Stone Temple Pilots Tell the Stories Behind Their Classic Album 'Purple'

Chris Cuffaro
Stone Temple Pilots

There wasn't a more freewheeling major label at the cusp of the mid-90s than Atlantic Records. In 1994, the House that Ahmet Built was in a full-on gilded age, not only with the commercial success of acts like Tori Amos, Hootie & The Blowfish and Collective Soul, but with the incubation of such vital indie artists as Daniel Johnston, Eugenius and The Melvins as well. And living comfortably between these two worlds was San Diego's Stone Temple Pilots.

"I feel like we were one of the last of those rock bands doing those kinds of deals with major labels, which gave us creative freedom," explains STP bassist Robert DeLeo to Billboard. "That's what we always wanted, and Atlantic was such a wonderful place to be back then. You had guys like Danny Goldberg, Tim Sommer, Doug Morris and a lot of great, great people who were really in our court. [Producer] Brendan [O'Brien] didn't like industry people in the studio. He firmly believed in making the records ourselves and delivering it to the label without any interference. And Atlantic had enough trust in us to do that. So we did get to do what we wanted creatively and I'm very thankful for that."

After the success of their 1992 debut Core, the band's anticipated follow-up, Purple, began construction almost immediately after the band's first major North American tour, one which saw them starting out as the opening act for one of their underground heroes The Butthole Surfers. The album, which dropped June 7, 1994, topped the Billboard 200 and delivered two No. 1s on the Mainstream Rock Songs chart with "Vasoline" and "Interstate Love Song." On Oct. 18, the band oversaw the release of a super deluxe edition containing a trove of demos, early versions, acoustic versions and a complete concert from the New Haven Veterans Memorial Coliseum in New Haven, CT on Aug. 23, 1994.

"For Purple, it was so streamlined," recalls drummer Eric Kretz. "I mean, we had that record recorded and mixed in three and a half weeks. The reason was that we were coming off a year and a half of touring for Core, so we took only a month off and then hopped in a Los Angeles studio, got in a room and began working on songs and arrangements. Then we flew to Atlanta to cut the album with Brendan O'Brien almost immediately afterwards."

Despite the hastiness of the creative process to build upon the momentum of Core, it turned out STP had crafted what would grow to become their singular classic. It's an honor rarely bestowed upon sophomore efforts, but the band entered into the creation of Purple brimming with all kinds of ideas.

"When we did Core, we were still just coming out of playing clubs between San Diego and Los Angeles," Kretz tells Billboard. "And we knew that we wanted to create these hard rock songs with specific tones to them. And I think after touring for a while, we were really much more aware of how to achieve different tricks and techniques in the studio we weren't really hip to before. There was this sense of urgency to deliver something for Atlantic, but despite that for Purple we really honed-in on different types of sounds and how to manipulate the studio more to our liking."

One song on Purple that stuck out from the fray almost immediately was "Lounge Fly," which has since become a live staple for the band. But in the studio, it was a song that found the band delving deeper into the concepts of tape manipulation, no doubt influenced by the likes of David Bowie and Brian Wilson, both of whom they began covering on the Purple tour with beautifully crafted renditions of "Andy Warhol" (which they debuted in 1993 on MTV Unplugged) and a version of The Beach Boys' "She Knows Me Too Well" off their 1965 LP The Beach Boys Today.

"For 'Lounge Fly,' Robert had this whole part worked out in his head where he's playing the harmonics on an opening tuning on his 12-string guitar and would then run it backwards," explains Kretz. "So that way the decay is before the note. Then we ran that as a loop and I came up with the melodic tom thing on the drums and put that through a loop and developed the sound for the beginning that way. It was a lot of fun to try new stuff. The more we delved into the studio, the more we discovered what we can do. You listen to all those great Queen and Zeppelin albums, and there's just so much going on there you have to ask yourself, 'How were they getting all those effects?'"

One other key aspect of Purple that helped STP move beyond the stigma of emerging at the cusp of grunge's third wave is how much this album actually veers away from the band's meat-and-potatoes hard rock formula, allowing their collective influences in folk and country to permeate throughout. As DeLeo mentioned when Billboard spoke with him to premiere the live version of "Interstate Love Song" from this box set over the summer, the twang on the album's biggest single emerged from the bassist's love for Glen Campbell and the Bakersfield sound. However, when you get to some of the suppler sounds of Purple on tracks like "Big Empty" and "Pretty Penny," Kretz cites the impact of folk music and AM radio pop as significant touchstones.

"I know talking to Scott back then, our parents would plays us stuff like John Denver, Gordon Lightfoot and then a ton of country music like Emmylou Harris and Johnny Cash," the drummer tells Billboard. "As kids, that's what we heard growing up, Robert and Dean included. It all gets so absorbed into your DNA. There's no fear in saying how we wanted to channel that and put it in a song. In the same way, it was similar growing up on AM radio, which we all did as well, and hearing the Carpenters, Fleetwood Mac, Elton John and 10cc. Seventies pop radio was so fantastic in terms of the craft of songwriting and performance. Scott really knew how to sing and present that kinda stuff to us as well. You should have heard him back in the day when he'd sing Carpenters songs in the studio. It was like he really got it and really understood where it comes from deep inside."

Kretz also tells Billboard how location shifted the sonic direction for some of Purple's quieter moments, namely with regard to "Pretty Penny," where producer O'Brien chose to move the band outside of his Atlanta studio confines to capture the essence of this Dean DeLeo-penned, Celtic-kissed ballad.

"For 'Pretty Penny' Dean had the chord progressions and the strumming all figured out beforehand," the drummer explains. "When we were in the thick of making Purple, he showed everyone the song and then Brendan said to us, 'Hey, I have a great friend Clay Harper who owns a record company, and he's got a two-inch eight-track machine at his house.' So we were like, 'OK, field trip!' We went up to Clay's house and set up in his living room. Robert, Dean and Scott were all sitting on the couch, and I had some congas and bongos set up on the other side of the living room, and we just went live to tape. We did a couple of overdubs and knocked it out in no time. And that's how that song should be, and this is where Brendan shines extra bright with his ideas. It was in someone's living room, which made us feel comfortable, especially after performing on the set of MTV Unplugged. It felt natural, because this is how a lot of songs are written, with hand drums and acoustic guitars."

Perhaps the biggest, and strangest, departure from the standard STP sound comes at the very end of Purple, about 40 seconds after the album's epic closing number "Kitchenware and Candybars" fades out at 4:20 on track 11. Around the 4:55 mark, you hear the opening strains of a song called "My Second Album," cut in 1985 by Seattle musician and lounge jazz enthusiast Richard Peterson, who let the Pilots tack on the tune at the end of Purple for a nominal fee.

"Robert and Dean were doing an interview at a radio station in Seattle when they saw an album by Richard Peterson in the studio," Kretz tells Billboard. "Then they heard some of his songs and fell in love with them, and we all began listening to it. And he had this one song where he was singing about his second album and how they are twelve gracious melodies, and thought it was perfect for Purple. So we are very lucky we got to tack it on at the end as a hidden track. Then, of course, we baked the cake for the back cover as a little clue to its existence. Richard is a very talented musician who was way into Johnny Mathis. Back in June, meanwhile, we went to Rhino Records to talk about a bunch of stuff, and they wound up presenting us with a modern replica of that cake on the back cover. The first one we never ate, but this modern take on it was delicious!"

After Purple, Stone Temple Pilots would go on to record four more studio albums with Scott Weiland before the singer died on Dec. 3, 2015. Each of these works -- 1995's Tiny Music…Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop, 1999's No. 4, 2001's Shangri-La Dee Da and their vastly underrated eponymous 2010 swan song with Scott -- are impressive listens that reveal their collective growth as musicians and collaborators. And Kretz hopes all of these titles get the Rhino deluxe edition treatment over the next few years, given there is enough audio and visual ephemera to merit box sets as immersive as the ones we've enjoyed with Core and Purple.

"Now that this is out, we're gonna start putting together photos and audio for Tiny Music," he reveals. "A big part of it is who's got footage and who's got photos. Man, I can just kick myself now thinking about making Purple in early '94 and not going out and buying everyone in the band really nice cameras, because all we had were those stupid Kodak instant ones that sucked. But we gotta see what we all have stashed away."

Meanwhile, the Mach 3 version of STP with current singer Jeff Gutt is currently hard at work on the follow-up to 2018's second eponymous Pilots LP. And for those fans who hold that more reflective, singer-songwriter element of the band's music in close regard, Kretz brings good news.

"We will be coming out with an album next year that's definitely going in a different direction, more along the lines of the unplugged stuff," he promises. "We're also going to be doing a specialized tour around that as well, because there's so many songs we can't play live because we'll need a couple of extra musicians, so we've stripped them down to a softer format. Wait until you hear Jeff's vocals on this record -- it's unbelievable. He will show you undoubtedly how great he is on this album. Anyone who has any doubts about where he stands, he's gonna win you over and knock you out."

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