About a year ago, The Replacements, in the midst of a long-awaited reunion, were a mess. Expectations were high for the band's Coachella set, their first performance in California in 23 years. They had a prime 8:45PM slot, playing the same stage as Lorde, Pharrell and Lana Del Rey. Unfortunately, it didn't go well.
Paul Westerberg, 55, dressed in suit and bow tie, introduced himself: "Well, hello," he said, "there's been a lot of good music today, huh? We'll put a fucking stop to that right now." The band made good on Westerberg's promise, plagued by poor sound and a disappointing turnout despite near-top billing. By set's end, half the audience had wandered off to see Zedd in the Sahara Tent.
"I was broken after that," manager Darren Hill tells Billboard. "I remember going back to the hotel that night with Paul, sitting by the pool and trying to boost morale. Those kids would rather be in an EDM tent tripping on ecstasy than seeing one of the best rock and roll bands in the world. Obviously that wasn't our scene. That's why we decided to do this tour, because we needed to play to our fans and do our own show."
What a difference a year makes. Every stop of their current Back by Unpopular Demand tour has sold out. Die-hard followers -- largely middle-aged fans whose teen years were made bearable by Westerberg's sensitive-but-searing growl and the band's punky abandon, tender balladry and bratty humor -- say this is the best the group has sounded in decades. The current lineup of Westerberg, founding bassist Tommy Stinson and new additions Josh Freese (A Perfect Circle, Devo, Nine Inch Nails) and guitarist Dave Minehan (The Neighborhoods) are now in lockstep.
On the first of two nights at L.A.'s Palladium, the band pounded through "White and Lazy," brought a metal edge to "Takin' a Ride" and added Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" riff to "Kissing in Action," and yet are still capable of making tears fall into warm beers on ballads like "Within Your Reach" and "Androgynous." And they're still camping it up, too, on covers like "My Boy Lollipop" and a new song "Whole Foods Blues," where Westerberg laments his "protein shake" from the upscale grocer.
Recording, however, hasn't been easy. Currently unsigned, the group has hit the studio twice without releasing a proper song: Once at Minehan's Woolly Mammoth Sound in Waltham, Mass. and again at the home studio of Kevin Bowe in Minneapolis. So far, the only song to see the light of day is "Poke Me in My Cage," an interminable 24-minute improvisational jazz piece posted on their SoundCloud page with the hashtag #porcupinepiss, a nod to the Mats' long tradition of snotty humor.
But Hill -- who co-manages the band with Stinson's manager Ben Perlstein -- says the combined sessions actually resulted in seven or eight songs that may or may not see the light of day. "It's just a question of what the band wants to ultimately do with them," he says, adding that Westerberg still has a backlog of songs "you wouldn't believe," and that Stinson also has "tons of great songs."
With the band on tour until mid-June, they've hit the pause button on recording. "It's really difficult to shift modes," says Hill. "But the good news is that the band is really gelling, and that's got to translate when they go back in to the studio."
Hill should know -- he actually played with Westerberg, Freese and Minehan on 1993's 14 Songs tour (and was formerly in the Red Rockers and The Raindogs, who are being inducted to the Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame this weekend).
Tommy Stinson, Josh Freese, Paul Westerberg, and Dave Minehan of The Replacements at the Hollywood Palladium on April 15, 2015 in Los Angeles. Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images
Meanwhile, the Replacements have a number of projects in the works: this summer Rhino will release two previously unannounced vinyl box sets consisting of the band's Twin\Tone years (the holy quartet of Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash, Stink, Hootenanny and Let it Be) and Sire releases (Tim, Pleased to Meet Me, Don't Tell a Soul and All Shook Down).
Also on tap is a biography titled Trouble Boys, (penned by Memphis Commercial Appeal writer Bob Mehr) and a deal for a documentary with "Oscar-winning filmmakers" is currently in the works. Hill also mentions a project for later in the year that he claims is going to "huge."
In the middle of the conversation, as if on cue, Westerberg calls in with a very important question: He wants to know how many days there are in April and May.
Problem solved, Hill -- whose management clients have included Roky Erickson, the reformed New York Dolls, The Mighty, Mighty Bosstones and The Dropkick Murphys -- discusses the challenges of managing the famously fractious Replacements. "It runs the gamut from challenging to fun to difficult," he says. "But it's all been worth it.”
A version of this article first appeared in the May 2 issue of Billboard.