Say What You Will: Dave Pirner and Soul Asylum (Part 2 of 2)

Continued from Part One…

The momentum of Grave Dancers Union helped propel Soul Asylum’s 1995 follow-up, Let Your Dim Light Shine even higher on the U.S. album chart, and its lead single “Misery” soared to the top spot on the alternative chart. But overall sales figures were less impressive than before, and critical praise was muted.

The band would release one more album on Columbia (1998’s Candy from a Stranger), but it was a commercial disappointment. To the wider public, it appeared that the group disappeared soon thereafter. (Pirner notes that Soul Asylum continued to play gigs during that period.)

Soul Asylum resurfaced in 2004, releasing a well-regarded live album (After the Flood) and a studio set, The Silver Lining. Neither record set the charts on fire, but they signaled the return of a creatively rejuvenated group. Save for a revolving-door approach to drummers, the band’s founding trio of Pirner, bassist Karl Mueller and guitarist Dan Murphy stayed together until 2005. That year Mueller succumbed to cancer. “When Karl died, those were some fucking dark times,” Pirner admits.

By that time, Pirner had moved to New Orleans. He became a father, “spent some time rethinking things” and made a solo record. Others have sometimes characterized that period in the Soul Asylum timeline as a hiatus, but Pirner never thought of it that way. “I just wanted to recharge and get a new grip on things,” he says. He formed a group called The OGs, laying down his guitar in favor of a seat behind the drums. “I wouldn’t trade that time for anything,” he says.

It would be four years before another Soul Asylum album appeared: Delayed Reaction was released in 2012. Mueller’s replacement Tommy Stinson and Murphy both quit the group shortly after its release, leaving Pirner as the sole remaining founding member.

Throughout the years, Pirner – who has written the lion’s share of Soul Asylum song – has inevitably matured as a songwriter. But his early songs still resonate with him. “It’s pretty easy for me to sing a song that I wrote in high school,” he says. “I’ve still got that weird sense of… whatever it is. If it’s a good song, I’m like, ‘Hey, fucking 20 year old Dave, not too bad!’”

Delayed Reaction also marked the start of what would in retrospect look like a pattern for the group: a new album every four years. Change of Fortune was released in 2016; Hurry Up and Wait – its title perhaps a wry commentary on the band’s pace of releasing new music – hit shelves in 2020. Critics have had good things to say about most all of those releases, but in keeping with rock’s general commercial decline, chart success has proven more elusive.

No new music has been forthcoming from Soul Asylum since Hurry Up and Wait, but it looks as if the band’s 21st century pattern will hold. “I just got done with four days of pre-production here in Minneapolis with Steve Jordan,” Pirner says. The choice of Jordan – who is Charlie Watts’ replacement in the Rolling Stones – brings things full circle for Soul Asylum. “He produced our second A&M record,” notes Pirner.

And the straight-ahead, no-varnish attitude that earned the band its slow-burn success promises to be a defining characteristic of the upcoming album. “We’re going to go for a no-bullshit approach,” Pirner says. “Get in the studio and play together, all at the same time.”

After being a gigging and recording musician for most of his 59 years, Pirner still loves what he does. “I’m sure I fucked things up in a million different ways,” he says with a laugh. “But that I’m still doing it is pretty rewarding, I’ve got to say.”