September 4, 2013 Interview – Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum
Soul Asylum are a working class rock n roll band. First formed back in 1983 in Minneapolis, Minnesota the band released 5 full length records until finding themselves as international rock stars. In 1992 they released Grave Dancers Union which went triple platinum and spawned one of the most recognized rock tracks of the 1990’s in “Runaway Train”. Much more than a 1 hit wonder the band continue to release solid rock n roll with possibly their strongest album to date in Delayed Reaction (2012). Nearly everyone knows “Runaway Train” but does everyone know the man behind the music? Recently we sat down with vocalist/guitarist of Soul Asylum Dave Pirner for a personal look at the long road traveled as a musician, staying true to who you are, taking success in stride, and so much more.
CrypticRock.com – Soul Asylum has been going now for 3 decades. Many would consider you guys a 90’s band but your roots really started in the 1980’s. You have had a long career in rock n roll. When the song “Runaway Train” was released in 1992 could you ever had imagined the massive success and impact the song would have?
Dave Pirner- Absolutely not. I had no concept of what that was. To this day I probably still can’t figure out what it is that makes those engines turn and how much it has to do with a personal relationship between me and whoever is listening to the song. It’s just the nature of what the band did, how the band paid it’s dues, and how the band had gotten to where it had gotten at that point. All the kind of awful animalistic kind of living we had to do (laughs). To get to a place where we said alright now we’re in a nice studio, have a nice producer, record some things that sound good, and we’ll see what happens. I sort of remember walking around with the cassette in my pocket, playing it every now and then saying “oh shit I think we might of kind of got it right”. I was looking for a manager at the time and he said, “what do you have” and I said, “well this is the record we just finished recording”. “Runaway Train” came on and he said, “that’s it I want to manage this band”. That sort of took me by surprise (laughs). The whole time I’m just sort of being this kind of dumb deer caught in the headlights. I was kind of just trying to sort of do my thing. It’s a mixed blessing I guess in a way. I don’t have any special relationship with the song as much as I have a special relationship with people who identify with the song.
Crypticrock.com – Now 5 records deep into your career “Runaway Train” was a hit off the Grave Dancers Union album and the album went triple platinum. In 1995 you followed up with Let Your Dim Light Shine which also went platinum. Tell me how you felt after plugging away for nearly a decade already to have achieved this mainstream success at that point in Soul Asylum’s career?
Dave Pirner- I think it was puzzling because it wasn’t something, I personally was necessarily looking for that. What I was looking for was some of the things that happened because of that. Now I can go play in Japan and Australia. Now I can get this producer I want. Things like that felt like they were a long time coming and that is what I was going for. Honestly when I started out I just wanted to get a gig in Wisconsin. When I got signed to Twin Tone Records I felt that’s it man, that’s as good as it gets. Then you get a gig in Chicago, then you get a gig in New York, then suddenly you want to go to England, you have to get to England, and then you get to England. It just sort of goes like that. As the Grave Dancers Union album was happening it was a barrage of work that was often work that I just did not understand. It was photo shoots, stuff like that, it was doing things that go along with the gig which was basically promotion. Which is basically not for me. I can understand why some people could like to dress up for a photo shoot, have fun with all that stuff and I applaud them. It’s just not me, I don’t mind, it’s just distracting mostly. When I was in Tokyo there were probably other things I’d rather been doing than get my picture taken, but that’s what you have to do, that’s the job I guess.
CrypticRock.com – It has to be so surreal. You start out small and all of your goals became bigger, next thing you know you are playing Tokyo. I know this is a sensitive subject because anytime you suffer loss in life it’s sensitive, but I know you lost your lifelong friend and original band mate Karl Mueller in 2005 to cancer. Very sad indeed and I imagine difficult for yourself, his family and friends. If you don’t mind telling me how did this effect your perspective on life and was it difficult to remain inspired to keep the music going?
Dave Pirner- Yes and Yes. When Karl passed there was a certain part of me that was like wow every time he smoked a cigarette I smoked a cigarette, every time he drank a beer I drank a beer. It was in his family and his father died very young. To look at that sort of mortality of somebody that literally has been living right beside you the whole time. We shared a bed together on tour in the early days. We were closer than brothers I think. I still dedicate a song to him every time we play. I was just recently telling someone the other day there is no such thing as ghosts and they said well how to do you know. I said because when you see those TV shows with the green cameras in the dark, and they’re like oh your right. I’m not saying there is no other spirit world out there and I do feel like when I’m singing a song for Karl somehow he can hear it. I don’t know why I think that.
I was watching a movie about Banksy the other day and he said “I mean, they say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.” I make sure I always keep him in the front of my consciousness. I had written a song for him that I started literally the day of his funeral. It was in my eulogy, I started singing during the eulogy. I opened a set in Minneapolis with that song and it was very difficult for me to get through. The cathartic nature of keeping his spirit alive inside of me, I don’t know it’s just something I feel. I miss him every day. I think even though it’s hard for me explain he was not so much a creative force in the band as he was a moral force. That’s what sort of fell through the cracks when he left. He just had this spirit about him that was incredibly positive, incredibly able to laugh in the face of adversity, incredibly essentially to the fiber of what we were doing. There was just a lot of crazy nonsense that just didn’t make any sense, really difficult situations that he would always just handle it very calmly. I don’t know how we could have made it through a lot of that stuff without the sort of levelheadedness he had about him. He just wanted to be in the band, that was it. I was just talking to someone about Lemmy and we were saying he was just one of those people if he couldn’t be in the band he would be moving their equipment around. I think that applies as far as having that spirit of just wanting to be in it. I don’t know, some people were just born to rock and he was definitely one of them.
CrypticRock.com – I appreciate you telling me all that. I agree that as long as you keep someone in your mind they are always alive inside of you. Now you guys released your first studio album in 8 years The Silver Lining back in 2006. Then you recently followed up last year with Delayed Reaction. That is an excellent record. What was the writing and recording process like for that record?
Dave Pirner- It was different in a way that the do it yourself aseptic of punk rock is something I learned to embrace out of necessity. If I’m coming at it with all that sort of experience, which a lot of it is really bad experiences (laughs). Don’t get me wrong you learn from your mistakes. If you come at it from that angle where you say “I can do this all by myself without any help from anybody. We are going to put our little punk rock band on stage or whatever the case maybe, we are going to do, hell or high water by any means necessary”, that’s how this record was made. The trick was kind of embracing how much money we had wasted in past. It was really wasted on weird things. When you get a big expense account the budget starts going to all kinds of crazy non music related events. Sometimes somebody just wants a better hotel room or whatever, it’s not that big of a deal. To get down to the brass task of record making you have to want to do it. It’s not a rock n roll party anymore, it’s very focused, you have to sort of understand what’s suppose to happen. Learning every single little angle of it which is an endless amount of things to learn is a whooping education for me. I’ve never used the word whooping before (laughs).
It’s just all embracing. I still don’t have great engineering skills but I’m producing a record now and that also gives me a chance to hone my chops and learn more. It’s particularly helpful if you are looking at the forest from a helicopter and you are not a tree, you can step outside when it’s not your music. It’s much easier for me to produce and record someone else’s music and make it sound good. To do my own, it’s just harder for me to be objective. So to that effect the record was made extremely efficiently if you will. In the past we spent a ton of time and money trying to get things right. Now it’s like wow I have a drummer who can nail it on the first or second take. That has never been the case before Michael Bland joined the band. With that you saved 3 days and 5,000 dollars (laughs). I’m laughing because it’s true. There are just so many things that we really had to be arduous about getting right because we just didn’t have the skill, the knowledge, or the talent to execute it properly. There’s no right and wrong in rock n roll, there’s a feel that has to be there, if you don’t have that you’re screwed. That is what makes Delayed Reaction a record that was possible. The caliber of mostly Michael (laughs). I mean everyone sounds great on the record but I think if you don’t have a good drum track you are kind of screwed. That’s why people move to hip hop and drum machines. I had to learn the hard way, but I still love a live drummer, love playing the drums, and love the instrument. I mean I can dig a drum machine, but it’s a pretty real record considering we pulled it off without nearly the money and bullshit that goes on when you don’t know what you are doing.
CrypticRock.com – It definitely worked out for you because the end result was Delayed Reaction. You guys recently released a new EP entitled No Fun Intended. There are 3 excellent cover tracks on the EP. The songs are obviously of bands which influence you. Tell me what made you decide to record these tribute’s to these classic bands?
Dave Pirner- I don’t know how much you know about the Suicide Commandos but they were the local Minneapolis Ramones. For the lack of a better expression they were the first band there. They were the first band that I thought was playing punk rock. As it happens the guitar player from Suicide Commandos, Chris Osgood, showed me my first bar chord. It’s just rock n roll guitar playing. It’s just a different headset then what I had been dealing with trying to be a trumpet player. He would say funny things, I would be playing something and I’d say “oh look at this, this is something I figured out to play, it really seems to impress my friends”, he’d just look at me and say “well that’s what it’s all about Dave”. To have someone with that sense of humor as a mentor. That’s why that song is there and it was something that I asked Chris to show me how to play. That was a really long time ago, I was still in high school. I am still friends with Chris, it just feels cool to put out a Suicide Commandos song. They were my heroes growing up. MC5 is also sort of an obvious choice although the song is not an obvious choice. It’s not that typical of what MC5 was known for, which makes it even cooler to me. It’s just a great song. I got a hold of that one and felt this is the MC5 song I want to do. Even though I covered quite a few MC5 songs. They are just a pivotal band as far as how things came to be the way they are. I don’t see how it could have happened without them, the Stooges, and a couple other bands. I think they brought the initial rage somehow. I just really identify with it. The Joy Division song was more of a thing of just a song I always loved, it was always playing in clubs when I was coming up, and there is a certain element of what if it was recorded a little bit differently? What if it was mixed a little differently? Then they put out a remix that I thought was even worse. There was a part of me that was thinking someone should get this right. It’s just such a great song. There is a part of me that thinks I want people to hear this song. I don’t have any reservations about what style of a band it’s coming from or any of that stuff, it doesn’t matter to me.
CrypticRock.com – It is cool to get those old songs out there because maybe some people may have never heard them before. You did a great job recording them.
Dave Pirner- I have struggled with the internet. I think someone said to me well this gives kids an opportunity to find out about music that they wouldn’t have found out otherwise. I think that was a driver to get those songs out there for someone that may not have heard them.
CrypticRock.com – Exactly, that is a good thing. It is important for people to understand the history of rock n roll.
Dave Pirner- Yes I am very much of the passing it on mindset. Living in New Orleans and realizing that what’s important is that music gets passed on to kids, from father to child. I think that’s true in all kinds of art and culture. You have to be as much a conduit as much as someone who is going to be a link.
CrypticRock.com – My last question for you is regarding films. Crypticrock.com is a rock/metal and horror news site so we like to focus on all genres. Are you a fan of horror films and if so what are some of your favorite horror films?
Dave Pirner- First I have to ask you if you have seen the “Artificial Heart” video. It’s a soul asylum song and I made a horror movie around the song. I did it with my friends who are hardcore horror fans. We shot it all at Super 8. It was a blood bath or whatever. I guess something that appeals to me about horror movies is… there was just something I saw called Sharknado (2013) and it’s just so fucking bad that you can’t take your eyes off it. I think Evil Dead II (1987) touched me in that kind of way. I really liked the movie Zombieland (2009) before the zombie thing starting taking over. I thought alright now we are going to make something that is gory but we are going to put some money into the script. I thought that came off really well. Night Of The Living Dead (1968) seems sort of like Blue Suede Shoes, it seems like the footprint that created something that just exploded out of it. I particularly like to watch the foreign horror movies that are just so fucking disturbing and psychological. I like that angle, I like when the horror becomes this other thing that is not just gory. I also love the gory part of it. I just love the whole bloody mess. I don’t really prefer a fake looking special effect over a real looking special effect. I don’t really know if what I am looking to do is discover the absurd or if I really want to be scared. I just think it’s a really fascinating art form.
9/19/13 Sycuan Casino El Cajon, California
9/27/13 Asylum Portland, Maine
9/28/13 Mohegan Sun Casino Uncasville, Connecticut
9/30/13 Paradise Rock Club Boston, Massachusetts
10/1/13 State Theatre New Brunswick, New Jersey
10/2/13 Capitol Theatre Port Chester, New York
10/5/13 Webster Hall New York City, New York
10/6/13 Ardmore Music Hall Ardmore, Pennsylvania
10/8/13 Altar Bar Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
10/9/13 9:30 Club Washington, DC
10/11/13 Sands Bethlehem Events Center Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
10/12/13 Stockbridge Theater Derry, New Hampshire
10/14/13 The Tralf Buffalo, New York
10/15/13 Water Street Music Hall Rochester, New York
10/17/13 The Vogue Indianapolis, Indiana
10/18/13 Vic Theatre Chicago, Illinois
10/19/13 First Avenue Minneapolis, Minnesota