On a Bus Named Desire

An Interview with Soul Asylum

by Greg M. Schwartz

Frontman Dave Pirner discusses loss, music, and how their new album The Silver Lining has Soul Asylum back in the rock 'n' roll game.

After an eight-year hiatus since releasing their last studio album, Minneapolis’s Soul Asylum is back with The Silver Lining, an album that sparkles with the energy of the band’s 1990s multi-platinum heyday. Once in danger of fading into obscurity, the band is now poised to make a new bid for rock ‘n’ roll relevancy.

The album didn’t come easy though—the band had to deal with the defection of their drummer as well as the tragic death of bassist Karl Mueller, who succumbed to throat cancer during the recording process. “We decided to make the record, booked the studio, made all the plans to do it, and then Karl got diagnosed,” says vocalist/guitarist Dave Pirner. Mueller recorded as many parts as he could and maintained an optimistic spirit until the end, evidenced in tracks such as “Stand Up and Be Strong”. The band forged ahead, dedicating the album to Mueller. Pirner says recording in Minneapolis for the first time since before the band was signed to a major label was a significant factor in re-charging their creative juices.

“This was the first record that we made in Minneapolis since we were on an independent label in Minneapolis, so there’s some nice sort of full circle things to it. Here we were back in Minneapolis, with no fucking budget and trying to sort of do something on our own. And that was, I think, empowering in a very familiar sort of way,” says Pirner.

After experiencing a variety of ups and downs in the ‘90s, it took an organic process to bring the band back together.

“I had a really, really funny sit-down with a friend of mine who plays in a band and his band had a bunch of new material and I was like, ‘Man, you guys gotta make another record,’ and he just looked me right in the face and said, ‘What’s my motivation?’ And you sorta take it for granted that that’s what you do and you’re expected to crank these records out and do this thing ... or you’re not, you’re doing it because you want to do it. You’re creating your own line of work as it were and there’s no real rules to it,” says Pirner. “I think after there had been a pause that long, it got longer because we had decided it was really not worth putting out a record unless it was ... something that was not just making a record for the sake of making it, because it was a contractual obligation or something like that—the material had to push the project into place.”

Among the other obstacles the band faced were the loss of drummer Sterling Campbell, who went back to playing with David Bowie, and the fact that the band was without a record deal.

“That was kind of devastating to me because I really, really liked the way he played the drums,” says Pirner of Campbell’s departure. “So, that was a big part of going ‘Okay, we’re ready to make a record,’ when Michael Bland sat down at the drum set. Two songs into it I was like, ‘Oh my God, we got the right guy and we can make a record now.’ I could tell that he was a more appropriate drummer than Sterling Campbell, which I didn’t think was possible.”

While he had his occasional bouts with writer’s block, lack of material was not a problem for Pirner. Deciding what creative direction to pursue was another matter.

“Depending on what’s considered a song, we had 70 to 80 things that were being worked on,” says Pirner. “I just had this gigantic body of work that really expanded across a lot of different genres. There was computer music and acoustic music, and rock demos with the band and different drummers, just a lot of songs that ... I don’t know, man—I thought some of them were really cool and sort of going in a direction that was new and different, and kind of experimental. But it kind of did not impress Danny [Murphy, lead guitarist and bandmate] who is kind of my editor, for lack of a better expression. And he was just like, ‘I don’t really understand what you’re doing with all this computer stuff and this, that, and the other. You should just do what you do, do what you’re good at, gimme some fucking great songs, we’re not an art band, ya know?’ So it was kind of a circular thing where I was trying to sort of reinvent the wheel ... and I sort of came back to making what sounds like Soul Asylum music.”

Many of the album’s songs could fit right onto Gravedancer’s Union, the1992 multi-platinum album that broke the band on a national level and made them one of the biggest acts in the alternative rock revolution of the ‘90s. Pirner looks back at the period as a unique and special time for rock music.

“There was this sudden recognition of rock bands, really the door just came open—the Meat Puppets and the Butthole Surfers, all these bands that were underground, were suddenly being able to pay off some debts, or however you wanna look at it, some sort of exposure to somewhere other than the dankest punk club in town,” says Pirner. “I mean I don’t wanna over romanticize it or anything, but it was different. A lot of these bands really had something to offer, something meaningful to say and a very organic way of doing it with the whole sort of do it yourself aesthetic that is, you know, not manufactured.”

Rather than reflecting a derivative quality, the energy and soulfulness of the band’s new songs indicate that Pirner and Soul Asylum have still got their mojo working. This is evidenced in the characteristically down-to-earth, emotionally revealing storytelling in Pirner’s songs. “All is Well”, an uptempo rocker with mixed emotions, is one such song.

“It’s kind of a ‘life is hell without you’ sentiment in a way, and it’s kind of a familiar situation for me, where people think you go out on tour with a rock band and it’s this glamorous kind of thing and it couldn’t be more opposite,” says Pirner. “And I think what I’m saying in the verse, ‘I had a dream I was laying in hell and it looks a lot like this hotel,’ kinda gets at where I’m going with that ... Even writing a song can be just an incredibly lonely experience when you just feel like you can’t write your way out of it and you just kind of, you’re fucked with this situation ... there’s no one there to help you and there’s no sympathetic ear.”

“That song is a perfect example,” continues Pirner. “I had the verse and I really liked it, and I probably wrote five choruses for that song that never seemed right. And it wasn’t until the very last batch of stuff that we recorded that I got the chorus together and I was like, alright, I think this is it. And I was still very unsure of it and you know, the verses had always worked for me, I really liked the melody of it ... it’s a very arduous process sometimes, and other times I’ll sit down and write the whole thing. Songs like that I really struggle with and really try to wrangle in,” says Pirner.

“Success Is Not So Sweet” is another song on the album that reflects Pirner’s mixed feelings about celebrity, featuring the line, “Funny how the players can’t survive the game.”

“It’s trying to sort of suggest how something can really get the best of ya and ... I think that you can feel the fallout and you can feel the phoniness and you can feel all this stuff that is the brass ring that people, everybody has this different idea of how easy their life is going to become when they reach their whatever it is. And it can really get the best of ya and really turns some people into very unpleasant [people], or casualties as it were,” says Pirner.

Another stand out tune from the album is “Oxygen”, which starts as a slow burn and then builds into a classic Soul Asylum rocker about overcoming loneliness and emotional adversity.

“The hardest part by a long shot was trying to make it shorter,” says Pirner of the song. “It was just decided that it was too long. It had this very, very natural ebb and flow to it that was a very slow build, and I think we finally got it right. I finally said, ‘Okay, I can take out this tiny part here and this tiny part here and it’s gonna be better and more to the point.’ And it is, it’s better and more to the point and you know rarely is that a mistake, I think—to really try and make something concise.”

“I think that ‘Lately’ was kind of a fluid writing experience. But now looking at [the album], I’m going man, I really struggled with some of this shit,” says Pirner of his overall creative experience with the album. “‘Standing Water’ was one of those things where I sort of had the melody and I was just waiting for the words to come and they all kind of came at once,” says Pirner of a song that was written pre-Katrina, but which reflects a sentiment about his adopted hometown of New Orleans.

“It’s a pre-existing condition down there that you do see water rising in the street and it comes toward your door. And you do see a puddle and you go, alright, that puddle is below sea level. And it’s also breeding mosquitos and it’s a weird sort of thing with water down there as you might imagine. Everybody is living with that sort of risk.”

“Bus Named Desire”, a turbo charged rocker in the best Soul Asylum tradition, is another New Orleans-inspired song on the album.

“There’s a bus that goes by our house every day and it says ‘Desire’ on the marquee of the bus and I just thought it was funny,” says Pirner. “And there’s a local writer down there named Chris Rose, who’s great if you ever wanna read anything about New Orleans, and he just did a whole big long story on following the route of the bus named Desire. It’s funny because it goes by my house and I have no idea where it goes and that was part of the imagination part of it, that made it this sort of metaphorical kind of thing. And of course there’s the reference to the play, which I always thought , A Streetcar Named Desire captures something about the way people interact down there really well, and I’d seen it before I moved down there but I still think of that play sometimes and go, ‘Wow, that guy really sort of nailed something about the mentality of the city and how kind of crazy it is in a good way.’”

Pirner says his decision to move to New Orleans was 100% about the music scene.

“When we were touring back in the day, we would always schedule an extra day or two in New Orleans because we just loved being there. I guess that was before I really started thinking about the sort of magic of the city, and then I started going to Jazzfest and then I realized that all my favorite artists at Jazzfest were local,” says Pirner of how he was drawn to the area. “And then I just started spending more and more time down there and started seeking out a lot of these musicians and going and watching them play and thinking, ‘I wanna be close to this, I wanna be where these great musicians are playing.’ And they are always playing, it’s so intense and it’s just like nowhere else. I’ve spent plenty of time living in other cities and getting into the music scene, and this, that, and the other thing, and it just doesn’t get any deeper.”

A key attraction for Pirner in the New Orleans music scene was the blurring of the line between the bands and the audiences.

“I made this connection between punk music and folk music, and the second-line music where the line between the audience and the band starts to sort of vanish. It’s sort of tracing the roots of what it is I do, and it kind of just got me to there and that’s where a lot of it just sorta starts,” reflects Pirner.

The band is now on the independent Legacy label, but still maintains a distribution deal with Sony. Pirner says there’s a lot to be said for not having someone looking over your shoulder during the recording process.

“I never thought it did [hinder the creative process in mid-‘90s] but I mean it kind of is what it is,” says Pirner. “[Columbia] really had a hands off approach towards us, it’s just when, right around the time when the record’s getting finished is when they chime in. It’s certainly different than doing it on your own, but they’re paying for it. So I guess since we were paying for it, we only had ourselves to answer to, and we have a very high standard, we really are our own worst critics, we’re very critical of ourselves and our tuning and our tunes and everything, so it’s funny—in a lot of ways we don’t need a lot of assistance as it were, at least from a creative standpoint. To me there’s kind of never enough technical assistance, but you know, we’ve made records just about every way there is and it can be kind of a grueling process. It can be real fun at times but really incredibly frustrating at other times.”

As with most bands that stand the test of time, Soul Asylum’s ultimate strength lies in their live show and the band is once again eager to hit the road and see how the new songs stretch out. Former Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson will join the band on bass.

“Playing songs live, what we tend to sort of do ... is to sort of jam out on the vamps at the end a little bit and that’s where we get our time to stretch out a little. But that can sort of depend on the atmosphere, and it’s also kind of like I need that time, because all my songs are very much blah blah blah blah, sing sing sing sing, and if I’ve gotta do 25 of ‘em in a row I start to really feel like I’m crazy if I can’t step back and play a little guitar or something,” says Pirner.

“We’re sort of taking it as it comes and hopefully it will all work out. In every different progression of events ... sometimes you end up in Australia, sometimes you don’t,” says Pirner with trademark candor in regard to the band’s touring fate.

Something else for fans to look for on The Silver Lining is the hidden track “Fearless Leader”, perhaps the most politically-oriented song Pirner has ever written. The lyrics have won Pirner longtime kudos, but it’s taken him years to finally get it on a record.

“I don’t know [why it’s a hidden track], because I couldn’t get it on a record for the longest time and it’s ... it’s one of those songs where we kept trying to elaborate on it and get the drums and bass right ... and again it was really long and it just started to drag on and on,” says Pirner of struggles in recording the song. “So we cut it acoustically and it got a couple people’s attention, like our manager was like, ‘You gotta fucking put that on the record.’ I could never really get it past Danny, and that was sort of the compromise. We never seemed to really realize it in the studio and so we get somewhere with it and then it would sort of vanish. And that was the best I could do, was to get it on there as a hidden track ... It seems to keep being relevant, and as time passes it seems to get even more relevant ... as the atmosphere gets more repressed.”

Pirner says the track had been lingering until he pulled it out on his solo tour, where his band cited it as their favorite song in the set.

“And it’s not even on my solo record—why do people keep telling me that they like this song and I can’t get it on a fucking record? So I don’t know, finally there it is, and it’s hidden,” says Pirner in summation.

While the band has now been together in one form or another for over 20 years, Pirner says the group is still flying on instinct.

“It’s one of those things where when everything’s going right, nobody wants to mess with it. Everybody wants to take credit, but ... people just assume that you’re thinking about all this. It couldn’t be further from the truth, I mean we’re just sort of going on instinct alone, and we’re not calculated and we’re not—nothing’s really pre-planned out or anything,” says Pirner. “We just sort of do it the way we’ve always been doing it and, you know, it was a punk band that started off in Karl’s mom’s garage and it’s just sort of a gig-to-gig thing. You write some songs and you play ‘em for some people and you try to record ‘em and that’s it.”

Soul Asylum - “The Silver Lining” EPK

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