Interview with Paul Westerberg
As leader of the Replacements, singer/songwriter Paul Westerberg bore the brunt of the criticism and collected most of the praise. The Replacements were the quintessential loser band. Typically, criticism was leveled at its slim success and praise was attached to its indulgent failure. Westerberg spoke to a generation of kids alienated by everything except trash culture and loud music. The group thumbed its nose at everyone, especially record companies, for whom they refused to make videos. When they finally did, a generic image of two stereo speakers playing the songs dominated clips for several songs.Shows that could fall apart in drunken disarray or climb the heights of screaming passion typified the volatility of the band. In comparison to those extremes, the albums were full of gems that celebrated living -- in the fullest measure possible. Westerberg's sensitivity and grace balanced his and the group's inspired self-destruction.The former quality followed him to his solo career, where he made 14 Songs and, more recently, Eventually. Both are statements of the writer's new- found sobriety and blossoming wisdom. Though he has volumes of history to put into his work, Eventually is most firmly rooted in the present.Still, Westerberg's attitudes are firm and his incisiveness spares no one, least of all himself. He talked with the Guardian from St. Louis, where had a Friday off. On the road with him are guitarist and legendary power-popper Tommy Keene, bassist Ken Chastain, and drummer Michael Bland.Curtis Schieber: You're working, essentially, with hired guns for albums and tours now. Do you miss the creative and social camaraderie of a band?Paul Westerberg: [The backup musicians are] paid companions. As far as the social camaraderie, Michael, the drummer, and I just spent the last six hours sitting back in the bus, talking about growing up and playing music. No, I'm getting along with the guys great; I've known Tommy Keene for years.CS: How does working with a hired band change the creative process?PW: It really doesn't. I've always written the songs and dictated the way I wanted them to go. In the studio, that's a little different. As far as performing, at this point, there's not a lot of difference. The only major thing is that if I wanted to go back to a really old tune that we haven't rehearsed, obviously the old band would've known it. But I'm finding that I don't remember so many of 'em. It's starting to kinda feel like a group. I get a better room [than they do].... They treat me like the bandleader sometimes. Which is, you know, a responsibility I used to shun with the 'Mats, although, I was...and I am now. It's not like a different role for me, really.CS: All Shook Down (the last Replacements album) included several songs -- "When It Began" and "The Last," especially -- that indicated that your personal life was in a shambles. If that's true, is there a danger of overindulging for such songs?PW: One of those songs was about the end of the band.CS: I kinda thought it was about your marriage.PW: Both happened at the same time. That's where my life intersected, you know. Marriage and my band...and my drinking all came to an end at the same time. They all had to end for me to continue. It was really, really hard.CS: Much of 14 Songs is about starting over. How much of that stuff had been percolating for a long time, possibly back to the band days?PW: "These Are the Days" [from Eventually] was six years in the coming. It wanted to be written back then and I couldn't finish it. It came to me one afternoon with a whole new set of lyrics, the ones that are on it; it just sort of signified to me that I was ready to begin again, make another record. Another fresh start. That's the beauty of making records.... This is my 11th and they can market it as my second. But it's my new chance to say how I'm feelin'. This is how I feel now. I'm happy with it.CS: The shows in support of 14 Songs that I saw were full of ebullience and energy. Did that have a lot to do with the new sobriety?PW: Yeah. I never took it so seriously, but when you abuse yourself and everything, it just wears you down. And I'd had enough time without it that I don't even think about it. People ask me, 'When was the last time you had drink?' I say, 'Hell, I don't know. It was a long time ago.' So, I'm doing pretty good. You know, I have my quiet little moments like anyone or any artist who writes.CS: Is it different on the road now, as a result?PW: Yeah. [Chuckles for a moment] This is a Friday night off. I'll probably spend the night in my room, watch TV. The thought of doing that 10 years ago.... It was like, 'I gotta go out. I gotta find the one person in this city who knows me and I'm gonna build my ego up.' I don't need that anymore.CS: You seem to be a long way from songs such as "I Need a Goddamn Job" and the like. Do you choose old songs for your shows today according to what still fits emotionally, or are there other criteria?PW: Here's my new one: 'I need a goddamn tie.' [Laughter] Choosing songs is a three-part thing: if the new band really loves 'em, if I can stand singing the words, and if we play them and there's an audience reaction. We've already dropped one or two. I'm starting to find out which ones the people really want to hear and, I hate to say it, but they're the ones I've been playing every time. I'm always wonderin', 'Well, are you guys tired of this one?' If I don't play "Can't Hardly Wait," 50 people come to me after the gig and it's like, "Why didn't you play it?"CS: The new album has a quieter cast, even, than the last. Though some tunes on the last Replacements albums were as stark as "Good Day," few on the new album rock as hard as the last Replacements albums. Does that manic side feel alien today, and is there more depth, in contrast, to the meditative songs?PW: Yes, no, yes, no, yes, yes...To start, there was as much rock 'n' roll on this one as on any of 'em. As always, I started with like about 40 tunes and I whittled it down to the ones that I thought flowed together the best. There were five or six really dumb rockers that would've pleased a lot of people. But I just thought it was B-plus material. It wasn't as good as "MamaDaddyDid." I'm at the point now that I will put the best tunes on, and, lately, the best tunes are real folky. I'm not ashamed of that. I mean, I've always loved folk music. In my opinion, today, that is the underground, that is the outlaw music. There's nothing rebellious about shouting and playing a loud guitar anymore. I mean, I'll do it for fun, and if it calls for it, I'll raise my voice. But I don't feel like I have to. Like, 'You're not rockin' unless your veins are stickin' outta your neck.' That's crap.CS: A couple of tunes on Eventually deal with having kids. Do you feel your biological clock ticking away?PW: Well, I still feel like a kid, but I would like to have them. I don't feel like I'm under the gun.... Hey, it's not all up to me. She's ready, too, and that's all I'll say. It's gonna happen and it's gonna be cool.CS: How is it, writing a song like "MamaDaddyDid," which relatives might take offense to?PW: My mom didn't get it. She didn't like it and she called me. I kinda had to be a little cross with her. I told her, 'Mom, it's what I do. This is my art.' It really comes down to that. Even if it's a little silly little song, it is art because you have to say what's in your gut, even if it's gonna hurt the person dearest to you, if it's your mother, father, wife, or husband. I had the balls to say what I felt. The thing that's always misconstrued is that it isn't an anti-children thing. I tried to tell her that I decided not have any children, just like Mom and Daddy decided not to have any children. Kinda like a joke: 'You didn't plan us. But you had six of us.'CS: You worked with Tommy (Stinson, bassist for the Replacements) on "Trumpet Clip." Did it feel good and are you concerned that it'll lead to talk of a reunion?PW: First of all, the word 'work' has never entered the same sentence with Tommy and I.... It just doesn't exist. I won't ever let his and my friendship be dictated by what people would want. He's got his own band. There's more of a burden and responsibility on him when he hears this reunion talk, because he really ventured out of the group to make his way, as did Chris [Mars, original Replacements drummer], as did Slim [Dunlap, guitarist for the second half of the band's career]. I've never changed what I've done. I've always been a leader or a writer or a singer and a guitar player. He went from bass player to front man, lead singer and stuff. Those guys have to consider it: 'Couldn't make it this way. I've got to go back to backin' Paul.' I think that's something none of them would want to do. Frankly, I'm enjoying what I'm doing now, without them. Here's my standard line, which is true: the day will come when no one in the world cares [about the Replacements] and that is probably the time to look for us.CS: "Achin' to Be" and other songs from the Replacements' songbook were about becoming. Is the new album about simply being?PW: Interesting. Interesting, 'cause "Achin' to Be' was written about Chris. I don't think he knows it.... I'm just more relaxed with my life now. Early in my career, I was more, 'Ooh, what are they gonna think? I've gotta say something to react to what they think of me.' Now, you're just getting how I feel that afternoon, and I'm more relaxed with the day. I think that's heard in the songs.CS: That's the thing that some people who are still in that position miss. That feeling of desperation that the music had back then. PW: [A bit frustrated] They've got the Replacements. They've got the "substitute." They've got the 190 that took that angst without, maybe, the heart and without, maybe, the real seed of what made us great. [They've] flaunted that to the point that it even repels me to hear it. If anything, they turned me away from it. After I heard a hundred guys imitating that, I thought, 'Man, I suck. I don't want to sound like that anymore.'CS: The new album opens with a song, "These Are the Days," that seems to promise an in-depth look into where you're at now. Other than a few tunes that sound like they're about Bob (Stinson, original Replacements guitarist, now deceased), the rest seem to skirt the past. Is that conscious? Or am I missing something?PW: You're missing something. [The album] deals with the past, present, future, but mostly the present. The whole thing is wrapped up in "These Are the Days." It's like, 'This is the day; this is the moment.' I don't give a shit any more than that. It's me at my most adult and yet, I don't care any more now than ever. We used to pretend: 'We don't care.' We cared so much, it hurt. Now, I don't care at all, and everybody thinks it's calculated. It's very ironic.CS: How interested are you in talking about the Replacements? Are there areas that are off limits or that just don't interest you anymore?PW: It depends on the intelligence of the question. Sometimes intelligence and the Replacements don't mix very well. But, I don't like talking about Bob or his demise. I can still get pretty sad if I think about him more than a minute.CS: Do you think the loser aesthetic that was attached to the Replacements served a purpose or did it just limit your personal and artistic growth?PW: That's a great question. We...I cultivated that.... I most certainly led us in that direction and set it up so that we couldn't succeed. For us to succeed would have been for us to fail. That's why the Replacements are over. Now I've opened the door for myself to succeed. We failed, but that was our success. It was a successful failure.CS: How do you feel about kids out there modeling themselves after that one aspect of your past? It must be creepy.PW: It's kind of like wearing the shirt without any pants. You gotta walk the walk and talk the talk. It's like hybrids in music. As soon as they find something else to marry it with...it will be cool again. I think we're in that kind of putrid era in music right now. Just the last few months, it's really starting to stink to me. I hear a lot of whining. I hear a lot of bitchy, whining, not-very-talented tirades being recited on the radio.CS: Has "alternative" music painted itself into a corner or played itself out?PW: I wouldn't blame the music. I blame the labels. I blame the record companies for bringing bands along too fast. Not picking three bands and sticking with them: take the good, little band and build 'em up and give them a chance to fall down and help them back up. Now, they just take 10 bands. You get one chance. They throw money at you and if you don't go gold, then you're out the door. You're history. I think it's bad. It's bad for the music, 'cause you're not gonna have heroes anymore. You're just gonna have a new song. It's similar to the Frankie Avalon era. One hit wonders.CS: Do you see what happened between the Replacements and Peter Jesperson (longtime manager, label co-owner, and band buddy, who was let go about the time of Stinson's leaving) symptomatic of the business and the way it impacts musical careers?PW: Look at Peter's greatest artist right now. I mean, he went out and found the biggest, feel-sorry-for-myself, drunken loser [Jack Logan]. As talented as he may be...Pete's got a bit of that 'If you succeed, you fail' sentiment.CS: Does that apply to Bob leaving and the band breaking up as well?PW: The thing that no one will allow me is that I quit the band. I said, 'I've had enough, I want to move on.' And Tommy and Chris followed me, or said, 'Can we come with you?' And I said, 'Yeah.' And we took the name and that's what happened with that. It just got to the point where I wanted to move away from.... Bob would miss gigs and couldn't do it. I wasn't in a position to say, 'You're gone.' It was like, 'Fuck this, I'm gone.'CS: Any thoughts of working with Peter again, like Slim and Tommy have? (Jesperson sold his interest in Twin Tone Records and started his own label, Medium Cool. The company has released one album by Slim Dunlap, plans another, and is about to release one by Stinson's band, Perfect.)PW: I don't think so. Peter has a gift and I don't know if I can benefit from his gift anymore, which is to seek raw talent. I don't think he's a good molder of talent. But he's a good finder of it.... Someone would say, 'Are you their manager?' And he'd go, 'Aw, nobody can manage these guys,' and would refuse to take the responsibility for being the manager. Like, he couldn't do the wrong thing as the manager. He would become the van- drivin' pal, when the chips were down, when we needed someone to stand up and say, 'Yes, I'm the manager.'CS: What do you say to kids who think that every changing attitude is another step toward sell-out?PW: I don't say anything. I know enough about what it's like, still, to be 21, to know that anyone who's 36 doesn't know anything that you wanna hear. I'll never tell you anything 'cause one day you'll be my age and you'll know.CS: Is the tie on the back cover of the new album a joke or a statement?PW: No. It was silk.CS: Still got those duct-taped, orange spray-painted shoes you used to have?PW: I gave those to a kid in Ireland. Somebody's got them somewhere. I remember stepping in the bucket of paint, rather than painting the shoes. Just put the whole foot in the bucket. That's the difference between the Replacements and.... Soul Asylum would have spray-painted them. I would hire someone to do it now.