Robert DeLeo of Stone Temple Pilots is that rare bassist, a man who has played the world’s biggest stadiums but never lost sight of his roots. Joel McIver talks to him about ‘60s rock, the dreaded grunge tag and the curse of GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome)…
Photos: Kevin Estrada
Robert DeLeo knows that he’s a lucky man. As he says: “I’m in southern California, how bad can it be?” BGM calls for a chat about life at the bass end of Stone Temple Pilots, one of the biggest alternative rock bands to soundtrack 1990s America. “I recently played a gig in honour of Sly Stone with some really cool bassists,” he adds. “Any time I can get on stage with Nathan Watts, Marcus Miller and Al Turner, I’m happy.”
From time to time we meet a true gear-head in this magazine: a bassist who knows exactly what he wants and wastes no time in getting it, but as soon as he’s got it, the next cool bit of kit is calling. Just look at the pics in this feature, snapped by ace photographer Kevin Estrada a few days before our conversation.
“See that double-neck guitar?” says DeLeo. “Every once in a while I get on this Japanese kick and start collecting quirky ‘60s and ‘70s stuff from that country. That one is a Telstar: I haven’t seen too many of those. It actually sounds really good: the guitar side is like a Danelectro. The mute was still on the bass side when I got it, and I put flatwounds on it. I got it on eBay, back when stuff was cheap. I travel around a lot, and all the most desirable basses have pretty much been bought up by now: there’s not much around any more if you just want to go into a shop and look around. In the ‘90s, and even into the 2000s, you had all these great little mom-and-pop shops that had a wonderful amount of instruments – but they’re so hard to find now.”
Still, DeLeo can console himself with the thought that when cool gear was both findable and (relatively) affordable, he had a pretty good go at buying it all up. “I’ve been collecting vintage stuff since 1994 – and I bought a warehouse-full of stuff,” he chuckles. “For some reason I’ve become the keeper of basses that look new: I’ve had great fortune in finding things that are in mint condition, even though they’re old. A lot of my basses have been in cases for over 20 years. I have a good friend who had a guitar shop from the late ‘70s through to 2000, and he has a collection of between 700 and 800 instruments, and I’m lucky enough to be able to call him and have him round up what he has.”
“See that Jazz bass?” he adds. “That was one of those that had not been opened for over 20 years. It has all the original case candy – the pricetag, the polishing cloth, the chord and the strap – it was pretty amazing to find that. That 1971 Fireglo Ricky? I had to get rid of about six basses to get that. I’d been looking for one of those for ages. Before that I had a ’76, which I bought around 1994 in New York, and it sounded good so I used it a couple of times on STP records. I bought that thing for £650.”
DeLeo’s gear addiction first started when he moved from his home state of New Jersey to California to pursue a career in music. On his arrival, he says, a certain humbucking bass caught his eye: “I got hooked on Music Man Stingrays when I moved here in 1984,” he explains. “A friend of mine told me to check out Louis Johnson’s Star Licks cassette: it just blew me away. It’s funny, it was right around the time that Richard Ramirez [a frankly horrible serial killer dubbed the Night Stalker in the mid-1980s – Ed] was walking around at night, and I was living in the town of Mission Viejo at the time, down in the south of Orange Country. He attacked someone in my town one night and I couldn’t go to sleep, so I was up all night learning Louis Johnson licks because of the Night Stalker. I told myself that if he did come to my house, at least I’d have a large, heavy piece of wood in my hand,” DeLeo laughs.
With all this tasty bass gear to hand, you’d think that DeLeo would find it easy to decide which ones to take out on the road once STP got big after their debut record, Core, in 1992. But no – he’s canny enough not to let road crew, or come to think of it, baggage handlers, get their mitts on his prize gear. “I’ve heard too many horror stories,” he says, and we know what he means.
In any case, in due course DeLeo had a signature bass made for him by Schecter, an instrument that he plays live to this day. “I don’t dare take any of the old rare stuff out on the road, so I play the Schecters on tour,” he tells us. “In 1990 or ’91, right around the time we got signed, Schecter started building me some instruments that I was really happy with. I really enjoy that bass: it’s basically a new version of an old 1950s P-Bass. I’ve moved to lighter woods over the years, though: the ones I played in the ‘90s were so heavy.”
In due course, most of DeLeo’s bass collection had to go, he tells us, with an audible trace of regret in his tone. “A couple of years ago I said, ‘I’m paying money to store guitars I don’t even use’,” he sighs. “I have the mentality that it takes an idiot to complicate and a genius to simplify, so I started simplifying my life and getting rid of stuff that I really wasn’t using. The basses you see on the floor on these pictures are what I actually use. They pretty much define my history as a bass player.”
DeLeo’s taste for vintage gear applies also to his amps, he tells us. “I use a ’61 Bassman head with a Showman 15” cab, split into the power section of the Ampeg BT combo. I like that because it has those midrange rocker switches that makes the bass stand out. That goes into a 1970 Marshall 8×10 cab, with all the original Celestion speakers in there, and then I run a third direct into a Demeter direct box. That way I can add the grit from the Marshall if I want to.”
Asked how he got into bass, DeLeo makes a claim that most of us couldn’t match. “I had a sonic appreciation for bass from when I was really young,” he says. “A lot of people can’t remember things from when they were three, but I can. I was born in 1966, and I remember hearing Motown in 1969, and the music really hit me. When producers were mixing music back then, they definitely put a lot more bass in there, because they knew the songs would be played on car radios that didn’t have a lot of low end. That’s what I heard and felt when I was three years old, and it steered me towards R&B as far as bass goes. Then Led Zeppelin and the Who came along. John Paul Jones was amazing: if you think about it, he was successfully marrying R&B with hard rock.”
“When I heard those bassists, they really caught my attention,” he adds. “How could you not recognise what they were doing? I got into progressive rock and fusion around the age of 12, although I was listening it rather than playing it. How could you play what Jaco was doing? There was no YouTube back then: you had a cassette or an eight-track to listen to, and you didn’t know if you were playing it right. It was beautiful that it left something to the imagination, but on the other hand the younger generation has everything right in front of them in 3-D. If it helps music, though, so be it.”
“I started playing guitar because of my older brother, Dean [Stone Temple Pilots’ guitarist],” he says. “I would play his guitar when he was out and try and learn songs from the radio, and put it back in a hurry when he got home. I didn’t get that good, of course, because I was playing it secretly, but when Dean joined a band at school, they asked if I wanted to play bass. I was 16 or 17 and they were all 21, so it was a bit intimidating, but I borrowed a bass from their bassist, who was switching to vocals. He gave me a ’78 P-Bass, which is a pretty good bass to start on. I played it through a Sunn combo: a lot of sound came out of that amp. I started to learn as many songs as I could from as many artists as possible, and that’s what gets you well-versed in music: playing as many kinds of music as you can.”
DeLeo was a fingerstyle player from the start, he tells us, simply because he’s built that way. “I’m six foot two and I have the arms of a monkey – they’re very long!” he laughs. “For that reason, I can’t play with my bass high and my wrist bent. I play too hard to do that, anyway, and I end up really hurting myself, so it’s natural to have my arm and wrist extended down and just using my fingers. Although playing bass with a pick didn’t feel comfortable to me, I did greatly appreciate players like Chris Squire. To this day, he blows my mind: on the first Yes record, he had his tone together right from the start.”
Deleo’s bass education included a lot of slap, as you’d expect from someone schooled in 1970s R&B, but ultimately it didn’t become the prime tool in his bass arsenal, he tells us. “I learned a lot of slap from a lot of great players. I listened to ‘Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)’ by Sly & The Family Stone, and how could you not pay attention to the bass in that? So I listened to Larry Graham and Louis Johnson and Flea – in fact, I learned a lot of slapping from listening to Flea. I learned from Mark King, too, who is a monster bass player. You saw him and you thought, ‘How the hell is he doing that?’ and he sings as well! Incredible… so I wanted to be this master slapper, but I lost interest in it because I knew there were people who were way better than me. My attention went back to songwriting, and as a result my slapping went away.”
The funk stayed with him, however, he admits. “Once in a while I’ll pull it out. Dean and I played in Joe Walsh’s band back in 2004, and the drummer was Steve Ferrone, of the Average White Band. Every now and then in soundcheck we would lay down some funk. Steve is such a brilliant musician. When we locked in, it was a complete Shangri-La for me. It was truly an honour to play with those guys.”
Given this background, it’s not surprising that when Stone Temple Pilots blew up and everyone in the civilised world was referring to them as a grunge band, the term didn’t sit well with DeLeo and his group, who also featured Scott Weiland on vocals and Eric Kretz on drums. “I don’t think anybody from that era really enjoyed being called a grunge band,” he asserts. “I mean, I had my hair slicked back and I was wearing wing-tip shoes [‘brogues’, as we Limeys refer to them – Ed], so I didn’t think of myself as a grunge guy. I just liked writing and performing loud music with a good backbeat. I could write stuff with jazz chords and react harmonically to that on bass. I still enjoy doing that exact same thing to this day.”
Ask DeLeo about the high points of his career as a Stone Temple Pilot and one of them is ‘Vasoline’, the 1994 hit with an immediately identifiable bass part. “On ‘Vasoline’ it was all about the wah pedal,” he says, “just a straight wah on the higher octave and playing a half step. It’s very country, actually, if you hear it on its own. That came about in the studio: our producer Brendan O’Brien, who is the perfect person to make records with, showed me a lot. He had a large collection of vintage gear: every time you went into the studio it was like a vintage carnival. We would grab whatever was laying around and try stuff out.”
Recently, STP has been through a singer change, with Weiland enduring what is referred to in the media as ‘personal issues’ and his place taken by Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington. “Everything is great with the band,” says DeLeo. “Chester is an awesome human being, man. We have our own label and we’re making music out of my basement, so we’re back to where we all started.” The new, Bennington-led line-up debuted in 2013 with the High Rise EP, a five-tracker which DeLeo describes as the starting-point for where STP intend to go.
“The High Rise EP was a lot of fun,” he enthuses. “We got to do that here in my home studio. There’s a certain inspiration that you feel when you can go downstairs, turn the lights on and do it right in your home. It’s the same with bass playing: it’s amazing how you can purchase an instrument and it can inspire you.”
“I think you always evolve as a bass player,” he concludes. “It comes and goes like the tide. It’s been a 20-plus-year journey and I keep trying to evolve. I’ll try and make every song speak as best as possible.” Wise words, that man.