Paul Westerberg comes to town-this time with a band.
Assuming he doesn't cure cancer or get elected governor of Minnesota, Paul Westerberg is destined to be remembered as the former frontman of the Replacements, the garage-spirited band that could, on any given night, deliver a slapdash, booze-fueled performance that would rank as the best or worst show you'd ever seen. And though the group has been apart longer than they were together, Westerberg, a man trapped by his own legacy, endures.
After launching his solo career with two glossy (by Replacements' standards) cuts on Cameron Crowe's Singles soundtrack, Westerberg's last three discs were recorded at home alone, like a rock 'n' roll Napoleon at Elba. But now the most quotable songwriter this side of Bob Dylan has emerged from his Minneapolis basement.
His current tour, his first with a band in nearly eight years, brings back to life a career filled with so many moments of accidental genius, you get the sense maybe those moments weren't happenstance after all.
We spoke to Westerberg by phone about his songwriting process.
When is a song finished for you? When you've got the lyrics and the chord progression written down on paper? Or do you have to record it in order for it to be finished?
"I have to record it. And it's as soon as the goosebumps go away, then I realize I put too much into it. And this comes from the great influence of Matt Wallace [producer of Don't Tell a Soul and 14 Songs]. We would add a bunch of crap and then take it away like a house of cards to see how it could stand on its least-you know, lyric, rhythm, melody. And that's what I do still. I do them fast. I do them fast, fast, fast, and that's different from this, but to me it's conversational to go back and look at a lyric, and throw something that might be poetic in there."
But when you have it down on tape, that's the end of the process?
"I usually do three tracks. I do the original, which is inspiration. I do the second one, for which I try to get the lyrics down properly, and then the third one where I try to, like, 'Okay, now I'm going to perform it again.' Nine times out of 10 I use take two or take one and then overdub lyrics because usually if I've got an idea, I'll just shout out rubbish, things that sound like words. To this day there are records I released that have nonsense words but we never went back to fix them."
Are the goosebumps still there after the second time through?
"Yeah. Yep, yep, yep. They're always there. Whenever you hit that chord and hit that little chorus, the goosebumps come, and that dictates to me if I had it or not."
I read you write during the day. Is that a new thing that comes from being a dad?
"I've always been pretty much a daytime writer. The general idea usually comes to me in the day and I'll mess with it, and if it's great I'll take it into the night. If not, I'll follow it the next day. But the performer side of me is the other one that, you know, it gets to be 8 o'clock at night and I'm sitting at home and I don't know why I'm antsy but I do know why I'm antsy, you know. There's a lot of performing still left in me."
Then much of the recording happens at night.
"Some, like a vocal or something. Like maybe I'll cut a guitar and a drum in the afternoon with a little scratch hum, but maybe at midnight I'd like to have a drink and cut a vocal downstairs."