When The Replacements released Don't Tell a Soul in 1989, many of their fans felt like the record was too polished and too pop. Producer Matt Wallace [Tape Op #128] took a good portion of the blame for the band’s “selling out.” But what a lot of people overlooked is that the record was not mixed by Matt, but by Chris Lord-Alge. Rhino Records (owned by Warner Bros. Records, parent company of Sire Records, which originally released Don't Tell a Soul) recently released The Replacements’ Dead Man's Pop, featuring remixes of Don’t Tell a Soul by Matt Wallace. The mixes are a revelation, and the record feels like a very different album, with new parts and song sections that were not on the original release. Matt remixed the record in the box, via Pro Tools from a transfer of the original 2-inch, 24-track tapes, using minimal, mostly older (Bomb Factory, McDSP, Valhalla), plug-ins, and treated Pro Tools as a tape machine. In addition to the Don’t Tell a Soul remixes, this four volume album also has outtakes from Tony Berg's [Tape Op #121] work with the band at Bearsville Studios, some live tracking that Matt did in the studio (including a few songs with Tom Waits!) and several live sets.
I'm generally not that interested when bands release remixed versions of their back catalog or include lots of alternate versions of the songs and other minutiae. I feel like the statement the band made at the time was a moment in time, and revisiting it often seems a bit pointless, especially on records that were made with a decent budget and a fair amount of time in the first place. Tape Op’s editor, Larry Crane, made an excellent point in issue #130 (“At the Feet of the Masters”) on how these albums can be great learning tools, but I rarely find them enjoyable to listen to. But in the case of Dead Man's Pop, the remixed version is much better than the original version and it's been on regular rotation at our house. I called to chat with Matt about the remixes, and found it quite interesting.
Great work on Dead Man's Pop! It sounds like a whole new record.
Thanks, I think so. That was the goal. It’s like a whole new record, but actually, it’s the original record, which we always intended. It’s literally a once-in-a-career opportunity for me to be able to go back and finish a record the way that I originally envisioned it. It was really something to be able to do that. It’s very rare that I can go back and say, “Oh man, I didn’t get that right! What can I do to improve upon it?” This time I got to go back and do it the way that the band, Paul [Westerberg], and everybody had envisioned it. This was the way that we wanted it to sound originally. I think this approach to the mix would have kept most of their fans, because the one that was released was obviously quite a bit more polished. But, of course, the Chris Lord-Alge mixes got them on the radio. Fair enough, that’s what happened. But it’s not the way we wanted it to sound. I’m really, really fortunate.
Was that the prevailing thinking then from the label, that it needed to be on the radio and that was the be-all, end-all of the record?
I think so. They were always pushing for the band to have more success than they did. Pleased to Meet Me, as good as it was, I don’t think got as much radio play as they wanted. When we worked on Don’t Tell a Soul, they were pushing for that. I hadn’t been known for anything except for Faith No More’s We Care a Lot. I made a total rookie mistake, when we were at Paisley Park and the band wanted rough mixes so that they could hear what we did. The label wanted mixes to hear if I could mix it, but I didn't think about that at the time. I rough mixed the entire record on one Sunday – the entire thing – which means I spent 45 minutes per song. Obviously I couldn’t do any real mixing, or any nuances. When that got turned in I think that completely tipped the scales, to, “Oh yeah, we’ve gotta get someone like Chris Lord-Alge to mix this.” We never had pressure to make a pop record, but we definitely had pressure to spruce things up a little bit and make them a little more listenable. I think having Chris on board was what that did. In a perfect world I would have said, “Have somebody else mix the album – me or somebody else – and then have Chris mix the singles.” That would have made sense to me, but I didn’t have enough juice at the time to say anything, and we just had to roll with it. That’s what happened.
As I was listening to it for the first time, it felt like 30 or 40 percent of the record just got muted out. A very liberal use of the mute button.
That’s exactly what happened. That’s typical of Chris, though. He’s mixed stuff that I’ve worked on where labels wanted him to do it. He’s really good at weeding through. If you and I were working on a record and we spent three days on a guitar track, we’d be like, “Oh man, we have to use that guitar track!” He’d be like, “Nope, mute. It doesn’t fit the song.” And I'd say, “But we spent three days!” And Chris would say, “I know, it doesn’t fit the song.” Some of what he does is judicious editing, which I think is good, but in the case of this band he unfortunately got rid of a lot of what the fans would call the “charm” of the band – the little guitar pieces and vocal things that I felt were what was endearing about the band. I believe that there could have been a way to keep that endearing quality and still have a record that could get on the radio. At least let most of the album have that endearing quality, and then maybe clean up the singles. But again, nobody asked my opinion.
Yeah, I felt like a lot of little vocal things I was hearing were new.
Yeah, it’s all there now. Part of it was that the band had a lot of bluster, and there was muscle in some of those songs with the guitars, but if you listen to Slim’s background vocals they’re really, really quiet and very tentative sounding. Same thing with Chris Mars. To me, that was a flavor that was really important to include, along with Tommy and Paul who are just walking out there swinging their dicks. They’re very confident. But having Slim being more gentle, and having Chris sing more gently, I thought was very important, because the band is really a yin and yang push and pull between tenderness and aggression. I thought that was something that was really missing from the original version of the mix, so I’m happy that it came together so that we were able to do it the right way. I just kept it incredibly simple. I didn’t do any tuning or put any drums in time; none of that. It’s just pretty much the way it is. On occasion there would be a guitar chord that was way off time, or a guitar chord that was wrong, but that was very, very minimal. I think the whole thing was 98 percent the way it was, and I just did a couple things every once in a while if something was just egregious. Generally it’s just them doing their thing and just me unmuting things and going, “Hey, here’s the band!” It was pretty cool.
It’s like a restoration.
It was a restoration. That’s a really great way to describe it, because that’s very much the way that I think it felt. It’s like when they restore the Sistine Chapel or whatever they do. It was very much a restoration. I think that’s a very accurate word for it.
Another thing that was interesting on the new mixes was the ending of “Anywhere's Better than Here.” That got completely edited out, right?
Yeah, a lot of stuff did. Also the tempo of “They’re Blind” got bumped up. I had forgotten about that until I put up the master of “They’re Blind,” and I was like, “Oh my god, this is a lot slower! This is a different version!” I thought it was actually a different version, and I never thought we had done a second version. Then I realized, “Oh, they just sped it up.” They sped it up considerably, whereas the song “I’ll Be You” was sped up a little bit, “They’re Blind” was sped up quite a bit, almost a quarter tone or something. I put it back to the original tempo, which feels much more in keeping with the whole aesthetic of that song and, I think, the intentions Paul had at the time he wrote it. I think that track turned out really beautifully.
How did this project come about, and how involved was the band?
The band was actually very minimally involved. I talked to Paul Westerberg about the mixes at the time, and even over the years, so I knew what he and Tommy and all those guys wanted. We were all very likeminded. So basically I just did my thing. I don’t think Paul heard any of it until it was already done. It actually came about because of Bob Mehr, who wrote this biography on The Replacements called Trouble Boys that was released a couple of years ago. He’s always been the torchbearer of this band. I think that while doing that book, he ended up speaking with Chrissie Dunlap who was Slim Dunlap’s wife. It was his first record with the band. When he talked to her about it, she said, “Well, I’ve got all these tapes in my basement.” He said, “What do you mean?” He realized that they were from the Don’t Tell a Soul sessions. I think they were primarily 1/4-inch tapes, and they were a lot of the stuff that I rolled when Tom Waits and the band were playing live in the middle of the night. That’s where they had my original rough mixes. He transferred those and called me up and goes, “Hey, we have your original rough mixes.” He said that they had a great sound or vibe to them, even though they were quite rough. He asked, “What do you think about the possibility of releasing the record the way that you and the band wanted to do it?” So over the course of two or three years Bob had such dogged determination. He kept going back to the label saying, “Hey, what about this?” He’d connect with me every six months and say, “I talked to the label and they think they’re interested.” Then six months later, he’d say, “It’s postponed another six months.” He basically kept pestering them, and they finally said, “Yeah, I guess we can do this.” We put together a budget and a plan, we dove in, and we did it. Bob’s really the guy who made it happen. He had a vision. I mixed it, but it was really his baby, so I really tip my hat to him.
Wow. What about the song “Portland”?
We tacked that on the end of “Talent Show.” It was one of those songs that was originally done when Tony Berg started the record, and they were out in Bearsville. I guess that was a way for them to include “Portland” without actually having to do it, so we just tacked it onto the end of “Talent Show.” I think it’s kind of a joke, because they had done a show there [December 7, 1987] and they couldn’t play their instruments, so they promised they’d go back there and play again. I think that was why that whole song was written. It was like, “Hey, we’re really sorry Portland, and we’ll make it up to you,” kind of a thing.
I don’t think I’ve heard that song before, but I really like it.
If you listen to the entire album in progress with Tony Berg, I think that’s been released. They just mixed versions of where they were at. He was trying to make a record with them, and I think they were obviously being The Replacements and drinking and tearing stuff up, so I think that it came to an end after ten days or something like that.