Screaming Trees find themselves suddenly cool with Sweet Oblivion



By Steve Newton

A little while back, the Screaming Trees were musical guests on Late Night with David Letterman. Dressed in grubby alternative garb, the band raunched it up with its latest single, “Nearly Lost You”, and everything was fine. But Letterman, noting the wide girths of brothers Van and Gary Lee Conner, made sure the Trees were invited back out to sample the culinary works of the show’s celebrity cook. Next thing you knew, there was food flying every which way.

What’s with those Seattle bands? Can’t you take them anywhere?

“Well, it is a comedy show,” laughs Gary, the band’s rotund guitarist. “Actually, I was kinda scared about doing the show, at first. But when we got in there, it was a lot of fun.”

The Screaming Trees have made having fun one of their main priorities since the band played its first show, at a group home for the mentally handicapped in its home town of Ellensburg, Washington. The year was 1986, the same year the band’s debut cassette, Other Worlds, was released on K Records (it was re-released on vinyl a year later by the fabled SST label, which was responsible for early recordings by Hüsker Dü, Black Flag, and the Minutemen). The band released half a dozen other independent discs—including a seven-incher on Sub Pop—before signing to Epic Records and unleashing Uncle Anesthesia in ’91.

According to Conner, the so-called “Seattle Explosion” actually developed from a series of tiny little blasts by Pacific Northwest bands that had little to do with the heavily-hyped grunge that became the Emerald City’s trademark. He credits the small K Records label, run by Beat Happening band member Calvin Johnson, with laying the groundwork for the region’s recent success stories.

“You could definitely attribute a lot of the [Pacific Northwest] thing to K, because that was when a lot of different kids in Ellensburg and Eugene and Portland and Seattle and Aberdeen and Olympia suddenly began to feel like they were part of something, a make-your-own scene or whatever. Nirvana was part of that—they weren’t part of the Seattle thing at all, really; they were from the coast. That’s where the Melvins are from, too.”

It was inspiration from seminal Washington bands like the Melvins and Mother Love Bone that kept the Screaming Trees in the rock race, but not even the move to a major label could guarantee that they’d stay in it. After Uncle Anesthesia, original drummer Mark Pickerell threw in the sticks, and even with new slammer Barrett Martin in the fold, things were shaky for a while.

“After Uncle Anesthesia came out, the whole music climate was so different,” says Conner, “and it didn’t really seem like we’d have much of a chance to break into the mainstream. But between the time we finished touring for Uncle Anesthesia and the time that we went in to record [the new album] Sweet Oblivion, the whole music scene completely changed. We’d been doin’ the same thing for years, but suddenly it was cool, like the hip new thing.”

Things have never been better for the Screaming Trees than they are right now, and a tour with the immensely popular Alice in Chains—which plays to a sold-out 86 Street Music Hall next Friday (December 18)—won’t hurt them a bit, either. But seeing as the Trees have been plugging away longer than Alice, could there be some jealousy over who’s headlining and who’s warming up?

“Nah,” shrugs Conner, “we just got done headlining our own tour, so…I mean we’re more on the underground side of things, but some of their people like us, and some of the people who’ve never heard of Alice in Chains might come to see us and end up liking them. So that’s cool. That’s the whole idea of a tour.”

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