Gary Lee’s Band History

Reflections from Lee’s Mind: Early Days of a Screaming Tree

By Gary Lee Conner

A young man from Ellensburg

Gary Lee Conner in his early days

In 1985, when I was 22 years old, my younger brother Van (18) and his best friend Mark Pickerel (17) decided to start a band with their high school acquaintance Mark Lanegan (20). Van and Mark P. and I had previously played in cover bands together. Although Mark played the drums and had only sang with a band once at a party he decided that he would sing (a fateful choice.)  In the early summer Van, Mark P. and Mark got together in my bedroom (I still lived at home and our earlier bands had practiced there) to play some songs for fun. Since Van was playing guitar and they didn’t have a bass player I figured I could play it but Van didn’t want me to. I told my mom and she told them if they were going to practice at our house I had to play the bass. (Friction had already begun in the band before it even started. That’s what happens when your brother is in the band; just ask Ray and Dave Davies.) We didn’t really know what to play and end up playing stuff like “Sunshine of Your Love” by Cream and some Black Flag songs. This sort of defined our early sound–sixties acid rock meets eighties punk.

After playing together a couple of times Mark discovered that I had a four track cassette recorder and had written a few songs.

Gary Lee's X-15 4 Track Recorder

I had been attempting to write songs for years but until about a year earlier everything I came up with was exceptionally lame. I opted to become a serious poet instead and wrote several hundred poems (this ended up being good practice for writing lyrics.) In 1984 I got $500 from a bond that was cashed when I quit my paper route that had been my job for about five years (I quit because my parents were opening New World Video, where I would work.)

Anyway, using a four track was the kick in the butt I needed to learn how to write songs. At the time some of the stuff that I had written included “Barriers”, “Like I Said” and “The Turning”. I played these for Mark and he figured that our new band should try to play some of these and write some other songs as well.  In 1985 Ellensburg, the idea of a local band playing original songs was quite radical. The only places to play in town where the Ranch Tavern, the Holiday Inn or high school dances: only cover bands need apply. We must have been out of our minds. We learned some of my songs and wrote some others together. Then we recorded them on my four track. One day around this time Mark and I read an article in Spin magazine by Geza X called something like “How to Release Your Own Record”. After reading the article, we got the idea that we could do our own record.  I went down to a local studio that had recently opened named “Creative Fire” (later known as Velvetone.)

When I went down to see about booking some recording time I met Steve Fisk, who was working as a recording engineer there. To us, Fisk was quite a celebrity. Mark Pickerel had bought a single by Fisk at Ace Records. We were quite surprised when we found out that he was now living in Ellensburg (he was a friend of Velvetone studio owner Sam Albright and had moved to Ellensburg to work at the new studio.) He frequently walked by the video store and came into to check out movies occasionally (if you read this, Steve: we never did get back tape #Z173) . With his Eraserhead hairdo and new wave long coat he was a very odd character for our little town. Fisk told me that he and Albright were starting a record label named Velvetone. They had put out a comedy-country album by a group named the Twangbabies called Winnebago Weekend (sorry, guys, but I still cringe when I think about it). Their latest project was an album by a singer-songwriter named Sean O’Neil (a much more serious project.)

Steve Fisk at Veletone

Steve showed some interest when I told him about our band (we had no name yet) and he said he’d like to hear a demo tape. I booked a weekend for us to record and got a demo tape of our four tracks for him. We had no idea what we were doing, but our first outing in the studio went pretty good. I think we recorded seven or eight songs in about three days. Steve even played organ on “The Turning” (he had a very cool old Yamaha electric organ.) When we finished we were still missing one thing: a name for our band. Now this is typically not a light decision but we didn’t agonize over it too long. I remember Mark and I driving down Main Street discussing names. Someone jokingly suggested the Screaming Freaks and suddenly the name Screaming Trees came up.

Named after the Screaming Tree pedal?

Now, this is contrary to the self-sustained rumor that we got our name from the Electro-Harmonix pedal (Van got one a few years ago–it’s a treble booster, ouch!) but like most of the band’s career it just happened. The name didn’t seem too stupid (remember, we would be on the same label as the Twangbabies) and it had a good ring to it. In retrospect I suppose we could have come up with a “cooler” name, but then we never had been a “cool” band. After we had a name we made some cassette copies and made a cover from a magazine picture (a shadow of a scientist against a pattern of particle trails). We took it to a printer in Yakima which was pretty expensive (too bad we didn’t have a computer back then–it would have made the cover a cinch.)

The original insert of our first release. It was a do-it-yourself project just as "Last Words" has turned out to be.

We put the whole package together and we had our first release (on cassette only) entitled Other Worlds.

After we read that Spin article we had set a goal to put out an album by the end of the year. We didn’t have vinyl yet but, to us, the cassette was our first step to becoming a real band. After recording with us, Fisk and Albright became interested in doing a record with us. The only catch was that we had to pay for it ourselves. As always, my parents were very supportive of Van’s and my music and my dad loaned us the money to do the album (I believe he finally was paid back in full.) We were a band from Ellensburg and we were making an album. Yes, we must have been out of our minds. The first thing we had to do was write songs for the record. This was no problem because I had started to write a lot more and so did the band as a whole.  We took the project very seriously and so did Steve and Sam. They tried to act like big-time record producers. They came to rehearsals and listened to our songs trying to make suggestions. I don’t think we listened to any of them.  After a short while we went into the studio with about fifteen songs to record our first record.

And then we made our first full length record.

In the early days of 1986, we were in the studio recording what would become Clairvoyance. We didn’t record the album all at once. We spent several months going in for a few days, then writing some more songs and going back in. This would become the standard procedure for all our records until Buzz Factory. When we finished we chose what we thought were the ten best songs. If I remember right there were five tracks that didn’t make the record including “The Bat”, a song that Van and Mark wrote that I think was one of our best early songs. Maybe someone will find it someday and put it out. Sam made the eye-stinging neo-psych cover. The weird pattern in the background was scanned in from the tie I was wearing in the picture. I loved that tie; I wish I still had it.

We then had to go through the mysterious process of mastering the album. For this no expense was spared. We arranged for the well-known engineer John Golden to master the record at K-Disc in Hollywood (check some of your old albums and you’ll find his name on them.) We were leaving nothing to chance and we wanted to be there in person when our music was turned into grooves on the master disc. The mastering of “Clairvoyance” became our first band road trip. For a bunch of youngsters from Ellensburg, a drive to LA was quite an adventure. Since the whole band didn’t need to be there we decided that only Mark and I would go. We also brought Mark’s good friend Matt Varnum (later to be the singer of King Krab) and Rod Doak (a soundman that Mark knew better than I did; of course Rod and his brother, Dana, would go on to figure prominently in Trees history.)

Dad's station wagon

We set out late one summer evening in my parents’ Buick station wagon (quite a boat). We drove straight through for about twenty-four hours and arrived in LA the next night. I was born in Ft. Irwin, California (the National Desert Training center, where my dad commanded a tank) and lived in Barstow, CA till I was about six. I had been to LA a few times in the sixties when I was a kid, but I had only a few memories of smog, Disneyland, and a hippie dressed like a World War One fighting ace. This trip was the biggest trip of my life at the time (wow, I was really a hick.) We got a cheap hotel on Highland that wasn’t too dirty and spent the evening watching the hookers across the street. The next day we went to the beach at Santa Monica, then got stuck in traffic on the way back to Hollywood.

We made it to K-Disc just in time for our 6:30 appointment. The mastering room wasn’t too big, but the board had more buttons and dials than I had ever seen in my life. In the back of the room was where magic happened: here was the disc cutter. There is really something magical about seeing your music being put onto a record. When the master was cut we wrote something on the inner groove–I think it was a reference to a Captain Beefheart lyric. My only copy of Clairvoyance is stowed away in a box somewhere, so if anyone has it, remind me what it says.

When we were done, we braved our way past more hookers outside and hit I-5 en route to Ellensburg. I remember being disappointed that there weren’t punk rockers walking up and down Sunset and Hollywood, although there was lots of spandex and big hair. As usual I was behind the times. Now that we had finished our first album, we realized that we had never played a show. We always did things backwards. There was one problem with this however: where could a real band play in Ellensburg? Cover bands were the status quo. We came up with an answer. We had seen a video of the Cramps playing at an insane asylum and we thought it was pretty cool. Having no state hospital in Ellensburg we came up with the next best thing–a group home for the developmentally disabled. This was our first show ever at the Elmview Group Home on Helena Street in Ellensburg. We cautiously played our songs and the kids loved it. A video was recorded of this show but mysteriously disappeared shortly thereafter.  Luckily, better days were ahead: Mother’s Day, May 11, 1986 at GESCCO Hall in Olympia, WA, to be exact. This was our first real show and our first hint that there was a place where a band like us could exist.

We opened for a band call the 28th Day that Barbara Manning was in. They were pretty cool. A bit of folk, a bit of psych. We played and didn’t know what to expect. I really got into playing and thrashed around and stuff more than I had before. People liked it so I kept it up. The band was relieved when the show was over. There were probably only about thirty people there but they were into what we were doing even though they had never heard of us. Our first real show was a success. This show is also a landmark because we were introduced to Calvin Johnson. Steve Fisk was an old acquaintance of Calvin’s and that was how we got the show in Olympia. I was surprised to find that Calvin was the same Calvin Johnson whom I had briefly known in middle school. Calvin lived in Ellensburg for about two years in the mid-seventies. He’s in my yearbooks from Morgan Middle School. The only thing I remembered about him was that he was accused of pulling a fire alarm and causing the school to take an unscheduled fire drill. I think he denied this when I asked him about it but I remember it happening.

Our meeting Calvin led to his distributing our “Other Worlds” cassette on K. At the time he had a very nice cassette-only label going with K. I remember someone calling it the “cassette revolution”. This is a very important but little talked about aspect of independent music in the 80’s. Up to that time you really needed to get signed to a label to put out a record. Even if you did this you usually had to pay for much of it yourself like we did with Velvetone. Major labels existed in some a faraway universe inhabited by some sort of superior beings, so that was out of the question as well. Taking cassette release seriously meant that anyone could have a “real band.” There were magazines around back then like Option that did reviews of a great deal of cassette releases. The cassette revolution came and went but a lot of bands started during this time.


Screaming Trees 1985