In his 40 years in rock ‘n’ roll, Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner has gotten used to the practice of hurrying up and waiting.
The frontman for the Minneapolis proto-grunge band says that rushing through sets and costly studio sessions and then waiting around for the next gig or critics’ responses is such an integral part of his “band life” that he decided to name his group’s forthcoming album Hurry Up and Wait.
“In a band, the cliche is you spend 22 hours getting someplace on trains, planes, and automobiles and then 90-ish minutes onstage and then you go spend 20, 30, 40 hours getting to the next place,” says Pirner, who brings Soul Asylum’s Dead Letter Tour to Slim’s on Sunday. “It kind of feels that way all the time.”
That’s why the vocalist-guitarist, best known for alternative hits “Somebody to Shove,” “Black Gold,” and “Runaway Train” off 1992’s Grave Dancers Union relished the opportunity to take his time with his latest album, due out April 17.
It didn’t hurt that the recording sessions took place at a familiar spot, Minnesota’s historic Nicollet Studios, where Soul Asylum had laid down some of their early material, and that co-producer John Fields had already built a rapport with the group — now including drummer Michael Bland, guitarist Ryan Smith, and bassist Winston Roye — after working on their last three records.
“It seemed more painless than it has been in the past,” says Pirner, who recently moved back to Minneapolis after a long stint living in New Orleans with his now ex-wife and son. “It was just this very relaxed process.”
In such a supportive environment, he felt more comfortable experimenting with a variety of genres — such as punk (“Hopped Up Feelin’”), glam rock (“Got It Pretty Good”), indie rock (“The Beginning”), and folk rock (“Dead Letter”) — and tougher subject matter like romantic difficulties and emotional disconnection, inspired by his recent divorce and his geographic separation from his high-school-age son Eli, who remains in The Big Easy.
“My divorce happened between the last record and this one, so I’m sure some of that is reflected in the material,” Pirner says. “I don’t really care to pick it apart, but it’s the first time I’ve ever been through anything quite that fucked up and I’m still kinda pissed off about it. But having a kid was a great experience and then not being able to see him was just awful. So that’s probably all in there somewhere.”
If the album’s lead track “The Beginning” is its most life-affirming, “Dead Letter,” the record’s first single, is its most morbid.
Inspired by the dead letter office Pirner visited in New Orleans, where he saw stacks of undeliverable mail, full of unread sentiments waiting to be processed, the track is a major musical departure for Soul Asylum with its heavily acoustic, country-tinged, melancholic vibe.
Whether it fits neatly into the band’s discography or is regarded as punk or rock enough by fans or critics is irrelevant to the singer who has made a career of defying expectations.
After building his initial audience playing “loud,” “fast,” and “obnoxious” electric music for over a decade, Pirner had no qualms about going acoustic for the recording of Grave Dancers Union.
“I always thought we were a little more experimental and broader reaching than a lot of the bands of the [punk] scene,” says Pirner. “I really didn’t want to write songs that sounded the same. So you have to keep trying new ways of making songs and the [shift in musical style] seemed to work.”
The acoustic-driven “Runaway Train” sped to the top of the charts, garnering the band heavy radio and MTV airplay, a Grammy, and a spot performing at the inauguration of former president Bill Clinton.
Still, the group that predated Nirvana by six years and arguably helped shape the grunge scene never felt that they were respected by the media as much as the Cobain-fronted band. To Pirner’s dismay, he became better known for his grungy torn pants and blonde matted dreadlocks than his music.
The singer remembers opening up a music trade publication in the mid-1990s and feeling disappointed that the first sentence was about his long, thick mane.
“I was like, ‘Really, after all this music I made, you’re still just going to talk about my fucking hair?’” Pirner says. “It’s astonishing, especially in a music magazine. So to that effect, it was kind of a bummer. But I don’t care. Why should I care? It always seemed difficult for me to keep people focused on the music.”
So with Hurry Up and Wait and the companion release of Loud, Fast, Words, a lyrical anthology of 150-plus Soul Asylum songs from throughout the band’s career, Pirner is excited to win some long overdue attention for his musical abilities, which he regards as even more “seasoned, experienced, streamlined, and comfortable” than before.
“I’ve always worked toward creating songs that were meaningful,” Pirner says. “I’d like to think that I’m putting some words and music out there that bring people a certain amount of comfort. If someone can hear a song or read a lyric and think, ‘Ah, I feel that way, too, and that must mean I’m not fucking crazy,’ then it has value.”
Soul Asylum, Sunday, March 8, 8:30 p.m., Slim’s, 333 11th St. $28-$99, slimspresents.com/slims