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Tommy Stinson began his long and varied career while he was still in his early teens, joining up with his brother Bob and fellow Minnesotans Chris Mars and Paul Westerberg to form the seminal alt-rock underdogs The Replacements. After the band’s demise in the early ’90s, the bassist would go on to cobble together a handful of post-Replacements groups—the underrated Bash & Pop and Perfect—before joining Guns N’ Roses in 1998. (Yes, Stinson still tours with the band, and yes, he can be heard on the group’s infamously delayed Chinese Democracy.) Another permanent gig with Soul Asylum only added to Stinson’s already full plate, and he’s currently putting the finishing touches on a new solo album, due out later this summer.
In advance of Stinson’s solo show this Saturday at The Note, The A.V. Club spoke to the lifelong musician about emotional frontmen, Chinese Democracy, and why The Replacements could never “phony up” like R.E.M.
The A.V. Club: You have a pretty varied résumé: The Replacements, Guns N’ Roses, Soul Asylum. Do you see a common thread in those bands?
Tommy Stinson: Just that they’re all rock bands. And that they all have fairly emotional singers who are a little bit on the dangerous side. And they’re real—they’re all the real deal. I guess I got lucky enough to not have to play with people who aren’t.
AVC: Do you consciously seek out those types of singers?
TS: It’s sort of by default. I think there’s a yin and yang to it. I’m probably more comfortable with Dave [Pirner, of Soul Asylum] and Paul [Westerberg] than I am with Axl [Rose], just because I’ve known them longer and I’ve been friends with them longer. That’s not to bag on Axl in any way—it’s just to say that I think I’ve managed to get along with Dave and Paul better.
AVC: How did you end up with GN’R?
TS: It was kind of a fluke. A friend of mine, Josh Freese, was playing drums with them, and I asked him what he was up to, and he was like, “Oh, fuck, I can’t really talk about it, but I’ll tell you anyway.” And it turned out he was playing drums, and working on the record. He said, “It’s funny that you’re asking me, because Duff [McKagan] just quit, and we need a bass player.” I was just joking with him: “Oh, that would be a fucking hoot,” given my thoughts about Guns N’ Roses at that time. But I did it anyway just as a laugh, and it turned out pretty good. They didn’t really audition anyone else. They liked me, and because Josh was doing it, it was a compelling notion.
At the time, coincidentally, I was about to get kind of screwed by yet another record label with the Perfect record. I felt like, “You know what? This is enough.” It’s been five years of trying to get this thing going, I keep getting screwed, and I just want a break. So I looked at it as something to do until I figured out my next move. And it worked out pretty good, all things considered.
AVC: Chinese Democracy took all of 10 years to make. What was the recording process like? I mean, you couldn’t have been working at it every day for 10 years.
TS: At first we were in there a lot. We were working on the writing aspect of it, but it just kept going on. We had [Interscope Chairman] Jimmy Iovine intervening in a not-so-productive way, and we had other guys coming and going with nutty ideas. My summation of the whole thing is that Interscope, when they took over Geffen, really led Axl to believe that Jimmy Iovine would be involved, and would help get this record done and make it happen. But basically what he did was let it completely fall apart. Then he had this great idea to bring in [producer] Roy Thomas Baker to make it sound better. All he did was re-record everything three or four different times, trying to make it sound like something it didn’t need to sound like, and spend $10 million in the process. My two cents on the whole thing is that I really think Jimmy Iovine fucked the whole thing up.
It was a bummer. Most of the songs that are on the record now were done 10 fucking years ago. But all the talking heads in the mix were saying, “Make ’em sound better! Make ’em sound better!” So we kept redoing this and that. And it ended up coming back down to the same fucking songs that they were 10 years ago, except that now they were a super-dense mishmash of a bunch of instrumentation. That whole era pretty much sums up what happened to the record industry. Those kinds of people, making those kinds of decisions and not really helping the artist.
AVC: I imagine that recording experience and your experience with The Replacements would be night and day.
TS: The Replacements stuff we would record pretty much live on the spot, especially the early stuff. We didn’t have money to dick around in the studio. Towards the Sire [Records] years, we actually had budgets to do stuff and spend more time on things, not that it made anything better or worse. It just gave us a little more room to move.
AVC: People always refer to The Replacements as kind of alternative rock pioneers. Do you think you guys ever really got your due?
TS: I don’t know. I’m not sure if we ever really got our due, or if we did ourselves in. Or, I’m not sure if we got our due, or if we were just done. [Laughs.] I think in some ways we got gypped, and in a lot of other ways, we gypped ourselves.
AVC: How did you cheat yourselves?
TS: It wasn’t anything we could have controlled. There was an element of playing the game that we never got involved with, and couldn’t really comprehend. And that worked to our disadvantage a lot. There was a lot of game playing that we knew other people were doing, like R.E.M. and all these guys. It just seemed phony. It was cool that those guys could “phony up” and do their thing, and put on airs, and hide the fact that they were doing drugs and drinking expensive champagne and shit like that. We just couldn’t really hide that crap.
AVC: And now, all these years later, you’re going out on the road solo. Do you get a lot of chances to play your own stuff live?
TS: Not really—that’s why I’m taking the opportunity now. It’s costly to get a band together to go and play shows. I like doing it, but I’m not really able to put my time and effort towards building up a career, so to speak, after all these years. I’m not sure I really have it in me to go play a bunch of clubs, and then next year play to maybe a few more people. I’ve been doing that my whole life. It’s a little daunting to get out and play shows on my own, and that’s why these ones coming up are going to be kind of special and fun.