Hard-rocking Soul Asylum singer-guitarist Dave Pirner originally didn’t set out to play punk rock. He first learned to play trumpet. It was only later that he realized he needed to break free “from the chains of playing trumpet scales every day.”
So he initially gravitated to drums because, as he puts it, “I wanted to be the dude that hit shit.” Inspired by the Jimi Hendrix album Are You Experienced?
, he picked up a guitar and “started making noise until it started to sound like something.” He’s never looked back.
For thirtysomething years now, Soul Asylum, which originally started as a punk band, has delivered rock songs that draw from punk, blues and roots rock. Think of them as the Midwest’s answer to Social Distortion, the SoCal punk band from the same milieu.
“We were trying to do punk music as far as Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers and the Ramones were punk rock,” says Pirner in a phone interview from his New Orleans home. “As we were sorting these things out, we’d do punk versions of [jazz trumpet player] Dizzy [Gillespie] songs or whatever. Easy simple shit. That was the root of so much of it. The Ramones simplified things for me so I could understand the music. In that way, it was a shortcut to writing. It was primitive in all the right ways.”
Believe it or not, there was a time when bands and toured and recorded for years before they got any significant airplay or started to play large venues with lavish green rooms and catering. Early on, Soul Asylum toured with fellow Minneapolis indie rockers Husker Du, a band with a DIY aesthetic that would become hugely influential.
“It was great,” says Pirner when asked about that tour. “They taught us a lot about the do-it-yourself aesthetic. They had offices in the same office space. We had two or three guys running an independent label and then we had Husker Du was running their own label. It was very organic and do-it-yourself and home spun. It was a great inspiration and example. You didn’t need the music industry. You just got in a van and started playing. After Wisconsin and Illinois, Michigan was next. We just worked our way out.”
Soul Asylum initially signed with Twin Tone, the Minneapolis-based label that was also home to the Replacements. And then, the major labels came calling.
“A&M wanted Soul Asylum and Twin Tone wanted to keep the thing together somehow,” says Pirner. “That made the band feel comfortable. They did a cross-pollination. I think Soul Asylum was the only thing to come out of it. Our manager worked at Twin Tone. We were able to keep the same organization and feeling. To me, that’s the birth of the alternative tag. It was college music but they started calling it alternative music because they didn’t know what the fuck to do with it. They didn’t know who to market it to. They didn’t know where to market it or what to call it or anything about what was happening except that it was not like all the other music on the label. When they call Soul Asylum ‘alternative’ or ‘indie,’ it’s better than ‘grunge’ or ‘punk rock’ or any of those kinds of expressions. That term seems like it was invented for bands like mine.”
After two albums, however, the band split with A&M records. Pirner figured it was over. He figured wrong. It was actually just beginning.
“I was distraught and felt like we were fucked,” he says when asked about the split with A&M. “I was thinking about going back to my day job.”
But he started playing more acoustic guitar and writing new songs.
“Over that period of reckoning, if you will, I wrote a bunch of songs that were different,” he says. “I was not going to the loud rehearsal room to work them out. I was working them out at home and that became the record. When I went to New York with the demos with that material, I realized that my goose wasn’t cooked yet. The first song was really sad and acoustic and down. The people at record labels thought it would be my acoustic record. I didn’t realize the material was so different. I didn’t know they were going to call it the down and out record. The last one wasn’t loud and happy. I realized people were still interested in me. That was strange.”
The band signed with Columbia for the resulting album, 1992’s Grave Dancers Union
, because, as Pirner puts it, record label head Don Ienner “was different enough from the other record companies in that he seemed crazy in the right way.”
“He took it and ran with it,” says Pirner, “and next thing I knew, I was selling a shitload of records in Tokyo. It was a transition period that was a huge learning experience for me.”
That lead to a long, successful streak that stretched into the ‘90s. But after 2006’s Silver Lining
, the band took a minute to regroup before returning with 2012’s Delayed Reaction
“I think that when we made the record before that, we learned something about ourselves,” says Pirner when asked about the long layoff. “We were working with John Fields, who’s been a Minneapolis guy forever. Things had come full circle. We knew what we want the band to sound like. We had [drummer] Michael [Bland] in place and that was always an issue. Just trying to get good drum takes was the biggest problem for Soul Asylum. We were traumatized by shitty guitars that couldn’t stay in tune. We spent a lot of time trying to work out the kinks. Now, I know what I’m doing and what I need to come prepared with. We got together with John Fields and learned how to not only make a record ourselves but what we need from other people as far as facilitating the band and enabling it to come out with a finished product. Now, we feel like we can’t be stopped. We own the horse and we know how to hold the reigns.”
Earlier this year, Soul Asylum launched a PledgeMusic campaign to help fund an album of all new material slated for release later this year. Pledge exclusives include signed copies of the new album, their name in the liner notes, a live and rare download of the band’s multi-platinum Grave Dancers Union
album, a custom T-shirt designed for Pledgers only, a Skype drum workshop with Michael Bland, side stage viewing at an upcoming show, guest list for life, signed acoustic guitar or a private acoustic session.
For Pirner, the group’s longevity has come as a surprise. But he’s not ready to toss in the towel yet.
“It’s really fucked up to think about for me because there’s not really a precedence,” he says when asked about the band’s long run. “I moved to New Orleans because it did have a timeless element and did seem ageless as far as that goes. I used to go see a guy who was 85 years old and the master of the bass drum and nobody does it like him. He did it til the day he died. That’s the way it goes in New Orleans. You play music until the day you die and then you have a musical funeral with all your friends. It just made sense to me. It didn’t have anything of that pop shit feeling to it. It’s not disposable.”
Pirner says he appreciates the way music in New Oreleans is “more grounded in the grassroots of American music in a way that other music isn’t.”
“I just did a folk thing with people who were extremely eccentric, age-wise and race-wise and religion-wise,” he says. “That was an element I could relate to it. It was based on the passing of Pete Seeger. He was super hero of mine. He played til the day he died. There is an element of dedication to that that I really admire.”
Soul Asylum, Meat Puppets, 8 p.m. Friday, June 12, Hard Rock Live, 10777 Northfield Rd, Northfield, OH, 330) 908-7625. Tickets: $15-$25, hrrocksinonorthfieldpark.com.