The members of Stone Temple Pilots have spent much of the past year gritting their teeth.
While nearly 4 million fans were bonding with the bittersweet melodies of the quartet's debut album, the band itself was coming apart at the seams.
In fact, the success of the group's album, "Core," caused such deep problems within the Southern California group that its members went an entire six months without speaking to one another.
The main problem: credibility.
The band, whose second album, "Purple," is due out Tuesday (see review, Page 60) , has been accused by critics and other musicians of riding on the coattails of Seattle's rock scene--from STP's sound to its very demeanor.
Video connoisseurs Beavis and Butt-head summarized what many were thinking as the two watched the band's "Plush" video on MTV. One of the pubescent dudes accused the band of ripping off Pearl Jam. No, the other whined, it was Pearl Jam that ripped off these guys.
Scott Weiland, STP's lead singer who just goes by his last name, is hardly unaffected by the accusations. The 26-year-old's angelic face often knots with worry and his strawberry-blond hair looks as though it's been raked over by nervous hands as he considers the matter.
"People make it sound like we suddenly appeared from nowhere, made a record and sold 4 million copies," he says during an interview in West Hollywood's Sunset Marquis Hotel, where the band has gathered from home bases that stretch from San Diego to Topanga Canyon. A rumpled cotton shirt hangs off his small frame, while his stiff, new boots creak as he fidgets uncomfortably on the couch.
"Part of the reason we seem new is we tried to distance ourself from the L.A. scene. The truth is we played small clubs and watched a lot of other bands get blown up and hyped out before ever doing anything."
Weiland's songwriting partner, Robert DeLeo, is also troubled by the comparisons.
"How could you not be personally affected or hurt by someone dissing what's so personal to you?" says the 28-year-old bassist, whose clean-cut, suburban look is squarely conservative next to Weiland's more disheveled appearance, and seems severely out of place in the hard rock world STP's been pegged into.
"It hurts at times. . . . The last thing I wanted to do with this band was make everybody believe we invented something. Hopefully, we're just contributing to something. But the industry is always looking for the next big thing, like the whole Seattle scene. It got to a silly point that any band that comes out that is trying to express themselves is lumped into a category."
That pain, and the mounting pressures that come with success, left the band members at odds with each other about career goals and musical directions, and collectively unable to plan a next move. But after half a year apart, the group, which plays July 16 at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre and July 19 at the Greek Theatre, went to Atlanta to record, and in the studio, away from the world's eyes, began to gel again.
"Robert and I have been writing together for eight years," Weiland says. "We're complete polar opposites. We always write our best music when antagonizing each other or there's some uncomfortable element there. But before, it was more superficial. Now the circumstances run much deeper."
Just mention Stone Temple Pilots in the rock world and you're likely to start a debate--or at least trigger a smarmy comment or two.
Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers once referred to them as Stone Pimple Toilets. Rocket From the Crypt, a band at the forefront of San Diego's much lauded independent music scene, claims STP tried to align itself with the city for credibility.
Rocket's singer John Reis once charged that STP "changes with whatever (hot) sound is next." Spin magazine last year sharply noted that STP has "ridden the backwash of the grunge wave far beyond anyone's wildest dreams, even their own."
There's no doubt that Weiland's quavering, low voice is similar to Eddie Vedder's and STP's slow creeping guitar style is like that of Alice in Chains. But the similarities are more likely due to the fact that all three bands pilfer riffs from '70s bands such as Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin.
Stone Temple Pilots--which also includes Eric Kretz on drums and DeLeo's older brother, Dean, on guitar--comes up with the most accessible sound, stripping the band of even more precious credibility in alternative rockdom, where success is often equated with compromise.
The group's hypnotic melodies emit more hope than the disturbed and introverted sound of Alice in Chains, and while Vedder sweats out lines like "Once upon a time, I could control myself," Weiland's lyrics are more cryptic.
Weiland's also not so self-obsessed as some of the artists with whom he's been compared. His lyrics align STP with outside issues, including feminism. Weiland's unorthodox angle was so unexpected that his anti-rape song "Sex Type Thing" was misconstrued as glorifying a rapist's mentality: "I'm a man, I'll give you something you won't forget. You shouldn't have worn that dress."
But bands that follow commercially on the heels of booming breakthroughs in rock often meet with skepticism--and wind up having to prove their worthiness. It happened to Pearl Jam in the wake of Nirvana's success, though Pearl Jam's riff-rock had little to do with Nirvana's unparalleled blend of gritty pop.
Strip away the nasty comments and can't-win comparisons surrounding STP, and the band stands as a credible--not revolutionary--force. It's far above the dozens of complete grunge knock-offs, but has gained enough notoriety to become a reference point for any Seattle wanna-be jokes that are busting to be told.
"I honestly believe, from some of the (expletive) that I've read in the last year, that they couldn't have listened to the whole album. Maybe they just heard a single or watched one video and based the whole existence of the band off one song," says Robert DeLeo.
"I was shell-shocked when the first album took off," recalls Weiland. "It was pompous to assume we were gonna be big stars, but I must have known something would happen because I didn't have a plan B."
Weiland was born in San Jose, but his parents divorced early on, and his mother moved with him to the sleepy, one-school town of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, when he was 5.
His family moved back to Southern California when Weiland was 15, setting up house in Huntington Beach, where he attended high school. He went to Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, but was more interested in starting up a power punk band with a guitarist friend, which began playing around Orange County.
Weiland worked construction jobs and catering gigs to pay the rent, and at one point worked as a graphic artist at a local paper after lying about his qualifications. "I told them I was a student at Otis/Parsons (art school)," he recalls. "It worked."
Robert DeLeo, the youngest in a family of 10 children from his mother's several marriages, grew up in New Jersey listening to his parents' collection of the Mamas and the Papas and Carpenters albums. In 1982 he started playing bass in a cover band that his brother Dean had started. After high school, he moved to California in 1984, living in his car or crashing at friends' houses between San Diego and Los Angeles.
Robert DeLeo and Weiland met at a Black Flag show in Orange County in the mid-'80s and started playing together. But it wasn't until their original guitarist quit to pursue a budding cookie delivery business that they brought Dean and Kretz in to form a band called Mighty Joe Young.
After playing regularly in Orange County and occasionally in San Diego and Los Angeles, the band signed to Atlantic Records in 1992. A Chicago bluesman already using the name Mighty Joe Young was in part behind the moniker change, but Weiland had another concern.
"I wanted to change the name anyway because of any association we might have with that band Ugly Kid Joe. I was deathly afraid that people would get confused," he says.
"Core" was released in September, 1992--and had climbed to No. 3 on the national charts by the following May.
Weiland remembers the rush that followed the album's popularity.
"We didn't have a lot of time to sit back and think about it because we were on the road constantly," says the singer. "It hit when we broke down on tour, and that's when we started breaking down personally. We canceled the tour, flipped out, and had to come home. We stayed apart until we made the record. It's amazing we even made it."
Now Weiland's bracing himself for the repercussions bound to follow the Pilots' new album. The collection is moodier and at points darker than "Core," which may reflect the mind-set of its makers at the time.
"There was a lot of dissension between myself and the band while recording this album," says Weiland. "But sometimes that kind of negative energy breeds positive energy in the end. It feels like that conflict almost drove the sound. And now that we're actually speaking again, I hear an element of hope in it."
Success hasn't just been a confining experience for the band. Weiland says. Ironically, it's also set them free.
"It's added to the sense of freedom we felt as individuals to be honest with our music, without having to feel we needed to fit into a certain category or match our last album. I don't think any of us felt that second-album kind of pressure. Instead, there were a lot of other things that came along. Like the myth of rock stardom you get set up with."
What is the Rock Myth?
"It's the overall feel that success brings instant self-worth, gratification and happiness," explains Weiland, relaxing as the interview goes on. "But there's so many outside things that corrupt that. Take, for example, a show. It's different when you're playing for free beer.
"There's passion, excitement--the reasons you initially got into it. But it hits a certain point when you're not playing a show, you're putting on a production. If you can have a sense of humor about it, it helps--but that's sometimes hard."
Robert DeLeo agrees.
"You can go on believing you're a rock star or get to a point when you realize rock is really silly," he says. "I won't allow anything in this business to take over what or who I am. I was me before any of this happened and I'll be me after all this blows over. It can't last forever. I'll be what I was before this started: myself."