Westerberg Interview on Pitchfork
"I know in my heart, in my gut, that we were the real deal."
Interview by Joshua Klein on Pitchfork.com.
The immensely entertaining but sadly out of print alt/indie/college-rock reader Alt-Rock-a-Rama featured a hilarious chapter, written by Replacements drummer Chris Mars, called "Eight Really Dumb Things the Replacements Did". That list-- which included stories of stink bombs, eyebrow shaving, hot pepper eating, and the like-- could have been doubled, or even tripled, but if it weren't for Paul Westerberg's songs even such notorious behavior might have been long forgotten. It's fitting, too, as few songwriters are as adept at infusing even the most slap-dash seeming punk track with loads of pathos and personality, and at his best Westerberg remains near peerless in the pantheon of heartbreakers.
"Lonely, I guess that's where I'm from," he once sang, but if you include all the people Westerberg and the Replacements have impacted or influenced, he's got plenty of company. We caught up with Westerberg on the phone, speaking from his home in Minnesota and holding court on a career that often settled for glorious failure while the suckers and sell-outs walked off with all the fame and success.
Pitchfork: This past endless winter made me consider how much the weather in the Midwest plays a role in people forming bands. How did cold weather affect your development as a songwriter? Do you think you would have written the same songs had you formed the Replacements in Hawaii?
PW: Good question. We'll never know, but I suppose I would have. But I would have written less. The sheer volumes of songs have come from the hours of cold and darkness that one spends inside with the lights on. We make our own fun here, sort of. It's not like a constant summer day, like in L.A. I wouldn't get as much done if I was in a warm climate like that.
Pitchfork: People tend to form bands for a few set reasons. Maybe to make money or maybe because they think they have something to say, but it seems mostly because they're bored.
PW: I could add the perennial "women and girls." And instead of "boredom" there's the realization that there's no other road out. It's your only salvation, or your only skill or your only love.
Pitchfork: Which of those things applied to the Replacements?
PW: I was determined to front a band and get the hell out of the basement. Money wasn't an issue. Like, let's go make lots of money! We never thought that was going to happen. But I kicked around in so many little teenage bands-- I was 19 at the time that I met the other Replacements. By then my supposed friends were off in college and stuff, I'd been through crappy day jobs and stupid garage bands. I was determined to make it as a musician.
Pitchfork: Did you feel at all left behind by your friends who left town?
PW: No, because I didn't have that many friends at the time, and the ones that I had were all quasi-musicians. Sort of cats, layabouts, whatever. There was the occasional guy we played drums with whose dad wanted him to be an accountant. The line was sort of drawn in the sand, the guys who were going to put their picks and sticks behind them and move on to something else. I knew in my gut that this was what I had to do and what I was going to do.
Pitchfork: By the early ‘80s, especially overseas, there was this sense that punk had broken through to the mainstream, but at the same time in America, there didn't seem to be much of an idea as to how big it could be. It felt like uncharted territory.
PW: That's true. I can't say it never caught on, but it caught on about 11 years later, with Nirvana and Rancid and stuff like that. At first I thought, what a pile of shit that is. Then I realized, time-wise, that's very pure and innocent. It was a lot like someone aping early rockabilly in 1974, which people were starting to do. And it was valid.
Pitchfork: The kinds of bands you grew up with, stuff like the Stones or Kiss, how did that translate into the first Replacements record? It doesn't really sound like any of those sorts of acts at all.
PW: Having a diverse sense of taste-- or lack of taste-- I loved so many different things. I was drawn to the stupidity and excitement of glam, I had a thorough upbringing in rhythm and blues-- the Temptations and all that stuff, from my sister, the Beatles and the Stones. Each sibling had their own niche, whether it was singer/songwriter or blues or whatever, so I picked up on all that. But the first thing I embraced on my own was popular AM radio. Either utter shit or sometimes great.
Pitchfork: And occasionally both.
PW: Yeah. I mean, Brownsville Station ["Smoking in the Boys Room"]? How corny and dumb can you get? But it's one of the greatest little rock'n'roll songs ever.
Pitchfork: The death of AM radio really changed the way a lot of people were introduced to music.
PW: Yeah. The pop music they just rammed down your throat. You heard the same songs over and over.
Pitchfork: I know the Hüsker Dü guys have talked about using punk and hardcore as an entry into a certain scene, until they felt comfortable and confident enough to write more melodic and ambitious songs. Did you intentionally follow a similar path?
PW: We tried, I think. I don't think we succeeded. Stink was our nod toward that genre. We sort of made our first U.S. tour and realized we weren't the fastest or the loudest by a long shot. We could look the look and have all the black clothes and everything, but we decided we weren't invited to that party, more or less. We sort of threw our own.
Pitchfork: Grant Hart told me how once the punk scene started closing ranks, groups like Hüsker Dü went the other direction: growing their hair out, playing barefoot, doing Byrds covers, that kind of thing.
PW: Out of that came the cream of the crop, pretty much. We had our share of opening for the Circle Jerks, Black Flag, or 7 Seconds. It was good times, it was fun. Some of them were cool. The Effigies were one of the bands that realized what they were, and what we were, but were cool with the fact that we were outsiders within a sort of outsider element. There were guys who knew what they were doing, and there were guys who just wanted to be part of the scene.
Pitchfork: Have you had a chance to look at the art of the new Replacements issues?
PW: Yeah, I've been waiting to see the art. I don't see a lot of "art" there. [chuckles] I saw the rough stuff. I thought it was OK. It was not quite the sparkling package they could have done. I think they'll do a better job on the next round, with pictures and things available. I know there are a lot of photos available from people who took them way back when, but I'm not sure anyone went through the trouble to find them. It's the same old stock photos and stuff.
Pitchfork: There's a great quote from you in the Hootenanny notes, back from 1983, saying: "I think this is the first album that sounds just like us."
PW: I remember reading that, and I guess I remember saying that. It's true. It's the first record that really defines our-- everybody stands up, we're going to sit down. Everybody goes left, we're going to go right. There's an obstinacy to us. But also it was back to the influences that were more than just straight punk rock. Punk rock was the key that opened the door, but we played our little white blues and stuff. We liked all kinds of stuff.
Pitchfork: The implication is that Hootenanny is the album you were working toward all along.
PW: In retrospect it seems easy to say that. But each album we made was the one we were capable of making and wanted to make at the time. We wouldn't have made Sorry Ma after Let It Be. We couldn't have. Each one was a progression or, depending on your opinion, a sidestep or tumble forward. I don't know what.
Pitchfork: That's partly what's kept the music exciting. It doesn't sound like you played with any sort of agenda.
PW: No, no.
Pitchfork: But at the same time, you're clearly doing more than just having fun in the studio.
PW: Yeah. The wealth of "bonus" songs-- some of them are good-- show that we definitely had good stuff. I don't think it was until we got to a major label that...at the beginning we were given sort of carte blanche to go in and do what we wanted. It was only after a few years that they wanted us to play...it was funny. They wanted us to play sort of hard rock at first, so we could tour with the Cult. By the end, they wanted us to play punk rock, because it was coming back in style, but I was more interested in upright basses and steel guitars. We never were in stride with what was hip at the moment.
Pitchfork: In a lot of ways you guys got a real bum deal. When you were on, you disappointed the people who came to see you sloppy and falling down. When you were sloppy and falling down, you disappointed the people who came to see you on. You could never make everybody happy.
PW: I don't know when-- what year, what time-- that happened, but it definitely came to that point, where it was a lose/lose situation for us to get up there. Lots of times we would try to balance it. We'd get up there wasted, but by the end of the set we'd sober up. We'd bring it together at the end! [laughs] The theory was that people would remember the last thing they saw. We made our grave for us to lay in. We'd horse around, and then everybody wanted that. A few of us got tired of it. Some of the band was very serious, and others wanted the care-free early days. I was sort of caught in the middle.
Pitchfork: Even to this day, when somebody says a band is influenced by the Replacements, often times they're just talking about alcohol intake. Certainly, no other bands sound quite like the Replacements.
PW: Yeah. It's the label they put on you if you don't come up with one. The bands we toured with-- R.E.M., every band I ever knew-- drank and took their share of substances. They just weren't known for it. I guess we were the first-- Christ, we weren't the first band to get up there loaded.
Pitchfork: The Faces beat you to it.
PW: And even the Faces...I've seen clips of them where Kenny [Jones], the drummer, is not out of it, and [Ian] McLagan is not out of it. Maybe you'd get one or two guys out of it. But we'd get the whole band bombed. [laughs] I remember a guy in New York, when we first went there. Maybe it was Handsome Dick Manitoba [of the Dictators] or somebody. He said "I've never seen more loose screws in a band in my life." That pretty much summed it up. There's usually an anchor somewhere. We were afloat.
Pitchfork: There's an element of tragedy to it, of course, but there's got to be a tiny part of your brain that's proud of all that, and maybe also a small part that's a little embarrassed.
PW: Yeah, but I'm embarrassed about things I did yesterday. I have no regrets as far as the things we did.
Pitchfork: Every album you guys released, someone would say, "oh, look, Paul is finally showing is sensitive side." But even as far back as Sorry Ma there are songs like "If Only You Were Lonely".
PW: It's almost the other way around now. "Paul shows his rocking side." I created Grandpaboy simply to have an outlet where people wouldn't go "where are the ballads, where's the Paul stuff?" Well, this is the Paul stuff. Paul is "I'm in Trouble" and Paul is "If Only You Were Lonely". I've been that way since the beginning. I like both sides. That's probably the Beatles, the Stones and the classic rock bands. They had those great ballads. I thought it was all part of the mix.
Pitchfork: There's some unspoken rule that you're not supposed to cover Kiss and write a song like "Unsatisfied". But why not?
PW: Exactly. We wore plaid and stripes, tutus and sneakers. Everything was almost. There would always be an addition to the outrageousness that made it comical.
Pitchfork: The myth is that you were tentative about introducing those ballads to the band.
PW: That's true. That's where [manager] Peter [Jespersen] came in. He was maybe five or six years older than me, and his background was as a disc jockey in a nightclub, on radio, and working in a record store. He obviously knew all different kinds of music, so if I had something that was overly light-- not light, that's a bad word. That stuff's heavy, even though it's not loud. But some of the more confessional stuff I would play for Pete simply because I would have no one else to play it for. Not necessarily to get it on the record, but sort of to get it out of my system. We formed as a rock and roll band, and that was the path we chose to take. Whenever we deviated from it we felt, unless everybody was into it, there was tension.
Pitchfork: Was there ever a sense that you were writing songs that maybe even you yourself weren't quite old enough to understand?
PW: Maybe at one point. I think I grew a great deal from my teenage experience early on. Plus, having Tommy be 14, it was easy for me to write kids songs. Chuck Berry wrote about teenagers when he was 33. A lot of my stuff was the opposite. I used to write things that might have sounded better coming out of an older person's voice or vision. But that's the weird dichotomy. Hence, "grandpa-boy." I'm an old man, but I'm a boy. A really old boy!
Pitchfork: Do you agree with the assessment that Let It Be was the breakthrough?
PW: Technically, it was. But they each...time may tell that All Shook Down was a breakthrough. It didn't sell very well. But Let It Be was Hootenanny spruced up a little bit, with maybe a little more attention to the playing. We didn't have to record in our jackets in the winter. Hootenanny was very hurry up and get it done.
Pitchfork: Was the band affected by the bigger budgets you eventually got?
PW: No. With Matt Wallace, we'd do 48 takes but use take two. That's why I've always said he was our best producer. After a couple of weeks he realized that first take we came rolling in and did was the one that captured it rather than have us play 50 takes hoping the 50th would be great. It was not that way with us, and still isn't for me.
Pitchfork: A lot of people seem to pick the Replacements album they heard first as their favorite, since your songwriting is so consistent from record to record. If someone heard Don't Tell a Soul first, I could even imagine that being their favorite Replacements album.
PW: That has its fans. Dave Minehan [of the Neighborhoods and Westerberg's band] always told me that album was by far his favorite. It was of the time, that's for sure. We had the record done and it sounded very much like us. But they brought in someone else in the era of mixers. That's like making a film and having someone else come in and edit it. It can change everything. That's what he did in the mixing process, with that large echoey drum on everything. We struggled against that, but they hired him, it cost a lot of money, and now we're stuck with a record that sounds like 1989.
Pitchfork: Well, every other album that came out then sounds the same.
PW: You go back to records-- just classic records, "Jumpin' Jack Flash" or whatever-- some records are timeless, and some absolutely sound of their day. The whole quiet/soft thing, with Butch Vig and the Pixies or whatever, that certainly reeks of an era. But the trick is to try and make it timeless. The only way that I've found, the closest way, is doing it in a hurry without thinking about it.
Pitchfork: So do you think the farther you go from those early no-frills records, the farther you go from what suited the Replacements best?
PW: Well, those early ones, those songs were very rehearsed. I was in a totally manic phase for a couple of years. We used to go into rehearsal, and I was sick of jamming. I had done that since I was 14. We'd go in, and after a few days or a week or so, we'd start honing the songs, getting them down, the introductions and the endings and stuff. That sort of went by the wayside as the years went by, simply because we didn't have the time. You'd make a record, go on tour, then you'd get done with the tour and have to hurry up and come up with songs to go into the studio. Then you start introducing new songs in the studio. You don't have that time to rehearse them.
Pitchfork: Did you feel that you couldn't afford to remain idle?
PW: It just got to be a big business cycle, make a record, promote a record, go out and tour and play those songs. Then come back, take one breath, and go in and record a record again. By the time I could even write half of it, the band had maybe heard one or two of the songs at soundcheck where we would fuck around a little. But the first record...it's like they say, you've got your whole life to make the first one and six months for the second. By the fourth or fifth record there was not a lot of time to sit around. We stopped rehearsing. We stopped getting together and rehearsing. We'd perform, and that would take it all out of us. Then we'd be done touring and we'd be sick of each other. We'd never call each other up and hang out.
Pitchfork: Talking to Tommy a couple of years ago, I got the impression that after all that hard work, after all those miles on the road, that what he's doing right now [as a member of Guns n' Roses] is in some ways his reward. Finally play arenas, get kept on a retainer...
PW: If you talked to him more recently you might get a different vibe. But you know, that's fairly true. It was a couple of years ago that he probably felt that. But now he's thinking more artistically. I heard a batch of his songs he sent me. I added a few things and sent it back. He wants to be more of an artist now. That's just the way it goes. You're a performer for ten years straight, then you want to go home and actually write a tune or whatever. But he more than any of us is sort of built for the stage. If he goes without performing for a long time then he can't stay still.
Pitchfork: He's a little younger.
PW: But when I was his age, 40 or 41...I was ready to hang it up at about 35. And I did. But I came back five or so years later. I needed six years off from facing an audience. I remember one show specifically, some college, and the applause stopped before I could even make it to the wings. I told myself, I've got to get the hell out of here. Nobody can miss you unless you go away. That's how it starts when you're a little baby band - you have no real applause. You get past the boos and jeers and bottles, then get to the point where the applause was so thunderous...it'd get to the point where we had given two encores and were in the dressing room, with Chris putting his hands over his ears, shouting, "tell the fuckers to go away!" Sure enough, they did.
Pitchfork: Famously, the last show the Replacements ever played, here in Chicago, was marked by this real sense of deflation. Like a balloon losing its air.
PW: We had to do that show, too. That was a make-up for what I did on radio. I thought I was on some college station, and of course I was on [Chicago radio mainstay] XRT. I played "Little Village" by Sonny Boy Williamson, with all the "motherfuckers" in it and everything, and we got in so much shit for that that we had to come back and play the Milwaukee Fest, too! [laughs] Not all bands know it when it's happening, but that last tour was our traveling farewell. It was not very fun, and by the end we knew it. By then, it was Steve [Foley] on drums and Slim [Dunlap], who apparently cared less about the band than he pretended to back then. He and I were already going our own ways. Tommy wanted to go solo. Everyone thinks it was me, but that's not true, really. That's essentially how the band sort of broke up. There was nothing I wanted to do other than what I was doing. It's not like my first solo record didn't sound "Replacements"-y. The shock was that Chris' and Tommy's records didn't sound more different from the Replacements.
Pitchfork: It's out of your control, but people always look to the singer as the leader of the band.
PW: It was that one fucking poster in Europe...if they ever make a movie about us, that was "the moment." The German promoter comes in and shows us the poster with me, "Paul Westerberg and the Replacements." In German or whatever. Tommy ripped it in half and said "that's fucking it" and stormed out. I thought, there it is, we're done.
Pitchfork: The reunion rumors have been pretty strong as of late. A couple of years ago you were supposedly approached to play Coachella...
PW: I guess so. I mean, we've been offered...Chris, he doesn't want to play. He's moved on with his life to the point where he won't move back and do this. So that leaves essentially Tommy and I. I don't think we would go back and use any of the other Replacements guys. We'd probably find someone else. That's what's kept us wondering, the magic question: who's going to come and play the lead guitar? We could dismiss it, like we did on Pleased to Meet Me. That was our fucking Let It Bleed, where I played all the guitar. But I don't know.
Pitchfork: People hear the records, and they hear 1981, or 1985, or 1989, but here we are in 2008 and it doesn't seem all that long ago.
PW: It's true. I've listened to all the stuff, and I'm constantly recording and playing down in the basement, and my voice is starting to sound really good lately. There's cracks and scratches in my voice that have been there since I was 19. It hasn't changed that much. It hasn't changed like Robert Plant, having that voice and now singing an octave and a half lower. Mine's a little different, but that screaming voice is still there. It's just a little embarrassing to put on for 40 minutes straight.
Pitchfork: Do the Replacements make you any money?
PW: A little bit. They asked me if they could use "Can't Hardly Wait" for a Toyota commercial. I sort of hemmed and hawed, because basically they don't have to ask my permission. They own the mechanicals, and they own half of the publishing, so if I say no they can do it anyway. That kind of stuff will generate a little income for me, the writer. The records have actually picked up in the last ten years, as far as sales go, so for as much as we put into them we're certainly getting it back. We never made any money on tour. None of us came out of the school of economics. We took it for granted that a rock and roll band gets ripped off. We've tried to shake that tree a couple of times, but what can we do? We never signed a contract with Twin/Tone. That haunts us this day. We were 19, 20-- Bob and I, the oldest and the smartest, we didn't know anything about contracts and shit like that. You look back, when you're sort of idle in your middle years, and think, we should have made some money.
Pitchfork: Is what your music has meant to so many any consolation for missed opportunities?
PW: Oh, yeah. I listen back, and I hear what's there, and I know in my heart, in my gut, that we were the real deal. No one can take that away. You can call us buffoons, or clowns or whatever. But when we wanted to, we were as good as anybody.