Songwriter Interviews

Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum

by Dan MacIntosh

Share this post

There was a brief moment back in the '80s when it seemed like all the good music was coming out of Minnesota. In addition to Prince and all his funk-rock goodness and various Paisley Park cronies, there were also some fine groups with a more punk-ish hue making noise in Minneapolis. The Replacements got most of the positive press because of their songwriting genius, Paul Westerberg, with Hüsker Dü getting a close second. But it was Soul Asylum that eventually had the biggest commercial breakthrough in the '90s.

With 1992's Grave Dancer's Union, Soul Asylum achieved what eluded their Midwestern co-laborers, as the album produced the hits "Somebody to Shove," "Black Gold," and their white elephant, "Runaway Train." The song garnered Pirner a Grammy and helped the album sell over two million copies, but it also forced the band into a grueling cycle of touring and promotion which left them disenchanted.

The albums Let Your Dim Light Shine (1995) and Candy from a Stranger (1998) followed, but in 2005 while recording their next set, The Silver Lining, bassist Karl Mueller succumbed to throat cancer (the album was released in 2006 and dedicated to Karl).

These days, little is left of the band that went from the indie rags of Twin Tone Records to the big time of Columbia. Pirner is the only remaining original member, joined by guitarist Justin Sharbono, bass player Winston Roye, and drummer Michael Bland. In 2012, they released the appropriately named album Delayed Reaction.

Dave lives in New Orleans now, shifting from the contemplative cold of Minnesotta (think Dylan) to the insular, freewheeling Big Easy.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): The new album is called Delayed Reaction. Is it called that because it's been so long between studio albums?

Dave Pirner: That title comes from a cesspool of people that can't figure out what it is they're supposed to be doing. Namely me. I moved to New Orleans about 14 years ago, and there's always been a lot of "don't think twice" people here. But with me everything requires thinking about it for a second before I do it. I happen to know a lot of people, including myself, that will sit there and think about it until the moment passes, and then you're kind of screwed.

So somewhere in there it's like, yeah, why make a record? And somewhere in there, there's everybody that went into making this record who had the same reaction. We're all, "Why make a record? What's the point?"

But it's also reflective of something that has nothing to do with making a record. Which is just sort of like an Alfred E. Newman type of reaction, like, "Who, me?" That sort of thing. "You want me to do what now?" That kind of thing.

Songfacts: Well, it's interesting to me to see how the personnel in the band has changed. You're the only original member left, if I understand correctly. How is this different from, say, a solo project that you might be working on?

Pirner: Well, it's kind of glorious, because to that effect, it's a custom fit, if you will. Had I gone out and tried to find the perfect musician to make this kind of music, it would be Soul Asylum. It hasn't always been the case, not by any other default than the nature of the beast. So I don't really have any reason to make a solo record. When I did make a solo record [Faces & Names, 2002], I was able to sort of handpick musicians that I thought would be perfect for the job. And my solo record was taking a different direction than Soul Asylum.

Having said that, now I sort of have it all, if you will. I feel like I can make any kind of music that I want with this combo, and I don't pretend to have any other aspirations than the band being the ideal of what a band is supposed to be. If you ask Michael Bland, the drummer, he'll go, "Well, this is like a gang mentality." He came up differently as far as being a hired gun in a bunch of different bands and being a studio musician." So I think it's refreshing for people that haven't experienced it a lot, and I think that it's tiresome for people that experience it too much.

You really have to rely on the group mentality and the group sense of humor and the group ability to rise above the adversity together. And if there are people that don't like each other, then it's no fun. And if it's people that don't particularly get along or people that have varying agendas, it just doesn't work. You have to have a clear-cut intention of what you're trying to do. And for Soul Asylum, it's playing a good show, and it's making a good recording, period. That's it.

The people that are involved in making that happen understand that. Most people who try to do this sort of thing for a living really struggle with it, and if they're not struggling with it, they're not trying hard enough.

Songfacts: I want to go back to when I discovered Soul Asylum which was with the 1988 album Hang Time. I pretty much wore out my cassette copy of it. I just loved everything from that album.

What stands up to the test of time from that era, in particular from that album?

Pirner: There is a push in the band to play the whole album from beginning to end. That has always been in the peripheral, because Michael Bland is making the connection with Hang Time where he can't figure out how we got away with that. Stay with me on this:

After the band made Grave Dancers Union, it became really hard for me to get a song like "Heavy Rotation" on a record. Because after Grave Dancers Union people had a tendency to go, "What the fuck is that?" "Heavy Rotation" does not sound like a song.

So there's the stuff on Hang Time that I think was even pre-Steve Jordan [producer of their 1990 album And the Horse They Rode In On] inscrutable. You couldn't understand it, you couldn't pick it apart, and you just had to accept it for what it was, which is what Lenny Kaye and Ed Stasium [Hang Time producers] were dealing with. They were dealing with me, who was going, "This is music because I say so, and you have to record it, because no one's going to tell me I can't."

That's the beauty of the record for me; by the time we made the next record, it became a whole lot about being a player, and that's where Steve Jordan was coming from. That was also a huge, pivotal thing for the band. Once I learned all that stuff from Steve, I really became aware of what a player in a band can do for a song.

You have to go to war with the army you have and not the one you want, and between Hang Time and Grave Dancers Union, it started becoming the army that we want. [Laughing] And that was weird.

But Hang Time has a special place because it was really wild. It was going off in a million different directions and the job of the people recording the record was to try to contain it. And to that effect, it feels really restrictive to me. It feels like you're trying to collect all these ideas that are flying all over the place and quantize them. I don't know why I used that word, because it's a drum machine word, but our drummer at the time was playing really fast to click tracks and stuff.

And it's funny you should bring this record up, because Michael wants to play the whole record. He sent Justin [Sharbono], the guitar player, a file of the LP, and he also sent one to me. I just by chance listened to the record from beginning to end a couple of days ago, and I've got to tell you, I was pretty stunned. It has been a long time since I listened to that record, especially from beginning to end. Every now and then someone will put a track on and go, "Oh, check this out," or "Let's play this song."

But "Little Too Clean" is on that record, right? So in the set we're playing "Little Too Clean" and "Marionette," and those have been in the set as of recently. And we were just playing a gig the other day and somebody yelled out, "Beggars and Choosers"! And I was like, "Oh, yeah, that one." And I started playing it. A couple of people in the crowd were like, "All right!" And I was like, "Well, I don't know it." But it would be really fun to re-learn that record. If Michael Bland and Winston Roye and Justin want to play Hang Time, it's going to be more realized than it was back in the day, and that is fresh and new and exciting for me.

We struggled with making that record so much. We spent so much time cutting tape and doing all these pre-studio buggery things. It was before they had computers and it was before they had all this stuff that you could manipulate the music with. However, we were trying to get that shit as tight as possible, by cutting tape and doing what now seems like caveman-type manipulation of punk rock to make it sound super gnarly. And in retrospect, it kind of worked, because no one would do that anymore. No one would put that kind of money into recording that kind of music. That just wouldn't happen anymore. You're never going to get an analog recording of a band playing that fast in this day and age.

Songfacts: Let me cast my vote to do that. Because a lot of groups are doing albums in their entirety.

Pirner: Yeah, I know. Oddly enough, the first group I heard doing it was Cheap Trick. I was like, "Well, that's kind of a novelty. I don't know." Then cover bands started covering whole records. Over time, it does seem kind of interesting.

We just did Grave Dancers Union, and I was really against it, but I kind of enjoyed it. That record I played a whole lot more than Hang Time. It was interesting to play Grave Dancers Union:
A) Because some of those songs we never really played live.
B) Because the sequencing of the record is so different than how you would sequence a set list. We're ending on the quietest, sweetest thing on the record. That works on a CD, but at a live show it's just completely the opposite. You wouldn't think of doing that.

Soul Asylum made a video for "Black Gold" (featuring George Wendt from Cheers) that got some spins on MTV. The network made it clear that if they made a quality video for "Runaway Train," it would go in hot rotation. The group chose the British director Tony Kaye to direct; he had done the clips for Roger Waters' "What God Wants, Part 1" and XTC's "King For A Day," and would later direct the film American History X and the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Dani California."

The video showed photos of actual children who were missing, edited in other countries with photos of local runaways inserted. It did very well on MTV and helped propel the song - and the band - to stardom. After a year or so performing the song, Dave soured on the pretensions of fame that came along with their hit; he refused to play it for a while, and even skipped the Grammy awards ceremony when he won for Best Rock Song.
Songfacts: Let's talk about some of your more popular songs. The video for "Runaway Train" was one where you actually made an appeal to people that might have encountered runaways. How effective was that and are there any stories that come to mind as far as people that were found and reunited because of the appeal that you made?

Pirner: That's a tricky question to answer, only because the concept for the video was a literal interpretation by Tony Kaye, and Tony Kaye is an Englishman who stutters because he's got so much visual information going on that his vision seems to be moving faster than his mouth.

Anyways, I met Tony and immediately fell in love with his demeanor, which was bad. He just was bursting with creative imagery. He said, "Mmmmilk cartons." And I said, "What are you talking about?" He goes, "Milk cartons and pictures of runaways." I remember that from growing up.

Now, the fact that he's English is even weirder, if I think about it. I don't know if they had runaway kids on milk cartons in England when he was growing up, but I knew exactly what he was talking about. He said, "We should use real kids to try to find them." So it was his concept that he was attaching to a song that had nothing to do with runaway children, per se.

I had been searching for meaningfulness in the MTV world. The tool of the video seemed like either just a raw promotion piece or just an opportunity to send a visual that isn't really relevant. I don't need to see a visual representation of "Free Bird" to understand what a free bird is. If they were going to make a video for "Free Bird," maybe I'd cut up Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds just to fuck with people. That association with a visual I don't think is that important.

So we decided to take a PSA approach to it. Let's make it a public service announcement. It really had an effect on me when I had to go do the research. So it's like, now we've got to put these real kids in the video and you have to talk to Ernie from the Center of Missing and Exploited Children because you have to really understand what is going on here. And in that, I really got closer to an issue that I was concerned about and open to being concerned about, and thrust into a position where I was dealing with the Polly Klaas situation. There's so much raw emotion and so much reality to a situation like that that you can't exploit it. You can't exploit it and you can't fuck it up. They're talking about how much information needs to be put out to the public because it's a search, and there are so many different things going on with how the media can affect that.

Polly Klaas was a twelve-year-old girl who was kidnapped at knifepoint from a slumber party in Petaluma, California. Her case captured the country's attention in October, 1993, while "Runaway Train" was still on the charts. She was later found dead and her killer apprehended. In response, Polly's dad, Marc Klaas, established the KlaasKids Foundation as an advocacy group to support parents of kidnapped children.
Over time, everything like that hits me in a different way, whether it's the prisoners of that Castro dude or whether it's the Polly Klaas situation or Jacob Wetterling, which was a dude at Minneapolis, little guy that disappeared and was on billboards forever. And if you have a Jeffrey Dahmer situation, that's going to be a lot different than if a homeless minority person or a prostitute vanishes. It's going to be a lot different than a rich kid who runs away from home. So you've got to make that distinction.

Anyhow, it goes on and on and on. And to that effect, the video initiated the runaway children aspect of the song. It is fascinating to me that MTV was such a vehicle that it practically reinterpreted the song. I don't think that anybody that really loves that song thinks about the video that much. [Laughing]

Songfacts: Well, I think it's interesting that it sounds like it changed you for the better as well as maybe reunited parents with runaway children.

Pirner: It certainly put me in touch with a reality that was indisputable. Can you imagine what happens when Polly Klaas gets kidnapped in Somalia? I don't know. But I'm sure it's different. And I'm sure that there's a universal language somewhere that says that's not cool. I just watched a few minutes of The King of Comedy, with Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro and Jerry Lewis. A lawyer comes in right after De Niro kidnaps Jerry Lewis and he goes, "Who would commit the crime of kidnapping? It's the stupidest crime ever. You can't say it was unpremeditated. You can't say it was a crime of passion." That's a fan trying to kidnap his hero, and it couldn't be more different, but it's just a certain kind of demented mind. I mean, we grew up with Ed Gein in the Midwest. And if that's not creepy enough for you, I don't know what is. The only thing creepier is kidnapping small children.

Songfacts: Well, let's move onto something a little bit lighter.

Pirner: [Laughs]

Songfacts: Which would be almost anything. The song "Misery" was one that Weird Al had parodied. And I'm assuming that you have a good sense of humor and you probably thought it was a bit of an honor to be parodied by Weird Al.

Pirner: Yeah. I heard Coolio got pissed off. But I also heard that you had to give Al permission. I don't know why I'm not calling him Weird Al. Now I'm just calling him Al. But I don't ever remember being asked.

When we got signed to Twin Tone Records, the local label in Minneapolis, I was like, "This is it, I've made it. It's the big time, baby. You've done it." And I never had that feeling again until Weird Al covered my song. It felt like, Wow, I have arrived. It's the perfect way of describing my sense of humor. Yes, I was very honored.

Songfacts: I'm glad to hear that. Speaking of people that are very funny, I read about the relationship that you have with Kevin Smith and how he directed a video for "Can't Even Tell," correct?

Pirner: That is correct.

Songfacts: I know about his moviemaking abilities, but does he have a pretty good understanding of music, too? Do you talk music with him?

Pirner: He has a love and a passion for music in a way that is very honest and very unaffected. He was really into The Time, who also happened to be from Minneapolis. I don't know if you saw the thing where he went and did a project with Prince. He has those couple of lectures that he filmed, and in one of them he talks about going out to Paisley Park and filming Prince, which is fascinating.

I think that all the Apatow stuff is really influenced by Kevin. He was just ferocious about being independent and putting his best foot forward in a way that it's like, I'm me and I'm going to do whatever I want and this is how it goes, and I can say "fuck" as many times as I want. And at first that was kind of shocking, but somewhere between The Big Lebowski and Pineapple Express, it became really effective.

If you look at how Will Farrell says "fuck," it looks like he's perfected it, and I think that Kevin had a lot to do with that. Maybe that seems like a small thing, but in the overall sense of dialogue, I think that he really stands out. When I was first watching Clerks, the dialogue was so sharp and so smart, that at the time all I could really associate it with was noir, like old Hollywood where there were so many words. Nowadays it seems like you can't get away with that many words because Bruce Willis needs to do so many things in an action sequence.

It seemed like Kevin was flying in the face of all that. That sort of rich dialogue is what informed the Seth Rogans and the Jonah Hills and the more intelligent, more sarcastic, more foul-mouthed characters in movies that are smart. And that's a big deal.

So to that effect I'll always be a huge fan of Kevin. I just think he's a great intellectual with a great sense of humor. And that doesn't happen all the time.

Songfacts: Does he have a favorite song of yours?

Pirner: There's enough experiences with Kevin where people are such fans of him, I feel like I'm dropping his name talking about him. But I just watched Clerks II, and I was flipping through the channels, and I hadn't really seen the whole movie from beginning to end. It was toward the end of it, and I was getting a little sentimental, to be honest with you. I had forgotten that "Misery" was the ending song.

Did You Know?

In the mid-'90s, Dave dated Winona Ryder.
So I'm watching these two characters that are reminding me of first getting together with Kevin, and then my song comes on. That was a unique experience. It was laughing and crying, like, Wow, life is crazy. But when the song came on, it just took me by surprise in such a pleasing way. I was all sentimental already, and then I was like, "Oh, my God, you're really going to rub it in."

But yeah, I love comic books. We bonded on that. He made these characters in Chasing Amy that were always listening to music while they were drawing comics. I did all the music supervision for Chasing Amy, which just means that I got to pick songs by other artists, as well as doing the incidental music myself. At that point we really talked a lot about stuff. That was sourcing music from things that Kevin hadn't heard before, and he was very open-minded to it.

There was a song for the end called "We 3" that I pitched to Kevin, and he had already been entertaining some other songs for the end of the movie. I said, "Well, here's one from And The Horse They Rode In On, check this one out." He reacted very emotionally to it, and said, "Wow, it seems like you wrote this song about the movie." And I went, "Well, that's why I'm playing it for you. Because it seemed that way to me, too." And he was like, "Wow, this is perfect."

Songfacts: The song "Black Gold" has references the Gulf War. Now with everything that's happening with Syria and the Middle East, does a song like that take on new meaning when you're singing it?

Pirner: Well, my man, that is a very, very, very astute question. Every time, we play that song. It just never seems to want to get out of the set list. It seems to adapt to whatever the current blood-for-oil situation might be at that particular time. It seems like there always is one. The Gulf War turned into the BP Gulf Spill which turned into fracking. So now it's about fracking. And the only reason why I like to say that is because I got to say, "Here is another fracking song about fracking." Frack this, frack that, frack the whole thing.

So there's enough impressionism in the song to give it some sort of a tragic timelessness that continues to surprise me. I'm just, like, wow, I had no idea how adaptable this song was. It can be interpreted as something that's more micro and macro. I tend to take these things from a personal point of view where it's two boys on a playground, and at the time it was an obvious reference to political leaders going, "My dick is bigger than yours."

As I grow up, I see that here's a song that I wrote 20 years ago that was begging people to grow up, and I guess it doesn't happen. People just try to stay the way they are, and that's unfortunate. To that effect, I just keep on singing the song.

The song does not present an answer, but I think that it's something that people need to be reminded of.

Songfacts: I want to wind things up with a songwriting question. Since you've been in New Orleans, which has got to be much different than Minnesota, how has that changed the way you write songs? The atmosphere - the musical culture that you're in - has that changed you as far as how you approach creating music?

Pirner: Absolutely. Probably 100 percent from a music point of view. From a lyrical point of view, almost nothing. That's the situation where I'm from and where Bob Dylan is from, and down here they don't really want it. How do I say this right? Bob Dylan is a guy that had long winters to think really hard about things that upset him. The evolution through music here in New Orleans is like a lot of strife that needs relief.

One is more contemplative and one is more immediate, and the immediacy of New Orleans music is really flying in the face of the hardcore punk rock that I grew up with, which was express yourself outward in a hateful way, and express yourself by having this cathartic performance art of screaming about how fucked up everything is. It's kind of the opposite of what happens in New Orleans. That turned my head around, because I like to see New Orleans musicians smiling while they're playing and enjoying themselves and playing music that is not for the Man, which is what we worry about. Guys like me take everything too seriously and go, "Well, you're either making a song that's a commentary and it has social relevance, or you're making a song that says, Let's dance and party."

It just doesn't translate to New Orleans because the industry is not here and the local culture is really local. I noticed this and I noticed that I wanted to be a part of it, because America is this place that is regional. So the regional part of New Orleans that exists musically seems to happen regardless of what is happening in the rest of the world.

However, you can't get that music anywhere but here, and I don't know any kind of situation like that in America. There's no, "I want to listen to some New York music, so I'm going to go to New York." So that's what really sucked me in, is spending a lot of time in New York City and in Los Angeles, and getting into the universal nature of these sort of cities, and then realizing that they have all that here in New Orleans, but it's ignored by the rest of the country to the point where it's kind of unspoiled.

To that effect, it's dirty and it's natural and it's very homegrown and homespun and unique in a way that it feels good to be near it. It has affected my music in all the right ways as far as I'm concerned, but really it's all those things that make me go, "I need to be influenced by that." Not in a way that I'm going to rip it off or co-opt it or try to make my music sound that way. But it's more like throwing something else into your own gumbo, or throwing your little ingredient. That's the corny analogy they make about New Orleans all the time, is the music is like the food: you just keep throwing stuff in a pail until it sounds good. To me that's very rock & roll.

December 4, 2013
More Songwriter Interviews


Be the first to comment...

Penny Ford of Snap!Songwriter Interviews

The original voice of Snap!, this story is filled with angry drag queens, video impersonators and Chaka Khan.

Crystal WatersSongwriter Interviews

Waters tells the "Gypsy Woman" story, shares some of her songwriting insights, and explains how Dennis Rodman ended up on one of her songs.

The 10 Bands Most Like Spinal TapSong Writing

Based on criteria like girlfriend tension, stage mishaps and drummer turnover, these are the 10 bands most like Spinal Tap.

Who Wrote That Song?Music Quiz

Do you know who wrote Patti Smith's biggest hit? How about the Grease theme song? See if you can match the song to the writer.

Alan Merrill of The ArrowsSongwriter Interviews

In her days with The Runaways, Joan Jett saw The Arrows perform "I Love Rock And Roll," which Alan Merrill co-wrote - that story and much more from this glam rock pioneer.

Adam Duritz of Counting CrowsSongwriter Interviews

"Mr. Jones" took on new meaning when the song about a misguided view of fame made Adam famous.