Robert DeLeo: Re-Entering The Stone Age

With Robert DeLeo's Stellar Bass Work, Songwriting And Production, Stone Temple Pilots Are Back On Top
By Jon D'Auria ,

Hristo Shindov

Shortly after celebrating the 25th anniversary of their 1992 debut, Core—and after announcing the search for a singer that brought in more than 15,000 demos—Stone Temple Pilots went silent. The band had coped with the deaths of both original singer Scott Weiland in 2015 and his replacement, Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington, in 2017, and STP fans were uncertain whether the alternative rockers had simply given up. That changed, however, when cryptic messages began surfacing online, eventually revealing a surprise show in Los Angeles for a lucky batch of fans. It appeared that Stone Temple Pilots’ hunt was over, and that they’d finally found their singer.

On November 14, 2017, fans packed the historic Troubadour in West Hollywood, surrounding the stage in anticipation. As the band finally walked out and kicked into “Down,” new singer Jeff Gutt—trim and confident, with a booming voice and spiky blond hair—wore a nametag that said hi, my name is … jeff. He grabbed the mic in a way that reminded everyone present of Weiland, conjuring instant flashbacks to the band’s ’90s heyday. Guitarist Dean DeLeo, drummer Eric Kretz, and the band’s heart and soul, Robert DeLeo, ripped through the set, playing every STP classic from “Interstate Love Song” and “Vasoline” to “Plush” and “Big Empty.” While much of the attention was on Gutt, it was impossible to ignore Robert’s impeccable execution of his soulful lines, given all the more impact by his charismatic stage presence, his trademark for the past 32 years.

The following day, the band announced it was getting ready to release a new self-titled album produced by Robert and Dean, which had been completed at Robert’s HOMeFRY studio earlier in the year. The 12-song disc showcases the DeLeo brothers’ pedigree as songwriters—but the real magic lies in the bass work of Robert, who takes the lead on tracks like “The Art of Letting Go,” “Roll Me Under,” and “Good Shoes.” The studio signal-path formula he’s perfected over the years sounds better than ever: His mids cut through powerfully, while his lows fall perfectly between Eric’s kick drum and Dean’s guitar melodies. Robert even links up with Gutt’s vocal lines in the chorus of the first single, “Meadow,” which also features the added ear candy of an unexpected bass solo.

At age 52, Robert DeLeo has spent the past several years in high demand, collaborating with the Doors, Joe Perry, Hollywood Vampires, Jeff Beck, Billy Gibbons, Johnny Depp, Kings Of Chaos, Delta Deep, and a slew of others. DeLeo’s longstanding love affair with music, and his fanaticism about songwriting and songwriters, have driven and sculpted him since he was a boy listening to Motown and Stan Getz’s samba compositions on the AM radio. Robert’s musical DNA contains a broad mix of genres that has only gotten more expansive over the years, and he’s feeling more inspired to write than he has in a long time. Now, for STP’s third chapter, he has all the right elements to do it with.

You and Dean produced Stone Temple Pilots together. How does that impact your playing?

It’s funny being your own producer, because you really have to keep your ego out of it, or at least try to. Dean and I rely on each other for that. For instance, on “The Art of Letting Go,” I finally got a chance to use my 1972 Fender Jazz Bass, which was perfect for that track. Originally I played a much busier bass line that felt good, but Dean said, “Umm, that’s just a little busy.” I was upset at first, but I wouldn’t be able to wear my producer’s hat if I had said, “No it isn’t! It’s fine!” So I went back, rethought it, and simplified it, and now that’s the riff. It really works in the less-is-more way. I’m very happy with how that song came out because of it.

It must be difficult to drop the ego while wearing both the musician and producer hats.

It is hard, but you absolutely have to—especially being brothers. It’s not always the easiest thing to do, but it’s very rewarding at the end. It strengthens our bond and our relationship as brothers in a band together. But do you think Berry Gordy ever asked James Jamerson to play fewer notes? [Laughs.] I’m kidding, but I’m always so amazed at how much James put into each song. I mean, with the amount of notes he played, he was really earning his money on every track [laughs]. It works so magically, too. His playing, his notes, his rhythm—it’s all there. I heard those songs as a kid, and it changed me forever. And his tone … oh, man!

How did you dial in your bass tone this time?

I’ve been trying to perfect my formula in the studio for years, and I’m really happy with where I’m at. It’s a constantly evolving process, though. I pick up little things here and there and learn new tricks as I go, and I have a pretty good handle on it now. I use three tracks of bass in the studio: I have a Little Labs DI, and the direct is really nice on it; I mic a ’67 Ampeg B-15 for the second track; and for the third, I take a 1971 Ampeg VT-22 combo, which is a guitar amp with the power section of a 100-watt V-4 in combo with a 2x12 speaker. I unplug the speaker and I put the signal into a 1970 Marshall 8x10, with the original Celestion speakers. It provides the growl for me. Those old Ampeg panels had the rocker switches where you can notch in these great midrange frequencies. That’s how I get my mids to come out, just slightly below the guitar frequencies. I’m pretty nuts about vintage stuff. I don’t l know if it sounds better, but there’s something about setting it up and plugging it in that turns me on.

How did you and Dean split the writing duties?

Dean and I usually equal out and share the brotherly balance of writing for our records. I had some ideas pretty fully developed, and there are songs like “I Thought She’d Be Mine” where Dean has the whole song finished going into the process. That’s the beauty of music: There’s no wrong or right way of doing it. We always seem to have a friendly competition to top each other in music and songwriting, and that’s been a healthy thing for us as brothers and bandmates.

How did the process of making this album begin?

We put down some musical ideas we had written when Chester was still in the band. We finished the music, but we had nothing vocally, and then these songs just sat around for a while. We picked them back up, formed them melodically, and then had Jeff come into my studio to see what kind of path he’d take. Typically, when Dean and I write music, we have some sense of where we want it to go melodically. Jeff came over and put his stamp on the songs, and it just clicked on his own. Usually, when you meet someone, you don’t ask them to lay their emotions out on a table in front of you right away, but that’s exactly what we did. It’s a pretty intimate, heavy thing to do with someone. That day, he came up with some great stuff, and we got really excited about it.

How did the first single, “Meadow,” come about?

That was an idea that I had written originally; Dean added the pre-chorus, and then we put it all together. When we finally got Jeff in the band, it was a group effort on a lot of these songs. Dean and I would bring in ideas, and then in pre-production, we’d start hammering out lyrics, melodies, and arrangements, throwing things against the wall. On “Meadow,” I even snuck a bass solo in there. That doesn’t happen very often, does it? We were jamming and I was thinking about arrangements, and I just put that down before the guitar solo, because it felt so right. I always think about how a song will go live when we’re writing, and that was a part I wanted to play onstage.

Hristo Shindov

You went on an arduous, open-call hunt to find a new singer. How did you finally find Jeff?

It’s funny, because he wasn’t one of the 15,000 submissions we got. We tried some great singers, but it was a matter of finding the right person. There were a lot of boxes to check off for us to be happy; we didn’t even know if we could find that person. We went through all of those submissions and narrowed them down, but then we heard about a singer in Detroit who we were told would be perfect. Sure enough, he was. And on top of it all, Jeff is a great person, which is one of the most important qualifications for us. It was a “needle in the haystack” scenario, and somehow, we found that needle.

Why did you decide to go with an unknown singer instead of an established rock star?

We were trying to give everyone a chance. Every single person on this planet who came forward—female, male, whatever color, race, or background they were—we gave them a shot.

Once you had a singer and a new album, were you nervous about public reaction?

I didn’t know what to expect, but we had already changed the formula with Chester, so we kind of had an idea of what it would be like jumping into that unknown. I guess the situation was out of our hands. You know, for us it’s always been about the power of song. I can certainly speak for Scott and Chester, too, in saying that the power and longevity of song is why they did it and why we’re still driven to do it. There aren’t a lot of things that are more special than the everlasting quality of music. It’s part of our soul as humans. And I always just wanted to be a part of that. That’s why we’re still going.

You’ve experienced the death of your lead singer twice. What was that like?

I still feel them and think about them both, every single day. I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you if it wasn’t for Scott’s contribution to STP. We were such an important part of each other’s lives, and I think about him constantly. Somewhere down the line, he lost his way, and there was nothing we could do about it anymore. As anyone will attest who has dealt with someone with severe addiction, you just wish you could have done more. It’s sad the way he went, and it’s sad to think about him not being here.

I think about Chester every day, too. He was such a talented artist and just a beautiful human. Seeing him go and not being around here anymore still hurts so badly. A few hours before Chester passed, I sent out a tweet that asked, “What do you listen to when it’s dark and late and quiet?” I wrote that my midnight meditation was a Wes Montgomery song called “I Wish I Knew.” A few hours later, I got word that he was gone, and it just hit me so hard. I never listen to that song the same anymore. Those two guys were huge parts of my life, and I miss them dearly.

How is Jeff’s chemistry with the band?

I would know what it was like if it wasn’t going to work out, as I’ve been in that situation before, and I can tell you that I’m not worried about that at all. With Jeff, it’s a great continuation of what we’ve always been doing, and it’s our way of moving forward and being able to write new music. There’s so much for us to say again, and I’ve been writing a ton lately. That spark of continuing music is alive and well in the four of us. It’s a matter of exciting and igniting each other with music. It’s the biggest part of my life, and it always will be. Jeff is a great addition to that.

You’ve kept busy playing with a lot of big projects outside of STP.

I made the decision to do a musical walkabout. I told Dean and Eric that I was going out to experience some new things musically and get my head off STP for a bit, so I started saying yes to a lot of projects. The first project I got involved with was playing with Robbie Krieger and John Densmore of the Doors. We did a beautiful night that was made into a film called Break On Thru: A Celebration for Ray Manzarek by my friend Justin Kreutzmann; it was such an honor to play with them and be in their presence. Right after that, I hopped into Delta Deep with [Def Leppard guitarist] Phil Collen, which was a great opportunity to play with some great people. We did some touring and made a record, and that was so much fun on the bass side of things.

Lately you’ve been performing with Joe Perry.

Aerosmith is one of those bands that’s beyond the sum of its individuals; they’re awesome players, musicians, writers, and performers. When I came into puberty, a lot of music was coming out that was great for a boy at my age. To a lot of us, hearing Aerosmith was like sex ed. Now, when I play with someone like Joe, it’s like kissing that first girl again. I want those guys to know what that means to me, which is ultimately, “Thank you for raising me.” It’s that heavy.

What has been a surreal musical moment for you?

As far as “pinch me” moments go, I went to Japan last November and got a band together with photographer Ross Halfin for the Classic Rock Awards. While I was there, I was introduced to Jimmy Page, and I got to spend the week with him and then perform as the house band for Jeff Beck. The band was Dean, [Alice Cooper guitarist] Tommy Henricksen, Phil Collen, [drummer] Ray Luzier from Korn, Johnny Depp, and myself. We got to play with Jeff, and it was just phenomenal. He called us the best house band ever. It was very humbling to be in his presence onstage while Joe Perry and Jimmy Page were in the seats watching us.

You play with Johnny Depp in Hollywood Vampires and have become close friends. How is he as a musician?

Man, I love Johnny. He’s a brother to me. I think Johnny looks at acting more like his day job. In his heart, he’s a musician first. He’s super-creative, and he’s got music running through his veins all the time. It’s incredible how deep into music he is and how great he plays. It’s inspiring to be around.

How does it feel to have influenced so many players?

To be honest, I didn’t know. But it’s very humbling to hear that. I’m just funneling what I learned, and I’m not taking credit for any of it. That’s the best we can all do. That’s what music is all about—just passing it along. We’re all part of a bigger power as musicians, and it’s important to keep pushing that forward. I’m just happy to have spent my whole life making music. If my 12-year-old self could look into the future and see what I’ve been doing, he’d be absolutely freaking out.

What advice would you give to a fellow bass player?

Be a listener. Listen to as many kinds of music as you can. Growing up, I would listen to Tito Puente as much as I would listen to the Beatles. That’s what takes your body, mind, and soul in entirely new directions. Going from James Brown to Aerosmith to the Beatles to Stanley Clarke to King Crimson to Stan Getz is what will develop you as a musician. And the journey is just endless. Absorb it all—however much you can get your hands on—and listen to everything. It makes music more important, and it gives you a wider range of sonic abilities.

Music is not the place to be ignorant. People will criticize music, but I tell them, don’t criticize it until you play it, because you can find something new in everything, no matter what it is. And then you realize it isn’t as easy as you thought. Everyone has their own talents and ways to put forth their music, and it should be celebrated and appreciated. Music is a sacred, beautiful thing.

“SHOE SHINE”

By Chris Jisi

Robert DeLeo’s bass work on stone temple Pilots is an ear-grabbing, gut-pleasing excursion paved with pocket, tone, melodic might, and attitude. Perhaps no track captures that better than “Good Shoes,” a 16th-note-based steamroller oozing with lyrical lines and songwriting craft. Example 1 shows DeLeo’s verse bass line (first heard at 0:05). Bar 2 shows his fill at 0:45, which perfectly complements Eric Kretz’s drum fill. Explains Robert, who plucked his ’65 Fender Precision with the E string tuned down to D, “As the song’s main writer, Dean [DeLeo] told me he was hearing a keyboard bass-type pulse for the verses, which I tried to emulate. To do so, I had to play with a softer attack than I normally would, to control the evenness in tone, time, and note duration of the pedaling notes, while also keeping them chugging to drive the track. Of course, [Tower Of Power’s] Rocco Prestia is always on my mind with a part like this.”

Example 2 has DeLeo’s chrous bass line, at 1:04, with its climbing three-note-groupings in the 1st and 3rd bars, and upper-register, answering fills in bars 2 and 4. “I came up with the three-note idea, which Dean doubled, and I wanted to add some higher-octave riffs, which I played around the 12th fret to get them to jump out a bit more.” Finally, Ex. 3 shows Robert’s part on the song’s bridge section, starting with the pickup at 2:09. It contrasts the song’s previous sections both by moving from a D Mixolydian to an A Aeolian tonality, and by switching from a 16th-note feel to an eighth-note feel. Still, DeLeo issues cool 16th fills in bars 1 and 5, and he applies syncopated Jamersonesque pivots between the root and 5th in bars 3, 4, 6, and 7. “Those bounces between notes always feel good to me, and what inspired me to play the fills is space. If there’s room to tastefully move around and say something, I’ll take it!”

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Stone Temple Pilots, Stone Temple Pilots [2018, Atlantic]

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Bass Nelson Custom PJ Bass, 1959 and 1965 Fender Precision Basses, 1972 Fender Jazz Bass, 1968 and 1974 Fender Telecaster Basses, 1971 Rickenbacker 4001, 1965 Gibson EB-O, 1960s Orlando, 1976 Gibson Thunderbird
Rig Line 6 Bass PODxt Pro, two Ampeg SVT 8x10 cabs, 1967 Ampeg B-15, 1971 Ampeg VT-22, 1971 Marshall 8x10
Pedals EHX Bass Micro Synth Strings D’Addario roundwounds (.050–.105)