Screaming Trees’ Perennial Woes Settle to a Low Hum


Since Screaming Trees formed seven years ago, its lineup has been as tempestuous and undefinable as its sound, which cuts and swirls in nebulous regions between the Doors, the Stooges and Husker Du.

Every member of the Seattle-based quartet has left and rejoined the band at least once. Several incarnations of the group have hung together tenuously, and disbandment has been a recurring threat.

Even after the Trees recorded their first album for a major label, the recently released “Uncle Anesthesia” on Epic, founding member and drummer Mark Pickerel abandoned the group last fall--this time for good, his band mates say.


Pickerel had sat out the band’s last two tours, including last year’s national sweep of mid-sized venues with Social Distortion. Finally, after finishing the new album, Pickerel decided to pursue a record-company career, rather than ever hit the road again.

Pickerel has been replaced, at least for the present, by Dan Peters of Mudhoney, a band that itself is now on indefinite hiatus. And, having weathered the latest wave of turmoil, the Trees head into the most critical juncture of their career with a new-found sense of stability, according to Mark Lanegan, the band’s singer and chief lyricist.

Whether Peters turns out be a transitory ddition to the group, the new lineup “feels more like a band again than it has in a long time,” Lanegan said last week during a phone interview from his Seattle home.

In support of the new record, the quartet is performing 10 West Coast dates opening for Redd Kross, including shows tonight at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, and Thursday and Friday at the Henry Fonda Theatre in Hollywood. This week’s performances are final tuneups before a national tour of headlining dates.

Originally from Ellensburg, Wash., a small town east of where “Twin Peaks” is set, Screaming Trees has forged a musical approach that appropriates many of the same MC5-meets-postpunk elements others in the Seattle alternative-rock scene have tapped. The Trees’ music, however, is underpinned by a dark psychedelia, at once pulling and probing at disparate emotions and moods.

The Trees established its sound and reputation with the 1988 album “Invisible Lantern” and 1989’s “Buzz Factory.”

Now, with the backing of a large record company, the Trees on “Uncle Anesthesia” for the first time have been able to carefully craft their new material, whereas their previous four albums and two EPs have been crimped by time and money constraints, Lanegan said.

“We’ve made records for years on a shoestring,” Lanegan said. “So we really wanted to take some time and see” what they could accomplish.

With production help from Terry Date (Soundgarden, Metal Church) and Soundgarden vocalist Chris Cornell, the band on the new record has blended a good measure of accessibility with the innovative zeal and moody ferocity they staked out on previous recordings, without compromising.

Most striking about “Uncle Anesthesia,” however, is that it maximizes the Trees’ potential, capturing and concentrating Gary Lee Conner’s layers of exploratory-yet-melodic guitar patterns.

“Gary’s always done several different things” within a single song, Lanegan said. “But when you mix an entire record in a night, some of that can get lost. This time we could keep all of that in there.”

Because the members of the band branched off for various solo projects in 1989, they are finding the respite has helped bring a fresh perspective to the band’s music, Lanegan said.

Lanegan last year released a little-known but critically acclaimed solo debut, “Winding Sheet,” and began recording his second album. Meanwhile, bassist Van Conner formed a band called Solomon Grundy and released a self-titled album, and brother Gary Lee recorded the “Mystery Lane” album with his sideshow, the Purple Outside, and a single with another project called Dr. Janet.

“We were in the process of getting a deal together with a new company . . . so we had some free time away from each other,” Lanegan said. “We’d always had a lot of things we wanted to do that we really couldn’t on a Screaming Trees record.

“It was good for all of us. We’ll probably keep on doing that. It’s a nice outlet, and it’s healthier, I think.”

And, Lanegan added, it may be the remedy the band needs to keep its divisive tension to a low hum.

“Personally, I’m happier than I’ve been in so long I can’t remember,” he said. “I think this lineup is our strongest one in a long, long time. And we’re all getting along really well, which at times hasn’t been the case. I’d love for this lineup to last. . . .

“But who knows? We’ve come and gone so many times, I wouldn’t rule anything out.”

* Redd Kross, Screaming Trees and Bazooka perform tonight at 8 at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, Tickets: $13.50. Information: (714) 496-8930.