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Pleased to meet me 

Paul Westerberg cozies up to himself as he regains some of that old 'Mats mojo

As the frontman for the Replacements, Paul Westerberg spent the 1980s becoming an icon for the underground, his fear of success manifesting itself in the form of drinking, drugs and a snotty aversion to music industry mores. As a solo artist in the 1990s, he admittedly compromised his musical intuition more than once for the opportunity to achieve what so many fans felt he'd long ago deserved: credit, and maybe even a little restitution in the form of airplay.
None of what he was after ever arrived, and Westerberg fell hard, with many old-school 'Mats fans disgusted at the obvious pitch for popularity. So when he woke up a 40-year-old in the new millennium, Westerberg figured he was washed up for good. But a funny thing happened on the way to irrelevance: He recorded a bunch of songs himself, found a label -- Vagrant -- to release them, and discovered that this sort of sloppy, heart-on-the-sleeve stuff was exactly what his longtime fans had been waiting for.

The revival of interest makes sense. Westerberg's roots are with the great underground movement of the Reagan years, where he shared the DIY stage with bands like X, the Minutemen, R.E.M. and fellow Minneapolitans Hüsker Dü. Early Replacements records such as Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash and Hootenanny were recorded on the fly in one or two takes, their scruffy punk moments laced with the soul of '70s AM radio. Stereo/Mono beckons with the same sort of lo-fi charm: two discs (one electric, one acoustic) of impulsively fresh tunes, the vitality and urgency uncluttered by second-guessing in the studio. Perhaps this was an approach he should've taken years ago.

"Yeah, you can't cry over spilled milk," says Westerberg from his home in Minneapolis. "But it might've been or could've been right five years ago, because basically it's like what it was 20 years ago. This is how it all started, and every record I've ever made pretty much sounded like this one."

That might be hard to imagine, given the thousands of dollars spent on his behalf to hire big-name producers and work in expensive studios for most of his solo career. His first album, 14 Songs, was mixed by Atlanta's own Brendan O'Brien (Pearl Jam, Bruce Springsteen's latest) and produced by Matt Wallace (Faith No More, Train). On his next two efforts, he worked with Lou Giordano (Sugar, Goo Goo Dolls) and Don Was (Rolling Stones, Elton John, Iggy Pop). His songs may have primitive beginnings, but until now, his albums have been marked by a polished professionalism. It's a bit of a sore spot, actually.

"For too many years, I let the reins be taken over by people who did the proper, standard, rock star, traditional way," Westerberg says with a tinge of regret. "And all they do is suck your money and tell you lies.

Fed up, Westerberg pretty much handled everything himself on Stereo/Mono. He went down to his basement, worked up some tunes, hit the record button and let the music happen (or not). "I like the feeling when it first comes to my ears and gives me goosebumps," Westerberg says. "That's what I like to capture on the tape."

It's with that spirit in mind that Westerberg is out there playing without a backing band for the first time. It's also part of why he's enjoying the format so much.

"It'll become more evident when you see me play," says Westerberg as he elaborates on the joys of a solo tour, "because I wrote [the Replacements'] 'Alex Chilton' with an electric guitar and stomping my foot. You almost don't miss the basic guitar-and-drums thing. I don't -- I could never hear the fucking things on stage anyway. And I could never hear it when I wrote 'em, so you can get a real sense of how this song went when it first came to me."

Funny how he would bring up the song that immortalizes the '70s power-pop icon. Like Chilton, Westerberg is almost exclusively known for his work with his old band, a long shadow Westerberg appears to have grown comfortable with. Chilton, on the other hand, spent at least a decade mostly ignoring his would-be glory days with seminal cult heroes Big Star.

When asked about the similarities in their career paths, Westerberg is empathetic. "I think as time has passed, I understand him more," he says. "When I met up with him, he was on his 'singin' the blues' -- doing his Memphis Minnie and that stuff. And [the Replacements] were like, 'Why doesn't he do 'September Gurls'?' Now I understand -- because he did it. And he was just basically reaching back to the music that he heard when he was a little boy. It's like if you listen to Mono, a lot of it sounds like you could be listening to outtakes from Sticky Fingers. That's the music that I listened to when I was 11."

Much of the reason Westerberg is putting out albums on a small label is for the convenience of doing everything on his own terms. And though his time spent with the big leagues ended abruptly with neither fame nor fortune, he's not bitter.
"I think it's all for a reason," says Westerberg. "It's all part of one big picture that I still don't understand, looking back at those records. If I could have afforded to stay away another year, I would have. Because I think a lot of the hoopla from this [new album] is because I stayed away. They can't miss you if you don't go away. And it's the same for every artist."

The wait has been worth it, judging from the fans who've been making his in-store appearances and early solo gigs a celebration of everything they'd hoped for. Westerberg is just as enthused.

"It's not as full sounding, but it's more fun; it makes the audience the other element, which is normally the band," he says. "Hell, if I turn around, there's no one to give me a nod or a wink. They're all in front of me."

Actually, the audience has been nodding and winking from the beginning. The Replacements' terminal devotion to what drummer Chris Mars coined "the whole circus-spectacle thing" often resulted in a musical car wreck. While they've been namechecked by everyone from Wilco to the Goo Goo Dolls for their impish melancholy, many fans will always associate the Replacements with their drunken live performances, which alternated between starkly original genius and raucous, slapdash chaos.

Legend has it, the tendency to drink their way into infamy tore the band apart, first with the expulsion of founding guitarist Bob Stinson and culminating with the resignation of Mars shortly before touring began for the final Replacements album, All Shook Down, in 1990. Although he was sober by that point, Westerberg's solo years began with the noxious fumes of nostalgia that surrounded whatever new stuff he offered for the next 10 years. Some fans even openly wished he would start drinking again.

But if booze was a crutch during his years with the Replacements, Westerberg asserts that his backup musicians covered for him quite a bit during the past decade. In some ways, the confidence to tour without a band suggests that he is finally is ready to face success or failure without a net.

"There's nowhere to hide," says Westerberg. "I pace this thing where it's like, I don't know what I'm gonna do. I literally don't have a set list and I don't know half of the songs. It's all off the cuff, so I'm nervous as hell. And I figure, well, we're either gonna capture magic or I'm gonna fall flat on my face."

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