"It's Stone Temple Pilots time again," says Robert DeLeo, and judging by the band's gig at the Troubadour on Tuesday night, indeed it is. The long-running rock outfit, which also includes guitarist (and Robert's older brother) Dean DeLeo and drummer Eric Kretz, used the invite-only SiriusXM event at the legendary West Hollywood club as an opportunity to unveil new singer Jeff Gutt, who beat out roughly 15,000 hopefuls during an extended search that began more than a year ago. Gutt, a 41-year-old Michigan native who logged time in the early-2000s nu-metal act Dry Cell, among other bands, and more recently was a contestant on The X Factor, comes to the position having to fill some fairly large shoes – singing songs first made famous by original Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland and that in more recent years had been interpreted by Weiland's replacement, Linkin Park's Chester Bennington.
When it came to finding someone to follow in those singers' footsteps, Dean says, "We were not willing to settle. I mean, dude, think of the criteria that had to be filled here. You know, this is STP, man. So we would not settle. The fans deserve more than that."
And Dean believes they have found a winner in Gutt, who came onto their radar rather late in their search. According to the guitarist, "He was one of the last guys we saw, in the last two days of auditions. And that was just over a year ago – September of 2016."
He continues, "Jeff wasn't even part of the singer submissions. But Robert happened to be playing a gig with the Hollywood Vampires in Michigan and somebody came backstage after the show and approached him and said, 'You should check this guy out. He's a local guy.' And Robert called me the next morning and was like, 'Hey, man ...'"
Just a few months later, Gutt was the new singer of Stone Temple Pilots. But first, there was the audition process. After paring down the initial 15,000 or so submissions to under 50 hopefuls, the band set up shop at a recording and rehearsal studio and brought in each candidate to jam on some STP tunes. "We did a week of auditions over at Studio 606 in the Valley," Kretz says. "Three people a day, seven songs with each guy. And the songs we gave people had a really big range, from something like 'Interstate Love Song,' which is not a hard-hitting one to sing, to things like 'Dead & Bloated.'"
"These poor guys," Dean adds with a laugh. "It went from 'Big Empty' to 'Piece of Pie,' where you've gotta get up to an A, to 'Trippin' on a Hole in a Paper Heart,' which is a mouthful."
"But Jeff came in and did a fantastic job," Kretz says.
Recalls Gutt, "I came in and I picked the hardest song first, which was 'Piece of Pie.' There's not a lot of space to breathe in that song. But I figured, 'If I get past this one I'll be good.' And one thing I remember is that the microphone was turned up really loud from the guy before me, and when I grabbed it the monitors just started screaming. It was pretty insane."
For Gutt, it was also surreal. "I was probably 16 or 17 when Core came out," he says, "and I just remember how Scott could cater to the song and create these characters. That blew me away. I was really studying singers at the time and Scott was at the top of the list. So walking in on that first day, it was crazy. I mean, you have dreams about things like this. I still feel a little Mark Wahlberg–ish."
"Mr. Weiland paved quite a way. Because not just anybody can sing this catalog." –Dean DeLeo
"You know," adds Dean, "Mr. Weiland paved quite a way. Because not just anybody can sing this catalog. You need someone who really knows how to sing. And Jeff kind of has it all, man. He has that baritone, and he's also able to get into that tenor world. He's a real singer."
But while Gutt has proven more than capable of tackling the classic material, the band members also stress he wasn't brought in solely to lead a nostalgia trip. In fact, by the time STP welcomed Gutt onboard, the band was already several songs deep into new material. And as much as they wanted to find a singer, they also wanted a collaborator.
"Most of the time we've spent together has been in writing new material," Kretz says. "And Jeff was taking the new songs and coming up with stuff right away. To use a baseball analogy, we kept throwing fastballs at him and he just kept hitting 'em. It was pretty exciting."
"The first time [we got together], we went to Robert's house and we brought Jeff down and he was just singing these melodies," Dean recalls. "And I think he did all six songs that first day. That's a lot of songs. Like, wow, man."
Among those songs is "Meadow," a churning hard rocker that Rolling Stone is premiering today. "That was one of the ones that came earlier on in the process," Gutt says. "It was one of the first songs we did." Adds Kretz, "It sounds like STP. It has all the elements. It's modern but still has that classic sound. So it kind of jumped out at us as a good representation."
And there's a lot more to come. The band recently wrapped recording on their seventh full-length studio album and first since 2010 (they also released an EP, High Rise, with Bennington in 2013). The new effort, as yet untitled, was produced by the band members themselves and is currently being mixed by Failure's Ken Andrews for a spring 2018 release.
For Kretz and the DeLeos, the road to this moment has been a long one, filled with inconceivable triumph and tragedy. Their debut, Core, remains one of the pillars of the early-Nineties alt-rock and grunge boom, selling more than 8 million copies to date, and the 1994 follow-up, Purple, debuted at Number One and moved another 6 million units. Throughout the rest of the decade the band racked up a string of hit singles and sold-out tours. All the while, they slowly began to disintegrate from the inside out, as Weiland grappled with an ongoing drug addiction that led to arrests and extended hiatuses from the band.
After splitting with the singer for good in 2013, they picked up the pieces and regrouped with Bennington. "That really injected us with exactly what we needed at the time," Dean says. "Because we were at a low point, man." Then, in December of 2015, Weiland, still estranged from his former band, was found dead on his tour bus from an accidental drug overdose; by that time, Bennington had left STP as well, albeit on friendly terms, in order to focus primarily on Linkin Park. In July of this year, the 41-year-old Bennington took his own life while at home in California.
It's clear from speaking with the surviving members that they're still raw in regard to the losses of their two previous singers. And the audition process only served to heighten some of those emotions. Hearing so many hopefuls attempting to tackle the old material, Dean says, was a "reminder of the brilliance of Scott." When asked about Bennington, he can only add, "That guy was an angel, man. Just an angel."
"Having two people that we've intimately shared so much with, and knowing they're gone, it's sad." –Robert DeLeo
"Having two people that we've intimately shared so much with, and knowing they're gone, it's sad," Robert says. "It's very sad. It's not the way that I thought things were going to go in life."
In Kretz's estimation, one way to honor Weiland and Bennington's memories is by playing the music they made together, but another is with the music that is still to come. "I think it was important to us that we have a lot of new material going forward, in order to make it real again," he says. "Because if it was just about chasing the catalog, that would be the easy way to go. There wouldn't be much substance to that. The fact that we recorded all these new songs, it ties into helping us heal from the losses of Scott and Chester. Because the catalog will always be there. But if the new music really excites us and excites the fans it has much more of a meaning as far as honoring what Scott and Chester brought to this as well."
Furthermore, when it comes down to it, Robert says, "I think there's still Stone Temple Pilots music to be made. And between Dean and Eric and myself, we know each other so well at this point that it's the kind of thing where, when you're away from it, you don't really think about it. But then when you play together you regain a certain respect for what each one of us does individually, and as a trio musically. That thankful attitude and the gratitude toward being able to make music together is really a special thing."
He continues. "We're not gonna be around forever, you know? So we just want to be making music. And we want Jeff to be a part of that."