A (pretty damn good) interview with Paul Westerbeg

In honor the Replacements’ recent reunion shows, I present to you this interview with Paul Westerberg. I would have loved to go see them in Queens Friday night, but I had my own gig going on.

The Replacements were a very important band to me. I saw them in September, 1984, at the late and lamented Joe’s Star Lounge, weeks after arriving in Ann Arbor as a freshman. Per Hoffman – now one of my oldest friends, then a new and exciting acquaintance – told me that his friends were talking endlessly about the Replacements and we had to go. I was sold by the Village Voice quote on the poster which was plastered all around town – something like, “the dream flannel amalgamation of CCR and the Ramones.” Sounded good, and they delivered.

It was my introduction to a whole other world of music, and it helped open my eyes to a burgeoning alternative world. I turned away from most of it and back towards blues and other roots music before long, but the best Replacements music has stuck with me, because I think it transcends its time and genre, and that’s because Paul Westerberg wrote some really great songs.

I consider this 1996 interview with Westerberg something of a lost classic – lost even to me. I was very happy with it at the time, but sort of forgot about it and when I came back across it I was honestly taken aback by how good it is. I’m really pleased to have found it and to have the opportunity to share it again. And I’m proud to have been the one to get Westerberg to tell his secret – he always wanted to be a blues guitarist. I knew there was something different in his music.

Last spring, Paul Westerberg and Brendan O’Brien entered an Atlanta studio to record Westerberg’s second solo album. Some observors hoped that working with O’Brien, the über-producer who has worked with Stone Temple Pilots, Pearl Jam and the Black Crowes, might bring Westerberg the hit record which has always eluded him. Two weeks later, the former Replacements’ frontman was on a plane home to Minneapolis, with most of the tracks he and O’Brien had worked on left to gather dust.

“It just wasn’t shaping up to be as good a record as I knew it could be,” Westerberg says. “Sometimes you just have to know when to pack it in and try over.”

Once an iconoclast, always an iconoclast.

Westerberg enlisted Lou Giordano (Goo Goo Dolls, Sugar, Smithereens) to help him finish up. The result is Eventually (Reprise), the title apparently a reference to the three years that have elapsed since his solo debut, 14 Songs (Sire/Reprise). Despite the start and stop recording process, the album sounds spontaneous and fresh. Westerberg is again the sole guitarist, and the instrument comes more to the fore here, with a chiming 12-string on “These Are The Days,” careening fills on “Century,” layers of acoustics and electrics on “Love Untold” and a pretty, liquid-toned lead line on “Once Around The Weekend.”

Some of his rockers now sound formulaic—even he admits, of Eventually ‘s “You’ve Had It With You,” “I’ve written that same song about 15 times now.” But Westerberg’s touch with subtler fare remains deft, as evidenced by acoustic-based gems like “Hide N Seekin,” “Angels Walk,” “Time Flies Tomorrow” and “Good Day,” a moving tribute to Replacements guitarist Bob Stinson, whose 1995 death seemed sadly inevitable.

The strength of the new album’s mellower tunes isn’t really a departure for Westerberg. For, while the Replacements were known for their drunken antics and unpredictable live shows, what actually set them apart in the early-Eighties alternative scene was their knack for balancing careening rockers with Westerberg’s aching, vulnerable ballads. This yin and yang was fully realized on albums like Let It Be (Twin/Tone,1984), Tim (Sire, 1985) and Pleased To Meet Me (Sire, 1987), landmark albums which largely failed to find a larger audience.

But just because the band never became stars doesn’t mean they didn’t leave a mark. Their melding of punk aggression and pop hooks became a touchstone for legions of alternative bands. Kurt Cobain, for one, was a major acolyte, taking much of his frayed flannel vulnerability, as well as the pained, nicotine and vinegar singing, from Westerberg. (He also borrowed the title of Nirvana’s Geffen debut, “Nevermind,” from a Replacements song.) All of which has left Westerberg with a strange niche in the rock world, someone who skipped stardom on the way to becoming a legend. It seems to be enough for him.

“I don’t have anything to prove these days except that I can still make meaningful music,” Westerberg says. “I can’t get hung up about how they’re going to sell anymore. Whatever happens, I’ll just tour for a while, then record another one. That’s what I do.”

GUITAR WORLD: Did you start out intending to be a guitarist or a songwriter?
PAUL WESTERBERG: A guitarist. I spent years sitting in my room listening to stuff with hot guitar players, like Duane Allman or Mick Taylor, trying to learn riffs. I fancied myself a lead guitar player until I was 19. Then I realized I sucked and that being a lead player just wasn’t going to get me where I wanted to go.
GW: Did playing with Bob make you realize that quicker?
WESTERBERG: Not really. When the Replacements asked me to join, it was expressly to be the lead guitarist. Things developed as they did somewhat out of necessity. Bob couldn’t sing a lick and he couldn’t write a song. I knew where to steal from and looked kind of reasonable standing in front of a mic, and we took it from there. Bob became the lead guitarist simply because he could not sing. Nor could Tommy [Stinson, bassist and Bob’s brother], who was 13 and whose voice hadn’t even changed yet. I learned to do what I do because I had to. If I didn’t do it, they would have gotten someone else to do it…and I liked their sister. [laughs]
GW: So it was the Stinsons’ sister that drew you to them?
WESTERBERG: That was a big part of it. I definitely wouldn’t have come back a second time if it wasn’t for her.
GW: Did being a frontperson come naturally to you?
WESTERBERG: Hell, no. It still doesn’t. My knees shake before every performance. It didn’t come naturally at all. I was terrified. I commanded the basement for a long time before we ever confronted an audience. Then it was like starting over again—with people responding to your singing by throwing things at you.

Fear of performing was quickly exchanged for fear of the audience. We were thrust into the punk scene, where if you weren’t good and weren’t sure of yourself, you would literally be physically attacked. So we had to get good real fast. Our survival instinct took over.

GW: Actually, listening back to Sorry, Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash [Twin/Tone, 1981], I was struck by how tight you guys were on your very first album—much more so than the reputation indicates.
WESTERBERG: That stemmed from utter fear. We didn’t know what we were doing, and we were really scared of failure. We practiced really, really hard before recording the first album. We learned our parts and we learned complementary parts, and we made sure that everything meshed. It wasn’t until two or three albums later, after we had toured quite a bit, that we realized not everyone cares so much about notes, that your attitude and what you say and wear on stage is a big part of it too. As we learned to put on a show, the meticulousness of the songs and the playing tended to change—or suffer, depending on how you see it.
GW: Did the Replacements’ reputation for inspired drunken mayhem become a trap?
WESTERBERG: Of course it did, though we didn’t realize it at the time. We drank to give us courage and once we had courage we did zany things to make people remember us. And once they remembered us we started to write good songs and play better but it always seemed to be overshadowed by the zany things we did. We just couldn’t up the ante that last time. We didn’t know where to take it because we had created this albatross. That’s why the band broke up—there was nothing left to do.

GW: Why do you think critics liked the Replacements so much?
WESTERBERG: Because we never made it. If we had sold a million records, most of them would have abandoned us real fast. I know that they still like U2, but we didn’t have that kind of integrity or sophistication. We were just a good fuckin’ time. Then we started taking the whole thing seriously and that was the kiss of death.
GW: You guys were very different from the type of acts that a major label was used to working with in 1985. Do you feel that you were sort of put into a slum there?
WESTERBERG: To a certain extent, but to be fair, they did give us a chance with Pleased To Meet Me. But no one really spelled out what was required of us. A few years later bands like Guns N’ Roses promoted themselves on a major label with our style of behavior, but we were still of an era where misbehaving was not something that the label could tolerate or promote. I think they thought we were just pretending to be what we were and what we really wanted to do was sell a million records and live the good life. I think they were kind of shocked when they realized that we were what we were.
GW: Are you saying you didn’t want to sell a lot of records?
WESTERBERG: I’m saying we wanted to do what we were doing. If that sold a million records, wonderful. But they wanted us to change and toe the line and that tore us apart. Each individual band member went through this trauma: “Do we change what we do?” The problem deepened because we began to realize that our behavior had become old hat and we had to change, but we felt trapped that if we did change, it would look like we did it because the label told us to, and we’d lose credibility and everyone would say we sold out. We suffered a lot for that.
GW: That seems somewhat silly now, but at the time, many considered the mere act of signing with a major to be an act of treason.
WESTERBERG: You resent where you’re going because it means you have to leave where you came from behind. I’ve often wondered how our music would have been effected had we never signed to a major label, and I really think it would have gotten slicker quicker. I think if anything we tried to keep it as rough as possible for as long as possible because we felt somehow dishonored by being on a major label. I mean, we always loved pure pop music. We would have made that kind of music from day one, had we been capable of it
GW: Did Bob love that stuff, also?
WESTERBERG: Oh sure. You shouldn’t confuse what Bob liked with what he was capable of playing as a guitarist. He was great at playing one style, but he loved lots of other music.
GW: Were your ballads immediately accepted by the others?
WESTERBERG: Rarely was there a song that we all thought was great. There was tension pretty much every day over everything. [laughs] And, yes, as a rule, Bob preferred the high voltage stuff but I knew that sticking to that was going to lead us to a quick end, because we weren’t the best at it. Black Flag, Hüsker Dü and Minor Threat were our contemporaries, whether we wanted them or not, and they did that better than us. There was also R.E.M. I think it was very good for us to see a band that could retain their credibility while playing softer music, but we were more often slugging it out in clubs with genuinely scary rock bands, not writing pretty songs to compare to R.E.M.
GW: There was a time when you and R.E.M. were on equal footing, the two great hopes of bringing underground music aboveground. Have you reflected on that much?
WESTERBERG: Of course. I’ve had to mention them in every interview I’ve done since 1981. The problem is, they don’t have to mention us anymore. You’d think I would learn my lesson and never mention their name again. They simply don’t have to acknowledge us anymore. They won.

GW: Why have you not used another guitarist on either of your solo albums?
WESTERBERG: I never think that my songs need guitar embellishment. I tend to think of them as simple tunes which can pretty much be carried by the chord structure and vocal melody. If your interest is maintained by a little guitar or horn flavor, great, but I don’t really think that my songwriting generally calls for flashy guitar work. And if it’s not flashy, I can handle it.
GW: You use different tones to create a full guitar sound yourself. Do you utilize different amps to do that?
WESTERBERG: No. Years of performing have taught me to control things from the axe. I’ll just roll off the high end or play with the volume at two or three. I’m not an effects person and I don’t have an arsenal of amps at my disposal, but I am picky about my sound. I don’t like sustain and I don’t like a lot of compression. I prefer a sound that’s right in between dirty and clean and doesn’t have that 10-second sustain when you hit one chord. I’m pretty much lost when the tone gets over-saturated and there’s no distinguishing between one chord and the next. You need to be able to hear me change chords. But I just keep it simple—amp, guitar. Besides, I hate music stores—I never go into them.
GW: Why do you hate music stores so much?
WESTERBERG: They’re just jam packed with guys who don’t have it, guys who spend their lives learning how to play the instrument but don’t have anything that people want: no personality or life about them. I see a lot of bitterness in music stores and I always have. I remember trying to buy a saxophone at the band instrument store and even that place had a total loser vibe. The guy picks up the horn and blows this Coltrane-esque run with me, who can’t play at all, looking for help and getting really pissed. I was like, “Fuck you. I’ll go find one at a garage sale and teach myself.” And I did.
GW: Eventually sounds very organic and relatively raw, so why did it take you three years to record?
WESTERBERG: Most of the songs are essentially live—my parts and the main rhythm parts are live takes. That’s the case for “These Are The Days,” “Once Around The Weekend,” “Trumpet Clip,” “Love Untold” and probably a few others. But sometimes it takes a long time to get a really good first take.
GW: You began to record the album last spring in Atlanta with Brendan O’Brien, then pulled out after a few weeks and only three songs from those sessions ended up on the album. What happened?
WESTERBERG: When you don’t spend a lot of time overdubbing, what you’re really going for is a performance and sometimes you’ve just got to admit, “Hey, I’ve got the wrong mix of people. Maybe I should write some new songs and try it again in six months with someone else.” That’s just what needed to happen. It would not have been as good a record had I finished it all in Atlanta.
GW: Are there any specific songs that benefited from the change?
WESTERBERG: The prime example is “These Are The Days.” Brendan really wanted that song to be a ballad and I felt it had to be rerecorded with more of an uplifting lilt, and I think the results prove I was right. But, look, the sessions with Brendan weren’t a disaster by any means: “Love Untold” is the first single and whatever it took, we got one magic, live take. We thought we were going to make a great record, but it didn’t work out that way. We ended up with one great song and two really good songs. That’s not a bad two weeks.

The producer’s role is at times an unenviable one. If things aren’t going well, he has to make suggestions, but he doesn’t know what’s deep in me. He saw something that wasn’t working and he tried to make it work, but I knew that direction we were taking it was not right.
GW: And I suppose that one of your reasons for going solo was to be able to do things your way without having to run it by other people.
WESTERBERG: [pauses] That’s very astute of you. Sometimes I really miss not having a band because if a song needs tension, it’s hard to provide it by yourself. But I willingly give that up in order to be the final vote on everything I do because I think I know what the feel should be—and I’m the one who has to live with it forever.
GW: This may sound strange, but “Time Flies Tomorrow” has sort of an Allman Brothers vibe.
WESTERBERG: It’s not strange. You’re probably thinking of “Melissa.” I didn’t dodge it sounding like something else, but I thought it was more reminiscent of [The Rolling Stones’] “Moonlight Mile.” I think some of the best songs sound instantly familiar. When you choose to work in the arena of simple chords, what you are basically saying is, “This is a I-IV change. You’ve heard it in a million pop songs, but I’m going to give it to you again with my own lyrics.”
GW: You use several bassists on the album, including yourself. How do you decide when to bring someone in and when to play it yourself?
WESTERBERG: Every once in a while, I want an aggressive bass part, and I can’t do that, but if it’s a loping, folk-pop thing I’ll just do it. A lot of bass players frown on that style, but sometimes you’re better off when you don’t know a lot, and I only play the root note. To me, rock and roll is drums, rhythm guitar and vocals. Lead guitar and bass are almost superfluous if the drummer is great and the rhythm is tight. I’ll usually cut live with the drummer and if there’s a bass player there, I’ll have him take a crack at it. When I listen back, if the drums aren’t doing it for me, I usually blame the bassline and redo it, simplified, myself. The bass playing that I like is minimal, ever-so-slightly behind the beat, and played with the kick drum.
GW: Do you still consider yourself a punk at all?
WESTERBERG: Was I ever or will I ever not be? Somewhere in between lies the answer. I am a musician and an artist, which is something I couldn’t have said back then ’cause we would have been laughed at. We were anti-artists. We were punk rockers, but I think the connotations the word has these days are very predictable and silly. I would be more happy to say I’m a well-rounded adult. That’s much more dangerous than being a punk these days.
GW: Who were your primary guitar influences?
WESTERBERG: The usual suspects from the school of crash and burn guitar playing: Keith Richards, Johnny Ramone and Johnny Thunders. Everything sort of comes from those three, at least in terms of rhythm. Lead-wise I listened to a good deal of blues, anyone from Albert and B.B. King and Eric Clapton to Mick Taylor and Mick Ronson. Plus Neil Young—and Bob, who influenced me a lot.
GW: That may cover the hard rocking stuff, but there is another, very different side to your music as well—the ballads. Who were some of your main songwriting influences in that regard?
WESTERBERG: There’s someone I always think of, but hesitate to say and I’ll just say it: Burt Bacharach [composer of such pop hits as “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” and “Do You Know The Way to San Jose”]. My ear has always been pulled to piano chords, which I think is largely what set the Replacements apart; we were a garage band playing at extreme volume, yet I was playing things like sixths and major seventh chords, which immediately made people say, “Well, that’s the Beatles.” Yes, the Beatles used those chords, but so did every other pop songwriter. Top 40 pop radio of my youth was my songwriting guide.
GW: Were you scared to sing ballads when you first started writing them?
WESTERBERG: Yes. And to this day I’m never charged with courage when I write them and, especially, when I present them to the first person. I’m always a little sweaty palmed. I have learned that the ones I am most afraid for anyone to hear are usually the ones that will strike a chord with people. But the fear is real and true—those are also the ones someone will laugh at. You just can’t be afraid of sounding wimpy or of someone pointing a finger and laughing at you.
GW: Your songs tend to be very personal. Have you ever written a song that was just too personal to record?
WESTERBERG: Too shit! [laughs] “Too personal” could be a euphemism for too whiny, too maudlin or too self-centered. I think I’ve reached the point where I know when I cross the line into masturbation.
GW: Why have you never included lyric sheets on an album?
WESTERBERG: Two reasons: growing up, my favorite records never had the words in them, and whenever I see lyrics written out, I always think that a good song doesn’t necessarily make for good poetry. It’s the marriage of melody, lyrics and rhythm that makes a song. And that’s what I do. I don’t write poems.
GW: Do you hear your influence in other bands often?
WESTERBERG: Not often enough. I hear my influence in a whole lot of people who profess to never have heard us, which bothers me a little. It’s fine when people acknowledge where they got it. You’re welcome to anything—borrow, lift, steal it all, as long as you admit it, because I’ve always been honest about where I took things, whether it be Eric Carmen or Hüsker Dü.
GW: The Goo Goo Dolls have always sounded a lot like the Replacements and they had a hit with “Name,” which sounds like one of your outtakes.
WESTERBERG: What can I say? For seven years John Reznick had to talk about me. Now I have to talk about him. The Goo Goo Dolls obviously fall into the category of a band that listened a lot to the Replacements, learned from us and took from us, but have made no bones about it. So they have my blessing.
GW: Have you heard Wilco or Son Volt?
WESTERBERG: Ugh. No comment. I’m always mystified when I hear my own voice on the radio. I never know who it is and it’s really weird when I realize, “Oh my God, this is me.” Well, I’ve thought I heard myself a few times when it’s been them, and that makes me very uncomfortable. They’ll swear up and down that I’m full of shit and they never listened to us. I guess we listened to the same people growing up then.
GW: Legend has it that the Replacements stole your masters from the Twin/Tone offices and threw them into the mighty Mississippi. Is that true?
WESTERBERG: As many as we could carry. [laughs]. I think we took about five reels, and I don’t even know what they were. We thought we were taking outtakes, which we were convinced they were going to release because we had signed with Sire. We didn’t think it was fair for our outtakes to become a record.
GW: Another Replacements legend is that your first gig was at an alcoholic halfway-house. Is that apocryphal?
WESTERBERG: No. That was our first performance, though we didn’t play a note. We were physically ejected from the building for being drunk. All of this stuff that sounds like a bold-faced lie is the truth. The only myth I’ve ever heard was the thing about the vomit dripping off the ceiling in Memphis while we were recording Pleased To Meet Me. Someone made that up.
GW: Has your opinion on videos changed at all since you attacked them in “Seen Your Video” [Let It Be, Twin/Tone, 1984]?
WESTERBERG: I thought I was waving a flag saying, “This is real rock and roll and that isn’t.” I was probably masking my fear of the medium. I no longer fear making a video, but I honestly don’t like them. I never have and I never will. I like film and I understand that a filmmaker has a right to interpret and fulfill his vision, but not on my song. I have given the lyrics all the visual that is necessary. I want people to think of the time they met their girlfriend to this song, or had a fight, or went for a ride, not some guy with no teeth, and a midget dancing with a hot babe.
GW: Do you write on an acoustic?
WESTERBERG: I used to. More and more, I’m writing on piano, then adapting it to acoustic. The melodies are born on piano, then I just play the simpler, nut-position chords on the guitar. The piano helps me sing melodies that I wouldn’t come up with over a G and D chord. I hum up the melodies and adapt them to my basic three chords.
Of course, the rockers, like “You’ve Had It With You” I write on electric guitar. I just tune to an open chord and bang out the riff.
GW: You guys were always associated with Hüsker Dü, but did you ever identify with Prince as a local guy?
WESTERBERG: Sure. We experienced the same weather and a lot of the same things growing up. Minneapolis audiences are mighty reserved, and learning to command an audience in a place where people are notorious for being quiet will either make you a wallflower, quiet artist, or it will make you really boisterous, aggressive or flamboyant, which is what it did for both of us. I really think a lot of his flamboyance came from the suppression of the place that we live. It’s a cold place to live in more ways than one.

GW: A lot of people thought “World Class Fad” [14 Songs] was about Kurt Cobain.
WESTERBERG: I know for a fact that he did. I feel bad that he died, if that’s what you want to know. I feel real bad, because he was a major talent. But more than that, I feel happy that he was born and that he heard the shit that he did.
GW: Did you recognize things in his life and think that his path is one that you or someone on the Replacements could have followed?
WESTERBERG: Yeah. I think the eventual death of Bob illustrates that perfectly. That could have and probably would have happened a lot sooner if we had had a lot of success and become really popular before we developed any semblance of maturity. And he might not have been alone, either. Let’s leave it at that, please. We knew that what happened to Bob was gonna happen one day, which didn’t make it any less shocking or tragic.
GW: What do you think is your greatest strength as a guitarist?
WESTERBERG: My understanding of yet inability to play the blues. I approach my rock and roll or pop music the way someone else would approach blues. I try to keep it as bare, simple and real to life as possible. Because my true desire, my dream in life—which I have never before revealed—is to be the greatest blues guitar player in the world. There, I said it.
GW: I think your description of what you try to do on the guitar could apply to your songwriting as well.
WESTERBERG: Absolutely. A lot of people wouldn’t understand that. They’d say, “But you use more chords and sing songs that sound like the Monkees. That’s not the blues.” Well, that’s like saying the blues always have to be about waking up this morning and feeling bad. That’s not what makes for great blues. It’s the honesty is what it is.
And there’s another thing to be learned from the blues: once you realize that playing guitar is mainly about what kind of shirt and shoes you’re wearing, it all falls into place.

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