ICONIC AS BOTH bands are, differences between indie-rock standard bearers the Replacements and hard rockers Guns N' Roses would seem too huge to allow much commonality. After all, Minneapolis's much-beloved 'Mats never came close to reaching the level of commercial success attending Axl Rose and Co., never selling more than 100,000 copies of any of their eight albums.
True, both bands seemed to have an appetite for self-destruction, but somehow you'd never imagine a musician from one band showing up in the other.
Meet Tommy Stinson, who started his career in 1979 when his 20-year-old brother, Bob, taught him to play bass so he could join the band rehearsing in the basement of the Stinson home. Tommy was 12, 14 when he started playing in clubs and touring. By the time he was 24, the Replacements were history, with a legacy that included those eight albums (one, "Let It Be," considered a rock classic) and a tragi-comic reputation for live shows that imploded in aggressive, alcohol-fueled shambles.
Cut to 1998 and an invitation from a Mr. Rose to fill the bass slot previously held by Duff McKagan. Welcome to the jungle, indeed.
"I didn't really ponder the enormity of it until I played a few shows with them, and then it was like, "Oh, jeez, this is like [expletive] bananas!'," Stinson recalled recently from Burbank, Calif., where he's lived for the last dozen years.
Enormity "in a good way," the 38-year-old Stinson adds, "like, 'I can't believe to how many people Axl's like a [expletive] rock icon, though he's still too young to be a rock icon!' The whole thing is pretty crazy, but I didn't think about that when I first joined. I thought it just seems like kind of a cool thing, I should check this out."
Of course, there is quite a difference between the size of venues Stinson plays as a solo act -- he'll be at the intimate Iota on Friday -- and those he plays as a member of Guns N' Roses -- arenas and soccer stadiums.
"It's a cool thing for me, and I get to wear as many hats as I want to in this life," Stinson says. "I've worn a couple of different hats now, and I like the way all of them fit for different days."
Actually, hats probably don't fit too well on Stinson's head, which still sports the spiky hair that made him one of the few genuine heartthrobs of '80s indie-rock. One suspects this did not hurt his prospects when Rose came calling, especially since Stinson has admitted that he was no more of a Guns N' Roses fan than Rose was a Replacements fan. Still, he's probably surprised that eight years after joining the band, Guns N' Roses has yet to release an album (its last album of new material came out in 1993) and has done minimal roadwork (the revamped band's only tour ended disastrously in December 2002 when Rose failed to show for a Chicago concert).
On the other hand, that left Stinson plenty of time to record "Village Gorilla Head." Though Stinson's first post-'Mats album was released in 1993, it came out under the group name Bash and Pop; a 1997 album under the band name Perfect wasn't even released until last year. "Village Gorilla Head" is the first album to actually sport Stinson's name, not that he was actually looking for a solo career.
"When I got into GNR, I threw myself fully into it," he says. "And after being in it for a while, I realized that there was time to do other things, and I could do whatever I want and still be in GNR."
And, yes, the long-awaited GNR album, "Chinese Democracy," is apparently on the horizon, though some suspect we'll see democracy in China long before we see the 10-years-in-the-making-and-counting project. The latest rumor is April, but that didn't come from Stinson.
"There's nothing that I can divulge, but suffice it to say that when it does come out, we'll tour behind it."
The only hint Stinson drops is that the album's awesome.
"The cool thing about it, which was also the biggest learning experience for me, was the collaborative effort," he explains. "It really was eight guys writing a record together, eight guys from absolutely different places with regard to their musical backgrounds. Axl really produced this record himself in that he got all of us to bring things to the table and put us in a position to write together."
"I never knew the Nine Inch Nails camp, so I wouldn't have had a chance to work with people like [guitarist] Robin Finck and collaborate on what I think is going to be a really amazing record. Axl's obviously a great singer, but his real gift is the way he can pull people together and get the best out of them. Hopefully it will be worth the wait."
At Iota, Stinson will be playing with guitarist Dave Philips, who used to be in Perfect and plays in Pixie Frank Black's other band, the Catholics. Black also played a role in "Village Gorilla Head," which mostly consists of songs Stinson had written over the last five years. When the Pixies took their reunion tour to Europe in summer 2003, Black let Stinson use his home studio. "It's very expensive to make a record these days, and I was basically given a studio and space to do it for very, very cheap," Stinson says. Though it features a few guests -- drummers Gersh (who played in both Bash and Pop and Perfect) and Josh Freese from A Perfect Circle, GNR keyboardist Dizzy Reed and guitarist Richard Fortus, and Philips -- "Village Gorilla Head" finds Stinson handling all the lead vocals and bass, some guitar and keyboards, and even some of the backing vocals on what is his most personal album to date.
The album evokes multiple influences, from Faces/Stones-style swagger, Johnny Thunders-like punk and Dylanesque folk to meditative pop ballads and a trip-hop-style title track that features sax, cello and piano. The oldest track, album closer "Someday," dates back a decade and includes the line "someday something of use will come of the blood and the blues of this wasted youth."
Incidentally, Perfect's only album, "Seven Days a Week," finished in 1998, was finally released in September on Ryko as "Once, Twice, Three Times a Maybe." It was originally recorded for Restless, which had released Perfect's EP, "When Squirrels Play Chicken," in 1996.
"When we got through mixing, the record company started getting cold feet about how they were going to promote it," he explains. "Then the GNR thing came up, and some other things, and I knew they were about to shelve it and not do anything good by it. It was a bit of a bummer, and I didn't write anything for about a year after. . . . Now, Ryko's put it out, and I hope it sells and people like it."
Ryko put it out because it now owns the Restless catalogue, which leases much of the Twin-Tone catalogue. As a result, later this year, Ryko will release the first four Replacements albums in digitally remastered form, including "Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash" (recorded when Stinson was 14), "Stink," "Hootenanny" and "Let It Be."
As for a possible Replacements reunion, Stinson is inclined to let it slide even as "I appreciate the whole Replacements legacy that we left behind. When I turned 30, I had not so much an epiphany but a realization that it's all been really good, that I've been pretty blessed with what I've been able to do and the places I've been able to go and people I've met and all that."
But there had always been certain tensions with the group's domineering singer and songwriter Paul Westerberg, who didn't help matters a few years ago by claiming a potential 'Mats reunion had been thwarted because Axl Rose wouldn't let Stinson do it (untrue, Stinson insists). There were other blocks as well: Bob Stinson, who had been fired from the band in 1986 for substance abuse, died of an overdose in 1995; his "replacement," Slim Dunlap, has kept a fairly low profile leading his own bands. Original drummer Chris Mars hasn't recorded since 1996 and has been pursuing a successful career as a visual artist. "There are multiple issues," Stinson says, "and I don't necessarily think that Paul or I probably actually have the time to do it over the next couple of years. I just saw him a couple of weeks ago working on some track for some cartoon thing he's doing [the Sony Pictures animated feature 'Open Season'], and I've got my hands full with my record stuff and GNR coming up."
Sounds like Stinson's not that anxious to revisit the past.
"Not really," he admits. "I'll be honest: If they were going to bandy around the kind of cash that they were throwing at the Pixies, I might have to think about it. But realistically speaking, I'm not overly keen on going back and playing 'I Will Dare' again. I've played that a thousand times, I don't really need to play it again. If people miss it, I'm sure Paul will play it when he comes to town."
In fact, Stinson includes no Replacements or GNR songs in his repertoire. "If I'd sung or written any of those songs, I would totally do them, but I didn't," he explains. "I do my thing, though you might hear a Partridge Family song, you might hear a Pretenders song, you might hear any number of things from me."
It's been more than a quarter century since the Replacements' "Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash" earned the group its reputation as the ultimate basement band (the cover of 1984's "Let It Be" found them posing on the roof of the Stinson home). For more than a decade, they toured in vans, playing for little or no money even as they earned the undying devotion of smalls cadres of fans and critics.
Now, Stinson's 15-year-old daughter, Ruby, is in GarageBand -- but only when she turns on her Apple computer. GarageBand is a program that, Apple promises, "turns your Mac into an anytime, anywhere recording studio packed with hundreds of instruments and a recording engineer or two for good measure."
Which is very different from Tommy Stinson's garage-band upbringing, and for which he's thankful.
"I don't know that I could actually stomach the thought of her going through what I've gone through to do what I do," he says. "I like my gig, I like that I'm a musician, I enjoy it a lot, but it's not an easy road by any stretch, no matter how gifted you may be. It would be hard for me to imagine her going down that road as I have, through the same trials and tribulations and heartbreak and blah, blah, [expletive] blah."
Anyway, the Replacements were so long ago and Stinson doesn't actually spend much time discussing the hard road with Ruby.
"She's into the new stuff on the radio, and she hears enough about it from reading stuff about me in the press."
TOMMY STINSON -- Appearing Friday at Iota. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Tommy Stinson, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8101. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)