FROM GIGS IN BARS AT JUST 14 WITH THE REPLACEMENTS, TO SOLO ARTIST AND BASSIST IN GUNS N’ ROSES, TOMMY STINSON HAS GROWN UP IN ROCK.
LETTING IT BE: BRETT CALLWOOD
AS FOUNDER MEMBER OF INFLUENTIAL GARAGE-punks The Replacements, bassist Tommy Stinson has packed more into the past 20 years than most people manage in a lifetime. He and his brother started that band before Tommy was even in his teens, yet they are acknowledged by bands like The Wildhearts and Nirvana as an influence.
These days he’s the bass player in Guns N’ Roses. While working with Axl and co on the long-overdue ‘Chinese Democracy’ album, Stinson has used his down-time to record his first solo record, ‘Village Gorilla Head’, one of Classic Rock’s albums of the year.
How did you come to join The Replacements at such a young age?
I started the band with my brother when I was 12, actually. He showed me how to play bass, and we quickly made a band out of what we were all doing. I don’t really have anything to compare it to, because that’s all I knew. So it was totally normal to me, though it was probably insane to other people. But it’s an odd thing to play nightclubs when you’re 14 years old, and sneaking off into the kitchen so you don’t get pulled up by the cops. Certainly the whole thing kept me from grand theft auto, which is where I was headed. At that age I was a thief, causing lots of trouble. By 11 I’d already been arrested a couple of times. But luckily my brother got me out of all that.
So joining the band was a positive thing?
It was definitely a positive thing. I mean, we got into substance abuse and all that, which tarnished our career a little bit. Well, not so much tarnished, but it kinda glorified an aspect of it that wasn’t really all that musical. I like when people come up to me and say: “Tommy, I love that show I saw you guys do where you played such great songs”, but instead I get: “I was so drunk at your show, and you guys were so drunk and you couldn’t play any of your songs”. And I just look and say: That’s your favourite show ever? Dude, get out more.”
What music were you listening to back in those early days?
When I bought [The Clash’s] ‘London Calling’, that changed me. I suddenly had someone I wanted to emulate. I was like: ‘I wanna be Paul Simonon’. That guy was the coolest looking thing on the planet since David Bowie. From there I went from the British punk rock to the LA hardcore scene.
Early on, The Replacements were opening up for Black Flag and Circle Jerks. So I went quickly from one to the other, and then quickly out of it. By the time I was 18 I was already getting into bands like big Star, Captain Beefheart, just different things. Because you kinda wear things out. If you tour around a lot, and you see these scenes coming, you quickly see them go. And you get bored – not so much of the scene, but of the negative vibe.
I think The Clash had a lot of positive things to say, hopeful lyrics and things like that, and some of the other punk rock bands as well. But for the most part there was a negative vibe about it that was aggressive, to try and make a statement because things suck. But after a while, if you’re a part of that you go: “It doesn’t have to suck. Life isn’t that fucked up all the time, and I certainly don’t want to dwell on it.” So then you get into another mindset of loving music. And once that starts to happen, your musical pallet just widens exponentially.
How do you feel when you hear bands referring to The Replacements as a major influence?
It’s cool to see that we left a little mark somewhere. There aren’t a lot of people that can really say that, so I’m really proud of that. It’s really awesome. How else could you think of it? It doesn’t make me want to get back together with them, but it makes me feel truly awesome. And now with Guns N’ Roses, that’s another whole bag of beans. So I’ve been pretty fortunate, I guess.
After six years in GN’R are you happy with the way it’s going?
I am. Of course, I’d like it to have gone a lot faster. I think the reasons that it’s taken so long are very good reasons. For all intents and purposes, the reason that I had was that it was something that hadn’t been done before – eight guy collaborating together to make one album. It’s been one of the best musical experiences of my life, cos I learned how to do something with eight guys that I never knew how to do before. That process is a beautiful process. And I’d love to do more of it now.
Did you feel any pressure in replacing Duff McKagan?
Not really, because I wasn’t in that scene when they were around originally. Axl and I have a great friendship; he supports me and I support him. All I’m thinking about is going forward with it. When it really comes right down to it, millions of people are going to come and see Axl Rose. In Tokyo, 35,000 people came to see us, and they knew they weren’t going to see Duff, they knew Slash wasn’t in the band. So I know that he’s sort of an enigma, so they’re gonna come and see him, and it’s cool to be a part of it. It’s actually cool for me to be anonymous and a part of it. I could walk through those 35,000 people and watch the other bands. I get to be anonymous, and put on a show of that level without all the nonsense.
What’s your favorite old GN’R song to play live?
That’s a tough one, because they’re a lot of fun to play. It might just have to be ‘You Could Be Mine’ or ‘Mr. Brownstone’. Or ‘Rocket Queen’. The thing that’s cool about the songs to me is that there’s an athleticism about them, a lot of riffs. And there’s a million riffs that you have to play well.”
Do you have any new information regarding Guns for us?
Just before I came out on this trip, about a month and a half ago, I heard some final mixes. There were about six things that I hadn’t heard yet that were done and sounding epic. And I have a hard-core view of music, but I heard some great stuff. So it’ll be going to mastering and ready very soon.
Along the way, you recorded your solo album. How much was that to fill the downtime from GN’R?
Well, I had some downtime, and I had a little money saved up in my bank account. Frank Black [Pixies frontman] let me use his studio while he toured Europe, as long as I paid his engineer, Phillip. Phillip was a new, upcoming engineer guy who was really good at what he did. So I had to seize the opportunity to use his gear. I could record real drums, bass and guitar, take it up a notch and make good of my demos that I already had. It just fell into place really; it wasn’t a concerted effort to make a solo record.
What do you think of your album now?
I love my record. It’s weird for me, because in the past I’ve never really listened to my records, whether it be with The Replacements or anything else. You either get tired of hearing them, or you feel that you did good but you wish you could’ve had more time. But with this one I feel like I did everything I wanted to do, and I got to be self-indulgent, to get all that stuff out that an artist likes to get out. I guess that’s why I like it so much.
From an outsider’s perspective it’s seems to be quite a laid back album. Do you see it that way?
Yeah, there’s some laid back stuff on there, and there are some rockers as well. I like to listen to records that go different places. I like artists to take chances, and I like to take chances. That’s part of what makes you an artist that can grow, as opposed to someone that gets five seconds of fame and that’s it. I’d rather have less fame and be around longer. Overall, I think I accomplished all I wanted to with it, so I’m happy with it.