The Billboard Q&A: The Replacements' Paul Westerberg

At the risk of sounding corny, is there one of the first four albums that holds a warmer spot in your heart than the others?

At the risk of sounding corny, is there one of the first four albums that holds a warmer spot in your heart than the others?

Paul Westerberg: To me, they were all just one big long song, one big long sort of thing. I guess "Hootenanny" is the one where we came to the decision -- or, I did, at least -- that this loud/fast stuff is not going to get us anywhere. That was the height of the hardcore movement, and we were on tour, and we were not the loudest, and the fastest, and I figured, "Well, we can't win that way, so we've got to go the other direction, and tap the other vein of our influences and stuff." Not that "Hootenanny" is my favorite record, but "Hootenanny" was probably the one where we first started to become unafraid to do things. There's a lot of posing on "Stink," I think. I mean, it's good for what it is, but, you know, the first record was pure, and the follow-up there was trying to kind of write songs for the live show, and by then we were tired and decided to ... You know, we listened to all kinds of different music. It wasn't like we listened to hardcore in the van. I mean, we listened to all kinds of pop music, and folk and Dylan and Hank Williams, and a little bit of jazz came later. So we just started playing the stuff we liked.

I remember you saying in an interview years ago that you loved pop and you weren't afraid to say as much.

Yeah, you know, sometimes what you're not as good at is where your love leads you. I've never been able ... I don't have a classic pop voice that hits the noise and has a great range and control, and I don't know if we're talking pop as the Partridge Family or bubblegum, or the '70s pop I grew up with, or pop today. But, you know, it's still polished: wrong notes are not allowed, voices aren't allowed to crack and all that stuff. So on one hand, it's one of my first loves, but I wasn't given the gifts to ever really do it -- sort of like jazz.

When you listen to these first four reissued records, and you consider them as a block of music, what does that block say about the Replacements as a band, or as four young guys?

Good question. You know, I had to go through the liner notes the other day, and I don't know if it was coincidence or if I just had a blinding headache that day, but, man, it was like a whole lot of high falutin' talk about rock'n'roll that sort of gave me a headache. Gina Arnold [who wrote the liner notes to the reissue of "Let it Be"] certainly came closest, but when she started to get political about it, she was pretty much dead wrong. But, what it says about us ... we were outsiders. We were outcasts within a mold that people sort of conformed to.

Once punk rock became a thing, bands conformed to punk rock dress and action, and we certainly still, I mean, [late Replacements guitarist] Bob [Stinson] wore flares until [guitarist/singer] Captain Sensible [of the Damned] told him to get out of 'em, and I think that's when he started wearing dresses and tutus. But we just wanted to be what we were. Those early pictures of us wearing like baseball jerseys and running shoes and stuff ... we had no pretense that we needed to look like the Ramones. We were hip to that. We knew the Ramones looked like the Ramones, and we loved them, but we had to be sort of individual if we were gonna get anywhere.

A couple years ago, I saw you performing solo at the Virgin Megastore in Times Square, and at the end of "Can't Hardly Wait" or "Alex Chilton" you looked behind you and shouted out "Tommy" then "Chris" and the crowd roared. In moments like this, what are you aware of?

I'm aware that people miss seeing the band. The difference between me and, first of all, Tommy, is that Tommy went through these tapes and he was taken back and he had very high emotions. He also discovered ... rediscovered how good we were. But hearing his brother laugh on record, and stuff like that, I think, touched him, and [drummer] Chris [Mars] looks back at this as something that he did when he was a young fellow. I, on the other hand, continued to play the songs on and off for my entire career. So, to me, I never quite left it behind. To me, it was just part of what I did, and it's part of what I do. So there's more nostalgia for Tommy or Chris to look back on this stuff. To me, I don't when the last time I played was, but I probably played "If Only You Were Lonely" or something. So I'm still playing the early stuff. The brand name, the band is what they miss, and people who never saw us, unfortunately, will never get to see what it was, what we were. Because even if we got together and played, it would never be whatever the heck we were supposed to be.

Do you sometimes get lost in the myth of the Replacements?

I've distanced myself from it a great deal. And I've been sort of forced to, whether it be embrace, or reevaluate it, as far as Tommy sending me the 30 songs and saying, "What do you think?" Ya know, I put the X on a couple of things, just to pretend like I listened to it [laughs], but, um ... I don't know what the hell I'm talking about. I'll tell you this. I did surprise myself when I listened to some of them, I thought, "Damnit, I was good. I was real. I know what I was saying, and this was real." Me and Bob were 18-19, Chris 17, Tommy 13. Bob and I at least understood that this was the only road up and out. We had no skill: he was a cook, I was a janitor, and it was like, "We make it out in rock'n'roll or we die trying." Chris had the idea of art from the beginning, and Tommy was an impressionable young kid. So I think Bob and I at the beginning were the ones that knew that the desperation part of the group was something we had to push to the forefront.

I love that desperation was a key driving force.

Yeah, it was. If we couldn't be as scary and loud and fast as Black Flag, then we had to be funny. If we couldn't be as funny as [San Francisco punk band] Flipper, then we had to be wistful, so we did what we had to do to stand out.

You said you weren't as emotional as Tommy or Chris while going over these reissues. That said, there has to of been at least a couple of moments where you were listening back, and knew that you were going to have to talk about it in interviews, and...

Yeah, I recognized it as a manic period in my life that I still have. They tend to come and go quicker now, like it will all build up to a manic phase for about a week-and-a-half, and then it will slow down in a month. But I was at a manic peak for about a year-and-a-half there. I can tell because of the introductions and the endings of songs. As we went on later, I started to go down, where songs started to fade. That's the main thing -- those songs had a beginning, a middle, and an ending, and it was different than pop music I was hearing. But we were making music for a live show, so I was very aware of, like, "This is the song. This is the body, but it has to have an introduction, and it has to have an ending." And I sometimes find myself with a good idea for a song today, and I'll leave those eight bars open in the beginning, and at the end not quite know what to do. That's the beauty of having a band with you -- somebody has an idea, and somebody else has an idea, and you bring 'em together. There. You got it.

When you and Tommy had reunited to record a few songs for the "Open Season" soundtrack, Sony Pictures' Leah Vollack was in the studio with you, when she was called on her cell phone. She quickly got rid of the person on the other line by saying, "I'm in the studio with the Replacements," at which point you and Tommy looked at each other somewhat shockingly, sort of unaware of the reality of the situation to fans. The Replacements, or the last version of which, was indeed in the middle of a reunion. That reality scared you?

Yeah, you know, the Replacements scare me. Tommy came over here [to Westerberg's home in Minneapolis] about a month ago, and we sat down and talked, and that was a scary thing, because, you know, so much has happened, and we've grown. Yet, it was the same goddamn conversation we had before we hired [final drummer] Steve Foley in the bar. So things change, and yet he was pitching me, like, "We should play and do all this," and I'd respond by saying, "Who's gonna play the f*ckin' guitar?" It's been the question from day one, since Bob left the band.

So we left it like that, sort of hanging there, sort of, like, "Well, we'll find that guitar player somewhere." But it's like, "No we won't." He's dead. And the drummer doesn't want to play. To me, if we've ever gonna do this thing, he should come and play drums. But he doesn't want to play drums anymore than a guy wants to get on a scooter or a skateboard after he reaches a certain age, and I can dig that. But my bit was a little bit more. And he said, "You have my blessing to go play," but, for me, without him playing the drums, it wouldn't be close. Me and Tommy, yeah, we're the frontmen in the end, and we had Steve and [latter era guitarist] Slim [Dunlap], who were just sort of hired hands. But Chris was a big part of the whole thing, especially in the beginning of the humor and the push-the-envelope chaos. He was very much one of us.

Paul, it really sounds like you want a Replacements reunion to happen.

Not as bad as Tommy [laughs]. When it came down to just me and Tommy [being interested in a reunion], my first thought was, like, "Okay, we're the Replacements, we'll do me and you, and we'll put the name on the ticket, and [then] we'll audition a bass player and a drummer for every single song, so it will be Tommy and Paul, and a cast of thousands. Ya know, THE REPLACEMENTS." We laughed about the idea, and thought about the reality of it, and it's like, "Is that gonna work? Nah."

To me, it has to be something like that, or some long lost soul that we haven't thought of yet to come in and man the helm. You know, they're going to release [the final four Replacements albums], too. And so if I was ever going to play, I'd like to play once the whole shooting match is out, because I don't think I could physically get up there and bellow these 18 songs [from] that first record. That was enough. That's just sheer youth there. I can't find that in a bottle or a pill. I'm just too creaky for that.

You don't think there's any chance you and Tommy could convince Chris to play one last tour?

I don't think so. If we did it, I'd probably have to play drums, and Chris would have to play guitar, something as absurd as that. He'd probably be up for that. But, you know, I don't want to put the pressure on him, and make it sound like, "I'm ready to go, as soon as Chris is." I'm very hesitant about dragging the name out there, and what damage we could do to the legend. Whenever we did, someone would want something else. If I went up there straight, they'd want us wasted. If we were f*cked up, they'd want us to be this or that. I don't know. The records hold the key to the whole thing. I wish they would have come up with some better pictures [in the packaging for the first four reissues]. I was disappointed that I had seen every one of the photographs before. I wish they had some new pictures. This was of course well before cell cameras and everything. That was the thing that built the band -- the legend -- that people would say, "Oh, god, you missed it?!" The photographs and the bootleg tapes. There's got to be tons of great pictures out there and stuff that maybe they'll try to hunt down for something else.

I'll let people know in this article that Paul Westerberg wants your pictures.

Yes, well I don't want them, personally, but send them to Rhino/Warner. That's the other deal. Technically, this is once again Warner Bros. putting out another Replacements record, so it's like we've come full circle again. I'm doing an interview for Warner.

A few years ago, Restless Records reissued these four Twin/Tone albums, yet they did so without adding a single bonus track or extra liner notes, nothing. What was the point?

I don't even know if I was even aware of 'em. I was working on my own thing at the time. There's always been people working away at the little Replacements world, and I sort of stepped away from it for a long time and this is as close as I've come to stepping back to it. Restless and all that crap, it's just someone else putting out the same junk. Like, EMI will put out a Beatles record this Christmas -- you can bet on it. They're going to be pumping this crap out long after we're dead. But, no, it's great [laughs]. You said "bonus track." I stipulated in one interview that I was gonna put a disclaimer on the record, but I just sort of copped out and said, "F*ck it." See, they used to call 'em "outtakes," you know, "not suitable for airplay" or "not suitable for the 'buying' dollar,'" and I wanted people to know that everything that's called a "bonus" isn't necessarily for the better. I think, "Sorry Ma" was perfect at 18 songs, and to add 10 more to it, is, well, enticing to go and re-buy it, but I don't know that every one of those songs add to the record at all.

What role did [former manager and Twin/Tone co-owner] Peter Jesperson play in the history and formation of the band?

It depends on how generous I feel for him at the moment: "HE MEANT THE WORLD TO US" or all he did was read the NME and say, "Let's put a tambourine on it." It was somewhere in between. If it wasn't for Pete, I believe we would have found someone else, which would have gotten us out of the garage. But, Peter being the first one who actually latched onto us, it certainly helped in the beginning, because of his background as a disc jockey, and a record store guy. So he knew the record game pretty good. I mean, they got "I Will Dare" to chart on the dance charts, because they, like, lied and said that they sold a sh*tload. So, there's little stuff like that that helped, and Pete helped with distributors and stuff. He was very good in the beginning helping us, being the liaison to get us gigs, because we were not the kind of guys to call club owners and get gigs. We joined the union after that. We didn't know what the hell we were doing, but there wasn't a long line of guys who wanted to manage us. Peter was the first one, and we took it.

A friend of mine from Minneapolis who saw your guys several time in the early days recently remarked to me that live, it was as if you guys never really tried hard enough.

Maybe he saw us on the wrong night. Some nights, yeah, we never gave 100%. That would be giving yourself to the audience. That would be on a level of a someone like Elvis. We wanted them to know that we were there for us, and you could like us or not, because that was, you know, part of the makeup of the band.

A couple years ago, Peter Jesperson, who produced these four reissues as well as their original counterparts, said in an interview that he had enough Replacements leftovers to compile a Replacements box. After the next wave of reissues, how much will be left?

I dunno. I got an armful and I threw 'em in the river, so that sh*t is not going to be around [Westerberg is referring to a famous story of the band stealing their masters from the Twin/Tone office and throwing them in the Mississippi River. They did indeed steal tapes and toss them in the river, but what was lost were several backup reels, and not much else of consequence]. I don't know what tapes exist where and when these songs came up, like these home demos that I supposedly gave to Peter. I don't remember doing that, but I remember sitting with my little boom box ... I have some stuff that I'm sitting on, which is a little later on in the band's career than the raw, cassette stuff. But, I don't know that it there needs to be a whole lot more out there.

Your son was born about 10 years ago, at which point you sort of disappeared professionally. But in recent years, you've been so busy that it seems as though you've fallen back in love with music, like you've been rejuvenated.

I realized that I am a songwriter. That's one hat that I wear, and I continue to do that. To this day, in the last week, I've finished, well, I wrote probably five, and recorded them. And I'm working on another one now. It's something I do. I just do it. And, sooner or later, I'll be a performer again, too. What I don't see myself doing is being the writer of a book -- although that's been kicked around for well over a decade -- or an actor. But I still like to play the guitar and make music. I don't need the audience reception. I don't live for the stage, but I do enjoy the camaraderie of being out with the boys, and all that stuff.

A couple of years ago, you cut the webbing of your fret hand cleaning wax off a candle with a screwdriver. You've played live a couple times since and you're writing daily. It sounds like you've fully recovered.

I think it's as good as it gets right now. It was supposed to be 18 months from then, which is right about now, or May, but it's not getting any better. It's okay, though. I've cut songs and I can play. I've actually had to adapt a slightly different style of chording for the finger. The funny thing is that my right hand has sort of overcompensated for it, and I've now got a trigger finger on my left hand. So I'll be down to a thumb pick and a slide by the time I'm done.

Is there anything that you can't play anymore? Any songs that you can't do anymore?

Physically?

Yeah.

No. I have to warm it up a little bit, and I can always re-chord a song, or play a different chord that was on the record. I mean half the time, I don't remember what I played anyway. I can't play as fluidly, but that was never part of the act, I guess. That was something that was a little more important on record, but soloing or something like that is a little tough with the ring finger that's sort of dead. I was secretly hoping that it would end my guitar-playing life, so I would then be forced to do something else, music-wise -- you know, force myself to read music so that I could compose in that matter. But, alas, my finger came back good enough to play rock'n'roll, so it let me down, on one hand.

I think a lot of your fans wonder what the hell you do up there in Minneapolis all day. Can you give me a little window into your everyday life?

I'm usually the first one to wake up [between himself, his wife and son]. I make some coffee, wash down a handful of vitamins and pills with it, and then I usually head right for a guitar until my wife and son get up. I see 'em off to school, and head right down to the studio usually most days. Sometimes I just can't bear to go down here anymore, because there's just one window in the office here, so I go down in the basement. I go down in this little room, and I have so much junk down here that you can't even move: electric piano, upright piano, guitar. I can seriously play guitar all day long if I'm in the mood.

Some days I do. I don't do much else, I read, but I can't read in the middle of the day. If I'm not doing something about music in the day, then I feel like I'm loafing. I mean, people think that I'm not working, but tell that to anyone that writes music, poetry or prose, and ya know, I'm writing all the time. And you'll hear it. I wrote a song for [occasional collaborator, ex-Son Volt member and multi-instrumentalist friend] Jim Boquist, who I haven't talked to since his father died, and I was gonna send it to him. Instead of calling him, I was gonna send it to him, and that's the kind of song that people will probably end up loving in a couple of years when it seeks its way out, rather than the one I spent three weeks honing for Billy Gibbons, trying to make it for ZZ Top.

You don't have a label deal at the moment?

I do if I want one. I got a call from Vagrant the other day and they're ready any time I'm ready. And I've been asked to start my own label by Sony and others, like a production deal, where I would produce an artist, and release my own records as well. [Current manager] Darren [Hill] and I are kicking around the idea of selling the songs online, having like a song of the month club. That might be the best way.

Starting your own label seems like the last thing Paul Westerberg would want to do.

Yeah, well, it is, kind of. On one hand, it would be something that Darren and I could do together. I would be Jerry Wexler, and he would be Ahmet [Ertegun]. If there was the right band, I would like to go in one day and really mold a young group and help them, but I don't go out and check out things, and whenever I get sent a CD by a band, I listen for about 10 seconds, and if I don't hear it in the singer's voice, then I'm not interested. It has to come from the singer's voice. If it has the right quality, that's what gets me. So, one of these days...

It seems like there are a lot of fans of your music who have finally gotten into positions of power in the music business and they want desperately to work with you.

God bless 'em.

Click here to read Billboard's Q&A with Tommy Stinson.