The Return Of The Mat: 18 Minutes with Paul Westerberg
First published November 2007
“It’s tough having heroes. Heroes are generally expected to produce something or other to reconfirm their mandarin-fingered clinch on the hot buns of the bitch muse, which sometimes comes closer to resembling a set of clawmarks running down and off the edge of a shale precipice. And that’s no office party, kiddo”
Lester Bangs, from ‘Psychotic Reactions And Carburettor Dung”
Paul Westerberg comes close to being my hero. When he was chief songwriter in the Replacements he married singer-songwriter sensitivity to punk thrash: during his solo career he has proved that a rock’n’roller can evolve and still keep his integrity. I’ve wanted to meet him since I heard my first Replacements record in 1986. And he does not disappoint. Sat in the Scala dressing room in the brief time between the soundcheck and his first UK gig in 11 years Westerberg reveals himself to be remarkably affable, thoughtful and good-humoured.
Back in 1993 Paul had the full Warners/Reprise machinery behind him. He had soundtracked Cameron Crowe’s homage to the Seattle grunge-scene ‘Singles’ and his first solo record “Fourteen Songs” was just out. Seven solo records later it’s a very different story – the new record ‘Folker’ is released here on indie label Vagrant and tonights gig is just Paul, a sofa and a selection of guitars. Considering the Replacements started their career on Minneapolis independent Twin Tone Paul is positive about this development. “For my last record on Capitol/EMI, the president who signed me was fired the day the record came out so I just got put on the shelf and that disappointed me. I withdrew from the whole thing – fired my manager, fired my lawyer, didn’t have a label and felt really really free – like I was 18 again. My songs suit an independent approach. I’ve come full circle of not having to answer to anyone, simply recording and making the music that I like then turning it in and saying ‘Here You Go’ ”
“ I do have a fanbase – its small, but I’m always trying to come up with a gimmick – I mean ‘Folker’s opening song ‘Jingle’ was perfect, I was literally trying to pitch that for any conceivable television thing ever so I would be selling a baby powder, wiping a baby’s ass just to make fun of the whole genre. Converse accepted the video for series of “Make Us Your Own Commercial’. I don’t know how it will work out. That was my stab at making it go beyond my usual 50-75,000 fans.”
So does ‘Folk + Rocker = Folker ? “In essence – You’re the first one to sum it up so succinctly. I mean if I’m standing there with an acoustic guitar my vision is that someone with long hair will walk in and say ‘that’s a folk singer’ although actually I’m a rocker who doesn’t have band. ‘Folker’ has some of my most rocking singing, the folk comes on when the verses change, the words change and there’s stories but there’s not a hell of a lot of instrumentation going on behind.” By contemporary standards Folker is a short record. “It’s deliberate. I hate records that go on and on just because they can. I kept two or three good songs off because this is a nice collection of 13 or whatever songs.” Despite the predominantly acoustic settings there are some nifty could-be-singles on the record “I hope ‘Looking Up in Heaven’ is going to be a hit for someone before I get there. ‘As Far As I Know’ was wanted for some movie, Liz Phair was going to do it, Julia Hatfield ended up cutting a version – I like my version, what the hell I just put it on, it was done few years ago but I thought it was too good to waste.”
There is a definite Faces vibe on Folker, most noticeably on ‘Gun Shy’ where the descending chords have a real ’Ooh La la’ feel. “Probably – a dropped D string there, sort of Woody-esque. You can find the Faces in at least fifty percent of what I do. They’ve been terribly under-rated.” As a Faces fan, Westerbergs sleeve notes for the recent Faces box-set ‘Five Guys Walk Into A Bar’ are a real hoot. “I did the Faces box set notes as a favour to Ian McLagan. Mac called me up and said ‘I want you to be part of this’ and I couldn’t say no. He looks great still. We were talking recently about playing together in Minneapolis. I was trying to find him a show – it kind of fell through.” More surprising is the way the record ends with a snatch of ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes?’. ”I’m not a real Fairport fan but I like Sandy Denny, I had a few of her records. I didn’t know if I was going to have to credit. The credit is Denny Sandy, I thought they had it wrong but that’s the way the publisher said.”
During the soundcheck Paul played both Replacements songs and solo records and I was struck by how these days they all sound like a single body of work. “They are all my songs – the other guys did contribute, if nothing else they were in the room at the time I wrote it and maybe gave it a faster tempo than I wanted but I pretty much wrote ‘em. I would lift a lyric or two from Tommy.” Will Paul’s alter-ego Grandpaboy turn up tonight? “You never know – when he shows up on a good night we’re one and the same. It usually depends on the crowd. Sometimes you get out there ready to rock and you sense the crowd wants to hear ‘Sadly Beautiful’ and ‘Swinging Party’. But when there’s a good cross-section, Grandpaboy usually shows up. Something definitely gets broken when he shows up.”
Having the couch onstage “started as ‘Where do we put the guitars when we don’t have stands ?’” I made the music sitting down in my basement so I sit down to play. And then we started inviting the people up to share the couch and that was loads of fun, they would hold the lyrics, people would give me the lyrics in my ear like Jimmy Reed. It was fun.” Paul’s inability to remember his own lyrics is legendary – I reminded him that I had to give him the first line of ‘Skyway’ when he played the Borderline in 1993. “I might need it again tonight. I’ve got the damn things and I look at them but it’s like a mental block.”
Tonights gig sold out before it was announced, proof there is a Westerberg hardcore in the UK. Why fly all the way to London for one gig? One reason is Paul’s son Johnny, now aged six. “I go away for a week at a time, come back a few days then another week. He’s first grade. He doesn’t take it well. He was crying when I left, he’ll be crying when I get home. At first he thought it was Daddy’s job to play in the basement, now he knows the other part of it is when I go away and play.” Does he like your songs? “I don’t think so – he likes Deep Purple – Woman From Tokyo, Space Trucking.” Paul is keen to distance himself from the Replacements tendency towards Heavy metal cover versions. “Bob Stinson was the one who took us into Yes – I always leaned more towards Hank Williams or Creedence.”
“I wanted to do another night but I have to go home tomorrow to do a benefit for a guy for Karl Mueller (Soul Asylum – he’s currently being treated for cancer). I made a half-assed attempt to put the Replacements back together, our head roadie who owns the club came over and asked if I wanted to play and I said “Let’s go all the way – phone the guys up.” He made the call – Slim was more or less game, Tommy and Chris were hesitant and I don’t blame them – I felt a sigh of relief when it came back that it wasn’t going to happen. There have been some ugly jabs in the press.” Relationships between Paul and former ‘Mats bass-player Tommy Stinson continue to ebb and flow. “Tommy ? We’re not speaking this month. I’ve heard his new record is good but for me he’s forever my surrogate younger brother and to see him be the lead singer, I can’t but help think ‘that was my job’. As soon as he grew up and wanted to have my job it was like ‘what am I going to do – play the bass?’“
Next on the agenda is a brace of films. First up is ‘Open Season’. “It’s an animated thing, computer drawn, two years in the making, out in 2006. I wrote them a bunch of songs which they liked and they’ve now hired me as composer to score the thing. It difficult – I’ve never done it before and its frightening and exciting at the same time. I’m working with two guys who’ve probably done 100 movies between them so it’s difficult for me to say ‘Steve can you please….’. This is the guy who’s just done ‘Alfie’, the real stuff. “ And then there’s the latest Cameron Crowe movie ‘Elizabethtown’. “It’s based in Kentucky and I had a song with Kentucky in the title and I sent it to him with another tune that he liked. Its the first time I’ve worked with Cameron since Singles – he’s a good guy, he likes me so I still get paid, a pittance but I still get cheques from overseas viewing of the movie and stuff.”
And after that ? “I don’t know. I haven’t thought past what I am going to play tonight”
What Paul played was a generous helping of 27 songs from throughout his entire career, although disappointingly only one track from ‘from ‘Folker’ (‘My Dad’). Kicking off with ‘Waiting For Somebody’ and ‘My Latest Last Chance’ it became obvious that most of the crowd are real-hardcore fans. The Only Ones ‘Another Girl Another Planet’ made its inevitable appearance. He switched to electric guitar for ‘Let The Bad Times Roll’ and pulled out a strong vocal for ‘Valentine’ but ‘Little Mascara’ ran out of steam. After ‘Born For Me’ Paul murmured ”But she was so stupid she didn’t even know it, then I didn’t write another song for three years until I wrote this…” and into ‘High Time’. In response to a yelled request we got ‘If Only You Were Lonely’, still convincing after all these years. Paul’s tribute to Sylvia Plath ‘Crackle and Drag’ was followed by the comment “here’s a little ingenuity using the same chords’ and so to “Lush & Green” from 1997’s Grandpaboy EP.
Paul sat on the couch for ‘Sadly Beautiful’ and then forgot the opening line to ‘First Glimmer.’ Instead someone in the front row offered “Look in me in the eye..” but Paul never sings ‘Unsatisfied’ these days because he can no longer connect with the lyric. ‘I Will Dare’ got a punked-up superfast ending, then ‘Knocking On Mine’ got its lyric altered to include a schoolteacher from Sheffield, who judging from the whoop was in the audience. ‘Alex Chilton’ totally rocked, rather overshadowing ‘Mr Rabbit’. Halfway through the latter Paul suffered some sound glitches not resolved by roadie, eliciting a “I can’t fire him, I don’t know his name”. ‘Left Of the Dial’ and ‘Swinging Party’ were mostly sung by the audience. A thoughtful ‘Love Untold’ preceded a crowd invasion when on Pauls invitation a hundred or so fans sat in and around the sofa onstage, giving set-closers ‘Skyway’ and ‘Here Comes A Regular’ a definite ‘All You Need Is Love‘ vibe. Paul than left the stage, only to be hauled back for a rocking ‘Can’t Hardly Wait’ and a snatch of ‘Customer’. The gift of a ghastly straw hat caused Grandpaboy to appear briefly and maul a brace of country songs before deciding he’d had enough, or in Paul’s words “I’ll quit while I’m behind” .
Vagrant hope to bring Westerberg back in January with a band. If you can’t wait that long look out for a CD on Thumbs Up Records entitled ‘Skyway to Buffalo’, the opening night of the ‘Come Feel Me Tremble’ tour broadcast live on local radio in January 2002 and featuring many of the tracks played at the Scala.