Stone Temple Pilots on critical breakthrough 'Tiny Music': 'People in this world catching on to what we did — that's pretty amazing'

“I don't think we ever made records for critics; that wasn't our whole point of doing what we were doing. We were trying to make the best music we could, make the best songs we could make. I think with the landing of Nirvana, there was no way around the whole Seattle thing. We were just excited about making a record. We didn't really know what was going to happen. It's pretty much out of your hands after you do that. You don't know who's going to buy it, who's going to like it, who's not going to like it.”

So says Stone Temple Pilots bassist Robert DeLeo — though he notes with a shrug that many nasty ‘90s journalists who once bashed the band have become revisionist music historians and changed their opinions. “Talking to some of those critics these days, they're like, ‘Um, sorry! Sorry!’”

Robert is sitting at Yahoo Entertainment with his fellow surviving STP bandmates, guitarist/brother Dean DeLeo and drummer Eric Kretz, discussing their discography — including their critical-breakthrough third album, 1996’s Tiny Music... Songs From the Vatican Gift Shop, which is being reissued this week as a 25th anniversary boxed set featuring outtakes and a previously unreleased live concert. And Dean admits, “There's something that doesn't feel quite right to sit here and talk about Scott. It saddens me that he's not able to be here and do it himself. … It's heartbreaking that he's not here to celebrate this.”

Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland, whose harrowing life story is now being made into a biopic, would no doubt be delighted to see Tiny Music’s legacy celebrated, especially considering that STP’s first two albums were so viciously disparaged by the music press back in the day. (It has even been speculated that the harsh reviews damaged Weiland’s self-esteem, leading him to self-medicate with the narcotics that eventually killed him in 2015.) However, there were many music critics that did get on board with STP, and stopped dismissing them as mere Pearl Jam copyists, with the release of Tiny Music — which branched out from the SoCal band’s trademark grunge into shoegaze, Beatlesque psychedelia, skinny-tie new wave, Paisley Underground, chamber pop, powerpop, and even bossa nova, and boasted some their all-time hookiest tunes.

Stone Temple Pilots in 1996. (Photo: John Eder)
Stone Temple Pilots in 1996. (Photo: John Eder)

“[Scott] went through a lot of phases, as all of us do as musicians. We all go through that, and that's how we learn,” says Robert of the singer’s evolution from chest-beating jock to Bowie-esque glam-rock bard. Dean additionally describes Weiland as “brilliant musically” and observes: “What's interesting is, if you look at Scott, his physical appearance from [STP’s debut album] Core to Tiny Music, I mean, it really looks like two different people.”

Robert remembers that when the band first met Weiland in the early ‘90s, “He was fresh out of college. He looked like he was the varsity guy on the football team, very healthy and fit.” Dean also recalls of those early days, “He was superhuman — whatever he did, whether it was skiing or tennis or basketball, he excelled. He was really, really talented in every sense of the word, his physicality and his strength. Things came very easy to him. I think it was the internal strife that he had that kind of added to what he became.”

“I think when we went in to do Core, he really was getting in touch with that internal strife, which is a Catch-22, because it ultimately leads a singer to a key that unlocks a door to many different things that make people go, ‘Wow, that's deep!’ — but ultimately, it leads to someone's demise,” says Robert. “It goes back to people like Jim Morrison, you know? I've talked with [the Doors’] Robby [Krieger] and John [Densmore] about things like that, and it's sad to see that someone ultimately goes to that place, somewhat not in control of the door they opened.”

Aside from the early negative reception from music journalists, Stone Temple Pilots had already experienced great highs in their career before Tiny Music, selling 8 million copies of Core alone. But that career was plagued by tragedy. Robert recalls Weiland’s much-publicized drug problems really starting up during a 1993 tour with the Butthole Surfers, and says now, as they prepared to do their third album, “I think resentment was growing since Purple,” the group’s sophomore LP. “There were some things there that Scott was, um, sampling and testing out. There was a conversation there, almost at the end of Purple, where we had a little conversation and went up into the room with [producer] Brendan [O’Brien] and said, ‘What are we going to do here?’ … Yeah, there was some things that came into that record that was the start of things that ultimately continued.” By the time STP finally began working on Tiny Music... Songs From the Vatican Gift Shop, “Things were getting bad,” says Eric.

Still, Kretz and the DeLeos have many fond memories of the Tiny Music era. It was certainly STP’s grandest and most ambitious album in many ways, which reflected the setting in which it was recorded. “We really thought we'd get ‘back to basics’ and really get back into our blues background, so we rented a 60,000-square-foot house [Westerly Ranch] on a hundred acres on the Santa Ynez Valley,” Dean quips sarcastically, remembering laying down tracks in a foyer that was “almost as big as a high school gymnasium.”

“It was all about cred, man, all about cred!” Robert laughs. “But it was something we always wanted to do. We always looked back at records like [Elton John’s] Goodbye Yellow Brick Road that were made in a house, all these people that made records in houses.” Kretz chuckles as he looks back on his decision to record his drum parts for “Big Bang Baby” on the Westerly estate’s front lawn (the sprinklers were pre-set to go off in an hour and the band members didn’t know how to turn them off, so that take had to be quick) and for “Lady Picture Show” in the attic’s cedar-lined closet (“good in theory — until I got up there and started sweating at 110 degrees”).

The guys also crack up remembering making their genius, deliberately low-budget “Big Bang Baby” video, which was inspired by early-MTV ‘80s clips like Toni Basil’s “Mickey” and David Bowie’s “DJ” and was an act of rebellion against the 1990s’ “million-dollar” videos packed with the usual “yachts and helicopter shots.” Instead, they had “this guy with a gorilla mask on hitting somebody over the head with a bottle,” recalls Robert. Dean laughs, “I forgot that was in there! I just saw that video recently and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh!’ It was just so fun.”

And the STP guys also chuckle remembering the one Tiny Music cut that was a solo Weiland composition, “Tumble in the Rough,” because the process was so frustrating yet amusing. “Yeah, [Scott] didn't really know how to play an instrument, but he would definitely get it across vocally. He did pick up a guitar for ‘Tumble in the Rough’ and he drove us crazy with that, because every time we were around him, he played two chords and he'd go, ‘Duh duh duh duh duh! Man, I got this idea! Nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh!’ And he would do that over and over. So, we just musically made a song out of that. But that's what he had.

“But you gotta look at that energy that he had doing that; there was a raw, like, ‘I'm just learning to play guitar!’ kind of energy,” Robert continues. “And there's so many aspects that Scott didn't know about musically, which made that interesting. You know, if he was a guy who knew as much as we did musically, it would have been a different band. But he came from a different place, and to be able to sit there and play two bar chords and go, ‘Check this out…’”

“…with sheer conviction,” marvels Dean wistfully, adding: “To be affiliated with somebody of that musical magnitude and to be so fulfilled by it, and to watch this person just go into this deep hole of demise was just f***ing awful. It was just awful, man.”

On that note, Robert more grimly recalls that even though they’d booked Westerly Ranch as their Tiny Music home base in the hopes of keeping Weiland in line and on schedule — “I think at that point, trying to keep the attention in a studio, and having to showup to a studio, was kind of a challenge” — the sessions were fraught with tension. “There were times when we did go upstairs, and you had to walk past Scott's bedroom first when you went up, and we just were checking in on him to see if he was alive. Literally,” he confesses.

Yet, despite all the difficulties surrounding its creation, the more mature and adventurous Tiny Music ultimately shifted the press’s perception and the career trajectory for STP, and the band sporadically recorded three more critically lauded albums with Weiland — No. 4, Shangri-La Dee Da, and Stone Temple Pilots — before finally parting ways with the singer in 2013, two years before he died from an overdose at age 48. STP’s survivors admit that Weiland’s death did not come as a shock. “There was something inside of him that he was always searching for. He was always searching for something that wasn't really him. I don't think he was generally happy with himself,” says Robert.

Stone Temple Pilots in 1996. (Photo: John Eder)
Stone Temple Pilots in 1996. (Photo: John Eder)

“It was evident — this is so sad to say — where Scott was going,” Dean says, choking up. “He had a new ‘posse’ of people around him. They just kept feeding him all that he was, and they left out one vital part of that — and that was his health and his wellbeing. Because everybody just wanted money. I think Robert and Eric and I exhausted ourselves just trying to help him and just to be a friend. He wanted no part of that.”

But while STP have since soldiered on and released two studio albums with their new permanent, full-time frontman, former X Factor contestant Jeff Gutt, Weiland is never far from the guys’ minds. “Not a day doesn't go by that we all think about Scott. Every day,” says Dean, confessing that getting in the car and randomly hearing Weiland’s voice on the radio will trigger memories. Robert says even something as simple as seeing his own car’s dashboard compass pointing to “SW” feels “poignant” to him.

“I mean, we were brothers for half our lives and shared a lot of intimate, creative things with each other. It's a part of our being. It's part of my makeup as a person, to be able to share a dream with someone and actually follow through,” Robert muses, proud of the band’s legacy. “Actually, the people in this world catching on to what we did — that’s pretty amazing, if you look back.”

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