No mere replacement

Chris Mars looks back at the 'Mats even as he runs forward

Like most young kids who join rock and roll bands, Mars hooked up with Bob--then Paul and Tommy--because he wanted to be famous, because he wanted some measure of respect and recognition, because he just wanted to be in a band. And for the first five or so years the band was around--through such albums as Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take out the Trash, The Replacements Stink, Hootenanny, Let it Be, and Tim--he was completely satisfied; he loved touring, loved the ecstatic crowd response even when the band was incoherent and sloppy.

But Mars looks back now on those days with equal measures of nostalgia and remorse, unable to recognize the kid whose goofy and weary face still stares back at him from old band photos. He is a different guy now, he will explain--a man who paints these amazingly detailed grotesques, a husband, a solo artist who rarely records and performs with even one other musician. He does not even tour now, claiming to loathe the drudgery of driving from city to city; he doesn't care about the applause anymore, doesn't crave the adoration.

Chris Mars today is indeed a very different guy--less bitter about having been driven from the band he founded, more secure with the Replacements' legacy, but a solo artist nonetheless who'd rather look ahead than glance behind. He is three albums into a career where Westerberg and Tommy Stinson are only one deep. He now owns his own $20,000 home studio (thanks to a new record deal with Bar/None out of New Jersey) and has taken to hit-and-miss experimentation, bounding from straight rock and roll to '70s-styled mock-disco to white-boy rap parody to lush string arrangements on his third album, the newly released Tenterhooks--which both recalls his Replacements heyday and severs the ties.

"I think about myself in the early days of the Replacements, and I'm not even that person anymore," Mars says. "The reasons I got into a band in the first place was a recognition thing, and just wanting to be seen doin' something and being involved with a band. But as you get older, I don't require it at all. That's why I don't tour. I don't get anything out of playing live anymore. I don't care about the immediate feedback.

"Now, I think it's more of an exercise, if you will, of the creative process, and I think if it changed at all, it homes in more on that--just the fact you're stimulating yourself creatively, and you don't really want anything beyond that. It's like doing a painting and putting it in the closet and making a record and not listening to it. You're done with it.

"It was more of a surface thing early on. Now it comes straight from me. It's more from the heart now. I'm not in it for the money or fame. I don't want recognition as much as I just want to express myself."

Q: What is the last thing a drummer ever says to his band?
A: Hey, 'bout we try one of my songs?
--from Chris Mars' drummer joke collection

To longtime Replacements fans--who, truth be told, are a bit like Star Trek fans, arguing who was the most important member or which was the best or worst song, memorizing the most arcane bit of minutiae--Mars' departure from the band in 1990 still remains something of a mystery. One always wondered did he jump or was he pushed--did Paul Westerberg force the drummer from the band, or did Mars leave of his own accord?

The answer, it turns out, is yes to both: Mars became frustrated each time Westerberg shot down his songs, and he felt he had no choice but to cut himself free of the stifling situation. When the band went in to record 1990's All Shook Down--essentially a Westerberg solo album, at that point, with various "guest" spots by Replacements and other musicians (John Cale, Johnette Napolitano)--Mars brought in a cassette of material he had recorded on a four-track. Westerberg dismissed the stuff out of hand. If there had ever been any doubt that one man ran the band, it was dispelled then and there.

"There are some bands that are democratic," Mars says in retrospect. "I think R.E.M. is a good example of that--they write together, they're still friends, they're still runnin' with the same manager. There's some sort of constant democratic theme goin' through the band, and I think that's cool. That's probably more the exception than the rule, though.

"In the early days of the Replacements, we wrote together because we were young, we were friends, we practiced a lot more often together and would hang out. It was more of a group effort, sort of a team. And that changed. We became fragmented toward the end, and Paul wanted to do more of his songs his way, and likewise, we all got the idea we wanted to do other things, too. If we were that kind of band where we could sit down and say, 'Hey, let's get a song goin' like we used to,' that would have been great, but it just didn't happen. And I think that's what happens in most bands. Maybe, maybe not. I certainly have a skewed point of view.

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