Even when he was still channeling the musical aesthetic of his band’s original name, Loud Fast Rules, Dave Pirner remembers paying close attention to the lyrical substance of his songs.
“Somewhere between Bob Dylan and the Sex Pistols, I suppose, there was a challenge between the content going on in my head,” the Soul Asylum frontman said.
Almost 40 years later — and 27 since he penned one of the biggest rock hits to ever come out of Minnesota — the Minneapolis native has written enough songs to fill a 344-page book. So he’s doing just that.
Pirner makes his debut on book shelves this month with “Loud Fast Words,” a thick collection of lyrics with accompanying anecdotes about each song and the albums they rode in on.
At this point in a long and still lively career — Soul Asylum has already been on tour for two months this year and has a new album coming next month — that’s a lot of material to cover in one book: more than 150 songs, 13 studio albums and other assorted delights.
Despite the breadth of it all, the 55-year-old rock ’n’ roll dogmatist said “there was only a little guesswork involved” in trying to document all his old lyrics for the new book.
“Back in the day, we did a lot of just sort of screaming, so I didn’t always know what my rant was about,” Pirner said with his typical self-deprecating laugh. “But most of it I knew or was able to decipher.”
Most laughable of all, he noted, song-lyric websites weren’t much help.
“There are a lot of wrong lyrics on the internet. This gives me an opportunity to clear some of that up.”
Talking by phone from a Los Angeles gig two weeks ago, just before coronavirus cancellations took hold in the concert industry, Pirner explained that the idea to do a book actually came from his manager, Joel Mark, but it was left open-ended what kind of book.
“It didn’t take me too long to figure out I either was not ready or I don’t yet like the idea of a memoir,” he said.
“I’d already had the idea, as my songs started piling up over the years, it’d be cool someday to have them all written down in one place.”
Minnesota Historical Society Press signed on to publish it as a lyrics collection and was supposed to co-host a signing party this week at the Electric Fetus in Minneapolis (now to be rescheduled for a later date).
The songwriting memories shared in the book range from him being on mushrooms when he wrote the mid-’80s nobody anthem “Never Really Been” to how the Billboard chart-topper “Runaway Train” is, in his mind, simply about “trying to explain a really dark time.”
“It was a pretty strange experience trying to remember and relive all those strange moments of when I was writing those lyrics,” he said, “what was going on around me, where I was living, all that kind of stuff. It was a few months of suspended animation trying to sort it all out in my head.”
More recent entries include reflections on late bassist Karl Mueller’s cancer diagnosis before the 2006 album “The Silver Lining” and how divorce and fatherhood influenced the new Soul Asylum record.
Titled “Hurry Up and Wait” — maybe the definitive summation of playing in a touring rock band for nearly 40 years — the album arrives April 17 to cap Soul Asylum’s winter trek. It’s only the second Soul Asylum LP since co-founding guitarist Dan Murphy retired from the band and the music biz in 2012.
Not only did the new album make it into the book, but the book also apparently made an impression on the record.
“Part of the challenge as a songwriter is to not repeat yourself, so if anything I was more aware of what I’ve done before,” Pirner said.
“I’m kind of surprised — or maybe ‘relieved’ is the right word — I’m not more embarrassed by the songs I wrote when I was a lot younger. A lot of it still feels pretty relevant, at least to me.
“It gets very convoluted at points, and it gets very economical at points. There’s a lot of figuring how to get it all in there in a 3½-minute song and not be too redundant, make it something worth listening to, get something out of it. I think I figured all that out pretty well over time.”
Don’t expect the experience of compiling the book to have much impact on Soul Asylum’s live set lists, though. For one thing, there’s always the balance to be struck between new tunes and must-play oldies (also including “Black Gold,” “Somebody to Shove” and “Misery”).
When there is room for some deeper cuts, Pirner generally leaves it up to the band’s longest-tenured member besides himself, drummer Michael Bland, who joined in 2006 after stints with Prince and Paul Westerberg.
“Michael mostly handles the set lists, and he’s been cherry-picking songs that go all the way back to the beginning for years,” he said. “I’m happy leaving that up to him.”
Pirner is also clearly content with Soul Asylum’s newest full-time member, guitarist Ryan Smith, well known locally from his own band the Melismatics: “He’s someone I can defer to, who can sort of address things I don’t even understand, like trying something in a different key or figuring out what chord I’m playing.”
As he forges ahead as the lone original member of one of Minneapolis’ most storied bands, the frontman said he feels like the band is on solid ground again — especially now that he’s back on familiar ground.
“Hurry Up and Wait” was recorded with longtime producer John Fields entirely in Minneapolis, which the singer now calls his full-time home again after about two decades of splitting his time between Minnesota and New Orleans. Aside from the fact that his college-bound son Eli still lives in the latter city, he said he’s happy to be back home.
“It’s been great, actually,” he said. “I can’t remember the last time I was able to go home after a day at the studio, or to get up and drive from my home to the studio right there at 26th and Nicollet. That just made for a much more comfortable, spontaneous kind of record.”
Beyond that, he has gained a whole new perspective on why it’s a great place to be from, after 20-plus years of trying to fit in with the music of New Orleans.
“The music scene is something that still feels relevant and still very active, and I’m proud to be a part of it. It was a little more challenging in New Orleans. I learned so much down there, but I only might’ve fit in better had I stayed with the trumpet there. It’s not really much of a singer/songwriter town.
“Here, I fit right in. It’s the music I grew up with.”