|By Thomas Conner on November 13, 2011 8:00 AM
When I asked bassist Tommy Stinson about the likelihood of a Replacements reunion, his answer killed two bands with one stone: "About as likely as a f---in' Guns reunion."
The difference, of course, is that Replacements singer Paul Westerberg doesn't still tour the world with a bunch of session musicians and call it the Replacements.
Guns N' Roses, however, still records and performs, even though singer and curmudgeonly iconoclast Axl Rose is the only founding member remaining and has been for nearly 20 years. Stinson, a founding member of college-rock pioneers the Replacements, has now played with GNR longer than he was with the 'Mats.
"Thirteen years now!" Stinson guffaws during our recent interview, laughing at the realization. "That wasn't supposed to happen, but I'm glad it did."
For a time, many fans were glad Guns N' Roses happened, too. Formed in 1985, the band -- originally featuring Indiana native Rose, guitarists Slash and Izzy Stradlin, bassist Duff McKagan and drummer Steven Adler -- quickly defined all that was potent about mainstream hard rock, selling nearly 30 million copies of the 1987 debut, "Appetite for Destruction."
But after the double-album whammy of 1991's "Use Your Illusion I" and "Use Your Illusion II," plus a flaccid set of covers in 1993, band members began bailing one by one. Rose restocked the roster with various hired hands and kept GNR as a going concern, sometimes touring while he labored over the now-legendary follow-up, "Chinese Democracy," which didn't show up until 2008.
"By the time I joined," Stinson says, "I walked in going, 'This sounds kinda punk rock what he's trying to do and thinking of doing.' You know, everyone quit, and [Rose] was like, 'I wanna work. I didn't spend 10 years on this to let it go now. F--- you guys! I'm going to keep it going.' I thought that was pretty f---ing ballsy. I said, 'I'm down.' ... I still think it was a good idea."
Stinson knows something about disgruntled players peeling off from a successful band. The Replacements broke up as each member left the stage one after the other in the middle of a concert -- at the 1991 Taste of Chicago.
Likewise, GNR members began leaving during the recording of "The Spaghetti Incident?" covers record. Stradlin had started recording parts for that LP, which were then dubbed over. The revolving door that ensued as others took off included visitations by Dave Navarro (Jane's Addiction), Gilby Clarke (Butthole Surfers), Robin Finck (Nine Inch Nails), Chris Vrenna (Marilyn Manson), Bryan Mantia (Primus), guitarist Buckethead and many more.
The current lineup on stage features keyboardists Dizzy Reed and Chris Pitman, drummer Frank Ferrer, bassist Stinson and three guitarists: Richard Fortus (Psychedelic Furs) and D.J. Ashba and Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal.
"Do I think we're better than the old band? Not necessarily," Stinson admits. "Do we have more fun? Definitely we probably do. It doesn't sound like they had any fun."
Stinson's claims of fun are measured, though -- note the "definitely" quickly downshifted to a "probably." Things are "going really good," he assures, before adding, "for the most part." "We've been having a lot of fun with these shows," he says later, and again adds, "though that hasn't come without its f---ing speedbumps."
Stinson has threatened to quit before. In 2006, he allegedly threw down his bass in anger after Rose denigrated one of GNR's opening bands, the Eagles of Death Metal, which Stinson had handpicked for the tour; Rose called them "the Pigeons of S--- Metal." Stinson later had to release a media statement smoothing things over, saying of his relationship with Rose, "We have no problem communicating."
"It's not like 'The Partridge Family,'" he says now of his status with the notoriously difficult bandleader. But he gives Rose props where he thinks they're due.
"Axl is a great producer," Stinson says. "He doesn't give himself credit for it. Sadly, of course, it took forever to finish the f---ing record ['Chinese Democracy'], but the reason why is because of what he expects out of the band. He likes to actually collaborate with the people he's playing with. He doesn't bring them a song and say, 'Here's my song. Sing it.' It's kind of a strange, old-school, songwriter-producer thing. I don't think he realizes that. He's really good at getting people to write something that inspires him.
"We get along great, we really do," Stinson continues. "It ain't perfect, it's not great every day. We're all cantankerous in our own right. But the reason I've played with him so long is that we do get along."
Stinson has other gigs, too. He's still a touring member of Soul Asylum ("because it's good Minneapolis rock!"), and he recently released a second solo album, "One Man Mutiny" on his own label, Done to Death Music.
Stinson says that there's "a bunch" of GNR material written and still waiting to be recorded -- "some of it worthy of finishing, some of it probably not" -- in addition to 22 songs recorded during the "Chinese Democracy" process that were not included on the album.