Interview: Dave Pirner (A Soul Asylum 2012 NYE Rock N' Roll Ball Concert Preview)

Interview: Dave Pirner (A Soul Asylum 2012 NYE Rock N' Roll Ball Concert Preview)

Heading to the Chicagoland area as part of the sixteenth annual New Year's Eve Rock N' Roll Ball at the InterContinental Chicago O'Hare Hotel, I spoke with Soul Asylum frontman Dave Pirner last week about the band's new album Delayed Reaction and the twentieth anniversary of the Grave Dancer's Union album...

Over the course of the past twenty-five or so years, Soul Asylum has played just about every significant venue in the Chicagoland area from the then World Music Theatre in Tinley Park to the Double Door in Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood (and every festival in between).  So to say that Dave Pirner is familiar with "the Windy City" would be an understatement.  "I mean it’s a bit of a sister city as far as the Midwest and rock n’ roll and all that sort of stuff go" says the Minneapolis native.  "I guess it’s different than New York and different than L.A. because it’s a big city that’s in the Midwest.  I do think it’s a Midwestern phenomena and a rock n’ roll thing that’s… It’s just a little bit more within our element I guess."

The days of becoming established as a touring act in the late eighties and early nineties are clearly ones that Pirner remembers well.  And early on, Chicago was an important part of that.  "[I remember] we were trying to play a gig opening for The Replacements at the Metro.  It was probably twenty years ago.  Our van broke down and we couldn’t make the gig on time and we made it just in time for like The Replacements’ last song.  But they let us play their encore and people loved us!  We were sort of still trying to establish ourselves at the time and it just seemed like a really funny, really generous move on the The Replacements' part because we missed our gig but they let us play their encore.  So it’s always stuck out for me as a memory" recalls Pirner.

2012 has been an interesting year for Dave Pirner as a member of Soul Asylum.  In July, the band released its tenth studio album Delayed Reaction.  And May marked the twentieth anniversary of the band's breakthrough album Grave Dancer's Union.  But in November, co-founding member Dan Murphy opted to leave the band.  Bassist, Tommy Stinson moved on as well begging the question:  Was it common knowledge during the recording of the new album that two band members would be heading in different directions?  "No on Dan and yes on Tommy (Because Tommy has always had this 'When Axl calls, Tommy goes' sort of situation which we had always known" answers Pirner.

So Murphy, frustrated with the state of the music industry circa 2012, moves on and Stinson (the former Replacement was by Murphy's own admission instrumental in the band's moving forward following the death of bassist and founding member Karl Mueller to cancer in 2005) continues on as bassist of Guns N' Roses (incredibly, Stinson is now the longest tenured member of Guns N' Roses not named Axl). 

And onward moves Soul Asylum as well with Murphy's cousin Justin Sharbono taking over on guitar while Winston Roye steps in on bass (former Prince/New Power Generation drummer Michael Bland continues in the role he has held since 2004). 

 Soul Asylum Delayed Reaction Album Cover Art 2012

Despite so many ups and downs over the course of nearly thirty years of Soul Asylum, one thing that has remained constant about the band is the strenth of songwriting with Dave Pirner's lyrics defying the odds, remaining upbeat and positive throughout despite the band's rise to prominence during the heyday of grunge.  "I think that more than anything, it’s maybe more about perseverance and passion and what you’re left with because you have to have a certain amount of hope and faith in what you’re doing because in a rock band it’s just pointless if you don’t enjoy it and you don’t bring it, so to speak" says Pirner.

Having come of age during an era of Minneapolis punk rock that spawned influential artists like Hüsker Dü and the aforementioned Replacements, Soul Asylum bucked that trend sporting a pop sensibility throughout that enabled them to endure while many of their peers burned up like a supernova. 

As he's matured as a songwriter, it's clear that there's more to Pirner's lyrics than the stereotypical "sex, drugs and rock n' roll" that permeates many a punk rock tune.  "Part of the reason why I moved to New Orleans fourteen years ago was because I thought things like Gospel music and things down here… There’s musicians that were always sort of playing for their lives.  And it was always more of a 'My Dad’s Dad’s Dad was a musician and this is what we do.  And we do it to survive but it makes us happy.'  And there’s a lot of smiling going on.  And that was just a different thing to me than 'This is punk rock and I hate everything.'  And somewhere in there is the movement that [Soul Asylum] came out of.  And it was based on a lot of negativity" Pirner explains.

And that's one of the elements of Soul Asylum's music that continues to strike me:  the ability to remain positive throughout and to make the most of things.  In 2006, following the death of Mueller, the band released an album entitled The Silver Lining (the last to feature his playing) with song titles like "Stand Up and Be Strong."  "My goal is to explore other parts of human emotion.  It’s probably really important that I have a positive outlook on it or it would be really dark!  And to me, there’s light at the end of the tunnel, although life can be a very dark experience at times!  And I think that’s where it gets interesting and where it gets slippery... It’s really just getting the will to carry on and music can empower that in a way that nothing else can." 

Released in July, Delayed Reaction features more of Pirner's unique songwriting:  Songs with an upbeat pace that tell a story.  On the new album, "Take Manhattan" continues in the narrative style set forth previously by songs like "String of Pearls."  "'Take Manhattan,' I was just like 'Wow!  It’s one of those story songs!'  I always seem to be challenging how much content I can fit into a song and still have it not just be words tumbling over themselves where it doesn’t have any flow.  I’m into the flow.  I like lyrics that sing.  And lyrics that sing AND make sense and tell a story?  It’s a stretch but it’s really satisfying to me when I pull it off.  I get a lot of satisfaction out of that accomplishment because it’s really difficult sometimes to try to tie it all together with a beginning and a middle and an end and I don’t really see it happening all that much... But man, I struggle with it constantly" the songwriter expounds.

Also prevalent on this album is a faster pace.  While a song like "Cruel Intentions" is slowed down with an almost noir like feel, the majority of the album (take the first single "Gravity" or "Let's All Kill Each Other" for example) is faster and louder, a sound that will no doubt seem familiar to longtime fans as Soul Asylum makes the transition back to an independent label for the first time in over twenty-five years.  "Michael [Bland] sort of pushed me in the direction of faster, more aggressive material and on this particular record there’s fast aggressive songs with lots of words" says Pirner.

 Soul Asylum Grave Dancer's Union Album Cover Art 1992

Perseverance is a theme we touched on frequently and Pirner has carried on with that notion in mind, touring this new Soul Asylum lineup in support of not only Delayed Reaction but also the twentieth anniversary of Grave Dancer's Union.  In recognition of the milestone, the band performed the album in its entirety earlier this week in Minneapolis.  "I was backstage not that long ago and Michael said 'It’s the twentieth anniversary of Grave Dancer's Union.  You wanna do anything about it?'  I just went 'Oh my God!  Have twenty years really passed?!'  I had no idea it was the twenty year anniversary" says Pirner.

Afterall, it doesn't seem like that long ago when the band's most well-known song "Runaway Train" was ubiquitous on both radio and MTV, ultimately propelling the 1992 release to a whopping seventy-six weeks on the Billboard albums chart and triple platinum status.  "The weirdest thing to me is that nobody has ever said 'I can’t listen to that song ‘Runaway Train,' it’s too depressing!'  Which… (laughs) is kind of how it works or why it works!  Or 'What is that song about?'  It just works and it’s just about something that is hard to put words on but it’s why the human condition needs poetry."

From that album, "Without a Trace" remains a fan favorite and a staple in the band's live set as well.  "I think that it was a fleeting thing at a time when I was trying to embrace where to be, what to do with my life and what was going to be in its wake I guess in a way.  Because I just kept trying to… keep moving I guess.  The talking suitcase thing just didn’t seem to ever stop.  I was always… I don’t know, sort of just leaving.  And I find that it’s still just such a big part of me.  Because I still feel like I’m getting off an elevator.  You know when you get off an elevator and your body still feels like it’s moving?  I think it’s a lot about travel and a lot about life being a journey"  explains Pirner.  "For a while, at the end of it, I would look up at the ceiling or the sky and I would think about  whoever it is and it was always someone who… well, had left without a trace.  Often, just sort of people that I had met on the road who had passed, who’d died.  Now every time we play it, I think about Karl Mueller.  He has taken the place of anyone else in that song, in that particular moment in that song.  Even if you can’t be present, your presence can be felt somehow I guess." 

And so it is that Soul Asylum arrives in Rosemont this Monday to ring in 2013 as the headlining act in one of the area's longest running New Year's Eve celebrations:  The sixteenth annual "Rock N' Roll Ball" at the InterContinental O'Hare. 

And breaking in the new lineup on the road over the past few months, Pirner sounds not only reinvigorated but also excited for what the future of Soul Asylum holds.   "[Its] been sort of exciting for me.  Because the guys will pull out some song from my past writing catalog that I had completely forgotten about and go 'I’ve always loved that song.  How come we don’t play that one?'  I’m just like '1, 2, 3, 4!  Let’s do it!'  I’m sure, depending on what sounds really good, a few things that we haven’t had in the setlist for years will be in there [on New Year's]" Pirner says. 

Of his new band, Pirner continues, "It’s really, really in a good spot right now and I really don’t want to screw this up (laughs) because I feel really, really good about it.  And I don’t feel like it’s anything other than better than ever."

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The 16th Annual Rock N' Roll Ball

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The InterContinental O'Hare Chicago Hotel

5300 N. River Rd.

Rosemont, IL 60018

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3 Live Music Stages in 3 Different Rooms Featuring...

SOUL ASYLUM

MILES NIELSEN & THE RUSTED HEARTS

HAIRBANGER'S BALL

YOUR VILLAIN MY HERO

CHICAGO'S TOP DJ'S

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Doors open at 8PM

21+

Click HERE to purhcase tickets

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 Soul Asylum NYE 2012 Rosemont Chicago - NYE Rock N Roll Ball Event Poster

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    Jim Ryan has written about music in print and online for a variety of Chicagoland publications for over fifteen years. In addition to duties filling in as Traffic Anchor on CLTV or in the helicopter on NBC 5, you can also catch him Sunday nights at 6PM central as host of "The Rock N' Roll Radio Program" on AM 1420 WIMS and AM 1060 WHFB (streaming at wimsradio.com and via the TuneIn Radio app for the smart phone or tablet). Jim has also worked locally for WXRT-FM, lives within walking distance of the Metro and is an avid White Sox and Blackhawks fan whose first live concert experience came at Comiskey Park in 1984 during the Jacksons' "Victory" tour.

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