A smallish Paul Westerberg slumps lazily in his chair, gazing (with no apparent interest) at the Wasatch Mountains as he sips absently from a bottle of non-alcoholic brew.
What's wrong with this picture? If you don't know, then you probably haven't heard of Westerberg or his band, the Minneapolis-based foursome known as The Replacements.In the early 1980s, The Replacements earned a reputation as the wildest, naughtiest and most inebriated troupe of party animals this side of the Sex Pistols.
But now, at the tender age of 30, Westerberg is becoming philosophical and is trying to take himself and his profession a little more seriously.
"What we did in the early years was fairly outrageous," Westerberg said in a recent interview in Salt Lake City. "But it was 10 years ago, and it's fairly tame in this day and age compared to a lot of acts. And I think I have enough smarts to know that we're not going to out-outrageous someone. It's like, `Fine. We did that. Now let's try and work on the music.' "
Westerberg's stop in Salt Lake City was part of a nationwide interview tour to, as he puts, "advance the troops," press the flesh and attempt to drum up interest in The Replacements' new album, "All Shook Down," and a possible tour early next year.
But part of Westerberg's mission, no doubt, is to allay rumors that The Replacements may be disbanding. "All Shook Down" was conceived as a Westerberg solo project, and it was only when record company execs insisted that he finally brought in the other 'Mats (as they call themselves) to play on several of the tracks.
"I told the guys at the record company what I wanted to do, and they came back with, `Well, at least involve (bassist) Tommy (Stinton) with it.' And once we did that, I just felt funny" about not involving drummer Chris Mars and guitarist Slim Dunlap. "Tommy did contribute, and Slim and Chris were more there in spirit. . . . And as soon as there was one more person along with myself on the record, it had to have The Replacements name on it."
Westerberg admits all is not well with The Replacements. He thinks a lot of the disquiet stems from his new-found concern about the quality of the music - a concern that was apparently absent during the first decade of the band's existence.
"I was tired of the way we had been touring, and I was trying to inject new life into the band," he said. "I wasn't doing this to break the band up. I was doing it to signal to the other guys that, `If you think you're comfortable and that this is a safe way to make a living, you're dead wrong. This is your art, and you should be dead serious about it.' Because I am."
Serious about rock 'n' roll? Isn't that an oxymoron? Westerberg thinks not.
"You have to be serious in the sense that what you're doing means a lot to some people. To go on tour and go through the motions - if that's the way it is, then let's just hang it up right now."
Westerberg seems to feel a responsibility to fans who've stuck with The Replacements over the years, especially those who've paid good money to see the band in concert.
"I mean, the letters I get (from fans), they're frightening. We've become a part of people's lives. And that affects me. I feel I've touched people's lives, and I feel a responsibility to take risks and to do things that are daring. I feel that's the most important aspect of the band. Not that we were this raucous, live stage act. The most important thing was that we were willing to take a chance."
Westerberg acknowledges that a teetotalling Replacements tour, with band members focusing on musical quality rather than alcohol-induced abandon, will likely disappoint some die-hard fans.
"There are people who say, `The band isn't as raw as they used to be.' It simply can't be helped, because we're at a point where we simply can't pretend that we know only three chords. I can't pretend I'm 19 and mad at everything in the world, because I'm not. We've gone full circle from the time when we, for lack of being great musicians, would do things to distract people's attention from the fact that we don't play very well."
Will the refurbished Replacements finally make the big time? Westerberg is non-commital. He remembers the high hopes that accompanied the 1989 release of "Don't Tell A Soul," a mainstream collection of upscale pop tunes that seemed destined for gold. But when the final receipts were counted, only 200,000 copies had been sold.
Even more disappointing was the accompanying tour, in which The Replacements opened for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
"We went on literally when people were coming in getting popcorn and buying a beer. You're up there sweating and bleeding, and you get a smattering of applause and you think, `Aw, what the heck.' "
At this point, Westerberg is hopeful about the new album - which was recently charted at No. 14 by Rolling Stone magazine - but he says he's ready to accept whatever happens.
"We spent a few years trying to tone it down and trying to slick it up a bit. Even on the last record ("Don't Tell A Soul"), it was an attempt at making top 40 radio . . . a failed attempt," he adds soberly.
"We've been hearing that for so long that, `This next one is going to be the one.' At this point, I'm not worried. So far we haven't taken a step backward. Each one has been a little bigger, and I can certainly live with that. It's not like we had that big record that just threw everything into our laps when we weren't ready for it. Even if nothing happened now, we'd be ready."