MINNEAPOLIS -- Dave Pirner has gone from one end of the Mississippi River to the other. And just like his new home in New Orleans, his first solo album is a spicy gumbo of musical influences.
"If you compare what they call funky down there to what they call funky up here, it's two different kinds of funk, for sure," Pirner, the longtime Soul Asylum frontman, said during a recent visit to his hometown of Minneapolis.
Pirner prefers the sloppier groove of New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz and Dixieland, to that of the slick "Minneapolis Sound" of 1980s Prince.
"To me, it's just stinkier," says Pirner, a big fan of the New Orleans quartet the Meters. "New Orleans is kind of a dirty town, compared to Minneapolis."
Pirner captures some of that "stink" with "Faces & Names," his self-produced solo debut on the independent label Ultimatum Music that arrives in stores July 30. Recorded at producer Daniel Lanois' famed Kingsway Studios in New Orleans, the melodic album signals a break for Pirner from what he calls the "loud, loud, loud, loud, loud guitars" of Soul Asylum.
In "Never Recover," the album's first single, Pirner mourns lost love to the accompaniment of keyboardist Billy Preston. Horns are featured on "Someday Love," while "I'll Have My Day" and "Tea" show soulful touches, including some falsetto from the gravel-voiced Pirner. Distorted guitar and vocals make "Much Too Easy" sound like a psychedelic outtake from the Summer of Love.
For Pirner, the mix of styles is all part of his musical journey.
"It was fascinating to me when you go down to New Orleans and everybody's got a trumpet," says the 38-year-old Pirner, who played trumpet in school before discovering Jimi Hendrix and electric guitar. "You come up here, and everybody's got a loud guitar."
Wearing his famously scraggly hair shorter now, a relaxed Pirner sipped club soda and smoked cigarette after cigarette during an interview. He spoke just hours before Soul Asylum performed at an annual fund-raiser on the grounds of the Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis where Pirner was once an altar boy ("One of my dirty secrets," he says, laughing).
Pirner says his solo album and 13-city solo tour, which opens July 27 in Columbus, Ohio, came about by accident (Soul Asylum, which celebrated its 20th year last fall, is still together and planning a new album in 2003, he says).
After moving to New Orleans, Pirner got to know people at Kingsway Studio, the mansion on the edge of the French Quarter whose clients had included R.E.M., Pearl Jam, Sheryl Crow and Emmylou Harris. When the studio closed, Pirner says he was allowed to record demos of new songs there with whoever was available.
"It just sort of snowballed into this record. It was as good a time as any to try something new," says Pirner, who splits his time between Minneapolis and New Orleans.
For his solo tour, Pirner will be accompanied by Pat Sansone, who played on the album and can switch between guitar and piano, and a female bassist and a male drummer whom Pirner just auditioned. (Pirner admits he hasn't learned their last names yet.)
Asked if it's scary going on the road solo, Pirner says: "I like to use the word 'terrifying."'
Soul Asylum guitarist Dan Murphy, who has had his own side project as a member of Golden Smog, a "supergroup" that included members of the Jayhawks and Wilco, says he supports Pirner's solo effort.
"There's a couple of really good compositions on it," Murphy says. "I'm definitely going to see him play. I'm pulling for him."
Soul Asylum was formed in 1981 as Loud Fast Rules. Pirner started as the group's drummer before switching to guitar (the name "Soul Asylum" comes from a Pirner outtake). Pirner, Murphy and bassist Karl Mueller have been with the group from the beginning, but Soul Asylum is like Spinal Tap when it comes to drummers. Billy Thommes is the group's sixth.
After indie fame in Minneapolis, the band's breakthrough came in 1992 with the hit single "Runaway Train" from Soul Asylum's first Columbia album, "Grave Dancers Union." The song won Pirner a Grammy for best rock song, a songwriting award, and the video, featuring pictures of missing children, was an MTV favorite.
Pirner says the idea of including pictures of missing children was the idea of director Tony Kaye ("American History X").
"He just had this real simple idea he got from looking at a milk carton. And he said, 'Wouldn't it be great if we could put real kids in this?' And I was like, 'Wow, that's a cool idea,"' Pirner says.
Pirner credits the video with helping locate some children. It also changed the meaning of the song to people, he says, and all the hype prompted Soul Asylum to stop playing it in concert for a time.
"We play it now. It's just like, we might as well play it," Pirner says.
After the 1995 platinum-selling "Let Your Dim Light Shine," Soul Asylum got a lackluster response to 1998's "Candy From a Stranger" and left Columbia by mutual agreement.
Pirner says the musical landscape had changed.
"It all became about Tin Pan Alley, and 'N Sync and Britney (Spears) and all that stuff, and we just didn't fit in anymore. So we walked," Pirner says. The band is working on about 25 songs for its next album and hasn't decided yet on a new label, he says.
Once Pirner wraps up his solo tour, it's back on the road with Soul Asylum at the end of August. While other stalwarts of the Minneapolis music scene such as the Replacements and Husker Du have folded, Pirner has a simple reason why Soul Asylum has endured:
"We've always said (we'll play) until it's no fun anymore. And there really doesn't seem like any reason not to, now. It's a blast. I love it. And it's funner than ever."
On the Net:
Dave Pirner Web site: http://www.davepirner.com
Soul Asylum Web site: http://www.soulasylum.com
Ultimatum Music Web site: http://www.ultimatummusic.com
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