These days, Soul Asylum frontman Dave Pirner has taken to scratching vinyl records on a turntable and slip-mat combo he picked up at a Guitar Center. It was shortly after he discovered DJ Shadow and the 2001 turntablism documentary Scratch.
His new passion has befuddled his bandmates.
“My guys in the band were like, ‘Why are you fucking around with this stuff?’” Pirner says. “I’m like, ‘Because it’s interesting?’”
Pirner, who also went through a theremin phase, adds that Soul Asylum won’t be taking on a DJ, and people shouldn’t be expecting his instrumental hip-hop solo debut to drop any time soon.
“I have no aspiration of being DJ Dumbshit or whatever,” he says.
Soul Asylum, nearing its fortieth year in existence, is coming through Denver on March 1. The alternative band is releasing Hurry Up and Wait, its twelfth full length — and first album in four years — in April. Pirner says the band has been playing a handful of songs off the new record during its U.S. tour that kicked off February 11 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
The new material seems to be garnering a good response so far.
“I never know what to expect from a crowd, but they seem just as interested in the new stuff as they do in the older obscure stuff,” he says. “Some people really respond to that. They're like, ‘Oh, my God, they're playing something off their first record,’ and it’s kind of the same reaction. Or ‘Oh, my God, they're playing something I don’t know. They're playing something new.’ The rest of the time there's a familiar reaction to familiar songs.”
Pirner hopes there's some surprise left when the album comes out in April.
“One way or another, people are going to record it on their phones, and you can’t control that,” he says. “Hopefully, the record will come out and not everyone will have heard everything on it, because we played it live. But we aren’t playing everything on the record. It’s very selective.”
Soul Asylum formed in the 1980s under the name Loud Fast Rules and became well known in the Minneapolis music scene. The band released its debut major-label album, Hang Time, in 1988. It reached mainstream success with 1992’s “Grave Dancers Union.” The album produced the hit single “Runaway Train,” which earned the group a Grammy award. While the song was about depression, the video for it included photos of missing children, some of whom were found after the footage was shown.
The band has gone through numerous lineup changes and the death of longtime bassist Karl Mueller, but Soul Asylum has managed to maintain a recognizable style. The band has neither fallen victim to an increasingly generic hard-rock sound nor chased pop-music trends, and Pirner says it's been easy for him to avoid those pitfalls.
“I suppose I’m in my own world a little bit,” Pirner says. “However, I thought it was cool, when Some Girls, the Rolling Stones record, came out [in 1978] and there was like a really severe kind of country song on there, and there was a like a really severe disco song on there.”
Throughout the course of his career, Pirner says he’s seen hard-core punk bands suddenly change their entire image and sound and become a goth band or whatever music style happened to be trending at the time.
“Style to me is just style,” he says. “Pop music is always going to be pretty much what it is — trendy music that comes and goes. Whatever the kids are listening to. I don’t think that’s a great path to go down.”
Pirner returned to his home town of Minneapolis a few years ago following a seventeen-year-long stint in New Orleans, where he says he moved because it offered a sort of musical “yang to the yin” of his musical education in Minneapolis.
In Minneapolis, he says, everyone played electric guitars in their mom’s basement, and the harsh winters mostly prevent parades (though he's tried it and the horns got cold). New Orleans, on the other hand, is more unplugged and brassy, and the warmer climate offers music all day and night.
“There is always something going on,” he says. “Just when you think, ‘Oh, I haven’t heard any music today,' someone will go marching down the street with a snare and a trombone.”
“I just went to [First Avenue’s] Best New Bands of 2019,” Pirner says. “I like to see what’s happening with the younger groups. It’s a funny and fun kind of scene. My drummer plays at this club called Bunkers. It’s a beautiful crowd. It’s very mixed. You don’t see that a lot in Minneapolis. That’s another reason I went to New Orleans. It’s somehow more integrated and more racist all at the same time.”
In a high-level nod to Pirner’s status as a son of Minneapolis, the Minnesota Historical Society is publishing his collected lyrics and a series of essays on each Soul Asylum album. The book, which comes out in March, is called Loud, Fast, Words and offers an extensive chronological collection that captures even the words Pirner looks back at with a sense of chagrin.
“There is plenty of ‘Oh, my God, I was eighteen or nineteen years old when I wrote that,’” he says. “I was an angry young man who didn’t know what the hell he was doing. Sometimes it’s kind of cute and charming, but other times it’s like I hadn’t sorted that out. Hopefully, it gets better as the book and the records progress.”
Soul Asylum plays at 8:30 p.m. on Sunday, March 1, at the Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax Avenue. Tickets are $28 to $30 and available at bluebirdtheater.net.