Back To Vinyl: Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner On 'Hurry Up And Wait' And The Glory Of Record Stores

In April, Soul Asylum released a powerful new studio album from which they'd already managed to play a few songs live before being curtailed in California under COVID shutdowns. Their album, Hurry Up and Wait, has a title that's proven eerily apt for our times, but is also one that explores relationships in a very thematic way.

In our previously published interview with Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner, we spoke about the ways in which the new album casts a wide net in terms of sonic possibilities, the role that New Orleans has played in expanding Pirner's musical horizons, and what it was like to perform 100 songs on Facebook livestreams for fans. In today's interview, we explore the sequencing of the album's songs, possible interpretations for the album's title, and the wonderful thing that is the resurgence of vinyl records. Are they the perfect form of media? Definitely not so much for 8-tracks.

Hannah Means-Shannon: What do you prefer when you’re recording a song? Are you doing all the tracks totally separately?

Dave Pirner: It sort of depends on who you’re working with, but generally it hasn’t changed all that much. You try to record the song with the band in the room, and then you double back and say, “Well, that’s fucked up. We’ve got to fix that. You need to go replay that fucking guitar part.” Or whatever the case may be. Maybe it doesn’t sound good, or maybe there are mistakes. You still have the ability to add an overdub or fix a mistake. Thankfully, I have the greatest drummer in the world.

That first phase of just playing the song with the band in the room was one of the most arduous things I’ve ever dealt with. We’d be in LA or New York, and we’d be spending thousands and thousands of dollars a day and we couldn’t get the basic track. We couldn’t get past Phase 1. That started to change with a different drummer, and things like that. Now we can get things in a couple or in three tries, and that definitely speeds the process up!

HMS: That is a great thing compared to what a lot of bands have to end up doing. Is there also a freshness there when the song doesn’t feel overworked? Even though Hurry Up and Wait is a studio album, it feels like it has aspects of live performance, like texture.

DP: Yeah. I learned that over making Grave Dancers Union, that given too much time to beat the song to death can suck the life out of it. So I try to bring things to the band and record them in the studio quickly, and they are intuitive enough to learn things in the studio, and play them right then and there, which is exactly what you’re talking about. It’s still kinda fresh and exciting to listen to because you’re hearing it for the first time, at least the first time it was recorded.

HMS: I’m going to say something that could be fairly wacky, and that I could be totally wrong about, but is there a story arc on this album? It seems like it might have one. At first, I listened to the album on shuffle for a while, and then later listened to the songs in the album-order later to see if that seemed different, and I then I thought, “Oh, this is like a story. The story is about relationship development.” Is any of that valid, or no?

DP: I think that’s pretty astute. I am one of those people that believes that if you look at a painting, whatever your personal interpretation of that painting is, that’s correct. Some art historian can come up to you and say, “That’s not what this painting is really about.” And you can say, “That’s what it’s about for me.” That’s the beauty of art, I suppose.

I think we finally got the sequence right. Sequencing a record is always very, very difficult for me. You move songs around and around, and you try to agree, and it goes back and forth, back and forth. Finally, you’re like, “Okay, this feels right. This is the right sequence.” So, I’m glad you listened to it in sequence. If there’s anything going on as far as what might be autobiographical about it, I suppose you could say that I went through a divorce between the last record and this record. And if that seems apparent, I’m not trying to make it obvious.

HMS: I wouldn’t say that’s apparent. I actually feel like it’s pretty universal, the way that it’s set up. It felt to me more like, “These are the possible iterations of relationships. These are the possible stages a relationship can go through.” But it could be any age of person or any personality type who might relate to this.

The earlier tracks on the album have that exciting energy of a new relationship, trying to figure things out. One thing I liked was that I’ve never heard people talk about a certain middle stage in some relationships where you’re starting to have some fights and some schisms, but you’re still hopeful. People don’t really talk about that, because if it doesn’t work out, that’s later depressing, I guess.

DP: [Laughs] Or I never should have gotten married. That was a joke, sorry. I was very, very committed to my kid, and I still am, but that was the real issue for me. I was head over heels in love with my kid, and that’s where the pain comes in for me. I don’t miss being married, but I miss that kid every day. But he just turned 17.

HMS: Wow, that must be a trip, to have a teenager on your hands. How’s he dealing with the pandemic?

DP: Well, he’s in New Orleans, and I’m in Minneapolis, so that sucks, but he seems to be faring okay. Online courses suck. I asked him a lot of questions about that. He’s really a shoe geek and buys limited edition sneakers on the internet. Because he’s into that kind of thing, he’s taking a sewing class.

HMS: Oh, wow! That’s cool.

DP: He said that’s very difficult to do online, which I totally understand. If you’re trying to do that intricate stuff with your fingers, you want that hands on experience. A flat screen doesn’t convey what you need. Sewing is one of those things that’s passed down through generations, and you need someone sitting there, saying, “Not like that.”

HMS: Yes, I’m totally relating to what you’re saying because one of the best things that ever happened to me, that I didn’t realize at the time, was that my grandmother, who was a master seamstress, sat me down when I was a kid and showed me how to do all this stuff. When I would stay with her, we would make stuff. Now, as an adult, I think, “Wow, I was taught all these things that would be almost impossible to just pick up.” I’m really glad that she took the time to do that with me.

DP: That’s pretty cool.

HMS: Regarding the title of the album, it seems like there’s different ways to interpret “Hurry Up and Wait”, aside from the interesting pandemic interpretation, is it hurrying up to feel better? Like hurrying up to process and get to a better place when a relationship ends, that last stage where you deal with the aftermath?

DP: Well, yes. Yes, it is. It’s also, I think, all-encompassing for a band, since it’s just the reality of your day when you’re on the road. It’s, “We’re going to be late. We’ve got to get the amps over there. We’ve got to be ready. Oh, gosh, the van broke down.” You spend a lot of time just waiting in airports, and waiting for the bus driver to wake up, or whatever it may be. There’s a lot of waiting involved. You’re on tour and you’re playing an hour and a half to two hours, but the time that you spend getting there is all the rest of your time.

HMS: Yes, I get that. Have you enjoyed not having to do that because you’ve been at home?

DP: No, not really, but this is probably the most time I’ve spend in Minneapolis for about 18 years. I used to mow lawns as a kid and now I get to mow my own lawn, and think, “Wow, I never thought I’d have my own lawn.” More than that, I never thought I’d be around to mow it myself, so there’s little things like that. I’m getting some stuff done around my house that’s been sitting empty a long time.

HMS: Yes, my house has never been this clean in my whole life. [Laughs] You have to do something.

DP: Right? People come over and they say, “What’s going on around here? It’s so clean.” And I say, “Well, I really don’t have anything else to do.”

HMS: I forgot to ask you this before now, and I really should have: Do you have any Tower Records stories? Did you ever play at Tower or go there a lot at any point?

DP: Yeah, I’ve done some great in-stores. The one I remember the most is, of course, in LA on the strip there. I spent a lot of time in there, and the one in New York. I remember the last time we played an in-store there, it was closing, and you could see how disillusioned all the employees were. There was a kind of a morose vibe, like, “This store is closing and we’re not happy about it.”

I brought my kid when he was about four or five years old, and he sat at the drum set, and started playing drums in the store. Everyone thought it was great. And then he also sat at the table with us while we were signing copies, and I think he signed a few records.

HMS: Aw, that’s great.

DP: That’s a good one. I just remember being around the neighborhood of the one in New York, and someone told me Cher lived upstairs, and Keith Richards had an apartment upstairs. There are all kinds of stories like that. The in-stores went really good. Those can be your Spinal Tap moment, if you are doing an in-store and no one shows up, but those always turned out pretty good.

HMS: Yes, I’ve seen some videos from those in-stores and they always look like a lot of fun. The fact that the Tower stores were small venues, in a way, was really cool. Though some of the venues had to use their parking lots if they didn’t have any room. Later on, when some had bigger interiors, they were able to do more inside.

DP: Yeah, I miss it. I was really bummed out. We never had one in Minneapolis. There was never one in New Orleans, I don’t think. But a lot of good memories, and it definitely seemed ominous, like the beginning of the end of record stores as we know them, when they shut. Now there are still cool record stores around, and I haven’t looked at the statistics, but my guess is there’s about half as many as there were 20 years ago.

HMS: That sounds right. There has been this whole resurgence of vinyl and cassettes.

DP: I love it.

HMS: I was going to ask what you thought of that. I have to say, “..and cassettes” because that’s really picking up now. I thought they were just getting started, but then they just took off. Do you collect all this stuff?

DP: [Laughs] Cassettes. Well, the 8-track cassette is never going to come back. That’s just a terrible format. Really not good.

HMS: A record store I go to tries to sell me those. They’ve got a bunch of those and a functioning player.

DP: They cut off the song right in the middle of it, and it’s really an illogical system. Regular cassettes were cool because you could fast-forward and rewind, and stuff like that. The first time I heard about people getting back into cassettes, it was kids going to the salvation army and buying cassettes for a quarter a piece, and they didn’t care what was on them. They’d just listen to whatever was on them.

HMS: Wow, that’s so weird.

DP: I don’t have a cassette player right now. I have three or four that don’t work somewhere, but I play records exclusively, pretty much. It makes a bit of a mess, but it feels really good, because of the time spent not playing records. I’m not really sure how to express it, but if records are coming back, and record stores, I can get the stuff that I couldn’t get when things were only available on CD. I really avoided CDs as long as I could. Now I have a huge CD collection that I don’t even listen to because I’m back to vinyl. It’s a little manipulative, I think, from the record companies’ point of view.

I’ve got record sleeves all over the place. When you’re having some people over, and you want to DJ up some records, and then you’ve got all these records without sleeves, and these sleeves without records…Then I’m constantly trying to organize it, and when I’m doing that, I think, “Well, okay, I get why people use fucking Spotify.” But if you’ve got the patience and dedication that I have to needing to put the needle on the vinyl, you get satisfaction out of that.

Missing y’all tonight. Thank you for tuning in to the weekly live-streams the past few months!

Posted by Soul Asylum on Friday, July 24, 2020

HMS: Do you find there’s a sound difference between vinyl and CD? The compression means there’s no sense of air there for many people.

DP: Yes, absolutely. It’s huge to me. I just saw the MP3 as a travesty. It’s the worst-sounding thing ever. It makes sense. A CD is somewhere in between. I couldn’t stand the sound of an MP3. It’s shrill and it’s small sounding. You put the same song on a record player, with these new records that are high quality and it’s a huge audible difference to me. Though it is crazy that it’s 30 bucks to buy a record now. Every time I have to listen to a song out of a phone or a laptop, I just dread it. It’s like, “Don’t play your phone at me!” [Laughs]

HMS: I have to ask you our Tower Records question, and you’ll know that our Tower Records motto is, “No Music, No Life”, and “Know Music, Know Life”. Which version do you prefer and how does it apply to your life?

DP: I wouldn’t have a life if it wasn’t for music, and it has definitely been my saving grace. It is everything that I have pretty much lived for. I loved it so much before I even started playing it that it seems like a really solid trajectory in retrospect. It’s just who I am, and it has defined who I am. Ever since whenever.

My mother took me to Target, or Shopper’s City, as I think it was called at the time, and I’d have to have a certain single. This is how cute my Mom is: I’d sing her a song. She’d say, “I’m going to the department store, do you need anything?” And I’d say, “Yeah, I need this one song that goes: ‘yah, bedeep doop doowop, bedeep doo doo’.” And she’d try to remember it and sing it to the clerk, and the clerk would say, “Yeah, I know that one.” And I would sometimes score.

HMS: That’s amazing! What format was that, that you were getting?

DP: Oh, just 45s, singles. But yeah, I would not have a life without music. I don’t know if I “know life,” but I feel like I kind of know music. Not having any music would be impossible for me. I don’t know what I would have done with all those months and days and hours and years that I’be spent listening, and playing, and going to shows, and being around it. And hanging out in record stores. That’s what I really miss.

HMS: Generally, or because of COVID?

DP: Generally, yes, but because of COVID even more. There are a couple places in town where I would go and hang out every day. I knew all the guys who worked there who later became friends. One of the guys who worked there signed me to my first independent record contract. I trusted them. I would say, “What’s hot?” And they were very helpful, and it was very important to them that they set me in the right direction, which was kind of cool. They’d say, “You have to have this.”

HMS: Really good record store clerks are like angels.

DP: I remember the second Cars record came out, and Iggy Pop’s New Values came out. I really wanted the Cars record, and the guys at the record shop were like, “Please, please don’t buy that. Buy the Iggy Pop record.” They were very passionate about it.

If I’m not mistaken, I bought both records, because I couldn’t decide. And they were right.

HMS: It’s like, “We’re not going to take your money. You’re not allowed to buy that one.”

DP: Then they kind of roll their eyes at you if you want something that they don’t think is cool. They’re like, “Alright, it’s your money.”

HMS: It’s definitely the cool police, but in a good way. They know.

DP: We anxiously await an in-store to celebrate the return of Tower Records somewhere! We shall see.

I just had a vision of Hennepin Avenue, which is the main street in Minneapolis, and there were no less than four record stores on that small strip. They were everywhere, Musicland and places like that. Maybe we can go record shopping again someday.

HMS: Will you be the cool police and tell me what to buy and what not to buy?

DP: I will! I just did a thing at Amoeba. I didn’t really understand the drill, but there were guys kind of following me around, and I was just buying records.

HMS: Oh, I know what you’re talking about, “What’s in my bag?”

DP: Ironically--and I’ve never used that word correctly, me or Alanis Morissette-- the CDs were $2.50 and the records were 30 bucks. Everything’s flipped on its head! I remember putting out a record and having to put a bonus track on a CD to get people to buy CDs, because they were so expensive. I don’t know what that is. It’s just fucked up.

HMS: I’m not sure I understand, either, but I have to say that Tower Records’ whole approach right now is that we will have a lower price than anyone else. It’s enough to make a difference. And it’s not Amazon, either.

DP: I don’t want to put any more money in Steve Bezos’ pocket. It’s ridiculous.

HMS: At least there are options now.

DP: Right on.

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