Stage Times: Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum

Frontman Dave Pirner talks strip bars, crematoriums and being too loud to stay small

You don’t want to sleep on Soul Asylum UK shows. A dismissive, “Oh I’ll catch them next time around” is leaving more to chance than you’d imagine, seeing as it’s been literal decades since the Minneapolis quartet last graced these parts. Their last visit was all the way back in 1995.

Dave Pirner and co. finally return to these shores this week for a co-headlining tour with fellow American alt-rock survivors Everclear. For Soul Asylum, the shows also coincide with the 30th anniversary of their landmark album Grave Dancers Union and its indelible hit single ‘Runaway Train’. We caught up with Pirner over Zoom to chat through his defining gig experiences over a career filled with highlights.

Soul Asylum - Runaway Train (Official HD Video)

The One That Inspired You

It was mostly the local bands. Before that, I thought that music came out of a radio from some distant place. So it was bands like The Suburbs and The Suicide Commandos. I mean, we’re definitely a Ramones sort of group in the sense that we heard the Ramones and we thought, “Man, this sounds doable.” It’s not like you’re listening to frickin’ Yes and going, “Well, I think we can do that.”

The Ramones are definitely a little more approachable for a novice.

It makes it easy to understand. In the end, it’s the rudiments of the music. Using the example of Yes, that kind of music comes off as complicated and majestic. What the Ramones are doing, it’s just more obvious. There’s a real folk ethic to the Ramones’ music and other music of the punk rock genre. It’s music for the people by the people, and everyone can understand it. And that was an aesthetic that I was really drawn to.

Yeah, three chords and the truth.

Absolutely. Throw a fourth chord in there, you’re gonna lose your bass player.

Soul Asylum - Cartoon

The First

I think it was outdoors at a park. I believe the other two guys in the band worked at a restaurant called Kikukawa, which was a Japanese restaurant. And they had an employee picnic. I believe this is the first time the three of us played in front of people. I was playing drums. It was a zoo, like the park grounds for a zoo. We weren’t playing in a zoo. It was fairly uneventful. We played mostly Heartbreakers covers and Ramones covers and a couple other special things that were easy, some rockabilly. But, yeah, not a lot of pressure. No one was expecting anything and we didn’t really know what we were doing.

Do you remember coming away it feeling like, yeah this is what I want to do?

I knew that we had something going on. And I knew that I loved playing the drums, but I might not always be the drummer. Mostly, I think that we enjoyed each other’s company and we enjoyed hanging out together and sort of having a having a go, just kind of making fun of everything. I remember Karl (Mueller, Soul Asylum’s original bassist) had a pickup truck. And we pulled up and the door opened up and a bottle of something came falling out.

That probably set the tone for the evening.

Exactly, what a bunch of clowns!

Had you always harboured ambitions of being the frontman?

Yeah, I had a band in high school called The Sh*ts.

Great name!

Right? Like, “Hi, we’re The Sh*ts.” Danny (Murphy, ex-Soul Asylum guitarist) and Karl came and saw us play at the Longhorn, which was the premier punk club in Minneapolis, for lack of a better word. They saw me play in that band. And me and Karl got together at another outdoor show. We were underage, so we couldn’t get into the bars yet. There was a place called the Walker Art Center, which is still there. A lot of the local bands would do gigs there and I could go to those because it wasn’t it wasn’t a bar. Me and Karl were sitting in his truck smoking a joint and I think that’s when the conversation kind of shifted towards, “Ooh, we should start a band.” He was just starting out. I mean, he did not know how to play yet, which never stops a punk rock band, you know?

I don’t know if this is just punk legend or actually true, but word has it that you can be heard shouting at the cops at the start of The Replacements’ song ‘Kids Don’t Follow’.

It is me! The cops came in, and they kicked everybody out. And me and my friends – actually two other guys named Dave, if I have recollected this properly – we’re just screaming, “F*ck you”.

That’s a cool thing to be to be connected with.

It’s my claim to fame, man.

I think you’ve done a couple of things since then.

Well, questionable things.

Soul Asylum - Somebody to Shove (Official HD Video)

The Biggest

The first thing that comes to mind is when we came back to Minneapolis after conquering the world, if you will. And we played at an outdoor baseball diamond stadium. The reason I remember it is because there was a railroad track behind the stage. And as we were playing ‘Runaway Train’, a train came by and it looked like the most elaborate staging ever, but it was just a total coincidence. At that point, we could do anything. We were making magic.

How did you feel playing shows of that size? Was it something you ever felt comfortable with?

I think you kind of rationalise it after a while. If we’re gonna go through all this trouble to play this gig, as many people as can come should probably come. At some point, I remember, we had just hired a manager. And we played at a large venue and he said, “Yeah, I was standing in the crowd watching and I said, ‘Oh, this could work.’ You guys could play stadiums, whatever.” And that kind of indicated to me that we were doing something right.

I mean, we were loud, really loud. So it was coming off the stage at a point where, in some of the venues, we were probably so loud that there was no place to run to. But yeah, it doesn’t matter to me. I mean, you have to be prepared for anything. I’ve never been big at asking a lot of questions before a show. It doesn’t matter if there’s 10 people or 10,000 people there, I gotta do the same thing. I got to do the best I can.

That rule of thumb helps because you never know when you’re gonna get someplace and holy sh*t, there’s only 100 people here. We didn’t know we weren’t huge in Alaska, or whatever, you know? So you just do your thing, no matter what happens, no matter who shows up. And it’s just something to be mentally prepared for, to be always either pleasantly surprised or, you know, not fazed by anything. Keep expectations as low as possible.

Soul Asylum - Promises Broken (Official Video)

The Weirdest

The one that comes to mind was in Cleveland, a long, long time ago. Early 80s, I guess. The stage was in the middle, and then the bar went around the stage. I did fall off the stage into a bunch of bottles. And I figured out at some point that we were playing on a stage that was made for a stripper. And I was standing outside the venue – this is in a place called The Flats in Cleveland – and there was this aroma, if you will. I was talking to a local and I said, “What is that smell?” And he goes, “Oh, there’s a crematorium right there.” And it just all kind of came together like, “Wow, this is what my life is now.”

Hopefully that was the first and only time you played there?

Well, in that particular club. We ended up in The Flats many times, carrying our gear through knee-high water at one point because it floods down there. But yeah, it tainted my memory. Like, that’s what I think of when I go to The Flats: strip bars and crematoriums.

Soul Asylum - Black Gold (Official HD Video)

The Worst

It used to happen a lot. It seems like things were always falling apart and nothing was working and you get harassed. There was a gig in Guelph, Ontario. It’s not so much that the gig was a bad gig, it was just a surreal atmosphere. It was in a castle without a roof. Somehow, after the gig, we ended up with some Neo Nazis in our van. And back then, we would go sleep on people’s floors and the couple that hosted us was doing it all night very loudly. And I believe we had some equipment problems. Yeah, it was a f*cked up night.

Soul Asylum - Sometime To Return

The Best

They’re all so good, Mark.

That’s a good answer.

I think that the gigs that become the most important to me are the gigs that are here in Minneapolis. There’s always a little bit of a higher expectation, because you’re coming back to someplace that, hopefully, the last time you played there, you had a really good gig. So this time, you want it to be even better. And there’s a handful of venues like that, like First Avenue and Bowery Ballroom and Metro in Chicago and a few places like that. You’re a little extra nervous before the show and there’s a little more feeling of accomplishment should the show go right.

Get tickets here for Soul Asylum and Everclear’s shows in London on 10 November and Manchester on 11 November. The 30th anniversary deluxe edition of Grave Dancers Union is out now