These days, you can find Dave Pirner in his favorite back booth at The Lowry.
At 58, he’s living full time in Minneapolis for the first time in forever. He sold his house in New Orleans and moved all his stuff up into his house in Kenwood. It’s the house he used to joke “that ‘Runaway Train’ built”—not too far from the Uptown neighborhood he used to scour for Ramones records back when he was a trumpet player in jazz band at Minneapolis’s long-gone West High School.
Pirner’s as gloriously disheveled as ever, sporting a half-grown goatee that matches his formerly, famously dreaded auburn locks. He’s dressed to strict ’90s grunge code—a Metro Chicago T-shirt underneath a short-sleeved button-up. And if he looks like he returned from tour, he has—a short acoustic tour of New England with his bandmate Ryan Smith. And he’s still in tour mode—his tour manager Jeneen is wedged into the booth next to him, translating what he means when he asks the server for something “as close as you can get to a Stella Artois.”
Unlike most of his contemporaries, who have either retired or straight-up passed away (Pirner mock-wags a finger at my tape recorder: “Stay away from narcotics, kids.”), Soul Asylum is still active, both onstage and in the studio. They recorded their 12th album, 2020’s Hurry Up and Wait, in the same warren of studios at 26th and Nicollet where they recorded their second, 1986’s Made to Be Broken.
“It’s just cool to walk out of the same place I was walking out of when I was 19,” he says. “I mean, everything has changed, but the studio is still there.”
In 2020, Pirner also released a book of lyrics and reminiscences, Loud Fast Words—its title a nod to Soul Asylum’s original name, Loud Fast Rules—on Minnesota Historical Society Press, but the pandemic didn’t give him a chance to promote either project. Now the band is working on a new album (they’re about 30 songs in), but it’s basically an indie project again, meaning they don’t have a major label enforcing market-based deadlines. He keeps the same vampire hours—he’s most productive been 11 pm and 7 am—but with his bandmates living in the same city, all of them within 30 minutes of the studio, the vibes have never been chiller.
“I guess I should count my blessings that I never had to sell my soul to the corporate devil or whatever,” Pirner says. He is used to a do-it-yourself atmosphere, he says, because he never grew dependent on the music industry monster. “And since we came up all by ourselves with no help from anyone, it’s where I’m comfortable.”
“I guess I should count my blessings that I never had to sell my soul to the corporate devil or whatever.”
— Dave Pirner
Did you start playing on an acoustic guitar?
I took probably four lessons on guitar when I was 10 at some summer school, and that was it. In grade school, I started trumpet, and I was a trumpet player for years.
Aren’t you still?
I still suck on it; I’m supposed to blow on it. Twenty years in New Orleans really helped me learn, Well, that’s what it’s supposed to sound like. I guess growing up in Minneapolis, I didn’t really have a lot of examples.
But as kid you were really into it?
As a kid, I was in a youth symphony orchestra and I was always in the school band. We had something called Zero Hour, which was like a jazz combo. And we practiced before the first hour, so I had to get up and play trumpet.
You went to West High, and your future Soul Asylum bandmates, Karl Mueller and Danny Murphy, also went to a no-longer-existent Minneapolis high school, Marshall, right?
That is correct.
Suicide Commandos’ Chris Osgood was an early mentor. And you had a band at West called The Shitz. What made you pick up the electric guitar and be like, “I’m not a trumpet player anymore”?
There was a guy who I just saw in Washington, D.C., a fellow by the name of Chuck Laughlin. He was my trumpet-playing pal. I took lessons from his older brother, who is a career trumpet player. So anyways, I somehow managed to get the first chair, and Chuck was better than me, so I don’t know how that happened. I was taking lessons from his brother, and he lent me Are You Experienced—the Jimi Hendrix record—and I think that set something off. I was like, ‘I’m only listening to guitars and rock and roll now and might as well have a go at it.’
Three things about Dave Pirner
- Soul Asylum recently headlined Buck Hill’s concert series.
- He hasn’t seen Stranger Things. “I tried to watch an episode recently, but I fell asleep.”
- Soul Asylum’s 1993 MTV Unplugged set is being released for the first time later this year.
How old were you?
This must be sophomore year in high school.
What made you dive past Jimi into punk?
I think it was just ripe for the picking. It was the time that I started hearing about the Sex Pistols and The Clash and, specifically, the Ramones. And I remember being in a friend’s basement, just messing around with a guitar, and we were listening to the Ramones, and something seemed within reach. It seemed like I could understand it, and it made a lot of sense to me in a way that’s not as—I guess I want to say—sophisticated.
So Uptown was your stomping grounds.
I would go buy used records, and that’s how I got all my Led Zeppelin records, at the Wax Museum, or there was a store called the Optic Nerve that was right by my high school. And, of course, Oar Folk. I mean, Oar Folk was pivotal.
Were there shows you could go get into as a teenager? House parties?
There was house parties, and the drinking age was 18, so I had a fake ID that was terrible. The whole thing was sketchy. I do remember a bouncer laughing at it. You could sneak in the back door sometimes in First Avenue. They had bands play in Loring Park, they had bands play at the Walker Art Center, and that’s where I discovered The Suburbs and The Suicide Commandos and Curtiss A and immersed myself in it.
And once you were out of high school, you, Danny, and Karl [who passed away in 2005 after a long struggle with esophageal cancer] formed Loud Fast Rules?
I mean, the connection was Lunds, oddly enough. My friends from West High School were bag boys at Lunds, and so were Danny and Karl. So, yeah, my friend introduced me to Karl, a very distinctive memory. And, yeah, there was a group of kids called the Disco Rumblers, and they were into fighting and disco music.
The Disco Rumblers?!
Yeah. And we were the punks.
So, kind of a mods vs. the punks thing?
Yeah. And then some punk rock kids from other schools started hanging out and probably took verbal abuse from the Disco Rumblers. Yeah, it was typical high school shit.
In your book, you write that you admire the writer Sherman Alexie, who said that writing is actually a process of refining and redefining. Do you still write longhand in notebooks?
I do, but man, I just fill up notebooks and rarely go back to them, so I have these piles and piles of notebooks. And now, I’m doing a lot of writing on just whatever’s laying around, and I’m doing a lot of singing in my studio. And Jeneen here has the dubious distinction of sometimes trying to understand what the hell I’m singing about and transcribing it.
How long has Ryan been your primary foil? When did he replace Danny? Was it two records ago now?
Six years. And one record. There was another guitar player in the middle. But he helped with Hurry Up and Wait, and then all the current stuff for upcoming records.
How are Ryan and Danny’s styles different?
I could get in trouble.
Ryan has the Mother Teresa patience thing going on, and he’s very enthusiastic, very open-minded, very much on point and just knows everything about the guitar. I don’t know how he does it, frankly. Ryan has 60 guitar students, and he’s doing a lot of Zoom lessons now. I run into his students when I’m out on the road or in a restaurant or something: “Hey, I take lessons from Ryan Smith.”
You’ve always been tied to Minneapolis. But when did you decide, like, “Hey, I want to make my life here again”?
When I got divorced. I had lost my way, so to speak. I didn’t want to be in the way anymore, and I just decided I was going to go to Minneapolis and regroup, and it turns out that [my] parents are getting on and all my old friends are here and stuff, and I think I needed that emotional support.
“My roommate is Kirk from Run Westy Run, and I’m very much hanging out with people I grew up with.”
So, when you say you didn’t want to be in the way, was that your wife and kid were down in New Orleans and you wanted to get away from New Orleans?
Yeah. I mean, [with me] being on the road all the time, he definitely formed a bond with his mother that was, like—I didn’t want to do the whole fighting over spending time with him, and I just thought that was even more toxic than it would’ve been otherwise. Now my roommate is Kirk from Run Westy Run, and I’m very much hanging out with the people I grew up with. It’s where I’m from.
It’s a lot of the same people from the scene Soul Asylum came up in?
It’s all those people. I went to—what is the name of that club? The Red Stag? And Kraig Johnson was doing an acoustic thing. I was at a big table with all the people that I’ve known my whole life, so that was nice.
And how is everybody doing, do you think? You guys are in your late 50s now.
Everybody’s doing great—as great as Karl’s widow can be great. She just had a birthday, and Kirk played in all three bands in the Entry.
It’s my understanding that you and Danny don’t talk right now. Is that true?
I guess if I had any words of wisdom: If you want to destroy a friendship, hire a lawyer. People get lawyers, greed gets in the way, and it just disintegrates whatever was there. Because it turns into it’s all about money, and then it turns into “Fuck you,” pretty much.
Do you think you can reconcile? I mean, life is short.
I have no interest in reconciling. Everybody’s got their unique relationships with different people, and you have a lot of mutual friends, and it just is what it is. I don’t spend a lot of time hanging out with my ex-wife either, and I’m not really interested in it.
I was fascinated by this insight from your book, about how you were attracted to musicians who played with a smile in New Orleans, who played with joy. Soul Asylum’s music is drenched in angst, which comes from punk rock, but there’s always been a sweetness underneath. Now that you’re back, do you see a contrast between the music of the two cities?
I mean, I definitely wanted some yin to the yang. Everything was so fueled by angst, and it’s extremely sarcastic and cynical, and it comes from just being pissed off. And I’m still pissed off about the same things I was pissed off about back then. You’re coming from a very cold, very indoor, very passive-aggressive, angry culture, and it’s just a way to get it out of your system. And when you’re in New Orleans, there’s all these outdoor parades and celebrating, joyful situations that celebrate life in a way. I guess it made me see how I had taken a lot of things for granted, and it makes you appreciate how much music speaks to the soul.
As you’ve gotten older, you seem to be allowing a pretty song to sound pretty.
Well, it was probably mostly just growing up and just understanding it through experience. You go out there in the world, and you get your heart kicked around a few times, and you come up with an attitude one way or the other, but hopefully, it’s a good attitude.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.