Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum – What Has Become of The Music Biz? A Candid Conversation

If you were aware of your surroundings in 1992, then you were familiar with Soul Asylum’s Grave Dancers Union; an eclectic mix of video and radio hits which put the band on the map more than midway through their career.

The album debuted on Columbia Records and boasted their most well-known songs, “Black Gold” and “Runaway Train,” the latter of which became a blockbuster video and a bit of a curse for the band, and then, later on, an inside joke until finally something that the band could look upon fondly.

The band recently released the first of a three EP series of awesome covers entitled No Fun Intended and completed a tour revisiting their GDU days. Currently, they’re out on the road again and with a twenty year history under their belt, there is no telling what gems they might bust out on any given night.

Founding member and lead throat/songwriter, Dave Pirner, was good enough to put in a long pre-dinner chat with me last week regarding the retrospective of his career, Miley Cyrus, Deadpool, intestinal music, selling out, witchcraft, you name it, really. We covered all of the gamuts, even ones that you didn’t know needed covering. You’re welcome.


Okay, the new EP, “No Fun Intended” is rather ironically named, because it’s very fun! I love the Joy Division cover – its spot on. Having experimented with live covers before, and having rather sizable gaps actually in between your recordings these days, can you tell me a bit about how the idea came together, and if you’ll be considering some originals in the future?

Me and the drummer (Michael Bland) had I guess what you’d call a “challenge:” he wanted me to look back into the music that I listened to when I was growing up. He kind of has a tendency of making things better.

He does? That’s sweet.

I think we had fun. It was just a thing to do while we were messing around in the studio. We’re trying to do a series of three, so there will be a couple more. And yeah, we’re working on original material, which should come out whenever these things are done coming out. It’s an experiment, in a way, and at the same time, it’s kind of a toss-off, in the way that the band has always thrown covers into the sets for the hell of it (laughs) It’s “Oh, this is a song that we haven’t played yet that we kinda like.”

Which song did you really enjoy recording the most – which song meant the most to you so far?

Well, there’s a track by The Suicide Commandos on the first set, and the guy in that band (Chris Osgood) showed me how to play my first Ramones song, and there’s stories that sort of go on like that. He was a fan of ZZ Top, and the song that we covered by ZZ Top is the song that seems really out of the set – it’s kind of a lot of punk rock.

Yeah, sure, because that’s where you have your roots, right?

Mm-hm. So, that’s what made me go “Oh, what do all of these things have in common?” (Curt Kirkwood) from The Meat Puppets played on the ZZ Top song, and I’d known that they were fans, and they’re old friends. I don’t know, there’s something kooky about moving to New Orleans, because I’ve started to see the cycle in music, and how it’s all reborn – how it always goes in a circle.

So the witchery over there made you do a “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” scenario with music?

I think the answer is yes. Sort of the more you stare at it, the simpler it becomes.

Oh, like a Rorschach!

Yeah! The more that you look at the intestines of something, the more you start to understand it.

I like the idea of music being intestinal, that’s great.

I like the Rorschach thing.

Yeah, you know, Rorschach, “Watchmen” – we can talk about that in a second, because I fucking love “Watchmen.” The last tour, which I am so bummed that I missed, you guys played Grave Dancers Union  from start to finish. How was that experience – was it nostalgic, awesome, strange?

Strange, yes, awesome, kind of. It was better than I expected it to be, and I guess it wasn’t the surprises that you’d hope for. I’m not really a sentimental guy. At times, I felt like I was in a time warp.  But then there were other moments when I thought “Wow, I’ve never really played this record from beginning to end.” I’d never really thought about it that much. I’d never really had the perspective of seeing it from a distance. My first reaction was “Well fuck that, why would I want to do that again? I already toured that record.”

Right, and it was hell.

It sounds much better now – it’s better interpreted. It’s just a curious place to go; I hadn’t expected it to make me feel the way it made me feel.

Which is?

Curious, like “What the fuck? Wow, how did I get from here to there?”

It’s trippy, huh?

Yeah, it’s crazy.

So I’m assuming that this upcoming tour will incorporate other cuts as well? You’ve got ten albums to choose from.

Yeah, we’re starting to get back into everything else. There was a point when it was too easy to go out and play the record and say “Well, that’s it.”

Did you feel like you were phoning it in?

No, I never did, because I never really get that used to anything – I might still screw it up, you know?

That’s true.

I wasn’t phoning it in, I was rediscovering it -I didn’t need to completely commit it to memory. I’m not up to more and more terabytes in my brain for now (both laugh.) If I learn a new song, I have to toss another one or something. I’m not really sure how it works; it’s muscle memory. I guess that’s the expression that I know that I didn’t know before.


Did you forget some of the lyrics? Did the crowd help you?

Well, there were a couple of songs I don’t think we ever played live on that record – I had a lyric sheet or whatever.

Those are always a novelty for fans, too, so there’s that. You lost a band member (Karl Mueller) to an illness a few years ago, and you’ve been proactively involved in benefits for other bands who are struggling with illness as well. Does the support system help with the grief? Does it help you to cope?

It does, because you get more adjusted to the shock, I think. You realize that you’re dealing with people who are in shock, and they may find some comfort in the fact that you made it through that somehow. I don’t know…I was just thinking about this, and I’m trying to remember what the hell I was thinking, but it won’t come!

Don’t you hate it when you come up with a really brilliant answer to something, and then when you’re supposed to answer, you no longer have it?

It was something like: you play in these awareness situations, and it’s kind of a win-win as far as trying to be the entertainment at a cause that you can’t not support.


You feel like you’re doing something because you actually care, not just to dance around.


It is hard to be excited. I guess it all depends on whether you’re talking about, like: gay marriage or cancer.


Well, yeah – that’s two very different types of benefits. One’s supposed to be celebratory and one’s somber. Although, that being said, I remember being young and knowing a young girl who had cancer, and all she wanted was celebration, because she was so tired of the misery. So, with the exception of Bland now, you’re working with kind of a brand new lineup – they’re only there a year. Is everyone gelling alright? Does going out on tour right away make the adjustment easier or more difficult?

Going out on tour makes it exist, you know? It’s a blast!

What’s not fun about that?

To be honest with you, I just feel so lucky to be having these dudes in my band; they’re great. They’re hilarious and they’re astonishing players, and that makes my life worth living in a way. I just feel like, wow, I’ve gotten to the point where I feel like I can walk offstage and they wouldn’t need me, which is how you want to feel about your band.

There was a moment there when I was so into gospel music, I wanted to be that guy that was in front of the gospel group, just going “Louder! Quieter!” directing and listening and singing when I feel like it, being the main listener.

Why do you think it’s almost impossible to keep lineups intact? Do people just burn out, or on the industry,or  do they burn out on one another? Is it a directional shift issue?

They burn out on the life, because it’s a bitch. You have to really love it in a crazy sort of way to put up with the logistics and the details that make it not for everyone.

I know you’ve stated that you’re not domestic. I’m just wondering if you think that having that domestic side to you makes it harder to stay on the road? When you feel like you have people waiting for you back home, there’s probably pressure. There’s a pull there that maybe when you don’t have that, you don’t feel. It’s easier to stay on the road because you don’t feel like you’re neglecting anything back home.


This is true. It’s a must to avoid. It makes you not an appealing person to everybody because you don’t want to be tied down to obligations and responsibilities and all that. It’s a double-edged sword, I guess – there are a million clichés for it, I’m sure. I just likeseeing  my kid grow up, and that’s the hardest part, you know? The part that made me not want to be domesticated was still a cliché of the “Cats in the Cradle” experience – it’s bound to happen.

So how did you learn to manage it?

I just really miss him when I’m gone? I appreciate the time that I have to spend with him.

How old is he now?

He’s ten.

That’s the age when they really start to ride you about it too.

Yes Ma’am!

I know it’s tough, and there is a “Cats in the Cradle” thing even when you’re right there, trust me. Mine just went off to college, and he’s all like “Okay, bye now!” and I’m here like (sobs.) It’s unavoidable. For an artist who has struggled mightily to please the fickle major label more than once, do you find the independence now to be freeing or worrisome?

I don’t think it’s really changed all that much, except that there’s just less of everything.

In the digital age, do bands even need majors the way that they used to?

Well, everybody needs money – there’s just a lot less to go around. Records aren’t what they were as a commodity, so to that effect, it’s strange in the way that you don’t really know what the abyss is that you’re jumping into. You sort of go “Well, I’m making this music, and I’m gonna put it out there and see what happens; who listens to it, where I go play it” and this, that and the other thing.

I’m not really sure if it matters to me so much what the vehicle is for the distribution at this point, because I don’t know where it’s going. I just don’t think I’m going to live to see the new business model that is whatever the music business turns out to be.


  (laughing) Yeah, that’s a good guess. Maybe that’s where it’s at.


The past two decades and a half were extremely video-driven, and now that’s gone. As an artist whose life was really altered by video, do you think that this loss is a blow to artists trying to make a name for themselves out there without that vehicle – kind of like how the Kindle has removed the propensity to browse in a bookstore or library and discover new authors?

Holy shit, did you read that question?

Yeah, but I read it well, didn’t I? Didn’t I kind of make it sound like I was talking?

Yes, you did.

See? I’m good at that (laughs.)

Yes, you are. I think it’s always been hard for rock bands to be a part of the pantheon of whatever the music industry is putting their promotional dollar into. It was a bit of a revelation when all of these bands, like The Meat Puppets and Butthole Surfers began getting attention and being on the radio or whatever.

Oh my God, I remember the Butthole Surfers!

Yeah, it was a nice time for rock bands for a minute there.  MTV is no longer really an option, I don’t think. I’m not really sure – they still have the MTV logo.

There’s nothing. There’s MTV, but it’s not really music television anymore, it’s just old movies and reality shows, and the same thing with Fuse. They’re not really showing videos.

I mean, is it the same old thing, just smaller, with a handful of One Directions instead of three bands, like that?

Not even, I haven’t even seen a One Direction video. I haven’t seen any video. The only way you’re going to catch a video on television in America is to turn on VH1 in the middle of the night – maybe you’ll see something from 1987.

Yeah, well you know what? I couldn’t agree with you more. I have seen an awful lot of One Direction merchandise.

 (laughing) You will see the merchandise, that is true.

I have not seen the video or heard their most recent single.

Nope, nothing. Not even Lady Gaga has a video that you can find anywhere. You have to go on YouTube.

I guess; I just think, oh, there’s always going to be somebody like Rihanna that’s gonna sort of Vogue the video time out there because, hey, she is Rihanna and everyone wants to look at her, you know what I mean? I don’t think that that’s ever going to change. I think that there’s going to be less and less videos out there, but there’s always going to be a Bruno Mars – a dude that’s going to be right there.

Well, you’re going to see him at an awards show, or maybe on a live broadcast somewhere, but you’re not going to really see a video. Videos were an art form – they were a way to present a song in an intellectual manner. Now, you’re just going to see a performance video  – there’s no art to it.

Yeah, I don’t understand how kids get their music heard.


That’s what I’m saying. How are you supposed to get your music out there? There’s no radio, there’s no video television. How do you get out there? You have to go on SoundCloud with a million other people and hope that somebody finds you? How do you promote yourself, I don’t get it?

I don’t know. You hang out in a chatroom, in a virtual hangout?

They don’t have those anymore. Chatroom? That’s over.

It’s crazy. I was reading this article about the bar and the record store that everybody used to hang out in in Minneapolis, and the article named the record store that was right across the street from the bar that the article was talking about the history of. It was about eight times that they just spelled the name of the record store completely wrong, like they had misinterpreted the name of the store.

Which does not help anybody.  By the way, do the Clintons still call you? (Soul Asylum played at Bill’s inauguration in 1993.)

No, I haven’t heard from them recently.

So, are you adapting to the whole “Those guys who did that song about missing kids” scenario better than Jani Lane wound up adapting to the bane of his existence, “Cherry Pie?” Certainly the song is more personal for you than that one was for him – he didn’t even want to write the song.

He didn’t wanna write it?

No, that song was written because the label demanded that they put out a hit.

Are you a fan?

Am I a fan of Warrant? Not particularly, but that’s not the point. It’s just that the song killed him.

I’m glad that my “Danny Boy” – or whatever the fuck it is – that I don’t feel stupid playing it, and that’s nice.

You don’t refuse to play it like Kurt used to refuse to play “Smells Like Teen Spirit?”

I did that for quite some time, and I got tired of explaining why I wasn’t playing it.

(laughing) You made it worse, right, because now they just asked about it?

 It took more than four minutes to explain why I wasn’t playing it, so I could’ve just played it.

Do you think that the pressure to constantly produce “hits” is destructive for artists? Does it ultimately kill bands, or people’s spirits?

I think probably more so than not. That’s a good question; I guess it really depends on the band, you know? It depends on the song and the state of the industry.

 Well, you could write an album that gets panned by your fans and you could wind up like Jawbreaker, or you could wind up like Weezer – it depends upon how willing you are to hang in there and wait it out.

Yeah, you could be the band who wrote “Who Let the Dogs Out?”

Mm-hm, you could be that guy too. You could be Milli Vanilli, that would be bad.

Last night, I found some Ludicrous headphones; they were priced just right. I think I would like to get some Vanilla Ice headphones.

(laughing) What could possibly be going on through those headphones? I guess it would be songs that you already know, but they would be overdubbed?

 You gotta be bold to wear fucking Vanilla Ice headphones.

Word. I don’t know, is that as much of a stigma as it used to be? Maybe he’ll turn into a nostalgic thing now, like Rick Astley did.

Yeah, I think you’re right.

What of the dreaded “sell-out” status dubbed by fans? Is it fair? Are kids possibly failing to understand that a person needs to eat too, and that sometimes a song or an album going big is simply a matter of right place, right time, like Nevermind?

I guess it really depends on what’s happening with the music and the band as far as metaphy. I think that somehow, certain artists make it work. When Jay-Z does it a commercial, it doesn’t make me go “Oh wow, that’s in poor taste.” There’s other things that are completely ridiculous.

Oh, like Miley Cyrus the other day?

You would say that’s part of her selling out?

No, I would not say that’s her selling out, actually. If anything, she would have been selling out before, when she was a Disney princess. When you are doing something that you don’t feel, in my opinion, that is the correct definition of selling out. However, fans don’t really see it that way. Fans see it as making money is what’s selling out. I disagree.

Yeah, it can be pretty confusing in this day of American Idol. We’ve had over a decade of hip-hop artists going “Yeah, it’s all about friggin’ Benjamins.”

Yeah, but you know: Kelly Clarkson writes songs that mean something to her, and Adam Lambert does his own thing, so I’m not even sure that you can say that. I think it’s when you start altering your art in a way that’s maybe less meaningful to you to try and maximize the amount of accolades you’re going to receive from the mainstream. That’s selling out.

Ah, yes! It doesn’t even seem like it’s a concept that’s relevant to pop music at all.

No, because pop is already mainstream.

Whether or not people dig Justin Timberlake doesn’t really matter whether or not he came out of the Disney camp or not. That’s the way it’s always been, I guess.

She’s catching shit because she shot that image in the face and people aren’t accepting it, basically. In my opinion, they’re going a little harder on her than they need to.

Well, what did she do?

I don’t know, they have a problem with the fact that she was twerking on Robin Thicke, they have a problem with the fact that she had black backup dancers. They just don’t like her.

And who are “they,” The Huffington Post?

The Huffington Post is just publishing the general attitude of everyone out there just giving her a hard time.

 Yeah, whatever. I saw a few seconds of it. I don’t think that the VMAs are anything other than what they’ve always been.

Isn’t that where Madonna got in a whole heap of trouble for spreading out on a bed with a cross?

It’s about who can get the most attention. Fucking nowadays, I guess it’s about who can get the most tweets the next day.

That’s right. Nobody cared about the N’Sync reunion, they wanted to talk about Miley Cyrus. So back to Rorschach and “Watchmen,” you’re a fellow comic fan, have you gone to any Cons?

I’ve been to one or two. I’m not much of a Comic Con guy.

How come? They’re fun.

I hit up my local comic book store yesterday. They didn’t have anything that I like in there, but I did buy a bunch of comic books anyway.

Cool. I agree with supporting your local business.

Yeah, he’s great. His name is DC, from More Fun Comics. It’s really a hang, you know? There’s always somebody in there talking about superheroes…

Fighting about superheroes…

That culture is fading faster than ever.


Sentimental about I can’t be, because it makes you seem like a crusty old fart, you know?

Well you are a crusty old fart, and so am I.

But there’s still a Ma and Pa comic book store here that I can go into after work and have a conversation with them which doesn’t involve anything other than getting off my ass.

Yeah. One of my good friends’ husbands actually owns two of them, and we do everything that we can to support, bring people in. They run game nights and they get who they’re going to get, you know?

I’m pretty entrenched in it, I guess is the word.

Yeah, me too. I go to Con every year, it’s very exciting. Did you ever want to go all Claudio Sanchez and write a book of your own – maybe about outer space or something?

I made a few starts, but crapped out so fast, I was like “That’s fucking bullshit, Dave. You don’t have it in you.” It does seem like something I think about all the time. One of the things I love about it is does sort of communicate with two different things, with images and words. It reminds me of music that way.

Some parting words of wisdom? What have you learned, what would you do over, what do you regret, what would you keep the same?

It’s what you just said: you just keep doing it, and that’s what keeps the thing alive. What I love about New Orleans is that it seems to exist completely outside of any other place.

Like in a bubble, yeah. So does New York though. New York is like its own planet.

I can’t wait to get out there and play. That’s what I’m surprised about every day when I wake up. I’m like “I can’t believe I’m still doing this!”



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4 Responses

  1. Oh, Dave Pirner. If only I’d been old enough to rock that scene the first time around. I’d have followed this angel to the ends of the Earth. He’s still beautiful, still has eyes that sear into your soul.

    I love the idea of, truly, doing whatever feels creatively right, today — this moment, even. Even if it’s something you never thought you’d want to do. Art thrives on that kind of dynamic energy, the genuine rhythm of life. Everything you’re convinced is true, today, could feel wrong ten years from now. Or it could’ve been more right than you had any way of knowing it would be, at the time. I love that. Allowing music to be a recording of a life, of human perspectives that are unique and will never be reproduced, again. You can’t mass produce perspective.

  2. Hello! I know this is sort of off-topic however I had
    to ask. Does building a well-established blog
    such as yours take a lot of work? I’m completely new
    to running a blog however I do write in my journal everyday.
    I’d like to start a blog so I will be able to share
    my personal experience and feelings online.
    Please let me know if you have any kind of ideas or tips for new aspiring blog owners.

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