Soul Asylum - Autumn 2022
Loud Fast Words...
It’s been a busy time for Grammy Award winning alternative rock band Soul Aslyum. The Covid lockdown offered the opportunity for the band to immerse themselves creatively, with absolutely outstanding results. First of all, lead singer and guitarist Dave Pirner wrote Loud Fast Words: Soul Asylum Collected Lyrics, a wonderful book that not only contains the lyrics to over 150 songs but also shares the stories behind them, offering the reader a unique perspective into the soul of one of the last generations finest songwriters. Soul Asylum also released their 12th studio album Hurry Up And Wait, 14 wholly uplifting and empowering tracks, before embarking upon extensive and highly acclaimed tours of America. The great news is that they are now heading to the UK with contemporaries Everclear and the anticipation that’s building is immense. We catch up with Dave at his home in Minneapolis. It’s a beautiful sunny day but a surprise awaiting this UK based writer is that even though it’s only October, the first of the snow has already fallen. Having said this, the neighbours are clearly fully prepared and are busily hunkering down for the winter. Despite the cold we are given the warmest of welcomes. With so much to discuss we make ourselves comfortable and our conversation begins…
I’d like our conversation to start with us focusing on your book, Loud Fast Words: Soul Asylum Collected Lyrics. This contains the lyrics to over 150 songs from over 40 years, but it is so much more than this. You provide the stories behind the songs, you share how your love of songwriting was born and also how it was nurtured. It really is a very special and I would say very important book. What really comes through is how deep your love of songwriting actually is. I love how you recall how you started making rhymes in as early as the second grade and that this was the basis and the start of your love for songwriting – and that’s fascinating to me. What do you remember of that time? Were you aware of what you were doing or was it simply your love of words and trying to put them together creatively?
I remember making rhymes in the backseat of my parents car, just kind of singing little songs about people. I had this one about my friends mother and her last name was Gert and I rhymed that with shirt. It was something like I’m going to show my shirt to Tim’s mum Gert, and I had a little tune that went along with it and my parents were very amused by that. I think it was a little bit later in school when we were supposed to write a limerick – and you can imagine a group of second graders trying to write limericks – so I made a thing about a fly and a pie. It wasn’t a limerick as such but my teacher was like “You know what, David, that’s not a limerick but that’s pretty fuckin’ good”! (Laughs!) I was like “Alright!”. I guess that I passed and failed all at the same time! (Laughs!)
Fantastic! Well one of the things I love, and you’ve touched on school there, is the fact that in your book you said that at school you noticed that your words got people’s attention, and I think the response from your parents is another great example. Were you consciously looking to get a reaction and did you find that the reactions you received actually spurred you on?
I guess I found that the reaction was different than it was for the other kids around me. So I would just kind of make a little rhyme up or a tune or something. The other kids just weren’t doing it so whether it was the teacher or the parents… I just did it for fun and effortlessly. I didn’t have to think about it too much but it did kind of turn peoples heads in a way like “What the fuck?! What’s up with Mr Rhymes over here!?”. It was just fun! And I’ve always been kind of fascinated with rhyming and to this day I rhyme different words, or I hear somebody say something and I go “Ooh, that guy just made a rhyme!”. Some people make rhymes and they don’t even catch it. They don’t realise they’ve just done it.
I think it’s great that you are tuned into that. You also just mentioned your teacher and also I think it’s wonderful the way you have recognised the difference your English teacher Charlotte Westby made and the impact that she had on you, especially around the passionate way she taught poetry. What was it she did and what do you remember about her?
I remember her so vividly! She was a very captivating presence. She looked like an old school ma’am, like an old lady and she dressed like an old lady. She had one arm shorter than the other and she would pick up her left arm with her right arm and put it on the podium. She just had this incredible passion for language, and my sister took her class and it was the class that everyone was afraid to take. She was such a hard teacher but such a good teacher that the cool kids didn’t want to have anything to do with her because it was hard and for some reason I was drawn to it. I liked the challenge but I wasn’t very competitive academically. But I knew that there was something there that I was feeding off of and she was strict and she could be kind of mean! I remember falling asleep in her class and the kind of verbal abuse she would give me. It wasn’t a class for the dummies or the cool kids, it was mostly the more ambitious students I suppose for lack of a better expression. It wasn’t one of those things where it was like it’s so hard and I need this credit so bad or anything like that. It was more like this is different than all my other classes because not only was it very difficult but but it gave me some sense of I’m actually learning something that might come in handy someday, I suppose! (Laughs!)
That’s a wonderful picture that you have painted there! As you went on to have enormous success, did you ever get a chance to tell Charlotte the difference she’d made?
No, I did not. She was pretty old when I was in high school, but at one point I do remember hearing that she was still around. I think I had mentioned her name in an interview long before the book came out and I got a lot of feedback from people just walking down the street, because she was at that school which is not that far away from where we are right now, for many, many years. So she had a many generations of people coming through her class, and just mentioning her name in an interview saw people coming up to me and saying “Oh yeah, I had Charlotte Westby’s class” and we’d exchange stories of how we got through it!
It’s nice that you weren’t intimidated like other people might have been. I think what’s really interesting is that for someone who is such a gifted songwriter and a sculpture of words, you actually prefer to listen to instrumental music. Can you see how surprised people may be to hear that?
Yeah! It’s just sort of something that kind of happened. I had just kind of gotten to the point where no one was really saying anything new to me, particularly when there’s other people around. So if I’m hanging out with some people and there’s music playing the voice will conflict or distract from what people are saying. If I’m listening to instrumental music the words and the voices of the people in the room kind of become the vocal track. They take up that space and it all goes together a little bit better for me instead of people trying to talk over somebody singing. I’m pretty partial to jazz music and I was kind of raised with a lot of jazz music. So there’s a comfort zone for me there where it’s probably not for – I don’t want to say a lot of people my age – but people who aren’t jazz enthusiasts or something. It makes sense to me because I started listening to and then playing the trumpet in third grade so I kind of know the ins and outs of the standards. I’ll go and see a jazz band and think “Oh shit, I played that song in high school”, so there’s all this kind of passing on of the standards in the music. It’s as enticing to me as rock music or music with a singer.
Just focusing on the songs and the lyrics themselves one thing that really struck me is how seeing them written down in a book gives him a whole new perspective. To give my first example, Long Day is a fast up-tempo song which is great to sing along to but see the words on a page gives a real poignancy and actually, for me, becomes something hugely thought-provoking. Was this something you wanted to achieve in creating the book, and perhaps for people to see deeper into your soul?
I think somewhere in the back of my mind there’s always been this kind of wish that it would feel right or read well on a piece of paper. I’m not exactly sure where that comes from. It probably comes from things like reading Bob Dylan’s lyrics and going ‘this works on paper’, you don’t even need to know the song – you can still read the lyrics and get the whole gist of it. So yes, when I finish the lyrics to a song I kind of step back and I look at it. Not only does the lyric have to sing but for me it would be nice to think that you might actually be reading a piece of poetry and you didn’t even know there was music attached to it and that you actually got something out of it.
The song Long Day is very much about a teenager who is just trying to make sense of everything and who is perhaps a little jaded. It’s lyrically quite dark but I would suggest it’s as relevant today as it was in the 80s and perhaps representative of how so many teenagers may be feeling. I say that because I have a teenage son and in reading those lyrics I spotted my son in there. You say in the book that this song begins with ‘a character’ almost as if it’s fictional, but I’m guessing there was something highly autobiographical at the core of these words. Is that a fair thing to say?
Oh, absolutely! If I’m not doing something that is personal to me yet personable to someone else it doesn’t have the same effect like if I’m writing like I’m a news reporter and commenting on somebody else’s situations. So I’m putting myself into these situations in a way that there’s visceral or emotional kind of things are going on. That’s really interesting, I have an 18-year-old and it had never even occurred to me that he would look at my lyrics and see himself in there. But it’s interesting to play with the whole situation where you’re telling a story that’s mostly fiction but where you’re kind of a character in the story, just by the virtue of the fact that you’re observing it and being affected by it and that sort of becomes part of the song somehow.
The lyrics that follow for songs such as Voodoo Doll, Money Talks, Stranger and Sick Of That Song all have elements of rebellion, of challenging and of just trying to make sense of everything. But with Walking, we begin to see someone who is starting to see a clearing and who sees a future. I could spend hours talking to you about every single song here but I think what I would like to suggest is that the lyrics to each of these 150 songs overall shows the incredible journey that you’ve been on as a songwriter, as an artist and quite simply a person. To what extent you think that’s a fair thing to say?
Well I think it’s really funny that you had said that the first song in the book you sensed a teenager trying to make sense of it all and I was just working on a song yesterday and it seems like I’m a person who now has a teenager… that’s still trying to make sense of it all! (Laughs!) That’s a fascinating thing to hear!
I don’t know if it feels the same for you but when I look at what my son is going through, I feel like I am living a second teenage life but I also think ‘I’m sure it wasn’t this hard when I was a teenager’! It almost feels harder to be a teenager now than what it did back then. When I see the amount of pressure that my 16-year-old is under I don’t remember my teenage years being like that.
Well the first thing that comes to my mind is just imagine when you’re a teenager and dealing with all this internet information that’s flying about all over the place, feeling like you’ve got to keep up with it or you’re just kind of pushed into it. I was talking to somebody the other day and they were just like ‘Oh my God! Thank God I didn’t have all that distraction when I was a kid’. So I think that’s just one thing that teenagers have to deal with these days and it doesn’t even register when I go ‘Fuck, you know, you didn’t have a graduation because of Covid’. Homeschooling is something that I think people think about a lot because people are so frustrated with the education system. But these kids got homeschooled whether they liked it or not! It’s got to be more difficult to keep up with the class when you’re at home and you may have more flexibility as far as whether or not you have to get your assignment done on time!
Hurry Up And Wait
Well that does bring me to the next thing I’d like to talk about which is the new album Hurry Up And Wait. I think one incredibly wonderful quality is how massively uplifting this album is right from the opening track The Beginning. Lyrics such ‘this is the beginning of a great adventure, now is not the time to step aside’ are hugely uplifted and empowering. With track 2 ‘If I Told You’ we enjoy the words ‘I’ve seen every shade of grey but I can’t wait another day for summer to come around’ and talking about being ready to love. Track 3 ‘I Got It Pretty Good’ has a very direct message: ‘it’s time to shine’! These are just some examples but overall I think this album shows a band in a fantastic place with a real sense of contentment and excitement for the future. To what extent would you agree with that?
Yes, I talk about black gospel music a lot as far as something that I really am affected by especially in the street music of New Orleans. I lived in New Orleans for 20 years with that kind of thing in the back of the head as far as This music is so joyful and so filled with hope and it’s often performed in a situation where you know the people have a hard, hard life and this is what they do to express their gratitude. It’s a celebration of life expressed in music, and I kind of wanted that a little bit more as I got older. It seemed like I had bitched and moaned and complained about everything and been this kind of punk rock person that fucking hated everything. There was so much anger and vile notions going on but I thought I needed to take a step back and really have a look at just how much there is that I really need to bitch about, and maybe I should take inventory of some of the better things and the things that do happen in your life that don’t suck, for lack of a better expression! (Laughs!)
It is such a strong album and one that’s been the soundtrack to my summer. The one thing that I do to keep fit is running. I listen to Hurry Up And Wait whilst running and I find that I’m running faster and I’m running further!
That’s a really interesting thing to me! I had a next door neighbour in New Orleans who ran every day and he always had AirPods in and I asked him what he was listening to and he said techno. He said “It’s all techno, I don’t want to be too distracted, I need a tempo and I run to the tempo. I don’t want to focus on the music, I just want the beat”. And then I was in the airport and there’s this big muscular guy in front to me and he leaned down to take something out of his bag and I noticed that he had a System Of A Down record. I mention to him that this was an interesting choice and he said “Oh man, it’s so great to lift weights too!”. (Laughs!) That really fascinates me because I don’t see music in that kind of a way but I’m also someone who can’t read while there’s music playing because it’s distracting. It’s interesting to me how music can sometimes be background music to people, like when I worked as a cook the radio was always on and it just distracted from the mundane nature of the job. No one was changing the stations to find something good, it was just background noise and there’s just so many different kind of applications where they can really enhance the situation or I can distract from the situation. Then again, I’m not like a lot of people where I will put a record on. I only listen to vinyl, I don’t mind getting up and turning the record over - it’s not that big of a deal! I’ll put it on and sit right in the middle of the two speakers and just listen to the record. That’s something I’ve done my whole life and I don’t think it’s that common anymore. I think it’s more a kind of ‘I’m going to stream background music and not really think about what I’m listening to’. That’s very different than going through 300 albums and putting something on and going ‘this is what I need to hear right now’.
Well the fantastic news is that 8th November sees Soul Asylum commencing an 8 date UK tour, starting in Southampton and ending in Digbeth on the 16th November and you will be sharing the stage with the incredible Everclear. The excitement that is bubbling away here in the UK is huge and there’s a massive sense of anticipation over this tour. What does it mean to be coming back to the UK and what can fans expect from a Soul Asylum show in 2022?
Well, that’s good to hear! I just have no idea, it’s been so long since we’ve been over there. No one will be more pleased than me if we are accepted. I just don’t know what the band’s status is in the UK and I’m bracing to be playing and having bottles thrown at me! (Laughs!) You never know! It would be nice if people come and really enjoy it! England has always been a tough nut to crack, always very shifting and its tastes towards what is hip and what is cool. There’s a trend thing that goes on where bands can be sort of chewed up and spit out and it’s just a little bit different in America. There’s plenty of haters everywhere and there’s plenty of taste meisters everywhere. The only thing I can sort of look at is the bands that come out of these places and it’s always a mixed bag in terms ‘do we fit in and are people still listening to this kind of music?’. But it’s good to know that there are people who still want to go and see people playing the drums, play guitars and not do a track show.
For my final question, I would like to return to Loud Fast Words. In the book you say have you found it easier to express yourself and communicate through songs. I think what you’ve also been able to do is connect with so many people who can absolutely relate to your words and as a result you’ve given them a voice they might not otherwise have had. How does it make you feel to know your words have had this impact?
It makes me feel like I’m passing something on. Throughout my life I’ve been so deeply affected and impacted by the lyrics of Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen and Neil Young. I’ve got so much invested in there and that’s how it sort of shaped my world. So if I could sort of pass that on that’s a pretty big part of my mission and it’s really cool if that is in fact what I’m doing!
As our conversation draws to a close, we reflect upon what a hugely important book Loud Fast Words really is and how we almost feel a sense of responsibility to invite you to immerse yourself in a copy and feel that overwhelming sense of enjoyment yourselves. The latest album Hurry Up And Wait is Soul Asylum presented in the most uplifting way and it’s with the highest of recommendations that we invite you to grab a ticket for the UK tour.
In the meantime, enjoy a trip down memory lane with the video to Runaway Train below.