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Tommy Stinson

Interview with Tommy Stinson of the Replacements and Guns N' Roses

Tommy Stinson Record Label: Sanctuary Records
by Joshua Miller
May 2011

For prolific bass player Tommy Stinson, it can safely be assumed that it’s often easy to get lost behind his history and reputation. As the bass player for Minneapolis punk rock/alternative rock band the Replacements, Stinson helped craft a new style of rock and roll throughout the 80s. From the early age of 13 to his early 20s, he joined the band on their furious onslaught of touring across the country and world. Their live shows were wild, unpredictable and spontaneous, with the band making it up as they went.

When the Replacements broke up in 1991, rather than sitting idle he set out to continue exploring where he could take his music. Through it all Stinson hasn’t forgotten the rush of energy that comes when he plays his bass and keeps a youthful “get in the van and tour” mentality. That’s not to say he’ll shy away from the spotlight. In 1998 he was asked by Axl Rose to play bass for Guns N’ Roses, and appears on the infamous “Chinese Democracy” album. Following that, he has gone on tour with them for some of the biggest gigs of his life. In recent years he has also spent much of his time working with Soul Asylum, being asked to fill in following the passing of the band’s original bass player Karl Mueller.

That’s not to say he’s not focusing no his own music. Starting this week, Stinson is about to set another chapter, touring with a hand picked band of musicians. He’ll be joined by a full rock band which will feature Mike Gent from The Figgs as well as Wisconsinites Tim Schweiger and Jon Phillip (the latter from Limbeck). He hopes to preview some of the new songs from his upcoming album, as well as explore his past with material from Bash & Pop and Perfect, his post Replacements groups, and 2004 solo album “Village Gorilla Head.”

Maximum Ink got a chance to talk to Stinson before he set out on his short Midwest tour - which includes a stop Thursday in Milwaukee at Club Garibaldi -  about this new chapter of his life, his exploration of music and the diverse natures of the bands he’s been part of.

Maximum Ink: There have been countless times you’ve been out on the road so what are you looking forward to this tour?

Tommy Stinson: Well I’m looking forward to trying something new.  I’ve got these guys from Limbeck and Mike Gent and my fiancee.  I’m excited to see how this all works, never thrown together something like this to go out and play some shows.  If this goes like I think it will be a good little band to use to do shows.  That’s what my hope is.

MI: The lineup for your band to this tour is pretty interesting and two hail from Wisconsin. Could you tell me how you got to meet them?

TS: My manager Benny Perlstein knows Tim Schweiger and Jon Phillip from Milwaukee and knew they’d be good guys to play with and that they knew my stuff. Mike Gent was already in the neighborhood because he was already doing some Figgs shows. So it was like ‘Should we book some shows around and see how it goes?’ And they were like ‘Why not?  We have nothing better to do in the month of May, at least in the middle of it.’ So I decided I’d take a stab at it and we’ll see. It could be totally great or it could a total disaster.

MI: You’re originally from Minneapolis so was there appeal to playing with other musicians from the Midwest?

TS: It wasn’t really anything about that. It was just that I happen to be going back that way as well as Mike Gent and the Figgs. It was more of a ‘Let’s try these guys because we’ll be in the same neighborhood at the same time and see if we can do some gigs and see how it’s all going to work out.’ The whole thing is a grand experiment on my part to see if I can put a band together in a short amount of time and go do proper shows.

MI: You have a new album coming out in August. What was it like working in the studio on that one?

TS: It was pretty cool. I’ve been compiling stuff over the past couple of years from my studio in the West Coast to when I moved my studio to the East Coast.  I kept compiling stuff and finally had enough stuff to put out.  I got to work some different elements this time. For example I got my fiancee singing on a bunch of it which adds a very cool dynamic vocally and I have her uncle Chip playing slide [guitar] on a lot of them which adds an element that I didn’t get or at least much of on the last record, last two records really. So it’s pulled many things into it, which is what I’m always looking for. I’m always looking for something different from the last record I made. I want to keep it interesting and keep it evolving. 

MI: How does it compare with past albums from yourself and the other bands you’ve been part of?

TS: It’s weird. It’s like as time goes on I’m realizing it gets harder and harder. To have a band that goes out to play a show that needs to make money and do all that stuff it gets a bit daunting that right off the gate you have to start paying people money. You’re kind of working a negative unless they’re part of the band and don’t have jobs. It’s tough to get it going on so it’s almost easier to do it myself and make a record of my own easier and cost-effective on my own. 

If we are able to find people that are able and willing to play shows with us for a reasonable rate, given the places I’m playing and stuff. I’m not rolling in the dough to pay musicians a thousand dollars a week so it makes it tough to find guys sometimes. I’ve got guys in Milwaukee that are willing to do it for a decent wage so I think it’s going to be good. 

MI: Was there a theme you’re going for on this album?

TS: Not really. The thing I do when I’m recording is let the songs become what they want to become. It’s hard to mold a song into something it isn’t. I’m trying to let the songs have their own voice, so to speak. So this one I’m getting closer to figuring that out. I’m not complete with it but I am getting closer. 

MI: Could you tell me about one or two of the songs specifically?  Are there any that are particularly special for you?

TS: They’re all over the place. There’s a track about being a little kid in Philly, not that I was ever a little kid in Philly but could be related to any little kid from anywhere. They’re all over the place and are about my life experiences and stories that I’ve made up or half been part of and half made up. I try not to get too specific because then people will know what you’re talking about.

MI: Some musicians have a go-to type of whatever instrument they have. What’s your go-to type of bass?

TS: When I do my own stuff I pretty much play a couple different basses that I have.  I’ve got Hofner, Fender - actually got a couple different kinds of Fenders – and six string bass.  There’s a bunch of different things I go to for different sounds. 

MI: Is there one that you find yourself going to frequently and why?

TS: Probably my precision bass.  It’s just a model I prefer. It’s a good rock bass, it’s pretty versatile and you can get a lot of different things out of it. The ones I’ve got generally sound really good. 

MI: Could you tell me a little bit about how you approach songwriting?

TS: I don’t have any one way of doing it.  Songwriting to me has become a vague thing.  I could start with a guitar riff, a vocal line, or a melody. And they all end differently as well. There would be a song I started 15 years ago that I’ll finally find the right parts for and it’ll be the 15 year song. They go through their own pieces to become a song. They just turn into things. 

MI: Over the past year you’ve been heavily involved in helping with the earthquake relief efforts in Haiti. Could you talk about that experience?

TS: When I heard about the earthquake in Haiti I sought out a way I could help and not by giving money to the Red Cross as that didn’t work too well with [Hurricane] Katrina. I was left thinking I could do something better than that so I wanted to find a way to really get involved with the relief effort and do something that would be long term and a little more substantial. So we got this auction going and got involved with Timkatec (http://timkatec.org/) and got to go and see first hand what it was that we were going to be doing felt that was a really good cause. 

Now we’ve done that auction and raised over 50 thousand dollars for it and now we’re working with another program to help build jobs by helping the students that graduate with a tailoring degree help them to find work. We were working with an idea involving a clothing line or specialty item that people could purchase so instead of donating money they would actually buy the outfit they would make down there. So we’re working on stuff like that to help keep them going and try to make their own path to success and own way to earn money because it’s super poor down there.

MI: Besides your solo material, you’ve been involved recently with Soul Asylum and Guns N’ Roses.  Could you tell me a little what those bands are like?

TS: They’re vastly different bands but they both are a lot of fun to play in. There’s the big crazy fun of playing in front of stadiums and all that with Guns N’ Roses. It can be both stressful and a lot of fun, with a huge production and all.  Soul Asylum is something I enjoy doing because, one, I know the guys from high school. They’re all good friends of mine.  It’s a simpler show which means a little more fun all the time and little less daunting of task to do. 

MI: How do they compare with your time in the Replacements?

TS: Soul Asylum is more like it would be in the Replacements. It’s just a bunch of guys fucking getting together, playing some songs and getting in a van and traveling around.

MI: It must have been pretty neat to work with Guns N Roses and Axl Rose as I imagine you’ve been interested in them for some time.

TS: With all these people it’s a bigger plan for world domination.  [Laughs]

MI: What has been the biggest lesson you’ve learned through your time as a musician?

TS: That it doesn’t get easier.  [Laughs] It doesn’t get easier as you go along and get older.  That’s a big fallacy.  You can make money and get bigger and playing in front of more people but the gig doesn’t get easier with that.  It’s a lot of work however you slice it up.  But it’s all worked out well.

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