The year was 1999, and it looked like the writing was on the wall for Screaming Trees.
Formed 14 years earlier, the Trees were born in Ellensburgh, a ranching town in Washington State some 100 miles from Seattle.
Notionally, they were a punk-rock group - as was any band that put out an album on the Black Flag frontman Greg Ginn's SST Records, as the Trees did three times in the late 1980s. But really, Screaming Trees' music came from somewhere else. Theirs was a lumbering, hard-rock sound with a psychedelic, mystical edge - steeped in Led Zeppelin and Cream, but, more than anything else, reflecting the nature of their surroundings: drugs, blue-collar poverty and the dense forests and craggy mountains of the American north-west.
Screaming Trees, who days ago released the last recordings before their split 11 years ago in the form of Last Words: The Final Sessions, were ahead of their time. Their music predated the wave of grunge bands that emerged from the Seattle region in the early 1990s, and when that wave appeared, they rode it: spurred by MTV hits such as Nearly Lost You - a notable addition to the soundtrack from the film Singles - their 1992 album Sweet Oblivion sold 300,000 copies in the US. But Screaming Trees never quite made the leap to being superstars. Their George Drakoulias-produced 1996 album Dust included 10 grandly orchestrated, quasi-religious songs of deliverance set to the vocalist Mark Lanegan's sublime, world-weary baritone. It won glowing reviews but sales were modest, and by the time the Trees came off tour a couple of years later, they had no record label and no industry interest.
"There were no smart rock people at any of the major labels by 1999," says the Trees' drummer Barrett Martin. "It was all going the way of the boy bands."
Screaming Trees might not have had options, but they did have songs. So, between the winter of 1998 and the summer of 1999, the band dropped into three studios - Stone Gossard's Studio Litho and Jupiter Studios in Seattle, and a stint at Ocean Way in Los Angeles - to commit those songs to tape. "We recorded for posterity's sake, and I don't think we thought beyond that," says Martin. "The Trees never really had any grand strategy."
The previous decade or so had been a difficult one for Screaming Trees. A decade spent in each other's pockets had taken a toll on inter-band relations, and Lanegan's drug habit, a problem since his teens, made him a volatile character. Around the time of Dust, the guitarist Van Connor told the UK rock magazine Kerrang! that "this band is like being in a dysfunctional family - you're used to the abuse so you keep on taking it".
Yet, says Martin, for Screaming Trees' final sessions, none of this entered the frame. "Everyone was clean and sober, and it was the summer and fall in Seattle, the most beautiful time of the year."
Friends Peter Buck of REM and the Trees' touring guitarist Josh Homme, then readying his own band Queens of the Stone Age, came by the studio to offer guest parts, and everything was harmonious.
"There was a lot of laughing between the takes, and you can hear it on the multi-tracks. Lanegan was in rare form," adds Martin.
Following a final gig at the opening of Seattle's Experience Music Project in 2000, the band announced their split. The final sessions, recorded to two-inch tape, were sealed and left to gather dust in Gossard's studio basement. And that, for Screaming Trees, was that.
Until now. Last year, Martin and the Seattle producer Jack Endino cracked open the tapes to discover they were still intact. With the band's consent, the pair cleaned and restored the recordings, and the result is the Screaming Trees album that never was.
Songs such as Ash Grey Sunday and Crawlspace are a reminder of what a great band the Trees were at their peak, lean and urgent, shorn of the mellotron, sitar and harmonium that were a hallmark of Dust.
"I like that production, but I wanted to produce the band to sound the way we really sounded - live, spontaneous, explosive," says Martin. "These are elementally great songs, and too much overproduction would have ruined them. The Trees don't need an orchestra to sound like the Screaming Trees."
Following the Trees' split, all have remained in music. Lanegan joined Josh Homme in Queens of the Stone Age, and has pursued a busy solo career, as well as recording with Isobel Campbell and with Greg Dulli in The Gutter Twins. The guitarist Gary Lee Connor and his brother Van play in their own bands, Microdot Gnome and Valis. Martin has toured with REM and Stone Temple Pilots, and currently fronts his own world-jazz outfit.
As for Screaming Trees, well, who's to say?
"I'm not trying to be cryptic about it, but I truly don't know," says Martin. "We're all on good terms, we're friends - family, in a strange way. That's mostly due to getting older, having families, gaining a little bit of hard-earned wisdom after all those years. The important thing is that we made some albums that have stood the test of time. I think Last Words stands up there with Sweet Oblivion and Dust. More importantly, we all survived as people. No small feat in itself."