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2004.MM.DD - Magnet Magazine - Interview with Tommy

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2004.MM.DD - Magnet Magazine - Interview with Tommy Empty 2004.MM.DD - Magnet Magazine - Interview with Tommy

Post by Blackstar on Mon Aug 24, 2020 7:35 am

Tommy Stinson

By Matt Hickey

Only 37, Tommy Stinson has spent nearly 25 years in the music business, seeing and doing more than most rockers who’ve been around much longer. Growing up as Paul Westerberg’s bass-playing teen sidekick in the Replacements, Stinson has helmed two short-lived post-Mats bands—Bash & Pop and Perfect (whose excellent, unreleased 1998 album Seven Days A Week, now titled Once, Twice, Three Times A Maybe, will finally hit stores this year)—and is now toiling, however improbably, in the reconstituted Guns N’ Roses. Though stylistically varied—slight traces of hip hop and folk blend with plenty of garage-rock swagger—Stinson’s first solo outing is rather cohesive. On the new Village Gorilla Head (Sanctuary), spare strings and a drum machine infuse striking opener “Without A View” with melancholy; later, the Stonesy grit of “Motivation,” the acoustic, Faces-esque jaunt of “Hey You” and the treacle-free ballad “Lonely Day” are more traditional but no less exciting. Closer “Someday,” with its sorrowful riff and hopeful refrain (“Something of use will come”), ends the record on a nifty happy/sad note of which Westerberg would be proud. After a number of false starts, Village Gorilla Head is the sound of an older, wiser Stinson reaching musical maturity without aping his past.

MAGNET talked to Stinson upon his return from a vacation in the Bahamas with his mother.

So you’re in Minneapolis right now?

Yeah, I just stopped back here on my way to and from the Bahamas. I went with my mom for her early birthday/retirement present.

How was that?

It wasn’t rough, dude. [Laughs]

You’re what, 36, 37 years old?

Right, 37.

You’re young, but you’ve been in the business for so long, close to 25 years. Do you ever sit back and reflect on how long you’ve been doing this?

You know, I have. Not so much at any one point, but as time rolls on, I look at it and think, “I’m only 37, but I’ve been doing this shit for 25 years.” On one hand it’s cool, since I’m proud of it all and I still dig it. I love making music, but it’s just a weird thought that most of my life I’ve been fucking doing this. It makes me feel not so bad about being 37—that I’ve been doing this and been successful enough at it to make a living.

Have you ever thought about doing anything else as your career has gone on?

Not really. Right around the time I turned 30, I thought about doing something else in addition to music, just because I’d been kind of spinning my wheels for a little bit. I actually did get a telemarketing job for a while, which was good. I had started to feel like I wasn’t making a true kind of music. I was relying so heavily on it to make my living that it started to get bastardized a little bit. Having a day job for a while got me back to going, “Wow, I can make money doing other shit and do what I like to do for the reasons I like doing it.” Suddenly, I started writing songs that I liked.

So you went through a period where you were writing songs you were unhappy with?

I went through a period more where I was writing for commerce rather than art. As soon as you do that, you’re fucked. No one’s ever done it well as far as I know, and the ones that have done it well are crap. I’ve been doing this for so long, I’ve always respected the critical element of what I’ve done and tried to maintain some credibility. I’ve sort of grown up that way, listening to music that was more credible and being involved in music that was more credible. Not to fucking pat my own back—because I’m the last to do that—but I just try to maintain that respect. I want to stay on that path of credibility. Not that I look at myself as some fucking hoity-toity artist, but I’d rather be on a path of artistic credibility than in a fleeting money pit.

When you had the telemarketing job, what were you selling?

Toner. I was selling fucking ink cartridges and stuff. I was strapped for cash for a while, and I just decided, “Fuck it, I want to make some money, this is getting kind of stupid.” So I learned to sell toner over the phone to people who didn’t want any. The best thing about it was that I learned a whole lot about myself as far as wanting to get back to writing music that came from inside rather than music that went into someone’s back pocket. I also learned how to sell myself a little bit. With the Replacements, we never got to the point where we were confident and able to exude any strength—you know, where from a listener’s standpoint or a crowd standpoint, they’d go, “Wow, these guys are really on top of their game.” We instead fell apart in our game, which I guess is part of the fun of it all and the good part of it. It was good to get confidence in what I was doing and also be able to say, “I don’t fucking care about all of this extraneous, peripheral nonsense.” I like what I do and if I can get two people to buy it or if my daughter likes it, I’m stoked.

So were you good at selling toner?

I was. [Laughs] I got good at it really quick and, hence, made money so that I could go back to writing songs. Honest to god, the day I got good at selling toner, my entire life did a 180. It really was a pivotal moment, and I’ve been doing great since.

How far back do the songs on the new record go?

A couple of them have been works in progress for a good 10 years. “Someday,” in particular, started out as a couple of lines a long time ago, and I just worked with it for a while. I liked where it was going, but I never knew exactly where to let it go. It’s literally taken me 10 years to finish the stupid song. Over the last four or five years, I’ve been working stuff up slowly, coming up with what I felt was right. It took me a little while to get back into writing after the last Perfect record (that was shelved in 1998) that is finally getting released. After that whole thing got screwed up, I kind of wanted to be in a band, and the Guns N’ Roses thing obviously came along at the right time. After that, I didn’t really write anything for like a year. I just regrouped, listened to music and kind of kicked it. The five years that followed that period is where a lot of these songs came from.

What does your mom think of the record?

I don’t know if I’ve given her a completed copy. I played her stuff a long time ago and she really liked it. The best part is that my daughter Ruby said she really likes it. That’s awesome.

How old is she?

Fourteen. She’s a good kid. When your daughter confirms that you’ve done something good, you just go, “OK, cool. I can move on now. I’m good.”

One of the things I really like about the record is that it sounds different than what you’ve done before, yet is still similar stylistically. There’s a lot going on, but it doesn’t sound scattered. Was that something you focused on?

The amazing thing that happened—and I think it really happened in the mixing process—is that all of these different songs ended up sounding somewhat cohesive. When I was making the record, I wanted each song to be its own thing because that’s how I like listening to records. I like artists and bands that can captivate me with more than one thing. My biggest pet peeve about the way record companies work with new artists these days is that they just want 10 of the same fucking song. I like making records the other way. I wanted each song to be its own thing and sound different. All of the drum sounds, all of the guitar sounds, I change them up pretty good from song to song, and somehow in the mix, all the parts sound good together.

Some of the lyrics are fairly pointed and caustic, perhaps aimed at someone specific. Do you write about specific people or do you adopt a persona and write from that perspective?

I rarely write about any one person. In fact, I think the only song I’ve ever written about anyone in particular is “Light Of Day,” which is about a really good girlfriend of mine. We go out and have our nights out every once in a while, and we laugh our asses off. She’s married to one of my dear friends, and we have a great bond. Other than that, every one of these songs is a composite. I take bits of information from different character flaws or what have you and try to make something interesting out of it. It kind of includes everyone’s peccadilloes at once, so to speak.

Where does the title of the record come from?

It comes from [the title track]. I was trying to think of what to call the record. I had all of these ideas, and none of them were really sticking. My manager said, “Why don’t you call it Village Gorilla Head?” And we started laughing our asses off. I thought, “You know, I kind of like that.” When I was creating the song, I had these three parts, one of which is a bridge that’s no longer there. One part was reminding me of a Gorillas song. One of the parts was reminding me of the Village People, kind of going down that road. And the bridge was kind of Motörhead-like. It has this distorted bass and was all fucked up. I didn’t have any lyrics for it yet, so I just called it “Village Gorilla Head.” If that makes any sense at all, I’ll sell you a pound of it.

That song sounds like it’s aimed at a group of people—maybe New York or L.A. hipsters or something. I just couldn’t figure out how the title fit into all of that.

[Laughs] It’s pretty vague. But it does tie in in exactly that sort of way. When I go out at night, I’m a bit of a voyeur. I kind of sit at the end of the bar and pick out people and imagine what’s going on. Or I meet people and they tell me what’s going on, and I take that and turn it into my rock ’n’ roll soup.

You mentioned that Perfect’s Seven Days A Week is going to come out at some point.

Yeah, but it’s not called that anymore. It’s called Once, Twice, Three Times A Maybe. It’s coming out on Ryko. As soon as we can come up with some artwork that’s suitable, we’ll put it out. We remixed it, took one song off it, and it’s coming out (this year).

What’s the short explanation for why the record didn’t come out in ’98?

We made the record for a pretty good hunk of money for Restless. When it came down to marketing and promoting it, they realized how much they were in already and got cold feet about having to put anything more into it. Their marketing and radio people were absolute morons. They had a good publicist and a couple of good people working there, but overall the people that were going to be getting it out were totally inept. I knew we were going to get screwed on it, so that’s when I started getting disheartened by the whole thing. I was doing a session with a friend of mine who told me that Guns N’ Roses needed a bass player, and I thought it would be cool to join a band for a while and not worry about this shit anymore.

How much can you talk about what’s going on with Guns N’ Roses?

Because I’ve been working on my record, I’m kind of out of the loop at the moment. I can tell you that when Chinese Democracy comes out—and it will come out because it’s almost done now—we’ll be touring behind it, and I’ll be fucking first in line to get back on board. It’s a good gig. I love Axl, and we have a really good thing going. Whether or not people buy it is the fucking $60 million question, but all I know is that we’re all proud of it and had a good time doing it—and also some troubling times doing it—but it was fun as shit. People always feel compelled to say to me, “Dude, are you stoked to get a paycheck?” If it were about that, I’d be an asshole. It’s never been about just getting a paycheck. I put a lot of work and heart and soul into it just like everyone else and got a great deal out of it. Axl has been more than supportive of me making [Village Gorilla Head]. To any naysayer out there, I say, “Fuck off.” I’m totally into it, and I’m definitely happy to be involved with Guns N’ Roses.

I think naysayers are just befuddled that you’re in Guns N’ Roses. I think they’re baffled at the combination and how it came about.

That’s cool. I’ve come across a lot of people who give me, “Dude, what are you thinking?” Then I have to explain it. At this point, I’m kind of sick of explaining it and just feel like going, “Fuck off.” [Laughs] These are my people, I have a fucking great time with them.

When you were in the Replacements, what did you think of Guns N’ Roses?

I wasn’t really a fan. It wasn’t my circle. By the time the Mats ended, you have to realize that I’d gone through my phases of listening to punk rock and all of that, and I’d already done a Big Star phase. At the end, I was more into figuring out what I was about and kind of listening to more pop music, like the Waterboys—things that were sort of deeper. Guns N’ Roses wasn’t that genre; it was the other end of the dial. No bones about it—Axl and I have talked about it, and he was no more of a Replacements fan than I was a Guns N’ Roses fan. I couldn’t help but know about them, of course, but to say it wasn’t my thing is what I can truthfully say about it. Axl said he had gone to a couple of Mats shows in different places and didn’t really have much of an opinion about it, I don’t think. It didn’t really hit him either way.

You guys toured, what, last year or the year before, and it was aborted midway, right?

That was two years ago now.

What was that experience like? What were the shows like?

It started off a little rocky because it was our first run, but this one especially because it was such a big production. There’s a lot of chaos involved with a show like that, no matter who the fuck you are. It started out rough but spirited. As it went along, we started gelling as a band and it became fun. It wasn’t fucking easy. When you get to that level, there are schedules and entourages and technicians all working to make it happen. That was the hard part but also the satisfying part—to put your fucking all into a two-and-a-half hour show while being the people that no one fucking knows about. Fans showed up knowing Axl was going to be there but had no idea who the rest of these people were. To see their reactions to us having a good time, playing the new stuff and old stuff, it was really cool.

The new stuff went over well?

Yeah, it did. A lot of it didn’t go over that well because the crowd had never heard it before. It didn’t go off badly, but they were just listening to it and figuring it out.

Is Buckethead still in the band?

Uh, no.

What’s that guy’s deal? He wears that bucket all the time?

You know, he wears a bucket on his head. That’s all I can say about that. And there’s not a lot under it.

What’s your relationship like with Westerberg these days? Do you talk at all?

We’ve been playing phone tag for about a year. I keep meaning to hook up with him when I come to Minneapolis, but every time I come back, I run out of time and all that. A couple of years ago, I was kind of pissed at him for some of the shit he was saying about Axl and why the Replacements reunion couldn’t happen, but all that stuff became water under the bridge as time went on. We’ve been trying to sew it up a little bit, but we just haven’t yet. I haven’t seen the guy in six or seven years. We’ve talked a couple of times, and I think it’s time we get back in touch.

What’s your impression of his recent stuff?

I’ve heard some of it. I like some of it, some of it I think he needs to get out of the basement a little bit, get back in the world. He’s narrowing his musical palette. I don’t know if he’s doing it on purpose. The thing that I took from him that I always recall from listening to his demos is that he’s really inventive. He could twist up a basic song of some sort, and I always liked that. He’s basically making demos in his basement and playing everything, but he doesn’t seem as inventive as he used to be.

One of the criticisms is that he could probably use a good editor, and maybe a band situation might provide that.

Everyone can use that. I certainly use mine. I’ve got a gaggle of 25 really good friends that edit my ass. I have to agree just on the principle that everyone needs an editor, someone they can rely on to pull them out of the gray areas.

Who’s easier to work with, Paul or Axl?

Axl, by a long shot. I’ll tell you why, and I can explain this really well, actually. Paul liked to do it his way. He would hear things a certain way in his head but couldn’t tell you how it was going to happen. It would get kind of frustrating. He would have a vision and would fucking beat it to death trying to get there. With Axl, he doesn’t really have his own vision. He likes to take everyone’s two cents and throw it into the soup, get everyone involved and kind of mold it that way. Axl could really take production credit on this record because he took the best of each of us on each song and crammed it together and made it a musical piece. I can’t tell you how much I learned about collaborating with people while making the record, where Paul just kind of does it his way.

It’s interesting that you say that about Axl and his vision, because I would think most people would perceive the exact opposite—that he’s got this strong vision and he’s the dictator and this is how it’s got to be.

Paul would be way more of a dictator than Axl. Axl is more of a collaborator, maybe even to a fault sometimes. He wants everyone involved. Part of that may have come from the old band, where everyone wanted him to sing their songs but didn’t want to play the other guys’ songs. It would be like, “I’m not going to sing on your song unless you play on his song,” and then it becomes infighting and that kind of shit. That doesn’t really keep a band together. On the new record, everyone’s got a bit in there, their part of a song. It lends itself to us feeling a part of the whole record.

Reviews of Village Gorilla Head will no doubt mention Westerberg, and you do have a vocal resemblance to him. What are your thoughts on the fact that you’re probably always going to be lumped in with him in some form?

I’ve got no problem with that. It’s fucking where I grew up. I’ve got no problem with the legacy of the Replacements. I certainly don’t feel like reliving it. I totally respect what we left and what people are remembering. It’s a cool thing. There aren’t a lot of people who’ve gotten to do that with one band, and here I’m getting to do it with two. How fucking good is life for me, right?

I know in the past you haven’t talked much about (your brother/Replacements guitarist) Bob in the press, but it’s been nine years now since he passed. How much has time helped you deal with that loss?

Loads. It’s also gotten me back to being influenced by him again. All of the bad stuff has gone away, and I can just remember some of his crazy ideas and where he came from in terms of his guitar playing. Some of the stuff he did, I just go, “Holy shit, where did that come from?” Plus, there’s the innocence in which he brought it out. He was the most left-thinking musician I’ve ever worked with. He put the left in there and made it absolutely right.

The last thing I wanted to ask you was about (Pleased To Meet Me producer) Jim Dickinson’s quote where he called you “the walking embodiment of rock ’n’ roll.” Do you see yourself that way, or is that just b.s.?

Wasn’t the rest of that also the dick, the balls, the asshole, the whole thing? [Laughs] I can’t subscribe to that. That’s a little heavy. That’s a little more than I care to live up to.

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