Paul Westerberg: Interview by Mark Brown 1996This is complete version of an interviw Mark Brown did with Paul - it originally appeared in a shortnened version in the Orange County Register and has never appeared elsewhere in its entirety. Thanks to Mark for providing this full version:
Paul Westerberg, interviewed July 15, 1996 via phone from his home in Minneapolis, where he was coordinating the next leg of his tour and planning to perform "Love Untold'' on the July 18 David Letterman show. He'd just lost his drummer and was looking for a replacement as he mapped out the West Coast leg of his "Eventually'' tour.Would there be a problem finding the right musician?.
"It's never a problem. Musical chairs. As we speak, I believe Brian McLeod is going to take over as drummer. When I come out West, I think McLeod will be there. I'm not sure about everyone else,'' he said with a laugh. After a bit more small talk, the interview quickly got underway. I have to admit I was a bit leery after hearing reports (and reading stories) that he could be a jerk. Instead, he was funny, candid, relaxed and very straight-forward - like his best songs.
Q: How's the tour going? You had to quit the last one early because of a back injury, correct?
A: "Yeah. It was late in the tour for me. We'd gone all summer long. The problem was we underplayed every city. I hurt my back pretty bad in Missouri to the point where I couldn't literally walk. Dave had to carry me to the bathroom. It took me about a week in a Holiday Inn in Columbia, Missouri before I could go home.''
Q: If you gotta be somewhere, it might as well be the Holiday Inn in Columbia, Missouri.
A: "You know, it made me thankful (laughs).''
Q: I'll bet. How is it now?
A: "It's there for life, but I know how to take care of it. I'd been up for a couple nights straight. I never used to stretch. So I've learned some stretching techniques and whatnot. It gets stiff from the years of pounding my left leg like that (on stage). Something just came out of whack. You always pay for it. I saw about five different doctors and each one would ask me if I'd ever taken a fall (laughs). Yeah, maybe every night for the past 20 years.''
Q: How's the album doing? "Love Untold'' is all over the radio out here in L.A.
A: "Same thing here. They're playing it on the radio everywhere I go. I'm hearing it on the radio. I don't know if that's turned over into big booming sales yet, but it's kinda early in the campaign. Last time it was this much (airplay) it was 'Don't Tell a Soul' with 'I'll Be You.' And this is more than that, so I'm happy. Things are happening slowly, but it's happening.''
Q: The media reports made it sound like the whole session with Brendan O'Brien was a waste, but I see several tracks on the album date from those sessions.
A: "There was good stuff that came from those sessions, definitely. We didn't have a full album's worth in my mind. What we had was four or five great tracks, 'Love Untold' being one of them. Also 'Stain Yer Blood' came from down there.''
Q: So what happened?
A: "I hadn't finished writing some of the songs. I hadn't written 'Good Day' or 'Mamadaddy Did.' And he was pressed for time. I couldn't quite explain to him that I needed to go home and give birth to a couple more tunes. I did that, he moved on with another project and I just figured I'd carry on without him. I hired a good engineer in his place. Lou Gerdano was the super engineer/co-producer. If it was up to me I'd have had it produced by no one, but they'd have taken offense to that. I don't know what to tell you. I guess I had more of a hand in this one than I ever did.''
Q: So was the album mainly made up of new tunes? Old tunes?
A: "A bit of both. "These are the Days' had kinda been in the writing process for five or six years. 'Mamadaddy Did' and 'Time Flies' were just knocked out at the end of the record. 'Love Untold' was written in 20 minutes. So it ran the entire gamut of things being instantaneous and years in the making.''
Q: "Is it true that 'World Class Fad' off of '14 Songs' was written pretty much as you were recording it?
A: "Yep. It's true. I didn't just sit there and, like, recite that as poetry. I do have a book of lyrics and phrases and lines. We knocked out that rhythm and chords and I had the chorus. I went through three or four pages and figured I'd use this line, this and this and this.''
Q: Is that unusual for you? Do songs come wholly formed like that?
A: "It never comes as pure inspiration. But actually, 'Love Untold' did. So I shouldn't say never. That was just written from the first word to the last."
Q: That seems unusual because it's a very linear storyline for you. Some of your stuff over the years like "Skyway'' has a very linear storyline, but other stuff like "I'll Be You'' doesn't.
A: "For whatever it's worth, 'I'll Be You' is one that I don't play anymore and I betcha 'Love Untold' is one I'd be willing to play in 10 years.''
Q: Why is that?
A: "You can make songs too confusing for people. Sometimes you try to fool yourself into 'What am I trying to say?' I have no idea what 'I'll Be You' is trying to say. I don't know. I think it was an inside joke between me and Slim somehow. It was catchy, but I could never remember the words. That's a bad sign.''
Q: So are there any other songs you just can't play anymore?
A: "I'm almost hesitant to say 'You're not going to hear X, Y or Z' because sure as hell those will be the ones they'll yell out if they read that. But if we don't tell them, they won't ask for them (laughs). There are a couple of those that I think belong to the Replacements and belong to that point in time when we were foolish young men that I just can't bring with me anymore. 'Unsatisfied' and 'Bastards of Young' being two of them that I think stand as classic with that band back then that I just couldn't do anymore. We're doing 'They're Blind' which is one that I've never done live. Somebody requested 'Nobody' the other night. We took a blind stab at that and it actually didn't sound bad. We're winging it to a certain extent.''
Q: You're still doing things that most musicians wouldn't. Your voice breaks about a minute into "Love Untold,'' yet you left it on the album.
A: "If anything, that's almost my signature. If that had been take 20 and take 19 had been perfect, we wouldn't have gone to it. But whatever one, once you're done, just has that feeling - I mean, there were goosebumps on that take. It was never even suggested to me that we go in and fix something. I think that was take 10. That was when we first came into the studio. I introduced Josh to Brendan, Brendan played bass, and we said let's just get warmed up. I said 'Here's how this song goes.' The first three or four times they were learning it and getting the mikes right. So it was 10 times in a row. It took about a half hour and we stopped after that one.''
Q: Do you plan out your vocal phrasing? There's those pauses between "If'' and "it's a temporary lull'' on "I'll Be You,'' and that long gap of silence in "Hidin' and Seekin''' that are just perfect.
A: "The enormous one in 'Hidin' and Seekin' was me not knowing the next line. Absolutely. You can hear me tapping my foot and searching for the next line. I did remember it after a while. I figured I'd just wait until the beat came around again. It's funny how accidents sometimes sound the best. You couldn't plan that. If we'd planned a 16-bar pause, somebody would have blown it. Only when it's an accident does it really work well. It was me alone, too, which was easier. Josh overdubbed bass. I recorded that with the engineer, no one in the studio, in the afternoon on a rainy day. It was a very intimate moment there.''
Q: Was it a bunch of songs to pick from to sculpt down into this album? Are you as prolific as everyone thinks you are?
A: "Yeah. I've got a million of them. How great they are is debatable. I'm probably my own worst critic. It's easy for me. I could write three songs this afternoon, but I'm the first to tell you they're not great. I had plenty of songs. These were the best ones. I have one or two more that didn't make it that I think are great. But I didn't wanna burden the listener. I don't like when a record drags on over 45 or 50 minutes. To me, it's too damn long. I do have one or two that are of "A" quality.''
Q: Will they pop up as B-sides, then?
A: "I would hope. AT this point I'm still concerned about what's the next single, that rigamarole. There's maybe two more really good songs and a couple fun ones, a couple just rockers that were at one point leading the record till I felt maybe they weren't my strongest material. They gave way to things like 'Mamadaddy Did'' and 'Hidin' and Seekin''. Something with a lyric like that is timeless. Whereas we had one called 'Come On Little Bitch,' this tongue-in-cheek, like a politically incorrect Faces song. It was funny and it really rocked, all the guys dug it - but I thought 'Man, I don't know.'''
Q: One or two songs can change the whole tone of the album.
A: "It's really true. More than any record I've done, I concentrated more on the flow - the beginning, middle and end of the record -- this time.''
Q: It's interesting that "Mamadaddy Did'' was one of the last songs, because it kinda struck me as part of the core of the album. That combined with "Hidin' and Seekin''' those two songs back to back, are what made me sit up and go "Wow,'' then go back and listen to the record from the start again.
A: "It's kinda fun once you get nine or 10 that are hanging together real well. You tend to know then what your next song to write is. There was never any thought in my mind that I needed a loud, weird song. It's like this is the kinda the groove, tempo and feeling of the record. A lot of it was written on the 12-string guitar, too, which gives it that quality. That and piano. ''
Q: Everyone looks at your work for autobiographical details, whether it's ``Things'' off of 14 songs or ``Mamadaddy Did'' off of Eventually. Yet you seem real private. Is there much autobiography in your work?
A: "Absolutely. Every single song is about me. I was watching this thing the other night with Elvis Costello on 'Storytellers' and he summed it up: Just because it starts with you and your red dress or whatever doesn't mean the next verse is about you. The same holds for me. They all come from my experiences - I am the seed to every one of these tunes -- but I can embellish, even fictionalize them to make the tune complete or reach a broader audience. 'Love Untold' is a perfect example. Hell yes I'm in there. I'm not gonna name names. But there's a story there too.''
Q: "Ain't Got Me'' sounds like you're tired of everyone in the record industry taking a piece of you.
A: "There you go! You're the first one to get that. You'd be amazed at the people who thought that was me ranting about high school.''
Q: How do you look back now on "14 Songs,'' with it being your first official solo album?
A: "I'm probably the only one in the world who doesn't see it that way. To me it was my 10th or 9th or whatever the fuck record it was. It was a good one. Funny, I'm not playing as many from it as last time. You play half of your new record then spread the rest over your catalog. I'm doing one or two (songs from it on tour). I'm doing 'Black-eyed Susan,' which I didn't do last time and everyone wanted -- the most homemade, little tiny song on the record, is the one I sorta brought to life this time and people are diggin' it in a major way. The rest, you can kinda run them into the ground. It's just too hard to go up there. I really couldn't play 'First Glimmer' cuz I played it 150 times in a row. Even though that was three years ago, I'm like, oh man, I'll let it rest for seven or eight years.''
Q: You don't seem to have any fear of near-cheesy riffs such as "Century" or doing things like "Daydream Believer." So many critics and musicians are so serious and don't have fun with music.
A: "It's not worth doing if it isn't fun. The pretension in rock 'n' roll is amazing, how people think that it's actually important what they're doing. Any guy who plays the guitar and thinks he's important is a moron. It's a hoot. It's a privilege. And if you make money, you're lucky. I look at it from an entertainment standpoint. When I write music it's different; but when I'm performing, I have to really enjoy it first to qualify being out there. I give them what they want, to an extent, as long as I want it too.''
Q: Some of your best stuff doesn't make it on your solo records, with the cover of "Sunshine'' and your own "Stain Yer Blood'' going on the "Friends'' soundtrack. They got ignored, and they're good songs.
A: "Yeah, they did. (laughs). The other alternative is have one of those good songs that just doesn't make it on ANY record. Back in the days when you could release a single every three months, I would have been in heaven. That's the reason I gave them 'Stain Yer Blood.' I knew the record would be six months late. Here's one for the fans. It was one we recorded that afternoon. It was our favorite and we said 'Hell, let's give them our best one. Let's not give them a piece of crap.' Now 'A Star is Bored', that one went unheard by everyone. That was on the "Melrose Place'' thing. Lyrically, that's like - well, check it out. It's really good. I'm the one who wrote all these and everyone has their favorites, but that one is not bad at all. I never played it - I just knocked it out at home. I gave it to Nanci Griffith for her to record, and she didn't want it (laughs). I can't blame her.''
Q: You mentioned Elvis Costello earlier. I read something lately that compared you to him and Bob Mould…
A: "What a bunch of bores, huh? (laughs)''
Q: … as guys so far ahead of the curve that they're highly influential, yet you're the ones who don't cash in on it in a big way. Do you see yourself being just a little too far ahead of the curve?
A: "I guess I don't think too heavily about it. I don't feel like I'm done. If we were talking about this and I was writing my memoirs and this is where my career ended, I think I'd allow a little bitterness to sneak in. But I really don't feel like I'm done. The way I'm feeling now, I could do this for a long, long time. Ask me in three weeks - I'll be tired by then. I think I'm having a lot more fun than Bob is. Bob, God love him, is a serious guy and he writes some serious tunes. I think you gotta sorta lighten up sometimes if you wanna make this your life's work. That's just me speaking; maybe he'd tell me to go to hell. And Elvis, HE ain't done. It's like anyone to assume that McCartney will never write another hit song. Sure as hell he will! Five or ten years, maybe it'll come via some avenue of a children's tune or whatever, but a great writer like that….even Prince. Your career goes up and down. It's a rollercoaster. Sometimes it takes five, 10 years. Sinatra was down 10 years and then had the biggest hits of his career.''
Q: You've never done much collaborating - a song with the Goo Goo Dolls, the Joan Jett duet, but not a whole lot more than that. I was wondering if a Tom Petty collaboration might come after you and him did that secret gig in Denver after the Petty/Replacements show there.
A: "That was fun! Petty was really digging that. I don't think he's had many chances to go play a tiny little joint like that.''
Q: I missed it - after the main concert I just went home. I thought the show was over.
A: "Hey, so did we! We thought we were going home and they pulled up to a bar and voila. But I guess I never really have (collaborated). I've never sought it out. I've had people ask me before, but I've never been interested. I know your next question: Who would I write with? There's not anyone that I'm waiting to give me a call. I saw Michael Penn in a hotel the other day in Atlanta. I've always been a fan of his writing and he also of mine. But sometimes two like-minded people find it tough to write together. You need a ying and a yang. So I guess I'll find myself a highly intelligent person to write with.''
Q: Why do you suppose it's so hard for fans to let the Replacements go? Did you ever feel that way about the Beatles or any other band? Can you empathize with what they feel?
A: "Sure, I can usnerstand it. It comes from two camps. The one that missed it and got it secondhand from the big brothers and sisters. The lore and the legend builds when the band is no longer around. Like the New York Dolls. God forbid they had stayed together and we'd have seen how crummy they actually were. But they're legendary because nobody got to see them. The other camp is the one that was there in the beginning and just can't relinquish their youth. And they don't wanna be pushing 40 and they wanna consider themselves youthful or whatever. They see me wearing a tie because I feel like it and they reject it because it's the guy who used to wear a lot of mascara and kick over amps - and he's growing up. They don't want it. I can understand it.''
Q: You seem to be very comfortable with maturing. Lots of people talk about growing older gracefully, but you seem to be doing it. You're not writing the songs you wrote when you were 23.
A: "I still write 'em. I just don't put them on the record anymore. That's the difference. Somebody force me to put on "Had It With You'' and I thought 'What the hell.' I still write dumb, cheesy, embarrassing music. I'm not awed by a lot of that early stuff, like the first couple of records. I'm not going to put it down because I know people still love that. But I listen to that and I cringe. To me it's like, jeez, why would anyone want me to sound like that?''
Q: On the other hand, is there old stuff you listen to and think "God, I really hit it on the head''?
A: "Oh yeah! Sure. 'If You're Only Lonely' and even 'I'm in Trouble' are good songs. I can still hear that. I'm amazed at some of the lyrics I've written. I had to sorta sit down with the records before the tour as my sort-of date with the Replacements -- every three years I sit down and listen to the records. Some of the lyrics stood out as being good - stuff like 'The Last' and tunes I hadn't listened to since I recorded them. Some of it I'm proud of and some of it I never want to hear again.''
Q: Does going through that stuff give you any ideas for a box set?
A: "We probably have a bag set there (laughs). We wanna break that mold. If they'd ever promise me what I always wanted, which is a record with no hole in the middle, then we could make a box of CDs that you couldn't play. We'd put extra tracks on it then.''
Q: Would you do it? A good greatest hits, a good final imprint on what the legacy was - here's the best songs, here's what we did?
A: "I'm not against it. I think about the band less than most people. It was a part of my life I don't run from or hide from, but I don't wanna spend two days in a row working on it. It was never about work. People ask if Tommy and I will ever work together again? Hell, we NEVER worked together. We wung it from day one.''
Q: I was surprised to see you do the July 4th concert in Chicago, five years to the day after doing the final Replacements gig there.
A: "I was fully aware of that. They had to drag me kicking and scratching to do it. Once we did it, it was fun.''
Q: Was the July 4, 1991 show planned to be the final one?
A: "Tommy and I knew it was the last performance of the group. We wanted it to be absolute magic and it wasn't. It was a little tired and it was kinda sad. This was a different thing. This was three weeks into a tour and I was feeling up and I knew what I was there to do. This time we did it. Conquered it. Had a good time. It's tough when you know something's done. We purposely didn't make a big announcement to everyone. The beauty of that Replacements show is we ended up playing 'Hootenanny' and gave the instruments to our roadies one at a time. We left the way we started: anonymous.''
Q: Have you considered releasing it, since it was broadcast live on WXRT? Was that the reason you broadcast it - since you knew it was the last show?
A: "No, WXRT, they run the thing. They do that. Actually, it was filmed too. I have no idea who's got that footage. Somebody has that footage somewhere.''
Q: It just seems like there's this big cash cow sitting there - at least a medium-sized cash cow - with Replacements footage or live shows. Is it tempting, especially seeing the Sex Pistols reunite?
A: "No, I feel it's the other way. By showing what we actually looked and sounded like is gonna blow the whole deal. (laughs). It's like 'Quiet! Tell everyone we were great and don't let them actually hear us!' Believe me, I was there.''
Q: What do you make of the Sex Pistols reunion?
A: "I can't fault them for wanting to make money. It's not like they all went out on their own and were successful. Who's gonna stop four guys from playing guitars and doing it for money? It's how Elvis started. But I don't know if I'd go out of my way to see it. I wouldn't wanna do it if I was them, but of course, I'm not them.''
Q: Is there anything that would make you wanna do it?
A: "Once everyone forgets about us, yeah. Once the name means nothing - once we're as hip as Billy Joe Royal - we'd consider it.''
Q: Any misconceptions of you that you'd like to correct? Every clip I've read on you, the writer seems to bring in some weird perspective and tries to make you fit in some hole - either angry, or this or that. I've never read what I felt was a really straight interview with you.
A: "Yeah, I guess part of me doesn't mind being misconstrued now and then. I am a bit of a lone wolf where I don't like them to know everything I'm thinking. If they have the wrong notion about something, then fine. Let 'em go. The only thing that bugs me is when they equate softness or mellowness with quietness. To me, to be quiet or to say something in a hushed manner is sometimes 100 times more powerful than shouting something that makes no sense.''
Q: What music are you listening to these days?
A: "Nothing, I can honestly say. And that's not a bitter old man. It's just that singers are the things that give me goosebumps and I don't hear any out there that I would wanna be like if I were a kid. Of course, I'm not a kid. There are some songs starting to crop up. I don't know what they were. I heard a song the other day and it was a girl singer and very pop and very new wave but in a very clever, as good a song as I've heard in five or six years. I think it's a trend, at least on the west coast - bands understanding that it's the turn of the century. It's time to dress up and have fun again, play some pop music."