The Rise And Fall Of Screaming Trees, Through The Eyes Of Gary Lee Conner
Much has been written about Screaming Trees recently, though not necessarily for reasons befitting their standing among the grunge greats. While not the biggest beneficiaries of the Seattle gold rush of the early ’90s compared to Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice In Chains, Screaming Trees achieved relative success with 1992’s Sweet Oblivion, and to a lesser extent 1996’s Dust (their sixth and seventh albums), which best distilled their blend of rock, blues and psychedelia. Both displayed a harder edge, which developed when the band signed to Epic, though their momentum was later derailed when they parted ways with the major label.
By 2000, with singer Mark Lanegan increasingly turning his attention to his solo career and sporadic live performances failing to find Screaming Trees a new home, the band split. The music recorded post-Dust, at Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard’s studio, would eventually appear as Last Words: The Final Recordings. It’s perhaps testament to how far the band’s stock had fallen by that point, though, that the record was only released 12 years later, with drummer Barrett Martin taking it upon himself to put it out through his own Sunyata Records label.
The reason Screaming Trees have been on everyone’s lips of late is the release of Sing Backwards And Weep, Mark Lanegan’s unflinching memoir. In it he chronicles his geographically and emotionally isolated childhood, teenage alcoholism and later descent into heroin addiction, while examining his tenure in Screaming Trees, often harshly. He’s frequently scathing about his former bandmates, too, particularly guitarist Gary Lee Conner (or Lee). But while Mark has had his say in the book, and the interviews promoting it, the more reclusive Lee has been quieter, save for a Facebook post acknowledging the two never got along as friends, but that “[Sing Backwards And Weep] is delivered with a level of venom that is perplexing”.
Given these developments, and the increased attention on Screaming Trees, you’d have thought people would be swamping Lee’s email inbox to get in touch with him. Not so according to the man himself, speaking to Kerrang! from his home in San Angelo, Texas, about 250 miles west of Dallas – wind chimes audible in the background. While San Angelo is home to some 100,000 people, its remoteness is similar to that of Ellensburg, the city in Washington State that birthed Screaming Trees in 1985. Lee has lived here for 20 years with his wife, a college professor, raising their daughter and enjoying a quieter pace; he admits the only difference between his life before and during lockdown is Mrs Conner now being home during the day.
A jovial 57-year-old with jet-black hair and Wolverine-like sideburns, Lee admits his anxiety dreams about Screaming Trees only stopped 10 years after their split. Given this sense of closure, and continued focus on music – most recently 2018’s Unicorn Curry album – Lee is more interested in reflecting upon his former band’s story, and ensuring their legacy receives its dues, than settling old scores. “Me and Lanegan didn’t get along, I know that, but we did make some great music together.”
What are your memories of Screaming Trees coming together?
“It was the summer of 1985, and me, my brother Van and [original drummer] Mark Pickerel were doing a weird combo of ’60s stuff, punk rock stuff, metal stuff, and new wave stuff. Van and Mark knew Lanegan because they had some high school classes together. The only time I’d met him before then was when he was 12 years old, this little red-haired kid who’d apparently started to drink. Originally I wasn’t going to be involved. Lanegan came over and sang some songs, with Van playing guitar, and were practicing in my room, so my mom told them they had to have me in the band. They soon discovered I had a four-track and was writing the songs that would end up on [Screaming Trees’ debut EP] Other Worlds.”
The band’s psychedelic leanings are attributed to you – what were your own personal ambitions?
“To be a psychedelic revival band. If you look at the artwork for [1986’s full-length debut album] Clairvoyance, I’ve got a Beatles-y haircut and psychedelic clothes. That’s what I wanted to do and I was writing the songs, but nobody else was really into that, so that tempered it enough that we became something more.”
You’ve been clear you and Mark Lanegan weren’t close, but there must have been something there early on that superseded friendship?
“I get the vibe from what I’ve heard that he just wanted to get out of Ellensburg. That’s not how I saw it at the time. I thought that he thought we were making some pretty good music and getting a little bit of success. We got on to SST Records, which was a total dream come true for everybody.”
How would you describe your creative dynamic?
“When we started we’d write songs in the same room. By the time we got on SST and working on [1987’s] Even If And Especially When, I was writing stuff and getting it to Lanegan. Sometimes he’d change some of the lyrics, sometimes he’d change all of them, and sometimes it was somewhere in-between.”
Was that a harmonious process?
“I don’t remember being that upset about Lanegan changing lyrics. By the early ’90s it was clear he was improving them. What he did was what a really good book editor does: taking material and making it better to present to the public.”
How much was the success of your ‘grunge’ peers, and a desire to be part of that, a factor in the change in direction that began with 1991’s Uncle Anesthesia?
“We didn’t even know about ‘grunge’ until 1991. That was the underground. While we were working on Sweet Oblivion, Nirvana started getting big. I remember their Paramount show that October, and standing out in the lobby with everyone from the other Seattle bands. By that point [Nirvana’s second album] Nevermind had sold like 300,000 copies, so it was clearly the end of the underground. That’s when it became this surreal, giant thing. It wasn’t bad, necessarily, but it was different.”
When did you know things were becoming different for Screaming Trees?
“In late 1989, touring [fourth album] Buzz Factory we got into a van wreck in Florida. It wasn’t serious, luckily, but we were held up for a couple of days. Lanegan said, ‘I don’t know if I want to keep going [with the band].’ There was a sense we’d come to the end of what we could do at that point. We decided to get a manager and on to a major label, because other underground bands on SST, like the Meat Puppets, were starting to get on majors. We ended up managed by [Chris Cornell’s then-wife] Susan Silver, who also managed Soundgarden.”
What was it like working with Chris Cornell when he co-produced Uncle Anesthesia with Terry Date?
“Terry Date had mostly done metal stuff, so we had Chris as a liaison because he understood what we were about. He had to leave towards the end because Soundgarden were going on tour, but he helped with guitar sounds, ideas for solos, and singing back-ups. I can’t remember if we used to kid with him, or kid amongst ourselves, that he probably had a bunch of Led Zeppelin records at home that he was ripping off, but when we stayed at his house he did have a bunch of Led Zeppelin records.”
Much has been written about the band’s evolution on Sweet Oblivion. Was it always your intention for it to have a harder sound?
“After Uncle Anesthesia came out, we got into a really bad van wreck. We had two vans, one for the band and one for the crew guys, and Lanegan was riding with the crew guys. We were driving through Wyoming and black ice caused the other van to roll over. We thought they were dead, but no-one was seriously hurt. We had to cancel a week of shows, and by the time we got to Chicago Lanegan wasn’t just drinking, he was drinking full force. In a weird way it was one of the best things to happen because he suddenly wanted to hang out. The first thing we needed was a permanent drummer. Mark Pickerel was gone, and Dan Peters who’d been playing with us decided to stick with Mudhoney. We stumbled upon Barrett [Martin], and musically he kicked us in the butt. I think the hard edge on Sweet Oblivion was partly that and partly the different songwriting process. Lanegan being drunk meant he was more sociable and would come over, so we’d sit together and work on stuff.”
Was Sweet Oblivion a difficult album to make?
“We never knew what Lanegan was going to do with songs. Sometimes he’d come with ideas, and sometimes he’d do things in the spur of the moment. At one point half of the songs didn’t have lyrics, or even titles. He disappeared for three days, and when he came back he was hungover after being on a binge. Not only did he have all the lyrics, he sang everything, too. I don’t know how he did that – whether it was an epiphany or he had it planned all along.”
Some suggest the four-year gap between Sweet Oblivion and Dust damaged the band’s momentum. Do you agree?
“There were two problems. One was Lanegan, who by the time we finished touring Sweet Oblivion was into heroin. Unlike when he was drinking and he was outgoing, he ended up not wanting to do anything. The other problem was that I hadn’t been writing songs, and we hadn’t got together to write. Me and Van had both got married, and I was trying to be out in New York, where I met my wife, which made it difficult. We tried to do [Dust] in late ’93, and while a few songs like Dying Days came out, we just couldn’t get it together.”
What did you do?
“I came back to Seattle, got an apartment, and for most of ’94 and ’95 I wrote songs every single day. It was one of the darkest periods of my life because I was suddenly forced to write. Lanegan would call me in the evening and ask what I was doing, so I’d have to get into my crappy old Chrysler and take him a tape. When I got to his apartment his hand would come out of the door and take the tape without saying anything. I’d either get a call the next day saying it was good or a call the next night asking what I was doing. We had signed with huge managers Q Prime, who took care of Metallica and Def Leppard, so they needed to hear the songs too. I had to send them demos that included some of the worst songs I’ve written in my life.”
How did you pull Dust out of the bag?
“Before we got [Dust’s producer] George Drakoulias, Van and me talked on the phone and said we’d get a different singer and change the band’s name. Van called Lanegan to tell him we were going to quit but he said we couldn’t. Thankfully, when we got to Los Angeles with George things chilled out. The recording was fun, which probably shows on the record, and it turned out to be the rock record we always wanted to make. The problem was it came out in 1996 and not 1994, which was reflected in the sales.”
Mark’s book details his hatred for Liam Gallagher. What were your memories of touring with Oasis in 1996?
“I think it started because Liam called us ‘Howling Branches’ and Lanegan was defending the honour of the band. I guess he says in the book Liam quit the tour because they were going to fight, but that’s not what happened. By the time we got to North Carolina, Lanegan was dope sick so we had to cancel the rest of the tour. We got to the venue and he had our tour manager tell management. The irony was an hour later we found out Oasis had cancelled the tour, so Lanegan hadn’t even had to tell anybody anything.”
Apparently the only person who actually hit Liam was your brother…
Apparently Van hit him with the head of his bass when Liam was watching you guys from the side of the stage.
“Oh yeah… but it was probably an accident.”
How did the band cope with being without a label?
“We asked to get off Epic. Lanegan made most of the business decisions, and a lot of the creative ones. A lot of the time he wouldn’t tell us what the decision was. In fact, he didn’t even tell us that the band was breaking up. I didn’t know until after the last show when someone mentioned it in the dressing room. He could have told us that. The last years of the ’90s weren’t a good time for a band to get signed. Maybe if we’d left it for a few years and come back we’d have got something going.”
How did the end of the band affect you?
“I never had another band after that. I didn’t know what to do and didn’t have any friends other than my wife, so I spent the 2000s upset about the band breaking up.”
Your Facebook post said you’ve had one conversation with Mark in 18 years…
“In the times we got together after we made Dust it seemed, to me, that we’d reconciled. I talked to him in 2012-13, when we’d thought about getting back together to do shows around the time The Lost Words came out. He called me after we ultimately decided not to do it and we talked for half an hour about what we were doing, life-wise. It was a nice conversation. After he broke the band up he kept calling me wanting to record, but I guess that’s when he hooked up with Queens Of The Stone Age.”
Speaking of QOTSA, Josh Homme was Screaming Trees’ second guitarist from 1996-98. What was he like to work with? Did you have a sense of how successful he’d become?
“Not as far as his success with Queens Of The Stone Age goes, but he was always a great guy. Having him there freed me up, and that was when I did some my best playing. Nearly Lost You has loads of lead parts at the beginning that I’d never done before, and I was suddenly able to do them. I think Josh was going to school in Seattle so that’s how Van knew him. Josh was working on music for his new band Gamma Ray then, but that got changed when they found out there was another band with that name, so that’s when they became Queens Of The Stone Age. Van was going to be in the band [he appeared on Gamma Ray’s debut EP], but once Josh got back to California things changed, which upset Van.”
How do you feel about Lanegan’s portrayal of you in his book?
“After me and Van saw that leaked page from the book, we both put statements up. We played good cop, bad cop as Van really went off about Lanegan, but we both deleted them later. Lanegan sent Van an email saying he couldn’t believe we’d say all this horrible shit about him. He said he’d run everything by the people he’d talked crap about in the book and that he’d tried to get a hold of Van, but couldn’t. He never thought it necessary to ask me, one of the people he speaks the most shit about, because apparently I’d put him through 15 years of hell.”
If Mark were to contact you now, how do you think you’d react?
“I’d like to talk to him. I’ve spent a huge amount of my life worrying about Lanegan getting mad or what he’d think about something, and this dredges all that up. Even though, psychologically, I’ve got that in the back of my head, I’ve got over it pretty much. I really question what his motives were the whole time, though. Did he just use us to get famous? I thought it was about making great music.”
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