Dave Pirner Still Carries The Torch

Soul Asylum Frontman Talks Twin/Tone Reissues And Finding Unity In Squalor

Original cover art for Soul Asylum’s 1984 debut Say What You Will, Clarence, Karl Sold The Truck

Founded as Loud Fast Rules in 1981, Soul Asylum signed with Minneapolis label Twin/Tone in 1984.

The city’s music scene was thriving with a host of groups, including The Replacements and Hüsker Dü garnering national attention. What few might have predicted was that Soul Asylum would eventually eclipse both those legendary acts in terms of commercial success or that it would become one of the longest-running bands to emerge from the Twin Cities.

The first two Soul Asylum albums are reissued on July 20 via Omnivore. There are rarities galore on both Say What You Will… Anything Can Happen (also known as Say What You Will Clarence … Karl Sold The Truck) and Made To Be Broken. Both are excellent reminders of Soul Asylum’s unapologetic power. Say What You Will… introduces listeners to a band that’s honed its skills on the bar and VFW hall circuit, doing what it can to hold an audience’s attention. It crackles with a youthful energy that feels authentic and eager nearly 35 years after its initial release.

The group (guitarist/vocalist Dave Pirner, guitarist Dan Murphy, bassist Karl Mueller and drummer Pat Morley) doesn’t sound derivative though careful listening reveals an appreciation for Twin Cities titans such as Curtiss A. (and his band Spooks) as well as New Wave stalwarts The Suburbs. There’s even some evidence that Pirner and friends had taken some time to appreciate the revved up antics of the early ‘Mats.

“Voodoo Doll” carries flashes of punk ingenuity and predicts some of the noisy, start-stop post hardcore that would become prevalent in Kansas City and Oklahoma City during the late 1990s. The rhythms are at times exotic and frequently dangerous. One can smell warm amps, cold beer and the first trickles of earnest Midwestern sweat within. “Stranger” spotlights Pirner’s remarkable saxophone work and ability for the smart and sensitive and his vocal performance is evidence that he was already performing at a level commensurate with stardom.

Bob Mould lends a steady hand as producer, a role that he’d reprise on the second effort. Made To Be Broken (1986) is more assured than its predecessor with tracks such as “Ship Of Fools” and “Never Really Been” predicting the widespread success that would visit the quartet less than a decade later. With Grant Young in the drummer’s throne, Made is evidence of a band well on its way.

Bonus cuts on both recordings (including the Loud Fast Rules demo) provide glimpses of a group in evolution, on its way to become the most powerful rock ‘n’ roll band in the country, a title it would claim somewhere around the time that Pirner and Co. issued Grave Dancers Union in 1992.

The subsequent years have provided their challenges: Mueller, a character universally beloved in both the Minneapolis music scene and among fans, died in 2005. Murphy retired from music in 2012, leaving Pirner as the sole original member.

Joined by drummer Michael Bland, bassist Winston Roye and guitarist Ryan Smith, Pirner is playing on a summertime bill with 3 Doors Down and Collective Soul. Though the current itinerary is only briefly mentioned, the singer suggests that there will be headlining dates to follow later in the year when the quartet can stretch out and perform a set that reaches deep into its oeuvre.

An affable interview subject, Pirner receives compliments graciously. It’s perhaps an unsurprising characteristic for a man who cites his high school English teacher as an influence on his writing and who remains surrounded by a variety of characters who have been with him from the beginning. The beginning, of course, offers many glimpses of the band Soul Asylum would become and all that it still can be.

Some artists delegate tasks in the reissue process. How involved were you in these two editions?

I spent a lot of time with my tour manager going through my attic and my basement, trying to find things that had been forgotten. We’ve managed to unearth some interesting things. [Twin/Tone co-founder] Pete Jesperson was there through the whole process and he was there the first time so I was very comfortable working with Pete. He was definitely the right guy to talk me into it. At one point I said, “There’s a lot of outtakes and stuff that we decided not to release.” He said, “Oh, Dave! Your fans are gonna love it!” Had someone else said that it it wouldn’t haven’t meant as much. There were a lot of stirred up memories. Some of them good and some of them reminders of how far we’ve come.

Had you spent a lot of time playing the stuff from Say What You Will live?

We’d been playing that a long time. We’d work out new material at a practice and then play it at a gig. We’d refine them like that.

What were the early days with you and Pat and Karl and Dan like?

They all lived in a house over by the University of Minnesota. They were all in their first year of college. I spent pretty much all my time over there. We practiced in the basement, partied there on the weekends. We called it the Loudhouse. We built up tremendous friendship over time. You’re in some squalorous circumstances. The odds are immeasurably stacked against you so you have to stick together and fight it out. When Karl died it was a very sad day. I still miss him.

Did the elder bands in the scene show a lot of support?

They did. There were a couple of compilations that the Hüsker guys made and they asked us to be on them. We got a lot of support from them. They took us out on the road. Pete Jesperson was always watching us when he wasn’t watching The Replacements. Chris Osgood (Suicide Commandos) taught me a lot of things on the guitar. He was someone I really looked up to. I still talk to him today and he’s still a mentor. I can go to a party and Chrissie Dunlap, the woman who gave me my first gig, is there. The survivors are usually the people who are truest to form. Those are my people.

How did Bob Mould come to be the producer the first time out?

I distinctly remember walking across the street and Bob saying, “You should let me produce your record.” I said, “What’s a producer?” I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t have any reason to say no. He’d been in the studio more than we had. It was a nice way to ease our way into it.

What were the first places outside of Minneapolis that noticed the band?

Madison, Wisconsin was the first destination. It was the closest place to Minneapolis where it seemed like we could get a gig. That’s when we started taking the pickup to Madison and playing really weird gigs. But we were getting out of town and thinking it was a big deal. Then, once you get to Madison, it becomes Chicago. Then you set your sights on New York City. But to get to New York you’ve got a lot of places in between. [Laughs.] Eventually we ended up in Australia.

What changed between the first album and Made To Be Broken?

Once we were signed to Twin/Tone I probably started writing even more than I had been. I had a destination for my songs. We were also learning how to play in that time. You can hear us trying different things and learning what we can and can’t do. We were more proficient by the second one. Not proficient but more proficient than we had been. [Laughs.] We had “Never Really Been” on there, just trying to take ourselves in as many different directions as we could. Some of it works and some of it is “charming.”

Are there things that sound better than you remember?

When I listen to that stuff I think, “Wow! We practiced a lot!” We were on a six-day-a-week practice schedule and that becomes obvious to me when I listen to that stuff. Even though I hadn’t figured out how to sing yet there’s an impressive amount of skill. There are parts that are crazy and all over the place and there’s no way we could have played that music without over-rehearsing it. We were really dedicated. We weren’t just a bunch of fuck-ups that didn’t want to go to practice. We wanted to take it as far as we could.

You talked about the band trying to improve together in their playing but were you also trying to improve as a lyricist. What did you do in that process?

After I got through the initial punk rock phase of things, I started to hone in on people like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen and Lou Reed. People I consider some of my favorite lyricists. I really dug in. I referenced everything I knew. I also had a great English teacher, Charlotte Westby, in high school who I also credit for some of my development. She taught me the Romantic poets. It comes from anywhere and everywhere. It’s a fascination with words. It was real passion for something. I don’t want to call it poetry because that sound pretentious but I guess that’s sort of what lyrics are when they’re really good.

Did you continue to be a reader?

Yes, but there was a time where I thought, “If I have time to read I should be writing” and that kind of messed me up a little bit. I got to a point where I read a lot of books that influenced how I thought about putting words together. Then I got to the point where I didn’t want to be influenced by other writers.

How much of the first few couple of records remain in your live set today?

Michael Bland, our drummer, will always pull old things out and I’m always delighted to hear what he comes up with. He’ll say, “Hey, why don’t we play this song?” and it sounds so great when he plays it. Now we have so much more experience than when we recorded those early tunes. It all finally sounds realized to me now. We worked on “Freaks” today, which is the first song from While You Were Out. “Stranger” from Say What You Will comes in and out of the set. There’s always a few things we pick from Made To Be Broken. There’s a little bit of talk about us playing While You Were Out or Made To Be Broken live. There’s a lot of work to be done. [Laughs.] There’s a lot of words to a lot of those songs! There are a lot of parts too. Sometimes it’s complicated in the funniest “I didn’t know what I was doing”-kind of way.

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Jedd Beaudoin

Jedd Beaudoin is a writer, educator and broadcaster based in Wichita, Kansas.

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