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Westerberg Can't Sell Out

Rock vet gets personal on new "Folker"

August 11, 2004 12:00 AM ET
Paul Westerberg wanted to sell out in the worst way. But when he took "Jingle (Buy It)," the lead track on Folker (due September 7th), around to America's biggest retailers, they passed.

"It was written to be used in an advertisement," Westerberg says of the infectious, ninety-second tune. "We pitched it to Target, Best Buy and some others, but they all wound up passing on it. I guess the thing I learned is that places like that have their own creative services departments. They don't like people coming in with any new ideas, making 'em look bad."

With the deceptively titled Folker, which rocks often, the former Replacements frontman is ripe with musical thoughts. From the glistening, mid-tempo "Looking Up in Heaven" to the subtle swagger of "Gun Shy," the disc is the most consistent of his five proper solo albums. And it also doubles as the most personal album of Westerberg's twenty-four-year recording career.

Look no further than "My Dad," a heartfelt homage to his father, written shortly before his death last November. "When I wrote that, I knew he was never going to hear it," says Westerberg. "In fact, he never really listened to much of my music. I remember he said once that he liked the drumming on one of my albums -- Eventually I think. But anyway, I just wrote it from the heart. The whole record's from my heart."

Westerberg recorded Folker in its entirety by himself in his Minneapolis-area basement studio. In an era where ProTools reigns supreme, it was recorded on a faulty eight-track. "I'm still of the same mindset as Jimmy Reed and the Rolling Stones, where it's all about the feel of the tape," he says. "I've gotten to the point now where I don't even use a tuner. I pick up a guitar and start playing and then I tune the other instruments around what's there. That way it will automatically have an old-fashioned feel to it."

"I'd start an idea in the afternoon and go into the wee hours to finish it," Westerberg adds. "I'd sing a song with the guitar along to a drum machine at first. Then I'd erase the drum machine and do the real drums when my son was out at school and no one would be home. And after midnight I'd put those really high vocals on and finish up."

Westerberg completed Folker in late 2003 and wound up sitting on it due to the DVD release of his movie Come Feel Me Tremble and its companion soundtrack, plus a blues disc (Dead Man Shake) recorded by his alter ego Grandpaboy. With the downtime he's been working on music for a film, and recently wrote liner notes for the Faces box set, Five Guys Walk Into a Bar.

"Warner Bros. asked me and I said 'Yeah,'" he says. "But I told them I wanted to get paid. Then they lied and said they got Mick Jagger to do it for free. I thought, 'So what! He's a trillionaire.' But it came down to [Faces keyboardist] Ian McLagan. He really wanted me to do it. So that was the arm-twist that I needed."

As for another arm twist, don't expect to see Westerberg in your city anytime soon. "As far as going on an extensive tour, I don't know. I've done it so many times, and it's never turned into what it's supposed to be," he says. "It doesn't help me sell records. I mean I have a following. They follow me from town to town -- almost like the Dead or something."

But Westerberg's road weariness doesn't mean he's lost his rock & roll edge, as evidenced by Folker. "The irony of me calling my record Folker and ending it with a rock & roll song sort of speaks to who I am," he says. "I like folk music OK and I can play it, but the rocker in me will never die."

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