NEW YORK -- Heading out of the elevators on the 20th floor of the Warner Communications building, the first thing you notice -- as you step on them -- are the Warner Bros. insignias. They're woven into the deep pile rug, in living th-th-th-that's all folks Technicolor. Very flashy. Corporate. Predictable.

Not like the Replacements at all. Not yet.

The Replacements are a rock 'n' roll band from Minneapolis, now touring to support "Pleased to Meet Me," their sixth LP and their second on Sire Records. (They play Washington at the Bayou tonight.) Sire is Warner's adventurous little brother, the label that first picked up the Ramones, the Dead Boys and the Saints, and now it's continuing that tradition with a bunch of moody guys who would rather bestow a sloppy cover of "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves" upon their audience than push their label's product. "Product" is a word that Paul Westerberg would have some problems with.

Westerberg is the singer and hellacious songwriter for the Replacements, college radio's favorite thing since R.E.M. He's also the only guy from the band who shows.

"Yeah, well Chris {Mars, the drummer} and Slim {Dunlap, the lead guitarist} are over at the hotel, and Tommy {Stinson, the bassist} is over doing an interview with someone else. I can give you a Chris response, though. Ask me a question ..."

What's your favorite Replacements song?

Westerberg throws his hands up, shrugs his shoulders and says, "Phhhhhhhhhphtt!" (Translation: "Who knows?")

The most important part of the Replacements' musical philosophy has to do with that often-invoked force, "the entertainment dollar." They don't believe in it. That is, they don't believe they owe it to anybody. Sure, all the fraternity brothers at the concerts get to wail right along with their favorite Mats anthems (Mats -- short for place mats -- is the band's nickname) like "Bastards of Young" or "Left of the Dial," but that doesn't mean the band won't come right back with a cacophonous barrage of recycled '70s garbage.

Not to bad-mouth their formative years, of course. "There was good pop music then," says Westerberg. "It was just disguised in a very trashy, disposable way. And that was looked on in comparison to the great bands of the '60s, the Beatles and the Stones and everything. Maybe it was {garbage}, but it was rock 'n' roll for us."

The original "us" included Tommy's brother Bob on lead guitar. He left the band after "Tim," their first Sire release, was recorded. The band gestated in the Stinsons' basement, where it perfected a glorious American ritual: Drink beer, play a little. Drink beer, play a little more. Drink more beer, then play your first gig in the suburbs. Get shut down after two songs, which ain't bad, but then play your second gig at a halfway house for alcoholics and get smashed on whiskey down in the boiler room and thrown out on your collective ears for having booze breath.

The next day, because you're the laughingstock of the neighborhood, you change the band's name. Reputation intact again, you start gigging around, making the scene, until you find a local label willing to take the plunge (in this case, Minneapolis' Twin/Tone Records). You cut your first album, called "Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash," and it sounds like a punk rock band being dropped down a long flight of metal stairs. It's a masterpiece.

So how does one get from there to the 20th floor and the insignia rugs and the nice, cool rooms where the beer is free and people from magazines and newspapers come to ask you about your influences and your dreams and what you eat for breakfast?

Well, this is the '80s. You make a video, right?

"You ever see the 'Bastards of Young' video?" Westerberg rasps. "It was just a shot of a speaker for three minutes. The video for 'The Ledge' {off 'Pleased'} showed our legs and our feet, and we're eating a sandwich. It was very dull, and it was painfully obvious that we didn't want to be filmed ..."

So much for the video sell. Well, then you go out there and give the people everything you've got, all the best songs, all played as well as they can be played. Right?

"I get cringingly embarrassed every night. I don't get embarrassed because I can't hit the right note -- that frustrates me no end -- but I get embarrassed when maybe I'm trying to take a chance on doing something and the other guys aren't behind me. It's a very naked feeling when you're trying to pull a rabbit out of a hat and everyone else is kind of looking at their shoes.

"It's a risky thing to do ... more often than not you fall on your face. But in a way I like that ..."

And there it is, the whole Replacements gestalt in summation. These guys like to mess up, to prove that they're hapless, vulnerable jerks, which is to say they're human. The risk Westerberg refers to is the risk of playing whatever song happens to pop into your head at any given moment (sometimes that moment happens in the middle of another song -- "Like a Virgin" in the middle of "Sweet Home Chicago," for instance -- but no matter). And you can find the people who just don't get it at every show, usually in the lobby or out on the sidewalk, shaking their heads and muttering, in between the epithets, "For that I put up 10 bucks?"

A Replacements gig is a study in disintegration. It's usually just a question of how much and how fast. There is no nightly set of hits, no "professionalism," no slickness or attitude (well, maybe a little attitude). For this reason -- and this is where we lose all the people in the lobby, or anyone who sees music as "show biz" -- many critics consider them the best band in America.

A lot of the critical plaudits (in the usual places, like Rolling Stone and The Village Voice, and the not so usual ones, like The New York Times, which called them "an obnoxious, confused, boisterous slice of real life"), have to do with a record that came out in 1984 called "Let It Be." This was the material that made all those A&R types show up at CBGB's one night to see what those crazy midwestern kids were up to.

The show was, of course, a disaster. But the band still thrives -- and without anything close to a hit.

"I think if there's any band that could survive without having a hit record it could be us. We've survived, and it's been eight years ..."

The most compelling Replacements music is dark and desperate. Even the rave-up songs have a bleakness to them, a sense of dread, of thrashing with shadows.

"That's something we have to lay out on the couch and talk about," says Westerberg. "It's in me, and it's in the rest of us, and it's what {the critics} try to write about and try to explain, and they can't, and then of course they will take the obvious thing, which is that we drink, and this is the problem. But I think we all are basically morose people. We're creative, which seems to go hand in hand with feeling alone, like a misfit ... that's where our greatest songs are. A lot of the other songs are smoke screens to disguise that."

And as for mass appeal, don't look for the Mats to headline RFK. "I like Bryan Adams and stuff, and even Bruce -- but we could never appeal to that audience. We only appeal to the little dark corners and the certain people who might be intelligent enough -- or messed up enough -- to understand how we feel."