Paul Westerberg's public is having a hard time letting him grow up. As leader of '80s rock icons The Replacements, famed as much for their onstage train wrecks as Westerberg's achingly pure songwriting, the now 42-year-old singer-songwriter set a standard by which all other young rockers would be measured. It's a past that dogs him like a pound pup--that of a scrappy young rocker heading up his own theatre of the absurd with a cast of Minneapolis ne'er-do-wells that seemed equally bent on creating chaos as music.
People needed to believe in The Replacements and their myth. Like Cool Hand Luke, we relished every time Paul flipped off the record industry when they laid one of their "You got to get you mind right, boy," strictures on the man's conflicted soul. Like other bands created by rockers whose careers saved them from lives spent either busting suds or pushing a broom, there's a humor and cut-to-the-quick lack of crap exuded by these non-book-learned, outsider artists--guys who'd probably be sweeping the walk of industry execs rather than being courted by them.
And when these artists try to "mature," to write songs about aging, doubt, fatherhood, and other non-rock topics, we're collectively let down. Which is why Westerberg's recent emergence after the big-money, major-label disappointment that was Suicane Gratification (produced by Don Was) is providing a knee-jerk reaction to his fans, nay, followers: It's a return to the reckless, here's-mud-in-your-amp street rocker we hoped still lurked within his breast, despite the fact that he's cleaned himself up and, these days, spends as much time as he can watching Johnny (his nearly 4-year-old son) grow.
Time hasn't dulled Westerberg's wit; he's as brutally honest as ever--you get the feeling that the mantle that's been bestowed on Westerberg by the rock press is about as comfortable as a hair shirt. As always in interview situations, one wonders if he's playing the character he's created--an iconoclastic diviner of all things false and crap--or if he's truly a crabby fuck. More importantly, is he able to laugh about all of this?
Yes, to all of the above.
This is the guy who once dismissed an overly earnest interviewer's question about Nick Drake to the effect that "the guy sucks as hard as anybody has ever sucked," and, in recent interviews, not only debunks Nirvana ("I was never a big Nirvana fan; to me, it had too much plod in it"), but torpedoes any lingering sentimentality for the old Replacements days by talking about how he "hated Bob's [Stinson] guitar playing." As for a 'Mats reunion, with Tommy Stinson playing bass in Guns N' Roses and Chris Mars' successful career as an artist, don't hold your breath, although Westerberg is open to the idea.
The two-CD Mono/Stereo release is an intimate look into the way the man works--false starts, tape machine snafus and all. We see a musician still striving to understand and harness the creative process while addressing his past, giving fans both a ragged, electric rock album with Mono (using the persona of Grandpa Boy, Mono's shambolic vibe recreates a Replacements session), and Stereo, a collection of acoustic songs that have more in common with Nebraska-era Springsteen, Jimmy Reed, Woody Guthrie and that other famed Minnesotan, Bob Dylan.
So now, without a band behind him, Westerberg is letting these songs live outside of his home studio on his solo tour. The Indy catches up with the rocker in his Buffalo hotel room. (We're given a 45-minute interview notice.) He's open and relaxed, answering questions with the bemused irony and bluntness characteristic of his hometown. The fact that critics are pitching a tent for his latest offering doesn't delude him one bit.
The Independent: What's it like now to be back in the critics' good graces?
Westerberg: Well, fuck 'em in the head [laughs]. Go fuck every last one of them, because my last record was great. I remember one time when [Reprise president] Howie Klein told me, "I love it [one of his other albums]; this is great, this is gonna fly." And then a bad review came in from Rolling Stone and he called me the next day and sort of said, "God, that was a shame. As of today we're going to pull the plug on it"--because it got a bad review. This was one day after he told me how much he loved it.
So these guys can't think for themselves.
They can't. They think that if whatever is deemed the literary bible of the moment does not give it that proper star [rating]--four or five, or what it needs to get--then they do not open their check book and promote.
When you got released from your last major label deal was it like, "Run free, little bird?"
That's the secret that I feel that I can be the one to let out of the bag. When the label gets to say that they dropped an artist that means that they paid them. And when it's a mutual parting, that means that they did not get paid. So Capitol officially dropped me for the price of a record. It was the best deal I ever made. It was like, "Give me money to go home and not play? Cool."
How did you end up on a punk/emo label like Vagrant Records? Weren't they all kids when The Replacements came out?
The head of the label, Rich Egan, worked at a firm that manages bands, a firm that I talked to to see if they were going to manage my solo career. They had Faith Hill and I told 'em, "You gotta lose this chick. She ain't gonna sell shit [laughs]." And they said, "No Paul, you're wrong," and I said, "Whatever." Then when I was walking out they said, "There's someone here who really wants to meet you." It was the office boy who'd made me a cup of coffee, and it was Ritchie.
I said, "Hey man ... " and took the time to be civil to him. Twelve years later, the guy now owns the biggest indie label, and he signed me. That old saying about "the people you see on the way up" ... it's all the people who had their time who I pissed on their shoes. I think I'm set with all the younger people.
Is putting this album out a response to the critical drubbing you got for Suicane Gratification? To strip the music back down after having done a big Don Was production?
Don wanted to have it stripped down, too. We would have left it naked as hell, but it's the same old thing: There's $100,000 left in the budget, and until you spend it, the company doesn't believe you're doing anything. Half the record was done when I brought it to him.
So when you record in your home studio do you engineer everything yourself?
Yup. If goose bumps are a by-product of what just happened then I leave it, whether a mike got knocked over or the tape ran out, which it did a couple times in both cases. Those [instances] aren't phony, like, "The tape ran out." Well, the fucking tape ran out. Then somebody [who hears the tape] says, "Of course we can fix it with Pro-Tools." And I'm like, "The whole point is that I work with amateur tools."
What is the gear like in your studio?
Black. Black shit [laughs]. It's not analog but I've found a way to do a couple things really wrong. I don't know what I'm doing, but I did a couple things where I ran it digitally through an old amplifier and ran the amp through a CD burner; so it's like putting a hula-hoop on the beauty queen or something. It's like taking the highest technology and then pissing on it and making it warm and go through tubes, making it sound to me like rock 'n' roll.
Speaking of songs just stopping mid-take--on "Like Dirt To Mud," did you just get tired of playing or did the tape run out?
That was an act of God [laughs]. I didn't have another line. Whenever I look and see just a little smidgen of tape left at the end of a reel I figure, "Well this is fun," because I can write something right now, spontaneously; and sometimes it's crap and sometimes you catch yourself writing something really, really good because you know that it might run out and wreck it. It's kinda like being hung out on a ledge or something. Had there been another human being there who would have said, "Here, let me rewind this and do it again," I would have probably done it again. And then someone would have added another instrument and it wouldn't have been as good.
What is your crap detector? If you record tons and tons of stuff, do you get up the next morning and play it for anybody right then?
No. I never play it for anyone. I sit on this stuff for years sometimes. I found that the stupidest thing to do is to play it for someone immediately--they never like it as much as you do. ... Some of these [songs] I sat around with for a year or two and didn't even listen to, then listened to a year later and then got really scared and then I knew I had something. Fear is a good emotion to go by.
You've brought in producers like Don Was, Lou Giordano, Brendan O'Brien--is it hard to trust somebody else's opinion at this point?
It's just impossible at this point. For where I am right now there's no one who knows what I do better than me. The big thing is the singing over [doing endless vocal takes until the producer thinks it's right]. And I did so much of that at the end of The Replacements that by the time the engineer was smiling because everything was in key, it was like, "This sucks; I don't like this--this isn't the way I sung it the first time." I want to hear everyone else one-take it. And then take it one step further. I want to hear everyone else engineer it, write the song on the spot, run to the chair and one-take it. If you look at it like that, I'm at least in the top five of the people who do that.
How do you feel about The Replacements having become a reference point? When people say a show is like the Replacements they mean the show was exuberant, energetic, havoc wreaking and probably involves drunkenness.
Yeah, I know. It was more like theater of the absurd than we were allowed [by critics] to be. They saw us as drunks so they thought we were dumb, but we were a lot closer to Morrison-esque antics than crowd riling and stuff like that--in a good-humored way.
The greatest thing we ever did when Chris [Mars] was in the band was we actually wallpapered one dressing room that was full of this priceless graffiti, according to the club. It had what some guy figured was real famous. ... It had James Brown and Wilson Picket and everyone who ever played there. We ordered wallpaper and we wallpapered it. Well, we got some painter dude to bring it and we wallpapered the thing and it was Warhol-esque. It was the most pro, destructive thing we could ever do.
Do you look back at that and say to yourself, "I was a dick?"
No. I look back and I can say that I would still do that, but I don't have three other guys to help me.
You started a whole bunch of kids thinking they had to get wasted to be able to play.
Yeah, and the thing that they missed is that The Replacements wallpapered the dressing room. Those were the things they didn't understand. The Replacements would get together and sell tickets for Madison Square Garden and then go onstage and play cards. Well, never on the ticket did it say, "The Replacements are going to play music." We'll get together ... that's something we would do.
We always claimed that we broke our share of stuff but we never broke other people's stuff. We didn't hurt other people or other people's things--only our own careers and lives [laughs].
Speaking of health, have you cleaned up?
I've found the up switch from Hades--the escalator was taking too long. I am now firmly planted on earth, but I occasionally feel a grasp around my ankle [laughs]. I can't go any further than that other than say that I am, I am ... ugh. What am I?
You a member of any 12-step programs?
I'm not a member of anything and I never have been. I've been in bad places in my life and I think I'm in a good one right now.