Sunday, July 14, 2024

Shadows of the Season. Looking Back at Screaming Trees’ Sweet Oblivion with Gary Lee Conner

Some 27 years since its original release, Screaming Trees’ most successful album is given the reissue treatment courtesy of Cherry Red, the handful of B-sides on the additional disc being only part of the reason to dig deep beneath the potatoes and feast heartily on the fleshy songs which feel as refreshingly vital today as they did on release.

It’s 1992 and Screaming Trees are recording their latest full-length album, their second for Sony off-shoot Epic and their sixth in total since their formation in 1985. Like so many bands hurriedly corralled into a pen labelled “Seattle Sound” or “Grunge”, they were not from Seattle. Ellensburg is no more Seattle than Birmingham is Cardiff, there being a less than thrilling 100-and-odd miles between the two – Seattle is known as the Emerald City; a compilation at the time summed up Ellensburg adequately – “Ellensburg: Where Cows Live”.

Importantly, there was a kinship between the few souls who loved music beyond the norm, those who embraced the punk ethic, psychedelic lyricism and heavy rock chops. Having set up a practice area in a back room of his parent’s video store, New World Video, Gary Lee Conner’s obsession with psychedelia had been allowed to run riot, with the walls festooned with day-glo and tie-dye. With himself on guitar, his younger brother, Van, on bass and store employee, Mark Pickerel on drums, the singer was last to secure his position in the band, Mark Lanegan not comfortable with the sound of his own voice.

With next to nowhere to play live locally and even less in the way of people who would be interested in such a proposition, they found themselves in the odd position of being in the studio before being on stage. A long-distance friendship between Pickerel and sonic wizard, Steve Fisk paid off dividends when Fisk relocated from San Francisco to Ellensburg in 1985. Offering them the chance to record at Sam Albright’s Velvetone Studio where was now working, Fisk recalled his first impressions of the band in Mark Yarm’s book, Everybody Loves Our Town:

“I didn’t see the band perform until they came to record at the studio. They thought recording was doing something very much like a live show. Me and Sam Albright were in the control room and Screaming Trees are out in the studio, facing us like we’re the audience. They had an extreme, jumping, crazy type of physicality, reminiscent of The Who. It was the most uninhibited thing I’d seen in the recording studio up until that point, and probably for some time  since then. Those recordings became the Other Worlds cassette that we distributed on Velvetone Records”.

The song-writing process for the band was simple – Gary Lee squirrelled himself away and wrote endlessly, far more songs than they would ever be able to record, evidence for their existence still cropping up from time-to-time on live bootlegs. These demos would be shared with the band, with Lanegan adapting the lyrics or writing them from scratch. From these early recordings, through to their first album, Clairvoyance and their subsequent releases on Greg Ginn’s SST label (also home to similarly tricky to define bands – Meat Puppets; Dinosaur Jr, Universal Congress Of), always took a psychedelic seed of a song and worked from there – ultimately sounding like it came straight from a Pebbles compilation.

Much is made of how dysfunctional the band were – fist-fights;  fall-outs and regular fracas – all of which were certainly true, though this does suggest that every other rock band lived in a Monkees-like bubble of joy and chuckles. Competitive, impoverished and each with strong personalities, clashes were perhaps exacerbated by the fact two brothers were spending so much time together. Both had endured bullying at school due to their size and were quick to flit between being on the defensive and on the offensive. Their final album for SST was the Jack Endino-produced Buzz Factory, at which point a major label came calling and there were rumbling in Seattle. Gary Lee recalls:

“We started out and did our first several albums far away from the Seattle Scene distance-wise and musically. In 1985, when we first started playing, we had no idea that there was much going on over on the West side (Ellensburg is East of the Cascade Mountains). Our first exposure was to Olympia, K Cassettes, Calvin Johnson and Beat Happening, so that was the first time we felt like we were part of a scene perhaps. SST was a very diverse label by the time we got signed as well so I don’t every think we thought of ourselves as being in a niche genre of music (although I personally always tried to get us closer to psychedelic garage rock revival, but everyone else went the other way, since I was writing a large amount of the material this is why we came off as more psychedelic in the earlier years.) I think later after the “Grunge” thing got going we just sort of got lumped into it, plus by ’90 or ’91 we were all living in Seattle. Also Epic records was not sure what to make of us then we first got signed and through Uncle Anesthesia. We were selling a decent number of records but they didn’t know exactly how to market us. Once Nirvana hit they had a ready made spot with us being from the Northwest.”

Indeed, Epic were the label who signed up Screaming Trees, a deal set-up by their manager, Susan Silver, who had recently married Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell. In many ways this was a panic buy by the label. The band’s musical credentials and live shows confirmed they had big sales potential but, perhaps bewildered by the band’s name and their volume, they were shoved into the metal corner of their roster. Terry Date was employed to produce their major-label debut, Uncle Anesthesia in 1990, hot on the back of production jobs for Overkill and Pantera.

DL: Just to quickly look backwards to look forwards – the idea of using Terry Date to produce Uncle Anesthesia must have set alarm bells ringing to some extent? That Epic had swept up any available bands in the North West and then tried to work out what they’d bought afterwards?

GLC: Remember that with Uncle Anesthesia, planning the release was all pre-Nirvana. Indie bands had been getting signed. One of the reasons we decided to try for a major was because of the Meat Puppets getting signed and taken from SST [to London Records]. It at least looked like something that was possible, plus we had kind of reached a plateau, doing an album a year and touring a couple of times but everything we had ever done had taken us a little higher audience-wise and that looked like a way to do that. I know that Soundgarden was signed with Louder Than Love but I think the label probably saw them as some kind of metal band. The Terry Date thing came about because Susan Silver was our manager, as well as the manager for Soundgarden, and they had just done the record with him. One of the main reasons we brought Chris Cornell in to co-produce was that we thought he had a clearer idea of what the band was about than Terry, who had produced a lot of metal albums and if there was anything we were not, it was metal.

DL: The idea that you now had every studio bell and whistle available but you had Chris playing recorder on it [on the track Lay Your Head Down] always tickles me, especially working with essentially a metal producer. Presumably Chris was helping to make sure you weren’t losing what the essence of the band was?

GLC: Yes, as I said before, that was why we brought him in. Everything we had done up until Buzz Factory was on 8-track, then Buzz Factory, I think was 16. London Bridge where Uncle Anesthesia was recorded was 24, plus it was really the first big fancy studio we had worked in.

Fancy studios did not prevent this period being the most fractious stage of the band’s career. At the end of the album’s tour, Pickerel left the band and Van had taken up the option of performing with Dinosaur Jr. Team Dresch’s Donna Dresch covered their bass requirements in the meantime, whilst the drumming stool was kept warm by Mudhoney’s Dan Peters and Sean Hollister of Ellensburg band, King Krab. By the time the band were summoned to record Uncle Anesthesia’s follow-up, Van had returned but they had still to settle on a permanent drummer. Ultimately, ex-Skin Yard drummer, Barrett Martin joined the band full-time, adding a John Bonham thunder to their sound, a departure from the more mannered, yet no less skilful style of Mark Pickerel.

Screaming Trees in their Mark Pickerel days

All of which is a somewhat scenic route to bring us to Sweet Oblivion, Screaming Trees’ most commercial album and the one which finally found the band in the right place at the right time. Nothing could go wrong…

The band were sent to New York’s Baby Monster and Sear Sound Studios to record, with Don Fleming producing. Fleming had come from a musical background which was as at least as unconventional as Screaming Trees. Fleming had played in bands since the late ’70s and had been the lynchpin of the ever-morphing Velvet Monkeys, through to B.A.L.L. and Gumball, though had only fairly recently moved into production by the time of recording Sweet Oblivion, still managing to have credits such as Sonic Youth’s Goo, Hole’s debut Pretty on the Inside and Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque.

DL: What was the thinking behind Don Fleming’s involvement with Sweet Oblivion? Did you know him through Van and J Mascis? He hadn’t produced many albums at the time you worked with him, though obviously he was an expert at capturing harmonies, as he did with Teenage Fanclub?

GLC: I did not know much about him other than his name and some of the bands he was in. I’m not sure whose idea it was to use him, but he was a good fit for that album. He was not nearly as hands-on as someone like George Drakoulias [producer of 1994’s Trees album, Dust] but it was the first time we worked with a producer was was not also the engineer. John Agnello had that job which he excelled at.

DL: Working in a 24-track studio, was there a temptation to experiment beyond your usual sound? It feels like John Agnello and Andy Wallace were very sympathetic to what made you sound unique

GLC: I think that was more of a concern with Terry Date. We could have done things like stacked unison guitar or vocal parts and ended up sounding like Def Leppard or something. Don was coming from the same place as we were musically so that never seemed a concern with him. I have always thought that the Andy Wallace mix on the last two albums took them over the top sonically. We were lucky to have him on those albums.

John Agnello

DL: As a whole, you sound incredibly tight as a band, despite Barrett being a newcomer, relatively speaking. A lot of the psychedelia has been buried – were you comfortable with the sound the band had around this time?

GLC: Yes, it was the first time we actually rehearsed very much. And Mark actually came to rehearsals and sang (he hardly ever did that before or after this album). Barrett had a great place for us to rehearse so we spent a lot of time learning the songs for once. Winter Song was the only one we didn’t do much because it was a last minute addition. In the older days with Mark Pickerel ,we sometimes would go into the studio and record stuff after giving Pickerel a demo tape of the song
I had recorded on my 4 track with a drum machine and expect him play it right on the spot almost. A lot of the songs on Even If and Especially When [1987] and Invisible Lantern [1988] are like that.

And so to the album itself. It seemed easier if I compared thoughts with Gary Lee

  1. Shadow of the Season.

An utterly colossal opener and one which served as their opening number live too for many of their shows. A video for the track was made, always a hated chore for the band. The band are obscured as much as they label can possibly manage, the occasional windmill of Gary Lee’s arm proof it is actually them.

“Said Lord please give me what I need
He said there’s pain and misery
Oh, sweet oblivion feels alright”

DL: The Trees had a knack for nailing opening tracks. Always strangely gratifying to hear an album’s title within song lyrics too! A real group collaboration I believe?

GLC: Mostly me and Mark on this one, we came up with the beginning part while he was watching TV and I was noodling on guitar. Then he left and I came up with the rest.

2. Nearly Lost You.

By a country mile the band’s biggest hit, benefiting hugely from their last minute inclusion to the soundtrack to Cameron Crowe’s 1992 film, Singles. Set in Seattle amidst the music scene boom, the extremely forgettable [translation: I’ve forgotten it] rom-com plot squeezes in as many bands as could be squeezed on, from Alice in Chains, to Soundgarden, to Pearl Jam. With no shortage of irony, the band who were sacrificed to make way for the Trees’ track to feature was Truly, featuring their old drummer, Mark Pickerel. Naturally, a video was shot, a mock live affair in one of Ellensburg’s rodeo grounds. Absurdly catchy, the riff has passed into Generation Zonk by featuring in both Rock Band and Guitar Hero 5. Despite the connotations generally taken from the lyrics, it was actually the result of Van and Mark on a car journey whilst the latter was stoned on acid.

DL: Having across the majority of the Trees’ tracks been the main catalyst creatively, how did you feel that a track which was written by Lanegan and Van was the one to go stratospheric?

GLC: I always have thought it was cool. We planned on that being the first single from the time it was written. It was such a different song that I probably wouldn’t have written anything like it. We worked on it in rehearsal more than any other song. Van didn’t write nearly as many songs as I did but he had some great ones.

3. Dollar Bill.

Another song which serves as a calling card for the band, with Lanegan’s baritone and Lee’s deft guitar playing building to a crescendo from the gentlest of opening ripples. In fact, it doesn’t take too learned a musicologist to spot the very close resemblance to Rolling Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want. This was their second single from the album.

DL: Even more than the heavier songs on the album, Barrett really offers a different dimension. But it could so easily have been Sean Hollister or Dan Peters – was their a focused recruitment process? So much for whatever grunge constituted – it’s borderline Rolling Stones!
The Trees kind of always took what came along when it came to drummers (or bass players when Van quit). We knew Dan Peters would probably stay with Mudhoney and we were planning on touring full time for a while. I can’t remember how we found Barrett but when we first played with him on Shadow of the Season it was obvious he was right, especially for our new material.

4. More or Less.

The dust settles somewhat and there’s space to evaluate just exactly how much has changed in the Tree’s sound and how much has stayed the same. Lanegan’s voice has now become something which, at the very least, other bands in Seattle were doffing their caps to, even though the label had done little to celebrate it. From earthquake burr to violent rasp, it was and still is a thing of wonder. Meanwhile, Gary Lee Conner cements himself as one of the most distinctive guitarist of his generation, the ungodly squall and very deliberate picking summoning up monstrous bagpipe-like wails and tones of an almost science fiction quality

DL: You get an extraordinary guitar tone on this track, it’s so distinctly YOU! What set-up were you using?

GLC: I can’t remember because I was using amps from the studio (Baby Monster in NYC). It might have been an old Fender I used a lot on that album and most likely my Les Paul.

5. Butterfly

A sure sign that Epic were flapping about in their attempts to market the band was Butterfly, a cast-iron single by any standards which inexplicably only got as far as having a video filmed as a promo issued, complete with non-album B-sides.

DL: Did you have much say in what got released and how it looked?

GLC: I’m not sure. Mark always dealt with the business and label end of things. That seemed like a good choice though.

6. For Celebrations Past

Most definitely an album track, it (for me) has never quite hit the mark and sticks out like a sore thumb to some extent. Features Lanegan on top form and as with the rest of the tracks, there’s the feel of a real band playing – no click-tracks, no smoothing over cracks, no sanitising.

DL: Any recollections of the genesis of this track? Always thought [B-side] E.S.K would’ve worked really well at this point in the album

GLC: There was a totally different song with the same title we didn’t like as well, so we took it from there. That was one that there was no vocal part for in the chorus for when we recorded it. I was quite amazed and pleased after hearing the tape of Mark singing it. We stayed out of the studio when he did the vocals for that album

7. Secret Kind

The nearest the Trees got to the live experience on Sweet Oblivion . Features some quite extraordinary drumming from Barrett, it actually makes your arms hurt just listening to him. Tracks were largely worked on together in the studio as close to one-take as possible, regardless of whether it was technically perfect.

DL: A live staple of course and one which really echoes some of your earlier material…or am I wrong?

GLC: I guess it’s a bit like some earlier stuff. It was always a good live song. [indeed it was, usually played as half of a medley, along with Uncle Anesthesia’s Caught Between]

8. Winter Song

Winter Song is a track which rather sums up the snatching of defeat from the jaws of victory the band was plagued with. If Nirvana had recorded this, it would be hailed as a classic, no question. Anthemic without being anaemic, it’s so perfectly formed you wonder how someone hadn’t already written it. A live staple and reworked acoustically as a B-side

DL: I’d somehow convinced myself this was a single. This feels very much like a Lanegan solo track

GLC: That’s funny because that’s one of the songs that I completely wrote, except for a couple of lines Mark changed. This whole album was mostly a collaboration. Much more than any other but this song was not. The day before we flew to New York to record, Lanegan showed up at my door at 6am with beer. I was not much of a drinker especially at 6 am but I had a bit. This turned into Mark, Van, Barrett and I driving around Seattle all morning in Van’s tiny Saab with a drunken and hungover Lanegan. Later that night after my wife (then girlfriend) suggested I write a song like Cheap Trick’s Downed and I wrote the song and called it Wintergreen. After I played it for Mark it went directly on the list to record and finally became Winter Song.

9. Troubled Times

More ferocious guitar playing and some extremely frayed vocals, it beggars belief that the band were obliged to tour with both Soul Asylum and Spin Doctors. Utterly hapless match-ups.

DL: Taking the title literally, how were you personally feeling during the recording of Sweet Oblivion?

GLC: That is mostly Van and Mark writing that one. That song and several others got to the recording of the basic tracks with no lyrics or just tentative lyrics. Something out of the ordinary for us. When it was time for Mark to sing everyone was kind of worried, especially after he went off on a several day alcohol bender and disappeared for of couple of days. Somehow they got him into the studio and he not only wrote the rest of the lyrics in about three or four days but also did what I have always considered some of his most amazing vocal performances ever.

10. No One Knows.

On The Who’s Live at Leeds album, there’s a riff played during the elongated rendition of My Generation which clearly caught the ear of the Tree’s guitarist who expands it into a track of its own

DL: If Dollar Bill borrows a little from You Can’t Always Get What You Want, there’s obviously a nod to the Who’s Live at Leeds here?! Steve Fisk once told me Screaming Trees could’ve been the next Who “except the Trees had a better singer”!

GLC: Thanks Steve! That’s a song I wrote when I was out in New York staying with my future wife, Janet. From late ’89 on, I spent a lot of time out there. It was written about a year before the record. It’s those chords that make it sound like The Who. We actually did a demo early on for the album (early summer ’91) when Dan Peters was still with us. That song and two or three others, so it was a bit more worked out than the others.

11. Julie Paradise

Screaming Trees have always had a knack of ending their albums with a track that is particularly epic-sounding or explosive in some way. Julie Paradise ends in a manner which suggests the band has literally given everything and is lying in a heap in the studio.

DL: If Shadow of the Season showed your skills in opening tracks, Julie Paradise does the same for the finale. Has a similar vibe to End of the Universe? [the final track on Buzz Factory]

GLC: That’s always been one of my favourites. Van and Mark came up with it when I wasn’t around. For some reason I could never get the beginning guitar part the way Mark envisioned it. Was a great song to play live and usually the finale.

The album sold well, at least for a band which never had any expectations to be signed to a subsidiary of Sony. For the label, 300,000 copies was rather more so-so, not least compared to the execrable Spin Doctors, whose album had just gone five-times platinum. The level of effort Epic had put into the Trees was writ large to see in the US vinyl copy of Sweet Oblivion which doesn’t bother going to the huge effort of giving it a cover, simply whacking the record in a plain black sleeve with a copy of the CD insert chucked inside. Absolutely the laziest release they could possibly have engineered.

The album cover itself was  “of the time”, shall we say, a rather muddled yellow-green-tinted picture of a rusted ship’s control panel, with a photo of the band lobbed in as something of an after-thought.

DL: The album cover has always irked me. I think every other album cover you had was part of the whole ritual of listening to the band – this felt a bit “will this do?”

GLC: It was a photo of a weird looking control panel on this rusted out old ship where we did the photos for the album. I guess the idea was like a switch to the electric chair or something, hence Sweet Oblivion. We were never to strong in the art department. I had ideas sometimes but they were always too psychedelic. The only art I ever got on one of our records was the squiggly psychedelic looking stuff on the back of Invisible Lantern. To get an idea of where I’m coming from artwork-wise, see the Purple Outside album cover. [Purple Outside was Gary Lee’s first extracurricular activity outside the Trees, also released on New Alliance]

DL: Did Sony talk to you about their expectations or how they saw your future as a part of their roster?

GLC: Not that I know of. At the time of Sweet Oblivion was started, we were happy that they were doing another album with us because even though we had sold a decent number of Uncle Anesthesia, it wasn’t a million seller or anything and they were a major label. After that and leading up to the Dust album, it was amazing they didn’t drop us after doing an entire album we gave up on in late ’93 an ’94. For some reason they funded the second version of it even though it took us nearly two more years to get into the studio to complete what would become Dust.

The Bonus Tracks

  1. Maybe (Van’s New One)

GLC: That was Van’s song, I think he sings it right? I supposed we originally intended for Mark to do it but for whatever reason he didn’t. It is a bit like some of his Solomon Grundy stuff.

DL: It is indeed quite like Van’s recordings under the name Solomon Grundy, in which he sang and played guitar. Drumming on that project was Sean Hollister and on bass Jim King, both later to feature in the band Kitty Kitty, alongside another Conner brother, Pat. Released on New Alliance, an off-shoot of SST founded by The Minutemen’s D.Boon and Mike Watt.

2. E.S.K

DL: Which stood for..? What’s the back story to the track? As I’ve already mentioned, I think this deserved a place on the album

GLC: It’s a good song, I guess we just didn’t have enough room or something. I remember Mark and I working on it together and it had a long title from the lyrics something like “The Last One Left the Ground” or something. We started calling it the “Cream-esque” song because the riff was a bit like an old Cream song with those bent thirds on the guitar [presumably ‘NSU’ DL]. That may be where the name came from. Another theory is that the catalogue number of Sweet Oblivion started with the letters ESK so that could be it. Maybe someone else remembers better.

3. There’ll be Peace in the Valley

GLC: The three covers on the album do a pretty good job of demonstrating how none of the bands in the Washington area really had a unified sound, however the media insisted they did, right?

DL: 100%. The idea that there was a unified sound in the Pacific Northwest holds no water whatsoever. Tad sounded nothing like the Tress; the Trees sounded nothing like Soundgarden; Soundgarden sounded nothing like Mudhoney. You can keep on going like this indefinitely. The most striking thing about the music scene in the area at the time is that there was an odd lack of competitiveness. There was no resentment when a band was picked up, seemingly at random, by a major label – in fact, more likely it was viewed with odd amusement. Splinter groups regularly formed, so that you would often see Alice in Chains on the same tracks as Mark Arm from Mudhoney or Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready playing with Barrett form Screaming Trees.  The band’s disparate influences often gave away how unlikely it should be that they had any deep similarities: Tad and Joy Division; Soundgarden and Black Sabbath; the glam Zeppelin of Mother Love Bone etc

4. Winter (acoustic)

GLC: It lends itself well to the acoustic version. That’s Jack Endino on the slide guitar.

5. Song of a Baker

GLC: Small Faces were a big influence on us by the time of this album.

6. Tomorrow’s Dream

GLC: Probably Van’s idea, he was the most into Black Sabbath. It was a bit of a challenge for me because my guitar style is not very Tony Iommi-ish.

DL: Even without other tracks which didn’t make the grade, there was also your cover of Buffalo’s Freedom and Tim Rose’s Morning Dew – were they recorded solely for B-sides? [they both appeared on promo copies of the Butterfly single]

GLC: I think so. We did them later that year. We got to go into Electric Ladyland Studio in New York which was really cool. There was a big psychedelic mural on the wall and pictures of Hendrix. Van had discovered the Buffalo album through our friend John Hicks who was into a lot of obscure 60s and 70s rock and I think Lanegan decided on the other one.

DL: Watchpocket Blues and Paperback Bible – where did they fit into the equation with Sweet Oblivion? Rejected tracks from the final running order or pre-Dust tracks?

GLC: Those two songs came from the first version of the album that was recorded in late ’93/early ’94 in Seattle with Don Fleming. We didn’t really have enough songs together at the time because we’d been touring the year before. I think Mark re-sang both of those for the Ocean of Confusion album [2005’s sweep-up of Epic tracks which manages to omit two of their best-known tracks, Bed of Roses and All I Know.

DL: The Soul Asylum/Spin Doctors tour must’ve been agonising? I cannot comprehend what listening to the latter must have felt like every night

GLC: We did some European stuff right before it came out, including the famous Reading ’92 [it really was an extraordinary line-up]. In the fall we did the US with Alice In Chains and then Europe with them again in the winter. We did our own tour in the Spring of ’93 with Pond and The Poster Children opening. Then came the Spin Doctors, Soul Asylum tour. It was all summer, about 60 shows so that was a long one. We actually almost always left before the Spin Doctors played so we didn’t ever see them on stage too often. I think that tour definitely got a lot of people into us that never would have heard of us otherwise, so it was probably worth the time and effort.

DL: Finally – How does Sweet Oblivion rate in your own mind compared to your other material? Any regrets in regards to the songs you went with or things you wish you’d done differently?

GLC: It’s definitely among our best especially the way it sounds. It was also nice to have so much collaboration on that record as opposed to everyone working by themselves and coming together later.

Daz Lawrence 

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