On The Line with Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum

For over thirty years, Dave Pirner has been going strong and staying genuine as the frontman and rhythm guitarist for Soul Asylum. I spoke with Dave during a small break of dates from the band’s tour with The Meat Puppets to talk about his PledgeMusic campaign, how the tour has been going, the evolution of the band and more.

Alex Obert: How do you feel your touring dates in June went? What have you taken out of the whole experience with The Meat Puppets?

Dave Pirner: I thought it went great. It’s really an element that Soul Asylum is accustomed to. We toured Europe with The Meat Puppets and we’ve played many shows with them. That, to me, is a feeling of having a contemporary and an equal. They’re my heroes, really. I’m a huge Meat Puppets fan. Being able to hear them every day is a privilege, it’s pretty fuckin’ special. I just love this band and I love being on tour with this band. I think that is something that’s unique because I’ve been on tour with other bands and this situation is very elemental to where the music is coming from. In other words, Soul Asylum and Meat Puppets started up around the same time and we’ve been following the same trajectory which is to just do it and worry about the details later. It’s all about getting out there to play, keeping your chops fresh, your nose to the grindstone and your back to the sun or whatever. (laughs) Just keep on playin’. It’s very primitive, impulsive and very immediate. It has an impact that you can experience at the show. It’s different than a lot of things that I’ve seen. I moved to New Orleans to be around jazz music because I love the live element of jazz music and the improvisation. I love being in the same room as them. They don’t even have microphones. You can really appreciate the power and the energy and the presence, the live music experience is pretty irreplaceable.

Alex Obert: Where is your favorite place to see music in New Orleans?

Dave Pirner: There’s a street called Frenchmen Street and that would probably be where the locals go for music every night. Bourbon Street always has music, that’s more for the out-of-towners. I was a trumpet player when I was a kid, so when I got down to New Orleans and heard gentlemen standing on the corner playing the trumpet, I had never really realized how to play the thing. That’s from growing up in Minneapolis and having the limited exposure to musicians who play brass instruments. It’s something that I was very drawn to in New Orleans. After all, they do have the Louis Armstrong Airport. Coming from a trumpet player’s point of view, this city is the Mecca. To have all these examples about how this thing is supposed to be played, even though I really didn’t understand it in third grade, now I can truly listen to it. When I pick up my trumpet now, it’s a completely different thing in my hands. In grade school, I was playing scales all the time and I didn’t know why. I was trying to read music all the time, that was mandatory. Here in New Orleans, they pick up the trumpet like it’s a fuckin’ wrench. They’re just gonna build something beautiful out of it. That’s what I try to think of when I think of my horn now, I’m thinking about the sound of it and I’m not thinking about the technicalities of pushing the buttons and reading music.

Alex Obert: With the insertion of horns into rock, how do you feel about the ska genre?

Dave Pirner: It’s fuckin’ awesome. There’s probably a couple really, really, really early early Soul Asylum songs that have that sort of a thing to it. There was a period with The Clash and The Police and The Selecter, The Specials and Madness, there was this relationship between England and Jamaica and it’s brought us some pretty interesting music that I think a lot of those bands were interpreting at the time. It’s very elemental and it has quite a bit of energy to it. There’s a lot of things that are influenced by ska. For some reason, I’m thinking of No Doubt. They can play the shit out of ska music, it’s just a part of their influence. Once you embrace something like that, it does become a part of your repertoire. When you’re playing, you understand the feeling and the energy of what it’s supposed to do. It’s something that No Doubt has in their back pocket and it’s always going to be a place to go. There was definitely a trend for a while where it was very popular. And I think that was the second time around, just like so many other things. It was the second time around for me, but for someone else, it might’ve been the third or fourth. These kinds of periods in music tend to bubble up then simmer down then explode then disappear. It comes and goes in mysterious sorts of ways. If I heard something that sounded ska-influenced on the radio today that was a smash hit, it wouldn’t surprise me.

Alex Obert: There’s a lot that comes and goes in music throughout history, but crowdfunding is getting pretty big these days. What have you taken out of your experience with PledgeMusic?

Dave Pirner: It’s definitely an experiment that was worth it. From where I’m standing, I’ve gotta figure out how to put a record out. There’s no record stores or things like that. For me, it’s getting the band caught up with internet media. And that’s a primary objective for getting interested because I just never really had a grip on how to involve the band and the world wide web, so to speak. (laughs) It’s about trying to offer fans a personal experience. I can barely get the word “fans” out of my mouth, I like to say people that are interested in Soul Asylum’s music. (laughs) So whether it’s clever or super intelligent or kinda gimmicky or whatever the case may be, it’s an experiment. It seems like an honest experiment to me, one that doesn’t have a bunch of bullshit up its sleeve. It’s really trying to go one on one between the band and the people that are listening. Everything’s an experiment, as far as I’m concerned. Whether or not my next song is going to work that I’m working on right now, I have no idea. I’m about fifty percent through it and when I’m finished with it, it’ll either be something I can show to Soul Asylum or it’s another piece of music for the outbox. It can be a piece of music that I spent a month working on that’s never gonna fly with Soul Asylum. It’s the experimental element of what we do. There’s obvious things like going out to tour because that’s what we do, but then there’s the other part which is how we’re gonna pay to get this record. It’s funny, it’s exhausting, but I love it. I really do, even with all its frustrations and all its people trying to turn art into commerce. But for some reason, it’s still worth it to me. I’m staying focused and doing whatever is necessary to be able to continue to do it.

Alex Obert: When you wrote those songs that you didn’t feel would work for Soul Asylum, did you see potential in them to work for a different band?

Dave Pirner: I think it’s just flushing out an idea to the point where it would be playable for any band, but it ends up in my outtakes pile. But when I made my solo record, that was probably the case. I was writing music that I didn’t think Soul Asylum would like or would want to play. That was something I took out of making a solo record. I like being part of a band and the band has input in the decisions that are made. To that effect, it’s fairly democratic. I’m just the writer and singer. (laughs) My favorite collaboration on this record was me and Michael Bland. And Michael is basically the proxy musical director of the group, he makes the setlists. He asserts power in a way that I am always willing to give him. I’m willing to give him as much power as he needs because he’s incredibly talented and he has perfect pitch. He will make a setlist that is based on a lot of things that I don’t really think about, the detail. So he’ll go, “This is this tempo in this key, so after this song, there should be a song in this tempo and that key.” And I just feel whichever way the wind blows is the way that I’m gonna go. It’s all moving and it’s going and it’s growing, it’s a living entity. We are certainly poised to take all comers and present the band in a way that we can all feel good about. I think everybody’s got a really high standard. It’s really healthy for me to be looking at a band that is not just showing up or phoning it in or anything like that, it’s very involved. We’re being musically true to ourselves and we’re very confident that we can pull it off.

Alex Obert: How do you feel about these being members that all joined in the last decade?

Dave Pirner: That’s precisely what I’m talking about, as far as the evolution of the band. The evolution of the band has taken these possibilities and thrown the doors wide open. Be it the taste or the talent or whatever it is that makes somebody in a rock band who they are, this is an extremely open-minded situation where all ideas can be entertained. This brings thought instead of resistance. If I’m presenting a complicated idea, they’ll think about and process it, as opposed to saying they don’t understand it or not liking it because they can’t play it or feeling that’s not Soul Asylum or that it’s too metal or sounds like country music. Whatever the case may be, there’s none of that. It’s like “Oh, Dave wrote a song, let’s try to figure it out.” And that’s basically it, but it’s not always been the case. There’s been variations on that forever. For a while, it was like if it doesn’t sound like a hit that goes on the radio, then what else you got? That was a vacuum for me, a black hole of nothingness. I can’t write music like that. I don’t even know if I could, if I would. It wouldn’t be right to me. It’s difficult to not be overjoyed with the freedom that these guys have given me as a writer and a singer and everything. I was working with Michael in the studio and I had said that this song was in this key and I didn’t know if it was the right range for my voice. It took me and Michael about four minutes to figure out what key was the right key. I don’t know if I could have done it without him, it definitely would’ve taken a much longer time. He knows where my range is and he sang it in various keys to the point where I knew which one felt good. So we did it in that key. That’s brand new for Soul Asylum. It’s an exciting thing for me.

SPEED ROUND

Alex Obert: Favorite album cover?

Dave Pirner: I’m feeling the first Led Zeppelin record cover, I don’t know why.

Alex Obert: Favorite one-hit wonder?

Dave Pirner: Mambo No. 5 by Lou Bega.

Alex Obert: Favorite band name?

Dave Pirner: (laughs) It’s kinda fucked up…The Sex Pistols.

Alex Obert: The one Soul Asylum show you wish you could relive?

Dave Pirner: I guess the Karl Mueller Benefit because Karl was still with us.

Alex Obert: The piece of advice you’d give yourself in the eighties.

Dave Pirner: Get your college degree.

Alex Obert: Favorite band shirt you own?

Dave Pirner: I’m gonna go with the Meat Puppets shirt that they gave me a while back. Not a coincidence that I’m on tour with the Meat Puppets, man! I’m pretty in touch with where their artwork comes from.

Alex Obert: In closing, when do you get back on the road and what are some of the places you’re gonna hit?

Dave Pirner: About a week. I’ll be every place up and down the West Coast from Washington to Arizona. LA and San Francisco and all those places.

Alex Obert: Sounds good! I’d love to thank you so much for your time and I wish you the best on the next leg of the tour.

Dave Pirner: Thank you, Alex. I appreciate it, man.

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