25 Years Ago: Stone Temple Pilots Show Their True Range With ‘Tiny Music’
Stone Temple Pilots had already hit on a winning formula twice going into the March 26, 1996 release of their third album Tiny Music ... Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop.
Combined U.S. sales of their first and second albums, Core and Purple, hit the 10 million mark. (Both albums have since been certified for an additional two million U.S. sales apiece.) Stone Temple Pilots had already cemented their place as household names, reaching arena status and etching a permanent imprint on radio.
They might have been maligned by critics on the path to success, but future classics like “Plush,” “Creep,” “Interstate Love Song” and “Big Empty” made their way into heavy rotation in 1993 and ’94 and have remained staples ever since. Then Tiny Music blew the doors off the then-widespread notion of the band as purveyors of a contrived grunge-by-numbers style meant to cash in on the era’s prevailing trends.
The album significantly expanded on the heavy, riff-based rock that Stone Temple Pilots and their contemporaries had built their fortunes on. In spots, Tiny Music shows that this group was more than capable of breaking free from rock entirely. Right from “Press Play,” the Rhodes piano-driven instrumental jam that opens the album, it’s suddenly clear that there had always been a lot more to Stone Temple Pilots than perhaps even their most ardent fans were aware of.
"It took a while to get a vibe of what we had grown into," late frontman Scott Weiland told MTV as the band was nearing completion of Tiny Music. The question was: "'Do we turn into a butterfly or do we turn from a maggot into a fly?'" he added. "It could've gone either way."
Decades later, that transformation still sounds every bit as dramatic as the words Weiland chose to describe it. The bulk of Tiny Music still finds the band relying predominantly on riffs, but even those songs introduced a whole new range of colors to the Stone Temple Pilot's vocabulary.
On “Love’s Pop Suicide” and “Big Bang Baby,” for example, the band replaced the chunky, detuned style of earlier songs like “Wicked Garden” and “Silvergun Superman” with a tattered new interpretation of ‘70s glam rock. “Art School Girlfriend” fuses British post-punk with jazz, while “Tumble in the Rough” veers toward straight punk — albeit with a more layered take that sounds like it was filtered through the ‘60s, as the band prioritizes texture, tone and mood over attack.
Watch Stone Temple Pilots's Video for 'Big Bang Baby'
Similarly, the snaking, stutter-timed “Ride the Cliche” hints at prog so discreetly that the progressive and classic-rock influences meld together seamlessly. “Adhesive” detours into prototypical indie rock, with pensive Sketches of Spain-inspired trumpet solos that bring to mind images of Miles Davis guesting on an early Yes album if Yes had invented emo. The ambience so wide, it’s as if Weiland’s harmonies and Dave Ferguson’s trumpet notes are carrying over a canyon.
Up and down the track list, splashes of psychedelia give the songs a sparkle and freshness like dewdrops on blades of grass. By the time listeners got to the Beatles-influenced “Lady Picture Show,” it’s quite apparent that Stone Temple Pilots had intentionally chosen to eschew muscle for finesse, volume for dynamics and density for space.
By far the most striking departure came in the form of a decidedly un-ironic foray into bossa nova. “And So I Know” paved the way for further ventures into delicate territory, which you can hear all over two of the band’s later albums, 2001’s Shangri-La Dee Da and 2020’s Perdida.
“I’d been writing songs like that since I was probably 15 years old,” bassist, sometime guitarist and songwriter Robert DeLeo tells UCR in an exclusive interview. “I was really attracted to jazz at an early age. It had a big allure for me. I don’t know why, but probably the first records I picked out of the basement from my parents and grandparents were jazz records.”
Apparently, Stone Temple Pilots had a song like “And So I Know” in them earlier than anyone realized. As DeLeo reveals, “Interstate Love Song” started out as a bossa nova tune. To demonstrate, DeLeo puts the call on speakerphone, grabs an acoustic guitar off the wall and strums the chords in the rhythm he’d initially envisioned.
“I remember when Tiny Music came out,” DeLeo says with a chuckle. “I was reading a review, and they were basically calling ‘And So I Know’ a Vegas-style song. Bossa nova’s far from Vegas. For me it’s the most natural, organic, soothing music in the world. I really appreciate Joao Gilberto, and I love the way that music spilled over into mainstream music here. I love the record that Antonio Carlos Jobim did with [Frank] Sinatra, and the way all that bossa nova spilled over into Sergio Mendes and Herb Alpert.
“That’s a magic time for me and my childhood,” he adds. “There are good memories there. It makes me think of a lot of people who aren’t in my life anymore whenever I hear that music. It’s a calling card from my past.”
When DeLeo played the idea for Weiland, there was a similar response. “It kind of jogged his memory of when he was younger and what he and his parents were listening to,” DeLeo recalls. “It’s always the kind of thing with a singer, where you want to kind of romance them a bit with your song. When you do that and you bring them into a place of, ‘Oh man, that just reminds me of when I was little and I did this,’ that’s when things genuinely come out.”
Listen to Stone Temple Pilots Perform 'And So I Know'
DeLeo said their choice to record the bulk of Tiny Music ... Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop while living together at a sprawling mansion in California’s Santa Ynez Valley helped his bandmates and producer Brendan O’Brien became more receptive to ideas.
“I was feeling [ready to explore those kinds of sounds] the whole time we’d been making records,” DeLeo says, “but I think it was that freedom and openness of being in a home setting like that, where you could actually be living there and be a little more free. You’re not showing up to a place and going, ‘Hey, um ... check this out.’ And plus the fact that I was heavily, heavily into a lot of bossa nova and really digesting it at the time. That song idea was playing inside of me. I just kind of started doing it one day and everyone was diggin’ it, which was nice. If somebody had said, ‘Ehhh, I don’t know,’ then we probably wouldn’t have done it.”
Stone Temple Pilots had recorded the basic tracks for Purple in just 11 days, according to a 2017 Yahoo Backspin interview. This time, the band was able to stretch out, living its dream to follow the example of classics like Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.
In the new liner notes for the reissue, DeLeo tells veteran music journalist Katherine Turman that the house itself inspired exploration, as the band felt curious enough to record in several different rooms. That, in turn, generated a wider variety of tones. Being ensconced in scenic wine country didn’t hurt either.
“Some of my favorite records ever made,” he says, “were recorded in houses. And it was a great experience to make the sounds up yourself rather than be in a studio and assume the sounds were going to be good because of the space you were at and the gear that was there.”
The recording arrangement did not completely insulate Stone Temple Pilots from stress. By this point, Weiland’s troubles with heroin addiction had already publicly derailed the band’s progress once.
“This was coming off the success of Purple and being in a position where we should’ve probably toured that record for about two years but ended up touring for just six months," DeLeo remembers. "That was a huge, huge letdown, so it was a very productive time for [Stone Temple Pilots guitarist] Dean [DeLeo] and me especially to be writing about what we were going through.”
Watch Stone Temple Pilots' Video for 'Trippin' On a Hole In a Paper Heart'
The songs that didn’t appear on Tiny Music ended up on the 1997 self-titled album by Talk Show, the one-off group that the remaining members of Stone Temple Pilots formed with singer Dave Coutts after Weiland’s troubles delayed the main band’s schedule yet again.
Weiland looked visibly emaciated and worn down in interview clips from this era. His voice was hoarse, but nevertheless strong. He channeled his troubles into the lyrics, though he did so from oblique perspectives that weren’t always obvious. At several points on the album, Weiland’s vocals have a resplendent, upbeat quality that belies what was on his mind. For all its sunny hooks, “Lady Picture Show,” for example, is actually about a dancer who’s still haunted by the trauma of gang rape when she later falls in love.
“All those songs,” DeLeo muses, “had a great sense of despair about them.” Still, Weiland was able to weave his magic, and Tiny Music contains some of the most powerful musical statements of his career.
“Scott was brilliant at making up imagery. I think he was a true poet," DeLeo adds. "I never questioned him about what he was doing or what he was singing about. I never felt [it was my] place to even have to go there. If I had a song and I would sing a melody that I already had, like with ‘Interstate Love Song,’ if he caught onto it, great. But I would never have told him to sing certain lyrics. [His words] came from such a productive, well-done place that I wouldn’t touch that.”
At one of most creative points in their history, Stone Temple Pilots turned the alt-rock cliche they’d directly profited from on its head. Tiny Music ... Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop still sounds as daring, innovative and unique as it did upon release.
“When we were making Core,” says DeLeo, “did I think I was going to be playing vibes two records later on 'And So I Know?' I’m not sure. I didn’t think about it back then. I mean I was hoping that I would be [doing something like that eventually]. There’s been so many kinds of music that we’ve grown up on – from [Led] Zeppelin to Bill Evans. There’s a wide aspect of music that I had the pleasure and the honor of growing up on. When you pick something off the tree that’s musically in one of those ranges, you’re gonna try to tackle it the best you can.”