By Mark Guarino
Tommy Stinson is unapologetic about joining Guns N’ Roses, the legendary hard rock band fronted by singer Axl Rose.
For the past six years, Stinson and five other recruits sporadically toured as the revamped Guns while at work on a new album that is already fabled without ever being heard. After years of delays, Stinson says it will finally be released late this year.
“Some of the (expletive) is so epic, I’m really stoked about it,” he said. “I think Axl is pretty much concentrated on getting it done and keeping his head out of (the headlines).”
Details of the album are shrouded in secrecy, with reports periodically appearing that portray Rose as an erratic megalomaniac, and imply his new band is held on indefinite retainer with a ban on outside commitments. For Stinson, the fire was stoked even further when Paul Westerberg, his former bandmate in the Replacements, began telling reporters two years ago that a Replacements reunion was thwarted once Rose heard about it and wouldn’t let Stinson free.
When asked if there was some truth to the story, Stinson is blunt. “Totally (expletive),” he said. “I got really pissed off because (Westerberg) kind of raked Axl over the coals a little bit with it which was annoying and it bummed Axl out. He was like ‘dude, I don’t even know this guy. Why is he (expletive) saying I’m the reason you can’t do a Mats reunion?’ I don’t know what his (expletive) problem is. It got to be kind of ugly, so I had to kind of distance myself from (Westerberg) for a minute there.”
Further evidence of Stinson’s autonomy is “Village Gorilla Head” (Sanctuary), his new solo album recorded in-between Guns duties. Compared to the two albums he recorded under the names Bash & Pop and Perfect, it is more introspective with a depth of variety. Ragged rock numbers (“Something Wrong”) and punk blowouts (“Couldn’t Wait”) are obvious throwbacks to his Replacements lineage. But the album also has polished pop songs (“Not a Moment Too Soon”), beautifully serene folk reflections (“Hey You”) and meditative songs (“Without a View,” “Light of Day,” “Village Gorilla Head”) that incorporate cello, drum loops and horns.
Even though Stinson said he listened to Bob Dylan every morning during the two month period of recording, he braces being called a singer-songwriter. “You get thrown into a certain pool that’s more adult contemporary. I’m not really ready to be adult contemporary. I don’t want to be alternative either. I kind of just want to float around and be whatever I am,” he said.
Stinson was 12 when he and his older brother Bob formed the Replacements with Westerberg and Chris Mars. The Minneapolis band became one of the most influential bands of the ‘80s but never achieved commercial success. Over six albums, the band captured suburban alienation with brutal eloquence and comic indifference. In the early days, guitarist Bob Stinson was the motor of the group, but was kicked out in 1987 for his exorbitant drinking. He died in 1995.
“He definitely showed me how to play bass. He beat me up enough to (expletive) make me play it,” Stinson said of his brother.
“I think him going as far left as he could was probably ultimately his demise in the Replacements in a way. But also, I don’t think you could ever corral that mindset,” he said. “He had a way to take a simple song go as far left as he could before you had to reel him in and make sense of it. Today, I can’t listen to that stuff, but when I do, I’m blown away by his guitar playing. The songs were cool … but his guitar playing was just bananas.”
Next to their studio work, the Replacements built a reputation for live shows that unraveled into alcohol-fueled discord, a factor that contributed to a kind of jagged legacy.
“We kind of lived up to the myth,” Stinson said. “We were drunken, (expletive) buffoons half the time. And the bummer for me is that a lot of times people will come up and go, ‘I saw you guys and you guys were so (expletive) up, it was the greatest show I ever saw!’ And you get less of people coming up and going ‘man, I really love that song ‘Sixteen Blue’ or man, ‘Bastards of Young’ was my favorite rock song!’ And I get bummed on that because I’m proud of the music we did. We made some really great records and I think Paul wrote some really great songs and I think we were a really great band at a certain time. But we live up to the myth and that’s the unfortunate side of that.”
On his current tour, Stinson, 37, is playing small clubs, a vast departure from his Guns job where he will routinely face up to 50,000 people in stadiums. He admitted that years ago the experience might have left him feeling disjointed, but today he sees no difference between either gig.
“I’ll play the same way,” he said. “The thing is you have to work up to leaving your ego at home every time. I’d done this for so many years, I don’t need to be a rock star. I thought I was one at 15.”
As for Rose, Stinson said, “it kind of is unfortunate that no one can accept him as being a (expletive) good guy and someone who cares a lot about people. Because that doesn’t make for good copy.”
Strangely, shedding past glories is what connects him to Rose, he said. “At the end of the Replacements run, the Replacements got real dark and not really happy and I think it came from a lot of excessive behavior, either drugs or alcohol or just rock star mentalities. The Guns thing, the cool thing about it is that Axl has already been a rock star. I’ve already been a rock star. Now we want to (expletive) make cool music.”