Van Conner, the bassist who cofounded the influential hard-rock group Screaming Trees alongside his brother, Gary Lee, and singer Mark Lanegan, has died. “Van Conner bassist and songwriter of Screaming Trees died last night of an extended illness at 55,” Gary Lee wrote on Facebook. “It was pneumonia that got him in the end. He was one of the closest friends I ever had and I loved him immensely. I will miss him forever and ever and ever.”
Van’s buoyant, understated playing provided a foundation for his older brother’s neo-psychedelic songwriting and Lanegan’s gravelly vocals. His skipping rhythms helped make Screaming Trees’ “Nearly Lost You” and the jangly “Bed of Roses” two of the group’s signature tunes, while the brothers’ imposing look onstage, surrounding Lanegan, made Screaming Trees one of the most instantly memorable groups of the era. The band formed in 1984 in Ellensburg, Washington — about a hundred miles southeast of Seattle — and within a few years, established themselves as leaders of the region’s left-of-the-dial rock scene. Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain admired the band, and Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell co-produced their 1991 major-label debut, Uncle Anesthesia.
“Rest in Peace and Power to one of the very greatest, a true gentleman and great songwriter/musician Van Conner you will be dearly missed by so many,” Mike Johnson, who has played in Dinosaur Jr. and Lanegan’s band, wrote on Twitter. “Love to you forever.”
The son of video-store owners, Van was born on March 17, 1967, in Apple Valley, California. Within a year of forming, the group secured a record deal with punk springboard SST Records and put out a release a year through 1989’s Change Has Come. Comparisons to the Doors dogged the group for years until they opened up their sound, with better production, in the Nineties. Although not technically grunge, the group’s flannel couture and Lanegan’s brooding persona set them up for commercial success, which eventually came via the soundtrack to Cameron Crowe’s Seattle-set movie, Singles, which featured “Nearly Lost You.” The song had arisen from a demo Van had made, on which he sang about an acid trip and how LSD makes you lose control.
Conner had a lighthearted look on fame, reflecting on the moment Screaming Trees knew they’d “made it” in a 2012 Spin interview. “We were playing a show with Mojo Nixon and Firehose in Florida, and our manager, Kim, was like, ‘Wow, your album is actually selling this much a week’ — it was a lot — ‘and your song is being played on the radio this much,'” he said. “You could turn on MTV and see our video if you just watched for an hour. Either Mark or Lee said, ‘Wow, maybe we’ll be a one-hit wonder.’ And then, 15 years later, VH1 did a show called One-Hit Wonders, and we were on it.”
Success and fame enabled Lanegan to embrace his drug addictions, which, combined with mounting internal tensions, got in the way of their success for the rest of the decade, much to the Conners’ dismay. Conner used some of the downtime to join a live lineup of Dinosaur Jr. in the early Nineties and play in his own group Solomon Grundy, which released a self-titled LP in 1990. Screaming Trees’ 1996 album, Dust, was a critical success and landed them a slot on that year’s Lollapalooza, but they started growing apart. They launched a final tour in 2000, after which they broke up.
Lanegan, who died in 2022, repeatedly wrote off the prospect of a Screaming Trees reunion. Van spent the past two decades playing in the group Valis alongside another brother, Patrick Conner, and playing as a session musician. In 2018, Van released a solo album, Coming Back Again, under his own name. The songs were acoustic and more downtempo than his work with Screaming Trees. He also worked as a computer programmer, according to a 2020 Rolling Stone interview with Lanegan.
Conner reflected on the importance of music to his life, both making it and listening to it, in a 1996 Billboard interview. “Music gets me through mentally — especially on the road,” he said. “You can get lost in records. It may sound cheesy, but that’s why it’s worth sticking it out as a band; if your music can help just one person transcend their situation or reflect on their state of mind.”