Can’t Hardly Wait: Paul Westerberg returns with twin albums
By Mark Guarino
Paul Westerberg is one of the most beloved songwriters in rock. In the 80s, when he fronted the Minneapolis underground band the Replacements, he sang about the boredom, alienation and heartache of teenagers stuck in the rut of Middle America, a Chuck Berry for the Reagan years.
As the band’s early albums like “Let It Be” and “Tim” wound up indie rock classics, the band itself was barreling down the road of self-destruction. Marked by booze, humor and spontaneity, its shows became the stuff of legend. The Replacements never achieved commercial success not just because they were suspicious of it, but because they were barely hanging on. When the band played its final show in 1991 on the Fourth of July in Grant Park, there was a thread a band left. Wildman guitarist Bob Stinson was kicked out (he died in 1995) and the band’s last album was realistically considered a Westerberg solo project.
Like most bands never fully embraced during their heyday, the Replacements became more infamous and influential after the party broke up. Westerberg released five solo albums that were quieter and more mature, much to the disdain of his fans who insisted he always crank the amps and wave the middle finger salute.
Newly sober, the 42-year-old has returned after a four-year absence with “Stereo” and “Mono,” a double album he recorded at home by himself. The first is a collection of more introspective songs and the second, recorded under the band name Grandpaboy, is a let-it-rip garage rock set that sounds like a lost Replacements record. Although he has stayed away from the concert stage for years, he did test the waters on a mini-tour in the Spring, playing solo shows at Virgin Megastores across the country. Since those wound up such a success, he is currently on a full tour. He plays a sold-out show at the Vic tonight.
What follows is an edited transcript of a conversation we had recently.
Q: Before we start, I have to tell you I was the person at your Virgin in-store who wound up holding up your lyric sheet when you jumped on the table of books to take a request.
A: Ah! You saved the day. I remember thinking I could fall and seriously hurt myself here.
Q: What surprised you about that mini-tour?
How fun it was. I was uncertain at first and I guess I was uncertain for 20 years because I’ve never done it and maybe if I had done it 20 years ago, it wouldn’t have been as fun. But it was, truly. Every night wasn’t magic but most of them were. And the Chicago one was especially fun. And I didn’t miss the band.
Q: People seemed genuinely happy to see you after so many years.
A: That comes right back at you. I’m not going to be there if I thought I wasn’t wanted. I guess that’s what (expletive) me off years ago when (the Replacements were) stuck on bills with other acts and not being the headliner and playing to throng that isn’t there to see you. (During this tour) I could only assume everyone in the place came to see me and it just loosened me up and made me feel happy and it’s an incredible feeling to see a thousand smiling faces.
Q: You hadn’t toured in so long. Did that experience give you a taste to come back on this current tour? A: Yes, yes. Had the in-stores gone so-so and I got bottled and it flopped, I would have pulled the plug on everything. But I wanted to keep going I thought, “let’s do this further and we’ll do it longer and I’ll bring a louder amp and we’ll charge money.”
Q: What were your hesitations?
A: I think my biggest fear is remembering the songs, chords, words and as you perfectly illustrated, it’s almost become part of the act. It’s funny that the man on stage with the guitar is the least knowledgeable. (laughs) And it gives the audience a chance to be the band. You’re the ones I turn to for help and if you want to participate, it’s more than just a show.
Q; Was part of it not wanting to be forced to play Replacements requests all night long?
A: There’s songs from every era that I can and will play and there’s just some stuff some stuff that’s redundant. I’ve heard calls for songs like “Customer” (from the Replacements 1981 debut, “Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Track”) and yeah, I could but it’s sort of like, it was only fun when (drummer) Chris (Mars) and me played it together and for me to do it alone, you lose the fun. It’s like, I’m not into that.
Q: I was surprised at that in-store to hear you do older songs. What was also interesting was to witness the crowd’s reaction. You wrote a song about Big Star’s Alex Chilton (“Alex Chilton”) who was obvious a hero for you. And now, with all the time that has passed since the Replacements broke up, it was pretty obvious that you fill that role for many people. Do you think about that switch?
A: It’s something that I don’t want to stop and think about but I will allow myself the luxury of it crossing my mind. But that’s about how far I go. I try not to wallow in it because some things have changed. Because once things are done, I’m off. I get off the stage, I’m not quite humming with the buzz I used to have with the band. And it feels more natural now because it feels like we did something together and now it’s over and we can remember it and go. It feels more correct now. We went and gave it our all, we’re exhausted and there’s no illusion of “oh, what next?” And I guess I have a better sense of what I mean to people than what I used to think I thought I meant.
Q: Because now they’re telling you to their face. You signed CDs for hours. Most musicians don’t have that kind of chance to face their fans like that.
A: I made a point of that. And one journalist (of course, from England) had the audacity to say, “is this for your own ego?” How (expletive) dare you? It’s like, how can I possible sign for 30 people and say, “I’m done, goodbye.” It’s like, you sign one, you got to sign them all. Plus run to a limo? I sort of lived a little taste of that and now I’ve moved on to something that’s more intimate. I feel any one in room is there because they know of me and I’m much more relaxed I guess.
Q: Was it humbling?
A: I don’t know. I mean, every town had a few wankers. Every town had a few hard luck stories. In Chicago in particular, there was somebody who said, “here’s a picture of someone you used to know. He died last week.” In the middle of the line! And I’m stuck with that next person saying, “hi, how are you?” So you never know who’s in line. Then there were some in line that looked like they wanted to shoot me.
Q: When your solo albums became more and more stripped down, was it because you wanted to distance yourself from the Replacements records?
A: No, I never felt the need to distance my self from the Replacements. Almost, if you will, I felt a need to re-emphasize that I am the Replacements. Tommy (Stinson) and I are the Replacements. Chris (Mars) and I are the Replacements. I think a lot of people were fooled by the “Mono” record and that was to prove a point. Which is, that sound, that swagger, that attitude, came a lot from me. Tommy was sort of my soldier and carried it out and Bob (Stinson) was there for the living life on the edge value, if that’s the correct word. But I’ve never tried to run away from the band and say I’m not them. They sort of crumbled around me. They left me. They all felt they needed to stretch their wings and make solo careers and make their own lives. And I was left still being the lead singer of the Replacements. I just chose not to use the name and continue to play and sing the songs that I’ve written.
Q: It was brave not to use the band name. It must have been a temptation.
A: Yeah, it was an unspoken thing that Tommy and I wouldn’t do that. And once he and I (get back together), if that comes to pass, I would use the name again with him.
Q; How difficult was it to walk away from the band?
A: See it’s a two-sided coin. It’s a fresh start. It’s not like I’m walking away from a goldmine. I’m walking away from a band that went down the toilet. In essence, I’m starting over because no one knows who Paul Westerberg is. And in a way, it gave me a fresh start. I didn’t form a new band and call it Sugar or something, something that I could leave behind and then finally go out on my name. I simply knew it was time to be me.
Q: You were talking about the Replacements sound. I hear that bad boy affectation everywhere these days, particularly from people like Ryan Adams. Do more commercially successful imitators ever irk you?
A: I just want to remind them of who came up with it. You can put someone’s else’s name on it but they’ll never get it. They’ll never get the Replacements. It was a sense of humor, which was the thing that made us actually fly. It was the self-destructive humor that made us pee in our pants.
Q: For years, there’s been talk about remastering and re-releasing the band’s entire catalog. What’s the status of that?
A: I’d like to see them all in one place, but I’m not going to make it my life’s work. But the fact that the early stuff is licensed to someone I don’t even know and never met and a contract was never signed (with Twin/Tone) and too many years have gone with too many questions raised like, “how come they got those records?,” one of these days maybe I’ll get them all in the same place.
Q: Did songwriting get easier for you over time or more difficult?
A: I think the inspiration for it, depending on where you’re drawing the inspiration from, has never changed. And if a lot of my songs deal with heartache or love, I’ve removed myself from that game to a certain extent. But we all have this thing called a memory. And I can still remember the girl in fourth grade and pine over her. It’s true, it’s like you don’t forget that (expletive). I could write a song about that right now and somebody would accuse me and say “Ah-ha! Is that song about so and so?” And no, it’s about Kathy O’Brien.
Q: So basically it’s about find a way to keep accessing that well.
A: Yeah. I’m safe to say I have a sensitive side and I go there for when I need something. And it’s like you use what you got. I don’t have a big backup band. That was a part of Grandpaboy. It sort of fit more the illusion of here’s four or five or six guys drinking out of jug, playing in overalls, playing this rock and roll music. When basically it’s just me. One (record) is a joke and the other (“Stereo”) is more naked and more natural and you can see it as singer-songwriter thing. And you can put the two together and say this guy is both of those things at once.
Q: Did Tommy play on that “Mono” record?
A: No, that’s funny because every interview, no matter what, that is the one reoccurring question that will not die. I’m almost ready to let it live. That rumor is out there but no he did no. He played on (the 1990 swan song) “All Shook Down,” I think.
Q: Both the new albums were made at home by just you.
A: Yeah, you don’t have to qualify it, it’s me every song. Every note was made at home by me, every sound by me except one note by my three-year-old son who hit the keyboard.
Q: So you’re not planning to use a producer any time in the future?
A: It took the expertise and price of friendship of Don Was, I think, to show me that. He made suggestions (on Westerberg’s 1998 album, “Suicaine Gratifaction”) and in the end we would up using 99 percent of what I wanted to do and the record turned out 99 percent of what I wanted. It became pretty obvious that, for what I’m doing, I don’t need a producer.
Q: So many of your songs have dealt with the most desperate side of loneliness and despair. Do you need to be depressed when you write those songs or is it better not to? A: When you’re truly, achingly depressed, severely depressed, you can’t even be bothered with a pen and a piece of paper. You simply stare at your feet. Once it passes or once the medication kicks in and you’re feeling better, that’s when you sort of let it out. That’s why I wonder about Sylvia Plath when you write about stuff that’s so on the edge of death. Chances are you’re not on the edge as you’re writing it but you may have been yesterday. Q: Did sobriety help or hinder your songwriting?
A: Neither. I wrote sober most all of the time; performing, no. By that time in the evening, I was tipsy and people will argue which was better, when I was bombed or when I was straight. If you can find a happy medium, the alcohol, to a certain extent, made me relaxed. When I was too relaxed and when I couldn’t stand up, that’s when I was in trouble. But if a drink makes you relax, I’d say that’s okay. I rarely wrote when I was drinking because I wrote usually in the morning and then would go try to rehearse with band. That’s when the beers would come out.
Q; Do you think that lifestyle prevented the Replacements from fulfilling their promise?
A: No I think there’s a grand plan up there and we fulfilled our destiny by doing what we did. Like imagine if the New York Dolls had gone three years further and had a hit record and became a sham.
Q: This may be a stretch, but what links the solo songs with your Replacements period is that call to arms against complacency in the songwriting. A song like “Bastards of Young” tried to scream people out of their chairs and a new song like “We May Be the Ones” does the same thing, except it sounds a little more resigned. It sounds like you’re still talking to your generation, who are now in their late ’30s and early ’40s.
A: You’re right as (expletive) and you know it. Yeah, astute and true. That spirit hasn’t died in me and I just found a different format. I’ve always been of the mind that the quieter you speak, the more people listen. At least the more intelligent people listen.