Despite the tempestuous relationships between its members and repeated commercial and other frustrations, the Washington-based band Screaming Trees has remained a vital creative institution for well over a decade. While many of their peers in the world of Northwest “grunge” rock have seen big-time success— and a few have not survived it—the Trees have been perpetual underdogs. “Screaming Trees have made a career of turning unlikely situations into transcendent rock & roll,” according to Rolling Stone’s Jason Fine. Yet their powerful, psychedelia-tinged rock has continued to mature, and their 1996 album, Dust, made many critics’ and fans’ best-of lists for that year.
Though usually listed alongside their friends in Nirvana, Soundgarden and other “grunge” acts as a Seattle band, the Trees originated in 1985 in the town of Ellensburg, which is located over 100 miles from the Seattle. Brothers Gary Lee (a.k.a. Lee) and Van Conner, whose parents owned the town’s one video store, grew up loving both heavy metal and punk rock. An affinity for the latter usually aroused the suspicions of local toughs, and Van, five years younger than Lee, faced threats of violence from his schoolmates for his musical tastes. He did, however, make friends with singer Mark Lanegan, a fan of punk and new wave rock. Later, after Lanegan met Lee, the three dec ided to form a band, taking their name from a guitar effects pedal by Electro-Harmonix. They added drummer Mark Pickerel and began playing locally, selling a six-song tape at their shows. “We were all nerds,” Van told Rolling Stone, “but Lee was the king. He was kind of a mama’s-boy nerd who was really shy. Then we played our first gig. We count, ‘One, two, three, four,’ and suddenly Lee’s diving all over the stage.” The Screaming Trees released their debut album, Clairvoyance, on the Velvetone label the following year.
After attending a show in Olym pia by Black Flag—one of L.A.’s best-known punk bands—they gave a tape to Black Flag guitarist/leader Greg Ginn. Shortly thereafter, they were offered a deal with Ginn’s label, SST. The band soldiered on for several years, weathering tours and fights, putting out a string of releases on SST between 1987 and 1989. Lanegan also released a solo album on the Sub Pop label that featured members of Nirvana. College radio success landed the Trees a deal with the major label Epic Records in 1990; Soundgarden front-man Chris Cornell co-produced their Epic debut, Uncle Anesthesia. Jim Greer of Spin would later write that the album’s “relative incoherence reflected the less than easy relations among the band itself.” Pickerel departed soon thereafter, and was replaced by Barrett Martin,
For the Record…
Members include Gary Lee Conner (born c. 1963, Ellensburg, WA), guitar; Van Conner (born c. 1968, Ellensburg, WA), bass; Josh Homme (joined 1996), guitar; Mark Lanegan (born c. 1965, Ellensburg, WA), vocals; Barrett Martin (born Tumwater, WA; joined band 1991), drums; Mark Pickerel (left band 1991), drums.
Formed c. 1985, Ellensburg, WA; released cassette-only EP Other Worlds, 1985; released debut album, Clairvoyance, on Velvetone label, 1986; signed with SST records and released Even If and Especially When, 1987; released Sub Pop EP Change Has Come, 1989; Lanegan released solo debut, The Winding Sheet, on Sub Pop, 1989; signed with Epic Records, 1990, and released album Uncle Anesthesia, 1991; song “Nearly Lost You” appeared on soundtrack of film Singles, 1992; Lanegan and Martin appeared on Mad Season album Above, Columbia, 1995; appeared on Lollapalooza tour, 1996.
Addresses: Record company —Epic Records, 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022; 2100 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, CA 90404.
formerly of the band Skin Yard.
In the space between the Trees’ Epic bow and their subsequent release, Seattle became hot. This was due in large part to the success of Nirvana’s Nevermind, the massive sales of which turned the music industry on its ear and ushered in the new “alternative” era. Numerous other Seattle bands and practitioners of so-called “grunge,” such as Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Alice inChains, benefited from Nirvana’s break through. The Trees, meanwhile, were stunned; they’d been Nirvana fans since the latter group’s earliest club shows. “All of a sudden there was a market for our kind of music,” Lee told Rolling Stone. “It was weird—like everything sort of slipped into this alternative universe.”
1992 saw the release of the Trees’Sweet Oblivion, which boasted the hit single “Nearly Lost You.” The song, which also appeared on the soundtrack to the Seattle-themed movie Singles, brought the band greater recognition than it had ever had. But Sweet Oblivion also showed a more unified and mature group, perhaps because the intermittent feuding between members—especially the Conner brothers, who would hurl their substantial bulk at each other during gigs and would, like their bandmates, erupt into shouting matches when interviewed together—led them to believe it would be their last record. “So we actually worked together on the songs for the first time in years,” Van explained in Spin. “In the course of which we also became friends again.” Critics were effusive about the album; a Village Voice reviewer proclaimed, “these Northwest veterans have started roiling and hooking and knocking ’em dead at the very moment they seemed ready to expire of corporate torpor.”
After touring to promote Oblivion, the Trees returned to the studio and commenced work on a follow-up. Unfortunately, it didn’t come out to their satisfaction. “It was too soon, and none of us were ready to interact,” Lanegan told Rolling Stone. They decided instead to scrap the record and begin working on another one virtually from scratch. They also changed producers, moving from Don Fleming, who’d helmed Oblivion, to George Drakoulias, best known for his work with the Black Crowes and the Jayhawks. Keyboardist Benmont Tench, of Tom Petty’s band, was brought in to provide some flourishes on mellotron and other instruments, and a variety of exotic percussion was employed on what would become Dust, released in 1996. In the interim, Lanegan released a second solo album, and he and Martin worked with the Seattle supergroup Mad Season.
The deaths of Nirvana leader Kurt Cobain, Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff and Gits leader MiaZapata, among others, led Lanegan into detox; they also inspired much of the material on Dust, notably the song “Dying Days,” which features a solo by Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready. Yet despite such dark subject matter, the album rose above the angst-rock that had become the staple of “alternative” music in the preceding several years. “Unlike their gloomy Washington state peers,” noted USA Today, “The Trees create a kaleidoscopic sound that never descends into dark ‘n’ stark grunge. Ferocious and fanciful, the music reflects a restless energy.” BAM, meanwhile, declared, “Dust is a welcome rarity—aeon-temporary album that rewards repeated listens from beginning to end.” Pronounced Newsday, “Screaming Trees has developed, even above Soundgarden, into grunge rock’s most accomplished band.”
Screaming Trees appeared on the 1996 Lollapalooza tour, alongside longtime rock heroes the Ramones and metal superstars Metallica; they added a second guitarist, Josh Homme of Kyuss, to their touring lineup. “Playing with the Ramones is like a childhood dream come true,” Van noted in the band’s record company biography. “I told my dad we were playing with them on Lollapalooza. He said, ‘y’know, that’s all you cared about when you were 16 years old: Playing on the same bill as the Ramones.’ Now we’re doing that… and a whole lot more.” Though the Trees still haven’t become superstars, they’ve survived more than a decade of adversity, and managed to improve steadily. “This is not an easy band to be in,” Martin averred in Rolling Stone. “It’s like there’s thisfine 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.”
Other World. (EP), 1985 (cassette only); SST, 1988.
Clairvoyance, Velvetone, 1986.
Even If and Especially When, SST, 1987.
Invisible Lantern, SST, 1988.
Buzz Factory, SST, 1989.
Change Has Come (EP), Sub Pop, 1989.
Anthology, SST, 1991.
Uncle Anesthesia, Epic, 1991.
(Contributor) Singles (soundtrack), Epic, 1992.
Sweet Oblivion (includes “Nearly Lost You”), Epic, 1992.
Dust (includes “Dying Days”), Epic, 1996.
Mark Lanegan solo
The Winding Sheet, Sub Pop, 1989.
Whiskey for the Holy Ghost, Sub Pop, 1994.
With Mad Season
Above, Columbia, 1995.
Addicted to Noise, June 3, 1996.
BAM, July 12, 1996.
Guitar Player, February 1993.
I-Magazine, October 1996.
Musician, December 1992; March 1994; October 1996.
Newsday, August 18, 1996.
Rocket, July 24, 1996.
Rolling Stone, February 18, 1993; May 16, 1996; August 22, 1996.
Spin, March 1993; February 1994.
USA Today, July 19, 1996.
Village Voice, March 9, 1993.
Additional information was provided by Epic Records publicity materials, 1996.
"Screaming Trees." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 21, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/screaming-trees
"Screaming Trees." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved March 21, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/screaming-trees
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