Sweet Obilivian era Trees with Van, Mark and Gary
photo by Karen-Mason
Shadow of the Season: A Chat with Van Conner
Part 1 By Pete Crigler
Screaming Trees were one of the great, unheralded grunge bands of the '80's and '90's. Though mostly known for hits like "All I Want" from 1996 and 1992's masterpiece "Nearly Lost You," the band had a long and varied career, beginning with their indie roots and landing on SST Records to release some definitive records including Buzz Factory. In 1990, the band signed with Epic Records and went on to release three critically-acclaimed records before breaking up in 2000. Singer Mark Lanegan went on to a heralded and lauded solo career while drummer Barrett Martin went on to work in many different genres of music as a heralded percussionist and producer.
Guitarist Gary Lee Conner started his own solo career but his bassist brother Van Conner went on to a varied and interesting path after the band split. He had already released a solo venture, Solomon Grundy in 1990 and had briefly played bass with Dinosaur Jr. but after the band's split, he started the band Valis and released several independent records and eventually put out his own solo disc in 2019.
Sometime in 2018 or so, I set out to compile a book of interviews with notable and influential '90s alt rock bands. Screaming Trees were on my list so I made some contacts via Facebook and lo and behold Van Conner agreed to talk with me. It was a January evening and we chatted seemingly amiably on the phone for about two hours. I could tell Van was feeling a bit down about something and as the conversation went on, As the night wore on, I hadn't gotten through most of my questions and as I had work the next day, I had to call it quits after just over an hour. I never had the wherewithal to get the discussion finished and I moved on to other bands and then abandoned the book in its entirety as life just got to be more chaotic than it should've been. Van Conner passed away after pneumonia and complications of years of severe illness on January 18, 2023 at the age of 55. So in tribute, I went and found my chat with him and am presenting it here. This is part one and part two will arrive soon after. Godspeed Van.
PSF: How did you get started playing bass and who were your influences?
VC: Well, when I started, I didn't really have any influences because I was pretty young. My family all just asked me to learn music when I was a kid. When I started, I just wanted to play, so at first, I played violin and then French horn. And then my brother bought a guitar at a pawn shop for $50 and I had to pay about $40 for what was a piece of shit bass but I bought that and that's when we started playing together when we were little.
And then later, I started listening to music and stuff like for real and I think... My biggest bass influences probably are Geezer Butler from [Black} Sabbath, Mike Watt from Minutemen. I loved Gene Simmons, not only as an influence but also his bass playing. He is kind of underrated but he has this kind of groove that makes Kiss work, you know? There's so many but that's the weird thing- that I just didn't know.
That's the whole thing about the Trees- even though I was a musician and my brother was a musician and our drummer was, we just... It was such a mix of like every... We didn't understand that you're supposed to be one genre, or something so we just did whatever came out. And it's hard to say what the influences were for that.
But now, I look back and... Mike Watt probably was... 'cause I like toured with him and he used to give me bass lessons or we would hang around during the day. And I've been talking... we just hooked up him recently and we've been talking. Actually, these last two weeks, all the old people have been calling me and shit... And I'm actually talking to people about doing a book myself.
PSF: Yeah, I saw that all on Facebook.
VC: You did? Yeah, I was all crazy that night. I've gone through some really hard times in my life right now and the thing is, I have a whole album ready to get in the can now but it's so fucking heart wrenching for me to play the songs now, because it's written about a relationship that I guess you can say got ended now.
Trees in 1985
PSF: When did the Trees come together and what was the scene like at the time?
VC: (laughs) There was no scene. The Trees came out of.. Four misfits In Ellensburg who didn't fit in anywhere and didn't fit in with each other. But we were all just really into weird music because we had this record store in town called Ace Records, and the guy, Tim Nelson, just passed away recently, which is sad.
We all grew up together. All our parents were friends. It was a weird situation but there was no music scene anywhere. as far as I knew.
I didn't know when we started a band because my mom was a musician. And because she was born in 1957, she was a housewife and she didn't really get a chance to do it. So she kind of encouraged us to play music and we loved it and we just got it. My mom would go to yard sales and buy us records. So we had all these records and basically just... I mean, there's no scene, dude. We just started a band out of nowhere. It was weird.
And then me and my brother Lee, we're reading same magazine and there's an article about these four tracks, a Fostex cassette recorder. We've been trying for years to buy shit, like we experimented. We tried to take a cassette-to-cassette decks and sing into one and then we would then play guitar and then bounce it back and play that thing back in the day. I'm just sitting in the room. And then we go break into... my dad was a school principal and had an audio visual [machine] in there and we'd fucking try to plug it into it trying to figure out how to record so. There's no studio and this is brand-new for us. This is the early '80's, late '70's. And we used to blow shit up, sitting together in the lab and fucking puffs of smoke started coming out and insanity and then the next day, you know, I'd always get in trouble like my dad would be like, "Were you in the library last night?"
We didn't have much of a social life because we're kind of the not-most popular kids at all. So I went to a garage sale and I found all this audio visual equipment. I started figuring out how to make mixes and I take all my favorite stuff. It's probably like sixth grade because it was all of my favorite Sabbath songs, and we'd tie them up all into one song with all our favorite riffs and with George Harrison's Wonderwall Music. You know, it's crazy to start and then overdub it over the top and then in between these crazy mixes, I'd be a DJ and I'd be like in my bedroom. And I'd be like, "hey, we have a guest- is this van Conner?" And then I guess take the tape and play it for my mom. And that was the whole thing. we were these weird kids.
But then that that magazine came out and they said "hey, we got this new thing called Fortex." So we went and bought one and that's when it kind of started because we wrote like six songs.
And that was our first record. We made it and we went to this guy who moved to town and he came in my parent's video store. We had a video store and we were like the weird store where they had all the weird tapes and movies and stuff and we had one called RIP. And I remember, he walked in, his hair-do like a racer. My mom got mad, still talking about. Anyway, she was like, "Oh yeah, my kids play music." And then he was like, "oh, yeah, I got this studio. I just moved to town." And my brother was like, "yeah, let's go record." And I was like, "I thought oh, you can't just go record in the studio." That's a something I didn't understand and I was totally ignorant about that. I mean, I never been out of Ellensburg pretty much.
So we went in the studio with Steve [Fisk] and we recorded that first album. And then all of a sudden when we put that out, he was friends with Calvin Johnson from K records. So Lee went to elementary school with Cal, and so Cal started K records. And then also, Steve was friends with Bruce Pravitt (Sub Pop co-founded) and he hadn't made the Sub Pop 100 [compilation] yet. So he heard us and he was like, "Dude, I want you to be on the next one of these and then Calvin put out or was our first distributor of our tape. And all of a sudden, like, people started wanting us to play shows. Well, our first show like we went to play and... I don't know if you've read my Facebook page, but there's this place called the Ranch Tavern in Ellensburg.
And so Calvin decided, "Okay, I'm gonna distribute the tape." And we want to play a show 'cause we never played a show. So we're like, Okay, well, let's play at the Ranch Cavern." So we went to play there, and they're like, "dude, nobody wants to see these big fat guys. Nobody wants to look at them." Like nobody would let us play. So then my friend's mom worked through this group home for mentally challenged people... That was our first show was and it was great, man. There's a videotape of that somewhere. I don't know who has it but you know, somebody's got it. But it was insane. Like people were jumping everywhere, like Down's Syndrome kids and stuff. It was insane.
So that was our first show and then slowly... There WAS a scene in Ellensberg and there were these weirdos like Calvin Johnson, and like the Wipers were going in Portland. And then there were a few people out of Anacortes and Olympia and Bellingham. So we kind of hooked up with those people- bands like Girl Trouble who you should talk to 'cause they were one of the founders of all this shit...
PSF: They're still going, aren't they?
VC: Sometimes, I think... They were older than us so I don't know. I could call them. We were great friends and we had a good time together.
So that's how we started, it was just so by accident and then Calvin... We used to work, making duplicate tapes for the record label of the studio that he used to work at. We would just dupe tapes all day and then... We had nothing else to do in that town so we just played music. So we started playing and playing and playing all these shows and we'd get whatever we'd get. And then we ended up making plans with all these people around the Northwest.
I mean, the scene was different. Seattle was a joke. We wouldn't even play Seattle because it just sucked, man. We would play at Elk's Club... we never played clubs because first of all, I was only 18. They had restrictive liquor laws then. When we did play and I had to stand outside at the shows until I turned 21. We played with Tad and Soundgarden and I couldn't even go inside 'cause I was so young. So I'd just stand out there and have a great time, in the rain.
PSF: How did the band come to develop its sound? I know it evolved.
VC: The thing is.. The Northwest was very different from what was coming out of Minneapolis and New York. Nobody was trying to be famous or anything. We were all just playing. It's weird because like... there was nothing to gain but there was nothing to lose. People made those paper fanzines... I mean fanzines were what kept it all glues together. The whole United States and the whole country ended up with this thing. It was fanzines, it was trading tapes, it was like a totally homegrown movement, in no way commercial. But luckily, you had people like Calvin and Bruce Pavitt [Subpop co-founder], people like that. Bruce, for whatever reason, just wanted to get the music out there. And I was just up on Orchid where he lives now and I didn't realize that that. I didn't know that and I thought "hey, I should harass him some time..." So he's just like a hermit now. Took the money and ran...
SST era Trees
PSF: How did SST come into the picture?
VC: So, that was like our favorite label, right? We were totally into that and we would buy every record on SST. Even the shit ones like Zoogz Rift...
PSF: Or Tom Trocolli's Dog.
VC: I played with them! That was one of my first Black Flag shows and they were warming up. And I was like, "dude I bought your album" and he was like "somebody bought my album...?"
VC: So that was funny but like I said, we were big fans of that. Black Flag was playing in Seattle at this like, boxing gym. I think we were still in high school so we go and bring our cassette and give it to Greg Ginn at the show. And we were really big fans- we were in AWE of these people. So we get to see fucking Black Flag and we talk to Greg at the end of the show and gave him the tape. And then we kind of forgot about it and then we were ready to do a West Coast tour and I was ready to go to tech school 'cause I wanted to do satellite technology.
Well now dude, I'm an engineering specialist. I'm an operational technology specialist and I work on the energy management system and the power company here in our local district. But I also do a label and I also do music and I'm working on... I have a new album that's about to come out and... Well, it's my first solo album ever, without a band. It's acoustic and pretty heart-wrenching... It's hard because of what I'm going through right now. I wrote the songs about what I'm going through so I don't want to talk about it because it hurts my heart to say it but I'm probably going to get it out.
(Author's note: Van released a solo album, Coming Back Again, independently in 2019.)
But I'm a big technology guy and a computer hacker when I was a good. I used to crash the local news sites. I don't like to talk about that because when you hack people it's like you can read people's minds! My dad was a military officer in Washington State and he bought me computers when I was 5 years old. So I was a nerd back then and it was not cool. Trust me. I was the biggest fucking loser in school- me and my brother both. But then, when we were older, we learned the art of intimidation, if you're bigger than other people. So we got tired of being fucked with and then I formed this kind of gang in high school 'cause they were all rednecks. And we were total misfits and we dressed in trench coats and we'd have fucking giant knives on our belts. Back then, dudes had shotguns. Every school I'd go to there would be people around who would beat your ass for having a weird hair-do or something. Anyway, I'm going off but this is the way that I grew up.
But I think having gone through shit, if you can rise above it... But some people don't. Some of them kill themselves or blow their heads off, which a lot of my friends have. And I almost did, a bunch of times. At one point, I bought a shotgun and I was ready to go. Luckily, I had great friends, and then great kids... I mean, my kids are older and I'm 50. I started having kids way, way young and I've been married a couple of times.
PSF: What was the recording for Even If and Especially When (1987) and Invisible Lantern (1988) like?
VC: It was interesting because we had trouble recording it. And we were kind of inspired. We started to get some recognition, we were playing around, we did a couple of tours. It was totally DIY. It wasn't going to be on SST, it was actually going to be on Restless Records 'cause Greg and I started hanging out with the Wipers and he wanted us to do a record. So we met with him and hung out with him and everything.
So then we're on this tour and we go down to California and so Sage is there, trying to get us to sign to Restless and produce our record and we were such huge fans. But Ray Farrell [SST publicist], we were staying at Mike Watt's house, crashing on his floor and Ray Farrell came over, who was at SST. And we did our first record and he had that and we were like, "hey dude, are we ever going to be on SST?" And he was like, "well, I..." blah, blah, blah... So the next day to Texas Records in San Diego, I think. It was kind of a famous record store. And it's not there anymore- there's like a hotel there now. So, we played in the middle of the day in the middle of the floor of a record store and it was crazy 'cause we...
My brother knows how to put on a show. That guy is like... quiet and introverted, like a weird fucking dude- I always had to talk for him. But then as soon as it's "one, two, three, four..." he fucking goes insane. I remember the first show we ever played. We go out there and it's like "what the fuck" with him. That's the thing about Lee- you turn it on and he's all in. He's like Teddy Roosevelt in Panama and over the hill.
PSF: I love that video (for "Nearly Lost You") where he's basically just rolling around in dirt.
VC: Oh yeah! Dude, that was a normal show. I'm totally serious. I remember we played with a couple of bands who had a tuba player and a violin player and they didn't strike their gear. And that was a big thing with us. If you don't pick your shit up when we're about to play, we'll just do the show. Like Butthole Surfers man, and I had been friend with Gibby and he's a great dude, man and the bass player. But before I knew him, we were warming up for the Butthole Surfers and they left all their shit up there. And I'm like, "you don't understand- your shit can be destroyed because Lee..." Like that guy who left his violin up there, it was crushed into nothing. You can't tell 'em [Gary Lee] anything because he has no idea what he's doing. He's just like a raw ox. He's an introverted person but a massive fucking demon. And compulsions, man, compulsions. It's like when he's behind the wheel, he may say "I'm just gonna turn it and drive into a ditch- I can't stop myself." I'd have to just grab the wheel. I mean, he's a fucking GENIUS but.. And he's still doing it, man.
And I'm trying to get him to come back- that's why I put out that record he did. I don't know if you heard it- I had a label and put it out on vinyl. Have you heard his record? Dude, oh my God... It's the best. He plays every instrument. And everybody will tell you- he was like the psycho brain of the operation and it's like lightning in a bottle, man.
(Author note: he's talking about the album Ether Trippers (2016) which Van put out on his Strange Earth label)
You know later, Mark and I started writing songs and our big hit song or whatever I wrote but he taught us all in a weird way. We taught him how to kind of be semi-social but it was hard to control the dude. But I love him and we're actually friends now. You didn't want to know him then and I was the only one who could tame him. Like when I quit the band for a while, they had to beg me to come back because it was like, "dude, we can't control Lee." 'Cause we grew up together, I know how to manage him but playing together, we don't have to tell each other anything. We just have like a psychic connection and it's so weird, man. It's unspoken.
But brothers fight and it's different than a fight with a dude. You will kill them, your own brother. There's something about family fights.
Via Bandcamp: "When Jupiter Was Young' is one of Van's last songs. It was written in mid 2021.
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