Say what you will about the record industry death harbinger known as Chinese Democracy — The New York Times once called it “the most expensive album never made” — the 2008 GN’R album without Slash and Duff that has somehow maintained its footing in the fickle populist rock vocabulary. Who would have guessed that Slash and Duff would now be busting out “Chinese Democracy” and “Better” alongside Axl Rose to millions of Guns N’ Roses nostalgists around the globe? I panned the thing when it finally crawled out of Rose’s spider tank, recoiling from the obsessive editing of digitized nuclear blues taken from 14 recording studios over 14 years. The same songs “were watershed, neo-grunge breakthroughs,” I wrote in a 2006 live review. It seems Chinese Democracy will live forever: “And to all those opposed/Hmm/Well…”
It’s easy to forget the individual musicians washed away by Rose’s compulsive nu process and the second coming of the group’s classic “Not In This Lifetime” lineup. But Tommy Stinson (ex-The Replacements) spent over 15 years of his life in Guns N’ Roses. He’s credited with playing bass on most of Chinese Democracy, even co-writing “Street Of Dreams” with Rose and Dizzy Reed. The 2014 live release Appetite For Democracy, culled from the pre-reunion band’s 2012 Las Vegas residency, features not only the amalgam of Appetite For Destruction and Chinese Democracy favorites, but a GN’R rendition of a cut off Stinson’s 2004 solo album Village Gorilla Head. This “Motivation” is the stripped-down sizzle that Chinese Democracy lacks, an amped-up punk palate cleanser taking cues from Sticky Fingers from the Rolling Stones, like all good L.A. glam.
Stinson acknowledged his departure from Guns N’ Roses about a year ago, when a reunited classic lineup became public. He has since revived Bash & Pop, the early ’90s group he fronted after The Replacements first broke up and before Guns N’ Roses started Chinese Democracy. Bash & Pop’s 1993 debut, Friday Night Is Killing Me (Sire/Reprise), is due out on vinyl for the first time Jan. 24. New album Anything Could Happen (out Jan. 20 on Fat Possum) sees Stinson as lead singer/rhythm guitarist and bassist — with help from drummers Joe Sirois (The Mighty Mighty Bosstones) and Frank Ferrer (GN’R), lead guitarists Steve Selvidge (The Hold Steady) and Luther Dickinson (North Mississippi Allstars), bassist Catherine Popper (Ryan Adams & The Cardinals), and multi-instrumentalist Justin Perkins (Screeching Weasel), among others.
His touring lineup includes Selvidge, Sirois, and Perkins. IE recently had a chance to ask Stinson about all things Bash & Pop and Guns N’ Roses. Though the artist now sees Guns N’ Roses in the rearview mirror from upstate New York, he raised the fascinating possibility that the “Not In This Lifetime” reunion actually happened because of him.
IE: Guns N’ Roses fans who heard your solo song “Motivation” performed at GN’R shows might be surprised by the country in tracks like “Breathing Room” and “Bad News” on Anything Could Happen. You played the punk in Guns N’ Roses. Are you the punk in Bash & Pop?
Tommy Stinson: With Guns N’ Roses, the idea was more to play something upbeat and fitting, and that was more of a punk kind of vibe. But this Anything Could Happen record is really not even that much of a departure songwise than my solo records. [The songs] just executed differently with a band and have a particular flair about them. That may be a little more rootsy, maybe some country influence, I suppose. But, you know, I am a little bit of everything that you ever heard me do. A little bit of this, a little bit of that.
IE: More than anything, Anything Could Happen is melodic without sounding commercial. New sing-alongs for the old-bar jukebox. With everything trying to be so damned hard in punk rock, it’s easy to forget how melodic punk could be and once was. There are songs that to my ears are equal parts Stiff Little Fingers and Wilco (“Not This Time,” “On The Rocks”).
TS: These days, a lot of punk rock has gotten lost on the hardness and not the hook, the melody, the song. I mean, shit, think of fucking Buzzcocks. Those are some of the catchiest fucking songs in punk rock, if you want to call them punk rock. People kind of forget. I mean, Green Day have got a pretty good handle on keeping it fresh and punk rock. They remember there’s a fucking hook here, and a chorus, and a lyric.
IE: What’s the one question everyone asks?
TS: Everyone is wanting to know why the hell I call it Bash & Pop. And it’s a good question, it’s a good question. A lot of people just don’t think it makes any sense at all.
IE: What’s the answer?
TS: Because I made a “band” record, and I didn’t feel like calling it a Tommy Stinson solo record. I felt like it was more of a band vibe. And I thought, “Well, fuck, I still got ownership of that name, why don’t I use that name?”
IE: When did Anything Could Happen become a Bash & Pop record and not a solo record?
TS: I recorded it differently than my solo records. My solo records were mostly just me playing everything and over-thinking. I really wanted to make a quick band record where I didn’t think too much, didn’t have to labor over it too much.
IE: You did Bash & Pop for one studio album and a couple years in the early ’90s. Looking back, did the grunge mandates of the early ’90s cause the quick disappearance of Bash & Pop?
TS: At that time, yes, you’re right, grunge was coming out, and mine was kind of a more traditional rock ‘n’ roll record (Friday Night Is Killing Me). But what ultimately happened was, I ended up moving to California and took (The Replacements)] drummer, Steve Foley, with me. His brother [Kevin] was playing bass for a while, but he ended up having some problems and couldn’t cut it after that record was done. And I had to get a new drummer and guitar player because, one, Steve moved back to Minneapolis, and, two, the two guys who were playing bass and guitar weren’t cutting it, so it just kind of seemed like, “Well, why don’t I just do something different altogether?”
IE: With session work by GN’R members Richard Fortus and Dizzy Reed, as well as former Gunner Josh Freese, your 2004 solo record Village Gorilla Head could be read as a secret GN’R album. Did it come about because Chinese Democracy was taking so long?
TS: It really didn’t. The Chinese Democracy thing was like five, six guys in a room hacking stuff out over a long period of time. The Village Gorilla Head record: I did the basic drum tracks and that in a studio in Hollywood. It was actually an office space above another studio. And I used that because Frank Black was making a Catholics record, and he had finished that and let me use all his gear and studio setup, and then I pieced the rest of it together in my studio at home.
IE: There was a point with Guns N’ Roses when all signs pointed to what would become a classic lineup reunion, a lineup that wasn’t designed with you in mind. You were in Guns N’ Roses for over 15 years, more time than you spent on The Replacements.
TS: That’s longer than the fucking original members of GN’R (laughs).
IE: When Duff McKagan came onstage at GN’R’s 2011 concert in Seattle to play bass during “You Could Be Mine,” did you sense the writing was on the wall?
TS: I never thought it was going to happen, to be honest with you. From what I knew back then, the wounds were too deep to fill. And so, cut to . I’m starting to do Replacements shows again, and my personal situation was such that when they (GN’R) called to ask me to do [what] must have been about five different tours . . . I couldn’t go because I had a little kid to take care of here in Hudson. I think that might have helped spark that reunion thing. Because I wasn’t quitting or anything, it’s I just couldn’t… The Replacements weekend gigs were good enough for me to live on. I wasn’t able to tour for Guns but also didn’t need to at that time. So I think that kind of pushed it more than anything, if you ask me. Just my lack of being able to.
IE: At that Seattle show, Duff popped out a few songs after GN’R played “Motivation” live for the first time. Was that part of the arrangement with Axl? “O.K., you can have Duff, but we gotta play Motivation’ first.”
TS: No, no (chuckles). How that whole thing came about was, I’m not one to do bass solos or anything like that. So, it’s like (imitating Rose), “Yeah, how about you do a song in the middle of the set so I can get a breather kind of thing.” Everyone did one . . . and I just decided after awhile, let’s do “Motivation.” I know it. Frank knew it. Richard knew it. And Dizzy knew it.
IE: What was Axl doing backstage during “Motivation”?
TS: He wouldn’t actually leave the stage. He would go into his, like, quick-change booth and get oxygen or change his coat or just sit for a second. You know, he’s always running around, so you gotta have a place at some point in the set [for him] to go and catch his breath, so to speak, you know?
IE: Since then, Guns went from playing basketball arenas to football stadiums. What are your thoughts on the “Not In This Lifetime” tour? Have you seen any of the concerts?
TS: I know all those cats. I mean, I never met Slash before, as far as I know, but all those guys are buddies of mine. I’m just stoked that they’re out there doing it. I saw two shows now. I saw Kansas, and I saw the Philly show. And they just looked like they’re having a fucking ball and successful tour. It’s good for all of them.
IE: You’ve gone to GN’R shows. Do you expect to see members of GN’R at Bash & Pop shows?
TS: If I were in the town that they were in, I think I’d probably see a handful of ’em show up. Probably at least Richard, Frank, and Dizzy, maybe even Duff.
IE: Will you ever play in Guns N’ Roses again?
TS: I don’t think they’ll need me to (laughs)!
IE: How about The Replacements?
TS: I don’t think they’ll need me to either (laughs harder)! You know, I never say never. I don’t have any idea. I’m always open to whatever makes the most sense. Whatever sounds like the most fun. I never say never, but it seems like for right now, my plate’s going to be full for the next year.
Appearing: 1/14 at Cobra Lounge, Chicago.