‘A Yankee in the South’
Dave Pirner says he’s a rock boy in a jazz town.
Frontman for the made-in-Minneapolis Soul Asylum, Pirner moved to New Orleans in 1998. Five years before, Soul Asylum, which had toiled in the indie-rock trenches for a decade, became a runaway success with the group’s massive mainstream hit, “Runaway Train.”
Reaching No. 5 on the Billboard singles chart, “Runaway Train” won a Grammy award for best rock song. And the 1992 album that the song is from, “Grave Dancer’s Union,” sold two million copies.
“I was born and raised up north, so I sort of feel like the Yankee in the South,” Pirner said. “But I also spent a good portion of my adult life on the road and just decided that New Orleans is the place to be. I’ve been all around the world. You don’t see the unique culture that’s here anywhere else.”
Pirner is away from home this summer because Soul Asylum has joined Everclear, Eve 6 and Spacehog for the annual, ’90s music-centered Summerland tour.
The tour comes to Baton Rouge Sunday for Red, Rock and Blue VI, an annual benefit for Louisiana military charities. Soul Asylum also has a new album in the works.
Before Pirner’s move to New Orleans, the singer, guitarist and songwriter scheduled an extra day or two in the city when Soul Asylum tours brought the band there. During such visits he was especially impressed by the improvising horn players, so much so that he decided the extensive classical trumpet training he’d had during his childhood and youth hadn’t taught him what a trumpet should really sound like.
“So you get that kind of free education here in New Orleans,” he said. “If you’re me, that’s priceless. You can’t swing a dead cat in Minneapolis without hitting an electric guitar player. It’s the opposite down here. You’ll hit a trombone player.”
Before Pirner moved to Uptown, he dwelled happily in the Bywater neighborhood.
“I really miss the Bywater,” he said. “I wanted to stay in that area, where all the craziness is happening, but it really is no place for a kid. The kid came along and it was time to find a school.”
Pirner’s time in the Bywater, however, helped convince him to stay in New Orleans. He fondly remembers sitting on his porch there, for instance, watching a parade of creative people go by.
“Everybody who passed by was carrying a sculpture or a big musical instrument or an easel or some creative tool,” he said. “I just thought, ‘This is it.’ This is where I want to be. It just seems right.’ ”
Pirner lists songwriter, pianist and producer Allen Toussaint, bassist and member of the Meters George Porter Jr., and singer-pianist Henry Butler among his local music heroes. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Toussaint, in fact, performed for Pirner’s wedding.
“He is probably my biggest hero in town,” Pirner said of Toussaint. “Allen has the ability to float over a song and see how all the chess pieces fit together. That’s the producer thing that drew me to him. And the Meters are one of the reasons why I came to New Orleans.
“I would love to work with any of these guys in any capacity. I hope we play together someday. Again, that’s why I live here, because of these incredibly talented people. I want to be in the same neighborhood.”
Recently turned 50, Pirner has not lost his zeal for being in a rock band.
“Not only did I not grow out of it, I didn’t grow out of being a fan,” he said. “I’m still in love with everything about it.”