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Hot Band: Screaming Trees

After 12 years of hard rock and hard luck, Screaming Trees hit pay dirt with “Dust”

Screaming Trees; Josh Homme, Barrett Martin, Gary Lee Conner

Screaming Trees; L-R: Josh Homme, Barrett Martin and Gary Lee Conner, November 16th, 1996.

Paul Bergen/Redferns/Getty

Mark Lanegan is standing in his flannel boxer shorts and dirty socks, wearing a tattered gray tuxedo jacket with tails, looking into a cracked full-length mirror in the middle of a musty warehouse costume shop in Seattle’s Capitol Hill district. Balancing a cigarette and cup of coffee in one hand, the Screaming Trees’ singer stretches his arms out to see if the coat fits.

“What do you think?” he asks a young female clerk lurking nearby.

“Pretty good, but it’d look better if you put your pants on,” she answers in a tone that sounds like she’d be offended if she weren’t so charmed. Lanegan has that effect on people: He can be surly or disarmingly sweet, often both in the space of a few minutes.

Lanegan is shopping for clothes to wear onstage during the Screaming Trees’ performances at Lollapalooza what Lanegan calls the “hairy-balls, he-man circle-jerk tour.” The rangy, 6-foot-3-inch former high school quarterback has been wandering through thrift stores, looking for duds that will give his band a “more gentlemanly vibe” than tour mates Metallica, Soundgarden or Rancid.

The Trees who also include guitarist Gary Lee Conner, his bass-playing younger brother Van and drummer Barrett Martin will be doing songs from their new album, Dust, a dark and soulful blend of hard rock and psychedelic pop that is the band’s most confident and adventurous outing yet. The product of three volatile years in and out of the studio, Dust burns with explosive tension and a relentless groove. Produced by George Drakoulias (Black Crowes, Jayhawks), the album’s richly melodic songs vary from the layered harmonies of “All I Know” to the galloping, sitar-driven “Halo of Ashes” and the moodier “Gospel Plow.”

As he walks around Capitol Hill on this warm, bright summer morning, the 31-year-old Lanegan chain-smokes Lucky Strikes and moves with an awkward stride that’s somewhere between a stumble and a strut. The years wear hard on Lanegan, who by his own account has spent too many of them in a drug- and alcohol-induced haze. Lanegan says he hasn’t had a drink in two years, but memories of past misadventures seem to greet him all over town. “That’s one of the last places I got drunk,” he says, pointing to a hole-in-the-wall bar. “I had a hangover for a week.” Farther up Broadway, he points to another bar on a corner. “That’s the last place I saw Kurt [Cobain] at least the last place I saw him alive.”

Lanegan and Cobain were good friends, and the Nirvana singer’s death still weighs heavily on Lanegan. “The day before he disappeared, he left a message on my answering machine,” he says. “He said he wanted to see me; he wanted me to come over and play some music. By the time I called back, he was gone.” Cobain had backed the Trees’ singer on a rendition of Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” that appeared on Lanegan’s 1990 solo debut, The Winding Sheet. A few months before Cobain died, Nirvana did their own haunted rendition of the song on MTV’s Unplugged.

“His version of that song is the definitive version it blows mine away,” Lanegan says later, sitting on a ratty couch in his cramped apartment near downtown. The place smells like a mixture of mildew and incense. Stacks of records, books and videotapes including an almost complete collection of John Cassavetes films are strewn across the floor, and the 13th Floor Elevators are playing on the stereo. “One of the coolest things that ever came from hanging with Kurt was just sitting in his shed and hearing him play acoustic guitar and singing,” Lanegan says. “To me it sounded like what I imagined it would be like if I was sitting in the room with Skip James or Lightnin’ Hopkins. It was so soulful and real, it gave me the chills.”

Lanegan’s relationship with Cobain seems to have informed much of Dust, which is suffused with sadness and a deep sense of loss. Songs like the melancholy ballad “Look at You” and the slow-burning “Sworn and Broken” are gritty odes to survival and regret, while the pounding rocker “Dying Days” (with a biting guitar solo by Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready) serves as a powerful eulogy for the string of deaths that has rocked Seattle’s music community during the past few years. “I was thinking of so many people when we did that song,” Lanegan says. “Kurt and Kristin [Pfaff, former Hole bassist] and Mia Zapata. When I was getting clean, I really started grieving for all these people, because I was high on dope when a lot of that shit happened. Man, my first month getting clean it was heavy.”

Lanegan pauses, spitting tobacco juice into an empty Gatorade bottle. “If it wasn’t for this band,” he says, “I sometimes wonder if I’d still be alive.”

***

Late afternoon sun is blazing over the G.W. Gillibrand Quarry, a dynamite-blasted crater 50 miles northeast of Hollywood in the Mojave Desert. A hot breeze whips gray Dust through the canyon as cameramen bark instructions into walkie-talkies and trucks haul lighting gear into position for the next shot. Rimmed by scorched hills and craggy, lunarlike outcrops, the scene looks like the set of a sci-fi flick or a B-movie western, not the kind of place you’d expect to find the four burly guys in Screaming Trees.

On the eve of a summer tour that starts in Boston and kicks into high gear with Lollapalooza, the Trees have flown to Los Angeles and bused out here to the high desert to shoot a video for “All I Know,” the first single from Dust. Directed by Mark Kohr, known for his work with Green Day and Alanis Morissette, this is no low-budget affair. More than a dozen crew members are on the scene, as well as a makeup trailer, a catering tent, and props that include heavy-duty tractors and earth-movers, a helicopter, smoke machines and a redheaded model making a cameo appearance as the angel of death.

But things are not going smoothly. During one take, the wind kicked up so strong it caused a stack of amps to crash down on Van Conner; a few minutes later, the whirring blades of the helicopter overhead made Martin so nervous he knocked over his snare drum and walked off the set. So while the crew prepares for the next scene, the band members, caked in sweat and dirt, wait under a canopy reserved for “talent,” drinking sodas, eating licorice and coughing up dust.

Dressed in a lime-green shirt and black jeans, Lanegan slouches low in a director’s chair as a makeup artist dabs black eyeliner around his deep-set yellow eyes an effect that makes him look like a stoned raccoon. Another assistant wipes sweat stains from Van Conner’s shirt. Perhaps hoping to avoid similar attention, Conner’s brother Lee grabs a handful of cookies and wanders off to play his guitar in a shady corner next to some rocks.

“What the fuck are we doing here?” asks Martin, squinting out at the barren landscape. “These big-time video guys these vidiots are supposed to have some vision for this thing, but if you ask me, this is totally stupid. Do you know this video is costing as much as it did to make our record? What’s this have to do with our music? I thought this pompous rock-spectacle shit was dead.”

If Screaming Trees are not exactly thrilled to be here, they know a lot is riding on it. Almost four years since their last album, Sweet Oblivion, pushed them from the fringes of alternative rock into the grunge spotlight, Dust could be their big breakthrough. Three weeks after the album’s release, “All I Know” was already the 10th most-played song on modern-rock radio, according to Billboard. “We’ve managed to crawl our way up the ladder slowly,” shrugs Lee. “We can’t really afford to blow it now.”

A few minutes later the band members are called to their places. Lanegan stubs out his cigarette in the sand as smoke machines send billowing white clouds into the sky. The music cued up on a sound system set in the back of a truck kicks in with a swell of drums and shards of electric guitar that ricochet across the quarry like buckshot. If the Trees lumbered stiffly through earlier takes, they appear engrossed in their work now. Eyeliner runs in black streaks down Lanegan’s face as the camera zooms in for a close-up then cuts to Lee Conner, who is lost in a frenzy of Pete Townshend-style windmills. Zigzagging recklessly across the set in a kind of half-horizontal mosh, the massive guitarist nearly rams into his equally large, headbanging brother, then drops to the ground and rolls in the dirt. Lip-synced or not, it’s a vintage Screaming Trees performance, and watching on a small black-and-white monitor off to the side of the set, even the crew members look on in slack-jawed amazement.

Longtime underdogs of the Seattle scene, Screaming Trees have made a career of turning unlikely situations into transcendent rock & roll. The band’s history is fraught with drunken fistfights, wildly unpredictable performances and the frequent threat of breakups. Anchored by the Conner brothers, 300 pounds-plus each, and fronted by moody singer Lanegan, the Trees are often treated more like a freak show than one of the most important groups to come out of the fertile Pacific Northwest music scene. In fact, 12 years after they formed in the rural town of Ellensburg, Wash., it’s a feat that they’re still together, let alone making the best music of their career. Dust is vindication for a band that many people have long been ready to give up on.

“This is not an easy band to be in,” says Martin. “It’s like there’s this fine line between healthy creative tension, and total misery and self-destruction. We’ve definitely seen both, but I think we’ve gotten a lot better at staying on this side of the line.”

No one in the group drinks much these days, and except for restless spirit Lanegan, the other band members seem to be reveling in a newfound sense of domestic stability. When Martin isn’t busy with the Trees or one of several side projects, he studies martial arts, collects exotic instruments and works on his new house. Van Conner lives with his second wife and 7-year-old son, Ulysses, on Seattle’s Camano Island, and last year, Lee Conner moved to Rockland County, N. Y., where his wife teaches college math. Small flare-ups still occur among band members, but for the most part, the Trees get along like soldiers who’ve been through more than their share of battles together.

“I think most people especially people who know us thought we could never make another record together,” says Lee. “So getting this one done was almost like when we made our first album and we felt like we were showing everyone in Ellensburg that we’re not just, like, complete retards. It felt like we had something to prove. No matter what happens now, it won’t be like, ‘The Trees, they could have been good, but they fucked it up. Whatever happened to them?'”

***

A hundred miles east of Seattle, Ellensburg, with a population of 13,000, is a ranching town that’s also home to Central Washington University. As shadows fall across deserted Main Street this afternoon, Mark Lanegan and Van Conner stop into Rodeo Records (owned by former Trees drummer Mark Pickerel) before walking across the street to say hi to the Conners’ mom at New World Video, the Conner family store.

“This is where it all started,” Lanegan says as he ambles through the video store’s aisles to a large room in back that once served as the band’s rehearsal space. “I feel like I’ve spent half my life here.” A flier from the Conner brothers’ first band, Explosive Generation, still hangs on the wall above a green shag rug covered with Dusty guitar cases, half a drum kit and some broken amps. Over in the corner, Van spots his old trumpet case, still crammed with homework from high school. “Guess I never finished this assignment,” he says, thumbing through the papers. “That wasn’t unusual.”

Growing up, both Conner boys were painfully shy, and Van often dealt with his insecurities by showing up for school drunk on local moonshine. “It was the only way I could make it through the day,” he says. In addition to getting in trouble with his teachers and parents for boozing, Van’s appetite for punk didn’t make him any friends among the local kids. “One time these five guys in trucks, like psychos, semicriminal kind of guys, chased me off the road,” he says. “They came up to my car window and started calling me a faggot, saying stuff like, “What do we got here, a faggot, a sissy?’ just because of the music I listened to. Punk rock seemed like such a threat to them. Looking back, it’s kind of funny because the music they listened to was like AC/DC. Now, the two styles don’t seem so different, but back then it was fighting time.”

One of Van’s few allies was Lanegan, a fellow Black Flag fan whom Van had met in journalism class. At the time, Lee, five years Van’s senior, was messing around writing songs and recording them on a four-track recorder. One day, Lee played his stuff for Lanegan, and Screaming Trees named for an old effects pedal were born. At a Black Flag show in nearby Olympia, the band gave a copy of its independently released six-song demo tape to Flag guitarist and SST Records co-founder Greg Ginn. A few months later, Ginn phoned New World Video and offered the Trees a contract.

Between 1987 and 1990, the Trees recorded three albums for SST, a couple of EPs and various solo projects. But despite prolific recording and frequent U.S. van tours, the band’s career was mired in frequent internal squabbles. “I think everybody has quit this band and rejoined at least once,” says Rod Doak, a childhood friend of Lanegan’s and longtime Trees roadie. “I remember someone from [a major label] once said, ‘Well, if you get rid of one of the fat guys, we’ll sign you,’ and they were just like, ‘Forget this.'”

In 1990, however, the Trees signed with Epic and the following year released Uncle Anesthesia. Co-produced by Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, the album suffered from weak material and the fact that Pickerel was in the midst of quitting. (The drummer now plays with the band Truly.) Thinking the next record might be their last, the Trees hired ex-Skin Yard drummer Barrett Martin to replace Pickerel, and that fall they recorded Sweet Oblivion with producer Don Fleming.

Then Seattle exploded. “When we went into the studio, [Epic] didn’t know what the hell to do with us,” says Lee, “then suddenly we came out, and Pearl Jam was making it big, and Nirvana was huge. All of a sudden there was a market for our kind of music. It was weird like everything sort of slipped into this alternative universe. I remember thinking what would have happened in the late ’60s if the MC5 and the Stooges suddenly got to be the biggest bands in the world that’s what it was like.”

Riding on a hit single, “Nearly Lost You,” that appeared on the soundtrack to the movie Singles and a summer tour with Spin Doctors and Soul Asylum, the Trees sold just over 400,000 copies of Sweet Oblivion, by far the most during their career. In the summer of 1993 the band returned to Seattle to record a follow-up with Fleming.

It wasn’t as easy as everyone thought it would be. The Trees were burned out after so much time on the road, and their material didn’t come together. After several months of writing and recording, Lanegan decided to pull the plug. “Everyone wanted to put out the record to capitalize on Sweet Oblivion,” Lanegan says. “The timing was certainly right, but the music wasn’t, and I just thought, ‘You know what? This is not good.’ And it wasn’t good because of me. I didn’t come to the party, I didn’t involve myself I went through the motions, but I didn’t invest any of myself into it. I just didn’t have the strength. After all the touring, and because of some other personal problems, I didn’t have anything to give to it. I was empty. I tried, but the end result was: It sucked.”

The Trees took a few weeks off, after which the Conners began working on new material. During the next six months, Lee estimates, the brothers wrote between 300 and 400 tunes, and in October of ’95 the entire band returned to the studio this time in Los Angeles, with producer George Drakoulias. “There were times when we just felt like saying, ‘Fuck it, let’s call it quits,’ ” says Van Conner over coffee at Leaton’s, an Ellensburg diner. “But after we kicked in with George, things started rolling, and we just kept pushing through it. And finally we got over the hill, and it started just rolling down. It was never smooth sailing, but we really felt that we had something.”

***

It’s past midnight, and Lanegan and Van Conner are standing outside a gas station on the outskirts of town, fueling up on corn dogs and Dr Pepper for the drive back to Seattle. Lanegan used to pump gas here during high school, until one night when a truck drove up and he noticed a tiger in the back. It turned out the circus was in town, and Lanegan quit his job that night to join. But there was one stipulation: Lanegan had to cut his hair. He refused. “That’s how bad things were around here,” Lanegan says. “I couldn’t even run away and join the circus.”

He’s still laughing about it as he pops an O’Jays tape into the car stereo for the ride. “It’s never been easy for any of us in this band,” Lanegan says. “We don’t have a lot in common, and the only reason we came together is because we were the only guys in this little town that had a love for this kind of music We never thought this would be any kind of lasting career, but it’s turned out to be something that’s taken us so much further than anybody dreamed.

“It’s not easy, but I’m not giving up,” Lanegan adds. “I’ve learned that sticking around counts for something.”

In This Article: Coverwall, Screaming Trees

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