Interview: David Pirner of Soul Asylum
By MrAnathema

On Tuesday, 7/15/14, I had the pleasure of sitting down to interview David Pirner of Soul Asylum before the Tempe, AZ stop of the Summerland Tour. Pirner and I sat down for 20 minutes to talk music, performing, and changes to the scene that he has seen in his 30 years as a professional musician.

Pirner of Soul Asylum playing at Marquee Theater in Tempe, Az on 7/15/14.

Pirner of Soul Asylum playing at Marquee Theater in Tempe, Az on 7/15/14.

Joe Abbruscato: David, you have been play playing now for a solid 30 years. How has the writing process changed for you from when you started until now?

David Pirner: Well, I think when I first started writing tunes, I was writing very specifically for a rock band even before I had a rock band. I mean I guess before I even started writing tunes I was playing the trumpet so I tried to, like, write music for the horn, and that is something that I rarely even recall. But then as I think the band sort of learned how to play together, the material was expanding a bit, we were learning how to play with more finesse, or whatever you want to call it, with less amateurism or something like that. So I think that as the band grew up, the song writing grew up with it. At one point or another I just kind of decided to try the acoustic guitar, and that was really a belated move. I mean, I was all about loud rock and roll forever and ever and I started going “wait a minute, I’m listening to a lot of Woodie Guthrie and Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan and things like that, maybe I should try one of these big hollow ones with a hole in the middle that doesn’t plug in.” And I think that really made a big difference just as far as the song needing to exist without a band, and that was a bit of a change of paradigm just as far as I brought in a bunch of songs and played them on the acoustic guitar and they joined in. That was different from how we had been doing it, which was I’d bring in a riff or I’d bring in two parts of a song and we’d sort of play them over and over again and try to decide, you know, how long to play each part over the course of a few practices. I mean, somehow or another, I figured out there are certain things a song needs, mostly just a beginning, and a middle, and an end for lack of a better expression.

JA: A lot of music from the 90’s had strong political and social commentary, and many of your songs did as well. I’ve noticed that seems to be more prevalent back then than it is today. Can you talk about the the place music has in today’s society in making such commentary, or has that commentary been been shifted away from music into other mediums?

David Pirner of Soul Asylum performing at Marquee Theater in Tempe, Az on 7/15/14.

David Pirner of Soul Asylum performing at Marquee Theater in Tempe, Az on 7/15/14.

DP: God, that’s a pretty good question. For me it’s a really important aspect. What I’m trying to do is bring, you know, some social consciousness into it I guess. I don’t really like the overt rallying of having somebody just yell at you; I got a lot of that coming up. And it’s…I thought it was really, really important. I thought that every band that was trying to get out there with their message was not only confronting the things that pissed them off, they were expressing themselves in a way that was a little more intuitive and creative then just a song about dancing or a song about girls, or whatever. So that is a really big part of what I try to do, and I think that follows in the tradition, if you will, of people like Woodie Guthrie and Bob Dylan, and I try to keep it out there as much as possible. I think that when it becomes too preachy, it kind of doesn’t sing as well when your just yelling about shit you hate. If you think your way through it a little bit, you might be able to express something through a song that someone might not have thought of or realized, or knew that it was something that I cared about.

JA: Those are the songs I feel have the most resonance, those songs that were trying to explain something or bring light to a new thought towards a social wrong doing, more so than, as you said, songs about dancing or girls. Why do you think they have stood the test of time; as much as they were important in the 90’s they still are today.

DP: Talking about my tunes, or tunes in general?

JA: Either yours or in general.

DP:It’s interesting to think that it was more intense at the height of punk rock, and I think that you also have to appreciate that when hip hop came along it was also full of a lot of social commentary and things that had yet to be expressed. It was real. It was a real “voice of the people” kind of situation. It’s weird, the radio is never going to like that sort of thing. I guess when it gets into “oh, now we’re all going to be Nazi skinheads,” then that seems fairly misguided to me too!

DP:It’s freedom of speech. I try to stay on top of it as much as I can and I try to understand that there are people out there. It does seem like those are probably the bands that will struggle more, if they are trying to come across with a message or whatever the case may be, and not just sort of go for the cheap shot, sweet shot, whatever it is. I imagine that it is probably more difficult than ever to be coming up as a political punk band right now. I just think that there is…I don’t know, there are more things to consider than what a bunch of angry white kids are bitching about. You have to be good at it, or else it just sounds ridiculous. The other thing is, with the “Nazi skinhead thing,” you get these bands there are misinformed basically. (laughter) It goes both ways, you know.

JA: Agreed! Speaking of other bands, do you feel that there are any bands or artists that you listen to, that have come up in the last couple of years, who will enjoy the staying power that your own music has had over the last 20-30 years?

David Pirner of Soul Asylum and Alex Alexakis of Everclear performing together at Marquee Theater in Tempe, Az on 7/15/14

David Pirner of Soul Asylum and Alex Alexakis of Everclear performing together at Marquee Theater in Tempe, Az on 7/15/14

DP: Well, I am sure that there are. The one that always comes to my mind is this one band Cage The Elephant. They just seem really, like, real to me. I think that is a pretty good sign that they can stick around because there is no smoke and mirrors. It’s not a bunch of tracks, not a bunch of trendy stuff, and that is always good to see. They seem like they’re going places, and they are progressing, and they’re doing all this kind of exciting stuff. I mean, I can’t think of…I saw this band called Need to Breathe, and I thought they sort of had that going on where I just felt like “this is real, they’re brothers” and it seemed like one of those things where they came from folk music or Appalachian music and they were turning it into more of a rock thing, yet still firmly set in their roots. I don’t know where they came from, but they seem to know what they’re doing!

JA: Has there been any noticeable shift in your audience over the years, or do you feel the same kinds of people, if not the same exact people? Is there any major difference between those listening to you when you started and those who are just coming to you now?

DP: I think it’s broader than ever because you have people who are curious from the internet and those are curious from all of these other walks of life. It’s not so much an “all black leather” crowd anymore. And when your playing outside in all black leather, it’s kind of just…hot. So I’ve always been a fan of diversity in the fans, I don’t know if I’m saying that quite right, but I like looking out there and seeing all different kinds of people, all different ages. What’s interesting to me is playing some of these outdoor things that maybe some bands would think are the coolest things in the world and they’re not, ya know. I hate playing during the day, I just can’t stand it. But sometimes you’ll see a fan from back in the day bring his kids to the show and there’s something cool about that to me. I like seeing 6 and 7 year old’s out in the audience; I like the idea that maybe this might be their first rock concert, and that feels good to me that it is being passed down somehow.

JA: It’s a really cool thing to be able to cross generations, and to resonate with 20, 30, and 40 year old’s as well as the 7 and 8 year old’s. Are there any songs that you personally love, or which are really personal to you, that never actually make it into a live set at the shows?

DP: That never make it into a live set? Um, not really. I mean at some point or another, everything that ends up on a record usually gets played live for a certain amount of time. Michael [Bland] is the person who makes the set list, and I keep going “hey, maybe we should bring this one back” or “hey, maybe we should try that one.” But there is only so much time in a set and there is 30-some years of material. You know, there is a song called “Cruel Intentions” on the last record [2012’s Delayed Reaction] that I used to play live, then we didn’t record it, and then we pulled it out again and finally recorded it right because we couldn’t just seem to get it right. That is real fun for me to play live, but it is very out of character. You have to have a loving audience or something, or you have to have a set that is long enough where you can really throw a shit storm of different stuff at people and keep them on their toes.

David Pirner of Soul Asylum performing at Marquee Theater in Tempe, Az on 7/15/14

David Pirner of Soul Asylum performing at Marquee Theater in Tempe, Az on 7/15/14

JA: Not many bands have put out EP’s of covers of their personal favorite songs, as you are doing with the No Fun Intended EP’s. What was the impetus for the project, and is there more like that coming soon, or are there other projects you have in mind?

DP: Well, it really was Michael Bland’s idea, and he called the manager and said “I want to do this,” and he said “Great! But now the manager is no longer with us, so the project is somewhat stalled. But we recorded a dozen songs, and the idea was to put out 4 sets of 3 songs, or 3 sets of 4 songs. I think we’ll probably still do it. They’ve been finished for some time, and it’s a really funny bunch of material; I mean it’s just all over the place. You know, hearing Michael Bland playing [Dead Kennedys] “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” was just…it was great! He wanted to destroy it, and I basically tried to think of the craziest song I could think of that he would go “Whaaaat?!.” It was really fun, it was really fun sort of just exploring all of these weird angles where Soul Asylum music kinda comes from in a strange sort of way, and sort of getting each other up to date. I didn’t know he liked [Sham 69’s] Borstal Breakout, but he wanted to cover that, and I was like “yeah, that was fun.” I can’t even remember where it’s at. There was an MC5 song, there was a Joy Division song. Some of it is material and songs that I’ve always loved, some of it’s Suicide Commandos. Their guitarist player showed me my first Ramones chords. So it was a reckoning thing and challenge for me and Michael to come up with things from our past and compare them and see what we could do with them.

JA: And one final question: Are their any shows that come to mind where the bottom completely fell out or just continually one thing after another went wrong?

DP: Yeaaaaaaaah we don’t talk about that show (laughter) But… there is a moratorium on talking about that show. It was just a disaster for me. Everything was wrong. All my guitars were out of tune all the time, and everything was falling apart around me. Basically the band was just pissed off at me because I couldn’t get it together. So that is one we’re trying to forget about. You know, Keith Richards said “If I’m jumping up and down it’s either because something’s going really right or something’s going really wrong.” I certainly don’t…I certainly try to avoid disaster as much as I possibly can, and it does seem somewhat inevitable. I mean, the first show of this tour I experienced something called “hot ground” for the first time. We were in the middle of a field in Florida, and it was pouring down rain because it’s hurrican season, or it was. They build these metal girder stages in the middle of the field, and there was so much water on the ground that the electricity was flowing through the entire field! I was stepping off the bus and my tour manager pushes me back in: “Hot ground! Hot ground! Hot Ground!” I mean, it was a little frightening, having a guy getting electrocuted on stage…I’ve been shocked before…man…that’s no fun!

JA: I can’t imagine it would be! David, thank you so much for your time, it’s been an absolute pleasure and I will see you later on tonight at your performance.

Images ©2014 Joseph Abbruscato/MrAnathema


Coming up, a full gallery of images from this concert!

MrAnathema (23 Posts)

Joe Abbruscato/MrAnathema is a freelance photographer specializing in concerts, live events, and alternative modeling. He is based out of Tempe, Arizona.