Grammy-winning Soul Asylum bandleader Dave Pirner has polished his gruff Midwestern songwriting style down to scientific perfection on the group’s upcoming April release “Hurry Up and Wait,” in confident, scrappy janglers like “The Beginning,” “Busy Signals” and the “Greensleeves”-evocative single “Dead Letter.” At 55, he’s been feeling unusually reflective in the last two years, he explains, trying to pinpoint reasons why he basically stumbled through a time portal back into his punk-rock past.
Pirner is the only remaining original member of Soul Asylum, which (backed by powerhouse ex-Prince drummer Michael Bland) plays San Francisco next week, previewing “Hurry.” Founding bassist Karl Mueller succumbed to throat cancer in 2005, and Pirner’s key collaborator since 1981, guitarist Dan Murphy, walked away from show business in 2012.
Now Pirner just feels grateful to be alive. “Especially after you lose a few friends, because things could be so much worse,” he says. “I mean, I went through a divorce, and moved from New Orleans back to Minneapolis, so there was a lot of reflecting. Given that most of his current music industry chums never thought that they would live this long, he adds in his signature deep, woodsy rasp, “A lot of us are surprised to still be around.”
Outside factors forced the trip down memory lane, too. The archivist label Omnivore was compiling an exhaustive box set of Soul Asylum’s first four albums for Minneapolis imprint Twin/Tone, including a fifth bonus-track disc dubbed “Twin/Tone Extras,” and they needed Pirner’s help in research and digging up vintage memorabilia. Simultaneously, he was wrapping up a 320-page book for the Minneapolis Historical Society, “Loud Fast Rules,” of essays and annotated lyrics. “So there was even more retrospect going on,” he says. “I had to dig around in the attic and in the basement for old gig posters and things like that. And whatever it is that you find — even a picture of your kid when he was a baby — it gets very emotional,” he adds.
In the process, Pirner was also reminded of his own unusual origin story, which hit a defining moment in 1994, when its Replacements-chugging “Runaway Train” won a Grammy for best rock song. Before that, the group was directionless, discordant DIY punk. And at some point during each set, the band inquired from the stage if anyone had a place where they could crash. “We were really flying by the seat of our pants,” he says. “But now that we’re out on tour through March, we’ll probably see a lot of familiar faces, and hopefully it’ll be great. But we’ve, um, certainly seen it at its worst. — let’s put it that way…”
IF YOU GO
Where: Slim’s, 333 11th St., S.F.
When: 8:30 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $28 to $99 (meet and greet)
Keane keyboardist and composer Tim Rice-Oxley hasn’t ever had difficulty in twisting his darkest, most depressing thoughts into bouncy, uplifting pop songs, as trilled by his bandmate Tom Chaplin, one of the sunniest stylists in the business. That is, until he began trying to work out the psychological kinks of “The Way I Feel,” the linchpin track on 2019’s “Cause and Effect,” the band’s first disc in seven years. “It was very hard to articulate what I wanted to say, and I was worried that it wouldn’t make sense to people,” says the pop perfectionist, whose marriage splintered along the way. “I couldn’t articulate what I wanted to say, and I was hoping that people would pick up on what I was trying to say about the pressure to be normal and the mental implications of that.” He hopes that fans have woven all the painful pictures into one huge tapestry by now, since the songs themselves tell the story.
What did you learn about yourself over those seven years?
I’ve definitely learned a lot about myself, my flaws and how to deal with them. So our last album “Strangeland,” for me, marks a turning point. Up until that point, I’d craved normality, in the way that we’re sold it as this white picket fence dream. And it depends on what kind of person you are. Some people get there and they’re very happy. And others, like myself, don’t find normal that exciting. And it’s not easy, because there are days when I want to be like everyone else — normal, with a nice calm quiet life. But then the next day, I’ll be desperately wanting my boots on and just walk for five months.
And you kind of assume that your significant other will want to come along. But things didn’t work out that way for you?
Yeah. And it’s very hard if you choose a role in life where you’re away a lot, basically. You could be in a band, or you could be in the army, or you could be working night shifts or on an oil rig somewhere. When you’re not living your life together for huge chunks of time, things fall apart. So that was hard for me, and a very steep price to pay.
But you ended up with a wealth of new material, like the bonus-track cut, “Difficult Year.” An understatement if ever there was one.
Ha! They’re very frank songs, and very, very …. what’s the word?
Ha! Yeah, they are!
IF YOU GO
Where: Fox, 1807 Telegraph Ave., Oakland
When: 8 p.m. Monday
Tickets: $59 to $125
Remaining artistically relevant and creatively vibrant after four decades is truly remarkable. But Ronny Moorings and his Dutch darkwave ensemble Clan of Xymox — whittled to one Xymox, himself, on its Sisters-of-Mercy-ish new single “She” — lands on his feet on instinct.
“I see so many artists doing their utmost best to get where they want,” says the catacomb-inflected vocalist, who lives in Leipzig. “But I never really had a set goal in mind other than just making music and seeing where that takes me. Luckily, I’ve always had labels that supported me 100%, and that is a very comforting feeling to have.”
British DJ John Peel coined the term “darkwave” in the mid-1980s to encompass the sinister sonic textures of post-punk groups like Xymox, which is riding a wave of revival into San Francisco this week.
The upcoming “She” parent album “Spider on the Wall” originally was going to be titled “Retro,” Moorings says. “Because the name pretty much says it all. It felt like the beginning of the band again, and the whole feel of it came together so fast, it really surprised me.”
Leipzig figures into the equation, too. “The music scene there is one of the biggest in Europe, with an annual gothic festival called WGT that we’ve played many times.”
Clan of Xymox also has the distinction of getting its start on the posh Cocteau Twins/Dead Can Dance imprint 4AD for its first two albums, 1985’s “Clan of Xymox” and 1986’s “Medusa.”
“I really am grateful that they gave us a record deal, because 4AD was, and still is, very respected by many people,” Moorings says. “But after those two albums, we got interest from major labels, so that was exciting for me, as well.”
Today, due to changes in the music business, most of his income revolves around touring, fed by a steady stream of new Xymox converts.
Lyrically, there’s a constant cascade of grim news headlines from which to draw, too.
Moorings finds it ironic that he started making music around the time of George Orwell’s dystopian “1984” predictions. “To society where you’re always being watched, well, hello there!” he says, adding, “And you see that it can get even worse. Now all the attention is on the coronavirus, the way we live our lives, global warming, the plastic waste we produce, the brainless selfish leaders we choose, wars and refugees.”
It’s good for Xymox’s future catalog, aesthetically, he admits. “But where does it end?”
IF YOU GO
Clan of Xymox
Where: Chapel, 777 Valencia St., S.F.
When: 9 p.m. Saturday
Tickets: $22 (sold out)