Soul Asylum will release their brand new, 2016 studio album Change of Fortune on March 18th and it’s one of their best in years, right up there with Grave Dancer’s Union (1992) and Let Your Dim Light Shine (1995). It is not an attempt to rehash those albums, though. On the contrary, today’s Soul Asylum is more like a combination of that sound and modern alternative rock with dollop of punk rock whipped cream for good measure. In fact, Soul Asylum has always viewed themselves as a punk rock band and they fully embraced that DIY ethic with the new record, which was funded via Pledge Music. I recently had a chat with frontman Dave Pirner about that and many other things. Read all about it below and be sure to buy their new album when it comes out; it’s fantastic.
MM: You’re based out of New Orleans now, right? How long have you been there?
DP: I’ve been in New Orleans for about fifteen, almost sixteen, years.
MM: Cool. Where do the other guys in the band live?
DP: Winston lives in New Jersey. Justin and Michael both live here in Minneapolis, which is where I am now.
MM: Where did you record Change of Fortune?
DP: Change of Fortune was recorded in many different studios but primarily in my studio in New Orleans and a studio in LA that John Fields runs. Everybody did a lot of stuff in their homes. We’ve all been around long enough that we can record things in our house and pass files over the interweb. Stuff like that.
MM: That’s one of the few things where technology has made it easier for musicians.
DP: You’re right about that. I don’t know if any of it’s worth the sacrifice, but you’re right about that.
MM: Who produced the new album?
DP: John Fields, who’s had a hand in the last two records, I believe, and it’s kind of a collaboration between him and the band. Me and Michael will go out to LA and me, Michael and John will cut a basic track then we’ll bring it back for Justin and Winston to play on, or some semblance of order like that. Kind of cut it pieces at a time. It’s ironic because now the band can finally go into the studio and play live and probably kill it but it’s not the way this one went.
MM: Do you have plans to get together to rehearse for an upcoming tour?
DP: Well, I’m rehearsing for a David Bowie tribute thing. That’s the next thing I gotta do. Then I got a couple little gigs here in Minneapolis and will probably not rehearse for those but, yes, when we do start touring the new material we are going to have to rehearse it.
MM: When do you think you might do the tour?
DP: Dates are starting to fill in and hopefully we’ll be out there as soon as possible and indefinitely.
MM: I saw you a year or two ago at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut in the Wolf Den. I thought that was a really great show.
DP: Yeah, it’s turned out to be a fun annual gig.
MM: So, you’ll probably play there again?
DP: Yup, I think we’re on their yearly rotation.
MM: Excellent. Do you guys do a lot of casino shows?
DP: Not a lot. I mean, I think at first we were a little weary but we’ve grown to appreciate it and I think it has a lot to do with [how] they just have their shit together. It’s maybe more cool to be in our element in a club where there’s maybe a light bulb hanging from the ceiling for a light show and no door on the bathroom and things like that, but you go to a casino and all the gear works and the PA is tight and they give you a sandwich. Little things like that can make a difference when you’re on the road for a while.
MM: When you play casinos, do they tell you you can only play for a certain amount of time, so that they can get people back out on the floor gambling, or do they let you play however long you want?
DP: As elusive as it is to me, I think that they’re always thinking about that. [Both laugh] It’s not something that I really notice because we come in and do our thing and they know how long our thing lasts. But, yeah, I mean, you definitely have to walk through the casino to get to us and walk through the casino to get out. [Both laugh] So, there probably is some weird product placement planning that’s on some sort of a clock but we’re pretty used to playing it and just go about it except for the little clubs that can stay open all night where you’re usually allotted a certain amount of time.
MM: Are there any songs you have to keep in the set when you play live that you’re burnt out on playing?
DP: No. I’m not gonna do that, but I definitely went through a thing with “Runaway Train” where I stopped playing it for about two years. It really confounded people. Especially my own band. I think there’s a part of people like me who only just like to look forward and not depend on the past. Be sentimental and stuff. But it happened just enough times where someone would come back after the show and they went, man, I drove five hours and I spent all this money on a hotel room and all I wanted to hear was fucking “Runaway Train” and you didn’t play it. And that kind of makes me feel like… The guy that books the band at First Avenue where the band grew up brought his two year old backstage and he’s sitting there with a toddler and we played it once. We hadn’t played it in a long time. And he was pretty emotional. He was just like now my two year old got to hear “Runaway Train.” It means so much to us. And I’m like, dude, you’ve seen this band play a million times. I can’t believe that’s what you’re telling me. Enough experiences like that and walking into an Irish bar that said “Danny Boy 10 bucks” on a sign. I just wanted to put “Runaway Train” on a sign and put it around my neck. Now we’re playing it and it was something that I had to sort of, I don’t know, go through a process of just accepting that it’s a gift and not a burden or something like that.
MM: What does the title of the new album, Change of Fortune, mean to you?
DP: It’s kind of an old idea that I had been working on for quite some time. I guess it just means that change is good. You could probably look at it as things can only get better. You could look at it as a fortune that comes out of a cookie. Something that’s pretty elusive. It’s just a change in luck, I guess.
MM: How did New Orleans effect the sound of the new album, if at all?
DP: To my ear, it effected the record quite a bit. 15 years in New Orleans and I just sort of went down there to listen. I got tired of just projecting all the time. It was time for me to open my ears and shut my mouth. So, primarily I think it effected just the poly-rhythms and the syncopation, almost more of a rhythmic type of thing that tries to weave in and out of the more rudimentary things that are happening. And that’s kind of why I went down there. I needed to discover more of the real roots of what we know as American music. So, yeah, it’s a feel thing. It’s a rock ‘n’ roll thing. You just sponge up whatever’s around you and hopefully it rubs off in a good way. But, man, I went down there because I was just fascinated with the music that was happening. I was a trumpet player when I was a kid so I had this other angle that goes full circle for me where I didn’t have any good examples of really good trumpet players. They’re everywhere in New Orleans. So, I think it also re-established my interest in jazz, I guess. I’ve been listening to a lot of trumpet music and instrumental music. I love The Meters. The Meters is probably what really did it for me. They’re a four piece band but they have so much in common with a rock band. They’re about the funkiest thing on the planet. In fact, I know they are. And, I don’t know, it’s the same instrumentation almost, just that it could be so different than what The Beatles did or what someone else did or what I’m doing or whatever. That really fascinated me and that, I think, is all about space. I studied Miles Davis a lot and leaving space. One really good note is better than 12 so so notes. Things like that that are maybe nuances that rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t have the subtlety [for] so you can’t really tell they’re there… [Laughs] I think New Orleans is the greatest music city in the world and you can’t help but not be effected by the music.
MM: Have you started playing the trumpet again at all?
DP: Well, I noticed that I started picking it up a lot more after I moved to New Orleans. It completely changed the way that I was going about it. The way I was going about it was not with my ears. I was going about it trying to play scales and just trying to be sort of athletic with my mouth. And now I understand how much tone is important and I have a tendency to just really listen to what I’m playing. Technically, I’m worthless, but some of the basic rudiments come back to you because you had it driven into you when you were a kid.
MM: Yeah, makes sense.
DP: I went ice skating yesterday and it was just like, man, I know how to do this. I did it my whole childhood. That’s kind of the beauty of learning while you’re young.
MM: I didn’t learn how to swim when I was young and I still don’t know how.
MM: Yeah. I see people do it, so I get the gist of it, but I just can’t muster up the confidence to do it myself, I guess.
DP: That’s interesting. We’re from the land of ten thousand lakes so our mothers threw us out on the ice when we were tiny and our mothers threw us in the lake when we were tiny.
MM: You did a PledgeMusic campaign to raise money for the new album. How did that go?
DP: It’s definitely worth trying. Definitely worth experimenting with. I’m not sure if it really reached whatever goal we were going for. I’m not one to watch the bottom line, so to speak. Some of the activities were kind of interesting, just as far as making a connection with the people that listen to the band. Some of it is just as simple as Kickstarter, I guess. I was very skeptical about it until I talked to the people that were running it and they just seemed like super, super smart people. That kind of got me more interested. I still don’t really know how to think about it except if it continues to proliferate – I guess is the right word – it could really turn into something interesting. I mean, at one point they might as well start putting out the records themselves. [Both laugh] Maybe some day Pledge will be a record label and a thing like that. I’m not really sure if they have other intentions in mind but they seem like a pretty bright group and we were definitely trying to get more familiar with the ins and outs of the interweb, which is what I call it because I’m a bit of a technophobe and a luddite and all those crazy things. The band has always been kind of one foot in the internet and one foot out kind of thing. Not really adept at manipulating it.
MM: It can be a bigger headache than it’s worth sometimes.
DP: You got that right.
MM: You had some concerts available as things people could buy on PledgeMusic. Did any of those get sold?
DP: Well, it’s funny you should ask because I just found out yesterday that one of them is somewhere around here. The strange thing, or the cool thing, is that the house party we’ve been invited to play at is a fan that I’ve known for a very long time. At some point you have to go, why do these people have to pay, they can just come to the show? But there’s a novelty to it. I don’t know, it might turn out to be a really cool thing.
MM: You were recording some acoustic versions of songs on CDs and you were going to decorate the artwork yourself. Did that sell out?
DP: It did. It sold out pretty quickly. That was something I came up with on my own. I don’t know how much they cost or anything like that but I think it’s funny that there’s nine people out there that each have a letter. Somehow, to me, it makes them connected. I don’t know who got what but I re-recorded some acoustic versions of just random stuff so it’s a little bit of a grab bag but hopefully people will dig it. I mean, it is what it is.
MM: What did you do for the artwork?
DP: For the artwork on the CD covers? Well, I’ve sort of taken a big jump into – I don’t know what to call it, I guess it’s street art – really just using spray paint. I got pretty turned onto it by the likes of people like Banksy and that whole kind of thing. Now when you go to the art supply stores, which are probably my third favorite place to go to after a record store and a guitar store. I don’t know, hardware store might be in there somewhere. I think that’s a tough call though. [Art supply stores] started carrying this acrylic spray paint and it’s amazing. You can do all this stuff with this paint. They have to put it in a cage at the art supply store because kids steal it. It’s different than the shit they’ve got at the hardware stores. The coverage is amazing. There’s a lot of instant gratification to spray paint art. That’s basically what I’m into these days, so it was a series of using spray paint and then textures and then I used some ink in there, but, basically, it’s spray paint.
MM: So, you’re into making visual art now, I guess is the way to put it?
DP: Yeah. I kind of always have been. I keep coming back to it. I’ve always, I guess, sort of been moved by it. I love going to museums and I love to learn more about the visual arts and keep my head in the game, so to speak. It’s just something that makes me feel better. [Laughs]
MM: Who did the Change of Fortune album cover?
DP: It features an image entitled “Facebook Update” by world renowned photographer Marsel Van Oosten. He’s a wildlife photographer and the story is that there’s a monkey in the zoo and everybody’s taking pictures of the monkey with their smart phones and the monkey manages to reach up and grab somebody’s smart phone out of their hand. And then he’s in the water and that’s the album cover. Then he figured out how to take a photo with the phone and he took one picture before he went underwater. That’s the story of the photo. The photographer was really cool about it. He wants me to do some music for one of his wildlife films or something and I was like, perfect, because once you fall in love with an image, if you can’t get it you’re really like… Two records ago they told me I could get this image – it was a Banksy image – believe it or not, and then that didn’t work out. So, there I was at the last minute just scrambling to find something else. That’s probably the only record cover that I didn’t have 100 percent approval or whatever.
MM: What’s the story behind “Morgan’s Dog”? The first time I listened to it I was thinking it was a bit morbid but then by the time the song was over I was literally laughing out loud.
DP: [Laughs] Excellent. Well, that is definitely the desired effect. Yeah, it seems to stick out a little bit. To some of the guys in the band it sticks out because it doesn’t sound as good as some of the other tracks. We were asked to do a benefit song for a cause that was – my understanding was that they were teens that were in trouble. And it was supposed to be a Christmas song. That’s why it starts out at Christmas. Then, of course, once they heard the song they were like we can’t put this on this record. I thought to myself, it’s the perfect song for that kind of thing. Anyhow, it is based on a true story. It’s a story that Morgan Spurlock tells at the beginning of – I think the show is called Inside Man – and the episode is about guns and it’s really fascinating the way that he goes through it because he’s at gun shops taking to these fanatics who are buying automatic weapons because they’re afraid the Chinese are going to invade their homes or something. [Both laugh] At the same time, Morgan is still fascinated with guns. He kind of can’t like say guns aren’t cool. Yeah, he starts the episode off with this story about [how] he shot his dog. He looks at the camera and goes true story. I just thought it was great. I thought it was perfect for a Christmas song. When I was in New Orleans I went to the Audubon Zoo and they have this big room that’s one of these indoor outdoor tropical rooms where they’ve got all these plants and alligators then they’ve got birds flying around. And they have a bunch of big birds on the wall. In the building there’s like an eagle and an owl and these big beautiful birds and I’m like what are they doing up there? They’re not flying around. They’re just perched up there. And we had a friend that worked at the zoo and he said every Christmas these birds get shot out of the sky because fathers give their sons guns and the first thing they do is go out and shoot a bald eagle. The whole fucking gun thing, I think is pathetic and ridiculous. In New Orleans there’s lots of guns and I’m just fucking sick and tired of it. Hopefully, the message comes across, which is basically that you should never, ever, ever get a gun. [Both laugh]
MM: Who sings the beginning of “Make it Real”? Is that you? It doesn’t sound like that’s you.
DP: Oh, with the vocal effect on it? Yeah, that’s me. That’s just a goofy vocal effect. We went back and forth on it. Does it sound too alienating or something? But if it doesn’t sound like me I think that’s probably a good thing because my voice is on that record a lot. [Both laugh]
MM: Is that your child at the beginning of “Ladies’ Man”?
DP: That is my kid and my kid’s neighborhood friends.
MM: What is your kid’s name anyway?
DP: His name is Eli. And he’s twelve.
MM: Has being a parent changed your approach to songwriting at all?
DP: I think it’s changed my approach to everything. It certainly makes life seem more precious somehow. It does take the attention off of yourself in a good way. It does give you a whole new appreciation for what comes after you.
MM: When you write a song, how do you usually approach it? Do you start with a title or a riff – how’s it usually work?
DP: Well, I write stuff all over the place. In notebooks and dictaphones. Actually, I’m in my house in Minneapolis and I was just looking at some ancient piece of paper somewhere – oh, there it is – it says delayed reaction on it somewhere. That was the record before last but I think that’s been written on there for a long time. I just keep taking notes and I keep trying to come up with clever [ideas]. It’s a shit-stream of consciousness. You throw stuff against the wall until something sticks, really.
MM: Have you thought about writing an autobiography? I imagine you must have a lot of stories to tell.
DP: Yeah, I don’t know. For a minute there it seemed like everyone was doing it. I was just like, nah. It’s weird because I’m not really that interested in reading anybody else’s. That’s part of the reason why it doesn’t occur to me. But… I like books. [Laughs] I just don’t know if I’d ever want to read a book about that.
MM: You did a fantastic duet with Within Temptation on a song called “The Whole World Is Watching” in 2014, which surprised me because it was like two different genres of music coming together. How did that collaboration come about?
DP: They called me and they had a couple other guests on the record. One was the guy that did Pimp My Ride. Xzibit. They called me up and I recorded the song in New Orleans and then they decided to make a video. Who doesn’t want to go to Amsterdam and hang out with a cool band in Amsterdam? So, it was fun and spontaneous. They’re great. Great people. I hadn’t really heard the band before that but I know them now.
MM: Were you really on top of a building when we see that in the video or was that CGI?
DP: I was in a studio with a green screen. It was magical. [Both laugh]
MM: I really liked the song “I Should Have Stayed In Bed” from Delayed Reaction, which has this whole string section. How did you come up with that idea?
DP: I think it was always part of the vision. When you’re envisioning something and you’re envisioning strings you’re probably going over budget in your vision. It had gotten to the point where I had a very dear friend in New Orleans who plays violin, who knew a really great cellist, and I have a studio down there, and I got the two of them to come in and multitrack themselves quite a bit. Trying to make it sound like a bigger string section. I think I probably had keyboard strings on there and, you know, if you can get real string players. It’s kind of the same thing we did on “Ladies’ Man.” You do what you can afford. With most records, the strings are the first thing to go. You’ve got this vision of having strings on something and then you run out of time and money and it’s like, oh well. [Laughs]
MM: You did the score for Kevin Smith’s movie Chasing Amy. Have you scored anything else since then?
DP: Well, right now I’m scoring a twelve minute short about the first magic shop in America, which happened to be in Minneapolis. But I think the thing I’ve learned about that is you’ve gotta live in Hollywood. You’ve gotta be in the game. I would love to get more work like that. I don’t know how you get that work besides going to events and things in Los Angeles and always be reminding people that you’re available.
MM: What are your thoughts on Los Angeles in general?
DP: In general? [Laughs] You’re setting me up for a cheap shot but I’m not gonna take it.
MM: All right.
DP: I think it’s a crazy, crazy place.
MM: I was just curious because I lived there for a few years myself.
DP: Yeah, I had a hard time adjusting to the landscape. I don’t drive a car so I like places where I can walk.
MM: I don’t drive either and I didn’t like having to take 5 MTA buses to get somewhere.
DP: Where are you now?
MM: I’m back in Dracut, Massachusetts now, which is like forty minutes from Boston.
DP: Right on.
MM: When “Somebody To Shove” became a mega-hit you’d already been at it for ten years. Did you think you’d ever achieve that kind of massive success at that point?
DP: No, I think when we got signed to Twin Tone records I thought this is as far as it goes. As far as I can go. I think, as silly as it may sound, that when Weird Al Yankovic covered one of my songs I had made it.
MM: One last thing I’ll ask you about. What are your thoughts on Spotify and streaming services in general? I’ve asked a lot of musicians and it seems like nobody is happy about it, but I saw that you did a commentary version of Delayed Reaction for them. So, I didn’t know what your opinion might be.
DP: I guess I’m of the mind that if you are not willing to leave the house and go see a live band or something like that, [if] you’re kind of letting an algorithm decide what your taste is, and you decide that maybe music isn’t so great, you fucked up. Because you just let a computer decide your taste for you. Music deserves a better shot than that.
MM: Yeah, there’s nothing like going to a record store.
DP: I know, right?
MM: It’s my favorite thing to do.
DP: It’s an important experience.
A big THANK YOU to Dave for taking the time to do this interview. Thanks also to Dana Gordon for setting it up.
Remember, Soul Asylum’s new record, Change of Fortune, is out on March 18th. Mark your calendars!
http://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/soulasylum [It’s not too late to pledge and grab yourselves some cool goodies!]
Visit the Change of Fortune album cover photographer Marsel Van Oosten @http://www.squiver.com/
I’ve always wanted to meet Dave. Now I feel like I kind of did. Thanks for that.