We’re incredibly honoured and proud to have an interview with GARY LEE CONNER of the SCREAMING TREES!
The Screaming Trees are legendary. If you had to name all the great bands of 90s era rock the Screaming Trees would be firmly placed alongside Nirvana, Pearl Jam, The Smashing Pumpkins, Rage Against The Machine, Janes Addiction, Sound Garden, Alice In Chains, The Melvins, Mudhoney, Stone Temple Pilots and Sonic Youth. That’s some good company to be in and the Screaming Trees were as raw, exciting and musically brilliant as all those bands. Often referred to as the greatest group never to hit mega stardom, they leave behind a legacy of stunningly good albums and a bonafide classic in the form of ‘Sweet Oblivion’.
After the band split in 2000 singer Mark Lanegan went on to release records with Mad Season (Lanegan featured on the original 1995 record and went on to complete Layne Staley’s unrecorded songs for the band’s 2013 Deluxe Edition), Isobel Campbell and Queens of the Stoneage as well as achieving success as a solo artist, whilst guitarist and chief songwriter Gary Lee Conner exiled himself from the music industry for 10 years. The internet is a beautiful thing and with artists no longer requiring a record deal to get their music heard, Gary jumped back into the music scene self-releasing his own albums.
With Gary Lee Conner’s new release ‘Ether Trippers’ around the corner, we’re thrilled to present an interview with the great man. Honest and insightful, Gary answers the questions most fans are desperate to know, such as why the Screaming Trees never hit the heights they deserved to, why the band split up and if they’re planing on reforming. We also find out more about Gary’s solo work and what brought him back to music.
VELVET SHEEP: Going back to your early days in the Screaming Trees, how did you break out of your home town?
GARY LEE CONNER: There was a studio in town that was starting a record label (Veletone, which our first album Clairvoyance came out on). Steve Fisk (producer/engineer for Nirvana, Soundgarden, The Wedding Present) was working there and had a few connections to people like Calvin Johnson in Olympia (K cassettes and Beat Happening) and he also knew a few people in LA who worked for SST Records. After we put out our first cassette ‘Other Worlds’ and our first album ‘Clairvoyance’ we played a couple of shows in Olympia and then did a small west coast tour. We somehow got Greg Ginn from SST interested and after that we could just make as many records as we wanted and with the help of their touring agency Global were able to do national tours two or three times a year.
VS: What were your early gigs like and at what point did you realise you were onto something special?
GLC: The first shows we played were both in Olympia in the middle of 1986. We right away had people into us who had never heard of us before which was quite encouraging. The second the show we played there was opening for the Wipers, so there were a lot of people there. Over the first couple of years the Olympia, K cassettes link helped us out quite a bit.
VS: Listening to your solo work it’s seems the band’s sound very much came from you, is this an accurate analysis?
GLC: Most of our songs started out with me, although there are some exceptions. ‘Sweet Oblivion’ for instance was written much more as a collaboration than any other album. I usually would write stuff on my 4 track, play it for Mark and then he would work out the lyrics, change from none to nearly all depending on song.
VS: Your album ‘The Purple Outside (Mystery Lane)’ is excellent, I totally love it and it sounds like a lost Screaming Trees album. Recorded in 1989 how come it wasn’t a Screaming Trees record?
GLC: At the time Van, Mark and I had all decided to do solo albums on SST, Van’s ‘Solomon Grundy’ and mine ended up on the subsidiary New Alliance, and Mark’s on Sub Pop of course. Many of the songs were recorded by the Trees in 1988 for the original version of ‘Buzz Factory’ that was aborted. Sadly those recordings are lost.
VS: That is sad, I’d love to have heard those. The drummer on that album was your brother Patrick Conner, how come he wasn’t in the Screaming Trees? Too many brothers?
GLC: When we started the band he was only about eight or nine years old, so I suppose that’s why. He’s played guitar and sang in Van’s band Valis.
VS: That would be it, unless you’re Hanson! Do you still play with your bother Van?
GLC: Not at the moment but I may in the future. I’m stuck in Texas right now, but I’m planning on going back to Seattle in the next couple of years and do some recording with him. Maybe for my next album.
VS: That would be amazing! Brother’s in bands famously end up with a lot of friction – it’s often what makes a band so special but also drives them apart. Do you empathise with this?
GLC: Yes, to some extent we had problems with Van and myself. I was several years older but Van always had kind of given me crap before the band, so naturally that extended to the time in the Screaming Trees. There was nothing insane but we did have one or two fights on stage.
VS: Do you feel being in a hugely successful band with him for so long brought you closer together?
GLC: If we had not been in the band we most likely would have had separate lives. Being in a band and touring is about as close as you can get. Often too close. So we were certainly closer that we would have been otherwise.
VS: Did having ‘Nearly Lost You’ on the Singles soundtrack help you cross over to a more mainstream audience?
GLC: Yes. I’m not quite sure why. Van came up with that song when we were working on ‘Sweet Oblivion’ and it seemed like it would be a good single, so we just kept playing it a bunch of different ways till it came out the way it is now. At the time MTV helped quite a bit too. Of course Nirvana getting big right a that time did not hurt either.
VS: The Screaming Trees have often been referred to as the greatest band to never reach mega stardom. Why do you think this was?
GLC: Part of the problem was trying to follow up ‘Sweet Oblivion’. We suddenly were forced into a situation where writing songs was a job and not really fun at all. It took us four years after that album to come out with ‘Dust’. If we would have done something earlier maybe things would have turned out differently, but you never know. There were a lot of personal problems during that time 93, 94, 95, that made things almost impossible at times.
VS: You’re known as one of the ‘Godfathers of Grunge’ is this a title you wear with pride?
GLC: We always thought Grunge was a stupid label, but people need labels on things. The original bands in the Seattle scene like Mudhoney, Tad, Nirvana, and the others in the late 90’s are still some of my favorite all time music. So being called that doesn’t seem like a bad thing.
VS: For me the Screaming Trees has that rare thing where everything in the band works. You looked cool, the music was excellent and there was that angst that drives it all. What did it feel like from within the band?
GLC: I think it felt that way because we did exactly what we wanted to and were not influenced by any thing other than the music we listened to. Coming from a small town like Ellensburg, we were not even part of a music scene, so we didn’t think we should sound like other bands in that scene.
VS: Your thrashing about on the guitar is legendary. Did you ever feel the need to provide the excitement in the band, or did it just come naturally?
GLC: The first show we did it Olympia in 1986 I did some of that stuff and people liked it so I kept it up. Some times in later years however, it was almost like I had to jump and roll around and it became a bit of a burden. The main reason it seems I went nuts though was just being into the music and playing. You can’t just pretend to do that stuff or looks fake.
VS: I guess it’s like the Who smashing up their instruments. On to what might be a difficult question, why did the Screaming Trees split up?
GLC: We got out of our Epic contract and were trying to find a better deal but we never really got any offers. I think part of the reason was the lengthy time between ‘Sweet Oblivion’ and ‘Dust’. Also Van and I were married and had kids and everyone was living all over the country so it was really hard to keep going.
VS: I have to ask this, will we ever see the Screaming Trees reform?
GLC: I really hope not. There have been one or two discussions over the years about it but I don’t think It will ever happen. I really dislike reunions, I’d much rather remember bands the way they were.
VS: Personally I’d love to hear new music from the band but I totally respect where you’re coming from. You took a break from music for 10 years, why the long gap?
GLC: I was doing a bit of writing but I didn’t have a record label, or much of a way to record and release stuff. Computer technology and the internet have come to the rescue.
VS: What brought you back to music?
GLC: Mainly the fun and satisfaction of writing songs and having people hear them.
VS: What’s the best thing about being a solo artist?
GLC: Not having to deal with other people. But on the other hand that’s one of the good things about being in a band.
VS: Tell us about your new album ‘Ether Trippers’?
GLC: The new album has a bit of a progressive rock feel. I had been listening to a lot of Yes, Genesis, Van Der Graf Generator and the like while I was writing it. I recorded it all myself but was able to get Jack Endino (Engineer for Soundgarden and Nirvana) to mix it. I don’t have a release date but hopefully it wont be more than a few weeks till it’s out, vinyl too.
VS: Will you be touring ‘Ether Trippers’ and if so will we get to see you in the UK?
GLC: Not this year, but I may be doing some shows in 2017. I’ll have to wait and see.
Well if you do play the UK we’re there!
Thanks again Gary, your music is truly inspirational. We’re genuine fans of your work and really appreciate you taking the time to do this interview.
Check out Gary Lee Conner’s ‘Song for Ewe‘ and coming soon we have the privilege of featuring his ‘Lucky 7’.