Wednesday, October 9, 2013

INTERVIEW: A Conversation with Dave Pirner (Soul Asylum)

(Photo By Michael L Smith)

Hey, Dave!  Thanks for taking the time to talk with me.

No problem.

I was just listening to No Fun Intended and it sounds like you guys were having a blast recording that. What was the impetus behind putting out a covers ep?

Well, I think that me and Michael Bland, the drummer, sort of had a challenge and felt like, let me have a go at some of that music you grew up listening to, kind of thing. And I really, really, really encourage him to do that. I really welcome it. So, he has a tendency to sort of want to explore things like that in a way that he’ll go back into the Soul Asylum catalog and find some old obscure punk rock song I wrote and go “Let’s do that one”. And I’m like “Great!”, because when he plays it, it sounds better than it’s ever sounded.

So, to that effect, you know, there tries to be something somewhat significant about the songs that we picked. You know, and on this particular, I don’t even know what we’re calling that, installment? [laughter], The Suicide Commandos are just a band that were the local Ramones and the guitar player showed me my first guitar chords. And I just loved them. I just-, I think that was probably the first time I realized that, you know, music didn’t come out of some mysterious place that was a radio. That there were actually local people in town making rock music and, the other one is by the MC5. I had to really come to the MC5 by way of the Ramones or whatever and once I figured out who they were, they just became a very, very important group to me. And the funniest thing about Love Will Tear Us Apart, is people go, “Oh I’m surprised you would cover that song” because they seem to think that-, I don’t know, it’s weird. Like, because I wasn’t a goth kid, I wouldn’t be liking music like that or something. And you know, it was always playing in the club next door when we were playing in the little Bunker place. I always just thought it was a great song and it’s also kind of a thing where they put out a remix, I don’t know, ten years ago, and I was like “Oh cool maybe this remix is going to be the version that I like better than the original version” cause I always thought it could be a little bit better. I don’t know why. And the remix was way worse. So, it was little bit of a, you know, I want to get this one right to it sometimes. And you know, I think it’s just a great song.

What was really cool to see you pick something off the second MC5 record, because I think that one tends to get glossed over because people are talking about Kick Out The Jams. I mean, Back In The USA was just such a phenomenal record.

And it’s a Fred Smith song, I’m pretty sure, which also makes it unusual-, my god yeah, what a fucking weird record! And I met John Landau and I asked him about it. And it’s weird because parts of it just don’t sound as good as they could. And then you kind of have to have Kick Out The Jams to sort of hear them at their full power or something. It almost seems like maybe they were frustrated with the recording process because their power couldn’t be captured, or something. But yeah, there’s really interesting things on High Time. I really liked The Human Being Lawnmower, I’d love to cover that one someday.

Well, is this the first in a series of EPs that you guys are doing, are they all going to be covers?

Yeah, I think our kind of half-assed strategy is to like do three installments of three songs, put them on the Internet. We have like, I don’t know, we recorded like ten songs.

Cool. Now I know Michael is someone who you’ve been playing with a while. But you got a couple new guys in the band. What can you tell me about them? They seem to have brought some new energy to the project.

Oh my god, I mean, absolutely. It’s hard to-, I mean, I don’t really feel like I have to rationalize it or anything like that, but when we were making Grave Dancers Union and we replaced the drummer, Sterling Campbell sort of opened my eyes. It was like I was living in a cave. And I just didn’t really-, I mean I never really thought about, you know, the caliber of a player as far as rock music goes, cause you know, I didn’t necessarily think I was that good, and I was coming from that punk rock aesthetic it was kind of, you know, sounding like shit was part of the deal or something. So then I guess before that we had made a record with Steve Jordan, who is Keith Richards’ drummer and, just again, this amazing musician that just makes magic. And he tried to get our drummer to play better and he did it. And he really nurtured it, but by the next record, it just wasn’t happening.

So, you know, then Karl died. Karl was just my anchor, he was an emotional anchor for me. Not necessarily somebody that had a lot to do with creating the music, but somebody who was a moral barometer of the band, that was always in a good mood, unflappable. He just was very, very positive and very much somebody that didn’t get fazed by adversity, such an asset to the organization in that sort of way. Now I’ve got a gentleman by the name of Winston Roy. And Winston is like Sterling, or Steve Jordan, in the way that he’s a world class great bass player, which is pretty far away from the Sid Vicious rule of playing bass. He loves all kinds of music, but he’s just a phenomenal musician and he’s a great singer. And Justin Sharbono is just ridiculous, I mean, he’s so fresh in a way that he’s… I don’t know how much younger he is than me, but [laughter] young enough that he didn’t crawl out from the same rock. So he’s got this whole angle, where he was a huge fan of the band and he just couldn’t wait to get his hands on the material and do his thing. And you know, it’s just so unbelievable how much sort of fun it is to be in a band again because it’s kind of reborn, you know.

Yeah, definitely. I watched a couple of videos of you guys from this tour this past summer, and everyone just seems to be on fire. It didn’t seem like a couple of guys in the band had been there only a year.

Yeah, they’re getting more jaded. [laughter]

Grave Dancers Union celebrated its 20th anniversary is this summer, and you played that front to back on tour. How was that experience revisiting something that far down the line?

Well, I was initially against it. I was like I already toured that record, I don’t want to get nostalgic. That’s the worst thing ever. You can’t get sentimental and nostalgic in rock music. It’s a bad way to be. And so, I kind of got voted down. [laughter] And they really wanted to do it and I felt, well that’s kind of cool that they’re excited about it, so I’ll give it a try. And it ended up being really an interesting experience for me, you know. You just don’t play a record from beginning to end, and I didn’t know how that was going to feel. And we spent, oh my god, I don’t know how many months recording that record and trying to get it right. And once we did, here I have a situation where some of it sounds better than it’s ever sounded. And you know, it was-, there was moments where, you know, my memories of what was happening when I was writing that record were kind of just weird - I was feeling my “Grave Dancers Union self” [laughter] in a way that was not happy and not sad and not disturbing, but very emotional, I guess. And you know, it turned out to be a really interesting experience and I really didn’t see that coming, so it was fun. And it was fun to tour with the Wailers – I mean, it’s kinda weird the Wailers without Bob Marley, but they were just great.

That was a strange little bill, the way that was built with four bands playing albums back-to-back. I could see that being kind of an odd concert dynamic.

The Wailers cheated too, cause they played Legend, a greatest hits record.

[laughter] Oh, okay. So what inspires your writing these days? Obviously, you know, this is almost 30 years after starting out.

I guess the same thing it’s always inspired it. I think I have a tendency to, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, you know, and that’s where I try to keep it. I think if I approached it like there was some sort of a formula to it, it would really be terrible. If I even had an iota that I think I know what I’m doing, I think it would completely detract from the process of just trying to be open to whatever pops up in my head. I live in New Orleans. I’ve been there for 14 years and to me it’s the music mecca of the world. So, living in that environment has definitely been different than growing up in Minneapolis. I mean, it’s just a whole shift in paradigm as far as what the music is like that you’re around. And it’s a damn good one.

I did find myself going I’m sick and tired of singer-songwriters bitching and moaning about everything. I want to move to New Orleans, listen to instrumental music…I love the Meters, and I love hearing people express themselves through horns. If you ain’t Bob Dylan, I’m tired of what your words are about. And I guess that is sort of probably been the biggest musical influence on me in a way - not that I try to emulate the music of New Orleans or co-opt it or something cause it’s just not the way it is. [laughter] So, I guess I try to learn from it and one of the things that I learned was that I was a punk rock kid who expressed a lot of anger, and a lot of angst, and nihilism, and all that kind of stuff. And you know, there I was in New Orleans watching these amazing musicians and they were all smiling while they were playing. And it was joyful noise. I got into the gospel music down there, and you know, it just sort of made me think about my life, and how different it can be for different people, and how music is there for all of us, I guess.

Sure. I would think the spirit of New Orleans itself, and that “joyful noise” kind of gives you the permission to free up and explore a little bit more sonically or even to write about different things than you would coming out of Minneapolis.

Yeah, I mean, there’s very little “I spent six months in a basement during a freezing winter” kind of music in New Orleans. [laughter]

Yeah, I can imagine! [laughter] But did you think 30 years on you’d still be able to do it as a full-time musician? I mean, it’s kind of got to be kind of humbling to be able to pursue your dream that way.

Yeah, I tell you, it is. It’s extremely humbling. I don’t know how else to say it, but it makes me go, you know what I’m glad I didn’t kill myself, and I’m glad I didn’t break up the band, and I’m glad that these people still come out, and I’m glad I can still do it. And you know, and it’s very humbling and that makes it that much more special, you know?

So, do you have plans ever to do another solo album? Or is Soul Asylum where you’re hanging your hat these days?

Not really, I mean it was of course a great experience, and of course I learned a ton, and of course it’s affected the way that I approach making records. But in a strange way, I wanted to know what it would be like to make a record if I could hand pick the musicians. And now that is sort of what Soul Asylum is, if that makes any sense. I couldn’t find a better group than these guys, you know.

Delayed Reaction is probably one of your strongest records. I was floored when I listened to it, because I’d kind of fallen off the wagon a little bit with the band for a few years. To be able to have the people you want playing the music that you want at the level that they can, has got to be inspiring.

Well, it makes the whole process so much more effortless. And it makes the studio fun instead of arduous. And I mean the funniest thing about these guys, I don’t know why I tell this story, but we’ll all be in a van for an extended period of time and everything that comes on the radio, they’ll just deconstruct it. Even if it’s a Journey song, they’ll be sitting there going “oh yeah this is Aynsley Dunbar on the drums and they’re getting really interesting F sharp minor there, and blah, blah, blah” [laughter] They know so much about music it’s hilarious and they grew up on the same stuff, you know. Michael Bland grew up listening to the same classic rock station in Minneapolis that I did, so, that part of it is comical cause you know, it’s not rocket surgery [laughter]

Part of what being someone who loves music is, is you pick apart all that crap and the minutia and this drum set, this producer, so I get that. [laughter] So what’s next for you and the band? I know you’re out on tour right now with Fountains of Wayne and Evan Dando. What’s up after that?

Well, we end the tour in Minneapolis and I’m trying to get Winston to stick around in Minneapolis, as much as I want to get back to New Orleans, because we record in Minneapolis. So, we’re working on a new record and it’s being made in a very modern way. And I just produced a record that was made in a very modern way and the record that I produced was pretty much a full-time job. Whenever I wasn’t on the road, I was doing that. I’ve got ProTools skills so, I really had an interesting musical experiment with getting all these just awesome second line rhythms and poly-rhythms and syncopations going with the computer and being able to manipulate them just a little bit so that it’s just really tight, you know.

We got at least a dozen songs tracked, and we’re sort of working on them when we’re not on the road. And we’re trying to do silly things like send each other’s files through the Inter-web and all that ridiculousness. But you know, it’s most fun when we’re all together in a room.  Me, Michael, and John Fields have a great methodology - John can play bass and produce and engineer and we’re all producers so between the three of us we can track my songs just incredibly efficiently. We’re kind of trying to stop doing that so we can get Justin and Winston in from the get go. But, Michael’s talking to John on the phone last night and I said tell that motherfucker to book his ticket down to New Orleans cause I’m the hottest producer down there and he’s got to come down there and prove himself. [laughter] And he gave me a hard time, he said you know, hottest producer in the seventh ward, and I was like yeah, well, but you know. So he’s got to come down to New Orleans for the time. And I built a little studio in my backyard where I made the record I’m producing. Hopefully we can get a record out that has a place to put it. [laughter] I mean we made vinyl on Delayed Reaction and they’re so goddamn cool but man I had to beg for it, you know. [laughter]

Are you guys still with 429 Records or are you going to shop this?

We’re gonna shop it.

Okay. How was the experience of releasing the EP digitally? Was that an economic decision, or was it more a matter of you shoot stuff out over the Inter-webs and it’s just there for people to find?

Well, you know, it’s weird because when I think about it, it wasn’t even like a conscious effort. It was walking into the studio, and Michael and John sort of jokingly going, “so what do you feel like doing?” At one point I was in Minneapolis and it was Christmas time and my family was driving me crazy and I jumped out of that situation and jumped into the studio and they were like what do you want to do? And I was like, “TV Eye”, I just felt like doing an Iggy Pop song. And I just screamed this scream that [laughter] I think scared the hell out of John and Michael. But, it was just little things like that, like “Oh, I feel like playing a Dead Kennedys’ song today”. And then Mike would go, “I would love that.” Like really? And he’s like, “Yeah, I got a Mohawk”. [laughter]

So, it was just really supposed to fun and funny and spontaneous. We’ve always approached covers but we sort of used to sort of make fun of the covers that we were playing, you know. We’d joke our way through Chevy Van or Rhinestone Cowboy or whatever it was. So, this was a little different than that as far as we hit on more music that is relevant to me. It just kind of fell together and I certainly never had any intention that we were going to put it out, but I guess that’s what the Internet is, you know, trying to understand why. I try to understand, is it a bad thing that kids don’t really get the idea of what an LP is anymore? I don’t know.

Yeah, I have pretty strong feelings about that. That’s one of those things that I think is lost. But you’re right, does it really matter if they’re going by the design of an album and they’re following that journey or they’re making their own because they shuffle the ten songs they want so they can add them to their playlist?

Yeah. It’s just a silly way to see what the Internet does and see what people react to when they react to Joy Division. And we put out a song on the internet a few years back, it was Let’s All Kill Each Other, and you know the thing that was interesting about that is we went played in Peru and everyone was “let’s all go kill each other!!!”, and it was like holy shit, that was weird. You know?

[laughter] They knew it! The Internet allowed them to experience that in a way that trying to find a piece of vinyl or the CD in a Peruvian…I’m not even sure what kind of store would carry that!

We could talk about analog vs. digital for ten hours too, I’m sure.

[laughter] I’m sure. Well, Dave, thanks so much man. I appreciate you taking time out to speak with me. And I’m really looking forward to seeing you guys in Buffalo on the 14th.

Right on, my man. Alright. Well, I’ll see you there.

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