This interview was posted on the PW section of the Vagrant website in 2002.
About Paul Westerberg
Like the groundhog looking for its shadow, like Dracula coming out of his grave, rock and rolls legendary semi-recluse, Paul Westerberg, is sticking his head up from hibernation in the hinterlands to release two albums on Vagrant Records on April 23, 2002. Both records were recorded at home in Minnesota by Paul in the best Prince “I’m playing it all myself” tradition. Stereo is filled with the sort of open-hearted ballads and late-night introspection that has made Westerberg one of the most influential songwriters of his generation. Mono, credited to his nom-de-rock Grandpaboy, is the type of balls-out rock n’ roll that made his former band the Replacements revered — out of all proportion to their record sales.
Cornered in his cellar studio while his young son was taking a nap, Westerberg explained why he was releasing two CDs at once.
“I’ve been hanging out at home for three years,” he said. “As time passed I wrote more and more different kinds of songs and then the idea was to split them up. Do what I’ve never done, go back to the days of the LP and have rock and roll side and another side. I had to fight to get two individual discs. I want you to be able to put on this disc if you’re in this mood and that disc if you’re in that mood. It’s just the luxury of having what I think are so many good songs. All recorded down here in the basement. Most of them were cut one thing at a time, live, one take. I’m a fan of that school. Fuck. I’m the head of the class. Jerry Lee is the professor. If you mean it, you do it once.”
Asked about his low profile in the three and a half years since he became a dad, Westerberg said he saw no practical downside to being out of the public eye. “I started to see Mick Jagger promoting his record in mid-October,” he explained. “I saw him five or six times on national TV, prime time. He did everything by the book, classic show biz event strategy. What did the thing sell? About fifteen copies? I’m no longer a believer that you have to do it that way. I think my way works just as well. I think there is as much interest in me now, just by not doing anything, as there would be if I were ramming it down people’s throats.”
Westerberg appreciates that the fact that he’s made no public appearances and done no interviews has not interfered with his fans believing he has.
“I have people calling saying that they saw me perform at such and such and I was wearing a certain suit,” he said. “Total rubbish! I haven’t left the house since the last century. It’s not like I’ve been itching to do a tour, but I stay at home because I want to be mysterious. I mean, I’m sick of it. I did it. I always claimed I’d stop when it wasn’t fun and one day, bang zoom, it wasn’t any fun. I stopped.”
Asked if he will tour to support Stereo and Mono, Westerberg said, “I’ll have to check my notes on that one: ‘As soon as I get this blood out of my drugstream.’ That’s my stock answer.”
He’s quick to deflate his own myth. “I actually had the balls to watch a video of the Mats from fifteen years ago that I’d never looked at,” he said. “First of all, I’ve got to say, ‘God, I was good-looking,’ and second, ‘When I thought we were really smoking, we SUCKED.’ So one illusion was shattered.”
Even if that’s true (and all Replacements fans know that the band could be as great one night as they were dire another), there’s no disputing that the two tours Westerberg did after the Replacements ended are still talked about lovingly by those who saw them.
“Well, I feel like I paid my debt,” Westerberg said. “I feel like I had my fun with the Replacements and then I had to go out and sort of pay back the people who might have seen one of those legendary Mats shows but didn’t hear an actual song. So I did two tours where I went out and played the best songs I’d written as good as I could. I then felt like it was even-Steven and that was it.”
Let’s try this on: Paul Westerberg is like Clint Eastwood’s character in “Unforgiven” – the notorious gunfighter who has changed his evil ways and settled down to raise a family, afraid that if he ever takes one step back toward his old life – if he straps on a pistol, steps in a saloon, takes a sip of whiskey – he will be sucked right back into a life of sin and corruption.
“There’s a little bit of truth to that,” he said. “I actually wrote out the words to Hank Williams, ‘Lost Highway’ last night. The whole life of sin seems like a million years ago? but it’s still waiting. It’s a monster, a deadly beast waiting out there for me. The word ‘tour’ scares me. Will I perform? That scares me. But I think this one calls for it. If it wasn’t for the rock and roll stuff you’d have a harder time getting me out there with just an acoustic guitar by myself. I’ve never been a fan of that.”
In the second half of 2001, rumors flew through the music business that the Replacements were reuniting. Westerberg admitted it was almost true – he and Mats partner Tommy Stinson (now of Guns N Roses) recently came close to doing a guerilla tour of the frozen Midwest, completing the dates left over when Buddy Holly’s plane crashed on February 3, 1959.
“I had this wild idea,” Westerberg said. “We would release the Grandpa Boy record on February third and retrace the twelve dates the Crickets were forced to maintain after the death of Ritchie Valens, the Big Bopper and Buddy Holly. The promoters didn’t blow the tour off – they actually made them play! I suggested this when the guy who used to be our road manager was at our front door. And within a half an hour phone calls were going, we had the promoters, I had Tommy on the phone and he said he’d do it. Grandpa Boy was going to rise from the grave to avenge Buddy Holly’s death, starting in Moorehead, Minnesota, February 3rd. They were gonna rush release the record. Then I got a call from Tommy three days later saying he couldn’t do it. I guess Mr. W. Axl Rose needed his presence out west. So I pulled the plug.”
Westerberg’s willingness to reunite with Stinson and go careening though the Big Bopper’s final itinerary says a lot about the anarchic spirit that animated all his best songs, from the Mats to today.
“The part of me that wanted to throw that last minute, Grandpa Boy/Buddy Holly thing together is exactly what I was to the Replacements,” he said. “That’s the same spirit that was intact the day I met those guys. It wasn’t so much as a performer as it was a troublemaker with wild ideas. Fortunately for me, I had henchmen to egg me on. Tommy, more than anyone I ever met, really played that role. He would take on of my wild ideas and push me and run with it. That’s why this thing almost worked with him. As soon as he was out it wouldn’t have been fun.”
Which is key to Westerberg’s attitude: “Let’s have fun, let’s do things differently, let’s break the rules. I’m doing that with Grandpa Boy. It?s not correct. It’s confusing. It’ll probably hurt me in sales and confuse the public and whatever. But it gives me a thrill.”
Westerberg concedes that his new CDs are coming out on the indie Vagrant because he was fed up with the major label circus. In the mid-nineties he worked hard to get out of his long-term contract with Warner Brothers so he could accept an offer on a fresh start at Capitol Records with new president Gary Gersh. On the day he finished his Capitol debut, he got word Gersh had left the label.
“That did take a lot out of me,” Westerberg said. “It wasn’t that I thought I was being mistreated at Warners. I just knew I’d worn out my welcome and a fresh start would be good for me. Literally, the day my record was mastered I got a call from Gary Gersh saying he was no longer with the company. As soon as the record was done, he was gone. Gary had encouraged me to make a non-commercial record. Suddenly the new people are saying, ‘Hey, there’s no single!? Well, that was the plan, wasn’t it? I’m dead sick of auditioning my songs for people to say if they’re good enough to release. There’s a time that I would just do what my gut tells me. When it’s done it’s done, and I’m not going to change a note.’
While he has been out of the spotlight, Westeberg’s influence has grown. From Soul Asylum and the Goo Goo Dolls to Wilco and Ryan Adams, he has gotten into the DNA of rock and roll. The British magazine Select recently cited the Replacements “All Shook Down” as a seminal influence on the Alt-Country genre. All of which got a reaction from Westerberg, typical of a man who never wanted to belong to any club that would have him as a member.
“It’s driven me back to the basement!” Westerberg snapped. “I turn on the radio and I hear something that sounds vaguely reminiscent of me and I think, ‘That’s not how it goes, you dumb fuck! THIS is how it should go!? I heard myself in so many different forms that I was not sure if I’d gone crazy or not. Before I started making records nobody sounded like me. Now I hear myself in everything. Am I nuts or is it true? My ego can’t accept it, so it makes me paranoid, like I’m crazy. Like, ‘It can’t be! I’m nuts.’ But when I see the haircuts and I see the way they’re standing – then I want to kick their teeth down their throats. I mean that. There is a part of me that wants to be Chuck Berry at the airport if you know what I mean. That’s the same part of me that put that little garage band together 20 years ago. That part of me will never go away.”
Westerberg calmed down, turned philosophical, and said, “But you know, Johnny Thunders never hit me.” Then he smiled. “He had the chance. He missed.”
Westerberg was fired up now. The Unforgiven had smelled gunsmoke. Daddy Paul was receding and Grandpa Boy was coming out.
“I almost got my teeth fixed,” he suddenly declared. “I always told myself that when I was done, when I hung up my rock n’ roll shoes, I would get my teeth fixed so I’d look like a regular human being. I was almost to the point where I was gonna have it done and something wouldn’t let me. I’ve got to keep my rock n’ roll teeth until they fall out of my head. I need ’em. I can’t gloss ’em over.”
Which pretty much sums up where Paul Westerberg finds himself in 2002: Clint Eastwood strapping on his six-gun. Doctor Jeckyll cooking up a cocktail in his basement lab.
“I’m not lost in a little fog here. I kind of know what I’m doing. I’m gonna go back and do what I started out doing in the beginning with a little less energy but a lot more knowledge.”
“I’m proud of this new record. Don?t say it’s anything fresh or new. It’s not. It?s not going to get stale, it’s not the pick of the week. It’s not rock and roll. You can hear the very first record I ever played and you can hear this one and you?ll hear a lot of similarities. I am what I am goddammit.”
Westerberg smiles with his crooked rock and roll teeth and explaines, “Let’s face it, if I was filthy rich I wouldn’t be talkin’ to you.