Interview: Gary Lee Conner

by - February 18, 2019

Divulgação — Gary Lee Conner

SAN ANGELO, TX — Exclusive interview with guitarist Gary Lee Conner, originally published on Scream & Yell.

Mr. Conner, tell us a little about your most recent album, Unicorn Curry. It sounds like it was heavily influenced by psychedelic 60s bands. How were the song writing and recording processes?

Well, I’ve always been really influenced by 60s psychedelia, especially in the early days. The last record I did was a little more prog rock. And I always listen to a lot of psychedelic music. This time I was listening to a lot of Donovan, and a lot of stuff from the English Freakbeat collection, which is stuff I’ve been listening to since I first started listening to music. That definitely influenced the songwriting a lot. I don’t want it to sound like it was done in the 60s, cause you don’t want to be retro, you want it to sound like it is something new, but on the other hand, it definitely has that spirit. 

It was done totally in a digital manner. Except for the guitar and the voice, everything else on the record is totally digital. But it’s cool cause, nowadays, you can make stuff sound the way you want to digitally, because the resolution is so high. It doesn’t have to sound digital just because it is. I know a lot of people are into the analog, you know, still use all of the old stuff. It’s kind of ironic too, things are coming out on vinyl, CD and even cassette too.

Did you record it at home?

Yeah, I do everything on my computer at home. I call it a studio, but it’s just my computer and all my guitars and stuff. This is my third actual album I’ve done since 2010. After the Screaming Trees disbanded, I really didn’t do much. I recorded some stuff but I didn’t put out anything. Mainly cause there wasn’t something like Bandcamp. There was MySpace. But doing stuff online, there wasn’t an available place to put out stuff by yourself until about 10 years ago or so. That’s when I started doing a lot more recording. 

The first thing I put out was something named The Microdot Gnome, like a band, but that was really just me. I switched that, now that’s just called Gary Lee Conner and the name of the album is The Microdot Gnome. And that was like my first solo album after the band, I think in 2010. And then I did a couple of albums which are also on Bandcamp, of demos from way back, from the 80s all the way until about 10 or 15 years ago. There’s like about 100 songs on those. 

And then, after that, the last record I did that actually came out on vinyl and CD, was called Ether Trippers, that was on my brother Van’s label, Strange Earth Records. You can still get that on my Bandcamp page. That was about 3 years ago. I seem to take around 3 years between records.  Although I have a goal to have a new album out this year, because I got a lot of new songs written that I want to use, although I haven’t started recording yet.

You recorded and produced it all by yourself, right? No one else played anything on any of the songs? The drum sound caught my attention — did you play it?

Yeah, completely, I did everything. I hate mixing so much, cause I have no idea if it sounds alright. Actually, I had Jack Endino to mix Ether Trippers, so it sounds a little bit different from my other stuff. I like really dry sounding production, with not a lot of effects, especially around the drums and everything. It just seems to suit better the digital sound, I think it sounds less digital that way. 

A lot of the instruments I use, specially the keyboard mellotrons and the drums, they sound a certain way, cause a lot of it is sampled. The problem is when you put a lot of effects on — it doesn’t sound so good.

The drums sound comes from a drum sample program. They record all these drum samples and then I use a sort of primitive sequencer. It sucks because the manufacturer went out of business, so they are not doing updates anymore. It's basically a kind of ProTools, which is used in most of the studios, just made by another company.

Would you say there is any thematic concept behind the songs? What does Unicorn Curry mean?

I don’t know, I just thought of that… I just listen to a lot of old psychedelic stuff, the lyrics just go into my brain and get all jumbled up and then it comes out, like, it’s sort of a synthesis of everything I ever listened to over the years.

You live in San Angelo (Texas), right? Since when do you live there? And what made you choose it as your hometown?

Yeah, middle of nowhere in Texas. My wife and I, well, around the end of the Trees, I was living in New York, where I met my wife. So I was commuting back and forth to Seattle. So when the Trees broke up we decided to move, she decided to get closer to where her parents live in Oklahoma, and Texas was as close as we wanted to get. So she took a job here — she’s a college professor, she teaches chemistry — that’s the main reason why we live here. She’s been working here since 2001. I know, it feels like, 'what are you doing in there?', but like, I was born in California, then I spent a lot of my life in Ellensburg and Seattle, then NY and now I’m here.

Do you visit Ellensburg and/or Seattle often?

No, I haven’t been out there since the early 2000s. So it’s been almost 20 years now. I keep track of it online, I see what’s going on in Ellensburg, but I haven’t visited. Most of my family  got out of there now, so I just have a few friends there.

Have you ever come to Brazil?

We never did make it down there. Maybe someday, you know.

Have you been doing live shows and touring in the past few years?

Not yet, I have been thinking about it. I don’t have a band. I made a few acoustic solo shows. I’m not sure, really. I just sort of been playing by ear and see what happens. Because for this record I’ve been doing a lot more, like, trying to promote the record. 

I managed to get a couple small record labels to put out stuff on CD, and then vinyl, so I’m getting more attention than with the past ones. I don’t know if I’m selling more, but at least I’m getting more attention. If you go to Bandcamp you can listen to all my stuff for free on streaming, you just have to pay if you want to download it. A lot of people want the physical formats more nowadays, like vinyl and even CDs.

Any chance we could catch you here in Brazil sometime?

Oh, well, I don’t know, I have played solo shows before. If I’m going to do it, I’d have to do some intense rehearsing for a month or so.

You seem to enjoy interacting with fans on social media, especially on Facebook, reminiscing old stories from the Screaming Trees days and playing your new material. How important is social media for an artist such as yourself in our current day and age?

For me, that’s all I got really, is Facebook. Cause I don’t play shows or anything. So it’s really important to me. I’ve always been a hermit, and really introverted, and really shy. Up until this record, I did not like talking to people on the internet very long. But I found that, I got a lot more people interested, and I’ve actually been liking to do it, so I’m forcing myself to come out of my shell a little bit by talking to people and telling stories about the Screaming Trees days and stuff. I also share songs from my demos and other stuff. So, yeah, I’m going to keep doing that.

Streaming services are the most recent trend on music consumption, but artists are often complaining that they are poorly paid by these services. On Twitter, David Crosby is constantly answering about this issue, saying that he is better paid when people buy his CDs or other physical formats, when compared to the money he makes when people purchase his music on iTunes or just listen to it on Spotify. Is there an ideal way for fans to consume your music, considering you are mostly an independent artist these days?

It’s a huge change, and I really can see the difference between the digital sales when this album came out in the fall, and my previous demo records two or three years ago. This new one is being listened to quite a bit, but is not selling as much as the previous one. There are so many places to listen to music for free nowadays, that I feel there are less people buying it. That’s good and bad, I mean, there’s more people listening to your music, but on the other hand, you are making less money doing it. 

But that’s not why I’m doing this now. There’s no way I could make a living on doing my own stuff, at least I’m 6 months out of the year on the road making shows. I’m selling records, it’s a completely changed situation, where some bands could sell a lot of records and make a lot of money, but now, I doubt even the big artists are making money with them. And then, with vinyl, of course, it’s so darn expensive to make the vinyl in the first place, I couldn’t afford to press my album on vinyl, but I could find someone on a record label interested in doing it. 

So yeah, I think that as far as revenue… The Screaming Trees never really made that much money anyway. If we had done just a little bit better, we probably could have made a decent amount of money. I mean, we still make a few thousand dollars a year worth of royalties. We are still selling records and stuff, so. Enough to at least say, 'geez, we are getting something from what we did'. But it’s not enough to sit back and retire on. 

We didn’t really sell nearly as many records as other Seattle bands. I don’t know the exact numbers, but, like, our most sold record was Sweet Oblivion, just something like 350,000 in the US… Maybe some of the bands sold 1 or 2 million records, they might still make money, but it’s hard to tell, there’s a lot of publishing deals and stuff like that. We gave away half our publishing in the beginning of our career, because we didn’t understand what we were doing exactly. We got something like a US$ 10,000 advance to give half of our publishing rights to Sony, forever I guess… So, I could make twice as much as I do now. So, I don’t know. 

The problem with that whole money thing is, you know, music… We started out on a small label, SST, and we toured and we did work like a real band. But then, like, we got to a point where, we are going to get signed by a major label, because, it was kind of, like, what else is there to do? We had done everything else. And a few of the other bands were doing that too — this was like 1989, I guess. 

But then things changed, especially when Nirvana got big, and Pearl Jam, you know. Not only did things change for us, it changed for the entire industry, where a lot of bands like us, suddenly people were throwing a lot of money at them. It changed from something that was artistic to a job. Not completely, but a very large extent of it did. That’s kind of the thing like, now, it’s not like that at all. The only reason I do it now is artistic, just cause I love to write songs, it doesn’t have much to do with making money, except for a tiny bit here and there. It’s fun to sell your stuff, like, 'geez, I just made 20 bucks, cool!'

What are your thoughts on rock music today? Do you think music is still important to kids as much as it was back in the day?

I don’t know. My daughter listens to stuff, like, online, on YouTube. She’s got access to all this really cool music, with me and her mom. My wife has a really big record collection. But she doesn’t really take advantage of it. Everything she listens to is online. But that is the way I’ve become too. I have records and CDs, but I listen to YouTube almost exclusively. 

YouTube, for old garage rock and psychedelic stuff, is like a gold mine. There’s so much old stuff. Every day or two, I find a new song I have never heard before. Which, for me, is amazing. Like, old 60s psychedelic songs. Cause I thought I heard everything, but the last few years, going through YouTube, I keep finding this stuff. It’s hard to believe but there’s so much stuff on there.

What current bands do you recommend?

Not much. I keep trying to find stuff that I like that’s new, but the closest thing I’ve got to listen to are the Black Angels, a band from Austin (Texas), and it’s not even that new, I think they started in 2005 or something like that. That’s probably as far as a band that I like, the closest to a new thing. I really wish I could find some more stuff, but I think it’s like a combination of what I like… The main thing I like is psychedelic 60s music, but on the other hand, over my life I’ve listened to every kind of rock music, and folk, and classical and stuff like that. I just like music in general.

Do you go to concerts often?

No, there’s nothing here in town, really. Just a few country bands. San Angelo is like 200 miles away from anything, Austin, Dallas and San Antonio are all 200 miles away. Once in a while I go there, but I’ve never been to a concert since the last time we played here, I guess.

People are often asking you about a Screaming Trees reunion. Have you had any offers to do a tour or a new album?

People keep saying we should do it. We thought about it 5 or 6 years ago. But it just turned out that we didn’t want to do it. Maybe one of these days we’ll decide to do it. But, I don't know, there’s not much… Seems like a lot of people want us to do it, but, yeah. On the other hand, Mark Lanegan is always really busy with his solo albums and stuff, and he’s touring two or three times a year.

Yeah, he comes to Brazil often.

If he decides to do it, it might happen. Otherwise, it’s just not going to happen.

Not to get too much into it, but do you still get along with those guys?

I talk to my brother some. And with Barrett a little bit. Mostly through email. I haven’t talked to Mark for sometime. He called me three, four years ago. Probably around the time we were talking about getting back together, possibly. We had a nice conversation, but I haven’t talked to him since that. 

It’s weird when you’re in a band, especially the way our band members were, because with me and Mark, it was like, at one point we wrote songs together, and then it became a thing where I would write songs and give them to Mark and he would take them and do whatever he wanted with it — he would change all the lyrics or he would change none of the lyrics, it depends on which song it is, you know? So, especially in the later days, when there were drug problems getting in the way, we kind of like, at one point, Mark was the main thing in my life — he was the guy who was siding me in everything I was doing, and now, it’s completely… nothing! I haven’t got anything to do with him, except once in a while I listen to his music — I like his solo stuff. And I listen to the Screaming Trees once in a while. It’s like a family, it’s what our band is. Our band was like a dysfunctional family, especially having two brothers from one thing, and everyone had their own problems and stuff. And now, everyone’s older and should be able to get along, but it isn’t what happened.

What is (brother) Van up to these days?

He had that record label for a while, Strange Earth. I think he’s working on getting it going again. I know he had a solo album a while back, also on Bandcamp. He plays out a little. He’s in the Seattle area, he does a little more playing around, getting out to show his stuff more than I do.

Do you feel the Screaming Trees were an underrated band in any way? Why is that?

Most of it, I think… We had a really nice career on SST, as far as making records that we wanted to and being a real band. Cause when we first started, how to be an actual band? We didn’t know. And we, you know, had three, four years in which we made a record every year, toured, and that was like, you know, what we thought it was all about. 

And then, suddenly, it was like, wait: we could go further, maybe be in a major label and maybe sell a lot of records, or something. We sold a decent amount of records for an indie band on SST, but the allure of rock music is like, 'we could be famous, or rich, or both, or whatever'. But what happened is we were signed to Epic, and suddenly, the first record, Uncle Anesthesia, they didn’t really know what to do with it. We sold a decent amount because we still had a pretty good fanbase. I think we sold something like 50,000 records. At least at the time, for a first record, where supposedly no one ever heard of you before, and major labels sign you and think that, so that was pretty good. 

Later on, when we were making Sweet Oblivion, suddenly Nirvana exploded, and so did Pearl Jam right after that. So, by the time we got that record out, it was suddenly a completely different environment for a band that was from Seattle. Even though we were never really 'grunge' at all. In the early days we were half punk, half psychedelic, especially live — we were more punkish, you know. But by the time Sweet Oblivion got out, we were a bit more hard rock, probably. But, you know, that didn’t matter, we were from Seattle, so we were considered grunge as well. 

A lot more people bought our records and we got a lot more opportunities to be able to be on the Letterman show and the Jay Leno show, all that kind of stuff. And, you know, it actually took it to the next level. We didn’t take it to the really high level, where we were selling millions of records, but we got at a level where we, at least, were a band that was working and getting more attention.

But then, what happened, is we came off of the Sweet Oblivion record, and I wasn’t really writing much. We were doing a lot of touring for a year. So we had to sit down and say: 'we have to write a bunch of songs for the next records'. And we wanted to get the record out quick, to capitalize on the rock scene that was going on in 93, early 94. But we just didn’t come together. 

We recorded a record that just didn’t do it. We didn’t really like it. If we had released it at the time, maybe things would have been different, but I have no idea. We ended up taking two more years to get the Dust album out, which is a completely different record then the one we came up with in 94. It took two years of intensive songwriting, every damn day. That was like when it really became like a job. I spent all of 94, most of 95, sitting in my apartment in Seattle — I had just gotten married, my wife was in New York — but I had to stay in Seattle. 

I was writing, at least, a song a day and taking it up to Mark, and getting the thumbs up or thumbs down... maybe. I would get a phone call he liked it. If he didn’t like it, I wouldn’t hear anything. So, I was not getting very positive feedback sometimes, so that was a really hard time. But we managed somehow to pull out all of the songs from Dust, and then we got together with George Drakoulias to produce it. 

Dust is actually one of the records I’m most proud of. Actually, my favourite record is Invisible Lantern, cause it’s more rooted in psychedelic stuff, but as far as records that we got what we really wanted to achieve as a record, the last one, Dust, is the one, you know?

The Trees were also 'responsible', in a way, to present Josh Homme to the world. Twenty years later, he is considered one of the greatest rockstars of our time. Are you still in touch with him? What are your thoughts on Queens of the Stone Age?

He was in Kyuss, and not many people knew about them at the time. He was always really cool. I haven’t talked to him in a while, but we get along fine. It was nice having him in the band, I think it was about a year, I guess, when we did Lollapalooza and then an European tour with him. 

Later, in 99 or 2000, we recorded with him. He’s on 'Crawlspace' and I think 'Anita Grey', on the Last Words album. So he did record some stuff with us — we were doing demos at the time. We kind of got tired of Epic. They didn’t kick us out or anything, but we wanted to get out of that contract. They weren’t doing anything for us. 

We spent the last two or three years trying to find a new label, and it never worked out, so... We did play our last big show at the Experience Music Project. That was kind of a weird last show, because we made 65,000 dollars for that show, I couldn’t believe it — it seemed, like, kind of a lot for one show. Back then, I was living in New York. We got together to do a few shows, but it kind of was not working anymore.

You have also worked with the late Chris Cornell (he was one of the producers on Uncle Anesthesia, released in 1991). He is very well-known as a singer, writer and performer, but not much is known about him as a producer. What do you remember the most about that experience and how did he influence that particular album’s sound?

I think the main reason we got him was because, you know, we got Terry Date as a producer, who had worked with Soundgarden on Louder Than Love. Most of the stuff he had done before was more of on a metal direction. And we weren’t metal at all. 

So we thought, Chris Cornell obviously understand what kind of band we are, and we had the same manager as Soundgarden — that’s how we got tied up with Terry Date. So, we were friends with Chris and we asked him to be kind of a go between Terry Date and ourselves. And he was able to, kind of, trying to convey to Terry what we were about. And he ended up singing back up on a few of the songs too. 

It was fun having him around. He definitely contributed to that album, especially trying to, you know, being a go between the producer, who might not understand what we were about, as opposed to Chris, who did understand it.

Is there any unreleased Screaming Trees material? It was a real joy when you guys released Last Words in 2011.

Yeah, I don’t know where it is, but I know there’s a bunch of stuff. There are two aborted records, one of them we recorded in LA when we were still on SST. Some of the songs were re-recorded for Buzz Factory, some of them we didn’t. And then, there’s another record from 93/94, which a couple of songs were on the Ocean of Confusion compilation, 'Watchpocket Blues' and 'Paperback Bible'. There’s an early version of 'Dying Days' as well. 

And several other songs, from the Epic days, a few tracks here and there. But, like I said, I don’t know where those tapes are. No idea. Van had some tapes of demos we did, and live stuff we recorded with Dan Peters. A couple of years ago he was talking about putting that out, but I don’t know if anything ever came from it.

What do you consider to be your legacy after over three decades making music? And specifically about the Trees, are you planning on releasing any kind of reissues of your albums? I know Sweet Oblivion received the reissue treatment, but what about the other records?

I would like to plan reissues, the problem is our stuff is mostly on SST. I haven’t heard from them in a while. They paid us for a while, and in the last five or six years, they have been selling stuff online, and I think even some of the records are still in print. But I haven’t heard from them, so I don’t know if they owe us any money. It would be cool if they contacted us to tell us if they owe us any money or if they don’t. 

But, at Epic, they did re-release a small box of the three albums we did with them, and they re-released Dust expanded with some live stuff and b-sides. It would be cool to release something with all the records, but I don’t know if it’s possible because of all the copyright issues. Apparently they own it forever, or until it completes 70 years or something, so I won’t be around for that anymore.

Any plans to release a live album, DVD, Blu-ray or something of the sort? Do you have any old footage that would make for a DVD?

There’s some around. There’s one that Van has. We played a set in a studio, no audience, with Dan Peters from Mudhoney in the band. We played a set on an 8-track and mixed it. Along with some demos with Dan Peters too. Stuff we were thinking about doing for Sweet Oblivion

Dan played with us for several months, and then we were going on tour and he had to decide if he was going to stay with us or if he was going to stay with Mudhoney, and he chose to be in Mudhoney, what we completely understood. 

Every time a new member came along, it ended up affecting our sound a lot. Pickerel, in the old days, played a wild, all over the place style, while Barrett had more of a John Bonham beat, which worked well with the material we were playing back then. I remember we were trying to play 'Shadow of the Season' with Dan Peters. It’s much more of a Led Zeppelin thing than a Mudhoney punk rock thing. He was kind of, like ,'what is this?' While Barrett got it right away, it’s more he’s kind of thing.

As for the future, what can we expect from you as an artist in the years to come?

Yeah, I’m hoping to do a new album this year, because I have a lot of songs. Three years or four years between records seems kind of stupid, especially because I’m not doing anything else. Maybe around summer I’ll have something new to put out. I don’t know if it will be on Basecamp or some other record label will release it, but you can definitely expect more music from me.

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