Tommy Stinson Biography
Last updated: 09/08/2004 10:36:29 PM
The best rock n' roll, like any creative endeavor, comes from a blend of natural talent, determination, unconventional life experience and doing your homework. Tommy Stinson has a pretty generous measure of all four.
Village Gorilla Head (Sanctuary Records) began its life five years ago in Tommy's home studio, though some of the ideas and words had been kicking around for ten. Interestingly enough, he was simultaneously recording a new album with Guns N' Roses, a group he had recently joined as bass guitarist. VGH grew in a fairly unplanned manner, anytime a worthy new song appeared, recording whenever inspired to do so. "I didn't have any goals or direction in mind," Tommy says, "I would just let the songs go where they wanted. I felt more free artistically than I ever have." Since he had decided ahead of time to pay for the recording himself and think about labels later, there was no pressure on him to make a particular kind of record, just the self-imposed compulsion to come up with something substantial. Lo and behold, it's a sensational album, easily Tommy's best to date.
After sketching out a number of pieces that he was happy with at home, Tommy began looking around for a suitable studio where he could expand on what he'd been doing. Serendipity arrived in the spring of 2003 when musician pal Frank Black not only graciously offered to loan out his mobile recording gear but also a practice space he wouldn't be using for a month while he went on tour. Tommy then hired engineer Philip Broussard, along with the best players he could find, and got down to business - with some startling results.
Lead track, "Without A View," resembles nothing Tommy has done before. It opens a bit ominously with a thick, syrup-sound of acoustic guitars, cellos, a drum machine and these words:
"Lookin' for a little peace? Maybe some days you don't need to hear the truth"
Layered harmony voices, bass, electric guitars and real drums carry it through to the refrain, "There's got to be a better view," effectively setting the tone for an album that mixes rock with pop, melancholy with pissed-off and happy, in a poetic and unpretentious way. "I think not having a band made the words more personal, darker. I was writing completely to myself, and for myself," says Tommy. It's clear from the lyrics to these songs that there has been a lot of water under the bridge.
Few would dispute that Tommy comes from one of the most influential and respected schools of rock there ever was. In 1980, at the age of 13, along with his brother/mentor Bob, Chris Mars and Paul Westerberg, he founded legendary Minneapolis band The Replacements. Together they bulldozed tradition and along their merry way created some outrageously fun and fabulous rock n' roll. Tommy was responsible for huge slabs of what made that band special, through his spirited bass playing, sense of style, co-writing and bullshit detector among other things. In 1986, he found himself in the excruciatingly difficult position of playing a part in Bob's dismissal from the group, over musical and personal differences. By the time The Replacements broke up in 1991, after eight totemic releases and hundreds of live shows, he'd had several careers' worth of experience - and he was still only 24. Without missing a beat, he switched to rhythm guitar and formed the Stones-ey, Faces-esque group Bash & Pop, recorded an album and hit the road again. In 1993, Tommy moved to Los Angeles and discovered a new community of musicians. Looking for something "poppier" and more collaborative, he formed a new band and called it Perfect (at first playing guitar, then moving back to bass). In February of 1995 his brother Bob passed away. Though not entirely unforeseen, it was devastating nonetheless. Part of Tommy's therapy was to immerse himself in his work. Perfect played live regularly around L.A., toured some, cut an E.P. in 1996 and an album in late 1997. In a classic case of record label fumbling, the album was shelved and Perfect disbanded. It was then that Tommy was invited to join Guns N' Roses, a position he holds to this day - rehearsing, co-writing, recording a soon-to-be-released album and playing live whenever called upon to do so.
As it turns out, in the complex world of GN'R, Tommy has a fair amount of downtime. He's learned a lot these last six years and his musicianship has improved in leaps and bounds. His wide range of experience shows on Village Gorilla Head. Tommy puts it simply, "I wanted as much different stuff as I could put into one album." It's a work where many of his influences come together for the first time. Glimpses of The Beatles, Big Star, David Bowie, The Clash, Cheap Trick and Squeeze are audible. It's quite clear he's paid attention to Bob Dylan and, while it may be stating the obvious, Paul Westerberg too. And Tommy points out that his brother Bob was also looking over his shoulder, "I try to think like Bob when I write second guitar parts. He had a very 'left' way of playing that will always influence my music. When I came up with a particular part on the song "Couldn't Wait," it made me laugh at first. Then it made me think of Bob, which made me laugh twice." It all fits together like puzzle pieces. All-out rockers like "Motivation" sit nicely alongside the catchy chorus of "Not A Moment Too Soon" and the disarmingly tender ballad "Light Of Day." The oddball title song, with its dreamlike words and beatnik feel, adds a twist. The stunning "Hey You" has a hint of reggae. There are unquestionably sad moments here but there's also implacable resolve and, ultimately, hope. "Someday" closes the album with many voices assuring us, "Something of use will come."
Besides handling all lead vocals and (masterful) bass guitar, Tommy also plays six-string guitars, some keyboards, does many of the backing vocals and even drums on one song. To help flush out the other sounds he was hearing in his head, Tommy enlisted a varied crew: close compadre Gersh (who played in both the final incarnation of Bash & Pop and Perfect) drums on six of the songs. Session-man extraordinaire and current Perfect Circle member Josh Freese drums on three. Josh's brother, Jason, blows the sax. GN'R lead guitar player Richard Fortus (alumnus of the latter day Psychedelic Furs and Love Spit Love as well as zillions of sessions) contributes guitars and cellos. Former Perfect guitarist David Philips (also ex-Frank Black and Jack Logan) plays guitar and pedal steel. GN'R keyboardist Dizzy Reed does his thing on two cuts. Backing vocalists include Joan Jones, Mike Jensen, executive producer Sean Beavan's wife, Juliette and daughter Chelsea (as well as several of Chelsea's elementary school friends). And, speaking of Sean Beavan (Nine Inch Nails, No Doubt, Moth), he deserves much credit. One cannot overstate the quality of the sound on this album, especially the artful, crisp, 3-dimensional mix.
Village Gorilla Head is music made by a very skilled artist who has loved, lived and breathed music for most of his life. There's a sophistication and maturity that will surprise a lot of people who, perhaps, weren't expecting it from the boy spark-plug. But before we get too serious about it all, let's not forget - Tommy Stinson still plays rock n' roll 'cos it's fun, and that's downright contagious.
Peter Jesperson - Los Angeles - Spring 2004