Until June, the Screaming Trees hadn’t howled in more than two years.
They hadn’t even rustled.
It appeared the Seattle-via-Ellensburg rock combo had vanished after finally producing their commercial breakthrough, a spectacular album called “Sweet Oblivion.”
Four years passed between the release of their sixth album “Sweet Oblivion” and the release of “Dust,” the band’s spectacular new album.
The recording gap started after the band’s arrival home in 1993 from two grueling years of touring in support of “Sweet Oblivion.”
Instead of doing the sensible thing and taking a much-needed break from both music and each other, the Screaming Trees, eager to capitalize on their new-found success, re-entered the studio to record a follow-up.
It was at that point that tensions within the band - vocalist Mark Lanegan, brothers Van Conner (bass) and Gary Lee Conner (guitar) and drummer Barrett Martin - reached a boiling point. Not only had the four been crammed in bus for far too long, but their ideas had temporarily dried up.
Undaunted, the Screaming Trees recorded an album anyway. After its completion, they spiked it.
“Because it sucked,” says Van Conner, during a recent phone interview from Cleveland, where the Trees were on the two-week headline tour preparing for Lollapalooza.
“We weren’t getting along very well,” he recalls. “It wasn’t like we were having big brawls. We didn’t want to see each other because we hung out for three years.
“We didn’t really find that spark that we had on ‘Sweet Oblivion.’ It was really empty and gutless sounding.” Many bands might have issued the album just to maintain momentum. The Screaming Trees didn’t, thus preserving their integrity.
The band took time off, during which Lanegan released his second solo album and creative triumph, “Whiskey for the Holy Ghost.” Martin joined with Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready and Alice in Chains vocalist Layne Staley in forming Mad Season, which offered up its debut album last year.
So when the Screaming Trees made a second stab at recording their seventh album, they finally came up with a worthy follow-up, “Dust.” The album was issued two weeks ago by Epic.
“That’s kind of why we took longer, because we just wanted to make something that we really liked,” Conner says. “Before ‘Sweet Oblivion,’ we wanted to make our best record. I think we made one of our best records for ‘Sweet Oblivion.’ After that we were like, ‘let’s not put anything out unless we think it’s great. If it’s a mediocre record, let’s not just throw it out there and go out on tour just because it’s there and just because the timing’s right.”’
The Screaming Trees are in full blossom with “Dust.” The album contains 10 lush songs that are among the best they’ve ever written. Gems include “Look at You,” “Sworn and Broken” and “Witness.”
Throughout the disc, the band embellishes its collective tree with dense guitar textures, Lanegan’s impassioned yet smooth, whiskey-and-nicotine-coated baritone, a firmly entrenched rhythm section and thoughtful lyrics.
Only one song - “Dying Days” - from the ill-fated session found a home on “Dust,” and then only after it had been completely rearranged.
Conner insists the album, produced by George Drakoulias (Black Crowes and Tom Petty), evolved into what it is because the band’s creative batteries had been recharged and the material was brand new. Further, instead of forcing ideas, all four musicians allowed the album to take shape on its own.
“We were fresh,” he says. “Everything wasn’t nailed down, which I think works good because sometimes you come up with new stuff. When we went into the studio, it kind of started happening.”
So far “Dust” has gotten off to the strongest start of any of its predecessors. The LP’s first single “All I Know” climbed to No. 10 this week on Billboard’s modern rock chart. And, good reviews are pouring in. Entertainment Weekly gave the album an “A.”
Rolling Stone adorned it with four stars: “It’s taken them more than a decade and seven albums, but Screaming Trees have finally made the record they’ve always had in them … Previously, you needed a good imagination to see where Screaming Trees were attempting to take their music. With “Dust,” they finally get there,” says the Rolling Stone reviewer.
Assuming “Dust” doesn’t gather dust in the next several months and the Screaming Trees continue to churn out riveting performances on the Lollapalooza main stage, a gold record (500,000 copies sold) seems within the band’s reach.
But there was a time when the band never envisioned “Sweet Oblivion” selling hundreds of thousands of copies.
“When we were recording “Sweet Oblivion,” that was when Nirvana had their big hit and got so big,” he says. “And we were like, ‘boy, that’s weird.’ We were thinking that it would be insane if we could sell 100,000 records.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 color photos
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: TWO BANDS WHO MADE A MARK ON THE SEATTLE SOUND Veteran rock bands the Screaming Trees and the Melvins have had a profound impact on modern rock music, helping define the Seattle sound. Yet, neither band has been credited for the influence. The Melvins are considered by many as the Northwest’s original grunge band, packing angst-ridden vocals and mammoth power chords into sluggish songs. The Screaming Trees were grungeby-association, but really, the band brought a psychedelic edge to Seattle. Although both bands have outgrown their early sounds, the Screaming Trees and the Melvins remain two of rock’s most underappreciated bands. Perhaps with their respective new albums - “Dust” by the Screaming Trees and “Stag” by the Melvins - as well as prominent slots on the Lollapalooza tour, which stops at The Gorge July 30, they’ll gain the respect and recognition they sorely deserve.
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