Tommy Stinson Talks Cowboys in the Campfire, the Replacements, Guns N’ Roses

Photo Credit: Vivian Wang

Tommy Stinson has played with some of the biggest (Guns N’ Roses) and most respected (the Replacements) bands throughout his long-and-winding career. And for his latest project, Cowboys in the Campfire, the bassist/guitarist/singer opted to strip it all down to a back-to-basics sound and approach.

Joining him in the stripped down band is his pal, guitarist Chip Roberts, and on their debut offering, Wronger (which can be ordered here), a few special guests drop by – including X’s John Doe and even the Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ horn section.

Stinson spoke to AllMusic shortly before the release of Wronger, and chatted about his latest project, if a reunion with Paul Westerberg is a possibility, and his thoughts on Chinese Democracy.

AllMusic: How did Cowboys in the Campfire form?

Stinson: “I had some downtime with Guns N’ Roses – when I was still doing that gig. And it just happened that we had the summer off. I talked to my buddy, Chip – ‘What have you got going on this summer?’ And he’s like, ‘Nothing. What about you?’ ‘Looks like nothing…want to go do some shows?’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah.’ So, we literally did that – we got in a car and just played some solo shows of mine and he played guitar with me.”

“And as we went through that trip, we were like, ‘Well, what if we call it this, that, and the other thing?’, and we came up with Cowboys in the Campfire. Chip had drawn a couple of watercolor paintings that he came up with pretty quickly after we had that little discussion, and it kind of cemented the deal. But him and I had been writing since I met him, pretty much. I met him 14 or 15 years ago, and we pretty much started writing together right out of the gate and became fast pals. It kind of worked out that way – here we are 15 years later, doing this.”

AllMusic: What are some memories of the writing and recording of Wronger?

Stinson: “A lot of this stuff started when he still lived in Pennsylvania. He lived in Media, PA, and we did a lot of writing in his basement. Some of these songs started there, and slowly transformed as we played them out live. The most memorable bits really were when we were finishing up the record – we got the final few songs together, and had our buddy Otto Hauser come by and play drums and Chops LaConte come by and play upright. At that point, we already had John Doe playing upright bass on some of the earlier stuff that we’d done in Austin, Texas. It was like, ‘OK. These songs need X, Y, and Z. These songs do not.’ So, we added that bit, and it stepped the whole thing up to another level in a way. And both Chops and Otto are good friends of ours, so it really worked out great.”

“My favorite part of the record really was when we finally sat down and listened to it when all was said and done, mixed, and mastered. Chip and I sat in the studio and listened to it from top to bottom to make sure it all sounded good. And we looked at each other at the end, and went, ‘Wow. Not bad!’ If you get that after slowly putting a record together…it was a slow build, so my feeling is the longer it takes to make a record, the more years you’ve got behind that, you lose a lot of the immediacy. So, when it’s finally done after all that time, you’re usually like, “Whatever, great, it’s done’ and you move on. This one was different in that way – we put a lot of time and effort into it, and a lot of time went by as well. But sitting there at that moment listening back, was just kind of like, ‘Wow. That’s you playing guitar, that’s me singing, we wrote that song…not bad.’ We had a good moment there.”

AllMusic: The first video is for the track “Dream.”

Stinson: “We went down to the city last summer to make a video. We were just going to do it guerilla-style – because we don’t have money for paying for New York, to block off a street so you can walk down the middle of it playing your guitar. So, we just basically waited on different intersections for traffic to die down, and our buddy Dave and his buddy, when the traffic cleared, they’d get positioned, and then Chip and I would start the song and then we’d just walk in the middle of the street.”

“For the video, we got the only takes where we don’t look like we’re grimacing and looking for a car to run us over. It’s kind of a funny bit. We finally put the final touches on that a couple of months ago. The thing with this particular record and this group is that it’s Chip and I, and we both have our own lives running in separate directions all the time. So, when it’s time to put things together, we just really had to dig in and finalize it and make use of it. New York City as the backdrop for that kind of worked for the song.”

AllMusic: Who’s in the band besides you and Chip?

Stinson: “At the moment, it’s just me, Chip, and Chops LaConte on upright and background vocals. It’s a three-piece. We felt we needed a little low-end after John Doe played bass on it.”

AllMusic: What are some standout tracks for you?

Stinson: “I had never put strings on a track before, and that whole process was really cool. So, I think one of my standouts is ‘Hey Man.’ What the strings added to that track was a chilling moment for Chip and I. With strings on it, it took that song to another place for both of us. We both got kind of emotional about it. And again, the first track on the record, ‘Here We Go Again,’ it sets the whole tone up for…I’ve been doing this for-f**king-ever, and when I talk about it, it finally occurs to me at 56 years old that I’ve been doing this since I was twelve.”

“When I think back on it all, that track ‘Here We Go Again,’ it’s about doing the same thing since I was twelve – joining the circus for this period of time, you’re going to go on the road, you’re going to travel. The performer, the sideshow, the whole thing comes together in a way. And the Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ horn section did a great job on that song. And again, it came together in a funny way – ukulele and a horn section. The musicality on it is just kind of funny.”

AllMusic: Are you still in touch with Paul Westerberg, and would you ever consider working together again?

Stinson: “Oh yeah. Y’know, we ain’t talked in a couple of years – it ain’t like there’s any love lost. I think in all actuality, we probably overextended ourselves, overstayed our welcome on that last run. I think we probably added a month longer than we should have. And I think we had managerial clashes that were a little goofy and troubling. But all that stuff came and went. We’re still the same two dudes we’ve always been, for that matter. If the urge came up, I’m sure we’d do it. But like I said, I think we kind of wore it out that last time. I don’t really see us doing that again.”

AllMusic: Which Replacements album is your favorite?

Stinson: “I think All Shook Down might be my favorite of them all, strangely enough. When I sit and listen to one of our records, when everyone makes a record I think in the grand scheme of things, you’ve got your singles and you’ve got your album tracks. You listen to a record and there’s peaks and valleys, there’s a good mish-mash of different things, and you get the personality of the group. You gravitate towards the singles, and there’s some album tracks you sometimes get attracted to.”

“I think with the Replacements, we had a lot album tracks in the mix of good stuff – like Pleased to Meet Me had ‘Red Red Wine.’ It wasn’t the greatest song ever, but it was a fun rock n’ roll tune. But I think All Shook Down in its entirety was a really well-rounded record, and it’s not that it had singles on it per say or album tracks, I just think they were all great songs in their own right. I stand by that. The album had the most solid tunes on that and the most interesting musicality of all of them.”

AllMusic: Do you keep in contact with anyone from the Guns N’ Roses camp?

Stinson: “Yeah actually, funny enough – I got texts from Richard Fortus and Duff the other day. I left the Guns N’ Roses camp because I had to – I had to get off the road at a particular time because of my little one. I couldn’t leave her with the things that were going on. So, I left in a good way.”

“Axl was pissed off at me, but I think all things said, after everything that transpired after that – him joining AC/DC for a while, and him getting the old band back together in a way – I think things worked out pretty good that I left, if you know what I’m saying. I hear from them every now and again. We stay in touch. I’m actually going to go with a buddy of mine to see them in Kansas City.”

AllMusic: What are your thoughts on the Chinese Democracy album today?

Stinson: “Y’know…it seems to be a hot item right now. I wonder if it’s bumped in sales. People talk to me about it a lot – outside of my Wronger/Cowboys in the Campfire thing, I’m getting a lot of chatter about it. It was a good record. I have nothing but solid feelings about it. What it did for me on a professional level is monumental – I’d never worked with a group of guys like that, where we’re all from different places, different backgrounds, but we forged a record together in a particular way. I think we spent too much time on it, but I think ultimately, Axl producing it with the group of guys – like I said, who come from all different backgrounds – was a huge, monumental task. And I think it turned out really good for that.”

“There’s a little bit of each of us in every one of those songs – which is great. It could be overkill for some people, and for some G n’ R fans, it’s going to be like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ But to me – as an artist and musician guy – there’s some really solid stuff on there. I think Axl got a lot out – there’s a lot to that record, with him personally involved in it both lyrically and emotionally, that I think it gets understated. I think people really need to consider what a task that was. I think it’s a great record for him…a great record for us.”

AllMusic: Do you regret that not more music was released during your time with Guns N’ Roses?

Stinson: “No, not really. When you’re dealing with something at that level…and Axl Rose is a particular character. I think he has a hard enough time just being Axl Rose – let alone being the ‘the artist Axl Rose.’ And I think sadly, that comes with a price. And when it’s all up to you – Axl Rose, that is – I think it’s hard to sit there and go, ‘Oh, I want to make a new record. I’ve got these songs ideas, let’s try this.’ It’s a whole different bunch of backgrounds and things that go into it. It’s a hard bit. There’s nothing easy about being him. It takes a lot of work to be in Guns N’ Roses.”

AllMusic: Who are some modern day rock artists that you admire?

Stinson: “Some of the last rock n’ roll records that really got me going was the Queens of the Stone Age stuff. I was really into that stuff for a bit a while ago. I’m still searching for some new stuff out there, but Lucy Dacus has been on my radar a lot lately, and Phoebe Bridgers and Brandi Carlile. I like a lot of the genre that all those folks are in. I hate the term ‘Americana’ – it just drives me nuts. But songwriting and the songs that those people are writing right now are fantastic and they’ve really got me going. And I’ve got to throw it out to her – not that I played on it, or anything – but Lucinda Williams’ new record [Stories from a Rock n’ Roll Heart] I think has got some really good stuff on it. In terms of rock n’ roll artists right now, I’m a little at a loss to have an answer to that.”

See what Stinson is currently up to via his Twitter page.

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *