Lessons Learned, the debut solo album from Stone Temple Pilots songwriter, bassist and backing vocalist Robert DeLeo, is the kind of record that feels as familiar as it does foreign. The overall format of the music is distinctly different to that of his main band, who became alternative rock royalty following the release of 1992 debut album Core.
The electric guitars, for example, are used sporadically and ornamentally instead of fundamentally – there are no screaming AC30s or VHT/Demeter racks to be found here, as usually seen on his brother Dean’s side of the stage in STP. A lot of the new music feels more firmly rooted in country rock than anything you could term ‘grunge’.
At the same time, the new recordings share some unmistakable similarities with the band DeLeo has built a career out of playing in – you can tell some of these songs have come from the same creative place, even if the instrumentation this time round feels somewhat different.
When we put it to him that Lessons Learned demonstrates new levels of sonic maturity and, at times, musical simplicity, he agrees wholeheartedly. After all, why say more than you need to?
“That word you just said is key… it’s the simplicity of things,” says DeLeo. “How can you contribute sonically to simplicity? Well, that’s something I’m still learning. On this album, it ended up kind of being a diary for myself – playing the music as if I were writing down the words. I’m still learning that. I hope I’m always learning, because that journey has been so fulfilling for me. There are many different things that inspire me and influence me. This record is a celebration of that.”
As the main songwriter on STP’s early records, DeLeo’s use of bluegrass flavors was more limited to certain choice tracks than their albums as a whole. This time he’s gone all-in with warm vintage acoustics, lap steels and summery Southern rock. Which begs the question: what country artists have influenced DeLeo most over the years and in what kinds of ways?
“I don’t know if it’s necessarily country artists,” he shrugs. “It’s more about the sonics of country music overall – that’s what always struck me. There are things I tried to incorporate into STP, going back to songs like I Got You from No. 4. There was a bit of country in there for sure, as well as the song Wonderful from Shangri-La Dee Da. Even Creep from our first record… that came out of a country kind of thing.
“So it’s always been there, I think. But the main thing that really guides me that way is keeping songs acoustic. There’s something special about what happens when you pick up an old Martin or Gibson. You want to hear the beauty of the guitar.
“That’s what country music epitomizes for me: the pure sound of instruments, like an acoustic guitar. That’s the main appeal to me, how real and pure the sound tends to be. That’s the feeling I get when I pick up old instruments, whether it’s an old acoustic, bass or electric. Those instruments emit a certain feeling. That’s what I hope people will hear on this new album.”
There’s a picture of you surrounded by some rather majestic and highly collectable acoustics on the back cover. Talk us through what we’re seeing…
“The main one I tend to pick up is a ’burst 1955 J-45. That ended up being my go-to acoustic for a lot of the main tracks. What I’d usually do is work off of that and find other pieces to compliment it. I might come up with something in Nashville tuning,
“I have a 1971 Framus Gaucho, which is a smaller-bodied acoustic. I just converted it to Nashville [tuning] and used it solely for that. I loved how the guitars sounded together, complimenting each other. For a smaller main sound, I would go to one of my Martins.”
And what kind of models do you own, exactly?
“There’s a 1953 Martin 00-17 that I really love. It’s all mahogany and very throaty, with this lovely projection to it. That’s what I used for the main sounds on the title track. The other Martin is a 1956 0-18, which was the main guitar I used on a song called What Will Be. I’d then compliment differently around those guitars. The four guitars I just mentioned can cover a lot of sonic ground for me…
“The funny thing is I never really change the strings – they’re all pretty dead! I don’t know why, but I really enjoy that kind of sound. There’s something special about old wood and old strings – you don’t get a lot of top so you hear a lot more wood. Which is exactly what I was going for! I’ve found that the microphone I like most for acoustics is an old RCA 77-DX pill-shaped ribbon mic. It sounds lovely old acoustic instruments.”
These sound like serious collector’s guitars. Which was the most expensive, dare we ask?
“Oh, I don’t know. They all emptied my pockets [laughs]. I would say that out of everything in my collection, there’s a 1959 Fender Precision Bass that was the breaker!”
What kind of amps did you use for the electrics and did you run any pedals in front?
“There weren’t really any pedals. I used a few of my favorite amps, though. There’s an Ampeg GU-12 from 1971 that I absolutely love – it’s a 1x12 with reverb and tremolo and one of my favorite-sounding amps of all-time. It’s a pretty rare little thing, though I think it’s caught on since I started opening my mouth about it! [laughs]
“I also have a 1959 Fender Tweed Deluxe that got used a bit on the record… but there’s not a lot of electric guitar on this album, to be honest. The solo in Big Sky Woman was my 1963 Gretsch Country Gentleman through that Ampeg. I adore the sound of those old Gretsches.
“I also used a 1965 Gibson ES-330 in Viceroy Brown, which is one of my favorite Gibson colors. Those were the two main electrics. Everything else was acoustic and then complimented by other stringed instruments!”
Looking at the personnel list, this ended up being a very collaborative album, with different voices for each track. Were you ever tempted to sing it all yourself?
“It’s funny… a couple of people have asked me this. There were a couple of different moods I was trying to establish on this record and I feel very fortunate to have great friends that are also great singers. So I took advantage of that! The first person I reached out to was Tim Bluhm, who is the singer from The Mother Hips. A great band from Northern California and really awesome people. Tim was gracious enough to sing a couple of songs for me.
“I have an old 1950s 3/4 size nylon string and it’s kinda become my couch guitar. It led to me writing the first song I tracked for the record, She Brings the Rain. I just knew I could not get the right feel without someone like Tim’s voice. I didn’t want to judge this album. I think if I sang all these songs, I would judge them rather than listen to them.”
Like you say, it’s an album of many moods – doing it this way worked out well…
“I think collaboration is healthy and having someone else’s talent bouncing back to you kinda creates more of a listening environment for the writer. That’s why I didn’t sing much. I only did vocals for the last track on the record, Is This Goodbye. It just felt appropriate!
“Between Tim, Jimmy [Gnecco], Kara [Britz], Johnny [Irion] and Pete [Shoulder], there was such an amazing amount of talent. Everyone was so obliging. Now I can listen to these songs and enjoy them like a fan.”
It was recently the 30th anniversary of Core – an album widely regarded as one of the strongest debuts of its time. Let’s start with the heavy metal riff for Dead and Bloated… how exactly did that come about?
“I have to tell you, Scott [Weiland] actually came up with the riff and he didn’t actually play an instrument! I remember we were both working on Sunset Boulevard. He was driving models around to their shoots, working across the street at a modeling agency. I was at a guitar shop. He would run over sometimes to hang out. Once he just came and hummed it to me. I put it to a guitar and said, ‘Like this, right?’ That’s how that whole thing originated. I converted it over to guitar thanks to his humming abilities!”
Very cool! I interviewed your brother once and asked why his solo for Sin sounded so much like Allan Holdsworth. He told me you and him went to see Allan play in New Jersey on the I.O.U. tour with Jeff Berlin and Chad Wackerman…
“Wow, what a show that was! You know, people like Allan were just on another level. There were three concerts I saw in 1982. The one you mentioned was Allan Holdsworth at the Fast Lane, this little bar. I was literally sitting on the stage by his feet! I got to meet him afterwards and still have that I.O.U. t-shirt. I also kept the pick he gave me.
“Another gig was King Crimson on the Discipline tour, with Robert Fripp, Bill Bruford, Tony Levin and Adrian Belew! I saw that and couldn’t believe what was going on. I also saw Peter Gabriel on the Shock The Monkey tour. Between those three shows, I had my head rearranged! [laughs] The music completely rewired my brain. I saw some great concerts that year and had an amazing time… I was still in 10th grade! It was such an honor to see those artists when I was so young. I still have the ticket stubs, too.”
Plush could very well be the finest STP riff of them all; there’s a descending note on the B string against that open high E…
“That beginning riff is really just ragtime, like an old piano or guitar thing from that old school era. Then I just ended it with a little exercise I used for country riffs, where it kinda climbs its way back to the beginning. After that, I put the bass riffs in and it all came together.
“Creep is another one that came from the old ragtime stuff I grew up with, listening to not even 33s but the 78s I’d pull out of the cellar. I was a vacuum for all that music when I was younger and I still am! I love music from the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s – there was something about how they would get their ideas across. It’s beautiful.”
Do you remember much about what kind of gear was used on Core?
“Not really, it’s hard to recall! I was very poor at the time. Through a trade I just acquired a G&L L-2000 bass and I think that was what ended up on a lot of the record. I had no choice at the time… I couldn’t afford anything else!
“I started working with Schecter around then and had them build me a Schecter PJ, so some of the record was with that, too. I always dreamed of having really nice vintage instruments, but when we recorded Core, I simply couldn’t afford them. That’s what that record was – we were just doing what we could with what we had. It was more about the songs than anything else. I guess it worked all right!”
- Lessons Learned is out now.