An Interview with Tommy Stinson

Paul Caparotta
Tommy Stinson (Photo: Steven Cohen)
Tommy Stinson (Photo: Steven Cohen)
Tommy Stinson is prolific. Besides his output with The Replacements, he’s released numerous solo albums, two excellent Bash & Pop releases, and even more under bands such as Perfect, Cowboys in the Campfire and a host of others. We had a chance to dig into his current work as he prepares for an upcoming tour opening for The Lemonheads. The double-bill will hit Slim's on Tuesday May 21st and tickets are still available here. For now, you can check out our full interview with Tommy below and hope to see you at the show!

SFBayAreaConcerts: It’s hard to believe that Friday Night Is Killing Me (iTunes) is nearly 26 years old—what made you decide to bring back Bash & Pop after all this time?

Tommy Stinson: Damn, I made that record that long ago? [Laughs] It just seems like yesterday. No really what happened is that I made a couple of solo records and I liked them and all, but there was just something I wanted to do when I made those records that I could finally do on this record.

Basically: Put a band together and record the songs in a live atmosphere like we did in the Eighties—imagine that!

I was able to do that when I finally moved to upstate New York and bought a house that had a studio in it. I got Frank Ferrer at first, Luther Dickinson, and Cat Popper and started recording songs live. What it allowed me to do is play and sing and not twiddle knobs and deal with sound and things like that. I was like, “Aah, that’s how we used to make records, huh?” The process was a lot more fun for me—you can hear it in the tracks. There’s that undeniable kind of group spirit thing that you get when you’re playing with friends and having a good time when everyone plays well. I had fun doing that. Cut to the second round of recording, and I had Frank up—I didn’t have Luther on the second round because he had Mississippi All Stars gigs and other stuff. He [Frank] turned me on to Steve Selvidge—they grew up together. So it grew from there. I had some more people come out, we did some recording and we did some gigs. We did one rehearsal with Steve and I was instantly in love with the guy; he’s a great friggin’ player. And quick—quick on the draw. We started recording some more stuff. I thought, “This isn’t a Tommy Stinson solo record, it’s like a band record.” I own the name Bash & Pop; "why don’t I just call it Bash & Pop?" It definitely has that band record feeling to it. For all purposes, more-so than the original Bash & Pop record; because as that record went down I ended up playing more and more of the instruments than I wanted to. As we went through the process of making that first record, the producer Don Smith was saying, “Well you know, Tommy, you oughta play bass on this. And, Tommy, you oughta play guitar on this because I’m not getting what I think this song needs out of these guys.” So what we kept was some of Steve Foley, some of Steve Brantseg’s guitar stayed on there—a fair amount. But when I made that first record, there were still some holes that needed to be filled. I think that John thought that me playing was a better way to go about it. That’s why this record is even more of a band album than the first one.

SFBAC: Why didn’t you include “Too Late” on this album?

Tommy Stinson: Why, thank you! I’d done many versions of that song, many ways, and I never got a take that I liked. I thought, after a while, because Nicole is a good friend of mine and I’ve always loved her voice, “Wow, maybe this should be a duet.” As soon as I thought that, once we recorded it I knew it: That was supposed to be a duet. [Laughs] So that was how that worked out. I haven’t done it much on my own since.

SFBAC: There’s a good dynamic between the two of you for sure. Thinking about your solo versus band performances—how does your upcoming tour with The Lemonheads fit into your musical vision?

Tommy Stinson: For all practical purposes I’ll be fucking naked out there! Not literally but figuratively speaking! I don’t do that often—I don’t like playing alone a lot because quite frankly it’s boring. Or I should say it can be boring. I have fun with it the best I can. Once in a while it’s good to break it all down where it’s just me and what the song is about. That’s kind of what this will be like: This was how the song was when I first wrote it. Most of my songs start off on acoustic guitar anyway—for the most part.

SFBAC: Looking back to your side projects—it’s interesting how very DIY Cowboys in the Campfire seems. You have to dig to find out about the band, piece things together through random clips on YouTube. There’s nothing on Spotify to my knowledge…

Tommy Stinson: It started off as a painting originally. A buddy of mine (well, he was my buddy but he’s also my ‘uncle’ Chip) by marriage (we’ve been since divorced) we became fast friends. He was a hotshot guitar player in Philly for many years. He and I started writing songs together which ended up on some records. He and I wrote “It’s a Drag” which is on One Man Mutiny (iTunes); we wrote “Anything Can Happen.” (He brought it to me and I kind of hijacked it from him.) Years ago he made this painting of two cowboys fighting over a fire which became kind of our band picture, if you will. We started joking around saying, “Let’s start a band called Cowboys in the Campfire! Just a duo—you and me! We’ll go out and hit the road and play.” So we did that a few years ago—hit the road and started doing it! [Laughs] We had a lot of fun doing it. So now we’re writing, and making a record. Probably by the end of April I’ll have this done before I go out on the road with Evan [Dando, from The Lemonheads]. I’ll put it out and we’ll go out and play shows as Cowboys in the Campfire—or Tommy Stinson’s Cowboys in the Campfire; whichever we decide. Yeah, it’s fun and the songs are somewhere between Bash & Pop and me solo. It’s him and I together—he plays lap steel or slide guitar—or in some cases even six string bass on ‘em. We started the record down in Austin, Texas with John Doe playing upright bass on about five songs of it. So, I’m looking for a way to get down there and finish it with him. But, I may not get so lucky because John’s a pretty busy guy. I may have to improvise up here in New York when I get home and finish it out that way.

SFBAC: You’ve worked with so many different producers—in working with all of those guys have you picked up anything you’ve applied to your solo work?

Tommy Stinson: The only thing I’ve picked up from working with anyone is that there’s no substitute for getting a good live take of a band playing a song together. None. You can overdub until you’re blue in the face and you’ll never get that moment of two people, four people playing together and getting in to it. You just can’t replace that feeling. Microphones can pick up that sound of people playing something—people really being in to something. I’ve watched producers try to re-invent the fucking wheel; the worst producers are the ones who don’t know how to tell you, “You know, you should go to E-minor there instead of E-major, because the E-major feels a bit stale.” The best ones give me a nice piece of advice like that. The ones that just sit there and say, “Ya know, let me turn up the bass drum a little bit, that’ll make the song sound better…” That’s horseshit. Sadly many of the producers I’ve worked with were of that ilk—I’ll leave them nameless. I will tell you the ones who actually have that going on: Jim Dickinson, Matt Wallace, and Don Smith.

SFBAC: Village Gorilla Head (iTunes) has a great sound to it—did you take a balls-out approach to recording that album?

Tommy Stinson: I only had a finite amount of time for that. Lucky for me I had Frank Black’s studio in Hollywood to do it. He had a studio in this upstairs office space where he recorded a Catholics record and he was kind enough to let me use his studio AND his engineer (who became a really good friend of mine). I laid down drum tracks to the songs on that record in a day, basically, finishing them in my apartment! By the kindness of Charles Thompson I was able to make that record.

SFBAC: Digging into your solo work, let’s talk about One Man Mutiny. You hit a nice sound on that album—do you intend to continue on that direction? Or are you looking to do something different with your next Tommy Stinson solo album?

Tommy Stinson: Yeah, I think what’s going to happen is that I’ll finish up the Cowboys record, and then compile my guys from Bash & Pop this summer and make another album. We already have half of it done, including some stuff from the last record that didn’t quite get finished. If all of it goes according to plan, I’ll tour behind both of those before the end of the year. I’d like to think that later this year or next I’ll make another solo record—I already have kind of an idea of what I want to do, but I’ll leave that for another conversation… I’ve been listening to a lot of artists recently like Sharon Van Etten, Lucy Dacus—I’m kind of starting to listen to music that is rattling around in my solo squirrel cage up there; kind of getting a little influenced by that.

SFBAC: I stumbled on a picture of Mr. Thumby from your 2016 visit to the Bay. How does he pop up during your travels.

Tommy Stinson: Well, my daughter started drawing him on my thumb when I’d leave town to go on the road; so I’d take different pictures of Mr. Thumby while on the road and I’d send them back to her so she could see where I was. It just kind of stuck and became a funny thing. He’s always kind of with me—keeping things straight!

SFBAC: Obviously you’ll be coming around here in May. What are some of your favorite things in San Francisco—besides Amoeba of course?

Tommy Stinson: Yeah Flint’s Barbecue isn’t there any more—but there’s so much good food. I’m kind of a food junkie; it’s surprising I’m not 400 pounds. I’ve always had a good time in the Bay…

SFBAC: What about favorite venues?

Tommy Stinson: I’ve always, always liked Bottom of the Hill. That was always a fun venue to play. The I-Beam was always fun too—loved that. But really Bottom of the Hill was probably the last joint that I remember playing where I said: I love this spot.

SFBAC: Thanks for your time Tommy—looking forward for you coming to Slim's on May 21st (tickets here) and maybe we'll see you back at Bottom of the Hill later this year!

Tommy Stinson: Thank you—have yourself a swell weekend and we’ll see you out there!

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