Keep Your Hand On The Gospel Plow: 25 Years of Dust

The final Screaming Trees studio LP was the culmination of what the band had been yearning for since their humble beginnings

Screaming Trees 1996 (Art: Ron Hart)

1996 was a hell of a year for the Grunge Class of ’91. 

Pearl Jam found themselves confounding their fanbase with the schizophrenic and experimental No Code; Soundgarden felt adrift trying to outdo the commercial and creative juggernaut that was Superunknown by releasing Down On The Upside, an album that sounded like a less-produced version of that previous watershed. And poor Alice In Chains couldn’t keep Layne Staley sober enough to tour more than a couple dates in support of their self-titled 1995 effort. The flannel was finally fraying.  

One Seattle band, however, bucked the trend and released what would be their greatest (if sadly final) album. Screaming Trees’ Dust was the culmination of what the band had been yearning for since their humble beginnings a decade earlier. This was big, burly, Classic Rock™ that melded their earlier psychedelic leanings with the sturdy classicism of 70s rock giants. Songs like opener “Halo of Ashes” utilize sitar to buttress the galloping momentum of drummer Barrett Martin’s rhythms. Guitarist Gary Lee Conner, always a fan of tone and crunch, really gets to shine throughout – his guitars sound mammoth and his solos are searing. And Mark Lanegan, one of the best vocalists of his generation, has never sounded stronger.  The songs were the most straightforward and melodic of their career. Twenty-five years later, the single “All I Know” should be all over classic rock radio. So, what the hell happened?  

A confluence of things prevented Dust from being spoken of in the same breath as other Seattle classics. “Nearly Lost You”, their 1991 single from the Singles soundtrack (and also shrewdly included on the following year’s Sweet Oblivion) stuck a toe in the door of commercial radio. A failed attempt at a follow-up album in 1993 sent them back to the drawing board. By the time Dust was released, it was simply too late for meat and potatoes rock like the Trees’ to chart. A look at the top Billboard album sales show that commercial tastes had moved on – only one rock album (the Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie & The Infinite Sadness) was in the year end Top 10, and it had been released in 1995!  Pop and R&B had reclaimed a foothold and the waning days of the “alternative revolution” meant that an act like Screaming Trees barely had a chance. This was an album aimed squarely at the audience of 1993 and that audience was dwindling.  

Screaming Trees Dust, Epic Records 1996

Even though the commercial prospects were dim, the album survives as one of the most enjoyable mid-90s alt-rock albums. It’s a celebration of rock writ large, an oasis of chunky guitar chords and acoustic interludes in the desert of easy listening pablum and pop country that dominated 1996. 

In honor of its 25th anniversary, guitarist Gary Lee Conner spoke to Rock and Roll Globe about the making of the album and the conflicts that brought about its creation.

My understanding is that what became Dust was recorded twice – what happened in those initial sessions that made you abort that attempt?   Were the songs written but you simply couldn’t nail the performances that you wanted?  Or did those sessions send you back to the drawing board for new material? 

We first started working on the follow up to Sweet Oblivion in the fall of 1993. We had been on tour for most of the past year and had not been working on new material. Usually I would have a backlog of songs ready for the next album but we were pretty much starting from scratch. We wanted to get another album out quickly so we started writing some new songs. Lanegan was pretty anti-social for various reasons at the time and didn’t seem to want to get involved in the writing process so it was left to me and Van. We started recording in Seattle in December but partly because of our rush and partly because of Mark’s disinterest, things didn’t seem to go right. There were about seven finished songs for those sessions. I believe I have posted five of them on my YouTube channel if people wish to hear them. 

You ended up recording this album with George Drakoulias, best known for producing bands like the Black Crowes, the Cult, and the Jayhawks.  Dust definitely has the feel of a “classic rock” record in the best possible way – the guitars in particular are really beefy and you get some amazing tones. How did he help shape the record?

Draukoulias brought in a lot of different amps and guitars for me to use, which helped very much with the sound. He also gave us help with the song arrangements and brought in some other great players like Benmont Tench on keyboards. That really helped take the album to a higher level.

You had experienced a modicum of success with 1992’s Sweet Oblivion.  Was there pressure from Epic Records to deliver something more commercial with the follow-up? 

Oddly, we did not get too much pressure from Epic. Our main pressure was from our new managers, Q Prime, who had big acts like Def Leppard and were using us an effort to break into the new ‘Grunge’ rock thing. We had to run all our songs by them and they didn’t seem to like any of them. I don’t think they had a clue about what we were doing musically. It was a huge mistake to have them as our manager, but we always just took what came along and we ended up with them. 

Is Dust the first album that you all shared writing credits?  Previously you had written the bulk of the music and Lanegan most of the lyrics.  

Except for a handful of songs (especially those from Sweet Oblivion), I would write them then give them to Lanegan and he would change whatever lyrics he wanted to. Sometimes one word sometimes half the song. In the early days we just credited the whole band to be democratic. When we got to the major label world and also after (first drummer) Mark Pickerel quit the band we had to figure out how to credit everything. On Sweet Oblivion, Lanegan probably wrote half to two-thirds of the lyrics and we all got together at one time to write stuff. On Dust, however it was all me and Van. Mark’s writing contribution to Dust was very minimal, but he was having a lot of personal problems at the time. (Ed. Note: Lanegan has a very different view of this time and his recollections can be found in his recently released memoir, the harrowing and excellent Sing Backwards And Weep).

Lanegan’s recent memoir paints a fairly negative portrait of dysfunction within the band.  What was the dynamic like at the time?  Did it impact the writing or recording of the record? 

Between winter of ‘94 and fall of ’95, Van and I were doing nothing but writing songs. I had just gotten married, and my wife lived in NY but I stayed in Seattle those years to write the album. The vibe was like this: I would get up in the morning and start working on a new song; Lanegan would call at some point and say, “What are you doing?”, meaning “you better be working on a new song.” I would try to finish something no matter how uninspired it was, and then late at night I would have to drive across town to bring Mark a tape. He would come out of his door and take the tape and that’s all I would see of him. Then the next day when he called, if he didn’t like the song he wouldn’t even mention it. Once in a while he would tell me he really liked something, but not too often. Van was working on stuff too, but he lived a ways north of Seattle. He would occasionally come to town and we would work together, but rarely would Lanegan be involved. It really sucked because the band and writing songs had become a job that we hated. Finally, after we had songs that we (and Q Prime) liked, we got to go to Los Angeles to record in the fall of 1995. At that time for some reason everyone was getting along pretty well, possibly because it was such a relief to finally be recording the album. When the album was finally done, we were all really happy with it, which had a special meaning considering it was so hard to get to the finish line.

 

VIDEO: Screaming Trees “All I Know”

When you toured the record you brought on Josh Homme (ex-Kyuss, QOTSA) on second guitar. How did that come about?  

We had been thinking about adding another guitarist live and maybe a keyboardist (that never happened) and Van knew Josh, who was up in Seattle at the time. He played with us that year and for all the shows we did up until we broke up in 2000. We considered him a member of the band for the time he was with us and he recorded with us when he could (a couple tracks on the Last Word album have him on them.)

In the years since Screaming Trees disbanded, you’ve been recording and releasing music that harkens back to the more psychedelic and garage-y sounds of the early Trees records and of your influences.  Do you find satisfaction in being your own boss?  You’ve been pretty prolific; where would you recommend that a Screaming Trees fan start with your solo material?

I spent the first ten years after the band was over not doing much, but then technology and the internet caught up with the way I like to do things – which is by myself and at home. In 2008 I got a new computer and a DAW(digital audio workstation) and realized that I could put stuff out by myself on the internet and went from there. I love writing songs and my main influence has always been in the realm of psychedelia. I try to make music that I would listen to myself if I was not me. All my stuff is on Bandcamp. There are several albums of new material that I have done since 2010 including two Revelations In Fuzz albums and The Opposite of Christmas that I released in 2020. There are also two extensive albums of demos from the 80s, 90s, and 2000s of songs that were never used for the Screaming Trees. I made every one unlimited free streaming on Bandcamp so go check it out at my page.  

 

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