of sales are we talking about? I guess it’s good. My manager says it’s good, so it’s good. [laughter]
PKM: The Minnesota Historical Society recently published Loud Fast Words, a collection of your lyrics and commentary about each album and song. Why did you decide to put this book together?
Dave Pirner: My manager asked me if I’d ever thought about writing a book. I actually had given it some thought. I knew I didn’t want to write a memoir. I’m tired of reading about other people’s band experiences. I’ve been through too much, myself. By the time I read Kerouac’s On The Road, it was well-tread territory for me. Then you have the dirt, the rumors, the myths, where everything gets blown out of proportion. It’s just been done to death. But I did think I’d like to put out a collection of lyrics to all my songs.
There are lyrics of all my songs on the Internet and they’re always wrong. So I thought this was a good way of confirming the actual lyrics.
It went pretty smooth, actually. Unfortunately, it came out just as the coronavirus hit, so I didn’t really get out into the world and go to bookstores [to promote the book]. I’ve done some readings from the book and played some songs online.
PKM: In addition to the lyrics, you write a short passage about each album and about each song. What was it like to revisit your entire catalogue in that way?
Dave Pirner: It felt a little bit like stepping into a time machine, immersing myself in one record and all the lyrics from that record definitely gives me context for what was going on in my head at the time. Usually, the lyrics kind of bleed into what I was doing at the time, who I was hanging out with, and what was happening in my life. It’s a time warp. At times I was thinking, “I can’t believe I wrote that.” Other times, I thought, I can’t believe I wrote that!”
PKM: In the time since the band’s last album, 2016’s Change Of Fortune, you’ve gotten divorced, left New Orleans after 13 years, and moved back to Minneapolis. In the process of putting this book together, did you feel any trepidation about revealing too much of yourself? Did the end result feel too personal?
Dave Pirner: No, I think I’ve changed a couple lyrics over the last…I don’t even know how many records we have out…because they made reference to a specific person. For the most part, my songs aren’t about any one person in particular. Everything is kind of a composite, some sort of Frankenstein that you build with your emotions and things that people around you say and do. It’s a collage more than a profile. The characters involved in my songs are fictional, sometimes based on real people.
“Runaway Train,” from the Quarantine Sessions:
PKM: How does your living situation affect your songwriting? Do you write differently when you’re living alone? Not to sound cheesy, but how do you gather yourself in terms of summoning your Muse?
Dave Pirner: I’m currently living with a singer/songwriter I’ve never worked with, but someone who does the same thing as I do. So, that’s interesting. We talk about music and jam together and that’s been a great thing and kept me sane during the quarantine. I’m working on a piece now down in my basement. Sometimes, songwriting is like any other job. I’m like a carpenter building a table.
I have a hard time writing on tour. When I’m home, I usually write at night. If I’m living with a significant other, I wait until they’re in bed, asleep. It almost feels like, “Ok, they’re tucked in for the night. They’re safe and now I can go to work.”
I used to just fill notebooks up. Some things I wrote turned into songs, but a lot of it was just writing, for the sake of writing. I’m not throwing everything at the wall at this point. I’d like to think that’s because I’ve learned something. At the same time, you can’t force it. Songs and lyrics come out in different amalgamations.
With regard to the new album, a lot of the songs were brought to the studio unrehearsed. Some songs we had played a little bit in our practice space before going into the studio. When we started out as a band in the early Eighties, we’d play new songs at shows first and then we’d make a record. Now, it’s the other way around. We spend a considerable amount of time making a record, and then we’ll take them out on the road.
It’s a preoccupation that is my livelihood.
PKM: How would you describe the difference between playing live when you’re just starting out and touring now as a seasoned musician? Do you still get that same rush?
Dave Pirner: Oh, yeah. That never changes. It’s all butterflies and stage fright. And the feeling you have when the show’s over – you pretty much know if you’ve done good. Coming off stage, I’m sure everybody in the band can count the mistakes they’ve made and for Michael, it’s always zero! [laughter] He is amazing!
The tour we were just on was one of the best we’ve had as a band, hands-down. I think it’s just the experience of playing together for a while. Michael makes the set list. It’s one we can play every night. I’m not quite sure how to explain it. It’s paced well. We play a lot of new material and people seem to like it. The crowds were great. Local H opened for us and they were really great. Everything ran fairly smooth. It wasn’t easy but as far as the reaction of the fans and the feeling between the band members and the crew and all that stuff, it felt like a natural progression…over a 35-year history. [laughter]
PKM: The “new” members of Soul Asylum have been around for a while now. Ryan Smith joined in 2016, Winston Roye replaced Tommy Stinson on bass a while back and Michael Bland has been on drums for quite a while, right?
Dave Pirner: It’s a well-oiled machine. I’m the one who usually makes the most mistakes. It keeps me humble, you know? After Karl [Mueller] died in 2005, we were looking for a bass player and Tommy Stinson offered to play with us until we found somebody else. I never expected him to be there forever. He was still in Guns N’ Roses and Axl was paying him about 20 times more than we were. But he really saved the day. Tommy was really good friends with Karl and Karl’s wife, Mary. It was like a big family. I love the guy!
Tommy Stinson offered to play with us until we found somebody else. I never expected him to be there forever. He was still in Guns N’ Roses and Axl was paying him about 20 times more than we were. But he really saved the day.
PKM: Can you talk a bit about the song, “Never Really Been,” a slower, acoustic song that really stands out from all the rockers on Made To Be Broken, your second album? That song still finds its way into your set lists.
Dave Pirner: Yeah, I remember the first time I played it. Me and Bob Mould did acoustic sets at the record store in Minneapolis, Oarfolk. He played a new song and I played “Never Really Been” for the first time and it got quite a reaction. I wrote it on an electric guitar and played it that way at the beginning. But it ended up being one song that showed me I didn’t necessarily need a loud electric guitar all the time. Over the years, I got more and more into the acoustic guitar, thinking, “Maybe I don’t need a giant amp all the time…” I could never be doing any of this live stream stuff if I had not made the decision that not everything needed to be loud and fast and have to rule and be bombastic.
That just reminded me, Bob and I tried to write a Christmas song together! Somewhere there’s a Bob Mould and Dave Pirner Christmas composition lying around.
PKM: When the band formed under the name “Loud Fast Rules” in 1981, did you have a goal in mind? Or if not a “goal” per se, what did “success” look like to you at that time?
Dave Pirner: We were very nihilistic in a sense. We didn’t have any grand vision or plan or anything like that. I think our primary objective was to get a gig in Madison. To get out of Minneapolis was a big deal for us. So once we got to Madison, we were like, “Now we’ve got to go to Chicago….” You just want to drive farther and farther in whatever van you can afford. It’s a routine that becomes your life. It’s really day-to-day and it’s very punk rock and you embrace this kind of “No Future” aesthetic. You’re flying without a net, is that how that goes? We just kept playing. For the other guys in the band, it could have been completely different. Maybe when they got where they needed to be, they were like, “Now it was worth it.” I don’t know.
PKM: You had a longtime musical connection with Dan Murphy (the band’s lead guitarist and sometime songwriter, from its inception until he left in 2012.) What’s it like to lose that type of collaboration?
Dave Pirner: One thing I loved about having Dan in the band is that he was an original member. It’s hard when someone wants to leave the band – for whatever reason – and it’s not what you want.
PKM: Was there ever a point before Grave Dancer’s Union when you were ready to call it quits as a band?
Dave Pirner: Every time someone leaves the band, I think, “That’s it.” Our original drummer [Pat Morley] quit after our first record. That was the first time I thought, “Uh, oh. Maybe it’s over, maybe that’s it.” It was devastating to me. I definitely was not ready to stop. To be honest, those kinds of moments come up in your subconscious. It’s always kind of there.
I was just telling somebody that. “Oh God, what would I do if I wasn’t doing this?” I don’t know. The people who are involved now in the band are lifers and that’s a different thing. Someone like Michael Bland I’m sure he somehow knew that he was going to play music for the rest of his life. I have never felt that way, but that is what I’m attempting to do, yes.
One of the many things that first attracted me to New Orleans is the timelessness and the vibrancy of the place and the music. The age of the musicians does not matter. It’s all very pure as far as making music goes. It’s just what you do. Your dad does it, your grandfather does it, and you’re a music family and you make music, come hell or high water, you just keep making it.
PKM: “Runaway Train” is a song that became inextricably linked to the video, which showed missing children featured on the back of milk cartons. In fact, I read that 26 out of the 36 kids featured in the video were eventually found. But the video had nothing to do with the meaning of the song to you. Does it seem like a totally different song now from when you wrote it?
Dave Pirner: No, It’s interesting to me that before the MTV era, you had to create your own visuals for a song. Then MTV happened and you hear a song and you think of the video. It was a prominent form of media at the time. The opportunity to make a Public Service Announcement out of a music video just seemed brilliant to me. Whenever I talk about it, I have to give credit to [director] Tony Kaye. It was his idea. He said, “Milk cartons.” I said, “Uh…what are you talking about?” “ He said, ‘Milk cartons.’ He just took the word “runaway” and applied it to a visual. I often have to say, “Well, the song’s not really about runaway children, it’s just the video that was. It’s still the same song that it was when I wrote it. [laughter]
PKM: I saw a couple of shows in the 1980s when you opened for The Replacements. Both times, you blew them off the stage. Did that ever become a problem for the band?
Dave Pirner: It’s not a contest. Different people will interpret a show different ways. There are basically two ways to go about it: Have a shitty opening band, so it makes you look good or you have a great opening band that you really like, so it kind of kicks you in the ass and makes you step it up, which makes for a better show for everyone. For instance, it was great just having Local H out with us this tour. I gotta tell you, it’s just two guys making so much noise. It was a little intimidating. I mean, there are half as many guys making twice as much noise as we are! It was a good pairing though. It just worked. We aim to blow the headliners off the stage, that’s just who we are and who we’ve always been. I mean, we go out on these summer package tours, we bring our “A” game and say, “Follow that, bitches!”
Soul Asylum – Without a Trace on Letterman The Late Show [January 1993]:
PKM: Given how long Soul Asylum has been around and all the tours you’ve done, you’ve probably found yourself in some strange places. Can you recall the weirdest place you’ve played?
Dave Pirner: Two come to mind – at two distinctly different times in the band’s lifespan. The first was a gig at a club in The Flats neighborhood of Cleveland. There was a stage and then a bar around the stage. So it was like a strip club and we were where the strippers normally are. There was this distinct smell in the air and I asked somebody at the club what that smell was. He said, “Oh, there’s a crematorium right down the street.” And from there, the night just got weirder and weirder. I think I eventually fell into the pit between the bar and the stage. It was kind of surreal.
Years later, we played a summer festival called “Float-a-Palooza” in the Ozarks. We were on a stage that was floating in the lake. The crowd was all floating in inner tubes. I have never seen anything like that before. We were all just looking at each other going “What is this?” The stage was kind of rocking back and forth in the water. People have their drinks in their inner tubes. Behind them, is a row of small boats and in the back row are people in bigger boats. And it was all there in the Ozarks. It was quite a gig.
PKM: Who were some of your early influences, musically?
Dave Pirner: I started playing trumpet in 3rd grade, I listened to the radio a lot, like every kid a certain age, the transistor radio under the covers, or staying in the car after Dad pulls in. “Don’t turn the radio off!” cuz I had to stay in the car until the song ends. Typical start. Then as puberty reared its ugly head, I started getting into heavy metal. But I was in band all the time, so was listening to jazz at a very young age. Then I played in a youth symphony orchestra. That gave me a great feeling being in a band that’s made up of a hundred kids. That was kind of cool. I went through the metal phase. But I was in band with another trumpet player whose older brother played guitar. I took lessons from him and he gave me Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced” and that’s when I said, “You know what? I just wanna rock, I’m gonna play the guitar. This trumpet is just too hard. There’s so much discipline involved with playing the trumpet, it’s like being an athlete. Being in New Orleans just blew my mind! I never heard how this instrument was really supposed to be played.
[After giving up the trumpet], I started discovering Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed, and Neil Young. I started getting into the writing part. It was all just sort of a natural progression. As I was moving away from metal and getting into punk, I was also getting into Woody Guthrie. Eventually those things came together.