The Replacements and Guns N' Roses bassist and Bash & Pop guitarist has a new, stripped down show with Cowboys in the Campfire.
[Updated] Tommy Stinson seems like he’d be happiest with a beer, a guitar, and blank sheet of paper for a setlist. Since his Replacements’ bandmate Paul Westerberg crafted lyrics as precise as the jigsaw puzzles you can imagine him reclusively hunched over, it’s tempting to attribute the band’s legendary smash-up derby approach to Stinson. His tracks on his own with Bash & Pop hang together with a Faces-like looseness, and he looks so happy in live videos when playing on his own. He insists it’s not that simple.
“It’s good as an artist to be able to switch things up,” Stinson says. He can be the craft guy, but he also does spontaneous. “I’ve also got a short attention span, so [change] helps me get myself moving.”
Stinson will play Siberia Friday night as half of Cowboys in the Campfire, a low-stress duo with Chip Roberts. Cowboys in the Campfire gives him an opportunity to flex his more countrified muscles, but a video on Facebook that previews a new single says it won’t be mistaken for Luke Bryan.
“We’ve got a couple of songs that we’re putting finishing touches on,” he says. “We want to put out a single first—a couple of singles actually—before we get to the album part of it. We’ve got some writing to do, but we wanted to get some stuff out before we tour this summer.”
On paper, Cowboys in the Campfire sounds like a provisional step—something to do and an easy way to tour and pick up a few bucks. That is and isn’t the case, Stinson says. It’s a very direct way of presenting songs that interests him, but working as a duo makes practical sense. “It’s low overhead and it’s low maintenance,” he says. “I like playing with Bash & Bop a lot as well, but it’s a lot more plates to spin to make that happen.”
The tour will lean heavily on songs Stinson released with Bash & Pop, stripped down to acoustic instruments. Some songs require a full band, but he wrote three songs on last year’s Anything Could Happen with Roberts, and those began closer to the Cowboys instrumentation. “A lot of the record got written this way—me and him or me and one other person,” Stinson says.
Stinson’s more balanced than his image suggests. His hair still appears to be a casual construction, but that looks a little different on a teenager than a guy now in his 50s. It has been 27 years since The Replacements broke up after the tour in support of All Shook Down, and although it wasn’t obvious, he spent more time as Guns N' Roses bass player than he did as a Replacement. Still, his time as the woozy, teenaged, junior partner in that band helped construct his public persona. Yes, he likes a reckless, improvised moment, but he likes the deliberate parts of the gig as well.
“I work at some songs,” he says. “A lot of times I’ll start a song on my phone and record an idea. I can record an idea and if I does something for me, I’ll pursue that.” Usually that’s him and an acoustic guitar, and if he finds a good melody or a good chorus line, he’ll record it with Voice Memo to help him remember it later. “Some will stay in an unfinished state for 10 years.” He had one, “Shortcut” on Anything Could Happen, “sitting around for 20 years,” he says.
In fact, he considers the writing the fun part of music. That and performing. “I don’t really like the recording aspect of it so much because it can be your worst enemy,” Stinson says. “As of late, I’ve tried to record quickly and get the spirit right out of the gate rather than fuss around too long.” That approach comes after years of recording sessions where he worked a song until he overworked it and lost the thing he liked best about it. That seems to have happened with he and Paul Westerberg tried to record some new Replacements tracks in 2013.
“That’s happened more than a dozen times,” he says with a laugh.
He’s a sporadic songwriter, he admits. “I write when inspired and my head’s free of chaos.” How often is his head free of chaos? “Not very,” he jokes. “As of late, not at all. I just sold my house and am looking to move outside town up here where I live up here in New York, and it’s been fuckin’ awful. I didn’t realized I’d collected so much crap. I’ve been through two dumpsters already, and I’ve still got three storage spaces left with shit—gear and furniture and bullshit.”
Cowboys in the Campfire represents Stinson’s effort to get busy again. Last year, a Rolling Stone profile presented him as a guy who had to step out of Guns N' Roses and return to his home in the Hudson Valley to pick up the parenting responsibilities for his early adolescent daughter. That was the case for about five years, he says, but he doesn’t have to be so single-minded now.
“My ex-wife had some serious issues going on so I had to take the lead and look after my kid for a couple of years there, and that put the brakes on a couple of things for a while,” Stinson says. “But now my ex-wife’s doing good again, so she can take the lead on parenting again and I can get back to work.”
In fact, he spent much of the last month breaking down his house and home studio as he prepared to let it go and put his stuff in storage while he embarks on a year or so of activity that makes setting up a new house daunting. He’s got touring, a month in Nashville to work on a new Bash & Pop album, then more touring. He doesn’t expect to get to look for a new house until this fall at the soonest. After his days with The Replacements and Guns N' Roses, that kind of nomadic existence is something he can do, even though he hasn’t for years.
“It’s freeing,” Stinson says. “You don’t have a mortgage. I’ve got storage bills to pay and that’s it. For me, it’s good time to reassess and figure out what I want to do with all this.”
For fans of The Replacements, Stinson’s time in Guns N' Roses seems inexplicable. As Sire Records can testify, The Replacements’ self-destructive streak cost them, but probably not as many album sales as fans might think. Despite fans’ love for the band’s songs, The Replacements were never really in sync with mass market tastes. It seems like the world should have loved tracks with pop hooks, classic rock roots, and punk’s FU spirit, but it didn’t—not as much as it liked Guns N' Roses, anyway. That meant Guns N’ Roses had to be reliable in a way that The ‘Mats never did. From the outside, GNR seems like a more corporate gig.
“They’re very different,” Stinson says, only semi-diplomatically. He has always spoken well of the band and Axl Rose, and although his musical fingerprints weren’t obvious in the band, Stinson was a Gunner for 18 years—eight years longer than he was a Replacement, not including reunion tours.
“I’ve run across more Guns N' Roses fans who were Replacements fans than I ever thought I would,” he says. “From that perspective, they live in the same sort of world in a way. But I like to keep things switched up. That’s why I do Cowboys in the Campfire, that’s why I do Bash & Pop, and I played in Guns N' Roses for years. They worked together for me. They kept my head fresh.”
For now, Cowboys in the Campfire and Bash & Pop are his main gigs. Replacements reunion shows came to a Replacements-like end in the summer of 2015 when, night after night, Westerberg wore white T-shirts with two letters on them that, when put together, spelled out, “I have always loved you. Now I must whore my past.” After unsuccessful efforts to record new songs, that gesture signaled clearly to Stinson that that show was over. Since Guns N’ Roses have pulled back together many of the members of its classic lineup includes bassist Duff McKagan, Stinson’s not going that way any time soon.
“I don’t think they’re going to need me,” he says. “They’re getting along great, and I can’t see that changing in the foreseeable future. But never say never.”
Fortunately, Replacements days conditioned him not to tie his happiness to commercial success or how the music or shows are received. “As long as I’m having fun with it, it doesn’t matter the size of the venue or the number of people,” he says. “That comes from inside out. You’ve got to have it on the inside before you can worry about anything other than that.” That said, he often felt pretty removed from the audience at Guns N’ Roses’ arena shows. “I like people close enough to smell me. That’s our whole thing [with Cowboys in the Campfire]—get people crammed in with you so they can feel what you’re doing.”
Updated at 2:05 p.m.
The Replacements broke up 27, not 37 years ago as initially written. The copy has been updated to reflect the corrected math.