Soul Asylum‘s Dave Pirner is a survivor. Pirner founded Soul Asylum way back in 1981-almost four decades ago and continues to deliver the goods. In their 37-year career, Soul Asylum has released 11 albums, toured the globe several times over, achieved major chart success, experienced tragic deaths, messy divorces, band member departures, and the dizzying highs and lows that are part of the rough-and-tumble music business. A lesser band would have thrown in the towel long ago. Not Soul Asylum.
Soul Asylum was hardly an overnight success. The band finally hit major paydirt on their 1992, triple-platinum breakthrough, the masterful major label release, Grave Dancer’s Union (76 weeks on the Billboard charts). The smash album spawned three singles, including the hits “Somebody To Shove” and Runaway Train.” The later not only achieved major airplay but also became a high-rotation MTV video that was also used in a major campaign for creating awareness of the problem of runaways.
I caught up with David Pirner, the founder, frontman, songwriter, and beating heart of Soul Asylum on a visit to his hometown, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Pirner returned to his old home to take care of his mom, see old friends, rehearse, and prepare for the next leg of a major summer bill supporting Collective Soul and Three Doors Down on the Rock & Roll Express Tour.
Are you dividing your time between Minneapolis and New Orleans?
Yep, I’m back in Minneapolis this week. I was in New Orleans just a little over a week ago. It’s been about a year since I got divorced and my 14-year-old still lives in New Orleans. My mom has Alzheimer’s and still lives in Minneapolis, so I’m spending more time here for that and various other reasons.
I’m trying to hold on to my house in New Orleans because I built a studio in the back and it’s very dear to me.
Will you eventually return to New Orleans?
There are a lot of clichés and stuff in there. I think the one I’m dealing with is the whole: You can’t go back home. I don’t know. I realized I had been in New Orleans for 14 years, so now I guess I’m considered a local.
At the same time, Minneapolis is where I’m from. My band is here. There are all kinds of things that make it logistically beneficial. Of course, I miss my kid and New Orleans. The song “I Miss New Orleans” is a song I understand. The two cities (Minneapolis & New Orleans) are diametrically opposed—one is dirty, and the other is clean. One is integrated, and one is less integrated. Both are quite different, but they’re both on the Mighty Mississippi.
Has New Orleans recovered fully from Katrina?
Well if you want to, you can still go on the Katrina tour. I can’t really imagine what that’s like. All you really have to do is find the waterline and you know the rest. They’ll take you to the Ninth Ward and other places. That vibrant community (The Ninth Ward) is just gone. You think about the people that had been there forever, and now they’re in Houston and they have to be missing New Orleans.
I’d love to find the people in Houston from New Orleans. I know there’s a list of New Orleans musicians. At least the city is smart enough to know that music is their bread and butter. It was great to find Henry Butler and know that he’s still around. Most of the musicians came back because there’s a place for you in New Orleans, especially if you’re a legendary hometown musician. They were welcomed back, and they even received donated instruments to replace what they lost in Katrina.
I read that in addition to playing guitar and singing, you also play the drums, trumpet, saxophone, harmonica and more. Do you practice on these instruments routinely?
Well, I have a new tune that I’m playing trumpet on. My drummer is encouraging me to do that. I think that was a bit of a pull for me to New Orleans. Growing up being a trumpet player in Minneapolis and then seeing how it’s really done in New Orleans was really inspiring. I took a lot of lessons as a kid, but there’s some natural ability for musicians growing up in New Orleans. I’m looking at my trumpet right now and thinking I should play it tonight. I’ve always been fearless when it comes to picking up a new instrument. What if you actually end up being really good at it? That’s always been my take on it.
Your first two Twin/Tone releases, Say What You Will . . . Everything Can Happen (1984) and Made to Be Broken (1986), both originally produced by Bob Mould of Hüsker Dü, have been remastered and sequenced by Omnivore Recordings and are due out July 20. What are your memories of recording those albums?
Well, the first record was recorded at a place called Blackberry Way which was just a home studio. I distinctly remember walking across an intersection with Bob Mould, and he said he should produce me. I said: What is a producer? I learned a lot of things through the process that I now take for granted. I didn’t even know what to do. Sure, let’s do it. It was exciting to be in the studio for the first time. Then we moved to Nicolett, which is a neighborhood in Minneapolis where we did our next three or four albums there. Twin Tone moved their offices there, and Husker Du had offices there. Even Amphetamine Reptile had offices there. It was this kind of compound where we could rehearse, and there was something going on every day. I’m currently back recording in that very studio. It’s kind of cool to sit outside and see how things have changed and it stirs these memories and resonates, and I feel I’m kind of like back where I started, and that’s like a good thing.
Minneapolis has always had a really thriving music scene. What’s in the water in Minneapolis that makes it such a creative place?
Yeah, I mean, for one thing, it’s affordable. That’s kind of key. I can’t imagine paying for a practice space in Manhattan. How do you afford that? I was just reading an interview with someone like in Bachmann Turner Overdrive and the Canadian scene. It’s kind of like that here (Minnesota). There’s nothing to do for six or seven months a year. You end up in a basement with your friends, and you’re desperate for some kind of activity. And that, it seems, becomes your band (laughs).
What song do you wish you had written and why?
The song that I always played up for my infant son was “Tangled Up in Blue.” It’s one of those songs I can close my eyes and say this about me. It hits me the hardest. It sounds like a song about a guy going down to New Orleans. Yeah, that’s me. I wish I had written, “Happy Birthday,” “Smoke On The Water” is another one. “You Are My Sunshine,” There’s a story behind “You Are My Sunshine.” Some New Orleans politician took credit for “You Are My Sunshine,” and he made it his song. He had nothing to do with the writing. It was a folk song written by John Tosches. He said I’ll play you that song, but not the square, white version. And it’s been passed down, and I love when I see kids lineup to sing that.
Are there any new or young bands that you dig?
There’s a band that comes to mind called Bruise Violet, and they’re maybe like 18. Their name is taken from a Babes in Toyland song, and I’m friends with them. They seem to be kind of following in the Babes’ footsteps. There’s always something like that going on. I guess it’s that question of whether the scene is as vibrant as when I was 18. Kids have to be doing the same shit that I was back then— Should I stay in a band, should I go to college, should I work three jobs? There’s also a vibrant hip-hop scene in Minneapolis.
The last band I kind of latched on to was Cage the Elephant. I don’t have their newest one. I liked their first record(self-titled 2008) more than their second one (Thank You, Happy Birthday). I guess I’m one of those people that always think the first album is the best. Their second album seemed a little slick to me, and I could hear some new production. Maybe I’m just the crusty old dude. I’ve never seen them live. My kid and I bonded on Cage The Elephant before he went all hip-hop on me. I force fed him some rock music, so he had no choice.
I played Bob Dylan and “Bohemian Rhapsody” and weird things when he was a kid. I tried to brainwash him early. I’ve been pushing Bob Dylan for him forever. If you don’t like Dylan, there’s something wrong with you.
My older sister was very musical and would say to me “I don’t like the way he (Dylan) sings.” I would tell her that she was missing the point.
Dylan has been covered so much. He always went through a lot of changes.
He’s so punk rock. He wins it all when it comes to attitude, intelligence, and the ability to express something in a song.
Do you still speak or collaborate with Paul Westerberg or Bob Mould?
I was hanging out with Grant Hart (Husker Du drummer. Died 9/13/2017) a little bit before he died. I hate to run into people you haven’t seen for a while, especially at a funeral. Lyle Lovett has a great song (“I Went To A Funeral”) about that.
I’m always finding local musicians who want to occasionally get together and jam. Since I have my own band, that doesn’t always work out.
I still speak to Tommy Stinson (ex-Replacements, Bash N’ Pop, GNR). I just spoke to him days ago. Paul (Westerberg) is kind of a mystery and doing his thing.
I got to work with the Replacements years ago on a video that was nominated for an MTV award.
I can’t imagine Paul enjoyed that too much. (laughs). “Seen Your Video.” I’m sure for them; they didn’t want to. You had to do a video back then. Good old music television. What’s weird now, is I find so many strange and great bands playing live on YouTube. Now, it’s cool, I can look up videos and see where their hands are. Oh, there’s a capo (laughs). I saw that with Emmylou Harris and Joni Mitchell and saw that they’re playing with a capo on the third fret.
Are you using social media to connect with your fans?
Your segues are incredible. (laughs)
I was just thinking about my conversation with our ex-manager who also managed Bob Dylan. He was explaining to me his theory about Johnny Carson. When Carson walked out from behind the curtain, you had no idea what was going on behind that curtain, and you didn’t know anything until he walked out on stage.
I’m not attracted to it (social media). I have no urge to Tweet. When people first start doing it and taking pictures of their food, I always thought why would anyone care? Then, I watched people from John Mayer to the President Tweet the stupidest things. I’ve been a Luddite, and a technophobe. I’ve been kind of avoiding it.
How did your addition to the Collective Soul Three Doors Down Rock N’ Roll Express Tour come about?
Well, after not answering that question very well at all, our new manager said that we needed to get on Live Nation. Just like with Bob Mould (Husker Du, Sugar, solo) offering to be our producer, I said: “What’s that?” The summer tour thing had become very predominant, not the way it was when we used to tour; we just toured all the time. Now, it’s the thing. I wasn’t that familiar with either band. I just met both singers for both bands in New York. And they’re both really sweet and nice. That’s all I care about. So, it’s hey, let’s tour.
Collective Soul are very popular in St. Louis and Three Doors have had a few hits. In fact, I know Three Door Down’s producer.
Oh, Matt Wallace? I love Matt. Tell him hello for me.
Do you enjoy touring?
Yeah, I still love it. It’s still daunting, and I still get butterflies. It’s the lifeblood of a band, and it’s what we do. I’m very comfortable in the live element. In fact, I’m probably more comfortable than when I’m not doing it. I need to write some stuff to make that happen and get back on the road.
I was having a rough gig somewhere. I think it was San Antonio. I was feeling sick from the day before, and we were also having some issues with the band that was pissing me off. I said to the band before we went on: “My voice doesn’t feel great. I feel like shit, so I need you guys to help me on some background vocals.” The crowd was there for me, and then I felt better because the crowd was into it. To that degree, the crowd saved me. I think everyone goes through that and that’s live music. It’s never going to change. That’s why I moved to New Orleans—no hocus pocus or baloney, or attitude or whatever. I’m ready to go to the front and fight.
It’s going to be hot here.
Oh, I know, you have to change your pants after the show (laughs).
Yeah, you kind of notice the puddle under your feet after you’re finished. It’s like where did that come from? Oh yeah, that’s me. It’s like you’ve jumped in the river.
Do you have any memories, good or bad, of playing St. Louis?
Oh, yeah. My favorite memories are probably of Mississippi Nights. Soul Asylum played there a lot. We were opening for Husker Du one time, and Chuck Berry came to the show. Then we blew up the PA. Which was awful. Someone told us Chuck asked if the next band was like the first one. And they said, yes. He said, good. I practically chased him out the door and got his autograph.
His last record was so good. It has a great sound.–D. Tull
Soul Asylum will be appearing with Three Doors Down and Collective Soul on July 21st at The Hollywood Casino Amphitheater.