Tommy Stinson on the Replacements’ New Box Set and Outdrinking Metallica

Former Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson is the first to admit that his band’s sixth album is not his favorite. When the Replacements made 1989’s Don’t Tell a Soul, their record label was pressuring frontman Paul Westerberg to write songs that could get played on the radio, and the group ended up compromising on the mix of the album. Producer Matt Wallace’s mixes were dismissed, the tapes went missing for years, and the label hired hit-maker Chris Lord-Alge (Steve Winwood, James Brown) put his spin on it. The end result, Stinson and his bandmates felt, was an album that sounded overcooked.

Despite this, or maybe because of this, Don’t Tell a Soul was the group’s highest-charting release, and the jaunty “I’ll Be You” (with memorable wordplay like “dressin’ sharp and feelin’ dull”) and the gentle “Achin’ to Be” were some of the band’s biggest commercial hits. Stinson initially had mixed emotions when he saw the contents of a new box set built around the album, Dead Man’s Pop, but ultimately he came around on it. “The amount of unreleased stuff was surprising,” he tells Rolling Stone on a call from his home in Hudson, New York. “Some of that stuff was seriously never meant to see the light of day for obvious reasons. But when you package it up and look at it in its totality, I get why fans would like that.”

Dead Man’s Pop features a version of the album mixed the way they had originally intended it to sound, by Wallace. It makes the songs fuller — more like a band — without a lot of the production trickery of the time. There’s also a disc of outtakes, B sides and some radically different-sounding demos the band cut in Bearsville, New York with producer Tony Berg; the volume also features the band’s legendarily sloshy jam session with Tom Waits. It ends with two discs of the full University of Wisconsin performance that ended up on the promo release Inconcernated.

It’s meant for Replacements completists, and Stinson can respect that people would want to hear these things, even if they were a bit shocking to him. “I respect what we have left as a legacy,” he says. “And the diehard fans really appreciate all the bumps and barnacles, and there’s plenty of them out there. I think for a band of our stature — or lack thereof stature — it’s a cool thing. A lot of times, reissue stuff can be sort of trite. I think the ticket is really what Bob [Mehr, producer and Replacements biographer] unearthed and what the people involved thought would be a good thing to include. I think they used good judgment on it.”

As for Stinson, he’s happy to look back but he’s busy with other things. He’s currently working on a new LP by his post-‘Mats band Bash & Pop release, a collaboration with Nicole Atkins, and another with  Chip Roberts called Cowboys in the Campfire. But he’s happy to reflect on Don’t Tell a Soul for just a little bit. “Let’s chat about this little record that came out 20 years ago,” he says. When I tell him it was 30 years ago, he replies, “Shit, time flies when you’re having fun, right?”

What do you think of the box set’s Matt Wallace mix of Don’t Tell a Soul?
It’s the mix we were aiming to put out in the first place. We got heat from the record company to make it more radio friendly. At that time, everything that was getting on the radio was coming from [mixing engineers] the Lord-Alge brothers. I think the record company thought, “Well, if we get these guys to do it, maybe we can get these guys on the radio and make some money on them.” I think it kind of happened, but not quite. As usual, that’s kind of what happened with the Replacements’ career.

But the original mixes Chris Lord-Alge did, they don’t really represent the band really well. They were kind of watered down. They sounded way too fucking slick. And you can hear this over and over again, it just didn’t sound like the Replacements. The Matt Wallace mix sounds like us, because that was us in the fucking recording. I think those mixes that he did, most of those mixes started with him and Paul and Slim [Dunlap, guitar], and they spoke more to the band that we were at that time.

It also doesn’t have any of that Eighties reverb.
Exactly. Maybe we’ll now sound like a band that stood the test of time.

What prompted the new track sequence?
I’m not sure who decided that. It wasn’t me [laughs].

Do you have favorite songs on Don’t Tell a Soul?
I always liked “Darlin’ One.” I always thought that was a beautiful song and the sentiment was great. It’s our U2 moment, as well [laughs]. It sounds a little bit like U2.

You all got songwriting credits on that one. Did it come from a jam?
It was one of those songs where Paul pulled out a nugget of an idea and we all went with it and turned it into that. There were few of those in the day that came to that. There were some interesting things like that that happened on [1990’s] All Shook Down.

Did you feel with Don’t Tell a Soul you were trying to be more commercial? Did you feel that within the band?
There was definitely a pressure for it for sure. But again, how much pressure can you put on four fuckin’ alcoholics that really don’t give a fuck? That’s kind of the reality of that. The pressure was there. You get sober and think about it and you get drunk and fuckin’ say, “Fuck it.” That was kind of the reality of it. Obviously, we wanted to be successful with everything we did. But we also were the first ones to fuck it up half the time. … Most of the time in fact. … OK, all the time!

What do you remember about making the demos for Don’t Tell a Soul?
Boy, that was the hard part of that record. We started up in Woodstock and finished it in L.A. The Tony Berg sessions didn’t really work out so great, but I think a lot of that had to do with us dudes. To be frank, we’re city dudes. They threw us in the middle of Woodstock. I think back then it was still a dry county. I think someone had the idea, “If we could keep them sober, we could probably get a good record out of them.” So I think the process of sending us out in the woods to make this record was the first problem that we had. We didn’t fare so well in that. And shenanigans of all sorts happened. It got to be kind of goofy. I don’t even know so much if it would have been on Tony Berg at that point more than just us guys going, “What the fuck are we doing out here?” [Laughs]. It was dramatic to put it lightly.

What shenanigans still stand out to you?
We basically melted down in the studio. I recall a gallon bottle of something going through a window in the studio, and Paul lit his guitar on fire in the studio. I think if you asked James Hetfield, we probably scared the shit out of Metallica [laughs]. They were sitting there in the communal lounge having dinner when all of this was going down, and we just looked like we were out of our fucking minds, ’cause we were. I mean, we found the booze! But what ensued after finding said booze was pretty ugly and they witnessed the whole fucking thing.

It’s funny that you scared Metallica of all bands because they used to joke around that time that they were “Alcoholica.”
[Laughs]. I think we had ’em beat on that run just a bit. I’ve heard James tell the story several times over the past 30 years. I remember when I was still in Guns N’ Roses, when we ran into those guys in Germany, and he’s like, “This guy. This guy, Tommy. These guys are out of their fucking minds.” And he told it in such a kind of loving way [laughs].

Did you ever chill out?
We did calm down once we got to L.A. Parts of what happened with the Tony Berg sessions, I wasn’t really into Tony Berg — maybe more so than Paul, I think Paul liked some of his musical sensibilities — but I thought it was weird he would try to get me to funk-slap on a couple songs, given that I’m a punk-rock bass player. But it was an untenable situation. But we calmed down and finished it with Matt Wallace, which all things considered, was a better choice for us anyway. When I look back at the whole fuckin’ scenario of what went down — the money we wasted going to fucking Bearsville — Matt was the right choice.

There’s a live album in the box set from a gig you played at the University of Wisconsin. Does anything stand out to you about that gig other than the fact it got recorded?
I remember us doing the show, and I remember parts of that turned into Inconcerated. I had thought that we had used the best bits for that thing, but it turned out the whole thing was a great show. I don’t remember it being a good show. And I don’t remember us going, “Wow, that’s a really great show. I’m glad we had Warner Bros.’ fuckin’ bring out a fuckin’ mobile unit so we could record it.” It wasn’t some warm, fuzzy feeling about that back in the day.

But again, what we thought was good about our shows or even other people’s music, we were an island. We overthought things. A lot of what happened on Don’t Tell a Soul was a lot of overthinking. We started it one way, we wanted to finish it another way. There was some heat for us to get onto MTV for a little bit and get songs on the radio, so there was some pressure behind that record. There wasn’t the same pressure with All Shook Down because I think we knew it was the last record. We were like, “We’re gonna do our thing, so fuck it.”

So are there a lot more Replacements recordings in the vault?
No. I think because Bob Mehr is pretty astute at this stuff at this point and has pretty much uncovered all the dead bodies at this point and found out where they were, I can’t imagine anything — and I know there was some stuff that wasn’t worth pursuing — I would think that the only one left that would have some extra tracks to it is going to be All Shook Down.

Maybe some of that will come out at some point.
Boy, I can’t see Paul letting any of those demos go. But never say never.

Do any of the other albums have enough for a box set?
There was more outtake stuff for Sorry, Ma than anything. ‘Cause once we started touring, everything slowed down because of that. I think Tim is the one that has the least amount of extra songs around. Maybe a song or two or a demo here or there. We were going through shit with my brother, Bob. And we had been touring so fucking much.

What did it take to twist Paul’s arm to get this to come out?
It was funny. I think he left it up to management and Bob Mehr, like, “If you guys want to do this. Fine. Fuck it.” And he’s kind of checked out on it. I don’t know if there was anything bad about it. He just doesn’t like going backwards in time. He doesn’t like the whole idea of, “We released this and that.” Like, what about this painting I’m making right now? I get it. The fans like that kind of stuff. He’s enough of a music fan to know that.

True. He put out some of the Dead Man’s Pop stuff, like the Tom Waits session, previously on the EP 3oclockreep in 2008.
What is that? I didn’t know that. Never heard of that. Wow. That’s kind of a bold move. You’d think someone would tell me [laughs].

What do you remember about the Tom Waits session?
We were mesmerized by him. He was telling great stories. At the time, he was trying not to drink anymore. That didn’t work out so well for any of us that night. But it was a cool experience. We’d never met him before. He’s a fucking character, man. You spend any time hanging out with him a bit, and you’ll get some wild shit out of him, story-wise, song-wise, whatever.

Do you remember who picked up the guitar first and how you guys ended up recording it?
I don’t remember exactly who did what first. I know that we had him play an organ on something for a bit, maybe “Date to Church.” And we were just jamming. I think we might have had our pants down around our ankles. But it became kind of a round-robin thing where we sat in a circle with guitars and sang songs. It was a funny bit that we had never done before with him.

Do you feel the legacy of the band and the lifestyle you needed to live to exist was a burden?
Oh, it was totally a burden. We were so good at shooting off both our fucking feet despite our fucking face. There were a lot of times where if we look back, there are a lot of moments we missed because we were just either trying to stick to our guns in a particular way or just not have to do certain things everyone else was doing because we thought it was kind of bunk. A lot of the music industry at that time, too — the games people played and the ways that a lot of artists dealt with record company heads — we just couldn’t do that shit. We were not the most personal people on the planet. We fuckin’ certainly had a major attitude issue. And we also, at the same time, tried to stay as true to ourselves as we could. As a legacy, I think we did that well. I think [Don’t Tell a Soul] in particular maybe doesn’t show that as much as, says, Pleased to Meet Me or even All Shook Down.

What is your favorite Replacements album?
I really think All Shook Down is probably my favorite record. I think if you look at Paul’s songwriting abilities and what that record sounded like and all those things that went along with it, and I think a lot of folks would probably agree that that was a pretty stellar record. In every aspect, it was a good way to go, “If we’re going to quit, that would be the one to do it with.”

Maybe you’ll have to do a box set for that one.
[Laughs]. With what we’re doing with these reissues, I would be hard-pressed to imagine they wouldn’t do that one as well. Why would we skip one of them? We’ve already done all the others. Why would we skip that one? But it’s going to be harder to wrangle some shit out of Paul for that one. I’m just betting on it.

He doesn’t like that one as much?
No, I think it’s just going to be harder for him to let go of the demos, because he really set out to produce that record. He really set out to be way hands-on with that record, more than any of them in the past, and some of the songs reflect that. I think if he really thought about it, he might have more emotion invested in that record than some of the others. If he even gives a fuck [laughs].

Where do things stand between you and Paul now?
You know, it’s funny. I haven’t talked to him in probably … Shit, it’s been over two years now. I keep trying to reach out to him. You know, if you know someone for so long and have been in the trenches with someone for so long, it still means something. Ultimately, I think he’s just kind of checked out of the music business for a while. I think everything that goes along with it, maybe he just doesn’t want to have a part of anymore — or at least for now.

I’m still going to studio today to work on some stuff that I’m going to put out soon enough on Fat Possum. It’s what I do. This is not a negotiable occupation that I have. And I still like it. I’m getting a little tired of touring for long periods of time, but ultimately, I like playing shows. I like performing.

It’s probably too much to speculate that you and Paul would want to tour together again.
Yeah, you know, we did that. I can’t see doing that again to be honest with you. I can’t really see myself wanting to do that again. Again, you never say never. If he fucking suddenly came out and was like, “I kind of miss playing with you. Let’s go do some shows.” I’d probably be like, “All right.” [Laughs]. That kind of thing.

But ultimately the Replacements’ legacy has a different meaning and feeling to each one of us. I think he sometimes resents it because it’s not getting any smaller [laughs]. It’s still growing in his absence, in fact. I think after all the records he’s done, it’s still a little bit of a fuckin’ sore spot. I can only imagine, because he’s really checked out of it right now. He really doesn’t want a whole lot to do with any of it.

Do you know of anything in the works on the Replacements front? Would you do a documentary? Is there anything else coming out?
Bob’s been working on that, too. He’s got a couple things up his sleeve that if they came to fruition, they’d be pretty big. But I’m not gonna speculate on that. We’ve been talking for two, three years now. But until something happens, I’m not gonna worry about it. I’ve got my own fish to fry out here [laughs].