In the August 1998 issue of Live! Music Review, Minneapolis musician and L!MR contributor John Eller interviewed Slim Dunlap of the legendary Replacements. BigO editor Stephen Tan chipped in with a review of Putting On The Ritz - the first bootleg to chronicle Dunlap’s first tour with the band. It’s a revealing documentation from a time when the band was moving in a new direction and finding their footing with the newly added Dunlap holding down the lead guitar spot. Essential reading for all Mats fans. - Bill Glahn, editor, Live! Music Review
Editor’s note: Times are tough in the music business, even if you were in one of the most influential bands of the ’80s. Live! Music Review contributor John Eller interviews Slim Dunlap of The Replacements with Slim’s wife, Chrissie, sitting in. Reprinted from the August 1998 edition.
Slim Dunlap. A name many may know and many more might not. This is a man who has played both on the scene and almost on the scene for many a year.
Never a big star, Slim has a solid reputation as one of the last old-school cool guitar players. Weaned on Hank Williams and Keith Richards, Slim plays and writes his own style of homespun rock and roll by simply being himself. While you may hear hints of other musical influences in his work, the end result is always his own thing.
Slim’s demeanor can be both laid back and uneasy at the very same time, which makes for a strange combination. A quick wit that is tempered with a nervous “looking down at his feet” restlessness is exactly what makes Slim Slim. Whether on stage or dealing cards at the poker table, Slim always has a way of keeping your attention without the least bit of effort.
Not a spring chicken in the realm of what has become known as a young man’s game, Slim has a lifetime of experience to write about, as opposed to the run-of-the-mill twenty-somnethings posing and prefabricating their world-weary anthems. A listener will never be distracted by pretentious overtones in his music. He has been there, seen it and has no one to impress but his own critical ears.
His most celebrated work on a national level is with the seminal post-punk and highly influential band, The Replacements. Slim became the “replacement Replacement” when Bob Stinson was ousted from the band in the mid-’80s. Having already spent some years on the scene, Slim had carved out a decent reputation in Minneapolis having played with such regional acts as Curtiss A.
Slim had been working a day job as a janitor at First Avenue in 1987, when he was asked to join The Replacements. (After being kicked out of the band, Stinson floundered for years plagued by heroin addiction and alcoholism. Never able to reestablish himself as a professional musician, Stinson died at the age of 35 in 1995.)
Joining the band for the Pleased To Meet Me tour in 1987, Slim then appeared on Don’t Tell A Soul (1989), the highly underrated All Shook Down (1990), and the posthumously released best of and outtakes compilation, All For Nothing Nothing For All (1997). More facts relating to this part of his career are plentiful, and much can be found on the Internet (as Slim quickly points out when asked tiresome Replacements-oriented questions).
Never one to rest on the laurel’s of someone else’s accomplishments, Slim decided to hit the stage with his own band and material. When his first album, The Old New Me, came out in 1993, here’s what Entertainment Weekly had to say: “…the only solo album by an ex-Replacement that doesn’t sound like The Replacements… The Old New Me is mature, classy, and as unpretentious as you’d expect.”
With a second release, Times Like This, under his belt, Slim shows no indication that he is running out of ideas, charm, or steam.
John Eller: Are you recording now?
Slim Dunlap: Trying. But my career’s pretty much in a shallow, shallow shoal. The streams getting mighty tiny in my case. You kind of reach the point where making records is your own folly. It’s my own folly. I’m always trying to make a record.
You recorded both of your albums basically in your basement?
No. The first one I recorded at the Ryko building (5th Floor Recorders) with Brian Paulson. I got him right before he became a superstar. [Editor’s note: Paulson’s credits include Wilco and Son Volt.] The second one, Times Like This, I did at several studios.
Weren’t you holed up in the basement doing basics for something like a year?
Chrissie Dunlap (Slim’s wife): He didn’t use that. He spent hours and hours and hours…
Recording hundreds of guitar parts? That Jimmy Page kind of thing?
Not hundreds. I recorded a lot of the parts in case… I have my own weird way of doing it. I like to find a song. Some of them are easy to find and some of them are terribly difficult. I think that’s the quest for a lot of writers. If you have all the time in the world… all the money in the world, you could find all your songs. But you can’t. It just doesn’t happen. So some of them you just don’t tackle. You can reach a point where you’ve invested so much in a song and you’re still miles away. So you just have to give up on it.
Do you find that your best songs just come right out without thinking too hard?
Well, that’s the dream of all writers that your best songs just come to you in a flash and most writers have that moment. The trouble with writing is that the moment of inspiration is only like a minute long. And thereafter you have to recreate that moment and it’s very difficult to… sometimes you have that inspiration and you could have only done it in that minute you could have had it but you can’t.
It’s always kind of a trade-off. It’s not quite what you pictured it being when you first thought of it, but it’s close. There’s always that trade-off. It’s quite a big dilemma for many writers. The ones that are real perfectionists - if it’s not up to what it was when you thought of it, then it shouldn’t go out. But at some point you’ve got to let your guard up a little bit. Otherwise none of your songs will ever appear.
So you are saying that you have a bunch… a verse or something that’s lost because you didn’t capitalize on the moment?
You’re a much slower writer than I am!
Well, I’m the slowest one on the planet. I’ll have half a verse that I put down and then I can’t get back into it…
A couple years later… What is a song in most cases is what most number of people will buy as a song or believe as a song.
Do you write for the masses?
No, obviously not. (much laughter) What is a song to me, very often, isn’t a song to other people and I know that about me. What I perceive as a song sometimes… I’ll come to practice with this perfect little song in my own mind and I’ll show it to them (the band) and the looks on three innocent little faces looking at each other going “What?”
Your last album, I thought, had some pretty experimental tricky moments. It was very interesting.
That’s the fun of it. Taking the chance of not being the same is the riskiest thing in the music business because being the same is what everyone wants you to be. There’s a certain line where you can be too weird and too different and not survive. And I’m definitely over that. (laughter) But there has to be all kinds of artists. There has to be artists that take that risk. Everybody can’t be in the mainstream or the mainstream will have nowhere to rip off from. The mainstream so often is what was previously “the edge.” So there’s many different ways of going about your songwriting career.
So what do you think is alternative today then?
Not being an expert at what people in their 20s like and listen to… And sometimes the mainstream is different than what kids… Now kids have their music all over the radio. Alternative now is much stronger as a radio format than whatever you want to call “alternative music” has ever been. New wave never took over the radio the way “alternative music” has. Alternative music can’t complain that it isn’t being heard.
Don’t you think “alternative” is a misnomer?
Any type of music when it becomes known is doomed to imitation. And the name “alternative” never really had a clear identity. It’s basically at some point people are trying to be Nirvana… people trying to be Kurt Cobain. And you really can’t count on a type of music carrying on. It came from something and it turns into something. That’s the problem with alternative.
It wasn’t any one thing when it started and it’s become extremely mainstream music now. It’s kind of lost the fringe audience that it had. I think Kurt Cobain, had he survived, could have maybe wrangled the two and maybe become the Hank Williams of the ’90s - popular and still edgy. There’re so few artists now that you can say are really alternative artists. There’re so many that have that name but are really mainstream artists. They’re doing everything they can to reach the most number of people, to make the most number of millions of dollars and very rarely is that an artist-type person.
What about somebody like Henry Rollins or The Butthole Surfers? Do you think they’ve maintained their alternative status?
I’m not really a Butthole Surfers fan, but that’s a band that’s been around a long time and they’ve had to wrangle with that recently. They’ve been around for about 10-15 years and they finally reached that success point and that’s the end of so many bands that last for decades. They finally do become successful and that’s the bitter end of it. Because you’ve got to repeat success. That’ll be tough - to repeat success - so in my 47 years I’m happy that I’ve never had to worry about it.
So right now, would you rather be on a strong indie label that could really get behind your record or would you rather be on a major or would you rather do it yourself?
I really have the feeling now that it really doesn’t matter. I don’t think either way is really viable. No one right now should have it as a goal to get signed by a major in my opinion cause it’s a total waste of time. I don’t think they can sell you now. I think it’s up to your music and you’d be better off now Ani DiFranco style.
Do it yourself.
If you really get hugely popular and you’re not owned by some major label it would be to your benefit. I just completely don’t worry about it. I’ve given up on caring about it. I’ve been close a couple of times. Being signed has never been one of my goals. A couple of times people have tried to work my stuff across somebody’s desk until they find out how old I am. It’s not something for me to concentrate on so I don’t.
You’ve sat in with a lot of different players. I heard you played with Albert Collins.
I’ve met him a couple times. Talked to him a couple times. Never got to play with Albert Collins.
Chrissie: Bo Diddley.
Yeah, I got to play with Bo Diddley. That was a highlight. Bo is such a fine guy. He did a lot for me.
What’s your most memorable live music moment as for who you got to perform with?
You did not play with Liberace!
No, I guess Bo Diddley was my number one guy I got to back up.
Was there anyone that you backed up that was a disaster?
Yeah, there’s been a few of them. I guess my worst in regards to that was Otis Blackwell. That was not a good one. That didn’t work out too well.
Chrissie: The trailer - Party Doll guy.
Buddy Knox. He pulled up with his family in a Winebago to practice. We put together a little band. He came to the Uptown and we backed him up. We had learned all of his songs note for note. We had them down pretty good but he wanted to do them the way he does now - as a medley. It was so bad. I’ve had kind of a checkered past in that regard. I never really sought playing with big stars. There’re guys - that’s their whole quest - the bigger star the better. But that never really did it for me. I never was a really big hired hand.
So before you ended up in The Replacements were you looking at doing solo stuff? How did you end up being in The Replacements?
Oh, that’s been bandied about over ten thousand times. I just let people refer to the Internet. Basically I was a janitor and Bob (Stinson) was in The Replacements and I ended up in The Replacements and Bob ended up [as a janitor]. It’s hard to say who got the better deal there.
So at that point what were you doing musically?
Trying. I was always trying. You go through periods where you don’t really know. You catch a lucky break.
I guess what I’m getting at is your first solo record came out about five years ago. How long in coming was that? Had you been thinking and planning that out for years? Or was it “now is the time to do a solo album?”
It was for me - the impetus to put out records and record was the only way you could play.
Have you been writing songs all through your teens and twenties?
Yeah, not seriously like I wanted to be a professional songwriter, but screwing around… I don’t consider myself to be a professional songwriter. It’s too silly of a thing to call a profession. Some people play crossword puzzles and some people write songs. It’s just a little puzzle you give yourself every day just to try to stay sane. That’s my take on it.
Who do you think has been the most successful non-professional… how do you put it… the most successful amateur songwriter in your opinion?
Oh, there’s been lots of them. Lots of people that aren’t really hardened pros scavenging other people’s riffs for a hit… There have been lots of cases where somebody just wrote a goofy little song for their own goofy little purposes and it turned into “Funkytown” or whatever. I think the two schools of songwriting are there. There are people out there lurking - taking any new idea and turning it into a marketable hit. The Goo Goo Dolls. Then there are people who come up with stuff for their own stupid reasons that don’t have any aspirations. I guess the most famous is Hoyt Axton’s mom. She kind of wrote songs for the pure fun of it. “Heartbreak Hotel.”
Hoyt Axton’s mom wrote “Heartbreak Hotel”?
That’s the legend. Yeah.
Wow! How do you just write a hit for Elvis Presley? Can you imagine!
She was a songwriter and it was just sitting on the shelf. Yeah, “My mom wrote that song for Elvis.” You can just hear Hoyt. (laughter)
How many guitars do you have?
Working? Three of four. Non-working? Five or six.
How old were you when you started playing guitar?
I dabbled with it maybe at 10 or 11 when I started stealing my sister’s acoustic. It’s not specifically the guitar for me. Just the quest of music. Other people are fascinated by it and the little pieces that make it work. It’s kind of like being a clock maker. Songs have their own weird little mechanisms and you get fascinated by the way they’re written. Sometimes it can be a song that is not even necessarily any good. It’s just kind of interesting. That’s kinda me. It doesn’t even matter if it’s a big hit or not. It’s just an interesting little song that has some quirky little thing in it.
No Burt Bacharach genius chord progression?
Nope - never was a big fan of the Burt man.
Were your parents supportive of your musical…
Well, my mom is a wonderful person and highly supportive of anything. My dad - he knew that it’s a totally stupid way to think that you could… So he always cautioned me and warned me and counseled me “don’t count on this. Don’t count on that.” As any parent would be.
Being a parent now, I can see how parents dread their kids becoming musicians especially now. ‘Cause it’s such a stupid thing to let your kids head into. It’s just such a ridiculous career - as far as a career. So, as much as my parents could but without being crazy, you have to let your kids know that, hey, this is insane. Nothing good will ever come of this and you have to be honest with your kids about your worries for their security. I think my dad knew that I’d always be broke. I think that was his big worry there.
Do you have any musical friends or acquaintances that you think have finally gotten the attention they deserve or friends that you wish would get attention?
I’ve heard many, many songwriters around the country, especially in the last couple of years. There are a lot more talented people out there than the business has awareness of. There are more deserving people in some cases than the people who are there. There’re lots of frustrated people wherever you go. A lot of them think that I have gotten the big break, that I’ve had a lucky career. But just look at it… don’t think like that. But it’s a frustrating thing, you know.
For those that are satisfied and successful there are hundreds and hundreds of thousands who have had a tough time. Some people have no hope of anyone acknowledging them ever. In every little town there will be some person that everyone knows is really good and yet nobody outside of that community has ever really heard their music. There’re many cases of that.
Music is actually far healthier than you think right now as far as I’m concerned. No matter how bad it’s gotten, it hasn’t hurt the little songwriting crowd because there’re still really wonderful songs just coming out of nowhere. The harder it gets, usually the better the tunes get and I think that explains the ’80s. It got easy there for awhile. (laughter) The song quality just dipped there for awhile. But the ’90s have been so tough that I don’t think there’s any shortage.
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Putting On The Ritz [Punk Vault, 1CD]
Live at the Ritz Theater, New York City; July 27, 1987. Very good soundboard.
Those who are lucky enough can relive their teenage angst with their Replacements bootlegs. And there can’t be many of you folks otherwise Paul Westerberg wouldn’t be thinking how nice it’d be if he’d sold a million or two more copies of his albums.
Then again, and it is probably an accepted fact by now, no one collects Replacement boots for their sonic quality or for Westerberg’s crystal clear voicings. Even with his distinctive raspy voice, he can slur as well as your Dylans and Springsteens.
That none of that is available on this bootleg doesn’t mean that Putting On The Ritz is a complete throwaway. By 1987, The Replacements not only already had a reputation as a great band, they had already released three of their best albums - Let it Be (1984), Tim (1985), and Pleased to Meet Me (1987).
However, Replacements boots that have been relatively easy to track down feature shows from 1984 (the well-known Inconcerated that surfaced on cassette and on Australia’s Black Cat label), 1989 (Goodbye Bozos and S***, Shower and Shave), and 1991 (Hangin’ It Up - which duplicated in better quality Disc 2 of Goodbye Bozos). For the collector then, Putting On The Ritz helps to fill a gap in the live history of the band.
For all the tales of drunkenness and wild playing that plagued the band’s early years, the group seemed pretty sober here. The band is pretty tight - probably helped in no small measure that a good number of songs generally appear on their live set - classic tunes like “Little Mascara,” “Swinging Party,” “The Ledge,” “Kiss Me on the Bus,” and “Hold My Life.”
Contrary to common belief, the band seemed very focused in its performance - one hardly detects a sense of fun or mischief even. Even a riotous affair such as “Tommy Gets his Tonsils Out” is played straight and “Takin’ a Ride,” the set closer, which should have brought the house down, sounds like a cramped version of Sweet’s “Ballroom Blitz.”
But when they did cut loose, as on the honky tonkin’ “Sweet Home Chicago,” and especially on “Go,” they could get you where it hurt.
On tour to promote Please to Meet Me, they also manages to throw in a couple of real oldies, “Lovelines” and “Within Your Reach” from Hootenanny, the throat wrenching “Go” from Stink, and “Takin’ a Ride” from Take Out the Trash. And it would be some time before tunes like “Within Your Reach” were aired again.
Listening to the tracks, one senses an attempt by The Mats to present a complete show - the mix and match between old and new songs generally works with a fine balance between fast, slow, and bluesy material. The latter with songs like “Lovelines” and “Nightclub Jitters” really show how adept the band was at playing the barroom circuit.
At the end of the day, this isn’t the rip-roaring set that helped to cement the legend of The Replacements. It is notable more for the songs that generally don’t appear on other boots, like the much sought-after “If Only I was Lonely” than for the so-called standards. Fans can take pride in knowing that “Another Girl, Another Planet” was being played back as far as 1987. - Stephen Tan
(August 1998 issue of Live! Music Review)
Click here to download the show.
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Note: Bill Glahn wrote, edited and published Live! Music Review, a magazine devoted to bootleg recordings when bootlegs were not so common. And they are still not so common today. Live! Music Review is also on Facebook and on Twitter (LMRonTwit). Do drop by to say hello and, as Bill says, all comments welcome.