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Name: Adam Bernard
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Soul Asylum Stays True To Their Roots & Continues To Rock
Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A band that has thrived thanks to a punk rock ethos, Soul Asylum found themselves at the forefront of the alt-rock explosion of the 90s. When the genre faded it didn’t phase the group’s frontman Dave Pirner, whose focus stayed on creating music that he loves.

Soul Asylum is now ten albums deep, with an eleventh on the way later this year, and the revamped lineup, which now includes Pirner, Michael Bland, Winston Roye, and Justin Sharbono, will be hitting the road starting June 13th as a part of the Summerland Tour with Everclear, Eve 6, and Spacehog.

With Pirner prepping for the tour, I caught up with him to find out more about what he has in store for fans. Pirner also told a few tour stories from his 30-plus years on the road, and opened up about a loss that still affects him to this day.

Adam Bernard: You are going to be back on the road this summer for the Summerland tour. Obviously you’ll be playing the hits all the fans want to hear, but is there a song, or set of songs, you always want to play specifically for you?

Dave Pirner: Well, I’m in Minneapolis, and we’re gonna practice today. We just did a gig that was a whole different interpretation of some of the material, and it was really interesting. The Summerland thing, it’s such a short set that it’s kinda ... we’ll probably throw some stuff in there. We’ll probably play real different sets every night just to keep it interesting. I don’t know what of the newest new material we’re going to have ready, but we’re sure going to try to play some of it. It’s a half hour set, we’ll do our best to venture off a little bit.

Adam Bernard: When you signed on did you realize you’d have a half hour set, and this was a challenge you wanted to take on?

Dave Pirner: No, they just gave us a half hour and we went, “Really!?! Geez!” It’s not a challenge, it’s basically easier on my voice. I’d rather play longer, but that’s kinda not really what this thing is about. It’s kinda like a festival. Get ‘em on, get ‘em off.

Adam Bernard: You say it will be easier on your voice. Are there certain things that are different touring now than say when you were 25?

Dave Pirner: Nope, not really. {laughs} It’s kinda like the exact same drill. I enjoy it more. I never took it for granted. It’s always kind of a humbling experience to show up in all these crazy towns and have people show up to see ya. I think that part of it is kinda nice, and I think part of it that gets hard on you is just all the travel. Over the years I think as we’ve figured out how to do this, and do it right, I’m knocking on wood when I’m saying that. Every now and then something falls apart, but you gotta kind of expect that.

Adam Bernard: You mentioned you now have this routine down, but we all do dumb things in our 20s, so do you have to have a story from your younger years as a touring artist where, in retrospect, you’re glad you didn’t know any better, because had you known better you wouldn’t have a specific incredible memory.

Dave Pirner: Nope. {laughs} No memories at all! What is the stupidest thing I did, is that what you’re asking me?

Adam Bernard: Not necessarily the stupidest, just a great memory that you only have because you didn’t know better, and if you knew better you may not have done it.

Dave Pirner: Just being on the road with Karl (Mueller). I’m up here in Minneapolis to do a benefit concert for cancer (research). My bass player (Mueller) died when he was very young, and I put together this video tribute show to him, and it was super experimental for me, but I think it worked. I’ve just been missing him so much over this gig, and this project.

Adam Bernard: What kind of memories do you have from crazy good times on the road?

Dave Pirner: I guess the first one that came to my mind, it’s just a typical thing, but you travel around, you try to hang with the locals, and you do what the locals do, and all the locals wanted to go skinny dipping in the ocean. Lo and behold, the cops show up and there are a bunch of naked dudes standing there. That’s a pretty funny memory.

Adam Bernard: What foreign place have you felt the most out of your element in?

Dave Pirner: Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. It was just subterranean. It’s just a really different landscape, and really disorientating. We played at a military base, and it was just about the weirdest place I’ve ever been. It was just so bizarre what was happening there. When I think about it now, it seems like it couldn’t have possibly happened because it was so weird. My roadie got into a fight. It went on and on and on like that. We were just so far in the middle of nowhere that we were bonding by playing cards together in the hotel room because it was kind of scary out there.

Adam Bernard: You weren’t heading out to take on the town in Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Dave Pirner: Oh we tried and lost.

Adam Bernard: Some things were lost in translation when you were out there?

Dave Pirner: That is exactly how I would eloquently put that. {laughs}

Adam Bernard: Soul Asylum has been around for over 30 years. What’s been the most difficult aspect of keeping things going?

Dave Pirner: Hmm. The most difficult aspect is, just people coming and going, pretty much. One guy dies, one guy quits, stuff like that. It just feels like you kinda get some momentum going and then every now and then the rug just gets pulled out from under ya, and you gotta kinda start all over again. It’s really a strange way to make a living. I like to say it’s good work if you can get it, but it’s really insecure. It’s REALLY insecure. You really don’t know what’s going to happen from moment to moment, and you really don’t know if you’re ever gonna be able to pay your bills, or whatever, but it’s music, so you know that you’re giving up some of these things for all the right reasons, and you know that’s part of the game, you just don’t know where your next meal is going to come from. That part of it has been terrifying. On the other hand, at this time I have, I think, one of the most solid road organizations out there. We’re really really efficient, and we’re really good at what we do as far as just my tour manager, my sound man, my guitar tech, these guys are just awesome, and the band is just unbelievably tight, both musically, and we’re friends, man. We’re a gang going out to conquer the world, and that’s always been kind of, I don’t know, the childish mentality you have going about it. It’s kind of always been that way for Michael Bland, he’s my drummer, he’s like, “Dave, you think a band’s more like a gang, huh?” I’m like, “Well, I guess that’s the way I’ve always thought about it. Yeah, pretty much.”

Adam Bernard: You mentioned earlier in that answer that you gave things up to live this life. What would you consider to be the greatest sacrifice you’ve made for music?

Dave Pirner: My bass player. Does that count? I mean, holy shit. I mean, that’s the guy who smoked a cigarette every time I smoke a cigarette, and had a beer every time I had a beer, and he just dropped dead.

Adam Bernard: You don’t actually blame yourself for that, though. That answer kind of makes it sound like you’re blaming yourself.

Dave Pirner: Well... it’s hard not to sort of feel responsible somehow, that something could have been different, or something ... I don’t blame myself, but ah, I can’t even tell you how much I miss him. It feels like he lived his life for rock n roll, and that’s pretty goddamned heroic for me, so yeah, I don’t think too much about what other trouble I’ve had to go through, I just feel lucky I can still do it, I guess.

Adam Bernard: I definitely understand the feeling of loss. I’ve lost friends very young who were still in their 20s and 30s.

Dave Pirner: Ugh.

Adam Bernard: Yeah, that sound pretty much encapsulates the feeling. Let’s move on to other subjects. Going back in time a bit, after Grave Dancers Union went triple platinum you were on MTV, and rock radio, every day. With all of this came a new set of expectations, at least in the eyes of fans, and I’m guessing the label. What changed for you as you learned about, and attempted to meet, those expectations?

Dave Pirner: What changed for me is probably is what changes for everybody when they have a little bit of success. Everybody’s laughing at your jokes, everybody’s answering your phone calls, everybody’s wanting to be around you all the time, everybody’s trying to get something off ya. The part that changes the most that I liked was just people answering their phones. Nobody was out of their office. Nobody had just gone to the bathroom.

Adam Bernard: Funny thing about that.

Dave Pirner: Right. {laughs}

Adam Bernard: There were expectations, though. How were they different after you hit it big?

Dave Pirner: Well, I think that when Soul Asylum came to Columbia we were already a pretty established underground indie band, or whatever it is. We’d already put out two records on a major label and a mess of records on Twin/Tone, and we’ve always had a do-it-yourself aesthetic. It’s that punk rock thing where nobody’s gonna help you, and fuck everybody else, and we’re gonna do this whether you like it or not. We sort of have always had to had that ethic as far as we don’t care what you think, this is what we do. That's what we brought to Columbia, so they couldn’t really tell us what to do because they didn’t want to fuck with us too much.

Adam Bernard: They signed on knowing what they were getting into.

Dave Pirner: And once you have that success you’re expected to just keep cranking out hits, or whatever, and that kinda thing just didn’t really cross my desk. It seemed like it was, I don’t know, I don’t understand the whole fuckin hit thing. That part of it gets kind of non-musical, and that part of it made me move to New Orleans, and that part of it made me sort of recoil a little bit, and that part of it made me not really give a shit, because fuck you, I’m gonna make the same kind of music I’ve always made, I don’t care if you like it or not. We made a record twice at one point, and spent about two million dollars. I’ll never do that again. I'll never have to do that again. It's ridiculously wasteful. I just have a way to operate that’s pretty minimal. I’ve learned a lot along the way, and if this next record we got coming out does better than the last record, I mean, I don’t give a shit. If it’s really as good as I want it to be, the goal has pretty much been achieved, and I have put out some music for some people, that’s the best I can do. I am a relentless, I wouldn't call it a perfectionist, but I can’t stop working on something like that. There’s an expression some French filmmaker made, it was like “My movies aren’t finished until somebody takes them away from me.” So I’ve learned a lot about not over-thinking things, and being spontaneous, and trying to get all this sort of “dance like no one’s watching” kind of thing that is somewhat organic, and somewhat, I don’t know, just kind of laying my emotions out there, kind of raw. That can be kind of scary, but I guess my favorite thing is to look out at the crowd and see people singing along to a song in a way that I can just see it in their eyes how much the words mean, how much they’re singing my song to me, or with me, there’s just nothing like that. It’s really a cool feeling.

Adam Bernard: You mentioned the new album, so give me a title, give me a release date.

Dave Pirner: I don’t have a title, and I don’t have a release date, but we got one song mixed, and ten to go. {laughs} It’s funny you should mention that release date situation because we’re not on a schedule. Right now at this point in Soul Asylum we don’t have to answer to anybody, but I think it will probably be finished within the next month or so, and then it’s just a matter of turning it around and getting it out there, and Lord only knows how that’s gonna go. It’s gonna come out when it’s done, and it’s gonna be done pretty soon. There’s probably not gonna be a ticket-tape parade, or anything like that. We’ll be lucky if anyone knows we have a new album out. What are you gonna do, put a sign on the internet?

Adam Bernard: Do you hope it’s done in time for this tour, or is that too soon?

Dave Pirner: That would be ideal, but yeah, that ain’t gonna happen. That's not in the cards because once the road show gets going it’s like go out there and have fun and play some music, then come back and get serious about the record again, finish that fucker up, and then we’ll go tour the record. Shit, two summers ago, or last summer, whenever that was, I toured Grave Dancers Union, and it was the weirdest thing ever. We did one of those go out and play your whole album from front to back things. Man was that weird. It was very odd for me. I really felt like I was stepping back in time. It was fun, and everything, it was really cool because I had never heard some of the songs sound quite as a good as they do when we play them live. It’s the best band I’ve ever had. That part of it was awesome, and then when you play it through from the beginning to the end, I just go holy shit, you know how much money it took to record that? How many days we agonized, and oh my God, it was just the longest, most exhausting process I’ve ever experienced in my life and it was really because we weren’t really very good at what we were doing, so we had to really dick around in the studio to get it right, and do all kinds of whatever, crying, and fighting, and arguing, and all this stupid nonsense just to try to make it sound like music, and I shit you not, this band could have played it in a studio live and it would have probably sounded better. {laughs}

Adam Bernard: Did you do live recordings at the shows, and listen back to them like, “Damn, we sound good!”

Dave Pirner: The last time that happened it was a little shocking for me. I was just like holy cow! I (usually) don’t listen to that shit. I used to really really loathe it because we were kinda this crappy punk rock band, and you get a shitty board mix, or you get some damned thing, and now you can sorta get a decent recording from the house, and it’s shocking to me. I’m just like wow, these guys really fucking know what they’re doing. {laughs}

Adam Bernard: You’re like, “I’m in that band!”

Dave Pirner: Yeah, no kidding. It’s kind of hard to believe.

Adam Bernard: Finally, when mainstream notoriety came for you there were a plethora of dominant personalities as lead singers of rock groups, almost all of them male. Do you think we’ll ever have another era with so many prominent male lead singers?

Dave Pirner: I can’t remember who I was talking about this with. We were talking about Roger Daltrey and Robert Plant and the golden gods of that era. The funny part is always that you’re kinda going wow, you can really see what the dynamic between Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend is like, and you always kinda get this thing where people either hate the lead singer, or they like the lead singer, but they usually always love the guitar player, so whatever. {laughs} But no, I don’t, and I think that as this was happening, all these bands finally getting to pay their bills, finally getting noticed, finally being able to have a guitar tech, finally being able to get up in the morning and maybe feel like “fuck, I’m not just doing something that’s completely ridiculous and irresponsible,” it was kind of a beautiful thing. Fuck, I love rock bands, and we have this idea of what a rock band is supposed to be, but you know by the time they signed the 30th band that sounded just like Nirvana I was kinda going wow, something’s gotta fuckin change here. Then the Lillith thing started happening, and a lot of women singers were coming around my ears, and I was diggin that. I was like finally! A lot of African-American music, and singers, (gained notoriety) and I was like FINALLY. And I moved to New Orleans because I fuckin love jazz. I never wanted to hear grunge music again. So to some aspect I’m sure that it’s likely that there will be another time where there will be a whole mess of really really good rock bands with dudes. There will be more girls in ‘em, which is always good. That’s probably entirely possible. I could see that happening. I could see it just coming around because it always does. Music has a tendency to go in circles. There are still rock bands out there. Cage The Elephant sounds awesome to me, and we were listening to Foster The People going wow, this is kinda different than the kind of music we made when we were this dude’s age. There’s some good young bands out there.


Interview originally ran on Arena.com.

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