Popsmacked Stone Temple Pilots shrug off legacy to march boldly onward
As much as Stone Temple Pilots bassist Robert DeLeo would like to discuss his band’s new album and lead singer Jeff Gutt, and as much as I would like to comply, there is no way anyone interviewing a founding member of one of the most successful rock acts of the ‘90s can avoid the topic of its two deceased former frontmen.
One: charismatic Scott Weiland, with whom they rode the crest of the grunge wave, and who died in 2015 after a productively volatile tenure that ended with his 2013 firing and death by overdose two years later.
Two: lovable Chester Bennington, the former Linkin Park frontman who hopped on board in 2013 before leaving amicably two years later and — struggling with depression — committed suicide in 2017.
“I think a lot of that stuff goes back to childhood, doesn’t it?” notes DeLeo, speaking specifically about Weiland.
“I’ll be taking away from that for the rest of my life. We had a gift together and it puts me in a place of gratitude. I feel very fortunate for the time spent with someone like Scott.”
It’s not like there weren’t plenty of red flags, he notes, with Weiland’s addictions dating back to his 1995 arrest for heroin and cocaine possession.
Bennington, however, was different. “I never saw any of that in Chester,” notes DeLeo, equally respectful of both his deceased bandmates.
“He was a sweet, laughing positive kind of person. That was a huge shock what happened with him, and still is.”
Devastated but determined, the band — with DeLeo and brother Dean at the creative helm — shifted gears by recruiting a polished,
showbiz savvy contestant from TV’s “X Factor” as their singer and put out a well-received new album titled, symbolically, “Stone Temple Pilots.”
“It feels more complete,” admits the 52-year-old New Jersey native of the current lineup. “There were many years that went by where we weren’t running on all four cylinders, so to speak.
“Now when we play live I think people are getting the true essence of the band. It feels good because everyone’s on the game. As for making a record, everyone shows up.”
DeLeo — who played bass with rock supergroup The Hollywood Vampires — is not the most outspoken interview subject, but his point is clear: when scaling the heights of alt-rock stardom, stability is paramount.
“There are some things that go along with being younger and having spontaneity and making music,” he acknowledges, careful not to cast blame. “That’s the gift of music.
“But as you get older, your tolerance level for all the extracurricular things ... (trails off ) ... you know what I mean?”
To be fair, STP — as they are known to fans — were hardly unusual in the land of rock and roll excess, where mercurial lead singers are more common than songs that use locker-room euphemisms for sex.
“I wouldn’t want to be a lead singer,” he confides. “It wouldn’t be in my personality, what you have to put out. There’s a focus on lead singers people have.
“You can take 10 different bands and match up the same story of what happens to each. It’s kind of interesting when you look at it that way. It’s very textbook. There’s a blueprint there of what happens.”
He sighs reflectively: “It’s an age-old thing. I don’t know if it’s explainable.”
But with age comes wisdom, or at least acceptance.
Which probably explains why they chose Gutt, a 42-year-old reality show contestant who grew up worshipping Stone Temple Pilots and, presumably, has no desire to rock the boat.
“I don’t think it’s about having control,” counters DeLeo.
“It’s about having someone who’s competent and can contribute. When you have somebody who’s going to give you 100 per cent, there’s no room for trying to control anything. This is a band.”
But surely there’s element of hero worship that wouldn’t exist with a singer who was more of a peer — an underlying respect.
“You need somebody who has balls,” corrects DeLeo. “And Jeff has balls and can go out there and make it happen. That’s really the thing — getting someone to ‘make it happen.’”
At this point, an eavesdropping publicist tells me to quit dwelling on the past, for crying out loud.
Which is my cue to point out that, despite the critical slams of the band’s early days — when they were painted as “fifth-rate Pearl Jam copyists” — STP is one of the last real rock bands standing.
With eight No. 1 rock hits, including “Plush,” “Vasoline” and “Interstate Love Song,” anchored to an era when songs had cultural clout, this grunge/glam/hard rock hybrid has a legacy that reaches farther than a random play selection on someone’s Spotify playlist.
Not surprisingly, critics are finally coming around, with STP now recognized as “the best straight-ahead rock singles outfit of their time” (allmusic.com) and Weiland cited by fellow rocker Billy Corgan as “one of the great voices” of his generation.
DeLeo, modest and low-key, takes it in stride.
“I don’t even think about it,” he confides without missing a beat. “If I was caught up on that, I think I’d have to go to therapy.”
It’s not about ego, he points out. For bands like STP, music is “part of the soul.”
“As long as this band has something to say, we’re gonna do it. When that stops, we’ll pack it up. I don’t look at music as a business that I’m gonna retire from.
“I don’t know if I’ll be putting out records when I’m 80, but I’ll probably be writing music still ... (laughs) ... maybe it’s gonna be soundtracks to exercise videos — I don’t know.”
A second career as a Jane Fonda-styled dancercise star? That, of course, is a long way off.
“As long as people are listening and coming to shows, I feel blessed,” he sums up.
“I think good songs live on. It blows me away every night.”