Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Erica Rivera Interviews Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum

“This is where the anti-magic happens,” Dave Pirner says as he lopes into his longtime studio at City Sound in northeast Minneapolis.

With his stringy, dirty blond hair, the 53-year-old Soul Asylum frontman looks like an aged teen who slept in his clothes and fell into unlaced black high tops with the tongues sticking out. Red boxers bulge out of his ripped-knee jeans. The newest item of apparel on him is probably his T-shirt from the Pinball Bar (est. 2017). His body is still boyishly lanky but his unshaved face is lined and ruddy.

The space is depressing: windowless and crowded with mic stands and snare drums, lit with too few fluorescent bulbs, musty-smelling. One wall is packed with file boxes and a Barack Obama cut-out. A demented rabbit piñata hangs from the ceiling. Covering the other walls are two backdrops painted on canvas, one of the background from the Grave Dancers Union album. The scent of pot and sounds of another band practicing waft in from an adjacent studio.

Pirner has come a long way since his days as a 31-year-old dreadlocked, pissing-in-a-vase, Winona Ryder-dating dude who told Rolling Stone, “I would like to have the coup of just having been in a great rock band that nobody cares about anymore.”

Or maybe he hasn’t. Maybe he’s come full circle. He doesn’t urinate on or in anything during this interview, but he does (unintentionally) moon me when he bends over to search for a pack of Parliament cigarettes in his overcoat pocket, ashes said cigs on the dishwater-colored carpet even though there is an ashtray within reach, and, when asked what he does during his downtime, replies, “Jerk off.” He’s still foul-mouthed and, he says, “fucking pissed as shit about everything.”

And yet, on this snowy Wednesday afternoon, Pirner seems deeply relaxed. Sitting cross-legged on a folding chair, he avoids eye contact. His voice is low, slow, and gravelly as he explains that he’s been spending more time in “fuckin’ Uptown” lately due to his recent divorce from the mother of his 14-year-old son, Eli.

“There was a certain sense of ‘a kid should have a mom and a dad and I guess they should be married,’” Pirner says of his decision to wed. “It didn’t really make any difference to me one way or the other, to be honest with you. I don’t really have any regrets. I tried my hardest and I sucked at it. That’s probably why I didn’t want to get married. I knew I wouldn’t be good at it.”

Pirner is unable to articulate what being “good” or “bad” at marriage looks like. When asked what prompted the divorce, he laughs and says, “You might have to ask my ex about that. I don’t know.”

Pirner lived in New Orleans for the past 16 years, and his ex-wife and son are still there. “The biggest thorn in my side is that I miss my kid,” he says. “It is very difficult to be on the road and have a family. At least, for me. Which I put off, like, forever. It came very late in my life that I had a family. And I don’t anymore.”

Perhaps no marriage could have competed with Pirner’s lifelong love for music. Pirner was raised by a “jazz hound” father with fantasies of becoming Gene Krupa and a mother who gave up her artistic dreams to care for the family. Pirner recalls that she could “play the fuck” out of “The Third Man Theme” on piano and had buckets of 45s in the basement. His parents sang in church and gifted him a toy drum set when he was little. In elementary school, he took up the trumpet, and he started his first punk band, the Shitz, in 1980 while attending West High School.

He formed Loud Fast Rules with guitarist Dan Murphy and bassist Karl Mueller a year later; initially the drummer, Pirner stepped up front once Pat Morley took over behind the kit. Renamed Soul Asylum, the band helped power the Minneapolis rock scene to national acclaim in the ’80s. While scene-mates the Replacements and Hüsker Dü had disbanded before the early-’90s alt-rock boom, Soul Asylum landed on Columbia, where their 1992 album Grave Dancers Union went multi-platinum and its hit single “Runaway Train” became inescapable. The band played at President Bill Clinton’s request twice in 1993: at the Inaugural Ball and later that year on the South Lawn of the White House. Soul Asylum made the late-night show rounds and graced covers of Rolling Stone in 1993 and 1995. They played nearly 300 shows a year.

And yet, looking back, Pirner describes the band’s glory days as a “shit show” and a “calamity of craziness.” He’d get butterflies before performances, then would “scream like a motherfucker” onstage and insult the audience. “Every show was like a fight,” he says. “When you’re coming from punk rock, you’re a fuck-up pretty much. You’re an outsider. I had such a huge defense mechanism when I started out that I just fucking hated everything. That was sort of the rationale for pushing forward. We used to just go, ‘We’re going to make everybody hate us.’ And that’s kind of what you do: piss people off.”

But somehow, Soul Asylum survived. Now, 36 years and 12 albums later, Pirner is the only remaining original member. (The band’s current lineup is rounded out by guitarist Ryan Smith, bassist Winston Roye, and drummer Michael Bland.) “It just seems seasoned and beat up and pushed around and chewed up and spit out and it’s been through a lot of shit,” Pirner says of Soul Asylum’s music today. “That just gives it that much more character and history and wisdom.”

Pirner doesn’t aim to enrage the audience anymore; he’d rather invoke joy—even if that means playing “Runaway Train” for the umpteenth time. “You don’t want people coming to a Soul Asylum show and going, ‘Wow. Those dudes look tired and old,’” Pirner says.

But the life of a touring musician can be hell on relationships. Pirner doesn’t get to see his “beautiful boy” as often as he’d like, though his admiration for Eli is obvious. He describes his son as “pretty fuckin’ evolved.” He’s fluent in French, is a food snob, likes to freestyle on drums, and is a hip-hop fan who introduced Pirner to the music of Kendrick Lamar. Still, Pirner remembers how heartbreaking it was to hear his son say, “I’m used to you being gone.”

In the absence of father-son bonding, there’s music, which Pirner calls his best friend. “It’s the blood that runs through me,” he says. “I kind of can’t live without it. If that’s unhealthy, so be it. I’d fuckin’ die for this shit. I don’t give a fuck.”

Originally published in the December 27, 2017 issue of City Pages.