Legendary Bassist on Home Recording, Working with Axl Rose and the Future of The Replacements
“I’m all DIY right now. I’m going to be doing everything all on my own.”
“I think we fucked ourselves in a lot of little ways that in a sober head would have seemed pretty stupid.”
Tommy Stinson has nothing left to prove. The legendary musician has been playing to packed crowds since his early teens, cutting his teeth (not to mention a few beer bottles) in The Replacements before forming his own band, Bash & Pop, in the early ’90s. Stinson is probably best known, however, for his role as bassist in Guns N’ Roses, a gig he secured nearly 15 years ago. These days, he’s focused on a new solo record, a small club tour and making music his way.
It’s been a while since your first solo record came out. Obviously, you’ve been so busy with Guns N‘ Roses, what inspired you to do another solo record when you have so much else going on?
I’ve been slowly compiling songs over the last few years and it just got to the point where I thought, “Well, I’ve got these songs here, I should do something with them. I should just finish them up and put them out and that’s how the last one came out really, the same way. I just compiled enough songs and finally just put something out. And I think in the future, they’ll probably come out a little more often than that.
Well it’s been about 7 years since the last one, so…
Yeah, and that’s kind of a long time to wait, but I think I was more busy over the last few years than I’ve ever been. And there’s only one other way that can go, which is ‘less busy’ because it kind of burns you out as well. [laughs]
Absolutely. With the Guns stuff, I’ve heard that there’s actually a lot of down time, but it seems like you guys are always up to something. Is that true? Or has it been overstated in the media that you guys are waiting for Axl on a lot of stuff?
Yeah, well there’s two ways that’s overstated. One is that we’re not usually waiting for him. It’s a huge production if the monster that it is goes on the road, so it takes time to set it up. But there is a good amount of down time from that, and there is the logistics of it all that you have to deal with. There are logistical issues that don’t have a whole lot to do with him either, as far as booking shows, and whatnot. So that’s when there will be downtime.
Getting back to you, can you tell us a little bit about the recording process for the new record?
Over the last five or six years I’ve been compiling. I had a studio in L.A. in my friend’s house. I was living there, and I had a studio in there and that’s kind of where most of this record started from. I had moved in after finishing the tour for the last record and right around that time I was doing the Catch and Release soundtrack. It kind of evolved into where I had a full studio set up in his house. Did that and then about two or three years ago now, I moved to Philadelphia and the whole operation came East because my fiancé and I had a baby. Her family is from that area so it was a move of convenience, in a way. Then I set up shop in her uncle’s basement and that’s where I finished most of this record.
So it’s safe to say this is mostly a home recording project?
Yeah, I mean that’s kind of where I’m at. I can’t really see the point in renting studios anymore because I think that they’ve always been over-priced and out of my budget, especially now that I’m doing my records out of my own pocket. So it was the only way I could do it because it’s one of those ‘labor of love’ things. Although, the last record I did make a good amount of money off of, but most of that came from doing Catch & Release.
You’ve been recording professionally since the early ’80s. Is there a method that you prefer? Do you prefer the home recording, doing it on your own time, or do you prefer working in a studio with a producer?
They both have their pros and cons, they really do. If I had the ability to make a record with a producer that I liked, in a place that made sense, with a band that I could afford and that I liked playing with, that would be a whole different thing. But as it is now, I’ll probably cut a new record in the New Year, with the band that I’m using now. There are a couple guys that are really working out great for me, who I like a whole lot. We get along great and they’re actually sleeping in my house right now. I think in the future I’ll probably do it that way and do it band-style in my own studio. The whole producer and stuff like that… if you’ve got a record company then all that stuff makes sense. You’re supposed to have a producer and all that stuff, especially if someone else is going to pay for it. But I’m all DIY right now. I’m going to be doing everything all on my own.
That’s fantastic. The new record is really great. I hear a lot of different influences on it. Like on “It’s a Drag,” I hear a ’70s Rolling Stones vibe. “Zero to Stupid” definitely has a country feel and there’s even some Big Star in there. Is that stuff in your head during the writing process or is that more of an organic thing that you’re not even thinking about?
When I write songs, they’re totally organic in that regard. I don’t sit there and contemplate, ‘Well today I’m going to write a Stones love song.’ Whatever it is just comes out of me, and I kind of just let the baby come. I try my best to let each song become its own little entity. I don’t like to try and ‘re-invent the wheel’ or anything. It comes out the way it is and I get it recorded, and it sounds the way the song should be. That’s pretty much good enough for me.
One of the great things about this record is it does have a cohesive feel, but every song has its own personality.
Well, yeah I think that’s what the Stones did; they had a little bit of a country thing or a rock song, or an acoustic song, and I grew up appreciating that.
Yeah, and there’s actually a lot more acoustic on this record than I was anticipating. Is that sort of byproduct of Guns N’ Roses burn out?
Not really, it’s just kind of the way it is. In the course of a day I could want to hear a rock song in the morning and by the night I want to hear an acoustic song, and I write that way. If I’m having a particularly upbeat day, I might be more inclined to write a rock song. As the day gets going, I’m getting tired and I’ll turn the amp off and play a little acoustic guitar.
Who’s that singing on “Destroy Me?” That’s a really great track with the female vocals.
That’s my fiancé, actually. She’s singing on most of the tracks, in fact. She’s my secret weapon right now, and I keep using her because it’s worked out really well, and we sound good together.
You do, and it adds a nice depth to it. I’m thinking along the lines of that recent Mark Lanegan HAWK project. He has a really distinct voice like you do, but that female element really compliments you both.
Ya know what? I haven’t checked that out. What’s that all about?
It’s Mark Lanegan and Isobel Campbell, who used to play with Belle & Sebastian. They put out a record a couple months ago called Hawk and it’s really good.
Wow. Cool, I’m glad to hear that.
I’d like to talk about your gear set-up. I’ve seen you play pretty much exclusively a Fender P Bass, with EMGs. Can you explain a little bit about the pickup combination there? I know a lot of Fender players pick their instrument because of that Fender sound.
Yeah, I’ve been using EMGs since the ’80s. I used to get stock P Basses back in the day, and they just didn’t sound that great. The EMGs gave me the right sound and gave me my own little thing. Now I use the PJ Bass, which basically has the jazz pickup in the back in the bridge position. And I’ve been using those for fucking forever. It cuts through a little more.
So what sort of amps are you using? Are you running an Ampeg rig?
Yep. A while back, when they were still made in the States, I bought about four of the Ampeg Portaflex models that they were hand-wiring. I think they did it as a special edition sort of thing. I basically use those behind the stage when I do Guns shows. I’ve got them mic’d up, and that’s pretty much my whole sound.
For this record I know you’re playing more intimate venues. How does that compare to a Guns show? Do you prefer the big spectacle of the ridiculous arena, or is it true-to-your-roots to play clubs and small theatres?
I’m really stripped down when I play right now and I like it. Some gigs I have to play guitar because I can’t find a bass player or vice versa and I like the idea of one guitar, one chord, one amp, as much as possible. [laughs] And I like the idea of not having too much shit going on. It’s a real stripped down live show, just playing small little venues. I like it. It’s intimate; you get a vibe for the people. You can hear them, you can smell them.
Do you enjoy the big arena shows? Or does it make it more of a job?
Those are a lot of work to put on. I do like them because they can be fun, but for the most part they’re a lot of work. So, for me this is sort of the anti-process. I can go out and play the music, enjoy the music, and not have to do this whole other part. It’s just a lot.
Do you find it harder to connect with people when you’re that far away from the crowd?
Oh, absolutely. You’ve got your monitors on, people are far away, it’s loud as shit. There’s security.
What does the future hold for Guns N’ Roses? The rumors are that there’s a ton of material written that hasn’t seen the light of day. Can you shed some light on that?
Ya know, I don’t really know. There is a bunch of stuff that was left over from the last record that didn’t make it because it wasn’t finished. But I’m not sure if Axl has been working on that stuff or not. I would be inclined to think that he probably has been. There’s definitely, I mean when we made the record, there was definitely two full records worth of material there at least. A lot of it’s really good, so maybe he’ll get around to finishing up some bits and singing and stuff like that. That’s kind of where it’s been left at.
Now, do you get involved in the writing process with that at all? Is that process collaborative, or is that mostly Axl?
The whole process, funny enough, is actually a completely collaborative effort. Even if one guy were to bring a whole song in, he’s got to fucking have the rest of the guys chime in, and do their bit on it. And for the good, I think that’s worked out really well. As long as everyone gets in the mix, somehow. It’s a cool way of doing it. I don’t know if it works for everyone, but it worked out great for this last record, anyway.
Are you still a full-time member of Soul Asylum?
What’s going on with that? Is Dave [Pirner] up to some new stuff?
A new record is probably going to come out in the New Year. We worked off and on this whole last year and I think there’s enough material now that all we have to do is mix it and get it out. There’s actually a record deal in the making as well.
Do you think you’ll be able to tour behind that?
Oh yeah. Probably in the New Year.
Fantastic. I did have some Replacements reunion questions, but I thought you’d probably tell me to fuck off if I asked them. That would make a good headline, though, wouldn’t it? Tommy Stinson Tells Performer To Go Screw…
Well thanks, I really need another gig, so…
[sarcastically] Yeah, well you’re not doing enough, apparently, so you really need to call up Paul [Westerberg] and say, “Hey…”
Did you read that? I can’t even tell ya. I’ve gotten people coming up out of the blue saying, ‘Did you read that shit? What the fuck’s up his ass?’
Did I read what? The Paul comment?
There’s some article in the Rolling Stone that I guess he… ya know.
Yeah, they had an exclusive interview with him and I guess they were asking about all the typical reunion stuff. I have to imagine that some of these festivals are throwing money at you, though…
Yeah, apparently I’m the only one that needs to get another gig. [laughs] This guy’s been sitting in his basement fucking hibernating for ten years. I mean, come on!
Yeah, I mean he put something out in ’09… I think?
Hold on just one second…..
Sorry, a couple of my people are leaving right now to catch a train out of here.
Oh no problem. Where are you now, are you home in Philly?
Oh, I’m in upstate New York. That’s where I live now, I moved up here in March.
Ah, okay. You’ve been in the industry the majority of your life, since you were a teenager. Is there any advice that you could give that you wish someone had told you, say, when you were 16? Something that you could pass on to the bands out there reading this mag?
You’ve got to keep your eyes and ears open, and always be open to new things. The one thing that The Replacements got kinda stuck in, ya know, good or bad, we kinda did things the way we wanted to. We didn’t really allow a whole lot of outside influence, so to speak. I think the purpose of writing music is to have people hear it and get an opportunity to check it out and help it to grow, so you can hopefully get a following. That’s kind of why you do it.
And I think a lot of the stuff we did back in the day is very counter to that. I think we fucked ourselves in a lot of little ways that in a sober head would have seemed pretty stupid. But I think the one piece of advice I’d pass on is always look for ways to get your music out there. There are so many ways right now, so many that are free and you can’t rely on anyone else to do things for you. You have to always keep your eye on every aspect that you’re doing. You can’t rely on other people’s stuff, even if they say they’re going to do it and they promise that they’re going to do it. You still have to keep your eye on it.
That’s great advice. In fact, you touched upon something. There are a lot of ways to get your music out there now. In fact, I’d say infinitely more ways than when you first started. Do you think in a way that hurts, having so many bands out there with so many different ways to get their stuff in front of people? Is it harder now to filter through all of that?
Well, no, because it’s not always for everyone. Some bands think they can be good for others. Different ages are different demographics also. I don’t think that just going strictly on Twitter and Facebook is going to work for every band, so it’s not going to be my whole approach at 45 years old. I gotta find another way to get it out there to where people in my age demographic are a little more tuned in. So it’s going to different for me than it would be for a 21-year-old or something.
photos by Emily Roberts and Steven Cohen