Indie

Why Stone Temple Pilots’ ‘Tiny Music … ‘ Is An Unsung ’90s Classic

In 2015, GQ published a tribute to Stone Temple Pilots singer Scott Weiland entitled “Rock’s Greatest Poseur.” The headline was a winking reference to STP’s ignoble status in the 1990s as the ultimate grunge rip-off, a band destined to be compared unfavorably to Pearl Jam and Nirvana, apparently, forever.

But “poseur” had originally been applied to STP for reasons that went deeper than allegations of mere sonic hackery. For music writers in the alternative era, Weiland and his bandmates were viewed as emotional charlatans, a group of wanton opportunists who, in the parlance of rock’s most cred-conscious era, “didn’t really mean it.”

“They remain a national joke for their shameless impersonations of Pearl Jam and Nir­vana,” venerable rock critic Greil Marcus observed in 1994. “With Kurt Cobain dead, to hear his misery and his intelligence transformed so blithely into someone else’s kitsch commodity is sickening.”

I’m leaving out a crucial bit of context for the GQ article: It was published right after Scott Weiland died. Just the night before, he was found laying in a fetal position inside of a tour bus parked near the Mall Of America outside of Minneapolis. He was 48 years old.

At the time of his death, Weiland’s life had all but fallen apart. Two years prior, he was fired from Stone Temple Pilots, which occurred after he had already alienated his former bandmates in his other superstar rock group, Velvet Revolver. He was estranged from his two children, nearly broke, and reeling from both of his parents having been recently diagnosed with cancer. Professionally, he was embarrassed by a lethargic, seemingly drugged-out performance of the STP hit “Vasoline” by his current band The Wildabouts that went viral.

The local county Medical Examiner’s Office later ruled that Weiland died of mixed-drug toxicity from cocaine, ethanol, and a form of MDA. He also had cardiovascular disease, asthma, atherosclerosis, and multiple-substance dependence, plus a medicine-cabinet’s worth of prescriptions in his system: Lunesta, Klonopin, Viagra, Dalmane, Buprenex, and Geodon. It was the last stop on a decades-long journey into the abyss that began around the time that he was accused of taking someone else’s authentic expression of pain and turning into a “kitsch commodity.”

The GQ article attempted to turn the meaning of “poseur” on its head, praising Weiland for his ability to move between many different styles of music. But the sting of that word nevertheless remained. The guy dies alone on a tour bus, possibly the worst and loneliest death imaginable for a musician, and he still gets called a poseur? It hardly seemed fair, especially given how “poseur” is now viewed as a term best left behind in overly judgmental ’90s music culture. At the very least, his harshest critics should have conceded that Scott Weiland was, in fact, not faking his misery after all.

I’ll go one step further: The idea that Stone Temple Pilots is worthy only of backhanded praise — they were good at being phony! — is pure bull. Their first four albums have more than stood up as some of the most tuneful and compulsively playable rock music of the ’90s. That includes what I would argue is their very greatest LP, Tiny Music … Songs From The Vatican Gift Shop, which turns 25 this week.

Let me point out something else that ought to be obvious by now: Stone Temple Pilots don’t actually sound all that much like Pearl Jam, Nirvana, or any other grunge band. It’s true that all of these groups drew from the same well of ’70s arena-rock influences, but STP had a distinct spin on this source material that diverged significantly from their peers, especially by the time of Tiny Music, their third album. In retrospect, it seems clear that the “rip-off” libel stemmed almost entirely from the video for “Plush,” from their 1992 debut Core, in which Weiland’s contorts his handsome cheekbones to appear extra Vedder-like. (Perhaps not coincidentally, it was directed by Josh Taft, who also helmed the first two Pearl Jam videos, “Alive” and “Evenflow.”)

Musically, the song’s lumbering mid-tempo power balladry and Weiland’s growly yarl evoke Ten, though that might have been unintentional. (“Plush” was written in 1989, two years before the release of Pearl Jam’s debut.) But anyone actually listening to STP after “Plush” — as opposed to repeating lazy music-critic groupthink — could hear how quickly they moved on from their biggest hit on subsequent albums like 1994’s Purple and Tiny Music.

Whereas many platinum-selling alt-rock acts reacted to fame by defensively retreating to the sanctity of “credible” punk and indie influences and signifiers, STP’s music only got grander and catchier. By the time they made Tiny Music, they were a melodic power-pop band in hard-rock clothing, skillfully aping glitter-era Bowie, The Beatles’ psychedelic period, and the cheesy ’70s soft-rock acts (like The Carpenters and John Denver) that Weiland had loved since childhood.

Of course, Stone Temple Pilots were hardly a one-man band in the ’90s. The band’s musical engine was Dean and Robert DeLeo, the guitar-and-bass brother duo from New Jersey who grew up playing Rush and King Crimson covers before meeting Scott Weiland in the late ’80s.

I interviewed the DeLeo brothers in 2016, just a few months after Weiland died. Their emotions were still raw and complicated; while they could be complimentary when speaking about their former singer, they were also still angry about how he had repeatedly derailed their band, starting with his arrest for buying crack cocaine in 1995.

“I spent half my life just full of false hope, with every intention to try to help him and try to get him together, and it led to what we’re talking about right now,” Dean told me, in a tone that was both rueful and resentful. “When I was a kid, the term ‘rock star’ was intriguing to me, it meant something. As I got older and I was in business with somebody who abused that term, I found it more and more repulsive, because I don’t know any other line of work where you could just simply show up late, or not show up at all, or show up really out of it, and it’s glorified. I think it sucks. It sucked for me, it sucked for Robert and Eric.”

At that time, STP was doing a cattle call for a new lead singer. After firing Weiland in 2013 — the final straw was when he attempted to book a greatest hits tour without the rest of the band — they worked briefly with Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington, releasing an EP, High Rise, that year. (Just over a year after I spoke with the DeLeos, Bennington took his own life.) But I was mostly interested in talking to them about Tiny Music, which I consider to be one of the great alt-rock albums from the genre’s “death throes” period.

In 1996, there was a series of big-ticket releases from bands who only two or three years earlier were on top of the rock world. Along with Tiny Music there was Pearl Jam’s No Code, R.E.M.’s New Adventures In Hi-Fi, Soundgarden’s Down On The Upside, Counting Crows’ Recovering The Satellites, and Weezer’s Pinkerton. While all of these albums did relatively well — in some cases spinning off hit singles and selling millions — they were perceived as commercial letdowns in the midst of a music scene on the verge of being taken over by nu-metal and teen pop acts. These bands, in other words, seemed old, mere leftovers from a period that already appeared distant.

That letdown feeling is actually embedded in the albums themselves. In each case, the bands sound exhausted and defeated, though because they leaned into that feeling these records have a kind of “last stand” power to them. (For the record, I love each and every one of them.) But Tiny Music is the wittiest and most fun album out of this bunch.

With the industry reckoning of Napster still several years away, STP was afforded the full luxury rock-star treatment while making Tiny Music, decamping to a massive ranch house situated on 100 acres in California’s Santa Ynez Valley. (“We were getting back to our roots,” Robert DeLeo noted sardonically.) They were inspired by expansive ’70s classic-rock albums famously recorded inside mansions, like Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. And you can hear that space on the album, particularly on rockers like the Zeppelinesque “Trippin’ On A Hole In A Paper Heart” and the blissfully glammy “Big Bang Baby,” which was recorded on the front lawn of the property while horses stared off in the distance. (“There was a horse vibe” to the album, Dean DeLeo recalled.)

While the DeLeos flexed their musical muscles on Tiny Music, even delving credibly into psych-tinged jazz rock on “And So I Know,” Weiland put his musical stamp on the record by contributing the primal two-chord riff to “Tumble In The Rough,” making the most of his near non-existent guitar chops.

It’s as a lyricist and vocalist, however, that he made his most significant mark. On Tiny Music, Weiland typically sticks to evocative but largely nonsensical rock-dude patter. (“I’m lookin’ for a new stimulation / quite bored of those inflatable ties.”) But the lines that manage to cut hardest through the wall of heavy-riffing guitars, insistently melodic baselines, and Eric Kretz’s Bonham-esque drums tend to comment on alt-rock’s rapidly fading commercial and critical fortunes: “I’m lookin’ for a new rock sensation” (from “Tumble In The Rough”); “Sell your soul and sign an autograph” (“Big Bang Baby”); “But I’m not dead and I’m not for sale” (“Trippin’ On A Hole In A Paper Heart”); “Just because you’re so cliched / it don’t mean you won’t get paid” (“Ride The Cliché”).

The most uncomfortable listen in this regard is the dreamy ballad “Adhesive,” in which Weiland muses about his own impending irrelevance with detached cynicism over crunchy, slow-motion power chords: “Sell more records if I’m dead / Purple flowers once again / Hope it’s sooner hope it’s near corporate records’ fiscal year.”

Those lines are as scathing about the failed promise of “alternative” culture marketed and funded by mainstream record companies as anything on In Utero. But the metatextual qualities of Tiny Music — it’s a late-stage ’90s alt-rock record that comments on late-stage ’90s alt-rock — are easy to overlook given how, well, plush this record sounds. It was STP’s curse to make smart rock music that sounded dumb — in the best possible sense — which supposedly smart critics too often took at face value. Looking back, it makes you wonder who the actual poseurs were after all.

Stone Temple Pilots is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.

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