Interview - Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum

The "Runaway Train" writer has a soft spot for EDM

Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum performs in May 2008. whoohoo120/Creative Commons

The electricity was palpable on the 2014 Summerland tour— so much so that it threatened the life of Soul Asylumfront man Dave Pirner.

“In the first few days of the tour, there was so much rain in Florida that I learned a new expression, which I did not see that one coming after doing this for this long,” he recalled over the phone with “It’s called hot ground, and there was so much electricity from the stage and so much water on the ground, I wasn’t allowed to get off the bus and walk through the grass because I might get electrocuted.”

Soul Survivor

Technically, the shaggy-haired, deep-voiced, urchin-like Pirner is the sole survivor of a band whose career dates back to the mid-1980s. Original bassist Karl Mueller passed away in 2005 from throat cancer. Longtime guitarist and Soul Asylum cofounder Dan Murphy left the group in 2012. And a cavalcade of drummers marched in and out over the years, leading to Pirner’s pairing with former Prince posse member Michael Bland. (Rounding out the current “Runaway Train” team is bass man Winston Roye and guitarist Justin Sharbono, Murphy’s distant cousin.)

The alt-rock artist has expanded his musical palate in the 20-odd years since his band’s chart-busting ballad earned him a Grammy for Best Rock Song. A Minneapolis man by upbringing, Pirner and his family relocated to New Orleans 15 years ago. His immersion in America’s aural roots led to a fascination with collaboration and experimentation. He said he’d love to piece together a local artist collective to reinterpret his hits, but “I don’t know if anyone else would want to hear that.”

Pirner is constantly surprised by what people attending the Summerland shows do want to hear. The singles are a given, but with a relatively short set each night (on a bill headlined by Everclear and supported by Eve 6 and Spacehog), Soul Asylum are getting creative with their live output.

“We were walking onstage about four days ago and Derrek (Hawkins), the guitar player from Spacehog, goes, ‘Oh, man, I really like that song called ‘Can’t Even Tell.’ And Michael -Bland, my drummer - makes the setlists, and he just happened to put it on for that one show.”

“… Max from Eve 6 wants to hear 'Spinnin',' and Justin’s going about learning it. It’s just kind of funny. It’s like those guys in the other bands have that one favorite song that some of us had forgotten a long time ago.”

The 50-year-old singer-songwriter said he intentionally wrote in a way that would allow even his oldest works to seem genuine when performed by his middle-aged self. No teenybopper stuff for Soul Asylum, and that’s likely why the group’s pull is as strong as ever. And the quartet continued in that vein with 2012’s Delayed Reaction (429 Records), a poppy and reflective collection with choice titles such as “Let’s All Kill Each Other” and “I Should Have Stayed in Bed.”

The Sound and the Fury

Pirner’s no curmudgeon, but hindsight is 20/20. After all the years of recording and playing at extreme volumes and getting lectured by even the Who’s Pete Townshend, he has suffered through bouts of tinnitus. He expressed concern for the archetypical kid in the front row at a concert plugging his ears near the throbbing speakers because he’s been there— he copped to doing brilliant things in his youth like drinking a lot of beer and sticking his head in a bass drum.

And now, the shift from amps that go to 11 to the sneaky low-end of the Electronic Dance Music scene worries him. He recently attended a Bassnectar concert and “It was the loudest thing I’d ever heard.”

“It was interesting because they were handing out a lot of earplugs, and the kids are taking a lot of MDMA or something. It’s just a whole weird thing, but it’s visceral. … You feel like every screw in the building is coming loose. I’m a volume junkie, so I just really get off on it. But I was like, wow, I did not see that coming.”

One thing Soul Asylum fans might not see coming? The foursome’s encyclopedic offering of cover tunes. Pirner and Co. have hammered out unique takes on everything from “We Are the World” to Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” and more curveballs might be on the way. Last year, they released the No Fun Intended EP, with their versions of Joy Division, MC5 and Suicide Commandos tunes. They have another 12 covers in the can, and Pirner hopes to have them out in the near future.

In the meantime, his band is working on a full-length follow-up to Delayed Reaction, which he said is shaping up to be his most diverse album yet. Listeners can expect elements of French horn, trumpet and the influence of Pirner’s adopted hometown of the Big Easy. Keep your ear to the (hot) ground as Soul Asylum forge ahead in their 30-year alt-rock reign.