"I'm Always Learning": Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner on 'Hurry Up and Wait' And The Roots of His Music

Soul Asylum, like many bands, were on tour when shutdowns due to COVID started curtailing bookings. Remarkably, they had been playing songs from their upcoming album at that time, so managed to test out their new work in a live setting. Unfortunately for band founder, singer/songwriter and frontman Dave Pirner, his book collecting the lyrics he'd written from his teen years onwards was also slated for a tour that then got shut down.

There's no one way for a band to handle the global pandemic situation, but Soul Asylum certainly had a very impressive reaction. Not only did they release their new album, the aptly titled Hurry Up and Wait, in late April, but they also pretty quickly plunged into a series of Facebook livestreams each Friday night that resulted in 15 acoustic performances covering 100 of their original songs. Many of those songs had never been played acoustically before and many of the songs had not been performed in a number of years, but they rose to the challenge.

Dave Pirner spoke with Tower's PULSE recently about the impact of the pandemic, the range of sounds on the new album, why learning more about music has always been a driving force for him, and how that drive embedded New Orleans into his musical experience.

Hannah Means-Shannon: Is it funny to you, or does it wig you out, how appropriate the title and ideas of your album have been to our time right now?

Dave Pirner: Yeah! That’s kind of dumb luck, I suppose. Not that anything’s really that funny, but it does seem to apply. It makes it seem like being in a band is kind of like having a pandemic going on all the time. A lot of waiting, and “Go over here, go over there, go over here.” I hadn’t really spent a lot of time thinking about it. But it’s cool that it is appropriate, just for the sake of remembering what was going on during the time the record came out.

HMS: Yes, you’ll never forget it, and probably no one else will, either. That comparison to being in a band is hilarious, like, “When are they going to let me out?”

DP: Stuck in a small space with a very limited number of people.

HMS: How long had you been working on some of the songs that appear on Hurry Up and Wait?

DP: Since the last record, basically, is how it works. I just start working on new stuff once I’ve finished a record. I think there’s one song that was recorded for a previous record but not released. We started playing it live, and it got a pretty good reaction, so we thought, “What the hell? Let’s put it on the record.”

HMS: Oh, cool. Were any of the other songs ones that you managed to play live before the record came out? Actually, also, I know about your many Facebook livestreams, so you may have gotten to play them live in that way, too.

DP: Yeah, we were playing quite a few of the new songs on the tour. That was interesting to be playing songs from a new record before the record came out. That was something that, back when the band first started out, was not unusual. But as you develop your sense of how things work, at least these days, it seems like you go out to promote a record when the record is out. It was supposed to all culminate in California, Los Angeles, and Record Store Day. It was this whole campaign that just got squished. It is what it is.

HMS: I’m glad you got to play some of the songs live before you got grounded.

DP: Yes, it was really nice. The new songs seemed to get a pretty good response. Which is always a little nerve wracking, depending on where you are. You never know how people are going to react. We were able to slip half a dozen songs that no one had heard before in and out of the set. People didn’t leave. [Laughs]

HMS: Or throw things at you!

DP: We were not hit by any projectiles.

HMS: Was the touring tied together in any way with the book that came out, collecting your lyrics? Was there overlap?

DP: I was giving away a few signed copies of the book on the tour, but I was also supposed to go out to LA and do a book signing at a bookstore. We were going to do more stuff like that, but it didn’t happen. Wait, I did one. The tour was cancelled in San Diego with four shows left. The majority of shows had been completed, which I guess was lucky for us.

HMS: Was that your first and only book event that you’ve ever done?

DP: Well, yeah. I’ve never put out a book before. It was a really cool little shop, though. Yes, it’s the first time that I’ve ever had to consider getting people to show up at a bookstore and read excerpts from my book. We have this idea that once this whole thing blows over, we’ll pick up where we left off, but it doesn’t seem to be blowing over.

HMS: Yes, sure. I think it’s great that you all have been doing the livestreams online. It’s a very personal decision band by band whether they want to do that, but you seem to have really tackled that quickly to engage with fans and stay active.

DP: The thing I hate the most at gigs as when everyone pulls their fucking phones out. Because then you’re just staring at the back of peoples’ phones. I want to see people’s faces. So, this is just only playing to the camera, which is nerve wracking. It’s nerve wracking because it’s live and I make mistakes, and I get nervous about it because I’m playing a lot of songs I haven’t played in years.

HMS: You even take requests, don’t you?

DP: Yes, we do. People have been requesting a song, and I don’t know if it’ll work on acoustic guitar, but I give it a try. We haven’t really not played anything people have requested. Whether it’s good or not is another story. This Friday will be the last one, and we will have reached 100 original songs.

HMS: Whoah! I’ve caught a few of the shows but didn’t realize it was that many songs.

DP: I’m pretty impressed with that.

HMS: That’s incredible.

DP: We’re going to stop at 100 original songs and start working on new material. It’s been a really interesting adventure. Putting the book out and then playing these songs that I wrote when I was 19 or whatever. It’s a little bit too much of a journey into the past for me, but it still makes you look at your life and go, “Wow, that’s what I decided to do, and I guess I kinda did it.”

HMS: I was going to ask you if, when you look at that book of lyrics spanning such a long time period, you feel like those were by a different person, or whether you feel like it’s your achievement?

DP: I don’t know what it would be akin to. It would be like a very old author looking at the book he wrote in high school. And thinking, “I’ve learned a few things along the way, I suppose. It’s not my best work, but you have to start somewhere.”

HMS: You humored fans by playing so much of it on the livestream, too. Has going through all the songs so carefully again affected the way you think about music now?

DP: Yes, because you have to go back there a little bit. I’m not as inclined to be working on brand new material when I’m trying to learn songs from 20 years ago. So that part of it is a little stagnating in a way, I suppose. It’s all in good fun. I suppose I’m lucky that somebody gives a shit.

HMS: At least no one can accuse you of not processing your own history. There’s nothing like a book and then having to play all the songs again to do that. You’ve had a big retrospective, really.

DP: Yes, it’s true, I’m holding myself accountable! I feel pretty good about it, actually. There’s nothing so embarrassing that I can’t take it. There’s nothing where I said, “Can we just leave that out of the book? It’s a terrible lyric.”

HMS: [Laughs] You didn’t do that? You didn’t leave anything out?

DP: It’s everything that I wrote, yep.

HMS: That’s really great, actually, because if people ever want to write about your music, that’s a solid resource for them. I say that since I was a teacher for some time.

DP: That’s cool. I’ve had several great teachers, who I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world. But there’s a lot of teachers who I feel like, “Yeah I don’t know that I learned anything from that person.” That’s terrifying to me. Public speaking is different to me than playing music. If I play a solo acoustic guitar, I can do it. It makes me more nervous than playing with a band.

Playing with a band is much more fun, with three other musicians to play with. If I’m going to make a mistake, I can just take my hands off the guitar, and people won’t even notice. That’s not really an option when I’m playing solo acoustic. The only thing that strikes me as being more nerve wracking than playing solo acoustic is stand-up comedy, which I really admire. I just fucking love stand-up comedy, and takes a lot of nerve, and public speaking is probably the same way. It gets your adrenaline flowing through fear!

HMS: I don’t know how comedians do that. I feel like it’s a high wire act with chainsaws and knives. They are so amazing when they pull it off. I can’t believe what people will put themselves through.

DP: [Laughs] That’s a good way of putting it.

HMS: Did you intentionally include a lot of different musical styles in this one album? Was it something you thought about?

DP: No more than usual. With every record, I try to stretch the limitations of what someone can do with a four-piece Rock band. So it has a tendency to be all over the place. I’ve always sort of strived for that. There are very, very great bands out there and all their songs live up to what people expect from them. And it gets very “samey”, if you will.

I didn’t want to be that kind of a band. It just gets a little redundant. I try to switch it up as much as I can and do as many things as are different because it keeps things interesting. Hopefully for the listener, too. I’m drawing from my 16 or 17 years in New Orleans and have learned a lot of things along the way. That makes it, from the beginning of writing the song to the end, a little more foreseeable for me how it’s going to work in the studio. I rarely, if ever picked up an acoustic guitar for the first ten years of the band, so there’s always some new angle to try. Sometimes it works great, and other times, it’s “ehh”. It’s definitely trial and error.

HMS: The album as it stands definitely shows a wide range of musical possibilities.

DP: Thank you.

HMS: What musical terms do you think work for this album?

DP: Had I not discovered Punk Rock, I’m not sure I would have ever gotten into a band. So the band’s roots are pretty much in Punk music. Later on, I started to realize the similarities between Punk music and what people might call Folk music. So those two terms are both kind of referring to music by the people, for the people, there are no airs…it’s dirty, and travelling a lot, and trying to keep it real. When I discovered Woody Guthrie, it was like, “Oh, this is similar.” Some of these socially conscious songs, and some of these simple songs with just two or three chords just kind of started to make sense to me. That was another phase I went through. I still crank Metallica now and then and really enjoy it.

HMS: Do you feel like you’re Rock?

DP: Yes, I think Rock is fine. And Roll, for that matter. I think that’s a blanket statement that certainly includes what I do. I’ve been a fan of Rock my whole life, and I will continue to carry on in that fashion. I suppose you could say that Rock ‘N Roll has Punk and Folk elements to it. It supposed to be a broad expression and that is what they call the “gumbo” of the situation in New Orleans. Music occurs because different worlds come together, and that’s kind of the nature of it.

HMS: Are there New Orleans influences on Hurry Up and Wait? Are there songs you feel are closer to that influence?

DP: Yes, there are. New Orleans is just sort of a part of me. The reason I went there and the reason I stayed there for so long was all a musical quest, if you will. It’s just a part of who I am now. It’s just a really different kind of atmosphere than the one that I grew up in.

The analogy is that everyone in New Orleans has a brass instrument and everyone in Minneapolis has an electric guitar. I was a trumpet player as a kid, from third grade until Junior High, so I had that connection. I knew a lot of the standards. I knew a lot of the ins and outs of brass music and what the trumpet does. I was never very good at it. When I went to New Orleans and heard all these people playing the trumpet like it was an appendage, like it was part of them, like it came to them so naturally, then I really began trying to understand the music all over again.

In Minneapolis there really hadn’t been many examples, but in New Orleans, it’s on the street corners, it’s everywhere. You really learn fast that you should either get way better or you should just give it up.

HMS: Did that make you start playing the trumpet again?

DP: I did. I started playing again in a different kind of mindset. When you learn music growing up, you’re playing on paper, and there are all these rudiments. It’s made to make you a better player but it doesn’t really get you to that place. A good method of learning the guitar is having a student bring in a record and say, “I want to play this.” That was never the deal with the trumpet. My favorite part of the trumpet lesson was the last part, which involved playing a song that I wanted to play. Which still involved reading it.

So not only are certain things hard to find on sheet music for trumpet, but my teacher would also say, “I can tell that you’re not reading that very well because you know the song.” I was just playing it the way that I heard it, and not paying attention to the nuances on the paper. So when I came back to it, it was more from a hearing point of view, not a reading point of you. And that was the big difference.

I said, “I’m going to throw away the sheet music and play by ear and see what sounds good to me.” Since I hadn’t really approached the instrument that way in all the years of taking lessons and playing in a youth symphony orchestra and stuff like that, it was very liberating. That’s probably why I had switched to electric guitar because it was liberating, it was easier, it was more fun, and I could play the things that were on the radio.

HMS: I have been hearing a number of stories lately of musicians teaching themselves to play an instrument as kids just by listening to the radio or recordings, just having no formal training at all.

DP: Yes. I guess it’s the irony of the situation that making the noise is secondary to listening. And the best thing you can do as a musician is listen. A lot of people think, “I’m going to get this instrument in my hand and I’m going to start blasting away.” It doesn’t work that way. You listen a lot to what the people around you, who are better than you, are doing. You listen to the music before you just start banging away about it. That follows through everything, really. You have to be listening, at least, as much as you’re “playing”.

HMS: That’s pretty profound. There’s a lot to that. That seems to be the way that large bands manage to play on stage together or record live sessions.

DP: With the brass bands of New Orleans, you could try to record them the way that people record a lot of modern Pop records. You could put the musicians in separate rooms and have everyone play everything perfectly in key. It’s going to sound completely different than if you put them in the same room and have them play together, since that’s what they do. So they are playing off of each other and that’s how they are finding their pitch. It’s kind of difficult to dissect it. They all have to be able to hear and be in the room together. I learned that by running a studio in New Orleans.

HMS: Oh wow. So, you were overseeing a space where people recorded and mixed their albums?

DP: Yeah, we opened up a little studio when I first went down there. There was a studio called Kingsway, which was owned by Daniel Lanois. He was closing the studio, and that’s when I made my solo record, because they weren’t booking any new people. And these engineers were sitting around with nothing to do. So I thought, “Well, what the hell?” And then, once the studio closed, we opened our own studio with the people who were Kingsway engineers. My ex-wife was the studio manager.

I produced a few records, and that was a great experience. There was a guy called Henry Butler, and I just fell in love with him. He would go on stage at 1 o’clock in the morning and play until 3 or 4, so it was perfect for me. He was blind, so I could sit at the end of his piano, practically put my head in the piano. I got to be friends with Henry, and eventually got to produce his record. It was great to be around these intense, incredible musicians, and feeling like I was helping. [Laughs]

HMS: That’s wonderful. Did it encourage it to keep making music and putting out your own stuff, or was it more of a learning experience, just rediscovering why you liked music?

DP: It was pretty much a combination of really wanting to learn more about music, wanting to learn how these New Orleans people do it, and lending all the stuff that I’ve learned from spending millions of dollars making records in New York and LA. You pick up stuff along the way. There are efficient ways to do things, and there are inefficient ways to do things. And there’s a certain amount of experimentation that needs to happen. When you’re trying something new and it works, it’s really exciting. That could be anything, trying a different instrument instead, or playing in the bathroom. There are no rules. You still have to get the stuff on tape, but you should have fun.

HMS: A lot of people are wishing they had experience playing in bathrooms to make recordings right now. Having a versatile skillset is a big plus right now.

DP: I don’t know how versatile my skillset is, but I’m learning. I’m always learning.

Stay tuned for a second part of our interview with Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum!

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