Flowering Toilet: Barrett Martin Talks About The Screaming Trees Last Words

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by Pete Bilderback

I recently had the privilege of talking with Barrett Martin, the former drummer for the Screaming Trees who has issued the Trees’ Last Words: The Final Recordings on his own Sunyata label. In addition to being available for download at the usual places, Sunyata is currently taking pre-orders for the CD. If you pre-order from Sunyata, you’ll get the CD in September, a month before the street date.

Barrett was driving into Sacramento while we chatted, and I was impressed by his ability to discourse intelligently about music while doing something else. Perhaps his multi-tasking skills should not surprise me considering that in addition to being a drummer, he is also an upright bassist, composer, visual artist, music Professor, and an an ordained Zen priest in the Soto tradition.

Barrett’s drumming has been much in demand over the years, he did stints with both the Screaming Trees and Seattle grunge-rockers Skin Yard, and he has also drummed for R.E.M., Mad Season, Air, Luna, The Twilight Singers, Queens Of The Stone Age, Stone Temple Pilots, Victoria Williams, Greg Olson and others. Lately he’s been known to play in his own, jazz-oriented project, The Barrett Martin Group, as well as the Seattle area bands Visqueen and CoBirds Unite (featuring Pure Joy/Flop frontman Rusty Willoughby).

Me: From what I understand the material on Last Words was recorded in 2000, is that right?

Barrett: No. Let’s see, we started in the winter of ’98 and finished in the summer of ’99.

Me: Okay, so it was recorded a little earlier than I thought.

Barrett: Yeah, we did our last show in June of 2000, but the recordings were done well before that. They were kind of like demos for what would have ended up being another record. But we recorded it on 24 track machine onto two-inch analog tape. It was state-of-the-art recording at the time. So they’re really just sophisticated demos.

Me: And what were things like inside the world of The Screaming Trees at that time?

Barrett: It was actually very good. Everybody was clean and sober. We kind of knew that it was the end of the line. But we had this last batch of–actually twelve songs–there are two outtakes that Van Connor is going to release on his new label next year. He’s got a singles club, and he’s going to release the two outtake songs through that. But we knew we had a good body of new work and we wanted to document it, but it was kind of for posterity’s sake. There was a little bit of shopping the demos to try to find another deal, but that never materialized. So that’s how it ended.

Me: And when you went back and pulled those out again, was that this year?

Barrett: Yeah, Jack Endino and I were working on my solo record, and I decided to pull the tapes out. We were in a studio with a two-inch tape machine–which is increasingly hard to find by the way–and I said “let’s pull those tapes out and have a listen.” That was January of this year. We had to bake the tapes in an oven to make the tape pliable again. There’s a certain temperature and technique, and Jack knows how to do that. And when we put them on the tape machine the sound quality was actually quite high. So he cleaned the heads and we rolled it onto a hard drive right then and there. We put everything on the hard drive and then we worked from that.

Former Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin.

Me: And how did your impressions of the material, listening to it in the year 2011, how did they differ from, or meet, your expectations based on your memories of those recording sessions?

Barrett: My personal opinion on rock and roll is that it has really degenerated over the last decade or so. People don’t write good songs anymore, or they’re just so eccentric and quirky and proprietary that they don’t resonate with the general public in the same way. And so–I’m a person who listens to a lot of music–I’m actually a music Professor now, and I listen to music from all over the world, and I still listen to modern rock and roll and punk and all that stuff. But when I listen to the music of the 90s, with the Screaming Trees just being one example, I like the way the Screaming Trees wrote songs. I like the classical approach to it, the good rhythmic and melodic ideas, the sophisticated lyrics, and approaching the song as the high art form, with the band as the interpreter of the medium. I think that it holds up exceptionally well, and actually in a weird way it’s a little more appropriate now because that’s really the best way to do it, and I don’t hear a lot of bands doing that anymore.

Me: For me, I didn’t realize how badly I needed to hear something like a new Screaming Trees album in the year 2011 until I actually heard it. And when I did, I heard a lot of those qualities that I think I had been missing, so I think your observations there are spot on.

Barrett: And I don’t think the Screaming Trees were the greatest band of the 90s by any means. But I think what the Trees did was we wrote really good songs and put the priority on the song, and just recorded the song as a rock band. And that is a different approach than what people do now with electronics and [inaudible]. People don’t really focus on writing great songs anymore, the approach seems to be more along the lines of “let’s make a weird sounding record and claim to be inventing something new,” but the classic forms are being forgotten.

Me: One thing that I’ve noticed is that with the success of the Flaming Lips, who are a band that I actually used to really like quite a lot, and who came out of a similar milieu as the Screaming Trees, but at a certain point everything they did started to become heavily conceptual…

Barrett: Uh-huh.

Me: …and the songs, to my ears, started to become secondary to these concepts that are kind of precious in my opinion.

Barrett: After the Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots album, which was a concept album, and kind of odd, ironically after that they’ve become more popular. So [laughs] I don’t know what the formula is.

Me: I think you’re seeing a lot of people following that model because it was successful. When something does become popular, people follow it. But I think part of the problem is, because of the success the Lips have had, that we’ve seen a lot more conceptual type projects, and solid songwriting has taken a back seat to that.
[At this point, Barrett wisely declines my invitation to blame the Flaming Lips for everything that is wrong with our current “post-rock” malaise.]

Me: Last Words has gotten a lot of positive press, but even within the favorable reviews I’ve seen complaints about the sound quality. How do you feel about that?

Barrett: I’ve seen a couple reviews that say that, but I don’t really know what they’re talking about, because this is analog tape recording, and that’s kind of what it sounds like. I think it’s actually a pretty “hi-fi” sounding record. And I don’t particularly like records that sound shrill and brittle, as so many modern pop records do. I don’t really know where that ethos came from. I think it has something to do with digital recording, but I’m quite happy with the sound of the album. Everybody in the band thought that this was a good, meaty sounding, analog record.

The whole thing with reviews too, to be honest with you, I don’t take reviews very seriously, even the good ones. Because one of my mentors, Peter Buck from R.E.M., told me a long time ago, “don’t even read the reviews because it’s one guy, or girl, on a particular day, and it’s their very particular opinion.” So of course you want to get good reviews, but if there are a few bad ones…whatever. It’s really never influenced me in the kind of records I want to make.

Me: To my ears the album sounds fantastic. Maybe it doesn’t meet some people’s expectations of what a rock album should sound like in the year 2011, but most [new releases], in my opinion, sound pretty bad. As you say, they sound hard, they sound brittle, and they’re often compressed to the point that there’s no dynamics. Maybe that’s the sound that people expect now, but I find the sound of Last Words to be phenomenal.

Barrett: Well it’s also mixed by Jack Endino, and he’s an incredibly good mixer. You know, he mixes as many records as he produces. And I think you’re right, modern digital production has made records sound very shrill and brittle and high-end. I guess if people are listening on their little ear buds, they can’t hear the full bass spectrum, or all those fat midranges anyway. And actually the best review I read was the guy who said “my definition of a good record is that you can turn it up louder and louder, and it will sound better and better. And bad records are the ones that the more you turn them up, the more shrill and painful they are.” And he said the Trees record is one you can just crank louder and louder, and you hear more and more.

Me: Yeah, that was me.

Barrett: Oh, you wrote that. I didn’t know that was your review.

Me: Yeah, that’s okay. Yeah, I think so many things today are recorded, mixed and mastered so that they can jump out at you at a low volume, but they become painful to listen to if you try to turn the volume up. And that’s unfortunate, because I don’t think you can get the full rock and roll experience at a low volume. Volume and dynamics are important elements in rock music.

Barrett: Well, I’ll tell you for this record, the albums we were listening to when we mixed it, for reference, we were listening to Physical Graffiti and Who’s Next. Jack has a stack of CDs that he puts on as sonic reference points. That was the kind of sound we were going for and those were all analog, two-inch tape recordings.

Me: Yeah and those are the kind of records that came with a note that said “This record is meant to be played LOUD.”

Barrett: Right, right, exactly. And there’s a whole ethos to that approach, and it’s a classic ethos. And that’s what I’m talking about, people are forgetting the classic foundations of how to make great rock records. And what they’re making are these shrill sounding, disco, rock, pop conundrums [laughs].

Me: One thing I’ve always wondered about is how hard was it for you to come in and replace Mark Pickerel, who was someone who had his own very unique style of drumming, and who had been with the band since the beginning. How was it for you to step into that seat, and how do you think you changed the band’s sound?

Set the wayback machine to 1988. The Screaming Trees before Barrett Martin:
(L-R) Mark Pickerel, Van Connor, Gary Lee Connor, Mark Lanegan.

Barrett: Well, first of all, Mark Pickerel has been a friend of mine since the mid 1980s, so actually it was a pretty easy hand off. And actually Dan Peters from Mudhoney had been playing drums in the interim between when Mark Pickerel quit and when I joined the band. But I didn’t try to sound like Mark. I just played the way I play, I never tried to alter the way I play to try to fit the Screaming Tress’ sound. I think what happened is the Trees were at a point where they were ready to evolve to a new sound. They had all these new songs that were in a very early development stage, so when I stepped in, I just kind of naturally blended with them. And those were the songs that became the Sweet Oblivion album, which was the big breakthrough album. I think it was a combination of the fact that I’m stylistically different than Mark Pickerel, and the way that I interpreted their songs, it was just a really natural occurrence from both sides of it. So there was no problem in the hand off at all.

Me: Another thing I’ve wondered about is the fact that there was quite a time-lag between Sweet Oblivion and Dust, what happened during that period?

Barrett: The main thing that happened was that we spent a solid two years on the road promoting Sweet Oblivion. And then we came back to Seattle, and the label was pressuring us to make another record. They wanted us to capitalize on our current success and parlay that into the future. So we had been working on songs on the road, but contrary to what people think, the road is not so romantic. It’s actually kind of hard to write songs on the road because you’re dealing with surviving on the road, and playing a show every night. And you’re usually exhausted and there isn’t a huge amount of time to dedicate to writing songs.
So we started to record what we now call “the aborted album” in the early winter of ’94. We were working with Don Fleming producing and John Agnello engineering. And they were great guys, they were the same people who did Sweet Oblivion, and it worked for that record. But these sessions just didn’t have the same spark. So we scrapped everything, and then it took a while to get George Drakoulias because of his schedule, so we weren’t able to start making Dust until ’95. So we had two years of touring, a year of trying to record, and then finally getting George onboard, and it took three and half years before the record was done, and by the time it came out it had been almost exactly four years to the date since Sweet Oblivion was released.

Me: And in that time in between a lot of younger bands managed to kind of cash in on the grunge craze. And unfortunately, not a lot of the bands who had been around and were either contemporaries of Nirvana, or even–like the Trees–predated them, not a lot of those bands managed to walk through the door that was opened up. How frustrating was that?

Barrett: You know, it isn’t really so much frustrating as it is the way the major labels work. There are always a handful of bands that break through with a new sound. It usually happens about every five years. And you have these larger twenty-year cycles where you have major musical movements. And the major labels just figured out how to capitalize on what the Seattle indie/alternative bands–and not just Seattle, there were bands from New York and Chicago who were doing the same thing–but the major label thing is to take a cool new sound and just water it down and make it commercial drivel, and then surprisingly more people buy that. The more mediocre and watered down a product becomes, the more people buy it. And it’s not just in music, it’s in literature, it’s in film. The dumbest, most poorly-written scripts end up being the biggest movies.

Me: Yeah, there’s certainly exceptions to that, but as a rule you’re probably right.

Barrett: Yeah, the exceptions are the outliers that are anomalous success stories, and you can’t really explain why. Like Nirvana’s Nevermind, which now has its big 20th Anniversary, that’s a perfect example because that just came out of nowhere.

Me: Well, but it didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. There had been a lot of bands building that scene up over the previous years, and the Trees were one of the bands who contributed to that. And it wasn’t just them, there were a tremendous amount of bands building up underground recognition for that kind of music, to the point were a David Geffen would even be interested in it. Nirvana was the band that kind of blew things open, but there were a lot of bands that built the foundation for what they did.

Barrett: It came out of a garden of creativity, but what I mean is that that record sounds radically different from any Seattle record prior to it. It’s this huge sonic and songwriting leap.

Me: Yeah, it was interesting to me because this all happened just after I graduated from college. I had actually booked [Barrett’s previous band] Skin Yard when I was in college.

Barrett: Where did we play?

Me: This was at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA.

Barrett: Yeah, we did a lot of college gigs.

Me: You may not remember this one specifically. But I didn’t get the kind of turnout I was hoping for at the gig, and it was a little discouraging. And frankly we met with a bit of hostility from certain corners of the college, in particular the frat boy crowd didn’t seem to approve of the kind of music we were trying to bring to campus. And then I remember the next year–I went back to visit the school after I had graduated–and Nevermind was blasting out of every frat house on campus.

Barrett: Right, well frat boys are not known for their progressive thinking, but they’ll certainly jump on the coattails of something that’s already in motion. What I remember from those Skin Yard tours, and we more of a weird, arty kind of band, and we never had any of that commercial crossover. But that’s a good example of a sound that precedes what will later come. I did two years of touring with Skin Yard, and we just lived on the road in our little van, playing college gigs and staying at Motel 6’s all over the U.S. and Canada.

Me: Yeah, you guys crashed on my floor, but one of you had to go sleep in the van to make sure your gear didn’t get stolen.

Barrett: Yeah, one guy always had to stay in the van because of the equipment. But when we went to Europe in Winter of ’91, we did tours with Nirvana right afterNevermind came out, and that was the last tour we did, and then we broke up. But when we played in Europe, we would play to a thousand people a night at our own shows. Nirvana was even bigger, but Europe was always more embracing of the new sound. Americans always seem to be a few years behind.

Me: I remember talking to you guys at the time, and you were ecstatic because your latest album, Fist Sized Chunks, had sold 9,000 units. And I was pretty dumb about these things at the time, and I though “Wow, really? 9,000? Is that all?” [laughs]

Barrett: And what’s ironic–actually I didn’t play on that record, my first was 1,000 Smiling Knuckles, but I toured behind Fist Sized Chunks–but what’s ironic is that selling 9 or 10,000 records now is a lot for an indie label.

Me: Yeah, it was a lot for an indie label back then too, and there was probably only a brief period of time where those wouldn’t have been considered really good numbers. But you were definitely the drummer on that tour. I remember it well because the auditorium you played in had really high ceilings, and you seemed to be delighted to be able to take the drum sticks and toss them in the air as high as you could and catch them.

Barrett: [Laughs] Yeah, that was my “trick,” to see how high I could toss the sticks. When the Trees were finally doing the big stadiums in the mid-to-late 1990s–Lollapalooza, stuff like that–we would have lighting rigs that were 30, 40 feet high, and I would try to get the stick up into the lighting rig. I’d say I caught it 75% of the time, and 25% of the time I missed.

Me: You didn’t miss at this show, and you didn’t miss a beat either, which was what really impressed me.

Barrett: Really? The great thing is, people love it when you catch the stick, but if you drop it, they kind of love that too.

Me: I thought that was a lot of fun… I should probably let you run, but I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me, so thanks a lot.

Barrett: Thank you so much, and thanks for booking those shows way back in the day.

Me: Well it was my pleasure, I always had a lot of fun doing that.

Barrett: You’re a true believer in the movement, even twenty years later.

Me: Absolutely!

The back cover of my Skin Yard “Start At The Top” 7″ signed by Barrett,
Jack Endino, Daniel House and the late Ben McMillan way back in the day.

Flowering Toilet: Barrett Martin Talks About The Screaming Trees Last Words.