GUNS N’ ROSES
THE ULTIMATE REPLACEMENT TALKS TONE & TURMOIL
24 TOMMY STINSON
How ten years of drama and downtime complicated the recording of Guns N’ Roses Chinese Democracy. By Brian Fox
Tommy Stinson, photographed in Hollywood, California, by Neil Zlozower.
HOW TOMMY STINSON SURVIVED CIVIL UNREST TO RULE ON CHINESE DEMOCRACY
IF YOU THINK TOMMY STINSON landed the world’s easiest gig when he joined Guns N’ Roses in 1998, you’ve got another thing coming. Sure, playing a handful of gigs and recording little more than a song a year may not sound like much. Add a healthy salary retainer and infrequent rehearsals, and it begins to sound better than even the cushiest corporate engagement. But make no mistake: Being the bassist in Guns N’ Roses takes work – a lot of it. Case in point: Chinese Democracy.
Perhaps no album in history has been as scrutinized as Chinese Democracy. The followup to Guns N’ Roses’ 1993 effort, “The Spaghetti Incident?,” the record’s extreme budget ($13 million) and absurd incubation period (ten years) made it the butt of many jokes. But behind the scenes, things weren’t so funny.
“Chinese Democracy was unlike any other record I’ve made – or would ever want to make again,” Stinson says wearily. Having recorded eight albums with Midwestern alt-punks the Replacements – the first few of those while he was still a teen – Stinson knows a thing or two about making records.
A rotating cast of drummers and guitarists and unhealthy record-label relations turned the Chinese Democracy production into a nightmare, and Stinson was there on the sidelines all the while. “The whole thing was an exercise in patience,” he says. “It got to be really dumb.”
Listening to Chinese Democracy, you can almost hear the last ten years in pastiche, as moments of singer/songwriter introspection comingle with downtempo electronica and aggressive industrial grooves. Tune into Tommy and you’ll hear a similar patchwork of influences: the melodicism of Paul McCartney, the confident swagger of ex-Guns bassist Duff McKagan, and the total tonal awareness of too many studio greats to name.
Just back from a Soul Asylum gig in Peru (more on that at bassplayer.com), Tommy took a second to talk Guns, gear, and what went into making Chinese Democracy.
How did [you] get the gig with Guns N’ Roses?
My friend Josh Freese was playing drums with the band. I ran into him in a Hollywood rehearsal hall, and he mentioned that Duff had quit. Then he asked if I knew any bass players. We just kind of laughed about it, because it sounded like a funny thing for me to go audition for Guns N’ Roses. Guns N’ Roses were never my thing when the band first came out – they just weren’t my style. I thought at least it would be fun to play with Josh. But I learned five or six songs for the audition. We basically just jammed, and it was pretty fun. They seriously needed a bass player, so they asked if I’d do it.
Why do you think you were the right guy for this gig?
The only thing I could grasp at is that I have the kind of punk-rock attack that Duff did. He wasn’t really a metal guy – he had punk roots. On the other hand, he’s got sensibilities that are different from mine. I couldn’t place exactly what they are – they’re unique to each one of us.
Do you and Duff know each other?
I met him a few years back, and he seemed like a really sweet guy. He didn’t seem to have any issues with me – I don’t think he wanted the gig anymore.
Describe the writing process for Chinese Democracy.
I came in around ’98, when the band was still writing the record. It was Paul Tobias and Robin Finck on guitar, Dizzy Reed and Chris Pitman on keys, Josh on drums, and me. Everybody was just slowly starting to bring in ideas. We were set up at Rumbo Records, a big studio out in the middle of nowhere. A funny thing – Captain & Tennille own it. The whole thing looks like a boat.
Anyway, we all just started hammering ideas out. Essentially, it was eight guys collaborating. To be thrown into that kind of environment – eight guys from very different walks of life – was very crazy. I’d never worked in that way, but it was cool. There were guys who’d never ever made a record putting out their ideas. At first, those of us who’d actually made records thought their ideas sucked, but there were also some good ones.
How did you work out your ideas in a civil way?
We each had to give reasons for liking or disliking something – you couldn’t just be bull-headed. We had to function as a democracy or we’d end up hating each other. Collaborating was good for that. I think every one of us learned a lot from it.
When it came time to track the bass, was there still that spirit of collaboration, or were you left to your own devices?
We were all left to our own devices to come up with individual instrument parts. The broader song ideas had to be hammered out.
“Street of Dreams” stands out for having a lot of cool, countermelodic bass work.
That’s definitely one of the places where I tried to play melodically. Axl [Rose] had the majority of that song written, and I brought in the bridge bass line and progression.
It has a few licks that seem to reference Duff’s playing. Was that intentional?
When I started hammering out those Guns N’ Roses songs, I started to really dig into what Duff was doing – I really liked the stuff he played. I’d be lying if I said his playing didn’t seep into my subconscious – like the way he uses grace notes. And I wouldn’t be afraid to say I stole some of his stuff.
Josh Freese left Guns N’ Roses in 2000 and was replaced by Brain Mantia. What did that mean for the tracks you had recorded with Josh?
I had to redo them. I probably ended up completely re-recording each part five or six times over the years. It was tough. What really happened was the record company stood back and left Axl to his own devices. Axl had all these ideas, and he needed somebody to help interpret what he wanted. He had to basically produce himself, and that’s not what he went into this wanting to do. There are a lot of reasons the album took so long to make, but I think the record company really dropped the ball on this one.
What do you see as the root cause for that?
I think everything changed when Geffen merged with Interscope. When that happened, Axl was told that [A&R executive] Jimmy Iovine would play more of a role in making the album happen. What Jimmy did instead was throw other people into the mix who weren’t very capable.
What happened when producer Roy Thomas Baker was brought in?
He wanted to re-record everything, because he felt he could get better tones. In my opinion, he wasted many years and many millions of dollars trying to get us better sounds that we could have addressed in the mixing stage. I’m not a proponent of his style of producing. I think Iovine put Roy Thomas Baker in the producer seat because he didn’t think the raw sounds were good enough. Then Roy came in and would try every Marshall guitar amp in a five-state area to find just the right guitar tone. And he wanted to do that for every single part on the album.
What amps did you use for Chinese Democracy?
A 1x15 Matchless combo that’s a great-sounding bass amp – real dirty and beefy. We usually mixed that with a DI signal.
Which amps do you like to use live?
Around the time we played the Rock in Rio festival in 2001, I was using SWR amps. We were gearing up for a massive production, and I thought, If I’m going to be playing for 300,000 people, I should probably have a big amp! I bought three Megoliath 8x10 cabinets, six Big Bertha 2x15 cabinets, two Mo’ Bass heads, and a power amp. It sounded great – louder than balls! We had dress rehearsals and all, and then we found out we were going to use in-ear monitors [laughs]. Of course, the reason we’re using in-ears is so Axl can hear himself sing – one of his biggest problems with the old band was that they were louder than hell, and he could never hear his vocals onstage. Well, we didn’t really know that until we got down to Rio. Here we were with this huge wall of amps, all turned down to 1 or 2.
What was that Rio gig like?
Crazy. The only thing anyone could hear in our in-ears was the sound of the crowd coming through Axl’s vocal mic. It was like a jet engine. After that, I did make use of the 8x10s since the cabinets had a low end that translated well when miked. For most of Chinese Democracy, I used a DI, my Matchless amp, and the SWR as my big, loud amp.
After I realized our stage volume had to be a lot quieter, I had to make some real adjustments. I ended up talking to Ampeg, who was doing a reissue of the flip-top B-15 1x15 combo – all hand-wired and really nice. Now I put those behind the stage and crank them – they sound awesome – running that sound to my in-ears and the front-of-house. I keep a couple Ampeg 8x10 cabinets onstage at a low volume just to get a little low end.
Do you modify your Fenders?
I do – I’ve used EMG pickups since I was in the Replacements. They give me a lot of growl and grit when they hit the preamp of an SVT.
How did you come to prefer a P/J pickup configuration?
I started doing that when I got the Guns N’ Roses gig. I figured Duff played that kind of bass, so I should use something similar to try to match that sound.
What other gear have you been using?
It’s cool – this is the only band where I’ve been able to play a Gibson Thunderbird. I used to have a ’63 Thunderbird that I loved, but it just broke too many times. I used a new Thunderbird on the song “Chinese Democracy.” I also played a StingRay on a few tunes. The StingRay didn’t sound right for the older Guns material, but I liked the tone for some of the newer stuff, like “Better.” It’s great for drop-tuned stuff – it’s got a nice, gritty tone.
Until recently, I’d never really cared about basses – except that they work. But lately I’ve gotten into the idea of finding the right instrument tone for the right song. I’ve really gotten into Hofner Beatle Basses, because they do something that no other bass does. I have two ‘67s – one’s beat up, and the other one’s clean. They’re a blast to play, but I could never use them with Guns. If you want to know how manly Paul McCartney was, check out those old Hofners – those bad boys have a lot of low end!
How did you first start playing bass?
One day when I was around 11 years old, my brother Bob saw me monkeying around on his bass. He asked me if I wanted to play it. I said yes, but it really hurt my hands. But his band needed a bass player, so he pretty much bribed me with Coca-Cola and candy bars. It went on like that until I got kind of good at it.
I think my brother showed me how to play Yes’s “Roundabout” before he showed me [how] to play the blues scale [laughs]. “Show Me The Way,” “Boney Maroney,” and “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo” were the first things I learned. I listened to everything my brother did: Yes, Rush, and Johnny Winter.
Did that kind of prog-rock influence come to play in the Replacements?
Not so much – it just got us into playing our instruments, then our punk-rock aesthetic came to bear. When I got older, I started listening to what Paul McCartney was doing with the Beatles and what James Jamerson was playing on Motown records. I started listening for the melodies that bass could create, and for ways of being musical without getting in the way. I’ve always strived for that – not to add more notes and play busy lines, but to accentuate what’s there already.
What was your main gear with the Replacements?
For the most part, it was Fenders through Ampeg SVTs. I started off playing Rickenbackers, but then I began to use P-Basses because they sustained better and were easier to play. Those Rickenbackers have a lot of sharp edges to cut your hands on – I did a lot of that!
The Replacements had a reputation for being a kind of beautiful mess, but on record, the band sounded tight. How did you manage that?
Paul Westerberg is a great songwriter. Early on, we rehearsed a lot. We’d play in our basement because that was the only place to get together, and it gave us something to do in the middle of winter. In the early days, we got to be really tight. Down the road, we didn’t rehearse as much, but we had a subconscious connection – we knew what worked and what didn’t. Mostly in the studio it seemed to work – we’d catch that lightning in a bottle and move on. There were a lot of times Paul would come in with a song, we’d play it a few times, and then roll tape – that was it. We didn’t spend a lot of time messing with arrangements and parts.
What’s some music you’ve recently gotten into?
I’ve been digging that Sara Bareillis song “Love Song” [from Little Voice, Epic, 2007]. That’s a great bass track – crazy tone. [L.A. session great Chris Chaney is on bass.] I like the new Pretenders record, Break Up the Concrete [Shangri-La Music, 2008]. My friend Don Smith produced it, and he said Chrissie Hynde wrote the whole record right there in the studio. She wouldn’t let him mix it – she wanted to go with the rough takes. It’s got this great, unpolished feeling about it. Jim Ketlner is playing drums – he rips balls on it! I find a lot of music now is over-produced. That’s what I like about Break Up the Concrete – it’s raw. I just made a record for ten years, and I tracked every damn song five or six times!
Are there plans for a Guns N’ Roses tour?
Yes. And that’s all I can tell you! [Laughs.] Word has it we’ll start rehearsing in February for dates in April. I have a feeling it’s going to happen, but I’m not holding my breath. It seems that every time that ball starts rolling, it rolls a bit like a square wheel at first.
Which tracks from Chinese Democracy are you most looking forward to playing live?
It’s hard to say, but “Riad and the Bedouins” is probably one of them. The riff is pretty nutty, and I think people either love it or hate it, but it’s a groove that’s really fun to play. It’s aggressive and note-y. “If the World” is another one. It doesn’t have a lot of bass – it’s mostly whole-notes. We’ve had to work on the arrangement to make it work with a live band, but I think that one will be a lot of fun to play live.
With three guitars, two keyboards, drums, vocals, and bass, GNR’s lineup is much larger that the Replacements. Has that proven to be a difficult adjustment?
Whatever I do, I want it to sound good. I don’t care if there are 40 people up there onstage – it needs to mesh. When we first started rehearsing, it seemed it might be chaotic and not sound very good. But as time’s gone by, we’ve figured out how to make it all work. In an arena setting, there isn’t room to be subtle. It seems like more you add, the more gets lots. It’s hard to make that many parts sound good in that kind of live atmosphere. My original thought was, Sounds great – can’t wait until we rip it live as a four-piece! But that’s not gonna happen. And it shouldn’t – each part is really important, and everyone’s put a lot of time into learning how to get the right live tone.