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Interview: Soul Asylum talks new album, touring, and the changing music industry

Soul Asylum played The Paramount in Huntington, New York on June 22, 2014 as part of the 2014 Summerland Tour.
Soul Asylum played The Paramount in Huntington, New York on June 22, 2014 as part of the 2014 Summerland Tour.
Elise Yablon

Soul Asylum has had a very prolific music career. Best known for songs like “Runaway Train” and “Someone to Shove,” the band has been making music for over three decades and are now bringing their pre-grunge punk sound to a new generations of fans.

Soul Asylum played The Paramount in Huntington, New York on June 22, 2014 as part of the 2014 Summerland Tour.
Elise Yablon

Over the last 30 plus years, Soul Asylum has released an impressive ten studio albums. While staying relatively unknown for much of the 1980s, the band hit it big in 1992 with their sixth album, ‘Grave Dancers Union.’ The album yielded their biggest hit, “Runaway Train,” and with it a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Song. After securing another hit with 1995’s ‘Let Your Dim Light Shine,’ and the slightly less successful ‘Candy from a Stranger’ in 1998, the band took eight years to re-find themselves, and released ‘The Silver Lining’ in 2006. It took the band another six years to release their latest full-length, 2012’s ‘Delayed Reaction.’

Now with a whole new line-up, singer/guitarist Dave Pirner (the band’s sole original member), drummer Michael Bland, guitarist Justin Sharbono, and bassist Winston Roye, Soul Asylum is ready to take their sound to a new generation. Giving music fans a taste of who inspired them, the band released a covers EP in 2013 titled ‘No Fun Intended,’ the first in what was supposed to be a series, covering The Suicide Commandos, Joy Division, and MC5. Right now the band is completing work on their as yet untitled, John Fields produced, eleventh studio album, due out later in 2014.

Soul Asylum can currently be found on the 2014 Summerland Tour along with Everclear, Eve 6, and Spacehog.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Dave Pirner and Michael Bland before their show at The Paramount in Huntington, New York on June 22 to discuss the tour, the upcoming album, the covers EP, their decades spanning career, and just how much the music industry has changed.

The tour has only been going on for about a week, but how has it been going so far?

Dave: Technically I think we’re into day twelve, I think. Florida was really odd. It rained so much that they had something called “hot ground,” there’s electricity flowing from the stage and then there’s water all over the ground and the band literally cannot walk from the bus to the stage because they will get electrocuted. Which adds a little danger to the whole thing…but generally Florida is just, you know, Florida.

I saw pictures of the roof coming off of one of the stages or something…

Dave: Did that happen?

Michael: That was the gig that got cancelled.

Dave: Good thing. Yeah. See, we didn’t want to be on that stage. So, that’s called an act of G-d. Contractually, if you’re promoting a show and you put a band on stage and they all get electrocuted and die… we have a clause in our contract that says you shouldn’t mess around with Mother Nature.

How were you approached to be on this year’s Summerland Tour?

Dave: Actually, Art (Alexakis, of Everclear) really wanted us on the tour. We toured with Everclear three years ago and I didn’t really know what we were gonna do, so I wasn’t quite sure. But then Art was a little more insistent and that was kind of touching to me and I was like “alright, he really wants us, so let’s do this.” And it’s really turning out so far so good, but this goes on for a couple more months. Kim said everybody was a little cranky today and I was like “what?” She said we’re all gonna have a day off in another two days, but I just… I’m so far behind my schedule that I can barely get caught up with a day off because I’m just trying to find my shoes and stuff.

What is touring like for you guys?

Dave: Well, we have probably the tightest crew on the planet, and it’s really all about your crew. Kim King is pretty much running logistics of the show and she’s the tour manager. And for me, I always have to depend 100% on my TM.

It’s really fun, actually. We’ve got a guy named Wes who’s new, and he’s just great. Every now and then you have to go “oh, our guitar tech is not available because he’s working with some other band, we need to find another guy, and you never know who you’re gonna get and blah blah blah, but we’ve got a really great crew and a great bus driver, and all those things are really important because we really live close all the time, so… Being on tour can be the most miserable experience on the planet, but if everybody is respectful and nice and knows what they’re doing, it’s doable.

So I hear you’re almost done recording your next album. Is there anything you can tell me about the album yet?

Dave: What were we thinking of for a title most recently? We’re throwing around some titles, I was at the Warhol museum looking for artwork Michael probably won’t like, but that’s a long story also, but… We have three songs that are mixed, three songs that are being mixed, and I think we have 14 songs in the can, as they say, that means they’re done being recorded, but I might want to get a little more singing out of the guys for background vocals and stuff. But generally, it’s sort of happening as we speak. So the guy that’s mixing it is mixing it whenever he feels like it, and that’s when we want him to feel like mixing, which is not the way it was 20 years ago, because they didn’t have all those technology and interweb stuff and whatever it’s called.

How do you think your recording has changed over the years?

Dave: Well, the drums sound like s*** because it’s digital, but if you’ve got a good drummer, which, hello Michael Bland, it really doesn’t matter, because you’ve got the groove, you’ve got the feel, you’ve got the drive, you’ve got the passion, you’ve got the glory. Recording technology is changing, but it’s really gimmicky, you know. It’s full of gimmicks, it’s full of trend, and that’s the part that I’m thankfully through. I can see it from the other side now. So, we’re trying to think about going into a studio when we get to Minneapolis, and, you know, we’ve worked ‘em all and we just need a good rate and we’re thinking about cutting to tape. We can pretty much do whatever we want. Me and Michael and John Fields, who’s sort of the producer guy, can really demo just about anything. So I can take a song to Michael and John and we can sit down and hash it out in the studio in a very efficient amount of time, and then pretty much give it to somebody and go “do you like it? Do you want to play on it?” Whatever. You know, so far so good. We’re adapting to the modern age.

How do you think your songwriting has changed over the years?

Dave: I think when I started out I was trying to just figure out how to do it, you know, write a song. And then I figured, well, I should go to the mountain, I should go listen to Leonard Cohen and listen to Bob Dylan and listen to the great songwriters and try to figure out what the deal is and listen to Billy Strayhorn and people that really understand how to put a song together and I just started studying and working at it. And now I just don’t want to repeat myself and I want to challenge myself and I want to write a song that’s really, really interesting to me, not just something that people… ‘cuz, you know, you can go “blah blah blah, I love you” and whatever, but I like to give people a little something to chew on, I guess. I have an unlimited subject matter, but I don’t want to write songs about love or dancing or sex because I think that’s a little overdone. I’m glad I’ve had that attitude my whole life, so now I can sing songs still that I wrote when I was 19 and feel like it’s the same guy. So that part of it is still me, but I like to challenge what I can do with words and wordplay and rhyming, and music and notes and do all this stuff and eventually Michael, he has perfect pitch, so he can help me sort of… Like, we did this one song for the new record and I couldn’t figure out which key to sing it in, so he just really helped me out. And he’s like “you want to be in that key because that’s the top of your range” and… It happened really fast and that was pretty exciting.

How do you keep the old songs new for you?

Dave: I guess, I think that the ones that are good are kind of timeless, so that’s why they don’t feel old to me. So when I play them for people, I see that it makes them emotional. It feels fresh again, you know. Especially when I see, maybe a 12 year old singing along to “Runaway Train” or whatever, I get a little warm and fuzzy feeling from that.

What’s it like spanning generations? Now there are new people that are listening to your music. The people that were listening to your music are having kids…

Dave: Yeah. Well… What we do, it’s like a four-piece band, two guitars, bass, and drums. I think that that’s kind of a thing where it’s the same set-up as the Beatles or The Clash, whoever, but it’s also what Spacehog is doing. You can be a power trio, but, it’s basically a rock band, and that format is kind of like… I don’t think it’s ever going to really go away. So I think that if you’re a kid and you see that and you go “wow, that’s three or four people and everything that I’m hearing is coming out of them,” it’s completely different than going to maybe a Destiny’s Child show or whoever. A lot of tracks, a lot of confusion, and Kesha’s jumping up and down and everything is coming out of recording tracks and there’s a fake violin player on stage or something. That I think is very confusing if you’re interested in music. I’m not saying it’s wrong, I’m just…

It’s different…

Last year you released an EP of cover songs.

Dave: Yeah, called ‘No Pun Intended.’ No, I mean ‘No Fun Intended.’ That was supposed to be a project that was going to continue. It was a little bit of a brain child of the manager that is no longer our manager. But we still have the rest of it, so we don’t really know what to do with it.

And they’re pretty interesting covers. It’s me and Michael… What makes it interesting is that we’re exploring the roots of punk rock, and Michael is just destroying it. He can play a Dead Kennedy’s song and have fun with it and destroy it. So we’re laughing while we’re doing it, but it’s fun and funny. We just sort of picked challenging, weird, odd oddities. But some of its The MC5 and some of its music that I really love and, I didn’t know that he loved “Borstal Breakout,” but we did that one, Sham 69…

So these are all influences…

Dave: Yeah, sure. Like, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” was not really an influence on me, but I always thought it was a really great song, so I wanted to play it. Nick Cave is in there, the Suicide Commandoes… and the guitarist in the Suicide Commandoes sort of taught me how to play guitar, so there’s some personal connections there that are nice.

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