After reigniting his old band Bash and Pop and weathering a failed marriage, veteran artist reflects on balancing music with fatherhood
After reigniting his old band Bash and Pop and weathering a failed marriage, veteran artist reflects on balancing music with fatherhood
A long, exposed walkway with a railing held up by wooden posts juts out over Tommy Stinson's living room. "At the hardest times, I've always looked up there and gone, 'Yeah, I could put a fuckin' noose around that fuckin' pole right in the middle,'" the singer-songwriter says as he looks up at them, pausing briefly. "But nah, my kids would fuckin' hate me. My friends would just piss on my grave." He lets out a great big, sarcastic laugh. "In fact, I recorded a song, 'Anytime Soon,' right in this room and it has the line, 'You won't see me dangling from the rafters anytime soon.'"
In the past five years or so, Stinson – who launched his career as the Replacements' 11-year-old, bass-playing enfant sauvage – has lived through any number of hard times. Notably, in the past two years, the bassist, now 50, has walked away from two classic bands: the reunited Replacements and his longtime gig with Guns N' Roses. Dressed casually, except for his spiky hairdo, he's seated in a big chair underneath the rafters. As a brown wiener dog named Dodger nuzzles him for attention, he parses everything that went wrong with remarkable candor.
In 2012, he says his marriage "went fuckin' south in a bad, bad way" forcing him to become a "fuckin' full-time dad – and happily a full-time dad." His responsibilities as a parent to his now-nine-year-old daughter Tallulah made it so he couldn't tour with Guns N' Roses, forcing him to leave the band, and his reunion with the Replacements – which played fewer gigs than GN'R – fell apart too. "I'm glad for [GN'R]," he says. "I would be gladder if I wasn't so broke-ass poor right now but whatever." He makes eye contact and laughs. "I'm kidding. At least I have means. I have myself. I've got Benny [Perlstein, his manager]. I've got Dodger."
He also still has his music. After the Replacements reunion fell apart, he reignited a band he'd formed in the early Nineties, Bash and Pop, and put out a new collection of 12 new honky-tonkin' rock & roll tunes, Anything Could Happen. Some of the songs, like the blithe, Stones-y rocker "Unfuck You," brim with his newfound anything-goes attitude, while others, like his somberly suicidal "Anytime Soon," began as possible new Replacements tracks, but after Stinson's sessions with frontman Paul Westerberg fell flat he pocketed them for his own use. He considered making a solo album, but opted instead to put together a band to tap into the songs' freewheeling spirit, and to add to the looseness, he recorded with various groups of friends (using the Bash and Pop moniker to show that it's a band album) in his house.
"It felt like all I had to do was play," Stinson says of recording at home with his friends, which include members of the Hold Steady, North Mississippi All-Stars, Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Guns N' Roses, among others. The project's touring lineup features guitarist Steve Selvidge, bassist Justin Perkins and drummer Joe Sirois. "It was like, 'That's a take. It's done. Move on.' And to me, that's the rock & roll I grew up on. That's the way the Replacements used to make records. That's the way the best records we know in history have been made."
That casual approach permeates nearly every aspect of Stinson's life, which typically revolves around his home in the quaint town of Hudson, New York, about two hours north of New York City. "It's a great little town – a lot of artists and musicians and vagabonds and just people from all over," he says. "It's kinda gotten a little bit of a bad rap 'cause it seems like a lot of displaced Brooklynites have been moving up here. That's not quite what's going on, but it seemed like the perfect place to raise a little family."
The bassist settled into a large, colonial-looking house with Tudor-style arches in 2010, and he now lives here with Tallulah and his girlfriend Trish. Much of the house is filled with knickknacks – Beatles bobbleheads (John Lennon is quizzically decapitated), a basketball signed by Kobe Bryant, giant racks of CDs – as well as paintings, musical instruments, a rack of plaid, stage-worn suits and a photo of him with Tallulah when she was little. He plans his days – which on this early December afternoon include rehearsing for a Rolling Stones tribute show in New York City and approving art for the Anything Could Happen vinyl release – around his daughter's schedule.
Midway throughout our chat about the album, he stands up and heads for the coatrack by his front door. "We have to pick up my kid, if you don't mind," he says. "I need to be at the bus stop in half an hour. We'll come back and my daughter and her friend will charge up their iPads and play Minecraft and they'll fuckin' screw around and make my house a mess after I just cleaned it." Stinson laughs. "Got your coat?"
Once outside, Stinson moves at a hasty speed, as he tells the story of just why he happens to have five tailor-made plaid suits hanging in his jam room. In 2010, he and his manager took a trip to Haiti a few months after an earthquake ravaged the island. While there, he met a priest who had started a trade school called Timkatec, which trains "young, bright-eyed kids," in Stinson's words, in the skills like plumbing, masonry and electrical work that are necessary to rebuild their flattened communities. He was so touched he launched an online auction, which raised $50,000 by selling memorabilia of his from throughout the years. Now, he's auctioning off the suits for a similar reason, via a Pledge Music campaign tied to the Bash and Pop album release.
"I went to the [Timkatec] graduation ceremony and just cried my eyes out," Stinson says. "These kids were so proud. They're all doing something that can ultimately help rebuild this country at some point, because it's devastated. It was raining outside and still the kids came out to talk to me. One kid had his diploma, but he just looked at me and gave me a big hug. I was like, 'Fuck, now I've got a purpose in life that's bigger than humping the fucking pavement to sell records.'"
He stops momentarily. "There's my favorite hat maker right there," he says, peering in a store window. He waves and a woman behind the counter waves back.
Eventually, he stops in front of Hudson's Social Security building, and, as he ambles about, waiting for a school bus, he reflects on his charitable side. "I've had a blessed life," he says. "If I popped off tomorrow, I would have outlasted some of my peers but also some of my naysayers who thought I wouldn't last past 30. It's important to look at that gift and give back. When I was a kid, I wasn't grateful. It was all rape and pillage, drugs and all that crap. And you get older and go, 'Well, there's a lot more to this.' Especially when you have your first kid." (Stinson's first daughter, Ruby, was born in 1989, the year the Replacements put out Don't Tell a Soul.)
The bus pulls up and out steps a horde of grade schoolers, including Tallulah and her friend, whom Stinson is babysitting for the afternoon.
"When we get home, I've got to do this interview," Tommy tells his daughter.
"I don't care!" Tallulah yells, her eyes bulging.
"Be nice, though," he says. "You're on tape right now."
"No, I'm not," she says, flipping into full school's-out, silly non-sequitur mode. "I'll take a stuffy piece of tissue and rub it all over your face and stuff it in your mouth like they do with a pig with an apple."
"You don't want to sound like a little butt in Rolling Stone," he says. "What is the matter with you? Did you eat candy bars or something?"
"No, but I will now," she says, pulling a candy out of her backpack and scarfing it right in front of him.
"Who's giving you Jolly Ranchers?" he says. "Who do I have to kill for this?" He turns his attention back to the interview, now discussing extremism in the Middle East. "It's fuckin' horrible," he says.
"Dad, watch the language!" comes a pint-sized admonition.
"One more time and I'll really put that apple in your mouth."
Back at Stinson's house, the girls have sandwiches while Tommy fixes himself a tea. He cracks a joke about what a rare sight it is to see a "teetotaling Stinson," alluding to his and his guitarist brother Bob's alcohol-fueled years in the Replacements. He situates himself in the room where his manager has been assembling a deluxe edition of the new LP. "It's like a little factory in here," he says.
Asked what his favorite things in the room are, he points out a framed drawing of him that his friend and former uncle-in-law Chip had done of him. He then points to a carnival-ready love tester that reveals one's royal identity and asks Tallulah, who's been peering into the room, to get some quarters. As the machine revs up, it gives designations of "Servant – You are a great giver" to everyone but Tommy, who gets it to light up all the way to "Royalty – your blood runs blue." He laughs.
He explains that he and his girlfriend at the time had bought it in the early Nineties when he was living in L.A. from Out of the Closet, a thrift store that benefits A.I.D.S. research. As he thinks about shopping at the store, and helping people with A.I.D.S., he follows a dark train of thought that leads him to his own mortality. "You've got to take care of yourself," he says. "I'll be the first to tell you that I haven't been the best at that. … If my brother hadn't come out of the fuckin' group home and fuckin' shown me how to play bass, I'd be incarcerated right now," he says, referring to Bob, who died of organ failure in 1995. "I was fuckin' in jail three times by the time I was 11, and my next fuckin' trip would've been fuckin' grand theft auto. I got very lucky."
Incidentally, he's affixed one of the casket handles from his brother's coffin over the door to the studio where he's standing; he has the other propped in a corner. "I used to have them both on my wall in my apartment," he says. "One night, both of them popped off the wall all on their own. It was very strange. I woke up, looked up, and I was like, 'Oh, hey, Bob. What's up?'"
He takes a break for a photo shoot, and by the time he's done he's no longer the teetotaling Stinson. His breath smells of whisky and he slurs his speech a little, but he's no less enthusiastic to speak, though mostly about the election. "I can't believe I'm sitting here talking fucking politics instead of music," he says at one point, as his kids play in the adjacent room. "But I'm fucking 50 years old and I fucking care about this shit. I don't care what side of the line you're on – Republican or Democrat – but does sanity matter anymore? Look at what's happening in the world."
He pauses, and reflects on the day. "Y'all think I'm a fuckin' rock star?" he says. "Nah, I'm Tommy Stinson. Whatever. That's the fuckin' deal. And I care about world affairs a whole lot." Just then, Tallulah pops in and asks him how long it will be until the Bagel Bites will be ready. He offers me a big goodbye hug and retires to the kitchen.
When I catch up with him a few days later on the phone, he's in a clearer headspace. His most recent spurt of creativity began in 2012, around when his marriage began crumbling. He had begun working with Westerberg again, recording Songs for Slim, an EP of songs to help benefit Bob's replacement guitarist in the Replacements, Slim Dunlap, who had suffered a stroke. "He's pretty much incapacitated at home," Stinson says of Dunlap's status now. "It's good though that he hasn't been in the hospital for a while, last I heard anyway."
The next year, he and Westerberg improbably decided to assemble a new touring lineup of the band for what would be one of the most surprising – and welcome – reunions in recent years. Stinson also found himself writing some new songs for a possible reunion album. In May 2013, the group cut some songs at Minneapolis' Flowers Studio, where they'd recorded Songs for Slim, and attempted the Stinson-penned tunes "Cut and Run" (which engineer Ed Ackerson says is an "awesome song"), "Shut Your Mouth" and "Won't Get That out of Me," as well as two numbers that wound up on Anything Could Happen, the confused-love song "Anybody Else" and a folky, acoustic number about people who aren't happy with themselves called "Shortcut." But by the end of the sessions, which included many songs by Westerberg that Stinson did not mention by name, they felt the results weren't up to snuff.
"We just didn't get a boner for it," Stinson says. "I don't know why. I think the baggage we carry with us is too much. We should have just been thinking about 'let's fucking have fun – let's fucking make a record and fucking sing some songs.' But ultimately fucking just when you walked in the door, it was like, 'Oh, baggage.' We tried three different times to record these things and make something happen, and all three times fell flat. I think we thought making an album sounded like a good idea in theory, but when we got into it, it was like, 'Eh, maybe not.'
"But I'll be honest with you," he continues. "I was hoping we'd revisit recording again and do it the way we should've done it, but the reunion went on. It would have been hard to get enthused about it and I think it's hard for Paul to compete so much with his past. We all hold the Replacements stuff in high regard. I think it's hard for him to imagine people are going to want to hear anything new because all they like about us is the old shit. So it's a self-defeating mindset." Nevertheless, despite the aborted sessions, the Replacements committed to a sparse schedule of tour dates.
Meanwhile, Stinson was still a member of Guns N' Roses up until June 2014. "I wasn't intending to quit Guns N' Roses," he says. "But I had to tell them, I think, five times in a row my situation at home was so screwed up I couldn't tour. I hope that was the thing that pushed the reunion [with Slash and Duff McKagan] to happen, because I know all those guys and they're having a ball. I saw the tour twice. I'm glad for them."
Incidentally, Stinson says there's a wealth of recordings Guns N' Roses made during his tenure that have yet to be released. "There's some stuff with lyrics, some without," he says. "We did a lot of stuff that was supposed to be on Chinese Democracy – the record was meant to be more than one disc, but after spending so much time on it we just had to put an end to it. There's also stuff that was held over from [the original lineup] before they all disbanded, so there's some stuff that should someday see the light of day."
After Guns N' Roses, Stinson continued to be a family man and play sporadic Replacements gigs with Westerberg, but that too ran its course by June 2015. "It was a good experience, but we maybe overstayed our welcome a little bit," Stinson says. "Sweatin' to the oldies, the way we did, without digging deeper into the catalog into the weirder stuff or making something new, you can only go so far. We barely scratched the surface on the whole catalog. And we lost our enthusiasm quite a bit."
That waning interest was reflected on the road in Westerberg's stage clothes – at each show he'd wear a white T-shirt with a different combination of two letters on it. By the end of the reunion shows, it became apparent that the message the letters spelled out read, "I HAVE ALWAYS LOVED YOU. NOW I MUST WHORE MY PAST."
"When you read that … " Stinson's words trail off. "I didn't realize that's the way he was thinking about it. I knew, in my own way, I was getting kind of like, 'OK, what are we going to do here to keep it interesting and fun but also to keep playing?' And I didn't realize that really wasn't in the cards. I didn't know what the T-shirts were spelling until the end – the very last one.
"It kind of bummed me out, to be honest," he continues. "I thought it was trite and sort of lame. … If you think about how many shows it took to spell out 'Now I must whore my past' and all that crap, he must have not been happy for a good long time during that second year, to have to muster that up. I had a ball playing those songs, revisiting them and all. I just don't get it. It was like, 'Wow, dude. So you've been thinking it's been a drag for this long, huh? Why the fuck are we doing it then?'"
Stinson says he and Westerberg have chatted via text since the last show and that it's the "same old, same old." "He's Paul, I'm me," He says. "There's not a whole lot changing in that."
Toward the end of the tour, Stinson felt the need to write some more songs for himself, since a Replacements reunion record never worked out. He got some friends together at his home and cut a couple of the tunes he'd worked out with Westerberg on weekends. And he continued to write on the road. One such number was a slinky, acoustic-driven ballad about moving on from a relationship called "Can't Be Bothered," and it came to him while on tour in Amsterdam. The song is "loosely about the shit that was going on, the last bit of the 'Mats tour and all that crap," he says. It became what he calls "the anchor" of Anything Could Happen, as he knew it would be a good complement to the harder-rocking songs he'd written. When he got back, he and his friends continued recording until they finished the album, which follows up Bash and Pop's 1993 debut, Friday Night Is Killing Me. By July of 2015, Stinson and Co. were back on the road.
And it's been like that in the times he's not taking care of Tallulah. At a recent sold-out New York City gig, he and his Bash and Pop bandmates – dressed in matching maroon suits – played a loose, wild set of songs from both Anything Could Happen and Friday Night, along with some of Stinson's solo works and covers of Big Star and the Rolling Stones. He jokes with the audience, laughing when someone calls out for the goofy 'Mats rocker "Gary's Got a Boner," even riffing on it for a second, and he spars with another fan asking for a fabled Replacements "pussy set," a purposely recalcitrant selection of pop covers, screwed-up fan favorites and unrehearsed songs meant to frustrate audiences. "Where'd you see that?" Stinson asks the heckler. But despite fans who dwell in the past, Stinson and his band play the Bash and Pop songs in all their scruffy glory, warts and all. He even pauses during the Friday Night song "Never Aim to Please" to say he forgot the lyrics because it was Tallulah's birthday.
Soon enough, when the short tour is done, he'll be back with his daughter, navigating his life anew. "It's hard finding the right time to be creative," he says. "It's like, 'OK, I want to be creative from the time I drop her off at school 'til I have lunch.' There's nothing easy about it, but it's just kind of what it is. … There's no retirement plan for people like me."
In fact, he's already got some new projects in the works. One is a variety-show pilot, about music, lifestyle and food, that he's been trying to get off the ground. The other is new songs for whatever outlet presents itself next. He's happy so long as he keeps moving. "I have a hard time standing still," he says. "That's kind of my problem."