Dave Pirner, New Orleans' resident rock star, loves the high school marching bands that parade during Mardi Gras. He savors the city's trumpet players and pianists. He digs catching the Rebirth Brass Band at the Maple Leaf Bar. And the Soul Asylum front man just glowed when he saw Kermit Ruffins shopping for lights at Target.
The city's music and generally creative vibe inspired the Minneapolis native to make New Orleans home.
"I'd been a trumpet player since third grade," Pirner says. "When I got here and heard the trumpet players, I was like, 'That's how the trumpet is supposed to sound!' I heard the second-line beat and went nuts. And I heard The Meters. I was like, 'I've got to move here.'"
After spending years on the East and West coasts, Pirner now keeps homes in New Orleans and Minneapolis.
"I'm at the top and the bottom of the Mississippi," he says. "I love all the music that runs up and down the river."
Pirner's New Orleans residency began nearly 20 years ago, at about the same time Soul Asylum released its 1998 album, Candy from a Stranger. It was an uncharacteristically unsuccessful Soul Asylum release following the band's mid-1990s success.
Soul Asylum caught the last great wave of the music industry's golden age, Pirner says. The band's Columbia Records debut, 1992's Grave Dancers Union, sold two million copies. The hit "Runaway Train" peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard singles chart and won a Grammy award. The band climbed higher with the 1995 album Let Your Dim Light Shine and the song "Misery."
"I was pretty lucky," Pirner says of his high-flying years.
Then digital downloading ripped the ground from beneath physical music sales. But Pirner, 51, is too engaged in his latest creative endeavors to dwell on that.
"I try not to talk about the good old days," he says. "I'm focused on what happens next."
Soul Asylum's 11th album, Change of Fortune, is what's next. Featuring 12 songs recorded in many studios over three years, Change of Fortune drops March 18. Melodic, passionate and packed with musical details, the album's fresh songs have classic Soul Asylum qualities.
After 33 years with the band, Pirner still finds the release of a new album exciting. He's also proud of the work on the new album by the current Soul Asylum lineup: bassist Winston Roye, guitarist Justin Sharbono and drummer-musical director Michael Anthony Bland.
"I can't believe how great the guys play on this record," he says. "Me and Michael would just as soon be in the studio all the time."
Echoing the do-it-yourself, punk-rock aesthetic that launched Soul Asylum in 1983, Pirner and his bandmates made Change of Fortune on their own.
"You don't wait for somebody to give you permission to make music," he says. "You just start making it. That's what I've been doing ever since I can remember."
Pirner originated much of the music on Change of Fortune in New Orleans. The songs were influenced by the city's distinctive rhythms.
"I'm picking up things wherever I go, being open-minded and following the music," he says. "I'm not worrying about what's a hit or what's a proper rock song. It's rock 'n' roll. It's whatever you say it is. That's the beauty of it."
Pirner wants to attain the sustained creativity enjoyed by one of his New Orleans music heroes, the late songwriter, pianist and producer Allen Toussaint.
"He just lived magic his whole life," Pirner says. "We went to see him at Snug Harbor when he was working on a progressive jazz record. He's like, 'This is my direction right now. It might not be this way next time.' Allen was exploring — always keeping it fresh. He had the infinite wisdom and timelessness of a universal language."
Before Pirner married in New Orleans in 2005, his soon to be wife booked Toussaint to play the reception as a wedding gift to him. During Toussaint's performance, the New Orleans maestro slipped snippets of Soul Asylum hits into his own classic compositions.
"It was a magical moment," Pirner said. "I loved that man, and he was just the sweetest guy."
After relocating to New Orleans, Pirner was overwhelmed at how warm locals were, including Art Neville of The Meters, Neville Brothers and funky Meters.
"Art Neville said, 'What are you doing down here?'," Pirner says. "I said, 'I'm coming down to try to understand all this New Orleans music.' He wrote his phone number down and said, 'Well, you give me a call then, Dave.'
"I don't think that happens in L.A. And that drew me into this place where music is such an integral part of life."