With their ironic machismo and hook-laden guitar rock sound taking the grunge era by storm, Stone Temple Pilots rocketed up the charts 1993 with their debut album Core, featuring singles such as “Sex Type Thing” and “Plush”, still stands as classic of the Generation X era. However, fewer bands from the early nineties received a more unjust critical flogging than San Diego rock quartet Stone Temple Pilots.
In a sense, the band was an easy target for major music publications at the time in the same way Led Zeppelin was in the early 70’s. And just like Zeppelin, STP never let the critics drag them down and continued to push themselves creatively with each successive record. While the band’s 1994 follow up, Purple, saw the band exploring new musical landscapes and is generally seen as one of two STP classics alongside Core by most, it is their third record, 1996’s Tiny Music… Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop, that saw a total abandonment of the band’s hallmark sound and a reinvention of their image.
“I first met STP when I covered their tour with the Butthole Surfers for Creem magazine,” recounts former band photographer John Eder, who would end up becoming their photographer throughout 1995 and 1996. “During that tour they were getting lots of grief for being grunge bandwagon-jumpers. Tiny Music really smashed that idea. There was not a lot of love for the record or the band in the press at the time, but today I meet so many people who, when they find out I did that album cover, tell me that was their soundtrack of that year.”
Helmed once again by producer Brendan O’Brien, Tiny Music really gelled the individual band members’ musical tastes together into a new sound: vocalist Weiland’s underground punk and glam sensibilities, guitarist Dean DeLeo’s upbringing in sixties and seventies rock, and bassist Robert DeLeo’s interest in genres like jazz and bossa nova. “I’ve been to Robert DeLeo’s house and heard him playing old Nat King Cole records, stuff like that, they have a real appreciation for a good song no matter what the genre,” says Eder. “That band, as musicians, are great, with a wide range of interests.”
Part of this new musical landscape for the band included the use of small amplifiers by Dean DeLeo, a technique (later to be picked up by bands such as The Strokes and the White Stripes) that resulted in his crunchy/jangly guitar tones that mingled with Weiland’s raspier John Lennon-inspired vocals that contrasted with his earlier baritone croon. “I love how dynamic Dean’s tones are on [Tiny Music],” says former Cage the Elephant guitarist/current Nashville-area producer Lincoln Parish, a self-professed STP fan who opened for the band on their 2010 tour. “One of the great things about Dean’s style of playing is he can go from clean and super intricate, right into super heavy balls to the wall and it’s amazing. A lot of players tend to pick one sound and stick to that, where as Dean is very diverse.”
Dean’s unique riffs really drive the first track, “Pop’s Love Suicide”, which kicks off after a short elevator music-inspired intro “Press Play”. The music ushers in the post-Kurt Cobain landscape of alternative music with (typically) cryptic lyricism from Weiland: Mindless fools that aggravate it pick at you in desperation… it’s a Pop Love Suicide. The tune fades out on a fluttery guitar solo.
“Tumble In The Rough”, the second of a two-for-two punch kicking off the record, pounds Weiland’s lyrical-soup style of writing into the listener’s head, with the dynamic frontman singing of humble kidney pie and preaching that Dead fish don’t swim around in jealous tides. Lincoln Parish tells us, “I just love every aspect of this song, every part comes across as the perfect idea for the song, there really isn’t anything I could hear that would make this any better than it already is.”
“Big Bang Baby” served as the lead single off of Tiny Music, a crunchy remake of Jumpin’ Jack Flash by The Rolling Stones for the nineties. “I remember the first time I heard ‘Big Bang Baby’,” says Scott’s former Velvet Revolver guitarist Dave Kushner, who played the same clubs as STP in their early days as Mighty Joe Young around Los Angeles. “I didn’t even realize it was STP. It had such an original ‘vintage’ tone to it. It was just so fucking cool!”
“I love how punk Scott is in the verses,” notes Nick Maybury, guitarist for Scott Weiland and The Wildabouts. “Almost grunting the lyrics, yet classy. Graceful, yet with a raw in-your-face-attitude.” Scott notably toted the song live with his solo band during his final shows, but vowed to play the STP hits with a different vibe. “Scott really wanted the verses fuzzy and dirty less chimey, So I put a more Nirvana super fuzz type texture as a guitar sound approach for the Wildabouts’ set. I keep faithful to Dean’s parts because they’re amazing and I really respect what was originally written. We just changed the aesthetic a little to suit a more raw ragged feel.”
The tune’s original vintage aesthetic extended to the track’s music video, directed by John Eder. The acid trip of a video features many bright colors, grainy film, and an homage to The Brady Bunch. Though the original idea was to bring the bizarre cover artwork to life, a ballooning budget eventually caused the video to be scrapped. “The idea of doing it as a really cheap looking 80’s video was brought in, which was the band’s idea,” Eder tells us. “They felt like they did not have it in them at the time to do a big two or three day shoot and just wanted something down and dirty.”
The new video became a hodge-podge of various ideas I was promised that if I did this, I could do the next one at a much higher budget. I came up with the ideas of throwing money around, smashing the TV set, and having lame pyrotechnics at the end, Eric came up with the Brady Bunch idea, and we shot all of it in a real plain meat and potatoes soundstage with some union camera operators in Chatsworth. I went in and cut it with this nice old veteran video editor guy, who also ran the facility, and it was on the air a few days later!”
“Lady Picture Show”, featuring a beautiful Beatleesque melody that masks the dark tale of a rape survivor, “And So I Know”, written by Robert DeLeo and Scott Weiland, is a bossa nova ode to “campfire girls” and is perhaps the most laid back song in the band’s catalog, and the rock radio staple “Trippin’ On A Hole In A Paper Heart” a rollicking rocker written by Eric Kretz (who also helped pen STP’s most iconic tune, “Plush”), are all so distinct yet make the album flow with ease. “[Tiny Music] doesn’t feature a weak song in the bunch,” says biographer Greg Prato, author of Scott Weiland: Memories Of A Rock Star.
“Art School Girl” is one of the quirkiest songs in the STP catalog, with Weiland twanging lyrics about a tryst with a woman who let her home in Alabama for the Andy Warhol-inspired art scene of New York City with a highly repetitive chorus “I told you five or four times” that is abrasively drilled into the listener’s head. Notes Alternative Nation reporter Mike Mazzarone, “It’s one of those songs that should have gotten radio play. That chorus is obviously the most polarizing part of the track but it’s such a departure from the rest of the song… that’s what makes ‘Art School Girl’ such a joy to listen to.”
The ballad “Adhesive” forgoes having a guitar solo in favor of a mute trumpet solo, something unique throughout STP’s entire catalogue and perhaps influenced by songwriter Robert DeLeo’s love of jazz. Weiland’s eerily prophetic lyrics “Sell more records if I’m dead, Purple flowers once again” are decidedly Cobain-esque in their self-deprecation; Greg Prato notes that Cobain “was a chap whom Weiland admired very much”.
“Ride the Cliché” is a pseudo-reprise of “Trippin’ On A Hole In A Paper Heart”, lifting lyrics from that tune (Hold me closer, let me be) with an added lyrical theme of bulimia – “Intake purge, it’s my disease“. However, this was an instance where the band wasn’t feeling what Weiland was lyrically, as noted by Dean DeLeo in an interview with Unknown Magazine in 1997: “It’s like, fuck that! It’s not my gig. It was his and that was kind of the bummer, where he would take a song and run with it but it wasn’t really what I was feeling when I was writing the song.”
Following a gentle instrumental in “Daisy”, album closer “Seven Caged Tigers” is one of the strongest songs throughout STP’s entire catalog, with Weiland’s lyrics reeking of desperation as he continued to plunge headfirst into the darker side of stardom. According to Alternative Nation owner and Scott Weiland’s social media manager Brett Buchanan, “The song is so great it works in any form. The acoustic version from The Howard Stern Show in 1996 may be even better than the studio recording. Weiland’s lyrics on the song perfectly encapsulate his abstract style on many of his songs.”
As many know, the Tiny Music promotional cycle was infamously botched due to Scott’s arrest for heroin and cocaine in early 1995 and Scott’s growing personal issues. John Eder admits the promotional campaign for the record was tense, and was frightened by the physical changes occurring in Weiland. “[Scott] was late for the promo shoot – in addition to doing the actual cover shoot, we also did a publicity shoot. It all worked out OK once he was there, but I remember being kind of shocked during the whole process to see how much weight Scott had dropped. When they first appeared, he was more of sort a buff dude, but he had gotten really skinny.”
Despite the weight of the music industry bearing down on the band and manifesting via Scott’s demons, STP still had that spark and their ironic sense of humour. “Once they were all together though, and things were underway, it was always fun with them. They liked being goofy in pictures and doing things that didn’t necessarily make them look all handsome and tough, and they were all extremely funny and full of ideas,” says Eder. “We did a fun shot in a moon bounce thing of them in pajamas for example, bouncing around.”
However, the band’s weariness was still evident by the time the video shoot for “Big Bang Baby” took place, according to Eder. “The band was really low energy during the shoot, and Scott himself seemed very fragile.”
Continued (yet slightly lessened) critic abuse probably didn’t help. Says John Eder, “I remember [Tiny Music] getting totally trashed critically, for example in Entertainment Weekly, with the critic even singling out and making fun of the bands’ physical appearances – like, their actual body types – in the little snapshot fold-out thing that came in the CD.” Pitchfork Magazine gave the album a score of 0.8 out of possible 10 points, claiming that the “drug-addled sonofabitch should have OD’d a long time ago”. The same magazine would later publish a touching eulogy proclaiming Tiny Music as a classic the day after Weiland overdosed at the age of 48.
Ultimately, STP were forced to cancel and reschedule dates for their 1996/1997 tour in support of Tiny Music over health concerns for Scott, a move which forever stifled the band’s growth and Tiny Music‘s commercial performance. Unfortunately, being released at the crux of STP’s career, STP may have never hit their full commercial potential – an American answer to U2, as John Eder describes – as a direct result of this time period, but their discography throughout their original run through 2002 still stands as one of the best of all time, and the band never missed a beat when they actually turned up to play live.
“It’s a telling anecdote about where his head was at that my assistant, who was a huge Rolling Stones fan, asked him what it had been like to open for them. He said Mick Jagger had come backstage, praised the band, and told Scott that if he played his cards right he could be doing what the Stones do… having a long, lucrative career.”
“Scott said he was thinking, why would I want to do that?”
Tiny Music may just be the best record of STP’s short career, and still stands as possibly the most criminally underrated records of the 1990’s.