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Peter Jesperson discusses Songs For Slim and The Replacements’ reunion

on January 15, 2013, 2:00pm
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The Replacement Songs For Slim Peter Jesperson discusses Songs For Slim and The Replacements reunion

I’m sure just them getting together has sparked tons of rumors about reunions, but in a recent quote, Stinson pretty much said that he ruled that out, citing a number of factors. But one of the ones that jumped out at me was when he commented about Westerberg being in constant competition with his own past. What are your thoughts on that?

Well, I suppose it’s sort of natural for anybody to be afraid to go back to some success of 20 or more years ago and think, can I resurrect that and make it as good? I’m sure there’s all kinds of trepidation in doing that. I think that one of the things about the Replacements that was so great was their spontaneity, and the idea of planning a reunion and going out on the road… They had a whole different ethos back in the day, a lot of flying by the seat of their pants. They weren’t great every night. They didn’t necessarily rise to the occasion in front of every audience they stood up onstage in front of.

How does that work for guys who are in their 50s? It sort of worked in an odd way back in the old days. It got to the point where some people came to the Replacements’ shows wanting to watch them get drunk and fall on their faces. The reason I fell in love with them was because they were great, not because they were awful, but some people just got off on the spectacle of it. Those guys aren’t hard partiers like they used to be, and so everybody wonders what the chemistry would be going back on the road. I think there’s an attraction to doing it, and there’s an attraction to letting the legacy be.

 Peter Jesperson discusses Songs For Slim and The Replacements reunion

How involved were you with the documentary Color Me Obsessed?

Gorman Bechard, the director, is a really great guy, and he reached out to all of us early on. It’s one of those things where the guys in the band and the people like myself, that were on the inner circle, so to speak, as you might imagine, over the years we’ve been hit up by lots and lots of people to talk and be interviewed for books, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, or the Experience Music Project. There’s all kinds of people that want to talk about the band. At a certain point, it’s all flattering that people are interested, but it’s hard to talk to everybody who wants to talk about that stuff. And you don’t know exactly how it’s going to turn out. You can’t control those things. We weren’t directing the project or in charge of the project. So, we just didn’t know what it was going to be, and it was like, oh, here’s another person who wants to make a film related to the Replacements. We had been approached several times, and we all kind of said that we’re very flattered you’re interested in doing it, you have our blessing, but we’re just not interested in being interviewed for the thing.

I have to say I was skeptical, to be honest, about the whole thing, and then when the director sent me a rough cut when it was nearly done, I was a little nervous sitting down to watch it, and I ended up absolutely loving it and being very engaged. My wife and I watched it together. She’s a huge fan of the band as well. Not to sound cliché, but we laughed, we cried, we were riveted. Maybe at that point I thought, damn, maybe we should have gotten involved with this; it turned out really well. But by that time, the movie’s done, so what are you going to do. And I think that the other thing is, too, that when you talk about being interviewed for either film or for journalists or authors, we actually figured that one day maybe somebody would write a real book, the real definitive biography of the Replacements, and that’s happening right now.

You may be aware of it, a guy name Bob Mehr, a pop critic for the Memphis Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tennessee, a great music writer, great guy, approached us and said he got a book deal with a legitimate big-time publisher and asked if we would participate. I trusted him immediately, and I said yes. He said, can you help me get to the band, and I said, yes. He actually got to Paul himself through Paul’s manager, but I helped him get to Tommy. Tommy was skeptical, but I said, look Tommy, don’t you think the band deserves the right book to document the history? And he said, “Yeah, I’d like to think that we deserve it.” And I said Bob Mehr was the right guy to do it, and if it’s not Bob Mehr, we could end up with some schmo writing it that isn’t going to be as good or is writing it for the wrong reasons.

We were afraid somebody was going to want to write about, obviously there was lots of dirty water that went under that bridge with the Replacements, and the idea of somebody wanting to write about the drunkedness or the partying or whatever, I wasn’t interested in talking to somebody who wanted to do that. I knew Bob Mehr wasn’t that guy. So, I basically said to Tommy, he was still living in L.A. at the time, that Bob Mehr was going to be in L.A. in a couple of months, and he’s going to come by the house for dinner and why don’t you join us. I think once you meet him, you’ll understand he’s the right guy. And if you meet him and you don’t think he’s the right guy, then so be it. We’d certainly accept you passing on the idea.

Tommy met him and pulled me aside afterwards and said, “Absolutely. He’s the guy. I’m with you, and this is the right thing to do”. So, now we have the real Replacements’ biography coming, and that’s because we were careful and cautious and didn’t talk to every Tom, Dick, and Harry that called up and wanted to do an interview. Now we’ve got a great book that’s coming out the spring of this year. I hope it’s going to be a great book; I haven’t read it, of course, but I trust Bob Mehr.

When you joined New West, did you just fold up Medium Cool, or did you allow it to get absorbed by New West?

Well, Twin/Tone was my label actually. Me and two other guys [Charley Hallman and Paul Stark] started it back in 1977. We had done tons of stuff between ’77 and ’91. In ’91, I just had a wild hair and thought I’ve been doing this with two partners for a long time, and they pretty much accepted most of the things. I handled, most of the A&R for the label in the early days, and it wasn’t like I ever had to fight with them. But I thought, maybe I’m going to try something that’s going be absolutely my own project, and I’ll do it through Twin/Tone. It was just an imprint of Twin/Tone’s to be honest, called Medium Cool. It was a little more “I get to do whatever I want” kind of thing.

I ended up making, I think, 13 records through Medium Cool. A couple with Tommy Stinson, a couple with Slim Dunlap. I did couple records with this great writer from down near Athens, Georgia, a guy named Jack Logan and a handful of other things. We just had a great time. And that was in tangent with Twin/Tone between ’91 and ‘97/’98. And then at that point, we’d had several partners with Twin/Tone. We were a small independent label from Minneapolis, and we had different people who were affiliated with us, who helped us financially and helped us with distribution, etc.

 Peter Jesperson discusses Songs For Slim and The Replacements reunion

Around ’97-’98, we just kind of felt that maybe Twin/Tone and Medium Cool had run their course. We thought, let’s fold up the tents. We’ll keep the back catalog active, but we’re going to quit making new releases. So, that’s what we did; we closed it up. We’d been affiliated with a label out here in L.A. called Restless. In fact, I moved out here and worked the Medium Cool stuff through their offices from ’95 through ’98. We just decided to fold up the tents, and we did that. So, in ’98, I was thinking what am I going to do next. I’ve been doing music for a long time, and I’ve had a good run; maybe it’s time I go and do something else.

I was exploring my options, and the next year, ’99, I got a call from Cameron Strang who had a one-man label called New West and was interested in expanding it slowly and thought I might be a good guy to get involved with. He liked some of the work I’d done with Twin/Tone and Medium Cool, and he knew I had moved to L.A. where he was. He said, “Would you like to join up with New West?” And after meeting him a couple of times and talking about what he wanted to do with the record label, I said, “Hell yeah!” So, it’s a completely separate thing, but now we’re kind of getting a little bit of that old Twin/Tone stuff folded in here at New West. I have to say it was quite jarring a couple of months ago when I started putting together the list of credits, what we call label copy; here I am sitting at my desk at New West Records doing label copy for a Replacements EP. Fuckin’ hell, what’s happening here? Pinch me, am I dreaming? It’s a nice sort of, not to sound cliché, but a full-circle sort of deal.

 Peter Jesperson discusses Songs For Slim and The Replacements reunion

Well, speaking of the Replacements and New West. You once commented on Westerberg’s evolution as an artist from a rocker to his current mellower self. Have either you or he entertained the idea of joining New West’s roster?

We have actually. We talked very seriously about it back around the time he was recording the songs that came out on those two records, one called Mono and one called Stereo. We had talked very seriously about New West signing Paul and doing those songs that he was recording, which later came out on Mono and Stereo. It just didn’t come together.

Paul and I had gone through a lot of stuff since we met in 1980, and I think we were both a little, “Wow do we want to go back there?” We certainly had our ups and downs, professionally and personally, and for whatever reason… It wasn’t for lack of trying. I think we both wanted to work together again. It just didn’t ultimately make sense, so he decided to go to Vagrant. And that was fine.

One of the things that was probably an issue, not like this was a deal breaker at the time because the deal just didn’t happen, but looking back on it, one of New West’s primary strengths is that we’re really a good label for artists that want to tour fairly regularly, and that’s something that Paul doesn’t want to do, or at least didn’t at that time. I don’t know if he’s going to want to do that. If the Replacements do some stuff, he’s probably not going to hit the road for six months. But that was something that in the back of my head I probably knew he wasn’t going to do, and maybe that part of the equation with New West was something that subconsciously deterred us. I don’t know.

Anyway, it didn’t work out. I think under the right circumstances, I’d love to work with Paul again, and I hope he feels the same. I’m probably going to be at New West for a while, but you never know about that. Maybe we’ll make some records together at New West; maybe we’ll make some records together somewhere else; maybe we don’t ever make records again. I don’t know. It’s a possibility, though. I love the guy, and I think he’s still got it. I think he’s still capable of painting another masterpiece, and I think tons of his solo stuff has been phenomenal. Obviously, I’ve worked with him for a long time, but I’m a huge fan of his work, and I would certainly consider that possibility.

Two of my favorite albums since the turn of the century (that sounds so weird) were New West albums: Chuck Prophet’s No Other Love and Blame the Vain by Dwight Yoakam.

Wow! Two of my favorites, too.

I know you’ve said that New West doesn’t focus on specific genres, but the roster it does seem to favor the alt-country and country. Why do you think that is?

Well, I think, if you reallylook at all the records we did, I’m always quick to point out to people that the first two records on New West were flat-out punk rock records by the Kelly Deal 6000. We also did a record with Stan Ridgeway from Wall of Voodoo. That’s hardly alt-country. We’ve done the John Tiven Band, which is a blues-based group from Memphis. We did Vic Chesnutt. I think he’s his own category all together, as unique an artist as I’ve ever heard and one of my all-time favorites. We did a record with Alice Cooper for god’s sake.

alice cooper dirty diamonds Peter Jesperson discusses Songs For Slim and The Replacements reunion

I read that, and that blew my mind. How did that happen?

Our first kind of sizable office we had some extra space, oh back in 2004, and so we rented out a couple of spaces to some other music business people. We had a producer/publishing guy by the name of Steve Lindsey, who did all kinds of different stuff, a crazy diverse list of things in his background. He produced a Leonard Cohen record; he produced a Burt Bacharach project. He had done work with Cher, and he did a lot of urban music at that time. He had been friends with Shep Gordon, Alice’s manager since ’68, since Alice Cooper was started. He had known Alice and had actually worked on a record with Alice previously. So, when Alice called him up and asked if he’d like to produce a new record, he said yes, and they started talking about where to record. We had a studio in our old building in Beverly Hills. It wasn’t like a tracking studio, but it was a great over-dub room.

When we heard Steve was working with Alice, Cam, the owner of New West, said if you need a room to do any work, we’d certainly be happy to have Alice come here. So he did. He came in and did all the vocals actually, in our studio. He came in at night, most of the time, when nobody else was around. I think he liked the vibe of the building. I know he used to come into my office all the time, when I would work late. I’ve always been one to plaster my walls floor-to-ceiling with old rock & roll memorabilia and posters and things. He really enjoyed that, and he used to come and look at stuff on the walls, and we kind of developed a little bit of a friendship. It just really sort of blossomed from there. It was like, I wonder if New West would be interested in doing this. He’d been working with a company, some international company. I forget what they were called. So, they said, would you be interested in doing it? Again, when I heard some of the tracks… I had been a big fan of the early Alice Cooper records; I saw him live once when I was 14 opening for the Mothers of Invention. I was just blown away, right when the first album came out, Pretties for You, 1969.

So, we just took a shot at it, and we had a really fun time. He was a great guy to work with, but anyway, I think we’re digressing from the point of your question way back. How do we get the alt-country thing? What’s interesting about it, when Cam started the label, he started it with Kelly Deal. That was why they did the Kelly Deal records first, and then Kelly decided she didn’t want to be in the label business. She just wanted to be an artist and had enough of the label ins and outs for two records. Cam said he wanted to keep the thing going and went to South By Southwest, as you do, to network. He literally went to visit a friend, knocked on a door, and it was the wrong door. He had gone to the wrong room number or something, and the door opened, and it was Billy Joe Shaver. Cam was a big Billy Joe fan, recognized him, and if you know anything about Billy Joe, he’ll have a conversation with a fence post; he’s just a very talkative man, and so they started up a conversation.

Billy Joe said you got a record label, and I don’t have a record label right now, do you want to do a record, and so he figured out a way to finance a Billy Joe record. That turned out to be a wonderful piece for us called Victory, an acoustic record he did with his son Eddie. I’m not sure how the story goes, but I think Billy Joe introduced him to Stephen Bruton, and it was kind of like one Texas artist begat another. Cam had a wide variety of taste, but when you’re a small label, sometimes having a niche can really help you build a platform from which to work. So, that’s kind of how it happened, a little bit snowballed. Stephen Bruton introduced us to Delbert McClinton, and that was our first really big artist.

Later on down the road, Bruton introduces us to Kris Kristofferson. Bruton had been Kris’s guitar player for many years. Because we got along so well with Stephen and Kris didn’t have a label, Stephen certainly gave us the thumbs up, and we ended up making a couple of records with Kris Kristofferson. And we were good at it. We found that we were naturally good at selling those records. I like everything; I like all kinds of music. To me, as long as it’s great, I don’t care what kind of music it is.

So, that’s how it worked. We still do some different stuff. We’ve got some very decidedly non-alt-country things right now. It’s kind of funny, every couple of years we take a crack at something else and see what happens. Sometimes we’re successful, and sometimes we’re not as successful as other times. And the business is changing almost hour to hour these days. It’s not like you get settled, eight to 10 years go by, and suddenly the industry changes. As you know, it’s evolving so fast and so drastically, it’s crazy.

twintone records e1358201982127 Peter Jesperson discusses Songs For Slim and The Replacements reunion

When asked what your greatest career challenge was, you said it was handling A&R at New West. Even more so than when running Twin/Tone?

Yes, in some ways. With Twin/Tone, it was my label, or part my label, and we also all had “day jobs” that were paying the rent. I ran a record store and was a DJ. My partner Paul Stark was a sound man and kind of an entrepreneur in different facets of the music business in Minneapolis. The third partner, Charley Hallman, was oddly enough, a sports writer for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the daily paper. It wasn’t a hobby by any stretch, but we weren’t relying on the label to pay the rent. And to be honest, I am not a business man. I don’t have a business bone in my body, and so I just basically followed my heart, and those guys talked me off the ledge a few times and other times let me follow my heart.

Like the Replacements thing. You have to look back on that. At the time, people made fun of me for latching onto that band in the early days. I remember somebody saying to me, “Peter, this is real smart. You’ve got a 12-year-old bass player. I’m sure this is going to work.” It was just one of those things. I was blindly in love with the band, and I didn’t care what other people thought. I believed in them, and I was going to stick with it. We were able to do those kinds of crazy things.

Fast forward to 1999 and I come to work with Cam Strang at New West, and Cam is very much a business man. Cam is one of the few guys that I’ve ever known in this business that can really straddle the fence between the creative and the business. I need to stay on the creative side of the fence; I have no place on the business side. He was looking to build a company that not only made strong artistic records but handled the business side of it smartly, which was something, frankly, that Twin/Tone didn’t do. Not to say that we did things badly or dumbly, but because we weren’t looking to Twin/Tone for an income, we were able to take all kinds of crazy chances. To do A&R well, you’ve got to do a whole bunch of stuff at once. You’ve got to have a lot of balls in the air, and that’s not an easy thing to do.

Frankly, I’m not especially good at it. I like to get involved with a project and follow it through to its completion and then go on to the next project. Almost more like what a producer does, and I really am doing more producing these days, producing a lot of archival stuff rather than new, young bands in the studio. I’m better suited for that. I’m a little older now, and I’ve done A&R for a long time, handling production and catalog for New West, and I’m really pleased about that. But, yeah, the biggest challenge. It was a difficult situation because I’m a very artistically oriented guy. I’ve butted heads with the business side of the company many times, and I’m glad to be out of that part of the operation to be honest.

When the question came up about what Twin/Tone acts you’d want to sign for New West, you said the Jayhawks. At the time you answered that question, the Jayhawks weren’t back together; now they are. Any thoughts about stealing them away from Rounder?

Oh, I would love to work with the Jayhawks. You know, we did a record with Mark Olsen and Gary Louris the first time they got back together, the two original singers. They broke up in ’95; well, Mark Olsen left in ’95, and Gary carried on with a different lineup with the one lead singer, himself. I would love to do another record with the Jayhawks. I’m not sure they’re really back together again. They made that record for Rounder and did a bunch of touring. Maybe there’s a version of the Jayhawks without Mark Olsen; I don’t know, but I would certainly love to get involved with Gary. I think Gary’s one of the best writers in the world. I’d work with him in a heartbeat if the circumstances were right. He’d have to be interested as well, and he’s got a lot of friends in the record business and a lot of people vying for his attention, people at other record labels that want to sign him, and maybe people that have more money than we do, whatever it is. Not that Gary’s in it for the money, but to some extent you have to watch what you’re doing carefully.

richardthompson electric e1358201061738 Peter Jesperson discusses Songs For Slim and The Replacements reunion

Any exciting new acts or releases on New West that we should pay attention to in 2013?

We signed Richard Thompson. Our first Richard Thompson record is coming out February 5th. I just think that’s absolutely, excruciatingly exciting. I was a huge fan of Fairport Convention, his first band, and a lot of his post-Fairport, his solo stuff, so it’s a great honor and thrill to be working with him. We’ve got a new Steve Earle record coming in April; we’ve done four with him, and I think this is he best that he’s done since his time at New West. He’s back with Ray Kennedy producing. It’s just a wonderful record.

We also have a band called the Wild Moccasins, from Houston, who are these young kids. They’ve got a girl singer, and it’s almost, to me, like a modern update on Blondie. It’s just really fun stuff, not alt-country by any stretch. In fact, I think they’re doing some work now with the singer from of Montreal [Kevin Barnes] producing. I just heard some demos yesterday, so they’re on my mind.

We’ve got another Delbert McClinton project with his friend Glen Clark, and that’s called Delbert and Glen. We’re going to be working with Patty Griffin. A lot of really great stuff coming up and some other things that I can’t talk about that are in discussion.

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