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Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner talks ‘Runaway Train,’ covering Beyonce, the Minnesota music scene and more

Soul Asylum plays with 3 Doors Down and Collective Soul in St. Petersburg on June 11.
Soul Asylum. Photo via Independent Music Media
Soul Asylum. Photo via Independent Music Media
Published Jul. 5, 2018

Soul Asylum's Runaway Train was the 1-800-273-8255 of its time.

Like Logic's 2017 suicide prevention anthem, Runaway Train was a rare major hit that had a real-world, life-saving impact, thanks to a video featuring photos of actual missing teen runaways. Nice legacy, right?

When I point this out to Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner, however, it sounds like the connection had never crossed his mind.

"Certainly, it's two different topics, but now that you're telling me this, well, that's really something," the singer says with a laugh. "One you cross over into real life, you become involved in something that, to me, was like doing public service announcements. … It's something to be involved with which is ultimately terrifying, but feeling like you maybe can help in some way. There's something nice about that."

Pirner, 54, speaks with the ragged bemusement of an incorrigible rock 'n' roll lifer. He started the band that would become Soul Asylum 37 years ago in Minneapolis, a peer of Twin Cities alterna-punk bands like Husker Du and the Replacements. Runaway Train wasn't really a grunge song, but it was grungy enough to become a big crossover hit in the early '90s, earning Pirner a Grammy, millions of fans and a famous girlfriend in Winona Ryder. And, yes, it probably saved a few lives in the process.

Pirner and Soul Asylum are now spending this summer on the road with 3 Doors Down and Collective Soul, a package tour that hits St. Petersburg's Al Lang Stadium on Wednesday. As far as Pirner is concerned, he's just happy to be playing anywhere in 2018. If fans still sing along to any of Soul Asylum's hits – Somebody to Shove, Misery, Just Like Anyone – it'll be gravy.

"Life is grand," he says. "It's a funny thing, where if you can get through it, you end up hanging out with the survivors. Those are the people who really love it, who really have put up with so much B.S. to be playing music. It's not easy. It's something that everyone wants to walk away from at some point, I'm sure."

Here's more of what Pirner had to say about Minneapolis, Runaway Train and more.

Is Minneapolis still home for you? Or have you moved out?

Well, I have been in New Orleans for 16 years, and due to a recent divorce, I've been spending more time in Minneapolis. I've still got my studio in New Orleans.

Is that why we've seen more of Soul Asylum in Florida the last few years?

Hmm. That's a really good question, because I don't know. There's a lot of places to play in Florida, an amazing amount of gigs.

A couple of years ago you played a Fourth of July weekend event at Hulk Hogan's bar in Tampa. Did he pop in?

No, but you do get to points in your life where you're in places like that going, "How in the hell did I end up at this place?" And you kind of laugh, and go, "This is weird," but there's enough people around that you've got to ask them questions: "Does he ever come around here?" But no, he wasn't hanging out that night.

I have to confess, until we set up this interview, I didn't know that your drummer was Michael Bland. Is the Twin Cities music scene that small, that Prince's ex-drummer is just available for hire?

Well, I had to wait a long time, because I had been hankering for Michael since he was 14, but he was always busy. So the first second his schedule freed up, he came in, and I call it the shortest audition ever. He played for two minutes, and I went, "That's it, he's in, let's go." Me and Michael are very close. We very much are working as a team, where he'll make the selist, and then I'll talk to him about what keys and where my voice is. He's very, very intuitive. He has perfect pitch. He's a musical master. And I didn't know all these details about him. I just needed a drummer. But he'll be in the middle of a really loud song and someone will hit a bad note and he'll look right at them and tell them what the right note is. That is exquisite for a drummer.

But anyhow, so the Minneapolis music scene is really … I don't even know what the word is. The Suicide Commandos just put out a record not that long ago, and (singer-guitarist) Chris Osgood pretty much showed me how to play a guitar. So I go to a party, and the Suburbs are there and a bunch of people that are so instrumental to my growing up in the city: Oh, there's the booking agent, there's the drummer. And they're all friends. Everybody knows each other, everybody knows everybody's kids, everybody has a sort of a love for what has transpired here, to the point where, to me, it's a family thing.

So when Runaway Train breaks in a huge way, what's the reaction back home? Is it Twin Cities pride, or pride tinged with jealousy or bitterness?

It was a little bit alienating for me. I think that people can't help themselves. When you go, "Oh, I'm going off to the big time, see you later," it's like, F— you. There's going to be that element of it. I sort of just left. I don't want to live in Los Angeles, and I don't want to live in New York City, but there's a lot of stuff to take care of as far as the band is concerned. I ended up in New Orleans, because I love the atmosphere down there. Everyone is a better musician than me, so no one gives a s— about who you are. There's this anonymity that goes along with this artistic community that is kind of nice. So I suppose that was my way of dealing with it.

I don't know what it's like for anybody else. I've certainly watched Husker Du and the Replacements go from an indie label to a major label, and certain things like that. I've watched Prince go to England and New York City to establish himself so he could come back to Minneapolis and people would go, "Holy s—, dude, you're good!" It's weird like that.

It must be so hard now to write a song that has a massive impact on the world, a protest song that can make a difference. It seems like we might be past the days when that sort of thing can happen.

Well, maybe. I hope not. To me, the climate is pretty boring. It's very black and white. You can't analyze it because people are already sick of it. No one wants to talk about Trump. It reminds me of when all the punk rock bands were singing songs like, "I hate Reagan! F— Reagan! I hate Reagan! Reagan sucks!" And that was pretty much the extent of the lyrics to a lot of songs. I think this is a phase, hopefully.

Are you playing any more songs this tour from your first couple of Twin Tone records, since you're re-releasing those this summer?

We have been playing some of those songs in the sets. We'll probably try to fit a couple of oddball tracks in there and switch it up every night. But I'm pushed into a smaller timeslot, where you've got to stick your big foot out and play the s— that you know is going to work every night. It's not like it's taxing on me to do that. It's actually easier than going out and challenging myself with a bunch of material I'm not quite sure if I'm coordinated enough (to play) or I can hit all the notes. Who knows, maybe halfway through the tour, that's what will happen. I'll go, "Forget it, man, nobody cares. Let's just play all new material." Or, "Hey, let's just play Free Bird for half an hour." People will love that.

Have you been working on any fun covers lately? I know you've got a lot of them in your catalog.

I started a side project with Michael which has sort of imploded. We wanted something that we could put in a jazz club. So we had an upright bass player and a piano player, and Mike was trying to get me to play the trumpet more. I had a Miles Davis track in there. I had a Beyonce track in there. I had Mambo No. 5; I don't know if you remember that song.

Oh, I do. What Beyonce song?

If I Were a Boy. I just that was so funny, for a crusty old dude like me to sing If I Were a Boy. The band laughed at me; they were like, "Dave, you can't pull that off." But that was the part of me that just wanted to go, "You know what? I might give this a shot." I did one shot at it, and everyone else was like, Nah."

— Jay Cridlin


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