Dave Pirner: Loving the way nothing is forced
Earlier this year, Soul Asylum launched a PledgeMusic campaign to help fund an album of all new material slated for release later this year. Pledge exclusives include signed copies of the new album, a name in the liner notes, a live and rare download of the band’s multi-platinum Grave Dancers Union album, a custom T-shirt, a Skype drum workshop with Michael Bland, side stage viewing at an upcoming show, guest list for life, signed acoustic guitar, private acoustic show, private full band concert, original Dave Pirner artwork and much more. Whew! Lead singer Dave Pirner recently phoned us from his New Orleans home to talk about the forthcoming album and the band’s summer tour with the Meat Puppets, another band that was part of the alternative rock revolution of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.
You toured with the Meat Puppets once before. When was that and what got you back together for this tour?
I suck at dates but we did a European tour with the Meat Puppets at least ten years ago. That was a blast. We did quite a few shows before and after that. I’ve always been in proximity with the boys. It’s been something we’ve been wanting to do. I’ve been a fan since forever. I think they’re playing at the top of their game. They finally got the right second guitar player in there. The other favorite tour I went on was with the X-Pensive Winos. It’s weird being on a tour with a band you really want to see play every night. It doesn’t happen that often. For some reason or other, you’re always leaving after you play. But it feels like there’s something I can get from watching the Meat Puppets or Keith Richards play every night.
Both bands were popular in the ’80s and ’90s but have continued to tour and record.
I think there’s something sort of comic about that. You can’t even come across the airwaves now. It’s hard to announce that you have put a record out. When I run into somebody from a band and they tell me that they put out a new record I’ll go the record store to see if I can find it because it’s a game. I want to go to the record store to see if they have it. It’s an indication of the marketplace. It’s whatever.
Soul Asylum formed in 1983. Did you think the band would still be around some 30 years later?
No. Not at all. I did move to New Orleans because it had a timeless element and seemed ageless as far as that goes. I would go see a guy who was 85 years old and the master of the bass drum and nobody did it like him. He did it until the day he died. That’s the way it goes in New Orleans. You play music until the day you die and then you have a musical funeral with all your friends. It just made sense to me. It didn’t have anything of that pop shit feeling to it. It’s not disposable. It was more grounded in the grassroots of American music in a way that other music isn’t. I just did a folk thing with people who were extremely eccentric, age-wise and race-wise and religion-wise. That was an element I could relate to it.
Talk about starting out as a drummer.
I think when I was coming up as a kid, my older sister played clarinet and I played trumpet. It pissed me off that she played it better than I could. It was dumbfounding. Just because she knew music, she could make the instrument speak better than I could. I would go see her concerts and that’s when I became fascinated with the drummer. I wanted to be the dude that hit shit. She had this great drummer who was a woman. That got me off on the right foot. There was something so cool about that woman. I still think about her.
Would you describe your early music as punk rock?
We were trying to do punk music as far as Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers and the Ramones were. As we were sorting these things out, we’d do punk versions of Dizzy and Tommy Roe songs or whatever. Easy simple shit. That was the root of so much of it. The Ramones simplified things for me so I could understand the music. In that way, it was a shortcut to writing. It was primitive in all the right ways. I was getting away from the chains of playing trumpet scales every day. I picked up a guitar and started making noise until it started to sound like something. To that degree, it’s more about playing by ear. I started to leave the sheet music behind. That was liberating I have Jimi Hendrix to thank for that. The other guy in the high school jazz band brought Are You Experienced to school. I got it and said, “Fuck this. I’m going to figure out the electric guitar and this is what I want to do.”
What was touring with Hüsker Dü like?
It was great. They taught us a lot about the do-it-yourself aesthetic. They had offices in the same office space. We had two or three guys running an independent label and then we had Hüsker Dü running their own label. It was very organic and do-it-yourself and homespun. It was a great inspiration and example. You didn’t need the music industry. You just got in a van and started playing. After Wisconsin and Illinois, Michigan was next. We just worked our way out.
Talk about your time on A&M Records.
We were on Twin/Tone and they did a deal with A& M. A&M wanted Soul Asylum and Twin/Tone wanted to keep the thing together somehow. That made the band feel comfortable. They did a cross-pollination. I think Soul Asylum was the only thing to come out of it. Our manager worked at Twin/Tone. We were able to keep the same organization and feeling. To me, that’s the birth of the alternative tag. It was college music but they started calling it alternative music because they didn’t know what the fuck to do with it. They didn’t know who to market it to. They didn’t know where to market it or what to call it or anything about what was happening except that it was not like all the other music on the label.
Grave Dancer’s Union was a big hit for the band. Did you know it would be a hit when you recorded it?
No. We left A&M and I was distraught and felt like we were fucked. I was thinking about going back to my day job. I had picked up the acoustic guitar, which was weird. In punk rock, you don’t even think about the fucking acoustic guitar. You just try to be the loudest band in the world. Over that period of reckoning, if you will, I wrote a bunch of songs that were different. I was not going to the loud rehearsal room to work them out. I was working them out at home and that became the record. When I went to New York with the demos of that material I realized that my goose wasn’t cooked yet. The first song was really sad. The people at record labels thought it would be my acoustic record. I didn’t realize the material was so different. I didn’t know they were going to call it the “down and out” record. I realized people were still interested in me. That was strange. I had people calling me about the record. I was playing acoustic-oriented songs that I didn’t even know what I was doing. When Don Ienner met the band, he was hilarious. The head of Columbia was different enough from the other record companies in that he seemed crazy in the right way. He seemed crazy in all the right ways. He wanted us to hit a homerun. I thought he was really enthusiastic. I wanted to get that energy going. That’s how it went. He took it and ran with it and next thing I knew, I was selling a shitload of records in Tokyo. It was a transition period that was a huge learning experience for me.
Your most recent studio album is 2012’s Delayed Reaction. What were you going for sonically with that album?
I think that when we made the record before that, we learned something about ourselves. We were working with John Fields, who’s been a Minneapolis guy forever. Things had come full circle. We knew what we want the band to sound like. We had Michael [Bland] in place and that was always an issue. Just trying to get good drum takes was the biggest problem for Soul Asylum. We were traumatized by shitty guitars that couldn’t stay in tune. We spent a lot of time trying to work out the kinks. There’s a lot of standing around and figure out what you’re doing spending 1400 dollars a day at a studio. That can be so unnecessary. Now I know what I’m doing and doing and what I need to come prepared with. We got together with John and learned how to not only make a record ourselves but what we need from other people as far as facilitating the band and enabling it to come out with a finished product. Now, we feel like we can’t be stopped. We own the horse and we know how to hold the reigns.
I now you have a PledgeMusic Campaign going. Is the record done?
I was just fucking around with something last night so I’m still working on it. The best example I can think of is the French film director Truffaut who said, “My movie is never finished until somebody takes it away from me.” I’m still tweaking and doing things and re-singing lines. It’s very annoying to my producer who’s now working on a different project.
Are you playing new songs?
We’re playing a couple of them and more and more as time passes. It has changed a bit and I don’t get this far. Back in the day, we would play the entirety of a record on the road before we went into the studio and there was something cool about that. There’s not a lot of reason to be doing that when everyone has a recording device on them. It’s very convoluted. You don’t want to fuck up the new song and working that shit out while people are recording. You’re shooting yourself in the foot.
Talk about the current lineup. How does this lineup of Michael Bland on drums, Winston Roye on bass and Justin Sharbono on guitar compare to previous ones?
My problem is that as the band gets better, it sounds like I’m tooting my own horn, which is weird. I’m tooting the horn of the people who are playing with me. I don’t change as far as getting better at what I do, but the band has made leaps and bounds in ways that are beyond my imagination as far as the potential goes and what it is capable of. The sky is the limit and that has not always been the case. I love these guys and the way they naturally gift and it comes second nature. I love the way nothing is forced. Everything is doable and you do it and then maybe you decide what your attitude is after you’re doing it. That’s a completely different trajectory than deciding you can’t do it because you don’t like it. That sums it up. It’s an incredible group of musicians. It’s just three dudes, but it took me forever to find them.