Soul Asylum—Bringing it All Back Home

Soul Asylum singer/guitarist Dave Pirner, calling from his home in Minneapolis, seems astonished when he’s reminded that it’s been four years since his band released their last studio album (2016’s Change of Fortune). “Has it really been that long?” he says, incredulous. “You’re kind of surprising me right now.” He thinks about it for a moment, then laughs. “I guess we’re slow!”

The long wait for new material will soon be over, though. On April 17, Soul Asylum will release Hurry Up and Wait, their 12th studio album. And while it may have taken Pirner and his band a while to make it, he says the process was “Relatively effortless. In the past there’s been some very, very arduous happenings around making records. Part of it is because we didn’t know what we were doing, part of it was because we were spending a ton of money going to New York and living in LA—you incur these expenses that are a little indulgent, I suppose.”

A big reason for this more relaxed atmosphere is due to making Hurry Up and Wait at Nicollet Studios in Minneapolis—the same recording studio where Soul Asylum created their second album, While You Were Out (1986). Being in a familiar setting, Pirner says, made the experience “surprisingly comfortable and convenient. We just let it happen and went on gut instinct. I really wasn’t second-guessing everything. I just did what I felt like doing. This record is a little bit more acoustic and ‘listenable.’ It’s not a challenging punk rock manifesto. Some of it is kind of simple, which I like.”

While Pirner is very proud of his new songs and hopes they’ll be well-received (“It’s a cliché, but they’re all my kids. You’ve got to push them out into the world and hope for the best”), he is also secure enough not to fret too much about his place in the music business. “I don’t worry about the competition because I think that what I’m doing is different,” he says. “I don’t really compare bands. Of course I have bands I like better than other bands, but I also don’t go, ‘I love rock music and I hate jazz music.’ I love jazz. I love country music. I love it all. It helps to be open minded.”

Pirner’s broadminded yet focused approach has always been at the heart of Soul Asylum. As well as founding the band in 1981 and serving as the main songwriter ever since, he is also the sole constant member. This suits him fine. “There were certainly plenty of times where it seemed like everything was going to fall apart,” he says. Alluding to the band’s many lineup changes over the years, he adds, “The people that aren’t that into it fall by the wayside, so you end up with a better and better situation.” The current membership has been stable since 2016, and consists of Pirner on vocals and rhythm guitar, Ryan Smith on lead guitar, Winston Roye on bass, and Michael Bland on drums.

Under Pirner’s guidance, Soul Asylum has earned considerable success, although it took them a little while to find their niche. They released their debut album, Say What You Will, Clarence… Karl Sold the Truck, in 1984, but it wasn’t until their sixth album, Grave Dancers Union (1992), that they really found widespread fame. Their single “Runaway Train,” a beautiful but heart wrenching ballad, had a widely-played video featuring missing children; this was the ubiquitous summer hit of 1993, and went on to win a 1994 Grammy for Best Rock Song. But, as Pirner admits, he and the band discovered that they weren’t entirely comfortable with such massive success, particularly the frenzy surrounding “Runaway Train.” 

“It was maybe a couple of years after that record had come out, and I said, ‘We’re not playing that song anymore, we’ve got to challenge ourselves to come up with something that is not just playing things we know people like.’”

This strategy did not prove at all popular with his fans. “People would come to the show and I’d talk to them afterwards and they’d go, ‘We drove 10 hours to get to see the show and you didn’t play the song we wanted to hear—what’s up with that?’ Eventually, I guess I just took a turn in attitude at some point. I just said, ‘You know what? Let’s just enjoy people enjoying your music, it’s not that big of a deal. It’s under four minutes, I can be bothered for that long!’” He laughs but quickly clarifies, “Now I appreciate it, and it’s fun to watch people in the audience react to it. You can tell it has some resonance in people’s lives: ‘Oh yeah, that was our favorite song when we met and now we’re married,’ that kind of thing. I suppose that’s what music is about a lot of the time.”

Pirner has actually been thinking a lot about his older material lately, because he’s been working on annotated book of all his lyrics. Loud Fast Words: Soul Asylum Collected Lyrics will be released in March, published by the prestigious Minnesota Historical Society Press. Revisiting every single one of his songs was, Pirner says, “really, really weird. Every song brings back certain feelings. It was kind of exhausting, just jumping around in these different times in my life and reflecting on everything. That was a very strange experience. ‘Oh, you made this record in 1990 and that’s what you were thinking about.’ It’s not that hard for me to put myself back in those shoes. It evokes the same feelings I had back then.” Pirner says he chose to do this type of book because “I didn’t really feel inclined to write a memoir. I’ve heard that story too many times.”

Although he’s celebrated for writing memorable and moving material, Pirner is lighthearted when asked how, exactly, he goes about his songwriting. “Well, the first thing I do is I take a whole lot of LSD,” he deadpans, then laughs. “No, I’m kidding! I suppose it’s something I’ve been working on for so long that it just is part of my day, every day. I’m always writing something down or talking into a tape recorder or playing some music. It has become who I am, really.”

This does not mean that the work is always easy, however. “As the great [comedian] Mitch Hedberg once said, ‘Sometimes I’m lying in bed in my hotel room and I come up with an idea and I have to get out of bed and go over to the desk and write it down, or I have to convince myself it’s not funny and go to sleep.’ I’m constantly coming up with things in my head, and going, ‘Is that good, is that worth pursuing?’ You come up with a lot of ideas that go nowhere. But hopefully you get the right ones and put all the right pieces together. I suppose it’s a bit of a puzzle.”

Even though it can be a challenging undertaking, Pirner says he was always drawn to music. “I don’t remember not feeling that way,” he says. “Ever since I was a tiny dude, my mom was always like, ‘Hey, want to play an instrument?’ And I was like, ‘Hell, yeah!’ ‘Want to go see the orchestra?’ ‘Hell, yeah!’ ‘Want to jump up and down and pretend you’re Elvis Presley in the living room?’ ‘Hell, yeah!’”

Growing up in Minneapolis, he was “in a high school band playing the trumpet, and going home and listening to Jimi Hendrix and going, ‘Wait a minute. I really like this kind of music. And the trumpet playing music, I’m very passionate about it, but it seems like I should be playing rock music because it’s what I listen to all the time.’ So I switched to saxophone. There was a lot of rock bands that had sax players in them at the time. Then I figured out how to play the guitar. And my life has been a mess ever since!” he jokes.

Soul Asylum has, in fact, become one of the most beloved bands out of Minneapolis—no easy feat, considering that city has long been celebrated for having one of the most noteworthy music scenes in the U.S. Besides Soul Asylum, Minneapolis has also produced such successful and influential acts as Prince, The Replacements, Babes in Toyland, The Jayhawks, and Hüsker Dü. As for why that particular place is so inspiring for musicians, “There’s the whole theory that [because of] these long winters, there’s nothing else you can do but go down in the basement and rock out and get your aggression out,” Pirner says. 

While Pirner has lived in other cities—including 17 years in New Orleans—he has moved back to Minneapolis in recent years, and is making a concerted effort to get reacquainted with that city’s still-thriving local music scene. “Tonight, I’m going down to [legendary rock venue] First Avenue to see the best new bands of this year. I expect to be pleasantly surprised.” It seems natural for him to be unreservedly enthusiastic about the next generation of hometown artists because, as he says, “I guess that’s what keeps it all going. The people that came before me have always been supportive. It’s a nurturing process.”

Now that it’s his turn to be the mentor, Pirner says he has a lot of “respect and appreciation” for anyone trying to make it in the music business. “You’ve got to be kind of crazy [to do it],” he says with a laugh. “It’s a lot of bullshit to deal with and a lot of adversity.” Even so, his advice to new artists is, “Just keep making music. It’s worth it. I love it. It’s great to do what you love to do.”

Soul Asylum will play Bowery Ballroom in New York City on February 19, and Theatre of the Living Arts in Philadelphia on February 21.