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Hidden Gem of Grunge: The Story of Truly

I have to be honest, before beginning work on my 2009 book, Grunge is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music, I wasn't entirely familiar with the music of the band Truly. But in preparation for doing the book, I finally gave the band a listen. Not only was I blown away, but I can say that their 1995 release, Fast Stories… from Kid Coma, is one of the most underrated rock albums of the decade (if you're not familiar with this disc but are a fan of grunge's crème de la crème, do what's right and track down a copy).

Think a cross between Nirvana and Radiohead (before Yorke and co. went off the deep end with experimentation) and you're not far off from the sound/approach of the Truly chaps: singer/guitarist Robert Roth, bassist Hiro Yamamoto (ex-Soundgarden) and drummer Mark Pickerel (ex-Screaming Trees).

Truly has not issued an album since 2000, but they have agreed to premiere their new single, "Wheels on Fire," here. Give it a listen:
player1


When we spoke with Robert, he told us about the new Truly material, what prevented a second wave of authentic grunge bands, and crossing paths with Nirvana.

Greg Prato (Songfacts): Looking at songwriting, how do you write your best songs?

Robert Roth: With Truly, 8 out of 10 times I have a song that's been written, completed, but then I've left sections unfilled or undecided. Sometimes I bring in real raw ideas and try it out on those guys and it develops into a Truly song that way. There's usually something, it usually doesn't derive right at rehearsal, although it has. "Aliens on Alcohol" being a good example of a song that should have been on Fast Stories. It was on the Blue Flame Ford EP, but it seems to be a popular song amongst Truly fans over the years. It came out on the Twilight Curtains EP, so maybe it's been passed around on the Internet or whatever.

But that song really came from a bassline. I was listening to rehearsal tapes and doing a drive down the coast, and I thought, "Oh, that's amazing. That's just a great piece of music." So I took something that happened spontaneously at rehearsal and shaped it into a composition, so he gets major songwriting credit for that, even though it sort of just fell off his fingers and just sounded amazing.

So that's a rare case of something coming solely from rehearsal. But usually there's a germ of an idea, a chorus, a hook, verse, riff, melody, and then I tend to flesh out lyrics after things sort of take shape as a band. About half the time I already have the lyrics and even a complete song.

Songfacts: I think Truly was one of the most underrated bands to come out of the Seattle movement of the early '90s. The way that I look at it, in a perfect world, Truly would have been one of the bands of the following wave after Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana hit. I thought that bands like Truly and also Sunny Day Real Estate could have been the second wave.

Robert: Well, I did see us as the next answer to grunge. Even when we started before things got real big internationally with Nevermind and everything, my impression locally in Seattle was that the classic grunge style had been done by 1990. And then a new decade came along, and people were kind of like, "Okay, now what? What are we going to do with this?" Sort of like you had The Beatles, "She loves you yeah, yeah, yeah." Now what? Who's going to do the Rubber Soul or Revolver or Sgt. Pepper? Who's going to take it to another stage?

So I felt like when we got together with Hiro and started working on the first EP [Heart and Lungs], that we were going to be sort of a post-grunge band in the way that maybe Siouxie and the Banshees or a band like that was considered post-punk. Like, we're going to take the original premise and idea of this and try to expand on it, because it's been going for about three years. I always felt like we were in the second wave.

And then when Nevermind hit really big, it kind of started all over again, but on a national level. The sound had moved on since the late '80s, but I felt like that was really good timing for us, and a lot of things happened. While we were making it, Kurt Cobain was still alive, and I felt like the music industry had given us the green light for artists and bands of a newer mindset to follow their instincts and pursue their own path, because for whatever reason it had been working. It was similar to the late '60s, when after The Beatles, they started playing bands like Jefferson Airplane and the next wave of those bands. They were like, "We don't know what you kids are doing, but it's working. Keep doing it."

And then about halfway through Fast Stories, Kurt died, and something really changed. The atmosphere in the industry went back to the one hit wonder: "Hey, let's get a band that sounds like Pearl Jam or Nirvana, but let's crank out some hits."

And then there was a real backlash on Seattle. So those factors made it hard for us when our record finally came out; it was like the original grunge scene was on its last breath. Things were going well for us and it was exploding in Europe. There was demand for us to come back, and Capitol basically refused to let us go back there to tour a second time to follow up on the great press. KROQ wanted to add "Blue Flame Ford" to regular rotation and they were like, "No, let's not spend the money on the tour support. Let's just get going on the next record, we'll try to be more organized about it."

There was a lot of upheaval at Capitol and in the industry, so whatever spirit we had started with when we embarked on Fast Stories… from Kid Coma, the encouragement we were getting from the label to push the envelope and to be an album-oriented artist and to not worry so much about singles, that all changed when the record was finally released.

And it was not just at Capitol. You had your Everclears and Silverchairs, and that ended up being the "second wave of grunge" - not bands from Seattle but some other places that were copycats of bands from Seattle, because they were probably easier to deal with, more acquiescent to the typical demands of the industry. Seattle bands notoriously wanted to make a lot of their own decisions about how much to tour, about who was going to make their video, who was going to produce the record. And after Kurt was gone, I think the record companies said, "We've got this now. We don't need you artists anymore to do this. We'll do this our own way." And they ran it into the ground.

Obviously, there's a personal side to what happened with Truly - why we finally stopped. But at the time it was hot for us, we didn't get the support from Capitol. They were ultimately going to be up for sale. When we got back from Europe, our product manager said, "Hey, we're into your record, we love you guys, we just want to keep you under the radar of the bean counters because the label's up for sale." A memo went out - I had several friends around the country who worked for EMI and Capitol - and it said, "Investment in any of the current records that we have out there" - basically Everclear, Foo Fighters, Radiohead, and The Beatles - "Everything else we're not putting any more money into, because of EMI being up for sale."

They just didn't fund the momentum that we had created. So we actually asked to leave the label. Which, looking back, seems bizarre. That was my dream to be on a label like Capitol Records from when I was a kid. So it's strange to me that I was crossing my fingers to get off of that label.

It's interesting, I was listening to this record by the band Pulp. I'd dug up some old boxes out of the basement and found a bunch of my old CDs. This is Hardcore [Pulp's 1998 release], and it's a good record. It's really heavy on the guitars. And I remember my friend at EMI saying that over in England around the late '90s, a lot of the real heavy guitar sounds had come back into British music. In Seattle, the club The Vogue where we loved to play, there were so many great shows, but they shut down and became an electronica dance club. Everything in the States was going against guitars and the heavy Seattle sound, and electronica was being embraced with acts like Chemical Brothers.

Things were going well for Soundgarden, but they were already established. There were big guitar bands doing well, especially in the metal scene. But as far as the scene we were in, things really flipped around in America, and that's when the major label system started imploding as well.

Songfacts: I notice some similarities cover image-wise between Truly's Blue Flame Ford EP and Blind Melon's Galaxie EP.

Robert: In 1995, for the Blue Flame Ford EP, we did a 10" color vinyl thing for Capitol that had this crazy blue yellow swirl thing that they hadn't really done in a while. It was very particular artwork - it was like the dashboard of a car and it was sort of pop art.

I just remember showing up to Capitol one day and looking at the new Blind Melon EP Galaxie, and it's basically the same cover [Blind Melon were also on Capitol]. Different dashboard, but same concept, and it just killed me. And they did a 10". I don't really blame the band, but that kind of got to me at the time. Looking back it's like, "Eh, whatever, no big deal." But at the time that bothered me.

But the story about Blind Melon that I think you might find interesting, when I was talking earlier about calling our product manager, we were on a tour of the States and things had gone real well for us on the East Coast and the Midwest - we played with Supergrass at St. Andrews Hall, that was a big deal. Everything had been really great. The record company people at all the shows, they were promoted, they were kind of on a roll.

Then we hit the Southwest, and it was just kind of dry. The shows didn't seem promoted and we were playing strange places. I didn't realize it at the time, but that was sort of normal for bands at our level, that the Southwest wasn't always the greatest place. But I remember calling our product manager kind of pissed off, and that's when he laid the conversation on me about, "Yeah, we're going to keep you guys under the radar of the bean counters, keep you on the road for the next year. But you know that Blind Melon record [Soup] that just came out? That thing is done. We're over that."

The label hadn't been doing that well for a few years, and Blind Melon had put out two singles and two videos and nothing happened. Then they did the Bee Girl video and song ["No Rain"]. The person who was involved in signing us, apparently that was his call, and it was a huge hit. Finally, a record that Capitol released was making them money. That was a big financial feather in the cap for them. So I just thought how weird it was that they would just turn on this band like that. Suddenly they weren't cool amongst the people at the label who were now desperately trying to catch up and be cool.

We were in Phoenix playing The Mason Jar when this happened. We end up in LA three or four days later, and when we got there, Shannon Hoon was dead. I don't know if there's any correlation there, but if he knew anything that was going on with the label, maybe he was really bummed. Maybe there's no connection at all, but it made me feel bad for this band that had made this label money. I don't know if the record was good or bad - I don't remember what it sounded like. But it doesn't seem like they deserved to have backs turned on them.

Songfacts: I can tell you that two of the most underrated rock albums of the '90s were that Blind Melon album and also the Truly Fast Stories album.

Robert: Oh, thank you.

Songfacts: You should definitely check out that Blind Melon record.

Robert: Yeah, I will. I was going through so much weird stuff at the time that certain things kind of slipped by me. But I do remember hearing some songs off of it and thinking, "Wow, these guys have really grown and taken some steps." It's interesting how on one hand a label can encourage that from you, but then if other people don't appreciate it, they can just go along with the popular thought instead of standing behind their artist. So I really felt like they were stabbed in the back in that sense. I don't know by whom personally, but as an organization.

That's my story on Blind Melon. And I don't hold anything against them for the EP. I mean, that could have been the art department or whatever. It's just that sort of thing's rampant in the industry: people borrowing ideas. I don't like it, but it seems to be acceptable. More now so than ever.

Songfacts: Radiohead was also on Capitol with you guys.

Robert: Radiohead were signed by the old regime at Capitol, and I think that the people there rather unfairly saw them as one-hit-wonders with "Creep," and saw us more as a genuine article, being from Seattle or whatever. We had a certain amount of internal support from just being genuine in some way. Radiohead's next record was The Bends, and I think people at Capitol really did like it; they won a lot of people over with that record after Pablo Honey.

But the frustrating thing to me was that we had been encouraged to be this album-oriented band. I remember going to our first radio meeting when we were about a third of the way into the record, and I'm saying, "I think we've got this other song that is a potential single." And the head of the radio department's like, "You know, we don't want you to worry about that right now. We want you to push the envelope. Be like a Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd, focus on being an album-oriented band, don't worry about singles until your third or fourth records." And we're like, "Really? Are you serious?" Like, this can't be happening. So we decided to do our own thing and make more of an album and not just a collection of songs.

When we came back from Europe and had all this great momentum and two five star reviews from Kerrang!, Capitol was like, "Hey, we've been real disorganized as a label, inter-department communication's been way off. So let's start off on the new record rather than dump more money into this record." So they basically gave us money to start doing demos.

Well, I'd written a song called "Leatherette Tears" on tour that was a real classic Who, Kinks, kind of three minute pop song. We played it at soundcheck on tour while playing this real heavy set of Fast Stories type material. Everybody really liked the song, and it was catchy. We did a demo for it when we came back and the people at Capitol just flipping out over it: "Wow, greatest thing."

Suddenly, instead of telling us to push the envelope and be an album-oriented band, they wanted an album of 10 songs exactly like this one pop song. The mentality had really changed. Maybe not in terms of business, but in terms of music and aesthetics, people were definitely thinking more in a pop direction. That's when the Presidents of the United States of America became the next popular band in Seattle. People really wanted some light after the dark - the thing with Kurt was too much. People wanted to just forget.

So the label wanted this album of 10 alike songs. So we did the Beach Boys cover ["Girl Don't Tell Me"] just because we were just trying to get the green light to make a record, really. We weren't trying to please them so much as we just wanted our second album budget so I could pay rent and start working on the record again.

We did another song called "Air Raid" and "Come Hither," and a song called "Too What What For," all of them a little bit more pop oriented, but not cloned, because I don't know how to write a clone song of another song that I've already written. It takes too much premeditation or something.

They were like, "Okay, these are good. But we're not hearing another 'Leatherette Tears.'" They wanted us to go back for a third round of demos, and that's when our attorney and manager suggested that we just try to leave the label. It became obvious to us that we weren't going to end up with the record that we had in mind, and I think that's the worst thing you can do as an artist is make a record that you don't like. No matter what, you have to like what you're doing.

So we asked to leave. It was frustrating, because Radiohead and Everclear had the same A&R guy who was the head of the radio department, and so Radiohead had gone from being seen as a one hit wonder band - which obviously they're not and never were - to getting the green light to be this album-type band. And we were getting pressure to be the opposite of what we had done on Fast Stories, which just seemed ridiculous, because we were building up this fan base based on the sound we made on Fast Stories. It was like they wanted us to walk the plank, but other bands that had more clout at the label were allowed to continue to do that thing. That was frustrating to me, but that has nothing to do with them personally.

Songfacts: Tell us about your Nirvana tryout.

Robert: My band, Storybook Krooks, which was kind of my first band and my only band before Truly, we were doing well in Seattle, headlining the three clubs that existed at the time, which I think were The Central, Squid Row, and The Vogue. And we were getting airplay locally. We were doing well as a local band, but we had all known each other way too long. It was my brother on bass and best friend from junior high on drums, and we were just going separate ways personally and musically, so we had broken up.

But previously that year - I guess this was in '89 - we met with Jonathan [Poneman] at Sub Pop, because he liked the band. So the week that we had broken up, I was riding the bus - the Queen Anne in downtown Seattle - and Jonathan was on the bus. I moved next to him and we were chatting. He's like, "What's going on with the band?" And I told him we just broke up a few days ago. And he was like, "Well, this is top secret, but Nirvana is half kicking out Jason [Everman] and he's half quitting. Basically Jason's not working out and they're looking for another guitar player who can write."

It never occurred to me that I would want to join somebody else's band, but if there was a band I was going to join, it would have been them. I was a huge fan and I had huge respect for Kurt as an artist.

So the Storybook Krooks tape got passed along to [Screaming Trees singer] Mark Lanegan from my friend Justin, and Lanegan gave it to Kurt and I ran into Kurt at a Tad show I guess a couple of weeks later, and we ended up drinking beers together and just talking about music. We talked for about an hour and a half.

After hanging out for a while, before saying goodnight, he's like, "When we get back from tour I'll call you and let's get together and play." And I was like, "Well, by the time you guys get back from the tour I'll probably be doing something else. So if you're serious about wanting to play together, let's do it before you leave."

They ended up hauling all their equipment up to our rehearsal space and we got together and played for probably three or four hours. It was incredible, because I had never played with guys that loud before in my life. It blew me away. Changed my life. I went to a much bigger amp and a much bigger cabinet after that. Krist was miking his bass cabinet, they were miking the kick drum, and this was just to try me out so that they'd get a rehearsal in.

We played a bunch of songs off of Bleach, and we played one of my songs, which Kurt thought was real catchy. Then we just kind of jammed and made noise and played riffs, and that was a blast.

Anyway, I can't remember if they'd gone on tour yet or not, but a few weeks later my friend Justin, who had given Lanegan the tape, said that he had talked to Kurt that night - this was at the COCA thing when they headlined over Mudhoney for the first time. He said, "It's looking good with you, they just want to hang out with you one more time." But unfortunately we just never got around to doing that. Me and Kurt tried to schedule another rehearsal and for whatever reason the timing didn't work out, and they went ahead and toured as a three piece and decided to stay that way. And the rest is history.

The week I got the news that they were going to remain a three piece was the week I hooked up with Mark and started Truly.

Songfacts: What about turning on Kurt to the band the Soft Boys, and their album, Underwater Moonlight.

Robert: Well, that was after the Nevermind release party at the Rebar. There was a big party at Susie Tennant's house, and a bunch of people headed up, just kind of crashing there on couches, on the floor or whatever. So the next day there was just a handful of people left drinking coffee in the morning and we were sitting on the couch. I just said, "Hey, have you ever heard this before?" And thought he would like it, great guitar stuff and great songwriting and catchy and all that.

I put it on for them and we listened to most of the record. He seemed to like it. And then I think he was getting ready to go shoot a pig roast with Dylan [Carlson] after that. [Laughs] It was interesting. I don't think he lived anywhere at the time. He had his Dodge Dart he was driving.

But he seemed like he was kind of gung ho and ready for the experience. When he showed up to the party he had just gotten back from LA where they'd edited the video for "Smells Like Teen Spirit," and from what I've put together from history, I think he probably had met Courtney [Love] a few weeks before that, but I don't think he was really involved with her in a way that he was soon after.

Songfacts: Concerning the current state of rock music, I remember a friend asked me to list my five favorite albums from each decade starting from the '60s, and when I get to the 2000s, the only album I can think of is Queens of the Stone Age's Songs for the Deaf. I can't even think of any other album from modern times that holds up to anything from the '60s, '70s, '80s, or '90s.

Robert: I know. And I don't want to be that "get off my lawn" kind of guy that's like, "Eww, so much better when I was young." But it's kind of true. And I hate to say it, but young people, I feel bad for them - they're not getting more to go along with this part of their lives. A friend of mine who's a professor at UW has had me come in a couple of times a year to talk, sorta be a guest speaker. The first time it was about the Seattle grunge thing, and then there was a girl there who sort of represented the Olympia Riot Grrrl thing. It was a lot about DIY and how these college kids were having such a hard time relating to seeing something in the back of a fanzine and mailing five bucks in for the cassette of some band they've never heard. Just the whole way things were back then.

I did one of these things with him a few months ago, and there's a different sense amongst a few kids who were born after the '80s. They have no nostalgia for the '80s. But they're a different generation, too. They would have fit in real well in the early '90s, late '80s, because they're sick of the Autotune on all the vocals and the perfect beats and pitch and generic quality to music.

That was what made the late '80s, early '90s a powerful pull, because it followed such a vacuous time, the Bush 1 era where there were a lot of hair bands and drum machines and not a lot of soul. And I think grunge sort of filled the void there and that there's another void that's percolating under the surface. I'm not sure what's going to happen, but I guess it's encouraging in a way.

October 3, 2013. For more info about Truly, visit facebook.com/trulysound.
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