Paul Westerberg on his infamous past, fatherhood and his most personal solo offering to date, Folker. by Bob Mehr
Lots of people travel to Minneapolis looking for Paul Westerberg. They come in all shapes and sizes, from Hollywood starlets to slightly obsessed stalkers. There’s even a new film being made called Aurora Borealis, about a girl who moves to town in the hopes of meeting him. Admittedly, Harp has come here for much the same reason as the others; seeking first hand some of the guttersnipe wit and wisdom Westerberg has spent a career doling out in his songs.
It’s a late August morning in Linden Hills, located on the city’s southwest side. With an organic grocery and trendy breakfast bistro, the area seems decidedly hip, but there’s an unassuming Midwestern quality underlying the chichi appearance.Westerberg lives just a few blocks away, close enough for him to bike over without breaking a sweat.As Harp waits in front of the coffee shop that will serve as our meeting place, he glides into the parking lot straddling a shiny Schwinn.
He’s shorter than you’d expect, a fact only accentuated by the thick soled two-tone shoes he’s wearing. Clad in a gabardine jacket and flashy trousers that make him stand out among the soccer moms and suburbanites, he orders up a triple espresso and settles down to chat.
Today, the local papers are full of Westerberg news. There’s an item about the cameo role he turned down in Aurora Borealis, his soundtrack work for the new Cameron Crowe film Elizabethtown and the songs he’s writing for Open Season, a forthcoming feature from Sony Animated Pictures. Although we take up a pair of metal benches in front of the entrance, no one stops to stare or ask for an autograph. The only people who even bother to take notice of Westerberg are an old childhood friend who happens by and a couple of college kids canvassing for John Kerry who eavesdrop on our conversation, trying to find out who the elegantly rumpled figure talking into the tape recorder is.
At 44, Paul Westerberg doesn’t seem all that different from his younger, slightly more inchoate self. He talks with the same mix of piss and pathos that’s marked his most famous anthems. He’s courtly and not falsely self-effacing, although perhaps more keenly aware of his mythos than he lets on.
After his solo career bottomed out with a single orphaned album for Capitol Records in 1999, Westerberg retreated to Minneapolis and went into a self-imposed three-year exile (“People can’t miss you until you’re gone,” he says). His latest effort, Folker (Vagrant), is the fifth album worth of material he’s released since his “comeback” two years ago. It follows on the heels of 2002’s double-disc Stereo/Mono and the soundtrack to his concert documentary DVD Come Feel Me Tremble and Dead Man Shake, a blues album credited to his alter-ego Grandpaboy, both released last year. Like the other LPs, Folker was recorded entirely in Westerberg’s basement with him engineering, producing and playing all the instruments.
His current musical methods were, in part, borne out of necessity. For the last six years,Westerberg’s been a househusband and stay-at- home dad to his son Johnny. Aside from a pair of short jaunts-a series of in-stores and a solo tour of the East and Midwest in ’02-Westerberg hasn’t been on the road in eight years. That may change soon. His wife, Laurie Lindeen, late of distaff pop-punk trio Zuzu’s Petals, got her education degree earlier this summer and celebrated with a graduation party at the 400 Bar. The evening found Westerberg onstage playing with a local cover band called Retro Fit and the appearance fueled speculation that he would tour with the group backing him later this year. Other proposed pairings have him being supported by a variety of outfits ranging from Aussie pop act You Am I to Philly roots rockers Marah. But Westerberg is unsure he’ll hit the road again-“I hate calling them tours,” he says, “I much prefer ‘appearances'” – largely because he doesn’t want to leave his son for long stretches.
He spends the next three hours discussing the challenges of balancing career and family. He also talks candidly, often in painful detail, about his father’s death from emphysema last year, his somewhat strained relationship with Tommy Stinson, his public spat with Ryan Adams and the legacy of the Replacements.
Although they broke up more than a decade ago, the ghost of his former band still haunts Minneapolis. As we sit and talk, Anita Stinson-the mother of Bob and Tommy-is tending bar a few miles away at the Uptown. Meanwhile, Twin Tone label founders Peter Jesperson and Paul Stark are in another part of the city, putting boxes full of fading Replacements press clippings and photos into storage as they clear out the last vestiges of their old offices.
Next fall, Rykodisc-which now owns the Twin Tone catalog-will finally reissue the Replacements’ first four album albums in expanded form, remastered with bonus tracks and loads of unreleased songs. Rhino Records plans to do the same for the group’s Warner Bros titles. A proposed ‘Mats box would combine material from both periods, but will likely wait until 2006. Meanwhile, Shout! Factory records is currently compiling a solo Westerberg “best of” for a spring ’05 release.
As he discusses all this, the notoriously fidgety Westerberg seems surprisingly at ease. His confidence is only betrayed when he lets out a nervous laugh, or lights up another Marlboro-he’s started smoking cigarettes again after quitting several years back-but if you really look close, his hands always seem to be shaking.
“The other day, my shrink told me I’m the most anxious person he’s ever dealt with in his career,” notes Westerberg. “Which is saying a lot. ‘Cause his specialty is teen suicide. But I’ve always been nervous, as a kid in school I’d have sweaty hands, always afraid to answer questions in class. How the hell I ended up on a fucking stage, I’ll never know.”
Harp: Your new album was originally supposed to have been released last year shortly after Come Feel Me Tremble and Dead Man Shake. Why the delay?
Paul Westerberg: I kinda wanted to keep firing ’em out after taking a hiatus for three years. But Vagrant felt there was some life left in the other albums so we decided to wait. It probably wasn’t a hundred percent complete last fall, anyway. Like the last song, “Folk Star” I wrote that afterwards. As I was writing the other albums every now and then I would write one specifically for the Folker record. I wanted the songs on there to flow together, keywise and harmonically. This is the first time I ever took any real time to make a record flow like a classical piece would.Where the keys kinda go in a circle and stuff.
One song, “Looking Up in Heaven” is older, it goes back five or six years. Everyone thinks that’s about my father, but it’s not. And it’s funny, because a lot of people are picking up on that one as their favorite. And at the time when I first whipped it out and played it for my, um, former label they were sort of ho-hum about the song so I never put it out.Of course years later, that’s the one that everyone likes.
How tough is it with a family to find time to record?
I grab whatever hours I can. Usually an idea will fester for a few days and then I’ll lay it down in the early evening and then maybe the next day or the next late night, I’ll finish it up. It is a little bit hard with a family. It’s kind of like back when you were a kid playing at home and felt like you gotta hurry up before your dad got home. But it’s helped in a way too, because it’s made me speed the process up. One solo is good enough ’cause if I do another one Johnny will be down there wanting to play drums.He’s always at my side asking “How long is this song?” They’re always too long for him. I think he got spoiled listening to the Ramones as a baby.
The last album you did with a producer was 1999’s Suicaine Gratifaction with Don Was. He ended up using most of your home demos on the finished CD. Did that give you the confidence to start making records on your own?
I think so. Don Was is a real good producer, mainly ’cause he’s a great guy. He’s never gonna let you down, even if you totally suck. When we were making the record he’d say “You don’t need me to do this,” and I was like “I know.” But I figured it was my last chance on a major label, with a major producer, so a big name was gonna mean something. He called me after it came out and said “I don’t give a goddamn what they say, it’s the best album I ever worked on.” I’m like, “Thanks, too bad the rest of the world didn’t think that.” (laughs).
You’ve worked with some other really good producers over the years, have you taken anything from them in particular?
I learned a lot from Matt Wallace [who worked on 1993’s 14 Songs]. With Matt we would make a song, and put everything on it and then we would start taking shit away.And we’d see how much we could take away before it collapsed. Sometimes we found that the vocal and the guitar sounded better than all the junk we put it on it. So that’s how I record now.
A while ago there was talk of putting you on VH1’s Storytellers, and surrounding you with a bunch of younger musicians, people you’d influenced. Do you get those kinds of offers a lot?
Each progressive year, I’ve been less apt to want to do stuff like that. In the beginning it was older veterans that they wanted to team the [Mats] with-Elvis Costello and Tom Petty-which we did. And then when it got to the point where they wanted to team me with younger artists similar to me I felt a little uncomfortable. I almost felt like, “Why the hell do you need me if you’ve got a younger, fresher version?” That’s what “How Can You Like Him” [on Folker] is about: “How can you like him better than me?” That’s pointed at those pretenders who’re supposed to be me.
But I understand, ’cause I liked Neil Young when I was a kid and didn’t understand that if there had been no Bob Dylan there would’ve been no Neil Young.
Well, in the last ten years, the phase “the new Westerberg” has joined “the New Dylan” as a kind of critical shorthand.
Yeah, it certainly felt odd to see the phrase “Westerbergian”- like “with a Westerbergian chorus” or “a Westerbergian guitar part.” That made me feel like Beethoven or something, long dead and gone.
You had a tiff in the press with one of the new Westerbergs last year, Ryan Adams.
(Looking glum) It’s too bad my quote about him was in print and not on camera, because then people would’ve caught my sarcasm and humor. It was never malicious, it was always supposed to be funny. And I thought he would take it that way, and instead he took it the other way. To this day he’s still upset. I worked with a guitar tech recently who told me that Ryan was pissed or whatever. And I was telling him it’s like professional wrestling: I say something bad about you, you say something bad about me, we both get our names in the paper and its cool. And the thing is it wasn’t personal, cause I’ve never heard [Adams’] music, never even seen him-I think I’ve seen one photograph of him. So if he walked by I wouldn’t even know him.
I dunno, I feel bad ’cause I’m not a mean guy. But I probably should’ve known that if he was a true fan of mine that he would’ve been a really sensitive person.
Your myth seems to be growing of late, with this new movie [Aurora Borealis] that has a storyline about a girl who moves to Minneapolis to find you.
Yeah, and that actually has happened before to the point where I don’t really want to encourage it (chuckles).So I decided not to appear in it. But they were really adamant and so I gave them my shoes and my jacket to put on someone else who could pretend to be me.
Other people have offered you roles in various things over the years though.
I’ve been asked to be in stuff that was so stupid that I’m so glad I followed my gut instinct and said no, and then other times I’ve turned down things where I thought, “Aah, I should’ve done that.” I remember Suddenly Susan wanted me to play opposite [Brooke Shields] as this dumb rock star that goes out with her. This was after I played on The Tonight Show [in ’96]. Someone must’ve seen me and thought, “He’ll work perfectly.” (laughs) Everyone was telling me, “Do it, do it.” And I’m so fucking glad I turned that one down.
Your son Johnny seems to be the focal point of your life. Did you always think you’d have a kid?
I didn’t. And I got severely depressed in my mid-30s and somebody just casually suggested it. Like, “Why don’t you have a child?” And I thought “Why don’t I?” Cause I never got any input from my parents like, “When are you going to give us some grandchildren?”
You seem reclusive by nature. Has having a son forced you to become more outgoing? You were telling me that you serve as the playground monitor at his school sometimes.
Yeah, I’m the playground monitor once a month.I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t have to wear the orange vest anymore ’cause the kids know me now (laughs). I coach his soccer team and his baseball team too-assistant coach anyway. And never in a zillion years would I have dreamt I’d be doing that. The kids are still really young so it’s like coach-pitch baseball. So I’m on the mound pitching to kids who can’t swing a bat. And usually it’s me throwing it in the dirt like 50 times in a row. It’s good for me, though, it slaps my ass down. If I ever start to think that I’m some sort of hot shit, it’s like there I am: the biggest dork in the world.
Is Johnny part of why you’ve been reticent to commit to any long tours?
He’s at an age that he never wants me to leave. I sorta got to tell him a month in advance if I’m gonna go to L.A. for two days and he really gets upset, ’cause we’re real close. Everybody asks me if I’m gonna tour, and my first thought is that I can’t go leave him for two weeks at a stretch. Too much happens in his life. He keeps things inside and only I can get it out of him. He’s very bright and frustrated sometimes. He’s gonna be something, God only knows.
When Dead Man Shake came out last year you said your interest in music was sparked by your older brother, who played in blues bands when you were growing up. Is he proud of your success?
About a month ago I had the whole family over and dragged them all downstairs to jam. My mom was on the organ, I played drums, Laurie played bass and my brother played guitar. And it’s like he hasn’t progressed one millimeter since when he first picked it up. (laughs) He’s one of those dudes who just doesn’t have it. But he likes music and he’s proud of me and shit. He gets a fair amount of midnight phone calls from people looking for me. So occasionally he calls me up and yells at me.
He works at the post office now and he’s a good guy, but growing up he was the total black sheep of the family-he was in jail about five times. I used to get that “Don’t turn out like your brother” shit all the time. But since all of the attention was focused on him, I got lost in the shuffle and was allowed to sit in my room and play the guitar. So it all worked out.
You’ve come full circle from the first ‘Mats album, with the famous line about your dad (“I hate my father/One day I won’t” from “I Hate Music”) to a tribute called “My Dad” on Folker.
“I Hate Music” was a lie. I was taking a pose of a teenager full of angst and despising all authority. And my dad was anything but that. He was not a strict disciplinarian. He was an easygoing guy unless you really stepped over the line. I think he hit me once, and not hard, and that was because I was bugging my sister. He probably felt bad right away. I think I disliked him more when I was about 13 or 14. By the time I was 19 I had already come to grips, and actually sorta dug him, y’know? Also, we shared something in common in that we would drink together.
And then there came that other period after I got married and divorced and kicked out of the house [in the early ’90s], where I went back to live at my parents’ house. And he and I used to sit on the back porch drinking beer and looking at the birds. It was an interesting month to say the least. That’s actually when I decided to stop [drinking]. It just became so obvious that this is my destiny. It’s like, “This is not fun.To sit around and do nothing.” He was a great doer of nothing.
He passed away last November. Were you around when he died?
Yeah, it’s funny, ’cause they send you home to die now. Give you a do-it-at-home kit with a bunch of morphine and this weird leaflet called “Interpreting Death: How You Know When They’re Really Gone.” I’m reading it like, “What the fuck is this?”
Sounds like it was pretty rough at the end.
He was sick for five years. He had emphysema, cancer and he even broke his back. When he died, it had been coming for a month. He had the last rites on Halloween and then he lived eight or nine days more. I was with him there at the end and I was perfectly calm. It’s funny, when he finally passed away, my sister recoiled like suddenly he had become some sort of snake: “Oh my God, he’s dead!” And it’s like, “Well, he’s been fucking almost dead all day.”
So I sat there with him, until it was decided to call the funeral home. You don’t bother with 911 or an ambulance-you just call a hearse. And my mom was sleeping. And they said, “Don’t wake up mom.’ But you can’t call a hearse to tote him away and then not tell her. So we waited two hours. He laid there and I sat with him. And then I woke my mom and told her. She came in and knelt down and prayed at his feet. I sorta knelt down next to her, not quite knowing what I was supposed to do.
But then, it was over so fast. They just came and took him away. Put him in a big garbage bag. Now that hurt.Watching them put my dad, who was now a piece of trash, in a bag in the back of a hearse. And watching them drive away under a full moon at 2:30 in the morning, and my mom with tears streaming down her face. And I thought like…shit, that’s sad. That made me sad. (wells up)
All the grim logistics of dying, they never show that stuff in the movies.
You said the perfect line, because it’s not like the movies. He died for hours and it’s like a man gasping for breath and there’s nothing you can do but administer morphine. I held his hand and listened to his heart and then suddenly everything stops. Maybe I should’ve worked with dying people. ‘Cause everyone was coming unglued and I managed to stay levelheaded. I dunno, I think I took the whole thing too easy. But then again, I started smoking cigarettes after that. He dies of emphysema and the first thing you know I’m smoking again. That’s one for Freud.
When Bob Stinson died, they played old ‘Mats songs at his funeral.Have you given any thought to what they’ll play when you die?
Bagpipes, or maybe or “Ascension” by John Coltrane [laughs]. I actually have thought of that before. I love that Gordon Lightfoot song “If You Could Read My Mind” but I wouldn’t want to tug at anybody’s heart. Maybe “Cobwebs and Strange” by the Who.
We are the Replacements
The Replacements have been in negotiations with Warner and Ryko to finally reissue all the band’s albums and a box set.
Yeah and one of the points was that I was trying to get was to have Warner’s to wipe the slate clean on us. ‘Cause they claim we still owe them tons of money. I got a statement saying something like “Due to Mr.Westerberg’s unrecouped royalties, at this time we are no longer going to monitor his sales.” It’s so bad it’s not even worth their accounting time to see if I’ve sold any records. (laughs)
Sounds like the whole project is coming along, though.
Yeah, the last I heard is like it’s going along pretty good. Except they were having trouble finding a couple tapes, a couple reels. It’s like, “I know where they are…we threw ’em in the fucking river.” (laughs) But I said I’d be interested if they wanted me to weed through any old reels and pull out a song or two. ‘Cause I did that for the Warner Bros. thing [1997’s ‘Mats retrospective All For Nothing/Nothing for All], like “Birthday Gal” and “Beer For Breakfast” and all that crap.
Was there ever a point that you actually envisioned the Replacements somehow going on?
I think with [the band’s final recording of the b-side] “Satellite” it’s too bad we broke up right at that point, ’cause I saw that as something different. I played producer and Tommy played his song, and I helped with the bridge and wrote a couple words, and I really thought “God, we could continue like this.” But it wasn’t to be. It was a nice little parting shot though.
When you see your heroes like the New York Dolls or contemporaries like the Pixies doing reunions does it ever tempt you to try it again with the Mats?
Well, that idea came and went about a month ago. We came as close as we ever came in the last 13 years to doing a reunion. There was talk about a benefit for [Soul Asylum bassist] Karl Mueller [who’s suffering from cancer]. Bill Sullivan, our old road manager came and asked if I wanted to play. And since it was really about making some money for Karl, I told him go get the band and see what they said. So he made the rounds in town and called Tommy and sorta came back with the reports and needless to say a couple of them were unavailable.
Were you nervous that the reunion might actually happen?
I was scared and I was happy. And secretly disappointed too, ’cause I felt like this is the time to do it. If we’re ever gonna do it, let’s do it to help Karl. ‘Cause we never did anything good in our lives for anybody. And it would’ve been a nice thing to do. I don’t want to make a big deal about it though, because [Tommy] is on my ass about that; he came through town and got all up in arms. He’s very sensitive.
I don’t think it’s any secret that things have been a little snippy between you and Tommy over the last couple years-mainly played out in comments through the press.
He keeps pulling out the “Paul Westerberg’s more difficult to deal with than Axl Rose” line. And I think, “Yeah, of course.” Wouldn’t Van Gogh be more difficult than Norman Rockwell? (laughs)
It seems strange that there should be any weirdness between the two of you given your history together.
I don’t think it’s dawned on him that those were the days in the Mats. That was the peak of something and you’re not gonna get another peak doing it that way again.
So do you ever see a full-scale reunion happening?
I don’t know. I fantasize about it, all these years gone by. Like I would play drums. Chris could sing. And Tommy could try a little piano.We would really be open to that kind of shit, in terms of recreating the group. But as far as going in and rehearsing the Stink stuff or whatever, I think we’d piss our pants too much to be able to do it.
Was it a conscious choice to stay in Minneapolis after the Mats broke-up? Because it seems like it might’ve been better for your career to move to L.A. or something, like Tommy [Stinson] did.
Well, I never asked him why he left. I can guess though, ’cause he’d just gone through a divorce at the time-
But you did too.
Yeah, but I just sorta moved down the block. Plus, he had more of that drive and passion, he still does. He’s been through it as long as I have, and he’s seven years younger than me. I don’t know what he thinks when he goes to bed at night. Like, “One day I’m gonna hit it big”-’cause I don’t think that at all. This is it for me. I know I’m not gonna be a huge phenom, but I can continue to make records that I like and if I need to play gigs, I can play gigs.
Seems like staying in Minneapolis has kept you somewhat grounded.
I like it here. People treat me very nicely.People know who I am but I don’t get any crazy screaming fans. Well, I get one or two crazy people but they usually come from out of town. But I don’t frequent the haunts that would embrace me either. I don’t go to clubs and shows and stuff.
Aside from your wife’s recent graduation party, when was the last time you went to a nightclub?
I haven’t been to a club here for, fuck, 10 years maybe. I can’t even remember. At the end of my time going out I just saw so much sadness. In the beginning it was fun and happy-go-lucky. But as you got older, you saw the same people. I mean,I know people who still go out all the time-people who aren’t married or whatever-and they’re always sort of looking or yearning for something that isn’t there. And after I stopped drinking it really made me realize that it was nowhere near as fun as I thought (laughs).
But you’ve started drinking again a little over the past couple of years, right?
I drank for 17 years and was sober for 13 and then have started to casually drink again. I have no solid answer other than the fact that every article on me-especially ones emanating from here-would usually start with “The former hard-drinking frontman…” And it’s like, I might as well do what I want to do ’cause I’m never gonna live that down.
And you never went through rehab or anything?
No, I just quit. It’s something I think I inherited from my parents ’cause my dad quit drinking when he was 80. I mean, he drank from the time he was a teenager until he was 80 and then he quit. And he lived five more years after that. And right before he died I told him, “Y’know, I’m having a couple drinks.” And that was the last time he really flashed that old fire at me; if would’ve had the strength to kick my ass he would’ve. He looked at me and said,”Don’t you get back on that shit and ignore your family the way I did.” But it didn’t feel that way to us.
It’s interesting that you’ve gone from one extreme to the other with your drinking and maybe found middle ground now.
It took going out on tour [in 2002] to make me realize that anything is possible. 10 years earlier if you would’ve said you’re going to go out by yourself and sing songs to an audience I would’ve thought, “No way am I going out there alone.” But eventually you do it. And then one day you’re going to see the son you never thought you’d have being born. And one day you’re seeing your big strong dad lay there like a helpless infant. So anything is possible. One day you’ll drink again. Maybe one day you’ll make a big mistake again. But the responsibility of having a kid keeps it in check. I can’t be bombed and hungover. I gotta do shit with Johnny. And because of him,everything stays where it’s at. And I’m grateful for that.
SIDEBAR: Salad Days
Bob Mould reflects on his favorite Westerberg recorded moments
It must have been something in the water. Minneapolis in the ’80s was this country’s sonic hotspot (Seattle has the Twin Cities to thank for its success years later). Which is precisely what made us wanna go and ask one of Westie’s luminaries and ex-Husker Du/Sugar (and current electronica DJ at Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 club) Bob Mould about his favorite Replacements material. His answers were a bit surprising:
FAVORITE LINE: “Lyndale, Garfield, red light, run it” (“Run It” on Hootenanny 1983) is, if I’m not mistaken, a reference to an incident involving Chris, Paul, Chris’s motorcycle and the Minneapolis Police. I had given Paul an old 45, I can’t remember which one, and I suspect he was clutching it all the way to processing. Lyndale and Garfield were neighborhood streets, of course.
FAVORITE ALBUM: Don’t know if Stink qualifies, but I think the sound and fury of the band was at its’ most focused on this record. “Kids Don’t Follow” was a true anthem. If Stink doesn’t qualify, then Let It Be, which was the first high water mark for Paul’s writing.