Soul Asylum initially formed in the early '80s when frontman Dave Pirner was still in high school. The group then became part of the Minneapolis local music scene alongside fellow indie bands the Replacements and Hüsker Dü. Having scored a few hits in the '90s, the group has continued to regulary tour and release new music.
In a recent phone interview, Pirner, the band's one constant all these years, spoke about Soul Asylum's lengthy career and the band's return to the road.
Talk about how the pandemic effected your 2020 tour. We played L.A., and it was a good show. There was not a lot of talk about the pandemic. We went to San Diego, and I got a knock on my hotel door, and the tour was cancelled. We had about six shows left, so we had played most of them, but it really left the band feeling incomplete and like we hadn’t finished the job. It was very frustrating. I put out a book too that I was supposed to be out promoting too. It’s a book of my lyrics. It was a lot of looking back, I suppose. As I was compiling it, I thought, “Well, I don’t know if I like that lyric so much, but I was 19.”
What inspired you to do Born Free, a collection of acoustic versions of the Hurry Up and Wait tunes? Well, we just were playing the songs acoustically, and somebody suggested we record that. I guess typically, depending on the song, I’ll run it down with Ryan [Smith], my guitarist, before we bring it to the rest of the band. It kind of illustrates the process, I suppose. We recorded during lockdown. It was doable. The songs were all very new.
Did you find it easy to be creative during the shutdown? I think some musicians have felt that not being out in the world was inhibiting.
I resemble that comment. I sort of felt that way. It was like, “What the hell?” It was confusing times.
When you first started writing songs, what kind of music influenced you?
Well, from a lyrical standpoint, it was mostly the guys I look up to, people like Dylan and Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen. Musically, it was people like the Ramones.
How would you say you’ve evolved as a songwriter?
I guess just by trial and error, throwing shit against the wall and seeing what sticks and being persistent about trying to come across and have the songs communicate. After many years, you figure out what works for you and what doesn’t and what works for the band and what doesn’t. It’s kind of two different angles. One is to challenge the band and to play something unique and crazy, and the other angle is something that I can play acoustically for the band, and they can go, “Oh yeah, let’s do that one.”
You started out in the ’80s. At the time did you know that that time period would become the stuff of rock legend and lore?
Not really. There was just sort of an ethic of being independent and unsuccessful. We didn’t have any illusions of grandeur or trying to make it to the big time or anything like that. It was more like something to do. There was sort of a self-destructive element to all of it. No one was really thinking about the future too much.
You would eventually sign to a major label. Was that the right decision?
I think it was kind of a natural part of the evolution of the band. We had been touring constantly and building up our own fan base around the world. We had gone as far as we could with Twin Tone and they did this deal with A&M, so the first couple of records are on A&M/Twin-Tone. That made it more like a gradual transition. We got to a major label and they didn’t know what to do with us, so we maintained our outsider status.
You’re coming to town on a bill featuring Local H, another '80s/'90s act. Talk about the grouping.
Well, the tour we were on when COVID hit, Local H was opening, so it seemed like a natural thing to pick them up and continue on. They’re great guys. We get on very well. They’re very low maintenance. It’s just two guys who do everything.
Soul Asylum emerged in the '80s and became more popular in the '90s, but I feel like too often tours of bands from that era are just hair metal.
Yeah, that’s kinds of funny to think about. It seems like bands like ours were coming up in order to sort of not combat the hair metal bands but offer something different.
You’ve continued to make new music and never relied on nostalgia.
Yes, thankfully that is the case. We try to stay away from nostalgia.
You’re in your fifties now. What keeps you going?
Well, I think I just love what I do. It’s something I didn’t think was possible. It just feels great. I didn’t think it was possible to make a living making music, so I’m more surprised than anyone about that.
Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected]