Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Paul Westerberg

Illustration for article titled Paul Westerberg

Few bands made as profound or lasting an impact on American rock music as Paul Westerberg's group The Replacements. Living up to some shambolic ideal of its own invention, The Replacements influenced virtually every band emerging in the early '90s, both in its punk-informed songs and in its career arc. The band achieved small-scale success in the early '80s with Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash and Hootenanny, but its great creative breakthrough came with 1984's Let It Be, which found the mix of toughness, tenderness, exhaustion, and wit that became Westerberg's trademark. Snatched up by Sire on the basis of its cult success, The Replacements released two more classic albums–Tim and Pleased To Meet Me–but then began to fracture. Guitarist Bob Stinson was fired for a substance-abuse problem which shamed the other members' excesses. (Stinson died in 1995.) Sire's sales demands began to be felt on 1989's Don't Tell A Soul, and the following year, All Shook Down marked the group's demise. Westerberg launched a solo career by contributing the hit "Dyslexic Heart" to the grunge-era Singles soundtrack, an album that now looks like a changing of the guard, as it nestles Westerberg among many Replacements-influenced acts. Two subsequent solo records, 1993's 14 Songs and 1996's Eventually, offered pleasant variations on Westerberg's well-established themes, but failed to connect with a large audience, leaving him without a label. Resorting to pseudonyms, Westerberg began a second career for his alter ego Grandpaboy, later carrying his newfound stripped-down approach into his solo discs Suicaine Gratifaction (1999) and Stereo/Mono, a 2001 double-album debut for the small label Vagrant. The coming weeks will see a flood of new Westerberg material: The concert film/documentary Come Feel Me Tremble makes its DVD debut on October 21, alongside its soundtrack and Dead Man Shake, a new Grandpaboy album on the blues label Fat Possum. From his Minneapolis home/studio, Westerberg weighed in on cigars, stardom, and fatherhood in a conversation with The Onion A.V. Club.

The Onion: In virtually every scene of Come Feel Me Tremble, you're smoking a cigar. What do you look for in a cigar?

Paul Westerberg: The nearest available one. I would send a runner out every day of the tour, because obviously I didn't know where the local tobacconist was, and they would get me whatever they could find. It does look like I smoke a lot, but most of the action is right before I go or right afterwards, which would be the two times I'd be tending to smoke more.


O: You wouldn't call yourself a cigar aficionado, then?

PW: No. Not by any means, although I was given a few Cubans along the way, which was very nice.

O: Did you give up cigarettes?

PW: Yeah. I started to get chest pains and emergency-room panic attacks, and figured it was due to the ciggies. So I quit that by sort of weaning myself with those thin cigars, then worked myself up to the big stogies. Now, I gotta be careful that I'm not just inhaling these, which is like 10 cigarettes at once.


O: You don't seem like the type of guy who would enjoy being followed around by cameras. How did this film project come about?

PW: Well, it came out of us sitting around talking to Pete, the T-shirt man. I thought, "Gee, we ought to give him a job, give him something to do rather than just…" A lot of the venues, he would go and they would sell the shirts for him. So I suggested we get a camera, and he started shooting stuff. I was very comfortable having him do it. Then they set up a professional shoot for the last gig in New York, which came out pretty well, although my voice was a little ragged, so we don't see as much of that. Then we got the idea, "Why don't we just enlist the fans and see what footage they have?" And it came. Tons of it. A lot of it was really poor quality. Some of it was poor quality but the performance was good, so we used the best of that, and used their photographs, too. My theory is that everyone who gets the movie will recognize one scene, because their friend probably had that tape. We used about 20 seconds of every tape.


O: You created the Grandpaboy alter ego to avoid label issues. Why has he stuck around?

PW: It's a good way for me to be able to release as much material as I want to. It sucks when you've got… Even on a smaller-scale independent label, they still have schedules. I love the idea of writing a song, cutting it, and having it released in two weeks. That's not going to happen, but at least this way I can have an outlet to play the guitar. To play my more rockin' stuff. They're pretty cool at Vagrant, to let me do that.


O: Are you a prolific songwriter? I've talked to people who can't stop writing and people who have to be whipped to write…

PW: I have to be whipped to stop. That's where I am right now. It's kind of frustrating. I can't really write more, because I've got a whole album's worth already ready to go. They start to stockpile, and I start to record over them. I've erased songs, whole tapes of brand-new songs, with another batch of brand-new songs, because I was too lazy to buy a new tape. I have stuff that goes way back to 1980-82 all the way up to last year in funky forms that might be spruced up. It could masquerade as the unheard basement tapes, but I've got no time to work on that or worry about that.


O: Your habits sound almost Prince-like. Is there something about Minneapolis that makes people record like that?

PW: There's nothing else to do! Half of the year, you're inside. You tend to write in the winter, and I'm not much of a lover of the sun, so I tend to write in the summer, too. I went maybe a year without writing, and instead read books. Then I'll write for a month solid, like four songs at a time, and then I can sort of lay it down and get away from it. But it's always nagging at me in the back of my mind.


O: Was there ever a temptation, if only for your career, to leave Minneapolis?

PW: No. I always thought it was more helpful for me to stay. L.A. gobbles you up, and New York does the same. To me, anybody who has to move somewhere to become something they're not isn't the real thing. If you've gotta move to Los Angeles to make it, then you ain't got it.


O: Next year's album is called Folker, so I assume it's more roots-based. Have you been getting more into that sort of music?

PW: I always have been. That's been my bread and butter. I've always loved acoustic-based music and blues. When I heard punk rock, that took a big chunk of my mind and vision, and I've sort of been melding the three for 25 years, or whatever the hell it is. It's not like I discovered Woody Guthrie yesterday or something. I've been playing acoustic guitar and writing ballads since day one.


O: You used to have an aversion to playing acoustic, though. Did the last tour change your mind?

PW: It's the first one I've ever made money on. It shows how stupid I am. I've toured about a hundred times and lost money every time, just because it all goes to the drum tech and all that shit. I realized that a lot of my songs were singalong quality, and yeah, I can get out there and have a hootenanny vibe. Some of the stuff can't be reproduced without backing, but I've got a back catalog a mile long.


O: It also brings you face to face with your fans in a way that other gigs don't. How would you describe your relationship with your fans?

PW: I got pretty close to them on the tour, because I started doing the after-show meet-and-greet thing, just because I was doing in-stores. I figured, "Well, if I'm signing autographs in Seattle and wherever, then I suppose I have to come out and sign a few in Boston and New York." Every show turned into a… Everyone came on stage toward the last couple of songs, then followed me out to the bus, and after I changed my shirt and had a swig of Coke, I saw a lot of the same people. It got to be, "Oh, it's you again. Get the hell out of here."


O: Did anyone stump you with requests?

PW: Stump me? Yeah, it's not like I'd never heard of it, but I certainly wouldn't remember how to play half the things they were yearning for. I've got a lot of songs, and a lot of those older ones were in funny tunings. Those often seem to be people's favorites, and I've never been able to transpose them into simple chords. I'm not a musical genius, and I sort of paint myself in a corner sometimes. I've got two records right now, and if I had to play the songs, I couldn't tell you how any of them go without listening to them and learning how to play them. I'm a writer. I write and then purge myself of it, and then it's gone for me. It only lives again if I have to play it for an audience.


O: You co-wrote "We Are The Normal," one of the first Goo Goo Dolls songs to get any airplay. Have you ever considered working as a writer for hire?

PW: That was such a convenient thing they did. Johnny [Rzeznik] sent me a blank piece of music, and I just put the melody and the lyrics to it and sent them back, which was really fun. No one else has really done that yet. I wouldn't be a good one to sit down, knee-to-knee, to try to write a song with someone. I did it with Carole King, oddly enough. No one hardly knows about this, but we wrote a couple of songs together. I was in between labels or something, and the publishing company suggested it. I went over to her apartment. Boy, she just sat down and was like, "Okay, let's write." She started hitting something, and I was just rifling through my little grab-bag of scraps of paper and started giving her words. We wrote about three songs that were pretty schmaltz, the sort of thing that sounds like what happens when two people get together and want to write a song for someone else.


O: Do you think they'll ever resurface?

PW: Oh, I don't think… I'm sure somebody will find versions of the things, but we were literally trying to write for Michael Bolton or somebody. I wasn't writing my songs, and she wasn't writing her songs. But I mean, that's the way she's always done it. I've never worked with a person like that.


O: You tell a story in the film about taking a silent elevator ride with Kurt Cobain. As you saw all these bands coming up that were influenced by The Replacements, did you ever feel the need to act as a mentor or give advice?

PW: Oh, no. I mean, crap, I'd be the last one to give advice.

O: If nothing else, you could see some mistakes that were made, like not making money on tours.


PW: Yeah, but I was probably in no position to tell him, "Hey, clean up your act, kid." I could have told him, "Enjoy it, it will be over soon." But he didn't stick around long enough to feel the wonderful pain of the slide down. [Laughs.]

O: How did that go?

PW: It goes fast. You turn around and go, "Oh, that was our peak?" [Laughs.] Suddenly, you do the same venue you did the year before, and only half the people show up. It only hits as hard as high as you go. It didn't really affect me, because the 'Mats never got to the level of superstardom. We went from cult figures to unpopular cult figures.


O: You did tour with Tom Petty.

PW: That was pretty much the beginning of the end. Obviously, the label was trying to get us to appeal to a broader, wider audience, and Tom's fans are Tom's fans. There were a lot of altercations in the audience. Maybe 1/20th of the audience came to see us, and they would get in fights with Petty's fans, because they were booing us. It wasn't really a cool scene, actually.


O: Did you mind Petty swiping your "rebel without a clue" line? [That line, from The Replacements' "I'll Be You," turned up in Petty's "Into The Great Wide Open." –ed.]

PW: It miffed me a little bit, but it's all… I'd steal something back from him, if I could find something I liked.


O: The Replacements and other bands of that era had a tremendous impact on music. At the time, were you thinking long-term at all?

PW: It's funny, because while you're doing it… We didn't stop and smell the roses, so to speak. We envisioned going further than we did. It was kind of a letdown when we sort of fumbled and fell apart, because we thought we were on our way up to the next level. We weren't sure quite like what. But the fact that The Ramones never broke through always haunted us. We thought, "If The Ramones can't make it, then what are we doing? We're not as cool as them by a long shot."


O: If you were going to pick a mistake you made, what would it be?

PW: Listening to other people. It got down to when the four guys in the band started to have different ideas, and like, "Well, my wife thinks that…" You know. As soon as "My wife thinks…" or "My friend thinks…" enters it, it's over. Too many cooks. When it was the four of us and we wouldn't listen to anyone and they would listen to me, we got along great. Then, suddenly, they wanted to stretch their legs and make their own music, and that was cool with me. It just sort of happened, and then suddenly there was no more band.


O: You now do most of your music at home. Do you see yourself working in a proper studio again?

PW: No, I don't. Slowly, the proper studio is becoming my basement. I'll go back when I need to. Right now, I don't want to and I don't need to.


O: You've said that the first three solo albums you did were an extension of your career with The Replacements. How did Stereo/Mono mark a break?

PW: I guess going back into the basement and playing everything by myself is sort of the new version of what I do. Going into the studio and playing with the 'Mats and then other players whom I tell what to do… I thought, "God, I've gotta learn how to play the damn thing, so I can stop being the worst frontman in the word for drummers."


O: Your early days have sort of faded into legend at this point. What's the strangest untrue story you've heard about yourself?

PW: I don't keep up on what the latest are. There was a flurry of them a few years ago.


O: You apparently had a lung removed.

PW: Lung removed… They had me showing up and playing all kinds of weird places, New Orleans and northern Minnesota. Real freak things. Someone would give the song list and what I was wearing, when all along I was at home, perfectly unaware of all that shit.


O: At one point in the '80s, there was a fake version of The Zombies touring America. Maybe there's a fake Paul Westerberg.

PW: I think there's about a hundred of them. [Laughs.]

O: Do you want to name names?

PW: I think that's your job.

O: Do you read a lot?

PW: I do in phases. I'm reading a book about [Vaslav] Nijinsky now, which stems from reading a book about Serge Diaghilev. And why I'm reading about Russian ballet, I have no idea. I've sort of run the gamut… All sorts of entertainment interest me. I enjoy people who were pioneers in a style.


O: Doing ballet is not something that interests you though, presumably.

PW: No. I don't have the, uh, teeth for it.

O: Has fatherhood changed your approach to making music?

PW: If anything, it's made me make music faster. Not necessarily in tempo, but I'll think, "Oh, he'll be home in 10 minutes. I'd better finish this thing up." Johnny's all over these records. He's pounding on the door. I listened last night, and he's on both of the records. At the end of a couple of songs, I go, "Yeah," because I know he's at the door. It's good. It's like my producer now is a 5-year-old, who's like, "Hurry up. Get it done. Scooby-Doo is on."


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