Sipping Ginger Ale in a Minneapolis hotel bar, Paul Westerberg breaks the bad news: The Replacements have really broken up.
Sure, it’s already been four years since that highly influential band’s last album (All Shook Down), and it’s been more than a year since Westerberg, the group’s singer/songwriter, released his solo debut (14 Songs). The post-punk poet laureate behind “Unsatisfied,” “I Will Dare,” “Can’t Hardly Wait” and “Achin’ to Be,” Westerberg is now a sober, thoughtful 34-year-old. His band, which once made quite an art out of falling apart in public, is now truly history.
“Just yesterday,” Westerberg says, “my lawyer called me up and said that Tommy [Stinson] finally had his lawyer send a pink slip saying he is officially out of the band. So now, as of today, the Mats are officially broken up.”Though he’s taking a break from writing songs for his second solo album, he still seems very much in touch with some of the feelings from those not-so-good old days. “I was like ‘You fucker, who said you could quit? You’re fired!'”
The Replacements eventually became a model for a lot of bands that followed. Did the Mats have a model when you started out?
Vaguely. It changed from month to month. There was a period when we’d want to be a cross between the Damned and Rockpile. We liked rockabilly, and we wanted to be sort of old-timey rock & roll, but the songs we were writing were kind of pop. And sonically we were pretty fast and loud — Bob [Stinson] loved the Damned and all the English punk bands. So we were a mixture of all that stuff.
What did you make of punk at first?
I loved it. I don’t love it so much now. I can go back and still listen to the Pistols record, but I have a hard time listening to, say, the Damned or the Jam.
Did you respond to it musically or politically?
It wasn’t the lyrics at all.
So you weren’t pissed off at the queen?
Exactly. That stuff didn’t mean anything to a kid who grew up in the Midwest. The truth is that the only politics any of us ever cared about was the politics of being cool. With punk, it was like Black Sabbath, but they weren’t singing about iron, mystical, weird shit. It was “fuck you” and “fuck that,” and we loved that.
Is it fair to say that the Replacements were alternative when alternative still meant something?
I think in our earnestness we were trying in our way to be commercial rather than being a band who was really talented and chose to play avant-garde. And I think that came across. There was sincerity there: We couldn’t tune, we couldn’t play, and we did not care.
So it’s not like you were celebrating primitivism.
Exactly. We were trying to play as best we could.
Early on, people were talking about the Mats as part of the Minneapolis scene, comparing you with bands like Hüsker Dü, the Suburbs and Soul Asylum.
Yeah. In fact, that was pretty much the scene right there. The Suburbs were there when we started, and to this day they can re-form and they’re bigger stars. The first shot of punk — the Ramones and the Pistols — was on the wane when we started, so everything was either skinny ties with pop tunes or out-and-out art noise.
You mean to tell me the Replacements were actually trying to be the Romantics?
Probably we were, but our talents were rooted closer to the Slits [laughs]. But the scene was split between those two camps: pop or noise. We were in the middle. Hüsker Dü leaned a little more toward the noise end of things. Soul Asylum came a little later.
How did you react to their success?
At the time it stung a little. But I’m glad for them because they slugged it out in the same alleys that we did, and they stayed around just long enough.
What about the other Minneapolis scene with Prince at the center?
I was influenced as much by that stuff as by the other side. I mean, that guy could write some songs.
Did you have much communication with him?
He would stick his head in on occasion. But Prince, I think, said two words to me in 10 years. One was hi, the other was life.
I asked him, “What’s up?”
Did you always feel a little “Left of the Dial”?
Always. Even toward the end. If our music wasn’t as ferocious as the next wave that would come up, we felt alienated from them, too. So we were an alternative to the alternative as well as an alternative to the mainstream. We never found our niche. Maybe we were just a little too afraid, looking over our shoulders, thinking, “Is it cool to have a big record?” And our managers encouraged our high jinks more than they encouraged us to straighten up and fly right. We were a real band of the ’80s. We lasted literally from the dawn of 1980 to the dawn of 1990.
A lot of people did connect to your songs, though.
They hooked up with the thread of my songs, which is about some kind of alienation. When you’re growing up, you look for anyone you can side with. They see me as someone who has gone through it — or is still going through it — and is able to carry on. The thing is, I don’t have any answers, which is always disheartening . . . I don’t really want to talk about this, but there was this kid who was depressed, and he found the Mats and my record, and I guess it meant something to him. He went on television and talked about it. But to make a long story short, he ended up killing himself. And they buried him in my T-shirt. That’s obviously an extreme.
What was your first reaction when you heard about Kurt Cobain’s death?
My old manager called, and my first reaction was slight relief, because he said, “Have you heard the news?” And I immediately thought it was someone else I knew who was dead. And when he said it was Kurt, my first reaction was “Well, at least it wasn’t Tommy.” But then I felt great sadness. I never knew him, but any time someone reaches that extreme, it’s a tragedy. But it should be left at that. To immortalize it or glorify it is a crime.
You’re 34. Does rock & roll still make a difference to your generation?
I don’t know who my generation is anymore. I feel too old to hang out with the kids who make rock & roll, but I don’t fit in with the settled-down people my age. Technically, my generation should be married with children, with a home and stable future. And I know I don’t have all that stuff.
Do you ever fear rock & roll is dead?
Never. I never thought of rock & roll as this big cultural thing and worried about the state of it and all. It’s, like, just plug that fucking guitar in and give me a backbeat, and it lives.