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Agony and ecstasy: How Stone Temple Pilots overcame heartbreak to make Tiny Music

Stone Temple Pilots in 1996
Stone Temple Pilots in 1996 (Image credit: John_Eder)

Even now, many years later, Dean DeLeo occasionally makes the drive out to the Santa Ynez Valley in California. With his kids on the back seat, the 59-year-old guitarist threads his way along familiar roads to the sprawling Westerly Ranch estate, where in the late days of 1995 the original line-up of Stone Temple Pilots recorded Tiny Music… Songs From The Vatican Gift Shop, the album that confirmed their greatness – and their deep-seated issues. 

“I’ve parked at the driveway of the house where we made Tiny Music,” reflects DeLeo. “From time to time I’ll go to the beautiful town of Santa Ynez nearby, to this restaurant called Red Barn, where we used to get a steak at night, talk about the album artwork or the recordings we’d made that day.” 

He takes a breath… “It’s joyous. But it’s also deeply saddening, because the guy’s gone, y’know? The guy is gone. So it’s very melancholic. It’s these amazing memories of a time in all of our lives that was wonderful. But then there’s that other side of it, where it’s like, he’s not here any more.” 

The ‘guy’ in question is of course STP’s original frontman the late Scott Weiland, six years gone from this world in December. Few doubt that the ringmaster of alt.rock was a truly great songwriter and performer. Equally, though, nobody denies that Weiland also had that insidious, indefinable something inside of him. 

“Some people never try drugs, others can try them and stop,” says drummer Eric Kretz. “And some, for whatever reason, are hooked and ruin their lives.”

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At the time of Tiny Music… Songs From The Vatican Gift Shop, Weiland could be either side of the coin, depending on the day. In April 1995 the recently married singer told Spin magazine that “drugs fuck things up… I’m trying to make the best out of the time that I do have right now”. 

Weeks later, in May, he was arrested for possession of cocaine and heroin. He escaped lightly, with just a year’s probation. In June, in a Rolling Stone interview, he was repentant: “I’m going to do something about it before it kills me or fucks up everything in my life.” 

It was this unsettling stop/start pattern that bled into the sessions for Tiny Music. DeLeo doesn’t want to talk about the lows. Before our interview, we are asked by management not to push for the gory details of Weiland’s addictions. And to hear the guitarist’s rose-tinted account of making Tiny Music, you might imagine these sessions as a blissful summer camp without a cloud in the sky. 

It falls to Kretz to give the full picture, to explain the heartbreak and frustration when what he calls the singer’s “demon” took charge. But Kretz too is at pains to point out that when the days at Westerly Ranch were good, they were some of the band’s happiest times. 

“Recording and living together in a house just lent itself to a more playful atmosphere,” he says. “Y’know, play tennis, drink margaritas, ‘I just had an idea, let’s go jam…’”

Ideas were the currency of Tiny Music. Like most bands clumped under the ‘grunge’ banner, by late ’95 Stone Temple Pilots were sick of their perception. 

Pearl Jam had the same problem at first, being compared as a cheap Nirvana or a fake alternative band,” Weiland said in that same Spin interview, “which is ridiculous in the first place.” 

But while STP’s 1992’s debut album Core and its ’94 follow-up Purple had at least partially invited the ‘grunge’ tag, this third album threw sub-genres at the wall. With all four members on the writing credits, to revisit Tiny Music is to hear everything from Beatles-esque jangle (Lady Picture Show) to Django Reinhardt gypsy jazz (Daisy). 

“It was the full spectrum,” says DeLeo. “I don’t know about my favourite guitar riffs on that album, but I do like the trumpet solo on Adhesive.” 

“We just knew we didn’t want Tiny Music to be similar to Core or Purple,” says Kretz. “We weren’t afraid of having some camp, like Art School Girl. Or with Trippin’ On A Hole In A Paper Heart, that one came because I was a big fan of David Garibaldi’s drumming in Tower Of Power, along with some Steely Dan guitar chords off of Peg or something. 

"Big Bang Baby has the beat and glitter of seventies glam-rock stuff like Sweet. Nobody was tapping into that then. But when that stuff would come in the roller-rink when you’re at junior high looking at the girls, that’s rock’n’roll to me, y’know?”

When it came to recording, the band were outgrowing the studio floor and control room. 

“For Lady Picture Show,” says Kretz, “there was a big closet in a master bedroom, so I went in there to record the drums. But there was no air conditioning and, my god, it must have been 110 degrees. I was down to my underwear, towels underneath the drum stool, because I was dripping with sweat. With Big Bang Baby, we ended up setting up on the front lawn.” 

Both Kretz and DeLeo agree that Weiland’s performances back then were astonishing to witness. 

“His voice changed drastically between Core and Tiny Music,” says DeLeo. “He was a true singer, able to capture half-step inflections.” 

“Man, I still remember hearing Scott do that scream thing at the end of Big Bang Baby in my headphones,” says Kretz. “And the lyrics he put down for Trippin’ On A Hole are just so angry. Y’know, ‘I’m not dead/I’m not for sale’. Fuck, man. We were having problems with the management at the time, and it’s like he’s letting you know. The only similar song I can think of is [Queen’s] Death On Two Legs, with Freddie just throwing it out there. The vitriol is amazing.” 

Such moments of intensity were offset by an after-hours levity that we don’t tend to associate with Weiland, with his spiky interview persona and serpentine stare. 

“We invented a game called Run Bitch,” Kretz says, laughing. “It was on the tennis court. Basically, you just try to whack the other person as hard as you can with a hundred-mile-an-hour tennis ball in the rib cage. Throw that in with some margaritas and I think we have a dysfunctional Olympic sport there.”

At times like those, you can believe DeLeo’s assessment that the sessions were “too much of a paradise to feel anything other than joy and laughter”. But the pendulum would swing suddenly. If the hope was that recording outside of the big city would cut off Weiland’s supply, Kretz says it was naïve. 

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Scott would be sober for a while and he’d be the most beautiful person again, like, laughing and witty and enjoyable to be around. And then the demon would come back and it’d be like: ‘Oh shit, here we go’. Sunglasses on, day and night. And you’d just kinda know. 

“It definitely put the gloom and the ugliness in there,” Kretz continues. “That record was what we were going through: the good, the bad and the ugly. Because Scott was deep in his throes at that point. He’d disappear for a few days at a time and come back just looking like shit. He hadn’t slept. He stank. You want to help, but he doesn’t want your help. It was heartbreaking.”

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Against the circumstances, Tiny Music clung to the rails. The album’s release in March 1996 was preceded by the single Big Bang Baby, complete with a video with rock-bottom production values that were intentionally risible. 

“This was at a time when Guns N’ Roses were doing one-and-a-half-million-dollar videos, with the helicopter shots and the whole thing,” Kretz reminds us. “So we were like: ‘Let’s make a video for ten thousand dollars.’” 

While Tiny Music received only so-so reviews at the time – its improving critical status underlined by the release of a Super Deluxe Edition earlier in July – the album’s breadth didn’t deter the fans, who sent it to No.4 on the Billboard chart. 

Once Weiland had completed that summer’s court-ordered program at the Impact Alcohol and Drug Treatment Center in Pasadena, the most illustrious venues of the band’s career awaited. 

“We were at our height,” says Kretz. “We sold out Madison Square Garden in ten minutes. We were selling out all these beautiful venues across the country, and Scott’s performances were incredible, especially when he was in a great mood. He would be one of the greatest showmen out there.”

Today, DeLeo claims not to remember the tour being struck off for Weiland to attend rehab, although the guitarist was more forthcoming in a Rolling Stone interview at the time (“Scott called and said: ‘I’m fucking up, I need help’”). 

Kretz has never forgotten it. “I think we’d done six weeks. It was heartbreaking to see Scott self-destructing on that tour. Like, ‘No, man, come on’. When it came to touring Tiny Music, he was closing off conversations with everyone. As anybody who has family members with addiction problems knows, it’s not easy. You might get a heartfelt conversation – until they start getting the itch again. Then whatever was talked about just gets ignored and they’re back on the train.” 

Weiland would never quite shake off his demon. On December 3, 2015 he was found dead on his tour bus while travelling with stopgap band The Wildabouts. Cause of death was ruled to be an accidental overdose of alcohol, cocaine and MDA. Kretz says that when current Pilots vocalist Jeff Gutt performs Tiny Music material, his sound is uncanny. 

“Jeff has those same tonalities, and he’s not trying to force them. In my monitors it sounds so similar, in such a beautiful way, that it makes me happy to be able to play those songs.” 

DeLeo says working on the Super Deluxe Edition of Tiny Music was the like a time capsule, for better or worse. “I hadn’t heard that record in a long, long time. Digging through that stuff, I loved what I heard. But whenever we delve into something like this, you unearth things you forgot about, then you hear it and it takes you right back to the room. There’s things I had to sit through to put this reissue together. 

"There’s times you could just hear us talking in the room. I’d hear Scott talking, and it was like, ‘Oh man. I miss that cat.’”

Tiny Music… Songs From The Vatican Gift Shop: Super Deluxe Edition is out now on via Rhino.