Bob Mehr on The Replacements Box Set Dead Man's Pop

Interviews, The Afternoon Show w/ Kevin Cole
Kevin Cole
photo by Paul Natkin / WireImage

On September 27th, Rhino Records released a new Replacements box set called Dead Man’s Pop, which includes a remixed version of their album Don’t Tell a Soul, as well as a double live album called Complete Inconcerated Live, and a disc of rarities, We Know the Night, which includes a one-off session with Tom Waits. The box set was co-produced Jason Jones of Rhino Records and Bob Mehr, a New York Times bestselling author who has spent much of his life as the Replacements’ de facto archivist. In anticipation of the release of Dead Man's Pop, KEXP's own Replacements scholar Kevin Cole sat down with Bob Mehr to unpack this extensive collection. Read or listen to the full interview below.

KEXP: Bob, you and I have been Replacements fans for decades. You've written a definitive story, Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements, and you've produced this exceptional Replacements box set that Rhino Entertainment has just released called Dead Man's Pop. Before we get into that, set the stage. How would you explain the legacy of The Replacements to someone who may not have heard them before? 

Bob Mehr: Well, I think for me it's always been the fact that The Replacements are a classic rock and roll band. They sort-of came out of the punk, post-punk era, were really identified with the American indie movement in their early years on Twin Tone Records, their hometown label, the band obviously being a foursome out of Minnesota. I think what's been revealed over time is they're a classic rock and roll band. They've certainly had influence on rock and roll bands over the last 25-30 years, but I think they almost harken back to the era of the early Rolling Stones or Slade or Mott the Hoople. The exciting thing for me, as a Replacements fan and someone who's documented the band, is they cover a whole wide range of music when you look over the eight albums of their career. You really go from like the snotty, punk type anthems on Sorry Ma... to the refined singer-songwriter elegance of of All Shook Down and everything in between covers every kind of music, every kind of style, every kind of approach. So as we say, in the Replacements' catalog, there's something for everyone. 

Why do you think The Replacements continue to be important? 

It goes back to the songs. Fundamentally, I think Paul Westerberg is one of the great songwriters certainly of his generation and probably of all time. I think also they were a great rock and roll band and I think that combination — having a really great songwriter with a great rock and roll band, a powerful rock and roll band, a dangerous rock and roll band — that's a rare kind of mix. And I think when it happens, it's something really special. I think also they have a lot of romance and myth attached to them. The truth is they were a band that was always beloved, always had a rabid following, was always expected to be the "big band" out of America, the next Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, the next Rolling Stones, the next whatever, and it didn't quite happen and I think them falling just short in a sense — in a commercial sense — is what's kept them fresh and people coming to them and discovering them, because they want to know about this story, they've heard about The Replacements or are aware of the legend. But really to me, the legend is the music and that's what we've tried to do with some of these reissue projects. 

Rhino Entertainment have just released this Replacements box set, Dead Man's Pop. You co-produced it. The base of the box set is a remix of the band's 1989 album Don't Tell a Soul. There's also a disc of unreleased rarities, including a bunch of recordings with Tom Waits, and there's a double disc of a live concert, the complete Inconcerated Live. But first, let's talk about the remix of Don't Tell a Soul. Tell me about the significance of this record in the Replacements discography. 

It was their third major label album and their sixth overall, but their third for Warner Brothers, and I think it came at a point when the band had been together almost ten years, had been sort of knocking on the door of success and never quite kicked it in. I think there was a lot of pressure going into making that album, a lot of expectations both internally and externally, and I think very few bands last that long without having some kind of real appreciable success and I think that was the sort of quandry The Replacements found themselves in. I think also things were changing for the band. Paul's songwriting was evolving, his themes were different, his music was different. I think they were becoming more interested in the process of making records. Typically, they'd sort of just gone in and bashed out a record. With this record, they really kind of worked at it. They spent most of 1988 recording. They made a couple attempts: they started making the record up in Bearsville, New York with another producer named Tony Berg, eventually completed it with Matt Wallace at a battery of studios including Cherokee and Capital in L.A., and obviously finished up at Paisley Park, Prince's studio, which was newly opened then.

And what happened is Matt and The Replacements were really making a new sort of Replacements record, but yet, it was a classic sounding Replacements album. What happened at the end of the process is label and management — with the band agreeing — decided to hand off the mix to a pro mixer Chris Lord-Alge who did the job he was tasked with. He made the record sound more radio-ready, more of its time of 1988-89, and it certainly served them well commercially — it was their best-selling record. I think in the longer term, Matt Wallace not being able to mix the record or the band not being able to have its version of the record out there, I think the legacy of the record's reputation maybe suffered a little bit because it was so time-stamped with the production and the sonic aesthetics of '89. And I think what we wanted to do was let Matt finish the job he tried to start back in '88 and to mix this record. You know, I would say it's very hard to un-hear a record that that you've known for 30 years. But I think in this case, people who hear this version — Matt and the band's mix of it — I think they'll have their minds blown. It's a totally different record even though it's the same record. And I think what Matt's mix does is, it finds the spirit and the charm and the humor and the creative ambition of The Replacements that was a little bit buried in the released mix and released version. 


In terms of the remix of Don't Tell a Soul, what song really stands out and shines from this new mix that might not have otherwise in the original version?

For me, the things that stand out are song like "Talent Show" which just totally captures the essence of The Replacements much better than the original mix did, where you're hearing that banjo, and you're hearing them joking amongst each other, and you're hearing the power of the guitars and the interplay. But to me, the two songs that really jump out are "Darlin' One" and "Rock and Roll Ghost" and, of course, this version of the album, Matt's mix, has a new sequence which is the band's original working sequence. We return to that. And "Darlin' One" is such an epic kind of song and I think you hear a lot more of the kind of Beatles-y elements, I suppose, in terms of Slim's backwards guitar and the power in the way Paul is singing. I think there's an intimacy to a lot of the tracks, especially that one, in terms of how he's singing and phrasing. And then, of course, "Rock and Roll Ghost" which, in its slightly more stripped down, true-r form, a song Paul wrote as a dedication to an old high school friend who had committed suicide. But then it also spoke to his own sense of being a ghost in this band after ten years and and seeing the end of things, which was just around the corner, and it's really just an incredible performance, an incredible version now when you hear all the little delicate nuances that come to the fore in Matt's mix. 

Is there one song on this box set that best conveys the spirit of The Replacements at this point in their career?

A song that captures a lot of where they're at is this new version of "I'll Be You" which is the familiar hit and yet it's unfamiliar in this new way. It's less striving to be that propulsive, pop radio hit of '89 and it's more just a really incredible song that has all these layers of meaning and feeling that you're hearing now and all these touches, like the acoustic slide which is really present. So, to me, "I'll Be You" is still the signature song on this record, but it's a totally different "I'll Be You" that's just shaded slightly differently, and yet it makes so much of a difference. 

There's so many great stories around the Don't Tell a Soul project. Can you tell me about the Bearsville sessions? What happened there?

As you know, The Replacements are south Minneapolis city kids, so putting city kids in the country may not have been the best idea. I think that location started to wear on them pretty quickly and so things got pretty heated with Tony and amongst themselves. I think at one point they threw a scare into Metallica who was also working in the studios. As Tommy Stinson put it, it was a little bit like The Shining, being sent off into the cabin fever realm and everything started falling apart. But out of that, still we ended up with nine great songs on this. Some of them are more interesting from a historical perspective — early versions of "I'll Be You" and "Aching to Be", where it's different lyrics, different tempos, and then there's things like "Portland" and "Wake Up". These are new versions where you really hear them developing the songs. So I think, even out of the chaos of Bearsville and what had been a shelved session, 30 years later there's a lot of insight and a lot of really cool things for fans to hear. 

As part of Dead Man's Pop, there's a full concert from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee '89, the complete Inconcerated Live which is amazing. Tell me some standouts for you from that live performance. 

To me, I think what's interesting is more the overall. In a lot of ways, they're all over the place, they're totally locked in because drummer Chris Mars and Tommy Stinson have been playing about ten years together at this point. So, they have that incredible simpatico you get over time playing as a rhythm section. Slim is there and he's so rock solid as a rhythm guitarist and he's so grounded that it allows Paul to really go out there. You hear Paul improvising lyrics, going out to the crowd, and so they're as wild as ever in a weird way with Slim manning things. You hear just how exciting all that stuff is, that combination of being totally in control, totally locked in, and yet walking that tightrope without a net. So that's the really interesting thing for me, and I think you really hear that on stuff like on the live version of "Talent Show", the live version of "Alex Chilton", some of the Pleased to Meet Me material that's on here really stands out in addition to all the 'Don't Tell a Soul' songs that they do. 

On the rare and unreleased disc, there's six songs with Tom Waits. Now "Date to Church" had been floating around out there. I was unaware of these other songs. Tell me about those sessions. 

Well, it had been a mutual admiration society from far between the Replacements and Tom Waits. I think he'd gone to see them on the Pleased to Meet Me tour in Los Angeles after seeing that he commented in an a number of magazines and articles how much he liked The Replacements. So, through a mutual friend, while they were making Don't Tell a Soul in Hollywood, they connected with Waits and really, the session and the songs that are on this box are the result of this one-night session where they got together at Cherokee Studios and were playing covers and coming up with songs and playing each other's songs, so there's some interesting stuff. They do a cover of "I Can Help", the Billy Swan hit from the '70s. They come up with this Jimmy Reed-style blues song that's an original, just Paul and Tom batting back verses. And then worked on "We Know the Night" which was a Replacements original that Waits really instantly fell in love with, and you can hear them working that up. And then, of course, there's a new version of "Date to Church" that has some elements that were left off the original, which was released as a b-side. I can hear the spirit and the chemistry and just the fun they're having, so that was a nice way to round out all the rarities from the studio and the more serious attempts at making this record. It was an important night, I think, for the band historically and personally, and so we wanted to commemorate that. 

For the box set Dead Man's Pop, you wrote a detailed history of this era of The Replacements. It's included in a booklet in the box. Can you talk a bit about how this whole project came about in the first place?

About maybe four or five years ago, as I was finishing up the research on my book Trouble Boys, which I'd been working on for a number of years, as part of that research I was doing a lot of archival exploration — audio and video — and just trying to piece certain things together. So I kind of became the default and defacto archivist for the group. So, when the band was doing their reunion — 2013, 2015, somewhere in there — I met with Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson just to let them, you know, assess. They wanted to get a sense of what was there and what hadn't been released, what might be possible to do as future reissues or archival releases, things that could be enhanced or expanded or put out for the first time. As this was happening, the thing that really sparked it — in typical Replacements fashion — is Slim Dunlap. In that time, Slim's wife Chrissie Dunlap found some tapes buried in their basement or hidden in a cupboard and what looked like Replacements tapes, and lo and behold, it turns out to be a bunch of session tapes from the Don't Tell a Soul session, specifically, they had been at Paisley Park as the band was finishing up the album. And as the legend goes, back in '87, they stole some tapes and threw them in the Mississippi River. These tapes, they didn't throw in any body of water, they just stashed them at Slim's house. And what was included on there was the full Tom Waits session and most importantly was Matt Walsh's first very quick attempt at mixing this record back in '88. I was dispatched, basically, to go pick those tapes up and so that kind of got the wheels turning for me and, in turn, for the band, that it was time to do this. I think Paul Westerberg had always wanted to hear this version — and he'd said it many times over the years — without "all the goop" on it. 

What's next? 

Unlike a lot of bands, The Replacements fans haven't been saturated with releases. Basically, there was a compilation in '97, there was another Best Of in 2007 or 2006, and some album reissues in 2008. So, in 30 years, they've only had a handful of things. And I think there's a lot of stuff still left in the vault. It may not be as dramatic in terms of 50 or 60 unreleased tracks like this, but I think there's a lot of places we can go in terms of looking at The Replacements' story in a new way. I know you and I agree: they're an important band and important bands have legacies that need to be tended to and that's what we've tried to do with this, and tried to put a light back on The Replacements' creativity. So much of The Replacements legend is about their myth and their behavior and the antics and the behind-the-scenes stuff. But, really, to me, the thing that makes any band last and any band important is the music, and if we can keep shining a light on that and doing it in new ways with these projects, then hopefully there will be a lot more. I don't know exactly what the next thing is, but with any luck, we'll get another shot to do another thing like this. 

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