Flashback Interview: Tommy Stinson of The Replacements and Guns ‘n Roses

Editor’s Note: The following is from an interview with Tommy Stinson originally published on Dec. 10, 2019.

Tommy Stinson is perhaps best known for his time in one of the most influential American alternative bands of the past 40 years, The Replacements. However, he also spent 16 years as Axl Rose’s bassist in the Chinese Democracy-era version of Guns N Roses and now performs as a solo act as well as with his bands Bash & Pop and Cowboys in the Campfire. Stinson has certainly lived a rock and roll life, one that included him joining The Replacements at the age of 15.

The road antics of The Replacements read like a movie script. At one point, while holed up in Bearsville Studios in Woodstock recording what would become their 1989 album Don’t Tell a Soul, the band shared the grounds with Metallica. The exploits of The Replacements scared even the hardened metalheads in Metallica during this period. Author Bob Mehr documented many of these stories in his 2016 biography of the band, ‘Trouble Boys – The True Story of the Replacements.’

The Hudson resident recently sat down in advance of his series of solo New York “living room” shows taking place in early December. Stinson discussed his latest projects, his time with Guns ‘n Roses, being a dad and of course, his time in The Replacements.

Bash & Pop’s latest album Anything Could Happen was released in early 2017 and Stinson is currently working on the band’s third as well as two other projects — a solo album and one with Cowboys in the Campfire. Anything Could Happen is a raw, bluesy, rock and roll album filled with songs that would fit nicely in a playlist alongside The Rolling Stones, The Faces and obviously, The Replacements.

Mike Kohli: You’re coming from Montreal for this little run of shows in New York.

Tommy Stinson: I’m going to go up to Montreal to do this Joe Strummer benefit thing that happens a lot. Jesse Malin is a big part of how this happens. I’m starting in Montreal and going to Hamilton and Toronto and Buffalo…

It’s kind of my way of keeping myself active a bit. Like I’m working on three different records right now. But I gotta play for the peoples a little bit because it’s what keeps me alive. And I don’t want to make a big fuss about it because I’m in between things and stuff like that, but I can stand there with my acoustic guitar and just sing ya a bunch of shit, a bunch of songs or whatever.

MK: Did you come up with this idea of playing in these types of venues?

TS: Yes, I did and I’ll tell you why. I’m in between records and have been for a while. The intimate gigs with just the bare minimums are a cool part to like – ya know, I’ve played all kinds of places all over the world – What’s interesting to me is to switch it up and do different things, get right in people’s faces and sing a song right to them, that kind of thing. It makes sense sometimes. I figure if I do six to eight gigs a month, I have the rest of the month to work on the other three records I’m trying to finish up and do a thing with and it will work out.

MK: You’ve played in front of 50,000-60,000 people at a time when you were with Guns and the Replacements reunion gigs were big shows too. When you guys first started out, you were probably playing in front of basically a roomful of your friends, right?

TS: Kegger parties and shit, yeah.

MK: You’re coming from a place with a punk rock heart in a way, right?

TS: I’m trying to get myself to a place where I can do it on my own terms. If I feel like getting out and playing new songs, stuff I’ve been working on for Bash & Pop, Tommy Stinson solo stuff, Cowboys in the Campfire…whatever it is. If I feel like going out and playing some songs, not stretch myself out too much. I’ll go do that. Test the songs out. See what people think. See if people like them and all that crap. It gives me a place to start with new material.

MK: But do you feel exposed doing that? Or are you past that stage at this point in your career?

TS: It’s beyond naked. It’s beyond the skin. It’s like you’re fucking up there in your bones going, “Heyyyy, here’s a song I wrote last week…” It’s that kind of thing.

MK: These projects you’ve been talking about, you’re working on albums for all three of these projects?

TS: I’m working on all three at once.

MK: Is that all going to be done at your studio?

TS: Um, no. And I’m not gonna tell ya where they’re going to be done because I don’t know yet. Certainly, a good hunk of it will be done at my studio here in Hudson, New York. A good portion of it could be done in other places too, like Muscle Shoals or Memphis. I got things going on.

MK: I ran into your one-off gig in Ithaca about three years ago. You had a gig canceled in Toronto or something and picked this one up…

TS: That was Ithaca, what was the name of that bar?

MK: The Haunt

TS: Wow. I loved that night. It was fucked up. We got a canceled gig but we’re going that way anyway. Where do we pick one up? That was totally fucking awesome. I lost my voice in the middle of that one. That was kinda fucking weird.

TS: But ya know what? All the dudes I play with are old comrades. They’ve been down the road before. That’s the reason I play with these kinds of people. It’s an important thing. It’s good to get in the trenches with people you love and pull shit like that. I remember that night pretty well, as messed up as my voice got in the end. What a cool bunch of people.

MK: So the guys you played with back then, these are the same guys you’re playing with as Bash & Pop now, right?

TS: Yup.

(Editor’s note: The current lineup of Bash & Pop includes Steve Selvidge of The Hold Steady on guitar, Joe Sirois of The Mighty Mighty Bosstones on drums and Justin Perkins of Screeching Weasel on bass.)

MK: Do you feel like you guys are really starting to gel as a band now?  

TS: Well, ya know what? We did that record and toured behind it. And now we’re working on new material for another one. I went down to Memphis to work on some stuff with Steve…I gotta get Joe Kid up here to work up some of these songs before we get everyone in it. The reason I’m saying this is because I really don’t want to produce this one in my studio on my own again. I’d like us to get a good 10-12 song set together of new songs that we could ultimately learn one way or another–over the phone or whatever the fuck–and ultimately come together and play it live in the studio and record it in a heartbeat.

MK: So you’re sharing files over the internet to get everyone on the same page?

TS: Only to get the bits down. What I don’t want to do, is get to the studio and do 20 takes of one song. I just can’t do that. I’ve never been able to do that. So my core idea of how to make a record that I would want to listen to again would be to go in the studio and make a record in three days, tops.

MK: Efficient.

TS: That’s the way we did it in the ’80s. You can look back at Queen. They made their first record, they kept re-running the tapes. They basically wore the tapes out to get “Bohemian Rhapsody” and it was a huge hit. There are all kinds of tales of that. But most of it comes from, the band plays live in the studio. You capture what you get in a three-hour session or whatever. And if you don’t get it then you try to get it the next day. The clock’s ticking.

MK: And it creates a sense of immediacy that everyone has to all be together to make it work.

TS: Absolutely! The best Replacements records were done that way. My favorite records were all done that way. It was only because of the advent of multiple…more than eight tracks of sound, 16, 32 tracks…it just became masturbatory. And you could just sit and fuck around and waste a fucking year making a record. No, no, no, we don’t have any money. The best records are made when you’ve got no money and you gotta make a record in a weekend.

MK: So that’s how you approach it these days?

TS: Yeah, totally. Because I hate…no one cares about the sound quality and all that bullshit. The overthinking is overthinking always. People are listening to it on their iPhones or their computers or their iBuds, whatever the fuck they got. It doesn’t really matter. What it comes down to is the song.

MK: I agree.

MK: When I listen to the Anything Can Happen album, it’s got a really raw, Stones-y/Faces feel to it. That’s something you probably grew up listening to, right?

TS: A little bit, yeah.

MK: But it’s still got that Replacements-y sound to it as well. Which you’re not going to escape. You were a Replacement at the age of, what, 11? 12? It’s ingrained in your DNA at this point.

TS: Exactly

MK: Just listening to it, it’s almost like a great lost Replacements album in its sound.

TS: Yeah, yeah. Well, thank you. I appreciate that.

TS: I wouldn’t boo-hoo that. I mean, I came from where I came. I’ve made the records I’ve made. Jeez, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say I didn’t learn a lot from Paul Westerburg (Replacements vocalist) or Peter Jesperson (Twin/Tone Records owner) as well or my brother (guitarist Bob Stinson of The Replacements) or Chris Mars (Replacements drummer). I learned a lot from all those people. We were all buddies and pals and turned each other on to different shit. I’d be remiss if I didn’t cop to it and say, yeah, I’m proud of all that and certainly, I learned a lot from all of them.

MK: When you put this album together when you put any of your albums together really, are you sitting down writing parts for each individual musician you’re planning on playing with? Are you allowing input from them? Is it a collaborative effort?

TS: Ya know it’s mostly a collaborative effort. If I can do that. If I have a song idea, I’ll send it to Steve or Joe or Jeff or Justin…I’ll throw it out, “Do you have an idea for this? For bass or guitar here?” and try to work it out as a group effort. My whole theory is that it’s a group effort the best it can be. If I write the song, I write the song. But if they come up with parts, I always give them their due on the parts that are important. That’s the way I’ve always known how to do that.

MK: Did Luther Dickinson (North Mississippi Allstars) play on this latest one too?

TS: Yeah, he played on “Anything Can Happen.”

MK: I read that he was in the studio during the production of (1987 Replacements album) Pleased to Meet Me that his dad (famed producer Jim Dickinson) was producing for you guys in Memphis. He jumped in during the recording of “Shooting Dirty Pool.” Is that true? Because he was like, what 14-15 at the time?

TS: Yeah, yeah. He was a kid. He was totally a kid. It was kind of a part of a thing and a story and a bit. And um, yeah, that all happened. I can’t go down that road too much cuz it’s sad that Jim’s not here anymore (Editor’s note: Jim Dickinson died in August 2019). But um, Luther is like a fucking little brother to me.

MK: During that recording, is that when you two struck up a friendship and kept it going all these years? You probably weren’t that much older than he was then, right?

TS: Yeah, I’m a bit older than he is but um, yeah, that’s where we struck up a relationship. But then we also hit it back up. We started a band together, him, Cody (Dickinson) and I. I went to Memphis seven or eight years ago to work up some songs for a new project that I’m gonna leave the name out of. Ya know, we’ve got way deep history I can’t really go into it. It’s a lot.

MK: Is that project something that will see the light of day?

TS: That’s why I’m not talking about it.

MK: OK, fair enough.

(long pause)

TS: Yes. (laughter)

MK: So when you’re playing these solo gigs. I’m assuming you’re doing strictly your stuff. Solo material, Bash & Pop stuff…do you get into any Replacements material? And if you don’t, do you get a lot of guff from the fans looking for you to play Replacements?

TS: No, because I didn’t sing any Replacements stuff. I’d be stupid getting up there trying to fucking sing fucking “Alex Chilton.” I didn’t sing that. I played bass on it and helped write it. I was part of writing I suppose. No, no, I wouldn’t do that. The only Guns ‘n Roses song I would sing would be the one that I fuckin’ wrote that apparently has leaked all over the internet the past 15-20 years. Whatever.

MK: That project there. Going back to what you said previously about getting a recording done quickly, that project, the Chinese Democracy album became almost a punch line in the media for how long it took to complete. What kind of project was that for you? Was that something you were in and out of for years? Did you work on your own stuff too?

TS: Nah, that was a fucking huge undertaking. You’re trying to reinvent the wheel at that point, ya know? Without being able to reinvent the wheel. There was a lot of good stuff that was on that record and I’m totally proud of being a part of it and all that. And you can’t, I can’t get too far into it right now, but you can’t underestimate how important it was to try and make a great record. With all the great records they already made as Guns ‘n Roses from the ’80s. It was a different period, a new time, a new place. And Axl is always forward-thinking in a lot of ways, Mike, ya know? He’s always like, he wants to step 20 years ahead and fucking make a record. And the rest of the guys are like, “But this is what we are. This is how we do it.” And he’s just always pushing the envelope in a way. You’re always gonna have a conundrum with that.

MK: Well that’s the mindset of a creative person. They don’t want to look back. They want to keep looking forward.


TS: And ya know what? For all practical purposes, it was a great gig for me. And I’ll tell you what, I have nothing but respect for those guys, all of them. A bunch of them are my friends. The only one I don’t know is Slash so much. It was a great gig. And ya know, I wouldn’t take any of it back.

MK: Do you miss it?

TS: No

TS: I miss the people.

TS: I don’t miss the schedule and the touring and all that stuff, the way that was. I did almost 20 years of that and it takes its toll, ya know?

MK: I bet.

MK: So when you left Guns ‘n Roses in 2014, it was during a pretty tumultuous time in your personal life. And so you became a full-time dad at that point. Your daughter was young then.

TS: She’s 11 now. I had to kind of basically (sighs)…I had to say I couldn’t do a bunch of tours right around the time my relationship with my soon-to-be-ex fell apart and had to basically, had to be a stay at home dad. And luckily at the same time, as I was not able to do a four to six-week tour, the Replacements went out and did the reunion stuff on weekends. The weekend gigs I could manage with being a stay-at-home dad and all the stuff going on in my life. But the reality is, I really couldn’t do a four-week tour of Europe or a six-week tour of this or that. I had to say I couldn’t do it because I had a little kid. And I don’t regret any of that. And ya know what? If that’s what spurred on Duff and Slash coming back and playing with Ax, that’s fantastic. People are loving it. It’s great. As well it should be. That’s all I got to say about that.

MK: Your daughter, does she appreciate music?

TS: She’s 11 years old. She sings, dances around. She’s more into gymnastics than vocalizing. (laughter)

MK: What’s she listen to? Does she try to turn you on to stuff she listens to?

TS: Yeahhh, it’s music 11-year-olds listen to, ya know. She knows a good amount of other stuff. One of her big (laughter) — because she asked, which I appreciate so much — one of her favorites is (AC/DC’s) “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.” (laughter) She’s done videos for that. I don’t want to put my kid’s face up on Twitter and all that. She’s funny as shit. She knows the solo, the whole thing. She plays air guitar and sings it. She knows the words. I don’t know why it’s one of her faves…

MK: It’s a fun song.

TS: Well yeah, obviously it’s a fun song. I love it as well. I can’t put it out there. I want to be as private as I can and not have her thrown out in public. Ya know, that kinda thing.

MK: Is she aware of your place in music?

TS: Yeah, yeah…her teachers know who the fuck I am and why and all that crap.

MK: Is there any respect for that legacy?

TS: There’s respect for it but it’s a pain in the ass. Some teachers are inappropriate about it sometimes. So you gotta watch out for that.

MK: One thing I wanted to bring up, I don’t know if it’s even touchy…Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, you guys have been on the ballot for a few years. I think you guys should definitely be in. Thoughts?

TS: Well, I’ll give you one last anecdote before I gotta go. I gotta go to a parent-teacher meeting right now. One last anecdote on that particular question.  Questlove is working his ass off to get the Replacements in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And that’s all I’ll say to you.

MK: No shit, Questlove? Nice.

TS: No shit.

MK: That’s great.

TS: (laughter)

MK: Let’s hope it happens.

Stinson brings his solo set to Wildflowers Armory in Syracuse Thursday, Dec. 12 as part of a string of New York dates in unorthodox performance spaces. He’s performing a private show in somebody’s living room in Hamburg just outside of Buffalo on Tuesday, Dec. 10 and at Rochester’s Bop Shop Records on Wednesday, Dec. 11. The mini-tour wraps with a performance at Barry Family Cellars in Burdett on Dec. 13. Tickets for all but the Hamburg show are still available and range in price from $25 to $100 for a special “Drinks with Tommy” ticket.

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