Minnesota's most enigmatic songwriter since Bob Dylan left Hibbing is about to take a band across state lines for the first time in eight years. He's also working on the soundtrack for an upcoming Sony animated feature, Open Season. But he's back in someone else's studio solely because collaborative projects require, well, collaboration.
"This is a movie," Westerberg says. "If we were making a record, we'd be doing it in my basement and it'd be done."
Film work isn't unfamiliar turf. After the Replacements split in 1991, Westerberg's first appearance as a solo artist was a two-song contribution to Cameron Crowe's Singles. Crowe also borrowed a Replacements tune for 1989's Say Anything... . Two Westerberg cuts can be heard on the soundtrack of last year's Saved!, and "Can't Hardly Wait" provided the title for a Jennifer Love Hewitt vehicle. The high school in Heathers, Westerberg, was even named in his honor, courtesy of admirer Winona Ryder.
"I cut a song for the film about two weeks ago in Los Angeles," Westerberg says about the new project, "and we played the old-fashioned game, which was like we'd do ten takes and then I would sing it ten times, and then leave it to the engineer to piece it together. So it's like I'm not beyond doing that if it's sort of required. If it's up to me, I prefer to just go with the feeling, like the bluesy first, second take. But anything's possible. I could end up making a record with another producer."
One film project Westerberg did turn down was a role as himself in the upcoming indie release Aurora Borealis. In the original script, a young woman travels to Minnesota to meet her hero.
"She's looking for something that ain't there," Westerberg says. "Just the whole nature of someone coming to Minneapolis to find me hit too close to home. There's one or two harmless people who come to find me, and then there's, every now and then, kind of an iffy, you know, 'Are they toting a gun?' kind of person."
Of course, fellow soundtrack contributors like Randy Newman don't have to worry about obsessed fans turned stalkers, because it's not Westerberg's movie work that has inspired more than one disciple to embark on a pilgrimage to see this patron saint of the alienated and dispossessed.
For many, Westerberg's dozen years with the Replacements solidified his post as the voice of his generation. The group released some of the most important albums of indie rock's glory days (see: Hootenanny and Let It Be), putting forth Westerberg-penned anthems of loneliness and strained desperation ("Within Your Reach" and "Unsatisfied") alongside irreverent, often juvenile humor ("Gary's Got a Boner").
But Westerberg's older now. Born on the last day of the 1950s, he's married to former Zuzu's Petals guitarist Laurie Lindeen, and together they have a six-year-old son, Johnny. His solo work tilts more toward wry love than rebellion, and after contracts with Sire/Reprise and Capitol failed to produce the pot of gold at the end of the radio, his last three discs -- his basement tapes, as it were -- were released by the independent label Vagrant.
Still, it's not merely the fixated who long for Westerberg's songwriting secrets. And as it turns out, the process is fairly simple.
"I do them fast," he says. "I do them fast, fast, fast, but to me it's conversational to go back and look at a lyric, throw something that might be poetic in there.
"I usually do three tracks. I do the original, which is inspiration. I do the second one, which I try to get the lyrics down properly, and then the third one, where I try to [say], 'Okay, now I'm going to perform it again.' Nine times out of ten, 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's records that I released that have nonsense words, but we never went back to fix them."
The cult figure also admits that fatherhood has had an effect on his art. "If I'm struggling for an idea and I know [Johnny]'ll be home from school in fifteen minutes, that'll make me want to finish it quicker rather than have him come in during a vocal break. So he's taught me to speed it up.
"His tastes in music have, let's say, infiltrated my own. I mean, not changed, but he's like a teenage boy. He's six, but he likes Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin. He's a riff-monger. He wants to hear that fast riff, and I've never been one to rely on the riff, being the rhythm guitar player. But it's kind of fun to, you know, have him listen to my stuff and say, 'Oh, that's crap.'"
After 2002's Stereo, the first of his home recordings, Westerberg took to the road -- just man and guitar -- for a string of in-stores and concert performances. But it was a short homestand last fall, in support of his most recent release, Folker, that convinced him to try the band thing again.
"It felt so good, you know? We played three shows in Minneapolis and they all sold out, and they were bootlegged extensively, to the point where I thought, 'Well, if this many people want to hear this, then let's take it out on the road and see what happens.'"
He'll be backed by friends -- guitarist Kevin Bowe, bassist and "cornfield movie star" Jim Boquist and longtime Prince percussionist Michael Bland -- and the set list will incorporate the length and breadth of Westerberg's songwriting catalogue. But just what can he do with a band that he can't do solo?
"I can share a smile," Westerberg says. "I can share a smile and a joke. I can make a fuck-up and turn and look at Jim and get a laugh. And I can miss a chord and have Michael yell out, 'B flat,' and that kind of thing. You can't beat having some buddies onstage."