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Dave Pirner has lived in New Orleans since the late '90s, but it's only now that the Big Easy's musical gumbo has truly soaked into a Soul Asylum album. "I was entertaining an obsession with jazz music," the 48-year-old recalls, regarding a new track, "Cruel Intentions." "A song like that took me forever to write. I had to live here to write it. And it's kind of amateur hour, but it really is me trying to sort of embrace the spirit of a standard."
Pirner is speaking to City Pages from his home studio, a small, windowless, soundproof box with a "shit hot air conditioner" built in his backyard. Most of the vocals and string parts for Soul Asylum's 11th studio album, Delayed Reaction, were recorded in this space. It's the day before the Fourth of July. "Today, I was on a meeting to produce a record with a drummer who plays with [jazz trumpeter-singer] Kermit Ruffins, who is one of my favorites here in New Orleans, and he said it was a trio," he says. "A trio is good for the space. So if you could imagine a room that if you have three guys in a band, it's a pretty good room, but if you have four, it's not big enough. That's kind of what my studio is."
There's still a rough-hewn toughness in the way Pirner talks, which recalls the dreads-tossing glory from the years of his Minneapolis-bred band's major-label breakout. But now there's also more of a tranquility that was far from present during a City Pages roundtable in 1992 with the Jayhawks' Gary Louris, Babes in Toyland's Lori Barbero, and Trip Shakespeare's Matt Wilson. "[Minneapolis is] growing in a direction that doesn't appeal to me at all.... I'm incredibly jaded, but I have an undying faith for this town.... My inclination is to go find another city that has a little bit of personality left in it," Pirner told then-music editor Jim Walsh during the discussion.
Aside from presenting an opportunity to wipe away a jaded couple of years after seeing Soul Asylum's success stir up backlash and unrest surrounding the release of 1998's Candy from a Stranger, the humid, multicultural gulf community was on his mind for artistic reasons too. "Basically, I moved to New Orleans to find a drummer because I just couldn't find one — and I knew all the rhythms were coming out of this part of the world," Pirner explains.
As it turned out, though, the Soul Asylum drummer to emerge in the ensuing years was Minneapolis native Michael Bland, who bolstered Soul Asylum's last studio effort, The Silver Lining, in 2006 as well as the new record. He has an extensive résumé including time with Prince's New Power Generation, Paul Westerberg, and numerous pop acts. Another drummer Pirner rediscovered was himself. "I'm looking at a drum set right now," he says, and we discuss June's Kill Kancer benefit show at the Cedar Cultural Center.
There, he was keeping time for his cheeky side project the O'Jeez, featuring Jessy Greene (Jayhawks, tour violinist for Foo Fighters and Pink) and Kraig Johnson (Run Westy Run, Golden Smog). "I had moments when I was rehearsing for that gig where my whole body just sort of went every different direction and the whole coordination thing just fell apart for a second," he admits. "It didn't happen during the gig, but it could've. It was a short gig. I love playing the drums. It's a really bizarre enigma that has become such a central part of my life over the years."
An even more central part of his life was Soul Asylum's original bassist, Karl Mueller, who passed following a battle with esophageal cancer in June 2005. The show at the Cedar — which also featured an all-star lineup of Golden Smog, the Magnolias, Howler's Jordan Gatesmith, Curtiss A, and an acoustic performance by Pirner and Soul Asylum guitarist Dan Murphy — was to benefit the Karl Fund, which was created in 2006 at the U of M's Minnesota Medical Foundation to advance research for the early detection of that rare and nasty cancer strain. Though Pirner and Murphy could smile as they sang gently, "Oh Karl, the last time I saw you, I thought you were better," the night was a reminder that seven years haven't softened the blow dealt to Soul Asylum when they lost their collaborator and friend dating back to their days as Loud Fast Rules in the early '80s.
Delayed Reaction, which features a woman riding a bicycle on the front cover and a fish riding a trike on the back, is the first Soul Asylum studio album without Mueller as a credited bassist. Ex-Replacement and current Guns N' Roses bassist Tommy Stinson ably anchors the record, and, schedule permitting, tours with the band. (Winston Roy will be handling bass for the Twin Cities-based activities surrounding the album's release.) Recording sessions took place in New Orleans, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles, and the music surges with muscular fretwork by Murphy and Bland's urgent sticks. Although Pirner's message in "Let's All Kill Each Other" is a tongue-in-cheek look at our always-at-war society — "It can only come out of me in that way, because I've already said it in so many other ways," he argues — the craft behind it is dead serious.
As for the aforementioned "Cruel Intentions," Pirner sheds all remnants of the "grunge rock" tag the band never quite fit to begin with, and recasts himself as a lounge lizard behind a piano. With lightly cooing vocalists in the background, he affects some sly melisma and tells an unknown adversary — perhaps a critic, an ex-lover, a record company, or all of the above — that "your whole world spins around you/And maybe that's cruel/So, save your cruel intentions/For somebody other than me."
The song's a more subtle stab than an earlier jazz reference: The band's amusing cover for the 1989 Clam Dip & Other Delights EP parodies the iconic sleeve from a Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass album, Whipped Cream & Other Delights. Instead of the luscious model Dolores Erickson in chiffon and shaving cream, it features Mueller covered in a hilariously noxious mess of sour cream, paint, whipped cream, and seafood. Still, convincing Murphy, Pirner's bandmate for three decades of punk-fueled rock, that an actual jazz song — written not long after Pirner relocated to Louisiana — belonged on Delayed Reaction took some work.
"It really had to come around to the beat not being tracked jazz, and me kind of nailing the vocal in a way that didn't sound like I was pretending to be something I wasn't," Pirner, who played trumpet in his youth, continues. "It took a long time." Contrast that with Delayed Reaction's new crunchy, guitar-driven single, "Gravity," which he says is the style he's always trying to challenge. "When I bring 'Gravity' to the band, they just respond to it immediately and go, 'Oh, that's what we do.'"
Remember how fans of Faith No More's hard-edged early material felt upon hearing Mike Patton crooning over a cover of the Commodores' "Easy" for the first time? Admittedly, "Cruel Intentions" is less surprising for owners of Pirner's solo album from 2002, Faces and Names, which rubs his sandpaper-rough voice against funk-melded R&B on "Tea" and features the smoky soul experiment "Feel the Need," which shows undeniable ties to New Orleans. Still, the song is a stylistic departure for Soul Asylum — and ultimately a welcome one.
A remnant of Karl Mueller's time with the band comes in the form of "I Should've Stayed in Bed," Delayed Reaction's dirge-y, strings-aided final song. According to Pirner's description of the song on Spotify — his brief explanations of every track are on the online streaming service — the older song was unearthed on YouTube by Murphy. Its only recording is from a 1995 taping of MTV Unplugged in Canada, and it's a dramatic remnant from that era. Despite its, ahem, delayed release, the song, with its theme of fighting back negativity, feels all the more apt today.
For the week of the release, Soul Asylum are not only celebrating Delayed Reaction's debut in the First Avenue Mainroom, but also with an already long sold-out show at the 7th St. Entry next door the night before. Pirner says he still feels oddly comfortable walking into that intimate venue.
"We all have sort of a different history of the building," he says with a laugh. "I think Danny [Murphy] might feel different about it and Michael [Bland] might feel different about it. It's going to be a sweaty mess, no matter how you look at it. Our gear is bigger than it used to be, and it'll be interesting to see if we still have room to rock in there. I can only imagine that it could be a disaster. Even if it is, it'll be just like old times."