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Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner on His Songwriting Process, Recording Techniques & Staying Inspired as a Musician
Let’s just get this out of the way now: Soul Asylum frontman Dave Pirner is the best rock n roll songwriter of his generation. Other bands may have had more chart success, more video spins on MTV, and more notoriety during the alterna-craze of the ’90s, but Pirner’s work with Soul Asylum, his own solo projects, and film compositions are far and away the best output of any individual in the rock community since the mid-1980s.
After the death of bassist Karl Mueller, a handful of lineup changes, and a few hiatuses, Soul Asylum is back, and let me be the first to say, better than ever. Whatever’s in the water down in New Orleans, let’s hope Pirner keeps drinking it. The band’s new album, Change of Fortune, features a blazing lead single called “Supersonic,” which is perhaps the finest pure rock song of the past decade.
So we decided to catch up with Pirner to chat about the new direction of Soul Asylum, analog recording, Chasing Amy and how he stays motivated to hit the road as he enters his 50s.
Let’s talk about Change of Fortune. It’s been a while since the last Soul Asylum record – how did this one come about?
We’re excited about having a record that really crystalizes the evolution of the band. There’s a lot of really exciting music [on it], from my point of view, something I think is really special. It doesn’t have a lot of input from third parties, and we’re all at a point in our lives where, for lack of a better expression, we all have producer chops. We know how to make a record.
We have skills we’ve honed over the years where we’re back to the whole do-it-yourself thing, except now we actually know how to do it (laughs).
When I started, it was DIY, but nobody had any fucking idea what they were doing.
So I learned! (laughs). I paid my dues out on the road, and all that shit, and it’s been a wild ride.
That’s how you gotta do it…
But, you know, you put out a record these days and it’s hard to get your hopes up that something special is gonna happen and people are gonna notice.
Do you still work with a producer to help shape the album, or at this point are you pretty self-sufficient in the studio?
Well, yes. There’s a guy that’s worked on the last three records, his name is John Fields. He’s a Minneapolis guy – his uncle did the track “Funkytown” [editor’s note – at this point Pirner launches into an a cappella version of “Funkytown,” which has made my day]. But anyway, he’s a studio rat, a studio animal. And John at one point confronted me at a shopping mall before I even knew him. And he said, ‘I need to get you and Michael Bland [drums] in a studio.’
So me and Michael and John will start a song out, and Winston [Roye, bass] and everyone will add their parts. That was kinda how this record was made. To that effect, it’s a little brain trust between the three of us; we’ll lay the foundations of the track. And let me tell you something, if you don’t have Michael, you’re fucked! (laughs).
Do you typically head into the studio with the tracks fully formed, or are you still arranging while you’re working through the recording process?
Well…these days I have a studio in New Orleans, in the back yard, and a studio in Minneapolis in my basement. And I’ll demo the songs myself, work on the goddamn thing, unless it’s the other kind of song, where I’m playing acoustic guitar and singing and the band will just join in.
So, to that effect it’s interesting and it’s something I actually learned from Andy Wallace, the guy who mixed Nevermind, and fucking Slayer records, a bunch of Soul Asylum records… He said,
‘Sometimes, when you have the spark of an idea and you record it, it never gets any better. Because that’s the freshest it’s ever going to sound.’
So I can spontaneously put down ideas in the studio and John can use them in the final track, but by then the drums are replaced, and maybe he takes a little part of my loop and throws it in there – anyway, my point is that some of it stays intact so that the demo actually evolves into the finished version.
Do you think there’s something to be said for overworking a track?
Oh, absolutely. And we’re very sensitive about that. The difficult part for me is when people start to overwork it, and I’m like, ‘We’re not gonna polish this shitball any more.’ You know? It’s time to put it aside. You can overwork it into submission so no one even likes it anymore. Knowing when to stop is very important.
As far as the studio goes, do you have any must-have gear? Or does that not even matter as much as the energy of the song?
(laughs) I just bought another drum set the other day. I fucking love drums. I used to have a ‘fake’ drum set [editor’s note #2 – at this point, Dave imitates a cheap drum machine and makes my day yet again]. I mean, just getting a room where it sounds good, where you can make some noise, especially for me where I’m a vampire and I do a lot of shit after midnight, that’s the most important thing.
The amps that turn out to be the good ones…hopefully by the time you’re older you’ve got to where you have some nice amps. I mean, the rudiments are still the same. It’s really just metal, and wire and wood and talent, really.
And sure, we have a zillion effects boxes and I love it. But I don’t have the time and patience to deal with all that stuff. I keep it pretty minimal. To that effect, and I can never remember the exact phrase, but it’s something like, ‘Necessity is the mother of invention.’ And that approach to the studio always works for me.
I’m not like, ‘Oh wow, if I don’t get the right compressor I won’t have any good ideas!’ It’s a really slippery slope. I’ve worked with guys who’ll start noodling on a knob for 45 minutes and I’ve lost interest in whatever the idea was we were working on.
I know exactly what you mean.
I also have no interest in plug-ins and all that stuff. It all seems like a hoax to me. I’m barely supporting the Pro Tools system anymore, because it’s all turning into bullshit like everything else. They want a fucking monthly fee…that’s weak. I’m a luddite and a technophobe and the more this digital divide goes on…it’s bullshit. They’re making bullshit technology that’s designed to make you their bitch so they can manipulate it in a way where you have to keep buying into it.
The problem with Pro Tools is you just end up recording everything. The it’s just a lot of shit in a cloud that no one wants anyway. I know no one misses two-inch tape…
Do you have the urge to go back to analog recording?
That’s Jack White’s whole fucking bag…people heard tom-toms on tape again and they flipped out. That’s what happened as far as I’m concerned. That guy’s a purest and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Look, I just bought a Studer two-inch tape machine. I can’t wait to use it! But now it’s almost impossible to buy tape that’s not [extremely expensive]. It’s not that I’m lazy…OK, it is that I’m lazy, everybody is lazy. But sure, give me a budget and someone to operate the tape machine and it would be like flies on shit for me. You give me money to buy tape and record on analog again and I’m in.
I’ve been trying to get Michael into the studio where we used to record our records in Minneapolis, and get one of the old-school dudes to run one of the tape machines. ‘Michael, we’ve got to record your drums to tape, they just sound way better. The cymbals sound way better, it’s ridiculous.’ So we’ll see…
You’re preaching to the choir here. At least guitars haven’t changed much over the years. You’re still using your old Tele?
Well, it’s interesting. My first guitar tech invented the Mastery Bridge.
Oh, I’ve used that on a Jazzmaster before.
Exactly, so in that way there have been some improvements.
OK, you got me there.
And the Snark? Who doesn’t want more dudes to be in tune? That’s fucking genius. Little things like that happen along the way.
[editor’s note #3 – at this point, Dave segues into more innovative things he enjoys, eventually leading us to a long, unrelated conversation on his love and appreciation for hip-hop.]
What do you think about keeping the Soul Asylum name alive as opposed to doing the ‘Dave Pirner solo thing’? Especially as lineups have changed?
I guess over the years the line has been kind of blurred. I tried making a solo record, and I’m not interested in being a solo artist. I always wanted to be part of a band. It’s what always appealed to me. Now I have a band that’s so goddamned good that if I put out a solo record I’d use the same guys!
So – plans to tour, I assume?
(sarcastic, sad voice) We’re gonna be out, trying to play anywhere that’ll have us…
Oh, stop it.
Really, I’m in my element out there. It’s where I’m supposed to be. For instance, we’re playing at an outdoor hockey game at the end of the month. If it’s fucking 20 below zero, they’re gonna still make Soul Asylum play three songs, because they think it’s amusing. (laughs). But we’re not gonna be thinking, ‘Why are we doing this?’ We’re doing it because it’s a good gig.
Whatever – state fairs, festivals, shitty bars…the more adept you get at not caring where you’re playing, the more versatile you become [as a musician]. It doesn’t make any difference [what the venue is].
But you’re right – it comes down to the music. You want to get out there and play. Not complain that the wrong bottle of Evian was in your dressing room.
It’s why I moved to New Orleans. It’s beautiful; they just play music on the streets, and in the clubs, and they don’t even need to get paid. They’ve just been doing it forever because they love it. They’ve got the information about music that I need; it’s like trying to learn French in France.
One last question that’s unrelated to the new album. One of my favorite pieces of yours is the music you composed for the film Chasing Amy. That never got an official release. Were there ever any plans to put that out, commercially?
It’s a funny situation. I love Kevin Smith, and a lot of people do. He’s extremely intelligent and fucking funny as shit. Anyhow, there was – again – a mother of invention thing going on there. Where I was taking instruments off this guy’s garage wall and I was using his tools and shit like that [to make music]. It was really fun. You play it to picture and it sounded really good. And Kevin would come over and listen and say, ‘This is really great. I like this, I like that.’
And as it went more into final production, he would go, ‘Well, I want to take the music out here. Is that OK with you, Dave?’ And I was like, ‘You’re the fucking director. You can do whatever you want!’
So, it came to a point where, as usual, they’re talking about the soundtrack [in post-production]. And they allowed me to do the job of music supervisor. Which means I get to pick other music and put it in the movie, as well. So I’m putting The Meters in there, and finding out out things like Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein” costs too much money, so we can’t use that… [editor’s note #4 – apparently some other things went down here, according to Dave. He attempted to get some smaller Minneapolis bands on the soundtrack, and that ended up not working out due to some, let’s say, frustrating ‘showbiz’ circumstances.]
Anyway, I’ve got ‘We 3’ as the closing song, and come to find out Jon Bon Jovi has written a song called ‘Chasing Amy’ and they want to use it for the end credits. And at that point I said, ‘I’m done, y’all are on your own.’ And they said, ‘Do you want a soundtrack?’ And I said, ‘No.’ Because I didn’t know what was even going to be on it, you know what I mean? You’re gonna replace my shit, and not let me put my friends on there after you made me the music supervisor?
[at this point, Dave recounts another story about how a Cornershop song that reflected the culture of the city was replaced – without his consent – over a shot of New York City, with a track by The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. It must be noted that although Pirner’s story differs *slightly* from Kevin Smith’s story as to the decision not to release a soundtrack – Smith claimed it was a timing issue, but hey, it’s been 20 years – Bon Jovi’s song did not make the movie, and ‘We 3’ did end up playing over the end credits in the final cut. We now pick up the story, already in progress…]
So, there was no hard feelings or anything like that. I just didn’t have time for the politics. I didn’t want a soundtrack record out there with a bunch of shit I didn’t choose, you know?
As far as where all the music is, I don’t even know.
That’s a shame. It’s great music, especially ‘Tube of Wonderful.’
Maybe it’s in a vault somewhere at the Miramax music department. (laughs) Who knows?
And with that, it’s time to let Dave go. The new record is fantastic, and tour dates are already lining up for the rest of the year. Let’s hope Pirner finally gets that Studer tape machine up and running in time for the next LP, and that we don’t have to wait another 20 years for him to dive back into the world of film scoring.
photos by Jeneen Anderson and Tony Nelson
Change of Fortune
Standout Track: “Supersonic”
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