Interview: Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum

Interview: Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum

Soul Asylum once named a record Made To Be Broken, and over the past few years, it seemed like the Minneapolis band had lived up to the title. Though the group was a platinum-selling hitmaker in the alt-rock '90s, those days ended sourly, leading to a rotating set of drummers and a move by singer Dave Pirner to New Orleans to clear his head. Just as the group got back together to record again, bassist Karl Mueller was diagnosed with cancer. Despite Mueller's death—or rather, inspired by it—Pirner and guitarist Dan Murphy finished a new album, along with new drummer Michael Bland and former Replacement Tommy Stinson filling Mueller's shoes. The Silver Lining comes out July 11. The A.V. Club spoke with Pirner about Mueller's legacy, New Orleans, and how George W. Bush can be mistaken for a 300-pound transvestite. A shorter version of this interview originally appeared in The A.V. Club's Twin Cities print edition.

The A.V. Club: It's been seven years since you put out a record. Why come back now?

Dave Pirner: I think we were just ready. It had been way too long, and I think we all missed the band. Karl was like, "What the fuck is going on here? We need a manager. We need to start being a band again." The short answer is that we just needed to get the right tunes together. We didn't want to make a record just for the sake of making a record. If it wasn't really special it wasn't worth doing. And we had a lot of other issues, like drummers and deaths and all kinds of fucked-up things happening. That's part of the long answer, though.

AVC: Tell me about Karl's contribution to The Silver Lining.

DP: He really just loved being in a band. He just loved to rock, as he would say. His contribution was always to inspire and to make sure nobody took themselves too seriously. He had this way of making things seem okay, because he's just an expert at perseverance. If I become too dramatic about the whole thing, he just rolls his eyes and goes, "Come on, let's do this. Let's be a band." And he always brought a sense of calmness and focus to things where otherwise it would seem like absolute obnoxious mayhem. When we decided to make the record, he had not been diagnosed yet. So when we found Michael Bland, we decided it was time to make a record, and we booked a studio, and then he got diagnosed. We were watching him play like it was a life-and-death situation when we were tracking the record. He would be a little peaked on some days and we'd think we should tell him that he didn't have to come in tomorrow. But he wasn't having any of that. It was a very heroic performance. Knowing in retrospect how sick he really was, I think we were all in denial. I'm still in shock from it, because I just didn't think he had it in him to die, if that makes any sense. I thought for sure he would beat it, and every time he went through another horrific surgery, we thought, "Well, this is going to be the one that cures him." So it was really emotional and dramatic and urgent that this record was getting made. It was his dying wish. It's been a year since he's been gone. Me and Danny were just talking about him today, having a good laugh. He was a really wonderful character that enabled the band to exist. I miss him a lot and think about him all the time.

AVC: As you were completing Silver Lining, did you find yourself making decisions about the record based on what Karl might have done?

DP: Yeah. There was a lot of belief that Karl didn't want us to crap out. [Laughs.] I think that how I evoke him and how I feel closest to him is when we're playing Soul Asylum songs. Even though I can't see him, it's when I feel him the most. And I think that will always be a big part of our aesthetic for as long as we can carry on. Would Karl think this is stupid? He's just a part of us, so I think that a lot of decisions will be made with him in mind.

AVC: Tommy Stinson has been a member of Guns N' Roses for years, but he was hand-picked by Karl as his successor as Soul Asylum's bassist because of your longtime friendship. Is he a permanent member of the band now?

DP: Tommy is currently out with Axl [Rose]. That story just kind of goes that Axl's got dibs. [Laughs.] We don't know what our future with Tommy is going to be, but we really had some great gigs with him and really enjoyed playing with him. I hope he comes back, but he's been doing the Guns N' Roses things for eight years now. I think that's a good gig for him. He makes a little more money playing with those guys. [Laughs.]

AVC: You moved down to New Orleans a few years ago, and the music scene down there renewed your interest in music after your late '90s experience with Soul Asylum.

DP: I really had to become a fan again. I had just been so inundated with my own music. New Orleans seemed like a Mecca to me, where the roots of rock 'n' roll come from. The second line seemed like this thing where the line between the band and the audience kind of vanished, so it had this sort of folk or punk ethic to it—for the people, by the people. … Over the years [Soul Asylum] had been playing in New Orleans and always scheduling a day or two off to be there because we just loved it, and I really fell in love with the city. I would go to Jazzfest and realize that a lot of my favorite music was local [New Orleans] musicians. They're just unbelievable. I became a groupie all over again. I was going and watching Henry Butler play piano every night. It just became so meaningful to me, just being a fan of music, that I had to move there. I was like, whatever these guys are doing and wherever they're picking it up from, I want to be here, because this is where it's at for me. There's a certain level of purity there with the music that is stunning. They don't play like that anywhere else in the world. They keep intact the breadth of what we know as American music, and they pull from its most ancient history, and also do a lot of improvisational things that keep it fresh. It's just not like that anywhere else. I got into the jazz scene in New York City for awhile, and it's just different in New Orleans.

AVC: How badly did Hurricane Katrina affect the music scene down there?

DP: Pretty badly. When I think about where rock 'n' roll comes from, where American musical culture comes from, a lot of it is coming out of the poor black neighborhoods in New Orleans—and those are the neighborhoods where people cannot go back home. It's tragic. You have this tourist economy [based on being] the birthplace of jazz, [and] so much of what we know as popular culture and music and dance came out of these places that they're not even talking about rebuilding yet. The hurricane didn't show preference of class or race, but it's just that all the parts that are below sea level are [poor black neighborhoods]. I love that city so much and it has really taken a hit. I don't know if it will ever recover. There's certain places that you can go that look just like they did before the hurricane, but you can still turn off a road and see a place that looks exactly like it did three days after the hurricane. It's really hard to drive through the Ninth Ward, and we do it just because we have to understand the impact of what happened down there. It really, really makes you sad.

AVC: You put out a solo record in 2002 which gave you a chance to branch out from the style that Soul Asylum has become known for. What did you take from that experience that led into the recording of the new one?

DP: As funny as it sounds, the best thing I got out of making a solo record was to realize how much I love being in a band. A lot of it was motivated by trying to figure out how much Soul Asylum meant to me, and what would happen if I tried to do something without them. I was trying to do things that I couldn't really do with Soul Asylum. I wanted to do something that didn't rely on the loud-loud-loud-loud guitars—and God, I love loud-loud-loud-loud guitars! [Laughs.] It made me really miss them, in a good way. It made me re-establish what the hell I'm doing in the first place. It also made me understand that I can do this now without a lot of trappings. I wanted to do something where I would be held accountable for everything, right down to the food budget or whatever the fuck it was. I just wanted to do it all on my own, because the Soul Asylum record before that had gotten completely out of hand. We spent an incredible amount of money, and I started going, "Wait a minute, this can't be worth that kind of money. What are we doing wrong here?" I really needed to get to the bottom of what is necessary to make a record that sounds good. I was very lucky to be able to work at Kingsway, which is a beautiful studio—it was Daniel Lanois' place and it was going out of business. When I got to New Orleans, someone said "Stop in at Kingsway, there are some cool people there." And the studio was closed for business, but it was still up and running. It was the perfect opportunity for me to do something. I didn't have a label and I didn't have anything stopping me from just fucking around. When [former drummer] Sterling Campbell left [Soul Asylum], which was a big fucking deal and part of the long answer to why it took us so long to put this record together, I was disillusioned and my answer to it was to play drums. So I started this three-piece called The O'Jeez, and that was the first thing that I did at Kingsway. I just kept recording until they pulled the gear out of there. [Laughs.] So it was a great experience. I really wanted to work with Ian [Mussington], who was the drummer after Sterling, and see what it was like working with him in the studio. I wanted him to pick some of the other players, so it was weird that I was trying to be informed by the feel of the music that is New Orleans, and [wound up] working with a bunch of black English guys. [Laughs.] In retrospect, I was like, "why didn't I use more local musicians?" But I had just gotten there, so I was still trying to figure out what the hell was going on. I didn't really have very many local connections yet.

AVC: So it was a valuable experiment for you, no matter what the motivations were originally or even what the results were.

DP: Absolutely. I needed the perspective, and needed to stretch out and try to figure out what other kinds of things I could come up with or tap into. Different approaches to things. It was an anything-goes situation, and it was really great. It was really the experience that I was chasing. I really thought I was going to make something experimental, or fricking avant-garde or something, but it didn't end up really that way. It's just weird, my aesthetic is kind of bizarre and, shit just comes out the way it does, and sometimes I can't even understand how it happens, you know?

AVC: Although it's appearing for the first time on the new record, "Success Is Not So Sweet" was written back in the '90s during your platinum-records era.

DP: I was in a basement in San Francisco and was writing on a little Wurlitzer piano, and had a really extreme sense of indifference to all the phoniness that comes with success. Really, you know, not amused. [Laughs.] It's not a bitter sentiment, and it's not really meant to be all that negative. It's really meant to just be sort of matter-of-fact. It kind of is what it is. John Woodland, who used to be my guitar tech, found a bootleg of it. We only played it once, at the 7th Street Entry. And that was it. I thought, "well, nobody likes that one. Whatever, move on, write another one." And he found this bootleg of it. I had to relearn it and try to understand what the fuck I was talking about. All of a sudden, everyone's like "that's a great song!" And I was like, "you fuckers, you slept on it the first time." I'm not sure if it was just wasn't a palatable sentiment at the time, but now for some reason it's easier to take or something. It's one of those things. I don't really know where it comes from. I just know that sometimes I'm talking about something I know something about.

AVC: A few of the songs on the record have seemed to pick up added resonance over time, kind of accidentally, because of world events that happened after you wrote the songs. "Slowly Rising" mentions weapons of mass destruction but was written before Sept. 11. And "Standing Water" was inspired by New Orleans, but long before Katrina, which inevitably changes how a listener thinks of the song.

DP: Thanks for noticing. It's a weird thing. Taking this long to make this record gave that sort of material the ability to come to the forefront. Without consciously trying to do it, I want to do something timeless—and, you know, that just sounds pretentious and lofty. But it's what I aspire to do, to try to come up with something timeless. And when it does happen, I feel like that's when I'm doing my job right. "Fearless Leader," one of the songs on the new record, is seemingly very current, but it's not. [The song was written circa 1988.] People say, "I'm listening to something you wrote a really long time ago, and it seems like you wrote it yesterday." That's kind of what I'm trying to do, you know. If there's a 20-year-old song and I can still feel good about singing it now, it must be a good song—otherwise I'd feel like a fucking idiot singing it, you know? [Laughs.]

AVC: The lyrics to "Fearless Leader" do seem uncannily present-day—you didn't update the song before recording it?

DP: No, and I dropped a verse, because it was just too long. I think that it was written around the time that Divine, the actor, died. The verse that I omitted because [otherwise] people would not put the goddamn song on a record, was about Divine. And I kind of regret leaving that verse out, but I couldn't get the song on the record [with it in]. [Laughs.] We tried recording it with a full band, we tried doing all these different angles—speeding it up, slowing it down, taking out bars, turning it upside down. Eventually I just said, "Fuck it, we'll just do it with a couple of acoustic guitars." We were just chasing our tails trying make it something it's not. It's funny. There's something like that that goes on when we play "Black Gold." That was written during the first Bush administration, and it just works so perfectly for W Junior. It's not too much of a stretch to imagine, right? It's really the same fucking administration. It applies. It's this incredible sense of "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss." You're not watching progress happen—you're watching something that is ultimately sort of disgusting. [Laughs.] I can't fucking believe I'm living in this conservative administration that's just got a screw loose. It's just weird. But it's not that different from Bush Senior, really.

AVC: There's something great about the idea that a song that you wrote about Divine is going to be interpreted as being about George W. Bush, though.

DP: [Laughs.] Yep. You're onto something there.

AVC: What would you like to do next?

DP: I'm ready for a real tour, because what happens if you really start touring earnestly, the band will go to this different level where you're not phoning anything in and you're not on autopilot, but it becomes second-nature because you're really getting good at playing a show. I really, really miss that feeling. It's different from going and playing a song on a TV show or playing gigs on weekends. It's really my favorite thing about the whole goddamn thing, after you're on the road eight or nine gigs in a row you just start to really become this machine, this fucking rock 'n' roll animal. It's really cool. I think it's why I got into it in the first place. … We'd love to come play for you. [Laughs.] If you'd be so kind as to let us.
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