- Tony Nelson
- Soul Asylum with Local H, Saturday, Feb. 29, 6 p.m., Sunshine Studios, 3970 Clearview Frontage Road, $18 and up; 392-8921, sunshinestudioslive.com
"Punk rock made me feel like somebody gave a shit about my story,” writes Soul Asylum frontman Dave Pirner in Loud Fast Words, a collection of essays and lyrics that spans some 35 years in 320 pages, to be released in March. Published by Minnesota Historical Society Press, a cultural institution better known for its histories of lynchings in Duluth and Scandinavians in the State House, the book offers insights into the songwriting and recording sessions of the most commercially successful band to come out of the Minneapolis punk scene that brought us The Replacements, The Suburbs and Hüsker Dü.
For many, Soul Asylum are still best known for the multi-platinum success that came in the wake of their 1993 breakthrough single “Runaway Train.” The Grammy-winning rock ballad’s accompanying video famously featured images of real-life runaways, including their names and years gone missing. According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, the video helped reunite 21 of those 36 children with their families.
Last year, the organization commemorated the 25th anniversary of “Runaway Train” by recruiting pop singers Skylar Grey, Jamie N Commons and Gallant to create a new version of the song and video that sets out to accomplish the same thing.
“The gratifying part is that the project continues, and that’s kind of nice,” says Pirner, who has always shied away from taking credit for what the video accomplished. “The problem’s never gonna go away, although I think there’s been progress made. They didn’t have an Amber Alert back when we made the video. There should be a frickin’ Amber Alert all the time.”
And the remake? “Yeah, it’s kind of funny to watch these other artists do it,” he admits, “but it’s always a kick when someone covers one of your songs, it’s kind of charming. So I’m like, yeah, that’s right, keep on fighting for the things in life that are worth fighting for.”
Meanwhile, Pirner has his own legacy to keep up. As other Minneapolis punk bands fell by the wayside, Pirner continued to record and tour with fellow Soul Asylum co-founders Dan Murphy and bassist Karl Mueller for well over two decades. And while Pirner is now the group’s only original member, the current lineup still does justice to the band’s sound and spirit on their forthcoming album Hurry Up and Wait, which is scheduled for April release. As with past Soul Asylum recordings, the album foregrounds Pirner’s well-crafted songwriting, which conveys an emotional honesty that suits his unaffected vocal style and radio-friendly rock arrangements.
Recorded in the same Minneapolis studio where the band tracked its second and third albums, Hurry Up and Wait was co-produced by longtime studio collaborator John Fields, whose DIY approach bears little resemblance to the slick production values of Soul Asylum’s major-label recordings.
“John’s method is much more spontaneous,” confirms Pirner. “You’re not playing something 30 times, and then moving the mic a little bit, and then playing it 30 times again. I’ve also learned to trust myself, at least enough to wing it and think, you know, maybe it’ll actually sound good if I don’t over-think it, and over-rehearse it, and over-everything it, until it’s beat down to the ground, you know? It’s a clear path if you’re going right from your brain through your instrument to the tape machine.”
But unlike Soul Asylum’s early days, Pirner no longer feels a need to scream in order to get his point across. “Part of that was just being young and frustrated and not knowing how to sing,” he says. “I don’t miss the music that I was writing 30 years ago, but I can still scream when I feel like it, as long as I’m onstage or in a sound-proof room.”
According to the new book, Pirner has been listening to a lot of instrumental music these days, because he’s grown tired of hearing everyone whine about their problems. Has Pirner ever done that himself?
“Yeah, I mean, it’s kind of an intrinsic part of songwriting,” he admits. “But if you look at the blues, it’s not so much whining as it is reaching out and sharing how you feel, and hoping that somebody else feels the same way. So yeah, sometimes that comes through in the form of being pissed off, and trying to reach other folks who are pissed off too. And that’s when it becomes kind of a rallying cry, instead of a little biatch whining.”
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the correct name of one of the artists recruited to commemorate the 25th anniversary of "Runaway Train": Jamie N Commons.