Dave Pirner (Soul Asylum)
This week Soul Asylum released the first in a series of three cover-song EPs titled No Fun Intended. The album includes songs by old-school punk rockers Suicide Commandos and MC5, as well as a tribute to the timeless classic by Joy Division, “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. As someone who really enjoys cover songs, I called dibs pretty quickly when the record came up for us to review and I was not let down by the tracks at all. Each pays great tribute to the original work and it is a must listen for anyone in my age bracket that spent their high school years not only listening to Soul Asylum, but the bands they pay tribute to as well.
I had a chance to talk with lead singer Dave Pirner while he was back home in Minneapolis rehearsing with the band for The LP Tour beginning later this week.
Tracy Ramone: Thanks for taking the time to sit down and chat with me Dave. I got a chance to listen to the new record last week and I gotta say as someone who loves cover songs you guy did a great job. I loved seeing Suicide Commandos and MC5 on there. I was little surprised to see “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, but it was a pleasant surprise. It’s really very good.
Dave Pirner: Wait, how old are you Tracy?
TR: I’m 37.
DP: Ok. So then you know these songs. (giggles) Awesome, thanks!
TR: So what was your process in the studio putting it together? How did you go about choosing the songs for No Fun Intended?
DP: Well let’s see. With “Shakin’ Street”, see MC5, to me, is the band that might’ve been preempting the Ramones, along with the Stooges historically, and I really needed to acknowledge them. And “Shakin’ Street” is really different (from) the rest of their catalog. It was actually written by the guitar player. Most of these songs are – sentimental is not the right word, but they mean a lot to me. So we started messing around in the studio and my drummer Michael, see he has a mohawk and he’s a black guy, and he just challenged me on covers, on what I grew up with and what he grew up with and our only real musical bond is the horrible classic rock in Minneapolis. (laughs) And he likes to “out-punk” me with his mohawk. I’m just like, yeah, ok Mr. Fancypants. And that’s kinda how this project was born: just me and him challenging our roots in a way that lets us play great music and play it how it’s supposed to be played. And you look at the history of my band and now there’s this guy playing Soul Asylum songs like that, in a way that sounds right to me. Which is a bit of a revelation, but it’s also all about fun, ya know?
TR: You cover the goth classic “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, which is a very different type of song than what people are used to hearing from Soul Asylum. What was it about that song that made you want to include it in this collection?
DP: If I could explain this properly it would be great. When I moved to New Orleans 14 years ago, you have to realize people were playing from a book of standards. And what that means is just really, really well written songs. It’s like “My Funny Valentine”, interesting songs that are in a canon of great songwriting, and I would put “Love Will Tear Us Apart” into that canon. It’s just a great song that doesn’t belong to any special stylistic trend. It’s just a great song. And people will be like, ‘Well, did you used to be a goth or something?’ And I’m like no, I’m a songwriter and I can recognize good songwriting. Whatever bond I might have with the guy who wrote that song, ya know I’m feelin’ it and I had to grow up listening to that song feeling like I wish I could write a song like that.
TR: So what do you think makes a song a great cover song?
DP: Well, it’s interesting that the trend has gone from cover band to tribute band. We just played in a big giant field in the middle of f***** nowhere Illinois with an Eagles tribute band. I actually played in an Eagles tribute band for one gig. It was me and the guys from Gear Daddies and Son Volt and we tried to cover The Eagles. And that’s not easy to do. So what makes a song a great song for a cover is any song that is gonna stand the test of time. A song that is just written so well that it just doesn’t matter who plays it. And I think that’s the essence. I mean some band could play “Runaway Train” and it would be close enough, ya know? It would still sound like that song and that would be pleasing for me to listen to and I would love to listen to somebody play my songs just like we’re doing here with these songs that I really love. The new book of standards is being written as we speak and who knows? Maybe one day “Love Will Tear Us Apart” will be in that group of new standards and I bet that would’ve made the guy who wrote that song really happy.
TR: You’re getting ready to hit the road with some other great acts from the 90’s for the LP Tour and you are going to be playing Grave Dancers Union in its entirety. How does it feel to revisit that album from beginning to end again live 21 years after its release?
DP: It makes me feel very young and very old at the same time, which is a really interesting feeling. It also feels like rock n’ roll to me, feels like music, like why I moved to New Orleans. Everything now is so much more single oriented than it used to be. The more it changes the more it stays the same. I mean the internet now, it’s like the English “Top of the Pops,” ya know, it’s just cheap. But I think the album as an entity is fading. So part of it that makes me want to play it from beginning to end is the part of it where it’s not gonna exist anymore and, you know, well, I wrote it and I think it’s good and I don’t mind playing it and I’ve got a couple new guys playing it with me and I think that breathes some freshness into it that I love; that reinterpreting. And you can’t really f*** up a good song.
TR: It’s funny, that was exactly what I was gonna ask you next was what it was like to play it with new band members who weren’t with you when you recorded the album.
DP: I think I explained it to someone today like it’s like playing with players. I mean, when we started out we were friends, not musicians. I still don’t really consider myself a musician. And the reason I moved to New Orleans was to be around great players. So when players interpret a song and bring the right interpretation to it that was not happening when we made the record. So now that’s happening, so for me it’s kind of exciting.
TR: Soul Asylum has been a band since 1983. What do you think is harder after 30 years of playing out and putting out records: Maintaining your fans or acquiring new fans?
DP: Ooooh this is an A or B type question. Good one! I think trying to satisfy your fans is harder. I mean I can split my fan base in half, and one half loves everything that I do and the other will come back if I do something good. That’s the only difference. But bringing new people in, that’s kinda where it’s at. My whole mindset is about passing this off. My whole mindset is that music is this great thing and everyone should be able to have access to it. It’s this thing I love most, more than anything. And if I am gonna go and play a show tomorrow in Saratoga and, I don’t know, say there’s gonna be 10 kids in the front row that are 10 and under? I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that is my primary audience. That’s who I’m playing to. Ya know what I mean?
TR: I do. Seeing bands live totally turns my kids onto bands that I listened to when I was young and the reason they like them now is because they got to see them live.
DP: And isn’t that so great? I have such a bad time making a bummer out of it. Because it does become a real bummer for people to try to whatever, ya know, make a dime in the entertainment industry. But you shouldn’t allow yourself to take yourself so seriously that you’re going to be disappointed. I mean you just can’t do that. You have to make your art by any means necessary and you have to understand that some people are gonna hate it. Soul Asylum started out as a punk rock band and it was all about making people hate us. That was sort of the essence of punk rock to me, ya know. You can make something horrible and it becomes what it is now. I mean that’s how I started out. The more people that hated the band the more I was out there trying to make the people hate the band.
TR: Kinda like the Darby Crash way to do things.
DP: That is probably true.
Sidenote: Just in case Dave happens to see this I decide to peek around YouTube to see what I could find in the way of “Runaway Train” covers and I found three solid ones worth sharing. Ask and you shall receive! – Tracy
This guy would put “Runaway Train” on the soundtrack of his life:
These kids kinda got it going on, though it has been six years since they posted this and probably aren’t exactly kids now:
Check out this tribute from an Italian band: