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Music Notes: More stories from the grunge era

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Mark Pickerel shares a memory of his time with the Screaming Trees in the recording room of Velvetone Studios, formerly known as Albright Productions, Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019, in Ellensburg, Wash.

A couple of weeks ago, we published a look back at how the famed Seattle rock sound of the late 1980s and early 1990s impacted Central Washington.

I spent nearly two hours one afternoon talking with original Screaming Trees and Truly drummer Mark Pickerel for that story, and most of that conversation ended up on the cutting room floor for space reasons. I figured I could include a few notes from that conversation here.

One of the things that struck me was just how young the Trees — an Ellensburg band formed by Pickerel, Mark Lanegan, Gary Lee Conner and Van Conner — were when they started in the mid-1980s. And Pickerel was the youngest of the bunch. He was a junior in high school when (the now legendary audio engineer and producer) Steve Fisk recorded the band’s first cassette release at Ellensburg’s Velvetone Studios.

Fisk’s relationship with K Records founder Calvin Johnson helped The Screaming Trees get off the ground. Johnson wrote up a glowing review in his fanzine, got the band distribution and booked their first Olympia shows. They opened for Johnson’s band, Beat Happening, first, and then opened for Wipers, the cult-favorite Portland punk band.

Him: “We had become really big fans of the Wipers by then,” Pickerel said. “I remember I skipped school and got in a hell of a lot of trouble to make this gig work. It was on a weeknight in Olympia, and I was still a senior in high school and was already at risk to not walk away with a diploma. I was just hanging on by a thread.”

Me: “But also maybe not THAT concerned about it?”

Him: “Bingo. But my parents were still very concerned. I was so close to the finish line.”

Me: “In hindsight, nice to have that diploma.”

Him: (Laughing loudly.) “Yeah, it’s really served me well.”

He also remembered seeing, then getting to know, Nirvana back in the early days.

”Visually, they were very awkward. But their chemistry was attractive. You know what I mean? It was strange that a band could look that awkward and possess that much charisma at the same time, which was one of the things that made them attractive. ‘These guys know something.’ That lightning-in-a-bottle.”

And Pearl Jam, which he didn’t connect with as immediately.

“I got to go to CMJ on Sub Pop’s dime when I was working for Sub Pop around 1990 and Pearl Jam’s debut still hadn’t even dropped. But they were playing, I think, at The Marquee, and Sony totally hyped it. It was a huge turnout and everything. And I was a fan of Mother Love Bone, and I was friends with all those guys and went to the show because someone else suggested it and I wanted to support them and hear what they were all about.

“And I thought they were horrible. It wasn’t because they didn’t play well. It’s just that their choices did not appeal to me. ... But I will say they totally won me over in less than a year. Truly shared the stage with them at Bumbershoot a year later. We were playing the side stage and they were on the main stage, and by then, in less than a year they had turned into a proper stadium rock band. They were on top of their game.”

People in his hometown started taking the band seriously only after they signed with SST Records in 1987, a contract that sealed the band’s immediate future.

“That gave us cred you can’t imagine. It was like we were christened. It changed the game completely. All of a sudden we’re label mates with Black Flag, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., The Meat Puppets. ... The newfound vote of confidence from SST and the underground press and all of that really went a long way and really motivated us.

“We were all at a crossroads anyways just because of our age. Lanegan was actually enrolled at YVC for, I forget what he was going to pursue, but he was ready to go back to school or else join the carnival. He almost left with Metzger’s Carnival when they came through. So it eliminated any of our other pursuits; here’s all the validation we needed and all the encouragement we needed.”

The funny thing was, as they strove to be more like other bands from bigger cities, The Screaming Trees’ rural look — the flannels, the ripped jeans — suddenly got very popular.

“There were all these other bands we wished we could be more like, because if we could achieve that it would make us feel less like a bunch of hickoids. It’s ironic the whole grunge scene adopted the very look we were trying to shed. But then that was pretty great, once we discovered that we could actually go back to wearing all of our hand-me-downs from our parents, all the flannels.

“I actually did wear my grandfather’s clothes. There’s photo shoots from that period where I recognize hunting jackets that my grandpa wore.”

And that’s all for now. There were a lot more stories in that hour and a half interview, but I’ve again run out of space and time. Suffice it to say the guy’s got more good stories than most people. Maybe I’ll find a spot for a few more of them somewhere else on down the line.

Reach Pat Muir at pmuir@yakimaherald.com.

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