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Interview: Tommy Stinson

As a founding member of legendary alt-rock pioneers the Replacements, Tommy Stinson cemented his place in music history and had a hand in influencing artists as diverse as Green Day, Wilco, the Hold Steady and Lorde.

tommy stinson the replacements

Described as both the “best band of the ’80s” (Musician magazine) and “the greatest band that never was” (Rolling Stone), the Replacements were critical darlings during their lifetime, yet achieved little commercial and mainstream acclaim.

After their 1991 implosion, Minneapolis native Stinson added an 18-year stint as bassist of Guns N’ Roses to his rock and roll résumé, becoming a bonafide rock stalwart in the process, while appreciation of the Replacements’ discography grew steadily.

Following a much-lauded and somewhat tumultuous Replacements reunion in 2013-15, a new line-up of Bash & Pop, a band vehicle for Stinson’s solo work, was formed last year. The group’s first album in 24 years, Anything Could Happen, was released in January, and marked a return to the spontaneous recording methods that were a feature of early Replacements records.

Now 51, the amiable and down-to-earth Stinson is enjoying making music as much as ever.

What’s life been like since the new album came out?

We’ve been touring a lot. We’ve just done a five-week tour with the Psychedelic Furs here in the States and we had a rip of a time. However you would categorise the Psychedelic Furs, their audience was really sweet to us – a rock and roll band – and we had a really good run. I look forward to hopefully doing that again some day.

Is Bash & Pop back for good?

We’re going to keep fuelling it and moving forward. The reason it became Bash & Pop was that we made a band record. On the first Bash & Pop record, I played more instruments than I wanted to play and it ended up being me, the drummer and sometimes the guitar player making that record. This was more of a group effort. We would hash out the songs and do them in five takes, tops. We kind of took the template from how we used to do things in the ’80s.

When we started the Replacements, we would record in a particular way. Paul would show us the basis of a song, either in our basement or in the studio. He would say “Hey, Bob [Stinson, lead guitar], play the melody like this,” and we would record it, getting the best recording we could in as few takes as possible. Back then, tape was expensive for us, so we had to do it quickly. I took that template and applied it to my new record and I think people understand why and I think they can feel that in the record.

Do you prefer being in charge of making your own record, as opposed to being at the whim of a Westerberg or an Axl?

I like all different kinds of things. I like producing and I like playing a role in a band – all of those things I’ve done over the years. With Bash & Pop, the songs we write together end up guiding us instead of us trying to guide the song into being something it’s not. That’s why I like playing with these guys – we’re not trying to reinvent the wheel.

With the advent of all these computerised recording devices, people can get so bogged down. And I’m not saying I’ve never done that, because I did two solo records on digital devices that I maybe spent too much time thinking about. You can overthink a whole lot of things with them. But when you’ve got a whole band in the room, and they’re there for a weekend only, they’re sleeping in your house with you, and you’re getting all stinky together, you can maybe capture something in one great moment.

Were you generally happy with how the Replacements reunion went, and would you have liked it to be longer?

To be honest with you, I think we could’ve stretched it out a little bit longer. I don’t know if Paul wasn’t having fun with it, you know about that whole T-shirt thing? [Westerberg wore T-shirts with a single letter spray-painted on them over a number of shows, which, in order, spelt “I have always loved you. Now I must whore my past”.] Dude, if you’re so not into it, then why the fuck did we do it? I’ll be super frank with you about that.

When we did the Mats reunion, I thought it would make people happy, it would be super fun, and we’d maybe make some money. We did it, and I thought it was fun, but if it wasn’t fun in [Westerberg’s] head, then why the fuck did we do it? I don’t know if that was directed at me, or who it was directed at, but he kind of made a statement with his shirts that meant the tour finished up with a negative purpose and we should have stopped when we were ahead.

I say this candidly because I think that, at this point in our lives, whatever message you are trying to get across, this is not the best way to do it. The best way to do it would be to play until you don’t want to play, then move on and do something else. That’s what I do – call me kooky for calling it what it is. We only live here once, and when you get in your 50s, why would you do that you feel that you have to do, instead of what you want? Neither one of us had to do any of it, and it was fun for a while, but the T-shirt thing bummed me the fuck out.

Will you play together again?

Not if he pulls out another T-shirt message – fuck that [laughs]. I’m kidding a bit. I never say never, but it would have to happen only if the stars align in the perfect way, where we thought we could have fun with it and not get caught up in the bullshit.

Are you happy with the amount of respect the Replacements got in the band’s lifetime?

I never look back like that. We’re from Minneapolis – the music community in Minneapolis when we were kids in the ’80s rivalled, in my opinion, any music community in that era, or in any other era I’ve even seen. We had Hüsker Dü, the Suburbs, there was us, and lots of art-y bands. We all hung out together, played shows together, travelled together, and it was a real community.

Back in the day, Minneapolis was like the World Series for bands. Whatever bands we played with, we wondered who was going to win the game tonight – it was very competitive, but in a healthy way. I haven’t seen it yet. I lived in L.A. for over 20 years and only saw it in some ways, but completely different. It was a very special scene and I would love to converse with anyone who thinks they lived in a similar kind of music community.

What’s your favourite Replacements album?

I can’t listen to any of them, but if I were going to be straight-up honest with you, the one I can listen to the most is All Shook Down. It didn’t sell as much as Don’t Tell a Soul, but I think that’s when the Replacements were appreciated in a greater realm because of the songwriting. Paul wrote some great songs on that record.

If you listen to that record, and it was hard enough for me to listen to it to even remember the parts I played, that’s a great record. He did what Paul is best at – he basically produced that. Some of is is perhaps a little over-thought, but that whole record stands up completely, from top to bottom. It’s dark as fuck, though. You don’t know want to throw on your headphones on a sunny day and go for a walk in the park with that one on, because you’ll want to fucking slit your throat. But whatever.

Will you play with Guns ‘N’ Roses again?

I never say never about that either. I’d say it’s about as likely as doing the Replacements again. I think they don’t need me – they’ve got Duff and Slash and they’re doing their thing. They’re all my friends and I’m glad they’re all out there, working their butts off and having a good time. I’ve got nothing but good things to say about them. Unless Duff quits, and he was the last man standing the last time, there’s a pretty good chance they’re not going to need my fucking bass-playing skills any time soon [laughs]. Just sayin’.

You’ve been in bands since you were 12, 13. How do you stay grounded and stop yourself going crazy?

I’m still working that out [laughs]. It isn’t easy. A lot of people think that because you’re on stage, everything is great, but a lot of hard work goes into that at every level, whether you’re playing a club, theatre or stadium. It is a hard thing, and I’m not going to boo-hoo about my woes or anything like that, but it’s hard to balance that life and have some semblance of normality for yourself.

Any chance of a trip Down Under?

I’ve been talking to [You Am I guitarist] Davey Lane about it a lot, and trying to get You Am I to be my backing band [laughs]. We’ve been talking for years about it. Maybe I can go over go myself, although I hate doing the solo acoustic thing by myself – I like to have someone I can spitball with, and make shit up or whatever. I’ve always had a good time in Australia, so never say never. I can do a whole bunch of things that’ll either be fun or completely fucking disastrous [laughs].

Anything Could Happen by Bash & Pop is out now.

Check out all things Tommy Stinson here.

For The Brag

Interview: Craig Finn of The Hold Steady

craig finn

THERE’S A TRACK on the new Hold Steady album called ‘On With The Business’, and that’s exactly what singer-guitarist Craig Finn is getting. It’s been four years since Heaven Is Whenever saw the band’s music maturing and the then 38 year-old’s lyrics further enforcing his reputation as a rock and roll storyteller of the highest order. It’s easy to see why Finn’s lyrics are what they are, as he reels off names of writers you’ve never heard of.

The engaging and erudite Minneapolis-raised New York native is still telling stories with his literature-rich lyrics on new album Teeth Dreams, and since the departure of flamboyantly moustachioed keyboardist Franz Nicolay after 2008’s excellent Stay Positive, the band has taken on an extra guitarist. With a fatter, Thin Lizzy-esque dual guitar sound, The Hold Steady may have reached a new phase in their musical life cycle, but while Finn is happy to talk up his band’s new dynamic and approach to making music, he’s equally happy to chew the fat on a range of other subjects, from chasing girls as a youngster to Nirvana and the future of rock.

Congratulations on the new album. How does it feel to have it out there?

It feels really good, you know. This is the same as any album, but they take so long to get out; we recorded it in August and it was mixed in October. I’m just excited to be out here playing these songs for people. We went down and did SXSW and played seven times, but they were all these short showcases, and I’m excited to now be playing real shows to the real fans.

How did the new material go down at SXSW?

It went great and continues to go great. It’s always fun to have a new record out; you go and do a new song, and now that it’s out people jump up and sing the words, and you’re like “alright; these guys have got the record”. It feels really good.

Do you feel nervous playing songs live for the first time?

You get sort of nervous, but in some ways it’s also great because you have to pay attention a little more or be on autopilot a little less. In that sense it’s really nice; it’s kind of more of a challenge and you have to think about it, and that’s really cool. You’re maybe paying attention to different things than you are for the rest of the set, in a good way.

Why has it been four years since your last album?

We were going really hard, you know? We did five albums in seven years and toured extensively on each of them. Things were kind of fatiguing; the wheels were falling off the wagon, so to speak. I think everyone was a little tired, and creatively we weren’t in a very good place. We took a break and I made a solo record, which took some time, then we started trying to make this record. The one thing that’s different about this record is that [guitarist] Steve Selvidge joined for it. This is the first record we wrote and recorded with him, and now we have two guitar players. He had joined on the touring for the last record, but this is the first we had wrote and recorded with him. He lives in Memphis and the rest of us live in New York, so there was a bit of a geographic hurdle to get over when we started writing. It was a little formal at first, or a little forced, but we got over it eventually and wrote a ton of songs; maybe even over-writing. We had way more songs than we needed, but once our producer Nick Raskulinecz came in it happened quickly. He was like “you guys have plenty of songs for a record, let’s just go make this thing”.

What makes Steve Selvidge a good fit for The Hold Steady?

We had met him as a guitar player in an opening band years before; a band called The Bloodthirsty Lovers. Tad [Kubler, guitar] and Steve hit it off right away; they started playing guitar together and he seemed a good fit personality-wise, and then we found out that Tad and him were born on the exact same day. We thought if we were going to do a two-guitar line-up, then this was meant to be. It’s a push and pull thing between their guitars; the way they play back and forth and the way they play with each other. That’s come to define this album, and it’s a huge part of our sound now.

Do you enjoy recording or can it be a chore?

There are a lot of parts that don’t have a lot to do with me, you know? There’s a technical aspect to it, and then there are all the instruments that you aren’t playing. Depending on how you’re making the record, there can be a lot of downtime. I like making the records, but there are days which are pretty slow. I really like playing shows, so the record is a way to go out and introduce your songs to people and go out on tour again. I guess I like touring better than recording, although I love to see things fit together, and the creative moments are really fun.

What is it that appeals to you about writing about female characters in your lyrics?

For one I think so many stories we tell – whether it’s songs, books, movies or whatever – are about boy meets girl, so you need girls in there. Being of the opposite sex, there’s a mystery there for me, and I think in many books and movies the female is empowered with his mystery. Ultimately, being in a band whose audience is largely male, I need to find a way to make real women characters who you can really empathise with and that are very human. That becomes important for me.

Why do you think there are so few musicians doing the same thing?

In the big picture, I think for a lot of people lyrics are an afterthought. I’ve always been obsessed with characters in songs, and one of the things I’ve tried to do – rather than just introduce characters – is character development. Sometimes going back to these characters means I can flesh them out a bit more; that may be one of the ways that they might be a little more realised as humans.

In the song ‘On With The Business’ you mention “that American sadness”. Can you define what that is?

I got that from an interview that I read with David Foster Wallace. He’s a writer I’ve been obsessed with; I’ve read all his books and probably every interview he’s ever done. He talks about this particular American sadness, or the understanding that there’s a void inside us. There’s a realisation that no matter what we do, or what we try to fill it with – meaning drugs and alcohol or consumer goods, you know, stuff; there’s still sort of an emptiness. That song is about consumerism and about how these characters are doing whatever they can do to get ahead, and by that it means they just get more stuff. It’s the first time I’ve written about that kind of consumerism, and it made me think of the American sadness quote.

What plans do you have for touring, and can we expect an Australian trip at any point?

I’m hoping we can tour Australia either late 2014 or early 2015. We’ll be in the States for the [northern hemisphere] summer and hopefully get back to Europe in the fall; we have quite a bit of touring planned. I think we’ll probably come for your summer. Our winter, your summer would be ideal.

A couple of off-topic questions to finish up. There has been quite a resurgence in interest in Nirvana recently, surrounding the 20th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death. How much of an influence did Nirvana have in your life?

I was pretty entrenched in underground punk and hardcore music by the time Nirvana came into my life. I wasn’t an obsessive Nirvana fan; I certainly appreciated them, but I guess I was already kind of committed to that kind of thing. I have to admit that after Nirvana came out, it sort of became okay for certain girls to look at a guy like me; a more alternative guy or more weird guy. Kurt Cobain definitely helped my cause with a few girls.

Do you see them as being worthy of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction so soon?

Absolutely. Even though I wasn’t obsessed with them at the time, the songs absolutely stand the test of time. He was a great, great singer and so many people held on to that and if you look at how many people he moved and the sea change they represented in the early ’90s, they are more than worthy.

The Arctic Monkeys recently claimed rock and roll has returned. How is it looking from your viewpoint?

It doesn’t seem to me to be at its most popular. I feel that younger people seem to like electronic music more, and hip hop is really big. I think the younger someone is, the less likely they are [to be] into rock and roll, but that said, I see die-hards every night we play. I don’t think it’s going anywhere and I don’t think it’s ever gone away. I think it’s always going to be here, but I don’t know if I believe if it’s ‘back’ or at a particularly strong point right now. I think probably in a couple of years a 22 year-old whiz kid will come out and capture the hearts and minds of young people, and that’s when rock and roll will have a resurgence on a commercial level. Right now I think it’s just holding steady; no pun intended.

TEETH DREAMS BY THE HOLD STEADY IS OUT NOW.

Record review: The Hold Steady – Teeth Dreams (2014, LP)

The Hold Steady Teeth Dreams

It’s been four years since The Hold Steady’s last album; a long time between drinks for a band often called one of America’s hardest working. The departure of keyboardist Franz Nicolay after 2008’s excellent Stay Positive left 2010’s Heaven Is Whenever sounding like a band re-grouping and consolidating their position rather than taking on a new lease of life. The breathing space Nicolay left has since been filled by the addition of former Lucero guitarist Steve Selvidge, resulting in a fatter twin lead guitar sound, but the flair and dynamism the moustachioed keyboardist took with him is still sorely missed on this sixth album from the New York via Minneapolis rockers. That being said, all the usual stories of booze-soaked lost souls “waking up with that American sadness” – as Craig Finn sings on ‘On With The Business’ – are present and correct, and the singer-guitarist’s lyrics provide more depth and ideas in a single verse than many contemporaries do on an entire album. The reason why Teeth Dreams won’t be remembered as a classic Hold Steady album is that each song melts into the one before and the one after with no real discernible difference in sound. There’s nothing of the standard of ‘Stuck Between Stations’ or ‘Sequestered In Memphis’, and even the attempt at an attention-grabbing, riff-laden opener ‘I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You’ wouldn’t qualify as a B-side on some of the quintet’s earlier work. Indeed, many long-time Hold Steady fans will be left with the nagging feeling that perhaps Nicolay left at exactly the right time.

Record review: Howler – World Of Joy (2014, LP)

howler world of joy

Howler frontman Jordan Gatesmith is clearly and openly obsessed with ’80s college-rock legends and fellow Minneapolis natives The Replacements. Their 2012 debut America Give Up was littered with references to Paul Westerberg’s lyrics and sound, and while the eclecticism and snideness evident on that album compared to Westerberg’s 1987 mixed bag Pleased To Meet Me, this follow up has devolved into something more like the scratchy and patchy Hootenanny of 1983; with even the cover being almost identical. Fifty percent of the personnel has changed since their debut, and while there’s some good stuff here, much of the album feels contrived and lacklustre; and perhaps missing an ingredient or two that would inject a little excitement. The cascading guitars during the first few seconds of opener ‘Al’s Corral’ sound promising before some unimaginative vocal phrasing render it underwhelming. There’s thrashy punk rock brashness on ‘Drip’, ‘Louise’ and ‘In The Red’, while the title track is a fairly forgettable spurt of downbeat lo-fi post-punk. There’s a distinct tail-off towards the end too, with the pop-tinged ‘Indictment’ and folky ‘Aphorismic Wasteland Blues’. ‘Here’s The Itch That Creeps Through My Skull’ is interesting as it veers into lovelorn ballad territory, while single ‘Don’t Wanna’ is the most Replacements-esque track here and benefits as a result. “You don’t have to listen to me if you don’t want to,” Gatesmith sings, which is pretty reassuring by this stage in proceedings; proving that as a songwriter, he has a long way to go before matching his hero’s standards. (Rough Trade)