Tommy Stinson began his legendary musical journey in his teens. Little did he know when he joined up with his brother Bob and fellow Minnesotans Chris Mars and Paul Westerberg to form The Replacements, they would go on to become one of the most influential bands in the alt-rock scene. After the band’s demise in the early ’90s, Stinson continued to push his musical boundaries with several post-Replacements groups, such as Bash & Pop and Perfect, that also garnered critical acclaim.
His musical endeavors have always been eclectic. A quick glance at his resume removes all doubt that he has never been one to shy away from a challenge. However, it still came as a shock to many when, in 1998, he joined forces with W. Axl Rose in what is arguably the world’s most notorious band, Guns N’ Roses. Since joining the ranks of GNR, he toured the world and played a role in the band’s infamously delayed “Chinese Democracy.” Tommy also has another permanent gig in Soul Asylum, where he writes and tours with the band. As if that weren’t already a full plate, he just released an exciting new solo record, “One Man Mutiny.” Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Tommy Stinson to discuss his storied past, the creation of his new solo album, life on tour with Guns N’ Roses and what the future holds for one of the busiest artists in rock ‘n’ roll!
You’ve been a part of many cool musical projects through the years and surely influenced many up and coming artists. I was curious to learn how music first came into your life?
The first real memory I have of music having an effect on me happened when I was about 6-years-old. We were still living in Florida. I remember driving around with my family in the car and we heard that song “Family Affair” by Sly & The Family Stone. I remember it moving me for some reason, I don’t really know why. I guess I was too young to know but I really dug that song right off of the bat. It’s weird, after that, up until the point that I started playing bass, I didn’t really have an emotional contact with music. It was five or six years later when my brother started showing me how to play bass that I started to experience that connection. So it is weird. I don’t really know why I connected with that song in particular but even when I hear that song now, it still moves me.
You started in music professionally at such a young age. Do you think starting that young instilled something in you musicians of your same age didn’t have?
It is hard to say because I don’t really have anything to compare it to, ya know? I think that there are probably a bunch of things but not knowing or sitting and talking to someone who has learned later in life, I don’t know what that would be. But I certainly grew up a lot earlier than I would have otherwise! [laughs] We were playing clubs and I was doing that instead of hanging out with people my own age. Everyone was several years older than me.
As you said, you started off so young. Was there a moment when you decided music was something you wanted to pursue as a profession?
It was immediate, I will tell you that. It took a lot of coercing by my brother before it really clicked. It was hard for me to learn bass at such a young age. My fingers were small and the strings are much bigger than on a guitar, I am sure that had something to do with why it was hard to play. But it was immediate and it took a lot of him pushing me along bribing me with things like candy and Coke! [laughs] I didn’t take to it instantly but once I did and I was finally in it, it wasn’t until we started playing parties and shit that I felt the people kinda giving energy back, the adoration, the girls and things like that I started thinking “Oh, OK! This is alright then!” [laughs]
Obviously, your brother was a huge influence in every aspect of your life. What are your fondest memories of playing with him?
Ya know, it is the early days that are some of my favorites because we would have this sorta “rehearsal scenario” set up in our basement. He would have the turntable plugged into all of the amps in the room before and after we would play. He would crank music through those amps, like the Beatles or whatever else he was into at the time. He just wanted it so bad and was just so into it all of the time. The early years were kinda special like that.
Looking back on the early days of your career, did you think you would be still going strong all these years later?
Ya know, I never really did! I used to think “Jeez, 30 is so old!” back then! [laughs] It was so foreign to me, how could I possibly fathom doing it at 45?! I didn’t even think I would be alive this long! [laughs] It just seemed kinda weird. So, no, I didn’t think I would be still be doing it.
To what do you attribute your longevity in this ever-changing industry?
I still love what I do. I love when you write a song and you get that feeling of “This is awesome! This is one of the best things that I have ever written.” The moment that you write a song that you like, that is the only time you ever really get that moment from the song because after that you are producing it, putting it out to the world and then it is kinda done. I still love that! I love the feeling that I get from doing it, from having that song that you wrote or listening to someone elses music and going “God! That is the best song ever!” You get that feeling, the goosebumps!
In regard to new music, you recently released “One Man Mutiny.” What can you tell us about your writing process for this album?
It came together in pretty much the same way as my last solo album did, the “Village Gorilla Head” record. I kinda compile songs as I go along and when I have enough of them that I like, I finish them and decide that it is time to put another record out. It’s pretty simple but the bummer of that is I have been so busy over the past couple of years that it has been a long time between records. I am hoping to reconcile that now that I have my studio set up in my house and all of my stuff is in one place, set up and ready to go. Doing things on my own, I believe, is really going to help the process out and cut down on the time between records.
Do you do anything differently in regards to songwriting these days?
Ya know, in the new year, I think I am going to get into some different stuff. Where I live now, in upstate New York, there are some interesting musical folk around that come from different places, which I am trying to incorporate. I have my wife [Emily Roberts] singing background vocals on “One Man Mutiny” and I think working with her is going to help make for some different stuff. I think I am just going to keep doing what I do, which is always adventure into some other area. I think ultimately it will still come out sounding like me.
It sounds like you are always thinking about the future. You are also on the road quite a bit. Are you always writing or is there a point where you sit down and go from there?
I am not always writing. I don’t really write a whole lot on the road because I am not very inspired because I am always so tired. Once in a while something will come out like “One Man Mutiny” did but it usually starts coming to me when I am off of the road for a bit and I have my bearing about me and I am freed up. It is when I haven’t been doing anything for a bit that I get the urge to write.
You mentioned the title track. How did you come to choose “One Man Mutiny” for the record?
I didn’t really choose it, it kinda chose me in that regard. I had a few songs sittin’ on the back burner when I wrote that when I was on tour with Guns N’ Roses. When I got home from that trip, I started finishing up some other stuff and that song just kept coming around. It started jumping out at me as the title of the record, the lead track, it just seemed to make sense somehow. I had some other ideas before that but it just popped out one day as the title track and the rest is history!
What was the biggest challenge in putting this record together?
Really it was just finishing it up and finding the time to finish it up. I was trying to do two really big things at once — finish the record and move! Once I got it all figured out it was OK but it was a bit stressful for us at the beginning of the year.
This record feels a little more upbeat to me than your last outing. Is it safe to say you are in a positive place creatively?
Yeah, that would be a pretty good assessment. It is partially that and partially that I had more rockers on hand for this one than that last one. ya know? I think on the last record I did a whole lot more piecemeal and I was just in a different space. I kinda had a lot more dark shit sitting around, I suppose, than upbeat.
Do you think this more upbeat material is a trend we will see more of in the future?
You know, it is hard to say. I don’t have any one way of writing or specific method, so we will see. I guess it all depends on how many of my kooky musician friends I can get on board for the next one! It could turn into a complete fiasco! [laughs] Or it could be great!
One of the coolest things about this record is you are donating half of the proceeds to a very worthy charity, the Timkatec Schools in Haiti. What can you tell us about that and about how you got involved?
I got involved with Timkatec after the earthquake in Haiti. A friend of mine was living in Haiti and knew of this school. I really wanted to do something to help and I didn’t want to just donate money because I had done that after Hurricane Katrina and was bummed with what the Red Cross had done with it. I knew that I needed to get more emotionally involved, hands on involved, and I wanted to do something substantial. I went down to Haiti to check it out. I saw the school and the kids and I just kinda fell in love with it! Ya know, this could be my life’s work, helping this group of kids who I think are ultimately going to rebuild their country. It just made sense to me.
Right now, you are out on tour with Guns N’ Roses. Do you have any plans to tour in support of “One Man Mutiny” and, if so, who will be the players involved?
I am looking to do some stuff in the new year, some regional stuff, whatever makes sense to do. I will probably use a group of guys that I have used already on a couple of the dates that I have done already in the Mid-West and on the East Coast. We will see what happens! Hopefully I can get out and play some shows!
It is really inspiring to see an artist like yourself get involved in this manner. I am glad we can help in some way to spread the word.
Yeah, that is the whole point. Any time I do an interview, I think it helps to get the word out there a little bit further and hopefully it does something good!
You’re currently on tour with Guns N’ Roses. I saw you just the other night and you are playing tighter than ever.
For you and the guys in the band, how does the current tour stack up to your previous outings?
I think the difference between this tour and the earlier ones is that we are having a lot more fun. I think that Axl seems to be having more fun as well. I think that it might have something to do with the addition of DJ Ashba, I think that is a pretty good assumption to make. He is a good fit musically and, with his personality, I think him and Axl get along really well. All those elements make for a really fun show. It is light and we work our butts off but it is a lot more fun and less hectic than the last outings.
You are no stranger to touring and this current GNR tour is a huge production. Has touring gotten any easier for you through the years or has it gotten more difficult? Let’s face it, none of us are gettin’ any younger![laughs] No! It is definitely NOT gettin’ any easier! The older I get, the harder it is!
Do you do anything special to prepare for a tour like this that has three-hour sets?
What I did before but I haven’t been doing in a while because I had a kid and that has definitely changed my whole daily workout regiment. I used to go to the gym a lot more. I think that is something I need to get back to as it definitely helps when you are doing a three-hour show as far as keeping your old body in shape and increasing your stamina.
Even with a three-hour set, you have a lot of downtime. What is a typical day like for you when you are on this tour?
To be honest, there hasn’t been all that much downtime on this particular run. Since we got back from South America, it has been pretty hectic. There is a lot of travel on our days off. Generally, our day starts at about 3 or 4 in the afternoon, when you are waking up from an overnight drive because you just left from the previous town at 6 or 7 in the morning. It has been kinda kooky in that way! The travel has been the hardest part of it. When the fans coming to the show are getting off of work, our day starts!
As an artist, what has been the highlight of your time in Guns N’ Roses?
Jeez, let me think about this now. Hmm … I may still be waiting for one! [laughs] No, I am only kidding! Ya know, it was a big highlight for me when “Chinese Democracy” came out. It was a pretty big moment but sadly there was a lot of shit that happened that kinda took the whole thing down. But yeah, it was definitely a highlight when the album was released because we had put so much into it, ya know?
Social media has played a big part in many peoples personal and professional lives in recent years. How do you feel it has impacted you as an artist.
I have seen a huge impact. It is exciting on one hand and daunting on the other. It is a big open world out there with a lot of free space. It is breaking down the barriers of compartmentalized music genres that we have been having to deal with for 20+ years where you have pop stations and rock stations and this or that. It is really opening up a whole new thing of “free music” where you can have a wide musical palette and not be compartmentalized. The daunting thing is how you reach those people. There are so many ways to reach them and so many ways that work and some that don’t. You have to find those. I am putting my own record out so I have to find out how to make that happen.
Your career has so many defining moments. Is there something you haven’t tackled musically or even outside of the realm of music you would like to pursue?
Ya know, I am looking for that. I think that Timkatec is part of that and some type of work within the community, not in a politician sort of way but working within my community to do for others with what I have got and with what I can get and what I can make happen. I think there is a lot of selfless work that can be done that I am starting to figure out and get ready for. I think that is probably going to be what happens with me.
You’ve seen the music industry change so much through the years. What advice would you give someone who wants to pursue a career in the music industry in this current climate?
You have to fight your way up. You have to look at the Internet as an asset, not a liability. You have to really pound it and figure out how to reach the people and get your music into their hands and see if they are going to buy it or not. It’s a lot of hard work, there is nothing easy about it.
Do you think there are any misconceptions about you as an artist?
No. I think you can look at all the crap I have done and say, “Yeah, that seems like part of the story.” All of the parts make the sum.
What about telling that story? Any thoughts on writing an autobiography?
Not yet but maybe one day. Maybe one day I will break down and spill the beans! [laughs]
Fans are always clamoring for a Replacements reunion. And 20 years after The Replacements, the mythology of the band continues to grow. What is it like for you to look back on your time in the band all these years later?
I look back on that period fondly. We left our mark. We did some good things and we did some bad things. I think that, ultimately, history will remember us that way — and that is a good thing! I look back fondly on the whole thing. Do I ever want to go back? Not really. But I don’t think that we really could anyway because it is in the past, ya know?
Do you still feel a reunion in some form is in the cards for you all?
I don’t know. I don’t know. It seems like we talk about it every now and again but it just seems like the overall baggage is just too great for it. It always seems to get in the way of the talks. I am not going to say never but I doubt it.
In your opinion, where does the road lead next for Tommy Stinson — in the short term?
Probably back to my home so that I can start working on another record in January or February! That would probably be my guess. I will probably do some shows. I will probably do some recording with my band and some other people to get some other stuff going on.
That is great news and we wish you the best of luck on that and with the current tour!
Thank you so much!
For all the latest information on Tommy Stinson, check out his official website at www.tommystinson.com. For more information on Timkatec and how you can help this very worthy cause, visit www.timkatec.org.