The term “taking it back to basics” tends to get overused. Any time a musician subtracts a couple bells and whistles from his sound, the spin immediately becomes that he wanted to strip it down, and stick to the essentials of the songs. With Paul Westerberg, now, as ever, there is no spin. When the Minneapolis-based songwriter began writing his twin new albums, Mono and Stereo, Westerberg had no manager, no lawyer, no label and no band. He did have, however, a new red Gibson guitar and all the time in the world. When he emerged from his basement studio this spring, he came up the steps holding some of his best work in years. Westerberg’s solo albums are frequently and unfairly compared to his work with the Replacements, as though he is somehow expected to maintain a twenty-something punk rock sneer into marriage, fatherhood and his forties. With Mono and Stereo, Westerberg gives the naysayers two good reasons to shut up and listen. As he’s happy to point out, “He ain’t over.”
These records have a really loose feel. It sounds like you’re more comfortable playing rock than you’ve been in a while.
The cat is out of the bag. I did it myself — played everything, engineered it, did all the stuff. I think I’d sort of had it. The previous record I did with Don Was, who is a great producer, and Don was good enough to know I really didn’t need a producer so much. I came to the realization that after all these years I’d been hiring guys to get the names on the records when in fact I was doing the bulk of the work. Everything on here is absolutely my idea and my doing. My lack of expertise as an engineer, I think, is partially its strength because I don’t know what I’m doing, so I’m not afraid to break the rules.
It sounds like you fell in love with the guitar again.
It’s true. I bought a red guitar, a 1965 Gibson 330, which was really light. These are all physical facts that make sense. It was light. It felt like an acoustic. It didn’t hurt my back. It had a really good rock & roll sound to it, and it spawned most of the rockers. And I did stumble across a new tuning, not new, but new to my ear. That is responsible for a lot of the way the songs start and me not going to the piano. It almost allowed piano-style voicings, where you could write a better melody on the piano. I didn’t sit down to say I’m writing songs for my new album, I was simply like, ‘Hey, I don’t have a label, I don’t have a manager, I don’t have any money, and I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.” I guess I kind of panicked and felt like a kid again. I’m gonna strap on my red guitar and rock ‘n’ roll before I die. And out came the songs, just bing bang boing. And once the rockers came, a lot of the deeper ones like “No Place for You” came about. Is it any coincidence I tend to have a lot of women I know that kill themselves? I don’t have to go looking for them; I know a lot of people like that. It’s another one of those.
“No Place for You” sounds like a rewrite of “Time Flies Tomorrow.”
It’s the same damn chords. It’s the same song as “Let the Bad Times Roll.” It’s the same song as “Don’t Want Never,” and there’s two or three others where it’s the same chords in a different key. It wasn’t consciously planned that way, but I was talking to Jim Boquist [formerly of Son Volt] and we were kicking around how maybe he was going to play bass with me, and he was telling me about [the Rolling Stones’] Beggars Banquet and Exile on Main Street and basically how it’s all “Tumblin’ Dice” in different keys. I’m obviously a Rolling Stones aficionado and I never knew that, and he’s right. “Happy” is the same song. I sort of did that here, not trying to but I couldn’t shake that one chord sequence. What’s wrong with it? If you take a non-musical ear, they’ll just hear it sounding like an album. I have a musical ear, but I don’t listen to those records and hear that.
Musicians always talk about the happy accidents that help make records great. Are there any on here?
Yeah, the entire record is an accident. If you can envision me starting the tape and then jumping over the drums, putting the headphones on without a count and then trying to get the beat, knocking over every microphone on the way, and, whenever I was close to the beat, I would take it. Guys are going, “How did you get that sound?” I don’t know. I knocked both of the mikes down and they were pointing the other direction and then I ran it all through a Fender amplifier. It breaks every rule you possibly could, but I’m a true believer in that. If there’s a song I’m going to play a lead on, what guitar do I use? It’s like, I can reach this one. That one’s going to sound better, that one’s in tune but I don’t have to get up to play this one. I try to live my life like that: I don’t go looking for magic anymore. It happens or it doesn’t.
On “Silent Film Star” and a few other songs, there’s a guy who sounds an awful lot like [former Replacements bassist] Tommy Stinson singing backing vocals.
There you go. I had tapes of Tom before his voice changed — he sounds like a ten-year-old girl. A lot of times on the records I did the background vocals and then live Tommy sang my parts. He’d be the first to tell you that he learned how to sing from me, and I can’t honestly say I tried to sound like Tommy. I think he’s grown up enough to say he tried to sound like me, but we listened to the same Rod Stewart and Steve Marriott stuff together, but he definitely went more for the high-end screech. I called him in February to say let’s do this, because he was the only guy in the world I knew who could play the bass and sing that part, without even having to listen to it.
Yeah, I heard you ran into [former Replacements drummer] Chris Mars recently.
He was riding by with his wife in a convertible, and I didn’t recognize him. He pulled up in front of my house and I thought, ‘Who is this asshole? Who’s coming up my driveway?” Because he’d gained a little weight and he looked really happy. It was him and he was happy as a clam. I said, “So what do you say? Should we put [the Replacements] together?” And he kind of laughed and said, “Maybe for a week.” I read instantly that he had moved on from this . . . He’s a visual artist like he’s always been, and he’s successful doing set design. I just don’t think he would want to. He would do it for a week but he wouldn’t want to rehearse and stuff, but he would be up for a few laughs.
Are there any plans to get together with Tommy to write new material?
You know, we never really did. The closest we ever came to collaborating was on [the Replacements B-side] “Satellite,” where that was all his song and I sort of suggested the “la la la” part and changed one other part. But it was his song and he had done that for me a few times and we would do that again, but we would never sit down toe to toe and write a song, because we’re both songwriters. It’s like Van Morrison couldn’t sit down and write a song with Bob Dylan.