Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner On Making Music: The New Standards Will Become The Great Songs
Hitting play on the voicemail message, a familiar voice comes across the phone line, “hey there, it’s Dave Pirner….”
Pirner is calling earlier than scheduled and when I call him back, he explains that he’s on his way out the door to band practice and just wanted to see if he could push the interview time up a bit. Soul Asylum has been on tour this summer playing shows, including a handful of dates where they revisit their landmark album Grave Dancer’s Union in its entirety.
The tour dates have brought the band home to Minneapolis for the moment and they’re taking advantage of the time to rehearse a bit to continue working out new material for an album that has been nearly finished since the beginning of the year. But they’ve continued to fine tune and tweak things, while fleshing out additional new material. From speaking to members of the band, it’s clear at this point that they have such a wealth of recorded songs to choose from, it’s anybody’s guess what will wind up on the final album that gets released.
Things had been pretty quiet in the Soul Asylum camp over the past decade, although they continued to play shows. A shifting lineup saw bassist Tommy Stinson join the band and Stinson’s addition gave the group a much-needed shot in the arm. Similarly, the added presence of former Prince drummer Michael Bland would bring additional good mojo and chemistry.
And although additional lineup changes have left Pirner as the sole remaining original member of Soul Asylum (guitarist Dan Murphy opted for a quieter life away from the road with friends and family and turned in his notice after 30 years in late 2012 and was replaced by his cousin and fellow Minnesota native, Justin Sharbono and Stinson was eventually replaced by bassist Winston Roye), the band has never sounded better.
On the heels of their well-received 2012 release, the appropriately named Delayed Reaction (the band’s final LP with Murphy), Soul Asylum has been playing arguably some of the best shows of their career, wielding a setlist that is evenly focused on a pleasurable mix of tracks from the new album, the expected “hits” and a healthy dosage of album tracks and lesser heard rarities. You could call it a ballsy move that many of the tour dates featured the band putting down “Somebody To Shove” as their opening marker each night, but for those in attendance, it made for a perfectly raucous launching point for the remaining 20+ songs that would follow in its wake.
Even in the midst of a creative spurt of writing and recording new material, the band is rarely at rest. They recently took time to revisit their influences with a rapid-fire set of sessions that captured enough material for a series of four planned covers EPs. no fun intended is the first of those releases, a spirited trip through songs by the MC5, Suicide Commandos and Joy Division. While it might seem strange on paper, to think about Soul Asylum covering “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” it’s a combination that totally works and if it was the ‘90s, the band might have had a monster hit with their version. Still, for any music supervisors who might be reading this, it seems like it would fit quite nicely on a movie soundtrack somewhere at some point in the future.
Soul Asylum will be back on the road later this month for tour dates with Fountains of Wayne and Evan Dando of the Lemonheads. We caught up with Pirner shortly before the trek was announced to talk about the new EP and a myriad of other musical subjects. On the tail end of our conversation, we wrapped in a bit of chat time with guitarist Justin Sharbono, the newest member of the band to get some perspective on what it’s like to join the band that you grew up listening to as a fan.
You know over the past couple of years, I found myself wishing for new Soul Asylum music and a Soul Asylum show in Cleveland and as it happens, in the last couple of years, you’ve delivered on both of those things. It’s good to see you guys back, both with new music and continuing to play shows.
Oh thank you, yeah. That’s the hardest part for me, is for people to understand that I move like the wind. I make music as efficiently as I can and [for them] to try to understand how long or slow it takes a song to start and then get to fruition and then for somebody to hear it. Either everybody hears it or nobody hears it, but I’m always working. So it’s not this thing where I’m fazed by somebody quitting my band or some record label’s attitude or whatever. It’s just what I do, I make music.
With the release of the latest studio album and the positive reception that it’s received, it feels like Soul Asylum might finally be getting its due. Does it feel that way to you?
No. [Laughs] But because I don’t follow people’s reactions, I was not aware that our last record was well-received. It’s news to me and it’s good news.
The album itself seems like it had an interesting birthing process, with the origins of a few of the songs going back a few years, like “By The Way” for example, being from the era of Grave Dancer’s Union. Can you talk a little bit about how the album itself came together? Did you have a large amount of material to work from?
I had just gotten back from Los Angeles and I was recording a couple new songs with Michael Bland and John Fields and we decided to cover a Slim Dunlap song and gosh, the Slim song came out so good that I was a little taken aback. It’s much easier for me to put my energy into somebody else’s composition than it is for mine, because it’s not my song. Slim wrote a great song and I think it’s getting realized.
The way that we made the Slim song is much the same way that we made Delayed Reaction. When I started playing with Michael Bland, I think Soul Asylum was reborn and I think that when I moved to New Orleans, I was trying to find a drummer. So the drama or the trauma that I went through trying to find a good drummer, was resolved when Michael joined the band. You know, when Danny quit the band, I said “Michael, is it over” and he goes “no, it’s not over — it’s the songs. Let’s do it.” This becomes a bond between me and my drummer that is astonishing to me. I’m so thankful for it.
Making Delayed Reaction was a situation where I felt like the focus of the band was lost and I hate to explain it to the band, but I’m not lost. I kept auditioning songs and usually when we make a Soul Asylum record, I audition about 60 or 70 songs and 10 get picked out. This process had become more arduous as there was less and less money. So you have to start doing this thing where you’re sending somebody an MP3 and they’re sending back a file and it’s just ridiculous. I hate the way it sounds.
You know, Danny Murphy was watching Youtube and he saw “Should Have Stayed In Bed” that we recorded for the MTV Unplugged and he was like “wow, that’s a good one!” I was like “okay, well that took a while” and you know, he always liked “By The Way” and it was very embarrassing, but I didn’t know that it was released on a B-side of something. So those are the two old songs, but the rest of it is as fresh as can be and would I have preferred to make it analog with a million dollar budget? Absolutely. But you do what you can and you go to war with the army you have and I did my best. [Laughs] I already wrote that song too, but it’s very gratifying to me to hear you say that it was well-received.
I think there’s been some skepticism from people going to see a Soul Asylum show where you’re the only remaining original guy onstage, but that skepticism seems to be erased once people actually see the band play and that’s really cool. It’s also cool to see how well the new material, whether it’s “Gravity” or “Into The Light” fits into the setlist and it goes over well live.
Thanks. I really appreciate that. Trying to understand what music is and how it affects people’s emotions, it sort of made me move to New Orleans. The reason why I moved to New Orleans is because I can feel something that doesn’t have anything to do with anything other than my ears and my heart. I just don’t think that there’s any other way to sort it out. In the meantime, the logistics of trying to make a living doing this are ridiculous. It’s a complete pain in the ass. So I’m struggling and I’ve always struggled. That’s part of the job that’s never really changed for me and people kind of want to ask me about “well, what was it like when you were selling four million records?” It wasn’t that different. I was still doing the same thing, you know?
Besides the logistical side of things, environmentally, has the move to New Orleans changed your overall process as a songwriter?
Absolutely. But not at all, because I’ve been writing songs for 25 years. But when I came to New Orleans, I understood that everyone was playing standards and standards are the best songs that have been written until somebody writes another one. But the interpreters in New Orleans, it’s a broad selection of tunes and they can play any tune they want. But you know it pretty much gets narrowed down to about 30 songs.
Like “My Funny Valentine” and this that and the other thing and that made me want to understand the timelessness of music and soak it up. Not necessarily being inspired by it, because I’m not that good of a musician, but just understanding the passion and the natural quality that goes into playing music that people can’t help themselves [from doing] in New Orleans. The musical families, they just make music and it’s too hard to think about all of those other things, but they just want to make music and that’s kind of how I am.
All of this leads into the new EP no fun intended, which we’ve got now. Being that this is the first of a series of of four planned EPs, was there a central thread driving the material that you chose to record for these EPs?
The EPs were sort of a situation where I guess John Fields and Michael Bland were trying to dig into me and go “where the fuck are you from, dude?” and I just sort of started going “well if you want to hear the music that I grew up with and that inspired me, I will play it for you.” John Fields is related to the guy that wrote “Funkytown.” You know that song? [Pirner begins to sing a bit of “Funkytown”]
Oh of course!
And then Michael Bland of course, has had a completely different upbringing than me, only because he’s black. [Laughs] But he’s from Minneapolis and the thing that bonded us was that musically we both understood the classic rock station that we had to listen to. I fucking hated it, you know? He actually embraced it more than I did. So then it turned into this challenge where Michael got a mohawk and I’m sitting there going “how hard do you want to get?” And we did “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” and I was like “how hard was that? How hard can you get?” And then it was like “let’s do the Stooges.” Let’s really dig in and really get aggressive and really challenge each other. It kind of went like that. It was just like “oh, okay. I got that — what else you got?”
The Suicide Commandos song is unfortunately not written by Chris Osgood, but Chris Osgood is pretty much my mentor. He sort of showed me my first Ramones chords and he was my hero when I was growing up and I just thought he was the coolest guy ever. So that’s “Attacking The Beat” and then the other song is the MC5, which long story short, I love the MC5 and they mean everything to me as an influence and an inspiration. But again, “Shakin’ Street” is not really what you think of when you think of MC5.
It’s kind of like when you think of Soul Asylum, you don’t really think of “Runaway Train,” unless that’s all you know. When you think of KISS, you don’t think of “Beth.” But this song is a great song and it’s just a long story for me to try to understand how Wayne Kramer and Fred “Sonic” Smith sorted out a lot of stuff that other people picked up on. That’s why I love the MC5 and that’s why I can also say that the other guys in the band are all so awesome.
I love the Stooges too, so I did “TV Eye” and it’s like, why are you doing that? I don’t know, because I had to do a Stooges song and that one, I can play it off the top of my head. I can just start screaming and going [Pirner digs in with his best Iggy-worthy vocal as we converse] “She gotta TV Eye on me” and I was just feelin’ it, you know? To have that sort of atmosphere in the studio where somebody can go “well what do you want to do?” and I go “well…..” and then I start doing it and then it’s done in two hours, it’s exciting. Me and Justin just made a song last night about Morgan Spurlock’s dog. That’s original material, actually. [Laughs]
What’s going to happen with that one?
You know who Morgan Spurlock is, obviously. So he has this new show called Inside Man and it’s a CNN hour show that he does. He’s a lot like Michael Moore to me — he speaks the truth, he documents it and he reacts with emotion. That’s a trifecta, whatever I just said. He tells this story at the beginning of it about his dog and it’s great. I was like “wow, that story will stay with me for the rest of my life.” That’s his story, but it’s a story of Morgan Spurlock’s dog.
That’s really great. You never know where that songwriting inspiration is going to come from. Today, it’s Morgan Spurlock’s dog — who knows what it’s going to be tomorrow?
Well I think that “Should Have Stayed In Bed All Day” is kind of esoteric and it’s my sense of humor. These are the things that make it [hard], “well do you really want to put that out? But I think that everybody knows that feeling.
I love the version of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” on the new EP. That seems like a little bit of a left turn from the rest of the material that you’ve talked about doing, but it’s great.
The learning experience, the [process of] passing it on and trying to learn from people you respect is very simple. Keith Richards turned me onto Robert Johnson — there’s a few things like that where you just go “wow.” We love to document the oral tradition and last night I had to listen to a conversation between one guy that was kind of like “I love vinyl and I hate…” and then another guy that was like “well, it’s not really about the vehicle — it’s more about passing it on.” The real experience is to be there personally, so who fuckin’ cares [how you hear it]. That’s why I moved to New Orleans, to be in a room with musicians playing music. If you want a quick fix, that’s one thing. I understand both sides of the equation and I’d love to facilitate both of them.
Hearing this new EP, it feels like you delivered that. It does feel like more of an educational thing. I think as you know, there’s been bands and artists who will just do a covers album or an EP, just to put something out as contract filler. And this doesn’t feel that way.
Yeah, it’s fun. It’s making music and I could do that for a while. The Slim Dunlap song that I recorded, it sounds to me like a smash hit and this man just had a stroke. In New Orleans, they reinterpret “My Funny Valentine” over and over again, because it is really such a great song. But how you play it has a lot to do with it. [Laughs] Are you going to play it ironic, are you going to play it funny, are you going to play it fast or are you going to play it happy? You can do all of those things.
“Love Will Tear Us Apart,” you can go through the drama of trying to understand what it took to write that song and how the singer could whatever….whatever the legend is, stood on a block of ice in his mother’s basement…whatever the fuck the story is. But you know, you follow it and you’ve got New Order and just things that have been happening. They’ll start to regenerate, so the new standards will become the great songs. I think those three are all great songs and I would like to see other bands play them.
Did you put this stuff down fairly quickly?
Yeah. [Laughs] The first 25 years of Soul Asylum was spending a whole lot of time trying to get a good rhythm track. Now, I have Michael Bland who can pretty much do anything immediately and he will sit there for about three or four minutes and then he’ll go “okay, I got this.” He walks out of the studio and he cuts a drum track and it’s done. That is the newest and freshest and greatest thing about Soul Asylum. So it doesn’t take us any time at all now, but it used to take us forever. We used to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to fix things, you know?
I want to ask about the next record. What can you tell us about that?
Oh my goodness. I think it was finished about four months ago, but we’ll keep working on it. The songs need some work and it’s only going to get better and it’s happening very fast. Hopefully we can figure out a way to put it out.
At this point, as the band arrives at rehearsal, we spend a few minutes talking to guitarist Justin Sharbano….
Justin, how are you doing?
Doing well. How are you doing?
I’m good! What would you throw into the mix as far as the current happenings and what’s going on with the music that you’re making?
Well, I mean right now, as Dave was saying, we’re in the throes of constantly creating. We have a studio here in Minneapolis, Dave has one in New Orleans and then we work out of John’s [studio] in L.A., so there’s a lot of files being bounced around and ideas floating. So there’s just this huge…..I think since January, we’ve basically had an album almost done. Now there’s 12 more songs to add to it in a sense that we just keep hashing them out. But it’s a really fun way to create. As Dave said, we’re on our way to rehearsal now, where now we get to start the process of realizing them live. So I’m excited about that.
You have been out playing some shows. Are you home for the moment, or are you still out gigging?
No, we’re in the midst of a bunch of shows. But our next show is in Minneapolis tomorrow, so that’s why [we’re doing this]. It’s home for me and it’s home for Michael and it’s home for Dave some of the time. So it’s just convenient to be here and Dave and I, we were working in the studio last night here and now we’ll go to rehearsal in Northeast Minneapolis and work up the tunes. There’s a lot of stuff to be done, which feels really good, to be busy and creating music.
How many of these new songs are you looking to play live?
I don’t know. I think we’ll just start easing them in, is kind of the idea. We’ll sprinkle a few in here and there and just see how they…..you know, I think the first step is just seeing how they translate from the studio [to the live setting] with just the four of us making all of those sounds together live. It’s a completely different things.
Have there been some challenges making it all work with the four of you?
No, not really. You know, you just kind of choose what feels like the most important parts and sometimes it becomes just a hybrid — you grab different things and it works out. I’m huge into making sounds and I love [experimenting with] pedals for my guitars, so I’ll always try, if there’s a synth part or an organ part, to make that sound with my guitar, if there’s not a different guitar part that needs to be played.
If there’s a down verse or chorus in something, what can I grab to fill it sonically? Not in a way that I always need to be playing music, but hopefully in a way that adds to the musicality and the experience of it. So even reaching back to the old tunes, I’ll grab some of the organ parts on Grave Dancer’s Union and other things like that, which to me it’s just really fun to try to figure out “oh I wonder, man, it would be so cool to do this, can I do it?” and then you just spend time working it out and creating sounds. I just really love that kind of stuff.
You guys have been playing the Grave Dancer’s Union album in full at a few shows this year. What’s that been like for you?
Well, for me it’s awesome. I grew up [and] I learned how to play guitar because of that album. I think I was in sixth grade and I was just taking interest in the guitar and I told my mom “hey, there’s these songs that I really like” and she was like “my cousin is in that band” and I was like “no, Mom, you’re mistaken.”
I just couldn’t believe in my mind that my mom was related to someone in a cool band that I was seeing and experiencing, I was just like “you’re confused,” was kind of the air I took with her, “you are just mistaken.” And then it turned out to be true and it was like “oh my god.” So for me it puts a laser focus on the music. At that time I was going down the sports and music road and it was like “I don’t have any time for sports — all I care about right now is music.” So I took guitar lessons and the first song I ever learned to play on guitar was “Black Gold.” So for me, it’s absolutely cyclical.
What was your entry point into the band? The connection to your cousin seems like an obvious possible route….
No actually, it was my friend Ian Allison was playing bass in a session with Michael and I was in New York with a different band and I was like “hey, how’d that go,” just small talking and he said “great” and I said “does Michael still do Soul Asylum?” I just hadn’t really heard what was up with the band for a little while. He was like “yes and actually, they’re looking for a new guitar player” and I was like “whoa,” so I just called Michael [to get an audition].
For me, Soul Asylum was the dream [gig] from childhood, like [when I was] playing guitar in front of the mirror as a kid. You’re air guitaring, but actually with a guitar to your CD player or album, just dreaming of one day playing in the band. So I just hit Michael [up] and he told me 10 or 12 songs to learn [for the audition], here’s what you need to sing, etc.
So I just came in and did it and in the audition, they were saying some things and I was like “whoa, man, did I just get the Soul Asylum gig?” They were very forthright with the information and I was like “whoa!” and at one point in the audition, Dave [said] “it feels like this is in your DNA.” He said that and I said “whoa, well actually…” and I told them “Dan is my mom’s cousin.” So it was just awesome. It felt great to come in and do it. But even going into the audition, I was like “if I only get to do this one time and play these songs one time, that’s enough.” So it felt really cool.
I got to see you guys earlier this year in Cleveland. Have you had any input into the setlist? I was impressed with the deep range of the material that was in the set.
The Let Your Dim Light Shine album was a huge album for me, [as well as] Candy From A Stranger and then I also play all of the solo stuff with Dave when he does a solo show, I always go with him. So it’s a good way to try out some of that older stuff too. So we’re always, the four of us, talking about [songs], like there’s a tune called “Close” from Candy From A Stranger, that’s one that since day one, I’m like “we need to get that song back in the set.” I want to get “Caged Rat” back in, off Dim Light Shine. There’s just a lot of stuff [we could play]. It’s a complete democracy [when it comes to determining the setlist].
My first trip after I got the gig was to Spain and Dave and I were sitting out one night and I was new to the band and didn’t fully know my role in it. I was like “am I a hired gun or part of this?” and we were just chatting, even just about making music. And he was like “Justin, you’re a quarter of this band — your voice has as much weight as anyone else’s.” To [hear that after] two weeks in the band, my mind was just blown. So it just feels really great that Michael, Winston, Dave or I, we can all suggest anything and it’s fair game. No one is ever like “no, let’s not do it” or “let’s not try it.” So that feels really nice too. Michael will send out a tune and say “learn this” or “let’s do this one” and we just go for it.