Talking with the Replacements bassist about his latest act Cowboys in the Campfire
Tommy Stinson is, by many measures, one of the most accomplished figures in rock ‘n’ roll.
In the 1980s, while still a teenager, he became famous as the bassist for alternative rock pioneers The Replacements, then went on to lead his own bands, Bash & Pop and Perfect. He’s also been a member of Guns N’ Roses (1998-2014) and Soul Asylum (2005-2012). He’ll add another chapter to his impressive resume on June 2 when he releases Wronger, the debut studio album from Cowboys in the Campfire, his duo with guitarist Chip Roberts, with a U.S. tour to follow.
“It’s a different one for me in that it doesn’t have the rock ‘n’ roll band kind of vibe in it,” Stinson says of Cowboys in the Campfire. “It’s got more of a rockabilly thing, I suppose. Chip and I, when we write together, we’re minimalists. Because we are a duo, by nature, we start with the very simplest formation of the song, basically: two acoustic guitars and a vocal.”
On Wronger, the tracks also include additional elements such as drums or strings, but the rawness of the material has been left intact throughout. This was, Stinson says, a deliberate move on their part to “not belabor” the songs.
Much of this aesthetic was achieved by capturing the material as Stinson and Roberts played through it together, making it more like a live recording instead of the usual studio process of doing multiple separate takes of each part.
“It made more sense to do it [that way] because those are the [kinds of] records we’ve made in the past and know have the most bang for their buck,” Stinson says. “Doing it live is how the early Replacements records were done. I did the last Bash & Pop record that way. I’ve been producing other groups in that same fashion where you try to record it live and quickly to get the most out of the emotion and the feel of the song.”
With a laugh, he adds, “The Rolling Stones recorded ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ 150 times or whatever. I can’t fathom that. I’ve never had the attention span for that!”
Stinson says he and Roberts knew they were on the same page musically from the moment they first met about 14 years ago. At the time, Stinson had just moved to Philadelphia, where Roberts was already well-established in that music scene “being the guitar slinger du jour,” as Stinson puts it. “We became fast friends, so we started writing right out of the gate.”
After that, they both got busy with other projects, but they kept collaborating together whenever they could.
“We had been working on this thing loosely in our free time, just jamming and goofing off, and it evolved from there,” Stinson says. “We amassed tunes as we’ve gone along, and playing shows, so we finally got to the place where it was like, ‘Let’s finish this up and call it a record.’ It came on the heels of the whole COVID thing; we finished it up during that and put all the pieces together.”
Given their shared rock backgrounds, it might be surprising that the songs that emerged were more Americana in style, but Stinson views this unpredictability as a good thing.
“I’ve never wanted to be pigeonholed,” he says. “I’m not a rock and roll guy. I’m not a singer-songwriter guy. I’m certainly not a jazzer. But I like all of it. I’m always looking for a new sound, new things out of me.
“I don’t get into guitar pedals and effects and things like that so much as I get into the songwriting part of it,” he continues. “I’ve never really had the ambition to become a great singer or a great bass player or a great guitar player. Really, the only thing I ever aspired to was writing great songs that told a story the way I felt it.”
While Stinson admits that he doesn’t use any particular songwriting process, he does see one running theme throughout his work: “It’s a lot of ‘day in the life’ sort of stuff for me, whether it’s my day in the life or a day in the life of someone I’m seeing, or a lot of times I will do a composite of different storylines.”
Now he’s interested to find out what listeners think of the work he’s done with Cowboys in the Campfire, though he says he doesn’t feel any pressure as the release date approaches. “I’ve never felt that – and that [attitude] comes from The Replacements,” he says. “Our biggest attribute, as well as our biggest failure, was that we were unable to do that. I think to some degree we were such social malcontents that we were just so dug into, ‘This is what matters to us; fuck the world.’ And that cemented that in my head.”
VIDEO: Cowboys in the Campfire “Dream”
Although it seems like Stinson’s success with The Replacements at such a young age could’ve also instilled a certain egotism in him, he says this is definitely not the case. “I’m lucky that I don’t think I’m God’s gift to mankind or anything,” he says. “I’ve never sat myself down thinking, ‘I’m going to make a record, I want to be a pop star, I want to be huge.’ I do what I do because I’ve been given the opportunities to do it.”
To that end, he’s already thinking about what opportunities are open to him after this Cowboys in the Campfire release and subsequent tour dates. “I’ve already opened the door to another record – I’ve got some songs I’m working on writing now,” he says.
Even he doesn’t know what these next songs will sound like, stylistically – “But assuredly, there will be things in there that sound similar to everything I’ve done in the past, and there will be probably some things that people are going to go, ‘What the fuck are you doing, man? What the hell is that?’” he says with a laugh. “It’s because I’m comfortable enough with myself, I can just do it as I feel like it.”
He’s grateful that he keeps finding new ways to continue the career that he began more than 40 years ago. “I like what I do, I like the process, and I still like performing in front of audiences,” he says. “Really, all of [that] is on my own terms. As long as I’m having fun at it and I enjoy it, I’m going to do it.”