Can’t Go Back:
Jeff Clark Chats Up Dave Pirner on the Past and Present of Soul Asylum
Maybe it sounds silly to some of you now, but there was a time there in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s when Soul Asylum were one of the most essential bands in my life. During those years, the rock scene in Minneapolis seemed to be at a fever pitch, simultaneously collapsing (the mighty Husker Du and Replacements crashing to halts) and exploding, with a new flurry of fabulous bands like The Magnolias, The Jayhawks, Babes in Toyland, Trip Shakespeare, Zuzu’s Petals and Soul Asylum catching my attention. Rock ‘n’ roll music was still invigorating and exciting, rebellious and youthful, as was I. I started working in college radio while Soul Asylum were still recording for the great Minneapolis label Twin/Tone, and gave their early records a spin on the basis of seeing Bob Mould’s name listed as producer. They were soon signed to A&M and released a pair of positively smokin’ albums named Hang Time (1988) and And the Horse They Rode In On (1990), the latter of which I especially latched onto. They struck me as possessing the scruffy, poetic and honest lyricism of Paul Westerberg, but with more of an ambitious (if outwardly downplayed) professionalism at work. It was a contrast that did not bother me, especially upon being blown to quivering shards by what an amazing live band they were. I think in retrospect, what seemed like flawless polish was simply the natural result of their indefatigable work ethic. This band toured relentlessly. It seemed like they played nearly every Atlanta club standing within the span of several fly-by years, and I would go see them every time, bangin’ my head and grinning ear-to-ear at the sight of Dave Pirner’s whirling blonde hair and thrilling swiveling presence onstage, at one with the sheer force of the music. He was a true believer. You could just tell.
My enthusiasm continued upon the arrival of Grave Dancers Union, their debut album for Columbia in 1992. I was working at 99X at the time, and the gradual but steady chart ascent of the album (and its hit singles, namely “Black Gold” and “Runaway Train”) took the better part of two years, ensuring I got to witness them numerous times during that golden period. Their version of Victoria Williams’ “Summer of Drugs” was also the standout track from the first Sweet Relief album in 1993. Needless to say, I was hearing and playing and seeing a shit ton of Soul Asylum.
Then, as often happens, their next album, Let Your Dim Light Shine (1995) didn’t really grab me like the others had. My musical interests were focusing elsewhere, and the “alternative rock” landscape in general was shifting and transforming into styles that repelled me further. It wasn’t Soul Asylum’s fault – they were actually hanging in there and making better music than most of their peers – but I just sorta lost track of ‘em. Saw ’em once or twice in the ensuing years; Pirner was still a force of nature, as always, but ongoing membership changes had turned the band into a competent but inconsequential machine. They kept on releasing albums (most recently 2016’s Change of Fortune), but like so many bands of that time, to the world at large Soul Asylum never could seem to break free of the ’90s.
But then when it was announced that Omnivore Recordings would be releasing (on July 20th) expanded editions of Soul Asylum’s first two Twin/Tone albums, 1984’s Say What You Will…Everything Can Happen and 1986’s Made To Be Broken, it sort of sparked a renewal of interest for me, fond memories of those raucous years that had already been stoked by the limited-edition RSD release this past April of Live From Liberty Lunch, a blistering Soul Asylum concert from 1992.
So I arranged a phone chat with Dave Pirner. And I’m happy to report that he’s still one of the friendliest, funniest and down-to-earth guys in rock ‘n’ roll. He’s realistic, even self-deprecating at times, but also proud (as he should be) of his band and the music they’ve created. If he’s inwardly perturbed that Soul Asylum’s summer tour – which kicks off at Atlanta’s Chastain Park Amphitheatre on Friday, July 6th – finds them in the opening slot on a ‘90s commercial alternative throwback package bill with 3 Doors Down and Collective Soul, he doesn’t let on. He’s 54 years old but in many ways seems 24, in that his enthusiasm remains genuine. He is a true believer, to this day.
What’s been the process of getting these reissues of the first two albums done?
“It’s been long and arduous, in the sense that it happened a while ago. But it’s been difficult to listen to a lot of sort of obscure old things that never got finished. And that does give the bonus tracks some extra… I don’t even know what the word is… they weren’t even finished, though we couldn’t even make ‘em any better. So, that stuff’s either really cool to people, or just terrible, I guess, haha! It took [Twin/Tone co-founder] Pete Jesperson to call me up and… Pete was the guy that was there for the first time they were out, so it wasn’t difficult at all for me to go, ‘Oh – as long as Pete’s involved, I know that it’s going to be fine. It will maintain its integrity, because Pete really cares about these records.’ Twin/Tone Records is his baby, and I think the project is in good hands. I didn’t really understand it at first, and I kinda still don’t, but I’m glad that it’s done! As far as having to sit around my house and look for obscure tapes, and listening to things that kinda make me cringe! And then kinda settling on, ‘Well, I guess that’s the point – it’s supposed to be a warts-and-all kind of document of how shitty we used to be!’ In my eyes, I’m like, ‘Wow, I’ve come a really long way!’ I was still learning how to sing and play at that time, and write also.”
You’re obviously a fan of a lot of different kinds of music, and a lot of older music. When a box set or reissue like this comes out for someone you’re a fan of, are you one of those who really digs all the old obscure extra tracks they tack on?
“Uhhh…it kinda depends, I think, on the artist. But typically it’s a songwriting thing for me. It’s like, I could listen to ten different versions of a Bob Dylan song, because it’s fuckin’ Bob Dylan. There was a Robert Johnson box set… and he only made a certain amount of recordings, so Columbia did a box set of his only sessions, with all the other takes on it. They put ‘em together, which I thought was really interesting, but in the end, it didn’t work out as good, for me as a listener. ‘Cause it’s like, they play a song, then they play another version right after it, then they play a song, then they play another version right after it… But it’s Robert Johnson, you know what I mean? So I would think that that’s the kind of music, at least for me, that I would go, ‘Oh, you did it twice? What did it sound like the second time you did it? Because those are the only two times it’s ever been recorded.’ So, to that degree, I think that stuff is fascinating. I don’t know. I mean, yeah, that’s a hard question for me. It really does depend on the artist. I can listen to Miles Davis play the same song 8 million times, and it’s gonna sound really different each time he plays it.”
As an outsider looking in, it seemed like the Minneapolis scene was really hoppin’ throughout the ’80s, sort of like Athens was down here. What do you remember most about those times?
“In retrospect, I sorta tend to go, ‘Well, it seemed like such a special, magical kind of a vibe in Minneapolis…’ But it’d be a shame for me to think that that doesn’t happen to everyone. Like, each graduating class or whatever, haha! Kids gotta be doing the same old shit I was doing, pretty much – having house parties and trying to support your friends that are in bands and whatever. It was really vibrant at the time, and I’m not really sure how unique that was. It just seems that way. But I’ll never really know, ’cause that was my era, or whatever – the thing that I was on the inside of and couldn’t see from the outside. But yeah, I remember something that was really akin to family. I remember an insular Minneapolis punk rock scene that was very supporting, and very familiar. You’d go to gigs all the time and see all the same people. It was like a fucking tribe or some shit… The gist of it is, back in the day if I wasn’t onstage, I was in the crowd.”
Twin/Tone obviously played a big role in chronicling the local and regional scene at that time. Was it a goal of yours and other local bands to get a record out on Twin/Tone?
“Oh, absolutely. That was the gold standard. We got signed to Twin/Tone when we opened for The Replacements in Madison, Wisconsin, and, yeah, I thought that was farther than the band would ever go again. I thought that was as far as maybe we could go. I was very excited about it.”
Bob Mould produced Say What You Will and Made to Be Broken. Were you already friends?
“Oh yeah, like I was saying, everybody knew each other. Everybody was in this tribe, so to speak. And if I remember correctly, I was crossing the street with Bob, and he said, ‘Oh, you guys need a producer.’ I said, ‘What’s a producer?’ Hahaha! I was very green to the whole thing. But he wanted to do it, and I said, ‘Let’s go!’ And actually, this is not a… well, it is a plug and a promotion thing – the remastering of these records is fucking great! First time I listened to it, I was like, ‘Holy shit! Hello, Karl! Hello, bass drum!’ There’s more lift on it. Which, for some reason, was just not as prevalent in the punk rock days, there was very little low-end on things. And nowadays, I listen to fuckin’ hip-hop shit with big, fat bass drums and shit like that. So, it was nice to hear it restored with more low-end than it really had in the mastering.”
Well, you know, that’s one thing I’ve noticed – those old Husker Du records, there was hardly any low-end on any of their recordings. And it’s the same for a lot of things Bob Mould has produced – they’re very high-end, almost tinny sounding.
“Uh huh. Yeah, I mean, I don’t remember it being a big part of the sound spectrum. And a lot of that was because everything was so freakin’ fast, you just couldn’t fit any low-end in there! You know, everybody’s just playing a million miles an hour, there’s really no time for the instruments to even resonate, you know. So, I remember a lot of records that were exactly what you’re saying. You know, today it’s like an MP3 – it sounds so squished, or thin or whatever. But that was definitely the sound du jour.”
Any similar reissue plans for 1986’s While You Were Out and 1989’s Clam Dip & Other Delights?
“Yep. Those’ll be in your local grocer’s freezer…yes. Those should follow… you know what? To be honest, maybe it depends on how this shit goes, but yes, they’re planning on reissuing all the Twin/Tone stuff. So, it’ll be those next couple records, and then [1986’s cassette-only] Time’s Incinerator. Yeah, there’s outtakes everywhere. For better or for worse! They’ve come back to haunt me.”
Did you ever hear from Herb Alpert about the cover of Clam Dip?
“I did not. We thought it was funny, though. And we were aware that the cover (Whipped Cream and Other Delights by the Tijuana Brass) had been parodied already, before. So it was kind of a tradition. And, yeah, we thought it was really funny to make fun of our own record label! Maybe they didn’t, but I think they just rolled their eyes and went, ‘Kids…’ It was a fun photo shoot, to cover Karl in clam dip. Very stinky.”
You actually used clam dip?
“Wellll… it was a lot of stuff. But there were clearly real fish parts in there and stuff. Yeah, it was nasty! Then you put the lights on and stuff, and it all starts to melt. It was disgusting. He was a really good sport about it, a real trooper.”
Do you still keep in contact with Joey Huffman, who’s done a couple of stints on keyboards with you guys? He had surgery to remove a brain tumor a few years ago, you know…
“Yeah, I mean, I played a benefit for him in his hometown (in 2013), which was incredible. It was up in the hills of Kentucky (Pikeville), and it was a real eye opener for me. The hollows, and the moonshine… it was cool! I was like, ‘Wow! These are all Joey’s friends!’ It was so cool, because you tour with the guy forever, and you don’t know where he’s from, or what it was like for him growing up. And I got a real taste of it just going out there! (laughs) ‘Holy shit! This is where Joey’s from!’ It was awesome, a bunch of rocker friends and the usual stuff, it’s just a different part of the world.”
It’s probably the biggest concert they’ve ever had in Pikeville.
“Oh yeah, it was classic. It was a VFW hall kind of thing where a lot of people were donating… It was really something. A lot of people came out. You could see how many people knew and cared about Joey.”
He’s played with everyone. He’s out with Bocephus now. How’d you find Joey anyway? Were you playing a show with Drivin’ n’ Cryin’? Was he with them at the time?
“I believe that is correct. You know, a keyboard player for us is like a budget thing. We just can’t afford a keyboard player right now. But it’s really nice. I mean, we’ve had Ivan Neville playing keys with the band, and a few other guys. But Joey’s great.”
The lineup of Soul Asylum has shifted considerably over the years. When guitarist Dan Murphy left in 2012, the last remaining original member other than you, do you ever momentarily consider retiring the name?
“I think through trials and tribulations… I mean, we replaced [original drummer Paul Morley] really, really early on, and I thought it was over. I was like, ‘Fuck! We’re done.’ And, you know, eventually I found another drummer. It took me a really long time, because I’m just…particular’s not the word, but it’s like… now I’ve learned so much since then, that the music has to feel a certain way, and I’ve been spoiled by some of the greatest musicians out there. And that gives you a lot of perspective. So, my perspective is that the band is better now – and that’s gotta be worth something. I mean, it does get better. If it started getting worse, I think I’d really have a problem. But, you know, the standard goes up as the players get better. And when these guys go back and play something from Made to Be Broken, it finally sounds right to me. I’m always saying, ‘So that’s how that was supposed to sound like…’ That’s the first thing I said when Sterling Campbell (drummer, 1995-1998) came in and played something on drums. I was like, ‘Holy shit, I had no idea that that sound could carry so much weight! That song is now being realized.’ It’s the feel of the drummer, and that makes a huge fucking difference. It doesn’t make any difference if you’re using drum machines or whatever. But if you’re gonna play every night with a live band, and your drummer is draggin’ the shit down, ehh… that’s something to be reckoned with. It’s something that was very difficult to live through. But, now I got fucking Michael Bland in my band – he’s a fucking genius! And I don’t use that word lightly at all. I was just listening to some new demos going, ‘Holy shit – every choice you made was just right!’ I mean, he’s so on. He has perfect pitch. He’s an amazing musician. All these other things that, you know, definitely make it progressive, and more satisfying, and gives me a reason to believe that it’s worth carrying on. So… you know, I tried making a solo record, and I just… I wanna be in a band! Soul Asylum sounds better than Dave Pirner.”
OK, then – gonna play devil’s advocate here. What would you think if Bob Mould says his current band is the best he ever played with, that they’re playing the old Husker Du songs better than they’ve ever sounded, and he’s decided to call it Husker Du? How would you feel about that, as a fan?
“I…I think that that would be…probably…as interesting for me as seeing Bob play solo. It’s just the material. I’m sure he plays a few old songs now and again, whether he’s doing it acoustic or whether he’s doing it with a band. But of course I know that Bob is an artist of integrity, and he tries to rely on his past probably as little as he possibly can. And that’s just a guess, but… nah, I don’t think I would have a problem with that. I think that what I would be seeing, and what I should be seeing, is Bob doing Bob’s Husker Du songs, not… what, would they have the drummer sing Grant’s songs? No. So… in a way, it’d be like… I dunno. It’s a good question. However, it just doesn’t apply, I think, because I never really broke up the band. It just didn’t happen. So, it’s been a slow, slow process of: one person dies, and you try to replace that person, and then someone quits, and then you go into this other phase of being in a band, where it’s, ‘Who’s out there, who’s gonna do the best job, and who’s not an asshole?’ And, uh… it’s not… it’s not a tribute band…When Karl died, I had a very serious talk with Grant Hart in the parking lot after the reception, and I said, ‘Well, you and Greg and Bob are still alive – why don’t you guys fucking get back together? ‘Cause look what just happened to me!’”
You were living down in New Orleans for many years. Are you back in Minneapolis full time now?
“I’ve still got a place down there, and I’ve still got a kid down there. And I’m going down there in less than a week. [But] I’m spending more time back in Minneapolis. And my mom’s got Alzheimer’s, and a few things like that that keep me here. It’s just personal stuff, but it’s where I’m from. So to a certain degree, I’m comfortable with being a Yankee carpetbagger. And I have learned so much from the music of New Orleans, and everything else about the beautiful culture of New Orleans that seems somehow begrudgingly separate from the rest of the South… It’s a beautiful place, and it stays in my heart. Not to sound corny. They’re both great cities, for completely opposite reasons, and that’s the sort of dichotomy that I wanted to get myself into, and wanted to be sort of on both ends of the Mississippi – the giving and receiving end! Hahaha! After trying to live in New York City and trying to live in Los Angeles and going, ‘Holy shit! I’m from the flyover zone, man!’”
I assume you’re a fan of the Minnesota Wild…
“I am. I’m a fan of Zachary Parise, ‘cause when I was a kid I was a fan of his father, J.P. Parise. I grew up sort of worshipping this dude. ‘Cause I was a hockey player when I was a kid. And to see his son skate, it just, it almost brought tears to my eyes. I was like, ‘Wait a minute, I’m getting all emotional about hockey – this is fucked up!’ Yeah, I was born and raised on skates. There’s 10,000 lakes, and that’s what we’d do. It’s part of our weird cultural fiber, for sure.”
One thing I will say that Minneapolis and New Orleans have in common is there are some great “old man bars” in both of those cities.
“Yes, there is… We like to call ‘em ‘shitholes.’ If you’re in bar that doesn’t have a decent bathroom, you’re in a shithole. But that’s not the point, hahaha!”
Those are the best bars, though. They have character and are full of characters.
“That’s right. We just went to one the other day that used to be this great piano bar, a Polish piano bar on the other side of the Mississippi. They tore it down, and they sold all the shit, it was a very sad day, the end of an era. A lot of people went there, a lot of musicians, and friends and stuff, and hung out. And you could sit around the piano, and sing along with the woman that was always there playing the piano. And she passed, and that was a sad day, and then they tore the place down. And then they reopened a small part of it, under the same name. It was super clean, and super uptight, and super fucked. I mean, everything was the opposite of the way it used to be. Beers cost twice as much, and the hospitality was not even half as good. So… yeah, they come and they go, but yes: character – we try to hold on to it.”