Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum talks perspective, new album and the magic of Minneapolis


We recently had the opportunity to catch up with Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum ahead of their show at First Avenue, this Friday December 16th. Dave called us after getting back from a tour supporting their new album Change of Fortune, which is out now and is their 11th studio album.

Dave and I got the opportunity to chat about the new album and taking it on the road with the A-list band, which includes Michael Bland, Winston Roye, and Ryan Smith. But we also got to talk about the magic of calling Minneapolis home. We chatted about the intensely live and intimate music scene of New Orleans, where Pirner currently resides. We talked about First Avenue and what make that place so special, even after all these years. Pirner shared candidly about the changes that Soul Asylum has experienced over the years. He reflected on his time working his way through the Entry, when all bands were doing was trying to play harder, faster and louder than everyone else.

Pirner is a bit of a legend to many Minnesotan music fans, and fans around the world. But from our conversation it seems that is the last thing he thinks of himself as.  He is a deeply humble. He loves what he does. He loves the people he gets to play music with. He loves Minneapolis. He loves New Orleans. And he’s got plenty more tricks up his sleeve for Soul Asylum as well as his slew of side projects. 

Twin Cities Media: 2016 seems like it was a big year for Soul Asylum. You released an album for the first time in a while, played a handful of international shows and are returning to First Avenue. How’s this been for you and the band?

David Pirner: Well I just got back from Japan, there’s no place I like playing more than First Avenue. It’s always a bit of a challenge just because I feel like it has to be a little more special, than say Japan. Just because Japan hasn’t seen us in a long time. I don’t know if special is the right word, it makes me more nervous. It’s harder to suck in your hometown.

TCM: When was the last time you guys played First Avenue?

DP: I don’t know (laughs). I thought you were suppose to know that.

TCM: Sorry, sorry. I didn’t do my homework.

DP: Probably, six months ago. We try to play there a few times a year, if they’ll have us.

TCM: What can we expect at First Ave, without giving too much away.

DP: Well, we have a hilarious list of celebrity appearances. We’re trying to get Sisqo.

TCM: That’s awesome.

DP: Well we made a list of all the people in Minneapolis, that might like sit in for a cameo. I think we were kinda dreaming and joking at the same time. Apparently Sisqo does live in Minneapolis. So it turned into a very long and ridiculous list. Jessica Lang, anyone who lives in Minneapolis with some star power.

But no, it’ll be a lot of new material. And you know, some of the things on the new record have been in and out of the set since the record came out. And I think, I’m knocking on wood, we can play any of it. And it’s mostly just trying to balance it out with whatever works, and whatever is too many of the, I don’t know what the word is, (laughs) standards, that we played last time at First Avenue.

And Michael (Bland) is very much a part of the set list designer. We’ve always been sort of collaborative about what we’re going to play. I kind of stay out of it a little bit. I like to be a little bit surprised by what Michael comes up with. And I’ve always noticed that the other members of the band, have an ability to pay attention to what the crowd is reacting to than I do. Just because I’m singing and I’ve got my eyes closed, and whatever. I’m not really, you know, noticing how much people are reacting to different things, because I’m just kind of entrenched in it. So that’s why it’s kind of good to have the band just to meter how things are going.

TCM: Were you guys playing some of the new stuff while you were in Japan and on tour this year?

DP: Yeah, yeah. We’ll sort of bring songs in as we can sort of balance them out with the rest of the material in the set. I guess that’s mostly the thing…Michael is the proxy musical director. And he is very particular about putting songs next to each other that are in different keys or different tempos, or different things like that, that sometimes I don’t even think about. Trying to get it out there in a way that we always have, and in my opinion it’s a pretty broad and dynamic bunch of material. So we can sort of it take it many directions over the course of a set.

And the new stuff, is really fun. It’s really fun to play. It’s just different than the history of my songwriting I guess. It’s a lot of kind of fun, rhythmic things that I’ve always wanted to do that take sometimes an extreme amount of and coordination on my part (laughs). Because I come up with a few different guitar parts in the studio and then I sort of have to figure out what I’m gonna play and what Ryan (Smith) is gonna play and then I gotta sing. It’s like rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time. It’s a challenge and that what I kind of like about it.

TCM: Well, we’re excited about it! And I know a lot of people are excited to see you guys at First Ave.

So, Soul Asylum as a band has had a handful of different members throughout the years, but your guys’ live shows always have that same feel, even if the music is different and your sound has changed. It always feel like Soul Asylum, even though there have been different members. How do you do that? What’s the secret to that?

DP: Adaptation, I guess. I thought the whole thing was kind of over when Karl (Mueller) died. And Tommy Stinson stepped up. It just kind of fell back into it. And Michael comes from a different world than I did. But we now were kind of in the same world. In Michael’s world everyone is replaceable. And he said to me, “Dave to you a band is like a gang. But to me it’s more like a job.” And I was like I understand what you’re saying. You get to use to people’s personalities and the way that they play. It’s also very exciting to bring a whole different person in. I start to notice micro-nuances in the way people play things. I mean it’s a song I’ve been playing for 30 years. And here comes a different bass player to play it. And it’s not necessarily better or worse it’s just different. And that’s exciting to me. Every musician is a unique animal. And even if it’s the same three notes, there’s many different ways to play three notes (laughs).

I’ve learned a lot through trial by fire. And throwing stuff against the wall and seeing what sticks and dealing with people dying and whatever the case may be, it’s always kind of verging on somewhere between ecstatic and heartbreaking. And keeping that balance going depends largely on the spirit of the people that are playing the music.

And it’s just a really cool experience. When you lock in on with somebody and you look at em and you smile at each other because you’re having fun playing music together on stage. I’m getting warm and fuzzy just thinking about. And it’s hard to even explain, it sort of happens when it happens. And you’re like, alright that’s what I’m here for.

TCM: I imagine it’s almost a visceral experience, just that connection.

DP: I guess you can’t force it, when it falls into place it’s a beautiful thing.

TCM: And how long have you and Michael been working together? And I apologize, maybe I should know this.

DP: I’m so terrible with dates. It’s been probably ten years, at least. It’s a little bit of a blur. It was a very long search and when I found Michael, it was kind of like, a quest that had lasted my entire musical life. And he sat down at the drum set and I went “finally.” It was the shortest audition ever. And I was like “where have you been all my life?” I love working with Michael. He really is a musical master, he just brought me a lot of relief and confidence in what we can pull off.

TCM: When he auditioned was it one of those moments you knew instantly, “yes, this is the person we’ve been looking for?”

DP: Oh yeah, it was stunning. I had always known of Michael. Since he was like 14 I had been hearing about him, just through other local musicians, before he got a job playing for Prince. And then he ended up playing with Paul (Westerberg). And then his time freed up and I’ve been a lucky man ever since.

TCM: So he’s still up here in Minneapolis and you’re down in New Orleans. How often are you guys all together? And how does/did that play into recording the album and preparing for shows?

DP: Well, it’s bizarre. When we started out we were kids living in Minneapolis practicing five days a week, learning how do what we do from each. And now that it’s a little bit clearer what needs to happen, it’s a situation where yes, your personality is really relevant. And your attitude is really relevant. The ability to be a great player is either perspiration or inspiration or aspiration or something like that.

But we get to hang out a lot on the road (laughs). It wasn’t until the touring became very, very intense and all the time that we weren’t always hanging out. You get to know your friends really fast. You get to know when they’re ready to talk and when they are already to be left alone and when they feel like contributing and when they don’t. Whatever the case may be, it’s pretty personal and it’s dynamic and it is like a family to me. It’s very much like a family to me. We’re a spartan crew. We’re a skeleton crew, but we got all the right bones.

TCM: That’s what matters, right? So how does it feel when you come back to Minneapolis?

DP: Well I’m spending more and more time in Minneapolis, and it is my home. And I have Thanksgiving with my mother here, and I get to see my nieces and nephews. And I get to see all my dear, dear old friends. And it’s nice, after spending so much time somewhere else, it’s quite a relief that there is someplace I feel like I can come home to.

I feel very luck to be from Minneapolis. I use to call it the second greatest city in America, after New Orleans. And now they’re kind of tied for first (laughs).

TCM: It’s a special place to get to call home.

DP: It really is. And there’s nothing like perspective to realize that. So no matter how many times I’ve tried to settle in some other place, it does keep coming back. Like “wow they really figured that out in Minneapolis. Or wow they don’t have that problem in Minneapolis.” It’s got a lot of yang and yin.

TCM: It really does. So how closely do you follow what’s happening in the music scene here? What changes have you noticed or what are you excited about, or maybe not so excited about as you look at what’s happening here with different bands and whatnot?

DP: I kind of understand it in a way. I think I went and saw Michael do a Jimmy Hendrix tribute in the main room. And then I walked over to The Entry. And The Entry just feels like warm and nice, it feels like home. I always feel like I’m rooting for the band that’s on stage.

And I guess the situation was that I moved to New Orleans to try to broaden my musical horizons for whatever it’s worth. And it just couldn’t be more different. I get back to New Orleans and I see a brass band. I go up to Minneapolis and I see a rock band. And the bands that I saw in the Entry were great. It was really kind of surprising. It seemed like there was a more eclectic mix, like each band had a woman in it, and they weren’t really trying to do something so particular.

At one point when I was working my way through the Entry, it was hardcore punk rock became a thing. And then everyone was doing it. And everyone was trying to play faster than everybody else. It was intense, you know? It was really exciting but it was also brutal. It wasn’t like “oh let’s all try a bunch of different things.” It’s like “we’re gonna rock harder and faster and louder than you are so fuck you.” (laughs).

So I mean, I think the hip hop thing in Minneapolis is extremely exciting. It’s relatively new. It’s like you said, it’s pretty goddamn eclectic. It’s the place Prince and Bob Dylan came out of, so you got a pretty wide range right there. Throw Hüsker Dü in there or whatever. It’s just about playing the music you think is cool. As opposed to if you’re a horn player in New Orleans, and your dad is a horn player, and your dad’s dad is a horn player, you’re already cool pretty much. You’re playing into a living history. You’re putting your spin on something that’s timeless. So it’s different than, “oh let’s start a synth band and try to experiment and find something really new and crazy and different.” There was certainly a freedom in it for me, whereas I was like the more broader I can make music, the more fun and interesting it’s going to be play and listen to.

I guess when I first picked up the acoustic guitar, I was six records in. And it was very punk rock and funny to me, to bring an acoustic guitar down to the Entry and say to the guys “we’re gonna play a Woody Guthrie song, everybody follow along. It’s only three cords.” And it was a kick you know, it worked. It was kind of a big change for me. It never crossed my mind that oh I’m not gonna be punk rock anymore if I start playing the acoustic guitar. It was more trying to bridge a gap between Woody Guthrie and punk rock and folk music and punk music and the writing of lyrics that are relevant. It seemed like the two kinds of music had more in common than they did different.

So even if you were like “oh I don’t understand folk music, but I love punk rock” that all melted away for me. It’s all the same thing. You’re trying to make a statement with music and it really doesn’t matter the style of music. Whether you’re playing a vacuum cleaner or a grand piano or an electric bass, it’s the elements that are similar that I started to relate to. There are only so many notes in a scale, and everyone’s playing from the same basic choices of notes (laughs), you know?

TCM: It seems like these days in the Twin Cities there are people playing in so many different projects or have multiple projects. People don’t seem constrained to one thing. Was it like when you guys were coming up here?

DP: I think it’s probably similar in every town. The more you stick with it, the more you realize what the strength of your main project is. Maybe if you wanna mess around with some other kind of music there is always someone being like yeah, we should get together and try something.

In New Orleans it’s very common for musicians to be constantly trading off. I think that’s more player based, like you really gotta be good.

I have a few side projects I think are hilarious. And it’s kind of blowing off steam from the more serious Soul Asylum stuff but at the same time it’s being able to make music with your friends that when we started out, it was more like that. I definitely do different things. In the O Jeez’s I play drums. I play the guitar in the Willis Project. And I love being able to just play the drums or the guitar, I don’t really need to be the frontman. So mostly when I’m doing a side project, I’m usually doing something that I don’t do in Soul Asylum.

Look out when I start my brass band project, it’s gonna be horrible (laughs). We have a strong brass band opening for us. They’re called McNasty – Minnesota boys doing a lot of New Orleans type things. Which I find incredibly charming and important, caring something on, that’s really timeless and really good.

TCM: So maybe this is a cliche question, but for bands starting off today, do you have advice for them? The industry is so different today than when you guys were starting off.

DP: Well, usually I just say something like keep your nose to the grindstone and stay focused and never give up and it’s all about passion and persistence, and all that sort of stuff.

But it seems like to me when we were first coming up there was a level of obnoxiousness, that was relevant. You’re just trying to faster and louder and crazier than everybody else, so you’re literally screaming for attention, which is kind of an embarrassing way to put it. But it  does to me a little bit seem like there’s more, maybe, more freedom to be outrageous and crazy and try something really experimental and nutty. And really try to push the envelope. I mean, that what we thought that’s what we were doing with punk rock. But now it’s like anything goes. And everything is crazy. And there’s not a real sort of focus on whether it’s an indie thing or a major label thing, none of that really affects music in the way that it should.

I guess being generic is the worst thing you can do (laughs).

TCM: Amen to that. And it seems like with everything being online, there’s just so much out there, there’s so much music you have access to. So I don’t know how bands stand out today when there is just so much, some is really great and some is awful. But it’s just all out there on the internet for everyone.

DP: Yeah, it’s interesting for me to imagine what that must be like. I spent so much time in record stores hanging out when I was a kid, it was such a cool part of my life. I’m talking to this person or that person.

Now there’s 13 year old kids that want to get a turn table. So why did it take so long for that to become a decision? Is it because it’s cool and it’s what the other kids are doing? Or is it because it sounds better? Or is it because you got tired of a binary process trying to decide what kind of music you like. Which is kind of what it is. If you like this, you’ll like that. And I talk to people that go “oh it’s really cool, you go on Spotify and they play something you’ve never heard before.” And you get curious about it. That’s kind of like the radio I guess.

But it’s very difficult to understand, from any point of view, as far as how to make a living making music. It could not be more convoluted. And that’s the part where I feel frustrated for some young people coming up, there’s just not really a support system. Like oh yeah, there’s an A&R person that’s gonna come to your show. No one is gonna do that. Why would they do that? You can watch band on the internet. If that’s all that you’re ever gonna get as far as attention goes, who knows what that A&R person is looking at. It could be the worst recording of your worst performance ever. But if a dude comes and watches the whole show, he gets that whole visceral experience, that is what you’re trying to provide.

It’s a real mixed kind of blessing and another reason why I moved to New Orleans. It’s so intensely live and intimate and about playing live music. It’s completely removed from a lot of the fancy technology of the day if you will.

TCM: Yeah, I’ve heard it’s just amazing.

DP: It’s beautiful, I love it. If you don’t like jazz music, you might not like New Orleans.

TCM: Ok, last questions. What’s it like having a star on First Avenue? Is it weird?

DP: (Laughs) It wasn’t really anything that crossed my mind. But recently it’s been brought to my attention our star has been getting a lot of copy because it’s next to Prince’s star.

But we played a show once and there was this dude walking around the building. And he was mad because he didn’t have a star or couldn’t find his star. And I was like “get a magic marker dude,” (laughs).

But no, it’s very sweet. It’s very flattering.

I was talking to a guy who works at a bar and New Orleans and he was saying that he had to pay to get in, and I was like you’re a bartender? And he goes yeah, gotta pay the cover charge. And that was just ridiculous! I just felt like I spent a lot of time in the Entry and First Avenue, I put my time in. A lot of hours helping, I hope, making it the great institution it is.

TCM: I don’t if it’s always been that way, or everything with Prince’s death, but it’s just so iconic. And seeing bands taking pictures with their star, like that’s gotta feel cool.

Shifting gears, 2017 – what can we look forward to from you guys?

DP: Well hopefully we’ll get farther on this new record we’re working on. We’re going to play a lot of gigs and keep trying to up the ante and continue to grow as a band. And try to keep up with the necessary intensity. I was in Japan with jet lag going, “man, this is hard.” And I guess if I didn’t feeling so exhausted when I walk off stage then I feel like I wasn’t working hard enough. So I really do try to give it a 110%. But I do find myself going what did I do at the gig last night? My back is a little sore (laughs).

TCM: Leave it all out there, right?

DP: I love it. I can’t say anything other than I’m really humbled by the whole experience and feel very thankful.

It’s good work if you can get it. It’s my dream, to have a job I love.

And I did want to say about First Avenue – it’s always been that way. Ever since I was 18. I’ve seen King Sunny Ade and Ray Charles and The Ramones and Motorhead, it’s always been incredibly eclectic mix of music. It really helped me grow and develop as a musician and just understanding the world of music.

Steve McClellan was always very adamant about bringing in a really good variety of stuff that he thinks people should hear. And I think Sonia is carrying that tradition on. And I think that as somebody been going there long before Prince ever made Purple Rain, it just becomes more and more of what is. There’s just really great music that happens in there.

Soul Asylum plays First Avenue this Friday 12/16. Tickets available here