Pirner once saw music as something to make you feel angry. In 1981, when he was just 17, he started a punk band in Minneapolis called Loud Fast Rules. The band that eventually changed its name to Soul Asylum lived up to its original moniker for years, playing quintessential college radio rock in dingy clubs throughout the '80s. In typical antagonistic punk rock fashion, the band would sometimes play whole sets of oddball covers to "punish" their audiences.
"There was a lot of tolerance testing because the punk rock scene was so full of irony," Pirner explains. "You had to give people something that they really hated." Pirner spent a decade bucking popular demand and struggling with punk rock pretense. "When we were playing really loud and fast all the time, it started to get complicated," he says. "We were playing punk fusion. Even the notion of that sounds horrible to me now. Intellectualizing punk rock is an oxymoron."
Eventually, Pirner decided that things had gotten too heady. "I made the connection from punk rock to Woody Guthrie," he says. "It's a big folk circle." Pirner's maturing songwriting gave Soul Asylum a melodic element that made its music more palatable than other post-punk bands; when they stopped drowning it out with the speed and noise of their chosen genre, its pop appeal began to shine through. "The volume stopped mattering, the tempo, everything," says Pirner. "The more I let go, the better it seemed to translate."
By their seventh album, And the Horse They Rode in On, Soul Asylum had softened its sound enough to lose much of its clout with the college-radio audience. But it was 1990, grunge was about to blow up, and so was Soul Asylum. The band's 1992 Columbia Records debut, Grave Dancers Union, went multi-platinum, largely on the strength of its third single, "Runaway Train." By the time the name Soul Asylum creeped into households all over America, the band had already been at it for more than a decade.
Though its 1995 follow-up, Let Your Dim Light Shine, sold 1 million records, it was a relative flop compared to the success of Grave Dancers Union. As always, Soul Asylum kept on keeping on, releasing Candy From a Stranger in 1998, before losing its recording contract. By then, Pirner had already settled in New Orleans and hooked up with a contingent of local music magnates (including Grammy-winning engineer Trina Shoemaker) through sessions at the now-defunct Kingsway Studios in the French Quarter. There, he recorded songs for Faces and Names, his solo debut and the last album to be recorded at Kingsway.
Like Grave Dancers Union, Faces and Names exposes Pirner's exceptional abilities as a singer-songwriter, and he humbly credits the New Orleans music scene as a major inspiration. "It's a musical bed that I can play in," he says, "where I can be comfortable as a musician and not feel like I have to be outrageous." It's evident from the songs on Faces and Names that Pirner has been soaking up the day-to-day in his adopted home; much of the album is characterized by laid-back grooves that are worlds away from early Soul Asylum punk rock.
These days, Pirner is increasingly visible on the local scene, mostly as an audience member. While he admits that he feels inferior to many local musicians, a rock freak in a jazz cradle, he now participates when he gets the chance. He plays occasional pick-up gigs at d.b.a. on Frenchmen Street, and he has shared the stage with trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, an experience he maintains is "right up there with playing with Lou Reed and Iggy Pop." One night this summer, he showed his punk roots when he jumped on stage at the Hi-Ho Lounge with 007, adding his scratchy vocals to a ska version of the Clash's "Bankrobber."
As a folk institution, Pirner thinks, the New Orleans tradition is not that dissimilar from the punk rock idiom. "A second line is really a rock 'n' roll situation walking down the street," he says. "It's music for the people, by the people, and there's nothing aloof about it. Being around people who smile and celebrate when they're playing has changed the way I think about it."