Alt-Rock Legend Tommy Stinson Talks About Guns N’ Roses, Puff Daddy, and a Replacements Reunion

A conversation with the ex-Replacement and current Guns N' Roses bassist

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If you’ve listened to rock music over the last two decades, there’s a good chance that you heard the influence of The Replacements. Bands like Nirvana, Foo Fighters, Wilco, Green Day all owe a head nod in the direction of the ‘Mats. The group, which started out as a Minneapolis punk band in the ’80s, were unlikely innovators famous (or, infamous) for their wildly unpredictable performances – brilliant one night, obliterating the stage in a drunken rampage the next.

Jim Walsh, a columnist at City Pages in Minneapolis, calls the Replacements “the little working-class band that could — but didn’t.” The lovably sloppy group could step into the recording studio (and, sometimes, on the right night, on to the stage) and play heartfelt, bewilderingly beautiful songs that still resonate 20 years on. Now, The Replacements are back. Sort of. The group reunited and published an EP of cover songs, Songs for Slim, to help pay for the medical care of former bandmate Slim Dunlap, recovering from a stroke.

Tommy Stinson joined The Replacements when we was 12 years old, bribed with candy by his older brother Bob. Now, at the age of 46, he’s still at it. He’s the bass player for Guns N’ Roses, recently released a new album, “One Man Mutiny,” and, of course, recently went into the studio for the first time in years with The Replacements’ frontman Paul Westerberg to make that benefit album. We talked to Stinson about Songs for Slim, Guns N’ Roses, and whether he and Paul Westerberg are ever getting the old band back together.

TIME: I understand you’re in the Middle East?

Tommy Stinson: Yeah, Abu Dhabi.

What are you doing there?

I have no f—ing clue. We have a show here.

It’s hard to imagine Guns N’ Roses in Abu Dhabi. How are you received there?

Surprisingly well, actually. We played here five years ago and we did good. We played in front of something like 35,000 people. It was part of the F1 series that was going. We do good. It’s weird. Every time I think we’re going to the weirdest place possible, we end up going somewhere even weirder. We’re going to Beirut. There’s a civil war happening, I think. Our gig is already hotly protested. I’m looking forward to it not really at all.

How did you end up joining Guns ‘N Roses?

My friend Josh Freese was playing for them. I went down on a lark, and it turned out pretty good. They didn’t really audition anyone else. I did it because I was trying to do a Perfect record and I was getting nothing but pains in the a– from the record label. I had been trying for five years to get this thing going, and I kept getting screwed. And I just wanted a break. It’s worked out for me. Axl been’s great to me.

How many bands are you in right now?

Just one. I was in Soul Asylum, but they really needed a bass player who was there all the time. So I set them up with a Winston Roye, who is great. So I’m in one band. Well, I guess that depends on what you want to call the Replacements and what that could be.

Speaking of which, you recently reunited with Paul Westerberg for Songs for Slim. What was it like being in the studio together again after all these years?

It was so much fun. It was so much fun that we talked about doing it again with some original material. In fact, when I get done with this GnR tour, I’m booking a flight to Minneapolis and doing that. Putting some songs down, but not getting stuck on making record — seeing what comes out of it. Neither one of us feels the pressure to become the Replacements again, although we talk about it.

Every time you or Paul mentions in an interview that you might get the Replacements back together, your fans go nuts. Do you really think it will happen?

I think if we think we’re having fun and it made sense and the music we were making was fun, we would do it. If it became too much of a nightmare, we wouldn’t. We want to enjoy ourselves, make some people happy, do our bit — not make a nightmare. Paul has more at stake, as he has more real feelings about it. He’s more reticent. He’s a singer. He doesn’t want to go out and compete with his 25-year old self. He’s 50. But if he could go out and have fun without the pressures and personal demons of competing with himself, I think he would.

Do you think getting back together with Paul was inevitable — or was it only Slim that could have brought you back together?

Paul and I have always played together. We’ve played together for years post-Replacements. I’ve played on his records; he’s played with me. I throw songs at him, he’s thrown them at me. We’re always going to play together when the planets align. We love each other. We have chemistry together and you don’t just get that with just anyone.

There’s been some confusion about Chris Mars’ involvement in the project. Can you clear it up?

Yes, I can. We wanted to see if Chris wanted to play in the studio. We set up a very soft studio date to see if he could make it. He said, ‘I don’t know if I can do that — Why don’t I throw that one Slim song that I already have in the can, on the record?’ We figured that was close enough. He’s a Replacement. It’s no different from Paul recording “Here Comes A Regular” and putting that out. He also did the cover art.

There’s a famous story of you guys breaking into your recording studio, stealing your masters and throwing them in the river. Do you think you lost any songs on those masters?

We still don’t know what we lost.

So it could have been someone else’s music that you threw in the river?

Yeah! Who knows? Back then we would recycle tapes and we would record over other peoples’ masters. Just play right over other peoples’ tapes. Who knows what was on the ones we threw in the river? Regardless, the point was made.

Is that the craziest thing you guys ever did?

God, no.

What was?

One time, Paul and I had a cab driver drive us backwards all the way to this bar Small’s, which was on Gower and Melrose. He actually did it! All the way. Three miles. We told him we’d give him an extra hundred bucks if he would do it, and he and went in reverse the whole way.

As a musician who is always trying to evolve as an artist, is it challenging to be tied to the legacy of having been in one of the pioneering rock bands?

Not really. I think that scenario might be harder for Paul. He’s trying to get past it and get to another level, but I think that’s just shooting yourself in the foot. This is what I’ve done, and this is what I’m doing — and they aren’t related. I respect what we’ve left behind. One way or the other, good or bad. But I wasn’t the singer for the Replacements. I can do whatever the hell I want, and be proud of that.

It took seven years for you to make a second solo album. What took you so long?

I travel a lot with Guns. I get side-tracked. I do songs when I have time. I did some recording with Frank Black before I left on tour. I compile songs, and when I have 10 or 12 that I like, I’ll put out a record. But, really, I’m in no position to worry about it. My market share at age 46 isn’t that great, and I don’t really care. It’s a labor of love. There’s stuff that I still like, and its fun, and I play whenever I want.

Speaking of doing whatever you want, how did you end up working with Puff Daddy [P. Diddy]. How did that happen?

Haven’t got that question in awhile. Perfect was playing a show at the Intrepid, and one of his guys – Johnny Eaton for Big Daddy Records or whatever that record company of his was called — asked if we wanted to do a rock remix of “All About the Benjamins.” It had already sold a few million copies, but they wanted a rock remix. We listened to it — and it didn’t have a chorus. Everyone did a rock remix for it, but we were the only ones to add a chorus. We did it, and it sold another few million copies. We got hired and I got asked to be in the video.

You’ve obviously had a long musical career, but is there someone else’s musical career that you admire? Someone you think is doing it right?

David Bowie. Maybe he comes to mind because his new record is on my mind. But he’s gracefully getting old and keeps going. Tom Waits, too. He does his own thing. He’s not a kid, he’s not trying to write like kids, but he stays vibrant. I don’t have any designs to conquer the world with this sh-t. If I die and Bash & Pop sells a million records, and my family gets a bunch of money, great. I’m in a different mindset now.  I’m not going to make a jazz record any time soon. I make music that I like and that I have fun making. Whatever gets your boat floating.

I’m from Portland, Oregon and was wondering if you could tell me the story behind the song “Portland.”

Well, we had a bad incident in Portland. It wasn’t one of our defining great moments. It was a bad gig and people were really bummed. That phrase in the song, “It’s too late to turn back, here we go…” — it’s because people were genuinely bummed. We were so f—ed up that we couldn’t play anything. We had the same issues in Houston, Texas. Guess they hadn’t heard the reports about us.

Who has crazier backstage parties: Guns N’ Roses — or the Replacements?

You know, I’m post Guns N’ Roses-crazy-parties. But we were pretty ill back then. We were young and crazy and full of ourselves. It’s not a good thing. For years I’ve had to put a brave face on when rabid Replacement fans come up to me and say, “I saw you play and you were so f—ed up that you didn’t play a single song.” It sounds like you got robbed to me, but okay.

It must be strange to have all your youthful foibles thrown back in your face like that.

Totally. What really gets me, though, and I get this more now, is fans who come up and say that they really loved the music. You know, I think we had our chapter in  rock history. Paul is a great songwriter and he deserves to be recognized for that. We were a great band of that era, but that was then and this is now. That said, I’d rather hear that, then about the time we were so f—ed up in Houston that we couldn’t go back for ten years.