Michael Bland - The Soul of Soul Asylum

Photo by Jules Follett

“When I pick up the sticks, it’s serious business,” says drumming guru Michael Bland. At 19, he joined Prince’s New Power Generation and survived an unparalleled trial by fire. Now he’s logged 10 years as the rhythm-keeper for rockers Soul Asylum, thriving on the unpredictable energy created with front man Dave Pirner, guitarist Justin Sharbono and bassist Winston Roye.

Even with a CV that includes auditions for Madonna and Nine Inch Nails, and gigs with Nick Jonas and Paul Westerberg, Bland still pounds the pavement. This chat came from his personally reaching out to us on Facebook about Soul Asylum’s summer trek with the Meat Puppets. The drummer says that contacting music lovers organically is in his band’s best interest. Pirner and the original lineup cultivated their following on college campuses and via furious gigging around showcases like South by Southwest. Bland suggests it’s only natural to return to those roots as the Minneapolis quartet finish work on a new record.

“I realize that the Internet and social media is controlling so much right now, but also Dave Pirner is kind of a Luddite,” Bland says. “He needs to be a tangible being. … He’s really a great American songwriter, and he’s overlooked a lot in that respect, mainly because he’s also a rock star and more of the last of those dudes who look really cool playing their guitar.”

Pirner has maintained his knack for Midwest storytelling and his grunge appeal over Soul Asylum’s 30-year career. And with the addition of Bland on 2006’s Silver Lining album, the “Runaway Train” team began to stretch their creative muscles. Their gritty cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” on the 1994 No Alternative compilation was a crystal ball for their later fluidity; but something like the lusty “Cruel Intentions” from 2012’s Delayed Reaction probably would not have emerged without Bland’s influence. With his upbringing in his father’s praise band and with the influence of Prince’s rigid blueprints, he plays on the backbeat, challenging the standard punk-rock time signatures. It makes for an unhinged but brilliant mixture live and on record.

“I was thinking about this the other night at the point where me and Dave and [former guitarist and founding member Dan Murphy, who left in 2012] and Tommy Stinson [of the Replacements and Guns N’ Roses] were Soul Asylum. There was almost any possibility from gig to gig. That thing could just fall apart— where there was a lot of feedback and a very nihilistic thing that could down. I’d never been in a band like that, where it was just, you know, not freeform, but it’s hard to explain. It’s not really being an art band like Sonic Youth, but sort of! … We’ve gone from being that to this well-oiled machine that can play powerful and subtle.”

Powerful and subtle could apply to Bland’s playing style. When not writing and touring with Soul Asylum, he keeps things swinging with Dr. Mambo’s Combo, the immortal house band at Bunker’s in Minneapolis. And he sneers at the showy vibe that sometimes emanates from the NAMM industry convention or from local Guitar Centers. He’s got no patience for posturing. For him, it’s all about playing with intent.

“I never make noise for the sake of making noise,” he says. “… I don’t want to jump on that soapbox, but it really is a spiritual thing that’s involved, you know? It’s not for show; it’s not to impress my friends. You know what I mean? It’s not for the sex or drugs.” He lets out a hearty laugh. “When I pick up the sticks, it’s serious business.”

In tune with that spiritual notion, he says that music chose him from a young age. Blessed with perfect pitch, he dedicated himself to backbreaking instrumental discipline. His talent is a gift he never takes for granted, since it grew from “the pressure of negative reinforcement and embarrassment.”

“All I’ve ever known is ‘Don’t mess up,’” he explains. “And I think we live in an age where people are supposed to be learning about positive reinforcement: ‘We’re all winners!’ and ‘It’s great! Pursue your dreams! Have no regrets in life.’ But the reality is this is not a life that I would wish for my own children, if I had any.”

He chuckles, then quickly turns serious. “Like, it’s not the sort of thing that you would pursue. It’s the sort of thing that if you can’t live without it, that’s what it has to be. It has to be a part of your being.”

Michael Bland— putting the soul in Soul Asylum. Catch them on tour with the Meat Puppets on the following dates:

6/5/15 - Minneapolis, MN (First Avenue)
6/7/15 - Chicago, IL (House Of Blues)
6/10/15 - Indianapolis, IN (Rathskeller Biergarten)
6/11/15 - Kalamazoo, MI (Bell’s Eccentric Café)
6/12/15 - Cleveland, OH (Hard Rock)
6/13/15 - Pittsburgh, PA (Mr. Smalls Theatre)
6/18/15 - Washington, DC (9:30 Club)
6/20/15 - Brooklyn, NY (Brooklyn Bowl)
6/25/15 - San Francisco, CA (The Independent)

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