Meet the Manager: A Q&A with Peter Jesperson of The Replacements

Peter Jesperson, the longtime manager of alternative rock band the Replacements, first discovered the band when the lead vocalist Paul Westerberg gave him a four-song demo tape. Photos courtesy of Alberto Nissim.

The Replacements, a band considered a pioneer of alternative rock, was formed in late 1979 in Minneapolis, Minn. The band’s classic lineup featured lead vocalist and guitarist Paul Westerberg; lead guitarist Bob Stinson; Stinson’s younger brother, bassist Tommy Stinson; and drummer Chris Mars. The band’s longtime manager Peter Jesperson discovered its members when Westerberg gave him a four-song demo tape. Jesperson signed the group to Twin Tone Records and served as the band’s manager until 1986, helping them grow from indie to the mainstream.

The group was initially known as part of the punk scene in Minnesota, but Westerberg’s songwriting never truly fit that mold. He drew from a much larger palate, writing songs that drew as much on classic rock and country music as they did the punk rock of the day. This became evident in 1983’s Hootenanny, and earned the Replacements widespread critical acclaim on the band’s fourth album, Let It Be. The band built on this success with its major label debut Tim, which contained many of the band’s most famous compositions, including “Bastards of Young” and “Left of the Dial.” Westerberg’s songwriting drew much attention, and some hailed him as the voice of a generation. The band broke up in 1991 after the release of its final album All Shook Down.

Currently, Jesperson resides in Los Angeles, where he is working to reboot Twin Tone Records. The Daily Trojan caught up with Jesperson for a conversation about his time as the Replacements’ manager and his role in its success.

Daily Trojan: What made the Replacements different from any other band of the day?

Peter Jesperson: [The band] formed in late ’79, just as post-punk and new wave were getting popular and [it] didn’t sound like the other bands of the day to me. It was interesting to me, because at that time in Minneapolis I had a real bird’s eye view of the scene. A lot of people were playing as fast as they could and shouting slogans, and some of that I liked, and some of it I didn’t. But there was a lot of mediocre stuff crossing my desk. And when the Replacements came along, they sounded so different. They had a lot of elements – teenage angst, a punk-y style of playing and attitude and they just stuck out like a sore thumb. I was hearing so much stuff that sounded contemporary, that to hear them just took me back. I thought they sounded like a hopped-up version of Chuck Berry.

DT: What was on that first demo that you heard?

PJ: There were four songs on it, two of which we put on the first album. The first song was called “Raised in the City,” the second one was called “Shape Up,” and then there was “Don’t Turn Me Down” and one called “Shutup.” They didn’t sound like anybody else. And they were just better than anything I’d heard. They weren’t afraid to sound like a traditional rock band. So many other bands were like “No more Elvis, no more Beatles, no more Stones” in 1977. I thought that was kind of a silly attitude. They just sounded so different and so good. I honestly thought someone was playing a joke on me. I thought, “These guys are signed to a major label, and somebody is pulling my leg.”

DT: The Replacements have several songs — “If Only You Were Lonely,” “You’re Getting Married,” “Within Your Reach,” “Skyway” — focused on love and relationships. Would you consider them a romantic band?

PJ: I don’t know if I’d consider them a romantic band, but I’d consider Paul a romantic guy who’s inclined to write romantic songs. It was a while before he could incorporate those into the band thing. When we were recording Hootenanny, I remember we tried to record “You’re Getting Married,” and I remember Bob at one point saying, “Save that for your solo album. That ain’t the Replacements, Paul.”  So it took a while to get there. And the dynamic was weird, because it was Bob’s band to begin with. Bob was really resistant to Paul becoming the frontman. And I know deep down Bob understood that Paul was what gave them the broader appeal.

DT: What do you think Bob’s guitar playing added to the band?

PJ:  A lot of energy. And Bob’s influences weren’t traditional for a punk band. Most punk bands were self-taught and eschewed the Jeff Becks or the Jimmy Pages or the Eric Claptons and were trying to sound like the other punk bands of the day. But Bob loved The Beatles, and he loved Yes. Steve Howe was one of his favorite guitar players. One time I got Bob in to see Asia, the band that Steve Howe was in at one point, and got him backstage, and Bob was out of his mind. For him it was like meeting his hero. So Bob brought that rampant energy of punk, but he was also schooled on more traditional rock guitar players.

DT: As much as The Replacements had all these amazing original songs, a huge part of the band’s persona was all the covers it played. Why did they incorporate covers so frequently in their live shows and albums?

PJ: To me, all great bands start by playing covers. Generally speaking, people don’t form bands and have all original material. So they played covers to fill things out in the early days. The Beatles knew so many covers that they had enough material to play in Hamburg six nights a week, seven hours a night and not repeat songs. Doing covers and learning how a song works helps people write better songs of their own. At Twin Tone, some people were afraid that they’d be seen as a cover band, which I knew wouldn’t be the case. It was something that helped them write better songs and they were great songs for live sets. There’s a certain point where it tipped — where their own songs felt as strong as the covers. But in the early days, they’d play the covers and think they were better than their originals. And it helped the audience understand that these were people who listened to music and loved other people’s music.

DT: Changing gears a little, Tommy was 12 when he became a part of the band. How did he fare at such a young age and what was it like to watch him grow up?

PJ: The reason that Bob pulled Tommy into the group in the first place is that Tommy was getting in trouble, and he was trying to give him something more constructive to do. Tommy was 12 when we met. He certainly did childish things and acted like a kid sometimes, but a lot of the time he was just a musician. And he was such a good musician from the get-go that nobody ever questioned it. Watching him grow up was a funny experience. A lot of the time I felt the same way as you. I’d think, “Oh my God, are we ruining this person?” There was a point when bar owners would hassle us for him being under-aged. I had to go to a notary public and become his legal guardian for touring purposes. And up to a certain point he wouldn’t drink or be involved with any of the other substances we did.

DT: What do you think it is about Paul’s songwriting that makes it so powerful?

PJ: He read a lot. He’s super smart. I think the word “genius” gets thrown around way too often, but he is definitely a genius, no question about it. He loved words, poetry and literature, and he loved rock and roll with an all-consuming passion. He grew up loving music and studying it. He listened to songs and took them apart and tried to figure out how he could do something as good. And in some cases he did better than a lot of stuff he grew up listening to.

DT: The Replacements were able to have those serious, heartfelt songs and also have some silly, hilarious songs. How do you think the band members’ sense of humor added to their music?

PJ: I think a sense of humor is essential to any rock band. Not having one is the downfall of many a rock band. Forgive me if you’re a U2 fan, but I find them overly earnest. I think they could use some funny songs and some humor. I even feel like Bruce Springsteen, who I admire to the nth degree, can be a little overly earnest as well. But The Beatles had a great sense of humor, The Rolling Stones had a great sense of humor. I think the greatest bands had that. The bands that are overly serious are hurt by that. It takes them down a notch or two or three. Having a sense of humor and not taking yourself too seriously is really important. Rock ‘n’ roll is largely ego-driven, and when that ego isn’t checked, bad music can happen.

DT: How have The Replacements influenced the rock scene today?

PJ: You still see bands emulating them. I imagine there are a lot of people who don’t know who they are, like kids who my son goes to school with. But Beach Slang, they’re very Replacements-esque. Wilco was super influenced by The Replacements. Jeff Tweedy once said, “We love The Replacements so much we want to be The Replacements.” And I think they will continue to be discovered and influence music. How many times have we heard that guitar music is out? It’s never out for good. These things go in cycles.

DT: How would you summarize the primary message The Replacements wanted to communicate through their music?

PJ: Be yourself. I’ve always said I don’t understand it when people talk about guilty pleasures. If I like something, I like it. I don’t have a guilty pleasure. Some people will confess to secretly loving bubblegum music. Sh-t, there’s a lot of great bubblegum music, why wouldn’t you like it? The Replacements invited people to be themselves and not worry about it. If this is the way you are, just give it all you’ve got.

Editor’s Note: This conversation was edited for clarity.