30 days of music: Day 14: A song that no one would expect you to love

Friday, 25 March, 2011

(Read the full list for 30 days of music.)

In an early chapter of Nick Hornby's 31 Songs, he talks about a Bruce Springsteen song that he had been listening to pretty much once a week for most of his life. It was an interesting chapter because it reflected on a listener's long-term relationship with a piece of music and how his perspective on it shifted (but also didn't) over time. I thought about that chapter a lot this week because this was the week the Stone Temple Pilots were touring Australia for the first time.

Strangely, despite listening to the Pilots on and off for the past 10 years—despite the fact that they qualify as one of my favourite bands of all time—and despite the fact that the Pilots are one of the few bands that both Ben and I like (though he was the one who introduced them to me first), I don't actually know that much about them. They emerged alongside the grunge scene in the early 1990s, following hard on the heels of Nirvana and Pearl Jam but not enjoying the same widespread critical acclaim (critics accused them of being poor copycats; the fans disagreed). To date, they've released six albums—five of which we own. Some argue that their albums were Core and Purple, but Tiny Music … Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop is our favourite. They split in 2008 (Scott Weiland's drug problems made touring difficult, plus I think there were internal schisms), which made me sad because I thought I'd never get to hear them live. But they re-formed in the last couple of years after pursuing separate projects (Weiland released a solo album, plus he was part of Velvet Revolver for a while; the DeLeo brothers formed Talk Show and Army of Anyone. We own Talk Show, which I quite like, but the mix doesn't quite work with Dave Coutts).

The Pilots' popularity coincided with when Ben was in his middle years of high school—when he and his friends were just beginning to write their own songs and form their own garage bands with early adolescent dreams of becoming rock stars. Like many of his generation, they grew their hair long, skimped on showering and covered up their unkemptness with flannel shirts, and their initial attempts at songwriting were heavily influenced by Vedder and Cobain. The Pilots were one of the ingredients that knit their friendship together, and strangely enough, they've stayed with them throughout the subsequent years.

When Ben and I first got together at Uni (this is after he left his high school garage band), as many couples do, we introduced each other to each other's music. I exposed him to Fiona Apple, Jeff Buckley and The Sundays; he lent me Keith Green, Counting Crows, Van Halen and The Beatles (err, yeah, we're pretty eclectic, musically). Of course, we didn't like everything the other was into; he couldn't stand opera or musicals, and I wasn't particularly fond of Stryper or Larry Norman. But you can't have everything.

Stone Temple Pilots was a band Ben didn't expect me to like. I wasn't into Nirvana or Pearl Jam, I only liked one Soundgarden album (Superunknown), and most of my listening habits revolved around female singer-songwriters, movie soundtracks, mainstream classical and Stephen Sondheim. So I can see why he was surprised. Even now, I'm not 100 per cent sure what it is, but I think it's because the Pilots are not your typical grunge band. “Plush” sounds like it could have been written by Pearl Jam, but the rest of their material—despite the distorted guitars, their crashing “heavy” style and somewhat angsty lyrics (remember I am not a lyrics person)—is a lot more melodic. There's distortion—in both the guitars and Weiland's vocals—but it never overwhelms the music; the melody line seems to sit on top of it all somehow—snaking and almost dreamlike. That's what makes them unique, in my very humble opinion.

The other aspect that I think draws me to them is that they balance out my listening diet a little. The Pilots play very “masculine” music—nasty, angry and destructive at times (note: language warning), but also mellow and even beautiful at others (“Adhesive” is probably my favourite song by them). I wonder if, for guys, they manage to express something that many find inexpressible.

Anyway, over the years, like Ben, there have been periods when I have had the Pilots on high rotation and listened to them almost obsessively, and periods where I've had enough and switched to something else. Yet we keep coming back to them. I don't know if that qualifies them as “comfort” music. I think they need another category we don't have a name for.

When we found out they were touring (this was late last year, I think), we snapped up tickets on the day they were released. The concert at the Hordern Pavilion was on a Sunday night, but as there was only one Sydney show (at that time; later, because the Hordern show sold out, they arranged another one at the Metro), I figured I could make an exception for just one week. (I know others would disagree with that decision … *shrug* …). I figured we would be going with the usual gang from Ben's high school—Leigh, Marto, Fell, maybe Brendan—but I forgot that Fell and Brendan are ministers now and can't get Sunday nights off (also, Brendan didn't go to school with them, but he was in their band). Fell was keen to go to their Newcastle show later in the week, and Ben thought he'd tag along for that one too. I also figured that the wives/girlfriends would not be coming too; the Pilots are really their thing (plus some of the wives were also mothers so would be looking after their babies). I was the interloper, which was a bit weird. But then I've known these guys for over 10 years now, so maybe it's not that weird anymore.

Anyway, we asked Ben's parents to come babysit Astrid. I gave her her last feed, then handed her over to them, and Ben and I jumped in the car and drove out to Moore Park. Not having Astrid with us meant we could listen to the Pilots and crank the volume as we wove through inner city traffic. It had been raining, so the ground was wet, and I had worn my boots to stop my feet from getting wet. But we found we didn't need the umbrella so left it in the car.

We were just in time for the tail-end of the first support act (I have no idea who it was). The venue was already quite full—many thirty somethings like ourselves, though a little older. (I am also a bad judge of age so I could be wrong about that.) I was glad we were at the Hordern, not the Metro; the Hordern has lots of seats, and with the PGP still lingering in my system, there was no way I could have stood up for that long. We managed to bag four places on the left side of the stage, then waited until Marto and Leigh showed up.

They arrived just before the second support act, which was Grinspoon. (Marto was most displeased, and I had to agree with him: their set would have put me to sleep if it hadn't been so loud.) Finally at 9:30, the Pilots took to the stage, and the crowd roared so loudly, I think it took them by surprise a little.

It was a good gig. The sound was terrific (so loud, it threatened to take out our eardrums, but this was a good thing; the Pilots' musical aesthetic is partly about that crashing, pounding aural intensity), they played a mix of classics and newer stuff (but more classics; here's the setlist), and whenever they did one of their older, more well known numbers, the audience sang along and raised their arms in welcome. It surprised me that some of the numbers were a lot slower than on the CD; normally bands speed things up live. Weiland kept the intros short and snappy; he didn't seem to care whether we knew what the songs were about (and perhaps we didn't care either), but the band lost a bit of momentum, taking breaks in between just about every song except the first three. They came back to do just one encore (“Trippin' On a Hole in a Paper Heart”—Ben's favourite Pilots song), and then it was over.

Being the Entertainment Quarter with the worst traffic flow in the universe, we quickly realised it would take forever for us to get out and that we were better off going to get a drink somewhere instead of sitting in gridlock. Just about everything was closed, but the 24-hour convenience store was doing a roaring trade, so we got Cornettos, soft drinks, Brie and crackers, and sat outside a (closed) Golden Century Seafood Restaurant at one of their tables and dissected the show.

Half an hour later, the traffic was less ridiculous, so we parted ways, and Ben and I listened to Tiny Music all the way home.

As the week progressed and I talked about the gig, more Pilots fans came out of the woodwork—from people I never would have expected. One of them told me she hadn't heard about them in years and couldn't believe they were still touring. Another was really disappointed he couldn't go to the Hordern show (his wife was expecting a baby that week). It seemed interesting to me that everyone talked about them with a smile and an element of nostalgia—as if the Pilots were a band they had grown up with, their music forming some sort of soundtrack to their lives.

Last night was their Newcastle show, and Ben left early in the afternoon to take a road trip north with Brendan and Fell. Marto was away on holidays, but Leigh, despite having attended the Metro show and wanting to get rid of his ticket, decided to come too. Instead of sitting (which was probably more to accommodate me—bless them), they stood down near the front. The setlist was more or less the same, but the crowd was friendlier, and the Pilots kept the momentum going and played an extra encore. I couldn't help thinking that that was something that should have happened 10 or 12 years ago when Ben was just coming out of his teens—him and his best mates all getting together, taking a road trip to see their favourite band. But maybe it wouldn't have worked then; I don't know. It made me glad that it could still happen years later when they had all grown up.

Hmm, I have managed to spend the entirety of this post talking about nostalgia and music and your relationship with it over time, and yet I haven't even touched on the song. If you've read this far, you've probably guessed that I just picked a Pilots song at random. I did, more or less. “Adhesive” is my favourite song of theirs, but I do really like “Still Remains”. It's a bit anthemic (and I'm a bit of a sucker for anthemic; wait 'til I get talking about The Twilight Singers in a few of the later posts in this series), but what's interesting about it is it's quite slow. It encapsulates aspects of grunge (and when I listen to it, I imagine scores of long-haired youths nodding along to its rhythms), but still holds to the melody and hooks in both guitars and vocals. I'm going to be a bit of a broken record in saying that I have no idea what the song is about (a girl? a serial killer? suicide? “If you should die before me / Ask if you can bring a friend …”), but it doesn't really matter. I think what I love about it is its laidback-ness (it's mostly in a major key, with a few forays into the minor) and its dynamics—how, with a crash of the cymbals, everything falls away except for lead guitar for a couple of bars, before they all return. I don't know if you can listen to “Still Remains” and not feel good about the world—even in spite of its subject matter. I think that's what makes me keep coming back. Ask me again in another 10 years.


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