Ice-Fishing, Virtual Concerts, Vinyl Releases & Digital EPs With Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner

Soul Asylum were very busy when Covid hit and shut down their tour with five shows remaining out of thirty. Dave Pirner was supposed to be even busier with a book tour for Loud Fast Words. But it's hard to see much of a change of pace despite the band being grounded.

First, Soul Asylum's new album Hurry Up and Wait arrived, then Pirner and the band's guitarist Ryan Smith relentlessly dug up, polished up, and presented 100 songs from Soul Asylum's catalog in acoustic format through a series of Facebook livestreams every Friday. Then a digital EP was announced with acoustic versions of several of their songs from Hurry Up and Wait, titled Born Free. Then they played a full concert as a ticket livestream from a local recording studio. Oh wait, there's one more thing. Then, Hurry Up and Wait was released on two LPs in gatefold vinyl for Record Store Day in late October, along with a bonus 7 inch record with "We 3" and "Rhinestone Cowboy".

I think that's everything...for now. Tower's PULSE! spoke with Dave Pirner earlier this summer about the new album, but now we catch up with him to talk about the psychology behind ice fishing, the experience of the virtual concert, what went into recording the digital EP, and how Dave's feeling about the election. HINT: He thinks you should VOTE!

Hannah Means-Shannon: How’s it going? 

Dave Pirner: It’s going good. It’s that time in Minnesota when people start to freak out because you know that winter is coming and we have this added thing that everyone has been kind of pretending it’s winter with this whole Covid thing, so you’re stacking cabin fever on top of cabin fever. It’s going to be a lonely fucking winter.

HMS: Are people buying supplies excessively ahead of winter?

DP: Well, I just read that weed sales are way up. People are stocking up. But that’s California. It’s not like they are going to stop selling weed over the winter. In Minneapolis, it’s probably firewood.

HMS: Do you need kerosene or things like that?

DP: We’re not Little House on the Prairie here. We still have heat! So far so good. If the water pipes freeze, though, you’re kind of fucked.

HMS: I have this image in my mind that people in Minnesota probably go ice fishing and things like that.

DP: Oh, absolutely. I used to. I have an ex-wife who lived in New Orleans, and the first time she saw someone ice-fishing, which is not that far from where I live, because there are 10,000 lakes in Minnesota, she said, “What is that person doing in the middle of that lake??” She had never seen it before. She couldn’t believe that people actually went out to the middle of a lake and cut a hole and sat there.

People do things to cope. It’s just a theory, but ice fisherman, I think they really just need to get out of the house. They need to get away from their families and sit in an outhouse on a lake somewhere.

HMS: I’m partly from the coastal Carolinas and fishing is very common there. The general idea is certainly that you do that to get away from your family. But add going into sub-zero weather and that’s so much more determination involved!

How are you feeling about the live concert that you guys did?

DP: There was a lot of anxiety because we had never done anything like that. Everyone was extra nervous because of whatever. The day before that, we were at the practice space and we blew out all the power at the practice space. We were just waiting for a disaster to happen, but it’s live, so you can’t screw up. Then there’s no do-overs. We were in a studio, actually where we have recorded a few of the records.

So that puts you in the mindset of being in the studio where you shouldn’t screw up and at the same time, you’re playing to an audience who isn’t there, so it’s very much, “What the fuck is going on?” Frankly, when it was over, it was a great relief. I think everyone was pretty happy with the way we performed. I have not watched it, but I made a friend of mine in New Orleans watch it and tell us that we did good.

HMS: Oh, so you didn’t want them to tell you if there were any terrible parts?

DP: Well, I’m not interested in whether my hair looked good.

Mainly, did the camera people and the sound people do a good job? Also, did it sound good? Because what we’ve been doing a lot lately is acoustic things, which is easier than recording a loud band. So what we wanted to emphasize was the noisy, electric part of the band. And that’s a mixed bag when you try to record that onto the internet, and people are going to be listening to it out of their phones and whatever. Hopefully it came across as loud! If you could turn it up and it sounded like a loud Rock band, that was the goal.

HMS: I saw the concert and I would say it was plenty loud.

DP: Alright!!

HMS: What did you do to blow the power out at the practice space?

DP: We started putting more and more gear into the practice space. It was like, “Okay, we’re going to need some more lights.” So we just kept plugging more and more things in. Then, in the middle of a song, everything went black. Then a couple of my guys who are more adept at the electricity thing went down the hallway to find the fuse box, and flipped the wrong switch, turning off the power in a couple other bands’ practice spaces. It was frustrating and somewhat comical, but mostly frustrating.

HMS: [Laughs] It does suggest you were doing something awesome rather than mediocre if you manage to blow the power out.

DP: That’s right! There’s not nearly enough power to power Soul Asylum!

HMS: I have no idea what kind of equipment is necessary to take the sound in a room and give it fidelity as it streams onto the internet for full concerts.

DP: It takes a lot of money. Before that we’d just been using a phone, which is relatively free. We had to hire people who knew what they were doing, and that’s not free, and then we did it in a studio, and that’s not free. But basically, we’re recording in a recording studio, so you do all the same things to try to make it sound good. But it’s live, so you never know.

HMS: Is the venue that you played in, called Creation Studios, the same as Nicollet Studios?

DP: It’s the same place. Creation Studios is on Nicollette Street. That’s all the same building.

HMS: Then that’s the same space where you worked on Born Free. So you really have been in there a lot recently.

DP: Yes, we recorded there for the first time in 1984. It’s still there. All the businesses around there are pretty much changed and gone. It’s nice to be in a familiar place. Being able to go home after work made it a very different recording process than going to LA or going to New York. I have all my notebooks at home, I can go back and get a guitar if I need to.

HMS: I know you’ve been able to use that studio a couple of times lately, but how has the studio been doing during Covid?

DP: I talked to Steve Weiss, the guy who owns Creation and runs it, and I asked him that exact question. He said that at first no one wanted to leave their house. But you can record without a lot of contact. But then he said that things really started picking up and a lot of people are doing what we did, with virtual productions. And he said it was really fun.

They were doing school fundraisers and some classical musicians were coming in to do a similar thing. There were some very interesting projects, and all recorded live rather than recording records. He said he’s got steady work now, which is good to hear.

HMS: That is awesome! It’s a great space to use in a socially distanced way for streaming.

Did you convert all the songs from Hurry Up and Wait to acoustic and then just choose some for the Born Free EP?

DP: No, not really. I was kind of reminded of the process because the process is always different. Sometimes I’ll come into the practice space, and I’d have the whole song written, and I’d go, “One, two, three, four, here we go…” Or I’ll go into a studio, and I’ll have a new song, and I’ll say, “Here’s how it goes…” And we’ll write the chords down and I’ve got the lyrics. Then we’ll go. The band is pretty adept at this stage.

But my guitar player, Ryan Smith, will come over, and we’ll sit down and I’ll say, “Here’s the song…”, and he’ll be the first one to hear it. Then the two of us will know it while the rhythm section is learning it and that seems to sort of help to scoot the process along. That doesn’t take too long because Michael Bland is the greatest drummer in the world. Sorry, I just have to say that.

HMS: He did an amazing job on that live performance.

DP: Anyway, that’s supposed to be the most interesting part, I guess, that we might play through the whole song with just a couple of acoustic guitars before we bring it to the rhythm section, and that’s kind of what’s going on there with Born Free. I’m fairly benign to the selection of which songs are on there and releasing a digital EP is not something I have done every day for the last thirty years…

HMS: Weirdly, it’s kind of the format of the hour right now. A number of bands are releasing digital EPs right now to keep things moving. A lot of times they are covers, and in this case, it’s your own music, which is awesome. The selection is really solid. It sounds like you went in to record these acoustic versions, and you did quite a few, then picked some.

DP: That’s accurate, yes. It’s crazy because you’re in this situation where you want to have some output, but we couldn’t tour and promote our record. I couldn’t go on a book tour. We couldn’t do any of those things. So in lieu of being able to play live for people, these recordings are all live. There’s no overdubbing. It does have a certain amount of spontaneity to it.

I really appreciate that. When I go to hear a song on Youtube, I go straight for the live version. I don’t go for the lip-syncing. I don’t need any of that shit. I love the tiny desk thing where people are really playing live. It’s a long time coming. MTV is not something I miss.

There’s one thing that we can do, though, which is play like we’ve never played before. It’s just a better band, basically.

HMS: That’s great. So do you think this time or this concert has actually helped with that?

DP: Nah, you get better when you tour. It kept us practicing though, at least, so it was good to be able to just be with the band.

HMS: I meant to ask if that show was an approximation of what you would have done if you had gotten on a stage in a small club that night.

DP: Our last gig before Covid hit was in Los Angeles and thank God it was a good show. Because there would have been nothing worse than having a terrible show and then having your tour cancelled. We had about five dates left. It was a thirty-show tour, and we got through most of it, basically. But we were left with an empty feeling because we didn’t finish the job.

We had talked about doing the same show that we would have done in San Diego, because that would have made sense. But then I started mixing it up. I said, “Let’s just do something special.” I guess that’s what that was supposed to be. It was fairly different because shortly before we decided on the set list, I said, “I’m fine to play whatever we would have played in San Diego.”, so that was why we had Local H opening for us. A few things like that helped make up for it.

HMS: How long a break would you have taken after that tour before your next one for Hurry Up and Wait?

DP: Not that long. Once the record comes out, you tour, tour, tour. We would have been on the road all summer. It’s a very helpless kind of feeling. If there’s any upside to it, I went camping which I wouldn’t have been able to do.

HMS: Did doing the live show help with that incomplete feeling at all?

DP: Me and Ryan did acoustic streams every Friday live, too.

HMS: I can’t believe you did so many. Those were great, too.

DP: Anything helps when it comes to making music. I’m fortunate because my roommate is a musician and we just jam out every day. It’s my life’s blood. I’ve got to do it. If I don’t do it, something’s wrong. I’ve been able to find a way to continue to make music. Now, it’s, “What are we going to do next? Are we just going to practice? Are we going to start working on new material in the practice space? Or are we going to go into a stall?” We’ll find something to do. We always do.

HMS: You aren’t tempted to take some time off over the winter? Isn’t that when you’d normally take a break anyway?

DP: Depends on where you’re from! I could tour Canada in the winter, but some people are like, “Why the fuck would you do that??”

HMS: I know that you like vinyl a lot and collect vinyl. Are you excited that Hurry Up and Wait is on vinyl for Record Store Day?

DP: I am. I’m excited about vinyl, period. I didn’t see that coming. I didn’t really understand that it was having a resurgence. Now, I’m looking at my record collection and my awesome, and I don’t put anything but vinyl on and that seems normal and natural.

Also, flipping the record over can really come in really handy if you’ve got a couple of people at the house and you just really want to get away from them for a second! You put on a couple songs, and they say, “Oh, who’s this?” And then you hand them the record cover. You can’t do that shit online.

HMS: For the Record Store Day vinyl, there’s an extra 7 inch, and one of the songs is “We 3”, which I think you played in the virtual concert, too. Is the version on the 7 inch a recent version that you did?

DP: Oddly enough, the recording on the 7 inch was recorded at the same time we did the Born Free stuff. It was all kind of same session where just me and Ryan went into the studio and played a bunch of songs. The other side is “Rhinestone Cowboy”, which is something that we have been playing for twenty-five years.

I had the single when I was a kid, and every time I played it at a Punk Rock show, people got the sarcasm and the joke, and the irony of a Punk band playing a Glen Campbell song. At the same time, they liked it and got a kick out of it. It’s like playing “Sexual Healing”. We’re not trying to say we can play that song, we’re just having fun with it. Then Glen Campbell died, and it became closer to me.

My mother has Alzheimer’s too, so I watched the documentary with Glen Campbell. It’s difficult to watch because his symptoms were just like my mother’s. He’s trying to introduce the band and he can’t remember their names. He can rip the shit out of the guitar, but he can’t remember what the words are. It’s such a crazy thing. It’s frustrating as hell.

HMS: Definitely. Do you think that it’s good that the documentary was made, even though it’s painful, because it reflects real life?

DP: Absolutely, and not just because so many people can relate to his music. There are so many mysteries about Alzheimer’s that we don’t understand, and he allowed cameras to be around him. They find him at extremely vulnerable moments where he just doesn’t know what’s going on and that’s how my mother is.

When she was first diagnosed, everyone said to me, “Oh my God, that’s the worst thing in the world!” But I’m not going to take that approach. She’s still my mom.

HMS: That also sound like jumping to the end of the story. There’s still a lot more story, a lot more time to live with her.

I did want to ask you about the title for Born Free and the artwork. On Hurry Up and Wait, we have the egg in the nest on the cover. Then on Born Free, cleverly, the egg has hatched, and the bird is gone. I remember that the title Hurry Up and Wait has kind of a funny aspect to it, if a little dark. But Born Free sounds more purely positive.

DP: I think that’s probably what was going on. I’m trying to think of what the other titles were. One was “No Buts”, but how were we going to spell “buts”? Kind of like “No Buts About It”. But it was also supposed to be like, “Don’t throw your cigarette butts on the ground.” The other one was, “Let It Burn” because of the George Floyd riots and the buildings on fire. But then the California fires started happening, so I guess that it’s good that we didn’t pick that title.

I’ve always had an issue with the saying, “Freedom Isn’t Free”. I have always thought that was fucking stupid. Thus, “Born Free”, which as far as I can remember was a movie about lions or something.

HMS: Yes, it was. I haven’t thought about that movie in years. Was there any connection between the title Born Free and these songs being taken down to their acoustic sound? Like they were taken back to their origin point?

DP: Since you say so, then yes! I hadn’t really thought about it that way. But if that works for you, I’m in!

HMS: Any idea what’s next? What should people be looking out for from you guys?

DP: Well, the obvious answer is that we’re going to start working on new material and we’re going to make another record as soon as possible. In the meantime, it’s been re-remembering fifty songs that we haven’t played in thirty years. Which is a great exercise, I guess, for me and Ryan to go through the whole catalog, thinking, “We could do this one acoustic. What about that one?” Some of which have turned out never to have been recorded.

It had to be all original material to make it into that 100 (played on Facebook). That was just a good place to go and a good goal, to do 100 songs. Sometimes it’s hard to differentiate between cherry-picking and scraping the bottom of the barrel.

HMS: [Laughs] Do you mean that you and Ryan want to be in shape to play all these songs electrically again, too, or just acoustically?

DP: It’s neither here nor there. Ryan has learned a lot of songs that were written before he joined us, and he’s just a godsend. He’s the greatest. To that effect, he’s familiar with some of that material. I’m not opposed to playing any of that material live, so I think that was part of the process, thinking, “Let’s go through some of these more obscure tracks”.

Somebody is bound to say, “Oh, that’s a piece of shit.”, or “So that’s why it didn’t make it one the record.”, or “Why didn’t that make it onto the record?” There are lingering things in there. It’s such a huge catalog right now, but if it’s good, let’s play it, if it’s not, let’s not.

I only have intentions to continue making new songs, but if there’s something that we missed, I’m more than happy to take another shot at it.

HMS: Time can really change your perception of a song, too.

DP: True that. I had a song about police brutality. It was one of the first ten Soul Asylum songs that we learned that I wrote. Then, with the George Floyd thing, it suddenly seems completely relevant. Even though my situation of being hassled by the cops at our first gig was pretty trite in comparison to what the George Floyd situation was all about, it was still a rumination on what it feels like to be pushed around by the police.

Then you find out that even though you thought things were changing and being progressive, it’s still the same shit. I’ve written a handful of songs about homeless people, but I just can’t get my head around how many homeless people are living in tents on the street. To me, that’s the barometer of how well any administration is doing. And I’ve been around for a while.

HMS: When you look at these songs, is it hard to realize that you were more idealistic back then and thought things would be better by now?

DP: Oh, absolutely. I’ve watched this racism growing and I was a child of the Civil Rights Movement. I had heroes like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Muhammad Ali, and to see them make a change, and then have it seem like nothing has happened in the last forty or fifty years it heartbreaking. It’s ridiculous. Are we moving backwards? I’m sure I talk about that in my music. But I did think that things would be way different than they are now because we had made that sort of progress in the past.

It’s hard right now. It’s not “super-inspiring”, if you will. If you look back at the Reagan era where you had these Hardcore Punk bands making records like Let Them Eat Jellybeans and really being rebellious in an articulate way that was relatable to me. These are not inspiring times as far as I’m concerned. What happened? It seems like humanity seemed like it was on some kind of a roll for a while. Now it’s like a fourth world situation.

HMS: I’m ready to go into a bunker until after the election. I already sent my mail-in ballot. 

DP: Yes, fuck this “no vote”, thing. Just suck it up and vote for Joe Biden.

HMS: That’s absolutely the thing to do.

DP: I’ve been voting against people for as long as I can remember. It doesn’t even matter who the candidate is, though I know that’s not what it’s supposed to be like. To be honest, Barack Obama was the only candidate I was excited about voting for.

HMS: Yes, me too. That’s the first time I really energetically went to vote.

DP: That guy was definitely the smartest guy in the room, an easy choice. And usually you’re just voting against the other guy.

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