With 35 years in the music game and 11 albums under his belt, Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum has seen it all. Through the years he experienced his fair share of ups and downs, along with occasional tragedies and triumphs. This struggle stokes the creative fire burning within him and carries him forward as a songwriter who continuously strives to explore new sonic territory.
The story of Soul Asylum began in Minneapolis, Minnesota, back in the early 1980s, when the original lineup took shape. However, the band was anything but an overnight success. After several indie releases on Minneapolis’ Twin/Tone Records and A&M, Dave Pirner and Soul Asylum exploded onto the national scene when the band released its groundbreaking album “Grave Dancers Union.” Soul Asylum followed up this success with “Let Your Dim Light Shine” in 1995, which climbed to #6 on the Billboard 200 and featured the #1 Modern Rock track “Misery.” After releasing “Candy From a Stranger” in 1998, the band members wanted to concentrate on writing and took a break from recording. The band reconvened in 2004 to begin work on their ninth full-length album, joined by a new drummer, Michael Bland. Sadly, shortly thereafter, bassist Karl Mueller was diagnosed with throat cancer and passed away after finishing his work on the new album. “The Silver Lining” was released in 2006 and was dedicated to Karl’s life and memory. The band took a long and unscheduled hiatus as they grieved and dealt with the loss of their friend and bandmate. In 2012, Soul Asylum released the aptly titled “Delayed Reaction.”
In 2016, Soul Asylum returns with their 11th studio album, “Change of Fortune,” released on March 18th via eOne Music. An effort three years in the making, it was recorded while the band toured non-stop, had a few lineup changes and some soul searching, but upon listening to “Change of Fortune,” it’s worth the wait. Soul Asylum loyalists will discover the group’s trademark ragged-but-right sound intact. The heart and soul of Soul Asylum remains and they continue to produce heartfelt and passionate rock n’ roll. The band consists of David Pirner on guitar and vocals, Michael Bland on drums, Winston Roye on bass and Justin Sharbono on guitar.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with the driving force behind Soul Asylum, frontman Dave Pirner, to discuss his life in music, the challenges of bringing “Change of Fortune” to life, the music and artists who inspire him and what the future holds for the band.
Your music has been a part of our lives for many years. What are some of your earliest memories of music?
Hmmmm. Hold on, Jason. I am going deep! [laughs] Some of my first memories of music are listening to my mother sing in church and going to Methodist church camp. I guess I was singing campfire songs and shit like that. I also remember hearing the song “When You’re Hot You’re Hot!” I remember hearing that on the radio and saying, “You’ve gotta get that 45.” Sometimes, when I would hear things on the radio, I wouldn’t know the title of the song. I would end up going, “It goes like this mom! When you’re hot ‘cha hot and when you’re not you’re hot-tah!” [laughs] My mom was like, “What the fuck do you want me to do?” We used to go to Zare’s Shopper City, which is kind of like a Target nowadays, and sing the tune to the person working in the record section to see if they could figure out which song I was talking about! I also remember going to the lake with my folks and they had about four different cassettes. I listened to those cassettes quite a bit. Before that, I would make drum sets out of my mom’s pots, pans and round Quakers Oats containers. I made drum sets out of whatever I could find in the house and would bang on them. I would also sing Elvis Presley. I think it was “Hound Dog.” I was doing an Elvis Presley impersonation a long fuckin’ time ago! [laughs] I was into impersonating Elvis before I even knew it was a thing! [laughs]
At what point did you realize music was something you wanted to pursue seriously and, ultimately, do as a career?
Well, that is kind of a tough one. [laughs] One day, I called my boss from Milwaukee and I said, “I don’t think I am going to be coming in tomorrow because I am in Milwaukee.” He said, “Well, don’t bother coming back.” That was my last job so, at that point, there I was. I was with the band in a pickup truck and I was like, “Well, I guess this is it for me.” I never went and found another job, so it all sort of happened by default. I think it was all part of my dream but I never knew it was possible. In a way, I just sort of kept at it. When I was playing trumpet and stuff in school, I never really thought, “Oh, I am going to be a professional trumpet player!” [laughs]
You achieved great success in your career but keeping the momentum going is not an easy process. To what do you attribute your longevity?
For me, it got to that point where I said, “OK, this is me and this is what I do.” The nature of it is to be relentless, passionate, patient, persistent and a little bit crazy! You just start thinking, “Fuck, I am going to do this come hell or high water and no one is going to give me permission to do it. Maybe no one will encourage me to do it but it is what I love to do and I’m gonna do it!” Things happen and bands change like they do, from people quitting, dying or whatever the case may be. When things like that happen I start thinking, “Oh fuck! It’s over!” Then somebody else in the band will go, “No it’s not. We’ll figure this out.” It is sort of a combination of dedication and raw devotion, as far as I am concerned. I love doing it and you can’t take that away from me, I guess! [laughs]
Soul Asylum just released their 11th studio album, “Change of Fortune.” When did you start planting the seeds for what would become this album?
My deal is that I start on the next record when the last one is finished, so I had an engineer over here yesterday and we are getting ready to demo some songs and stuff. It is really just an ongoing cycle. I just start doing it! I am always writing and always trying to come up with ideas or having things popping into my head. It is a process! We had a lot of the DIY aesthetic with this record and I am really proud of it. I am also really more convinced than ever that no one can grant me permission or tell me I can’t do it!
Did you have goals or aspirations in mind when you started?
Yeah, in the way that I have always been trying to get to Soul Asylum music. How it ends up becoming that is kind of a high standard, whether it is my own personalized standard or someone in the band. Someone might say, “That song doesn’t move me but that one does.” I am like, “Alright! Let’s work on that one then!” I just keep pitching songs to the band until we have enough songs for a record. Now that the band is versatile and incredibly adaptive at playing so many different styles, vibes, moods and grooves, it gives me the opportunity to put some music out that I have always wanted to put out. I think that is a big part of the motivation and satisfaction that goes with it. I get to crystallize some of these ideas that I have been struggling with for as along as I can remember. I have been trying to get them out of my head and onto the record for ages.
What can you tell us about your songwriting process? What changed and what stayed the same through the years?
The major change is that I have started fuckin’ around with computers. As the digital thing is this weird angle, where if I have an idea, I can get it into Pro Tools immediately and start working on it. I sort of have the seed for the idea and I have to hum it into a tape recorder and play the guitar part into a tape recorder. It is probably always most constructive to sit down with an acoustic guitar, a piece of paper and a pencil and work it out. I am looking at all my tools right here. Sometimes I sit at the piano, sometimes I pick up the acoustic guitar and sometimes I pull a chair up to the Pro Tools studio. It has evolved in every which way. Back in the day, I used to bring a part into practice and we would play it over and over and over again. The next day, I would bring in another part and we would play that over and over and over again. Then we would play them both, one after the other. The next day I would bring in one more part and so on. At some point, you are like, “Wait a minute, this has too many parts!” [laughs] Or you might say, “I like that part but not the other part.” We would flesh it all out in the practice space. Around the time of “Grave Dancers Union,” I started playing acoustic guitar and that is what kind of made that situation different. Before that it was all punk rock and there were definitely no acoustic guitars involved! [laughs] It was kind of a delayed reaction, no pun intended, to pick up an acoustic guitar at that point was something I should have done much earlier.
I am sure each project brings a unique set of circumstances. Did you face challenges in bringing “Change of Fortune” to life?
Oh God! [laughs] Yeah, every record has its own trials, tribulations, drama and bullshit. There is always the questions of, “Where are we going to get the money? How’re we gonna … ? When are we gonna … ? Who’s available?” All those sorts of things go into this process. When we used to get bankrolled $800,000 to go to LA or New York to be in a studio for two-and-a-half months, there were fewer questions. Those days are long gone and now it is a lot more streamlined. When me, Michael [Bland] and John Fields started making some of the rough skeletons for the tunes, we were missing Tommy [Stinson], who had just gone back to Axl Rose. We didn’t really want to make a solo record or a Soul Asylum record. We found Winston and his playing on this record just tickles the cockles of my balls! Over the course of making the record, the band rallied around it. It wasn’t really a complete band when we started working on it, so that was a big challenge.
You worked with John Fields in the past. What does he bring out of the band creatively?
I think that Michael and John had a really, really great rapport before I started working with the two of them. They had worked on all kinds of projects together. Oddly, it was John who I ran into on the street and he said, “I’ve got to get you in the studio with Michael Bland.” I said, “That sounds great to me but I’m not sure how I am going to make that happen.” Before we knew it, Michael got freed up and auditioned for the band. It was the shortest audition in history! I instantly said, “Holy shit! There he is! I have been waiting my whole life for this guy!” To that effect, John can engineer and play bass at the same time, which is pretty awesome. He has producer chops, whatever that means. He understands all the engineering and all the ins and outs of a professional studio situation. To that degree, when the three of us are working, John is engineering, Michael is at the drum kit and I am playing guitar and singing, it is extremely efficient. He is just a super talented guy.
What does the title of the album, “Change of Fortune,” mean to you?
Well, I don’t know but it has a lot to do with New Orleans. I think that the music, song to song, is affected by the atmosphere of New Orleans. Maybe when you are in a Second Line parade and celebrating somebody’s death, perhaps it is a positive way of looking at something. Maybe it forces you to believe things are going to have to get better. Basically, that is it. It was Winston’s idea to name the record after the song. He did it in a way that was like, “Goddamnit, I am tired of talking about this! Let’s just call the record ‘Change of Fortune!’”’ I went, “OK! Done!”
What impact has New Orleans had on you as a singer, songwriter and performer?
Fuck, man! Probably so much that I don’t even have a full grasp of the full breadth of what is what I went down there for and how I absorbed it. The idea for me is not to co-op something or be influenced necessarily, inspired perhaps, but it was the spirit of the music that lives there that is unique to this one place in the world. I was so swept up and sucked into it. I would hear a few things and think, “What the fuck is this?! Oh, my god! I have to go where this music is coming from!” We would stop there on tour and take a day off in New Orleans. I was like, “Holy shit! What is going on here?! There is so much music just oozing out of everything.” I was also a trumpet player as a kid. I guess I didn’t really know how the trumpet was supposed to sound, even after seven years of taking trumpet lessons in Minneapolis. [laughs] When I got to New Orleans, there was a guy on every corner just playing the shit out of that thing! [laughs] The rhythm, dancing and culture was just so beautiful to me and so different than what I grew up with. I had spent time trying to live in New York and Los Angeles. I really wanted the culture. There is just such a crazy melting pot of culture and music in New Orleans that is not rock and roll. It is kind of all the things that informed rock and roll and enabled it to exist. It is a living history that sort of came out of Congo Square and some of these places where these different people coming to America from south of New Orleans and from Africa. Everyone was celebrating life in a way that is very musical. For me, it was so different than the punk rock thing. I am still an anger management punk rock dude! I still love the whole thing where the crowd is looking at the band and the band is looking at the crowd and everyone is like, “Fuck you, fuck you, I hate you, this sucks!” I loved that and then, all of a sudden, I am hanging out in these clubs that don’t have a cover charge, watching the most amazing musicians I had ever seen in my life and they are all smiling and happy. I was like, “Maybe it is time for me to stop screaming fuck you at everybody!” [laughs]
What is going on right now musically that has you excited? Anything we should keep an ear out for?
I just got back from SXSW and that is a crash course in what is happening right at this moment. A lot of the music I was hearing seemed familiar. I found myself saying, “Where have I heard this before?” My guitar player, Justin, who listens to the progressive radio station, The Current, in Minneapolis, said, “You probably heard it on The Current.” He was right. It was all the really fresh music that is coming out that is not hip-hop! I just thought it was bizarre that there was no jazz or anything like that at SXSW. It is pretty white. I love hip-hop. I am looking at a Lizzo record right now, who is a local artist. She is a singer and a rapper. A girl named Dessa.
My most recent discovery is Trixie Whitley. I was at the record store in Austin, Texas, called Waterloo. I grew up hanging out in record stores, so really love the feeling of being in a record store and talking to the clerk about what is going on with the new shit. I love that interaction and scouring the bins. Trixie Whitley is Chris Whitley‘s daughter. I was very close with Chris and I miss him. I always knew about Trixie. I was staying in Chris’s apartment in The Village in New York for a few months. There was a couple pictures of her around. She was 7 or 8 years old at the time. She was a kid who would occasionally come to her dad’s shows. I never actually witnessed it but she would dance around on stage or do something, I don’t know. Everybody said it was really awesome. Then she put out this album called Black Dub with Daniel Lanois. I met a lot of people who ended up being a part of some sort of post-Kingsway Studio community. It was this beautiful mansion in the French Quarter that had the most incredible gear. Chris [Whitley] had made a record there. He came back and visited quite a bit. He played on my solo record, this, that and the other thing. I have always been aware of Trixie and I knew there were producers, Lanois amongst them, who really loved Chris and really saw something there that was kind of magical. Trixie has taken that magic by the balls! It is ridiculous to me! She used to sound even more like her dad, which gives me shivers! I’m like, “Holy shit! I can hear her father in her voice and in the way she plays the guitar.” I put Trixie’s new record at the top of my list. I love it and think it is so good!
I listen to a lot of music. I mean, I bought 15 new CDs in the last week-and-a-half. That is the one that is really standing out to me. I also got the new Cage The Elephant record. I have been following that band since the first record. It has been interesting to watch them develop. I keep my ear to the tracks and listen to it all. I am really focusing on the jazz that is coming out of New Orleans and whatever Trombone Shorty is doing. I also love metal and hip-hop. I don’t really keep track of new country but I love old country music. I am always putting on something from Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson.
When it comes to your body of work, how have you most evolved?
[laughs] I think I have devolved! [laughs] I had a Devo period there! Honestly, I guess it is kind of a constant reconstruction. You sorta have to build it up, break it down and figure out how the rhythm is fitting together. It is an ongoing learning experience. When I first got to New Orleans, I was very much into the fact that there wasn’t a lot of major chords going on. Coming from punk and folk music, it sounds really sophisticated to be listening to some really interesting chords, ya know? [laughs] It’s little things like that which are big things! It is learning how to play the drums was sort of essential to understanding how rhythm works on a trap kit. Those are ongoing things. I don’t know if my piano playing gets much better over the years but it certainly explores the instrument. It’s like the opposite of a Pandora’s box, things keep coming out of it that are cool! [laughs]
Where do you see yourself headed in the future musically as a solo artist or with Soul Asylum?
The solo thing is always something to fall back on and I think it is important for me to go do solo acoustic gigs just to keep the nerve sort of fresh. It kinda scares the hell out of me, so I have to do it now and again just to remember I can. [laughs] With those shows, I don’t have the comfort of having the band with me. I wanted the experience of making a solo record and I did it. Ultimately, I came back to the band. It’s like putting a really comfortable pair of jeans back on. I like being in a band and the gang sort of feeling. I also like that you are representing everybody, by being in a band, and not saying, “It’s all about me. What you are going to be hearing is a drummer, a bass player, two guitar players and a few dudes singing!” Hello! It’s Soul Asylum! That is what it is! It is much cooler, more fun and more exciting to people to be part of a team. I am happy that we are able to move it forward together.
One last question before I let you go. I know you are big fan of Aquaman.
Are you excited about the push he seems to be getting in the DCU?
My Aquaman action figure still has the vintage orange and green outfit. I was at a comic con and I bought a DVD of all the animated shows. Originally, we had a band called the OGs and we had a song called “Superheroes.” The girl singer was Wonder Woman, the bass player was Superman and I was the drummer and I was Aquaman. We had this song where we each took a verse about our superhero adventures. [laughs] I hear he has some sort of a cameo in “Batman V. Superman,” I am not sure if it is true. Aquaman certainly seems to have a little bit of an elusiveness about him, ya know. I don’t think that will be spoiled by him getting more props from the DC world. I was also into the Sub-Mariner too. I’d be curious to know who would win that fight! [laughs]
Thanks for your time today, Dave!
Alright man, I appreciate you! Take care!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.