Dave Pirner has spent more than half his life in Soul Asylum, and the life isn't for everybody.
Soul Asylum signed its first record deal in 1984, and followed the first generation of American independent rock bands—R.E.M., Sonic Youth, and Black Flag, as well as their Minnesotan contemporaries Husker Du and The Replacements. The band became underground favorites with the release of Clam Dip & Other Delights in 1988, but it lasted long enough to have a hit on the burgeoning alternative radio format in 1992 with “Runaway Train,” aided by a video on MTV that recast the song as being about missing children. Today, Dave Pirner still seems surprised by all of it—that the band happened, that it flourished, that people still want to see it.
It’s a strange way to make a living,” he says. “Very unstructured, very insecure."
Soul Asylum plays Tipitina’s Friday night with R. Scully’s Rough 7 opening, and it struck Pirner how unlikely all this is while in the middle of a tour this summer.
“I was standing outside looking looking at the tour bus going, fucking-A, man. We’re doing this. It’s still happening,” he says. “I didn’t expect to be standing in a parking lot looking at a tour bus at this point. At the same time, that’s all that you do. I swear to god, I’ve never spent so much time in parking lots. You’re sleeping on a bus, you wake up in a parking lot, and that’s where you live that day. Not a lot of excitement there, and they all do look the same. You can get feel for if you’re on flat ground, hilly ground or mountainous ground, but it was good because we played every night, and we sound really good without a hitch. I’ve been doing this almost my whole life, but it’s still a surprise when it works out good.”
That life isn’t for everybody though, and it finally caught up with original member Dan Murphy, who finally bowed out of the band 2012.
“It’s hard being a rock band,” Pirner says diplomatically. “You can't go on being in a rock band forever. Nothing happened, but if we were still selling 10 million albums, Dan would still be in the band.”
Pirner moved to New Orleans in 1998, and he has tried to be a discreet, respectful presence. He performs infrequently, and when he takes other musicians to see bands in town, he and his friends pay the cover. He’s still impressed by hearing the city’s jazz masters and has anxiety about how his band measures up. “I’m nervous about playing in New Orleans because it’s a badass music town,” he says.
Moving to New Orleans was his way to reconnect to the music that made him start playing in the first place—not that he began because of jazz or funk, but shifting trends and changing personnel and priorities at record labels made it easy to get caught up in the business.
“Music is always informed by the history of music and whatever’s happened before today,” Pirner says. “It’s an ageless, timeless miracle. It’s the part of music that’s just music, though. As for how my band fits in, I never really knew. It’s always been sort of a rogue organization. It tries to be independent. It tries to be autonomous. It tries to be an enigma and a lot of things that it is part of the time.”
“The other part of the time it’s just stupid,” he says, laughing.
One thing it’s not is a jazz band. Despite his interest in it, Soul Asylum’s roots are firmly in punk rock, and last year it released an EP of punk covers, No Fun Intended. It came together on a lark while in the studio, but the idea appealed to Pirner and Bland for different reasons. Bland is from Minneapolis as well, but he grew up with a reputation as a killer funk drummer. He first reached public attention drumming with Prince’s New Power Generation.
Because Bland had no background in punk, he wanted to see what he could do with it. "What kind of music did you listen to in high school? Because I want to destroy that shit," Pirner says. "Now I get to hear Michael play a Dead Kennedys song, which is hilarious. He didn’t grow up with The Dead Kennedys, so when he hears it, he says, Oh shit—I’ve got to fuck that up. And he plays it with a feel that the drummers on the tracks don’t have. Finally there’s a proper interpretation of a beat. That’s how I feel about Michael playing Soul Asylum material. He’ll play on a song that I wrote in 1984 and I’ll be hearing it for the first time.”
For Pirner, the project was a rare occasion to enjoy easy time in the studio. He has struggled in the past getting comfortable in the studio, but the lowered stakes and familiar material made it possible to relax into the situation.
He was never strictly a punk guy though and remembers going to see as much music as he could at First Avenue, where knowing the door guy from playing there meant he could usually slide in free. “It didn’t matter who was trending. They brought in whoever, whether it was Ray Charles or Hawkwind.” Pirner says. “I was infatuated with The Ramones when I was learning how to write songs, but there were also people like Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen around to look up to.”
No Fun Intended was pitched as the first in a series of EPs by a manager who’s no longer working with the band, and now the series’ future is hazy. “We have some more covers in the can, but now we’re working on putting out another record with original material,” he says.
Pirner’s played in Soul Asylum for more than half of his life, and he’s been at it long enough to be surprised by his own past. “I was reading that my buddy Bob Stinson from The Replacements was 35 when he died, and that was shocking to me,” he says. “It seemed like he was so much older than me growing up together. Now he was gone so long ago that it doesn’t seem like he was that young when he died [in 1995].”
Pirner’s a dad and that brings its own surprises. In addition to everything else he has scheduled for the band, he’s scheduled to play a fundraiser for his son’s school one afternoon.
“You find yourself doing things you thought were uncool when you were 20,” he says.
One of them was playing during the day. I just don’t like it.”