Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum rebuilds the band from the ground up, finds inspiration in New Orleans
By Ballard LesemannSpecial to The Post and Courier | Wednesday, February 6, 2013
If you go
What: Soul Asylum with Miles Nielsen & the Rusted Hearts
When: Doors open at 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: The Pour House, 1977 Maybank Highway
Price: $22 in advance, $25 the day of the show
For more info: 571-4343 or charlestonpourhouse.com
Veteran songwriter Dave Pirner is a rock ’n’ roll survivor.
As the lead singer, rhythm guitarist and main songwriter of Minnesota-born alternative-rock band Soul Asylum, he’s endured the stress of harsh touring conditions, tumultuous lineup changes, disillusionment with the major label side of the rock industry, bouts of obscurity and the death of a bandmate. But Pirner has bounced back from every challenge.
“I’m tryin’ to come to terms with what it takes to keep yourself interested,” Pirner said. “I think that’s when people give up. I want to be a working musician, and I want to play music. The people that I’m working with now are stone-cold serious about it. ... In most situations, it becomes an interest, then it becomes a passing fancy, and for the people who are left — the survivors — it really becomes a matter of life or death.”
This month, Pirner and a rejuvenated version of Soul Asylum — bassist Winston Roye, drummer Michael Bland and lead guitarist Justin Sharbono — head through the Southeast, including a stop this weekend at The Pour House in Charleston. The trip is part of a tour in support of a new studio album, “Delayed Reaction,” released on their own imprint, 429 Records.
“It’s really a productive group,” the frontman says of the band. “Everybody wants to get out and play, and that’s exciting to me. Going on the road can be a tolerance-tester, but it’s a real fresh-faced bunch as far as attitude goes. They’re genuinely into it, and that’s a good feeling for me.”
Young punk days
Soul Asylum’s roller-coaster history began in the early 1980s in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. The Twin Cities’ underground rock scene was the same fertile environment that spawned two similarly punk-inspired alt-rock bands, The Replacements and Husker Du.
Pirner had moved from Green Bay, Wis., to Minneapolis when he was 17. He learned to play the drums with various garage bands, including Loud Fast Rules, which included future Soul Asylum bandmates Dan Murphy on guitar and Karl Mueller on bass. In 1982, Pirner switched to guitar and started writing his own lyrics and songs. Soul Asylum gradually took shape with drummer Pat Morley on board to keep time.
In 1984, the Minneapolis-based indie Twin/Tone Records signed the band and released the nine-song debut “Say What You Will.” Soul Asylum’s loud, angst-driven, guitar-based sound soon caught the ear of college radio. Through the ’80s, the band developed a loyal following around the country. Critics praised Pirner’s lyrics for their unsentimental tone, clever sarcasm and poignancy.
“I learned that writing lyrics involved finding where you could fit in a breath, and finding words that sing as opposed to words that stumble,” Pirner said. “It’s poetry to some people, and it’s crap to others. I’ve always looked up to Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and others who’ve had such a great grasp on the language. I don’t really know what I’m doing most of the time, but I hope that I’m getting better at it. There are certain times when I feel that I know what I’m doing, but usually it’s like screwing in a light bulb, as if anyone can do it.”
After a brief hiatus in 1985, Soul Asylum regrouped with drummer Grant Young and pushed ahead, releasing “Made to Be Broken” in 1986 and “While You Were Out” in 1987. Their tuneful rock and energetic work ethic drew attention from several major labels, including A&M, which signed the foursome in ’87.
“Hangtime,” Soul Asylum’s 1988 major label debut, was considerably more polished and radio-ready than previous efforts, and the songs “Somewhere to Return” and “Cartoon” made their way on to MTV’s alternative show “120 Minutes” and became minor hits.
“When I was making ‘Hangtime,’ I was really trying to make the gnarliest, most eccentric punk rock that I could come up with,” Pirner remembers. “But in retrospect, it sounded like punk rock Rush because every song had a million parts. I realized that it’s all really about exploring.”
While “Hangtime” enjoyed moderate commercial success, the band’s 1990 follow-up, “Soul Asylum and the Horse They Rode in on,” seemed to be neglected by the label and ignored by the press. Pirner and his songwriting partner, Murphy, took a break to reassess their song craft and musical careers.
With clear heads and a pile of new compositions, they jumped ship from A&A to Columbia in 1992 and recorded what was to become their strongest collection of power-pop/rock songs: “Grave Dancers Union.”
The album also ushered in another major change in Soul Asylum’s lineup when they dismissed Young for Sterling Campbell, a technically dazzling drummer who’d played previously with David Bowie, Cyndi Lauper and Duran Duran.
“ ‘Grave Dancers Union’ was really pivotal for the musicians involved,” Pirner said. “(Making the album) was the first time the band had ever experienced anything like having an A&R guy walking into the studio and saying something like, ‘You’ve gotta replace your drummer.’ That’s when Sterling Campbell entered the band, and that was the first time I’d personally experienced playing with someone of such a technical level, musical instinct and ability to interpret in a way that has a groove to it. Now the whole band is kind of like that ... except for me being me.
“The first time I heard Sterling play drums was to a song I had written called ‘New World,’ and I cried because I never knew that one of my songs could actually sound that good,” Pirner added. “The only reason why it didn’t was because the drummer couldn’t play it.”
The acoustic ballad “Runaway Train,” an unusually sensitive song from Pirner’s repertoire, became a huge hit, and alternative rock radio and MTV embraced the band. With his long, matted, blond dreadlocks and ripped-up look, Pirner was becoming a bona-fide rock star and grunge heartthrob.
The 1995 album “Let Your Dim Light Shine” sounded even slicker than “Grave Dancers Union” thanks to production from Butch Vig (Garbage, Nirvana). The singles “Just Like Anyone” and “Misery” did OK on the alt-rock charts, but Pirner and the band grew increasingly uncomfortable and unsatisfied with their commercialized production, and they resented meddling and interference from label execs during the sessions.
By the time they released “Candy From a Stranger” in 1998, Columbia had lost interest and enthusiasm despite the strength of solid songs like the lone hit “I Will Still be Laughing.”
Disappointing album sales and indifference from the rock media led to another period of hiatus for the band.
The early 2000s were difficult for Pirner. While he continued to write songs, collaborate with friends, and record demos and singles (he released a solo album in 2002 titled “Faces & Names”), he felt more and more unmotivated and a bit stuck in his role as a punk/grunge rock character.
Pirner left his longtime Twin Cities home base in 1999 and relocated to New Orleans. The move eventually led him to dig into new sounds, styles and themes.
Gradually, he felt more inspired to write and play than he had in years. Even after dealing with the loss of longtime bandmate Mueller, who died from esophageal cancer in 2005, Pirner garnered the strength and motivation he needed to push on.
“The more I learn about music, the more demanding I become of how it should go,” he said. “I moved to New Orleans for very specific musical reasons. I was on a quest for rhythm, in a way. If you slice it and dice it into swing and jazz and punk rock and country, and you make a roux out of it ... I’m not sure what you get, but there’s a universal language to it. It’s not hard for me to understand how rock music works. But jazz seems a little more intellectual and complicated. It’s something I wanted to be exposed to so that I could get beyond the pale of folk-rock.”
Soul Asylum’s latest effort, “Delayed Reaction,” is the band’s first official release in six years. Pirner and his crew took their time arranging, reworking and fine-tuning the new tracks, free from distraction and major-label pressure.
“It has taken a long time, for sure, because it’s really hard to replace a dead guy,” Pirner said. “But it’s been great finding somebody who fits in musically. Winston Roye is like a dream bass player for me. I’m the main architect of the arrangements and playing, so when we go through the process of recording and re-recording, it’s evident to me who’s doing a great job of interpreting and who’s not. How it fits together is very important to me. It’s like screws and bolts; if you have the wrong thing in the wrong place, it’s not going to work.”
Fortunately, much of the guitar-driven, harmony-laden pop, rock and soul of “Delayed Reaction” works as well as anything from Soul Asylum’s heyday.
Last summer, Soul Asylum performed a set of classics and punk covers in Minneapolis at the legendary music venue First Avenue in celebration of the 20th anniversary of “Grave Dancers Union.” It was one of original guitarist Dave Murphy’s last shows with the band before announcing his departure.
Despite the shake-up, Pirner and the newly solidified version of Soul Asylum seem more determined than ever. The latest single, “Gravity,” climbed into the Top 10 at Alternative Radio. The band recently wrapped several recording sessions in Los Angeles for the follow-up to “Delayed Reaction,” and they plan to continue touring around the U.S. through the rest of the year.
“Danny being on the way out was a bit of a long time coming, and I was pretty down and out about the whole thing,” Pirner said. “But the band has experienced a rebirth this (last) year. It’s shock and awe, man. I can’t believe how we’ve regrouped in such a way together.”
Pirner and Soul Asylum will headline The Pour House Saturday night with Miles Nielsen (son of Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen) and the Rusted Hearts. Expect a rock-solid delivery of old faces, new tunes and a few surprises.