Treepeople, story of a indie rock band – interview with Scott Schmalijohn
di Giovanni Panetta
A tale about Treepeople story; an interview with Scott Schmalijohn about Treepeople, an underground, historical band.

Treepeople in ’90.

Sometimes music is a mix of opposite elements. Treepeople, with the Hüsker Dü, Dinosaur Jr., etc… lesson, taught and spread this concept, carrying melodically beautiful music with distorted and powerful patterns, similar in a certain way to Minor Threat hardcore and the last Black Flag phase. The quartet saw as original components Scott Schmalijohn and Doug Martsch (who will fund Built To Spill band) at guitar and voice, Pat Brown (the greater Scott’s brother) at bass, and Wayne Flower at drums. The band is irradiated by a grey light, which was in touch with a more famous subterranean reality. From Boise, in Idaho, the quartet moved to Seattle, in Washington, and entered in contact with the grunge scene. For example, there was a testimony of a concert with Nirvana and Dinosaur Jr., in 1991, to Portland (even if that audience was much more enthusiastic for Nirvana, who were climbing the rankings than the other two…).

Dinosaur Jr./Nirvana/Treepeople live at Melody Ballroom, in Portland (Oregon, USA), 20 June 1991.

Treepeople released various EPs and singles, and four albums: Guilt Regret Embarrassment (1991, Toxic Shock), Something Vicious For Tomorrow/Time Whore (1992, C/Z Records, which is a compilation with the mentioned EPs, one per side), Just Kidding (1993, C/Z Records), Actual Re-Enactment (1994, C/Z Records). In Just Kidding and Actual Re-Enactment the band is almost totally crumbled, but Scott’s energy, the only member in Treepeople until the end, remains intact and vital as usual, especially in the last album of 1994.

We interviewed Scott Schmalijohn about his experience in Treepeople, who will recounter the history of an obscure band but with a fervid sound. Following the interview.

Let’s start from your beginning; Treepeople and State of Confusion are a mix of indie rock with noise/garage elements, with a strong, relevant character from hardcore punk music. It can be seen as a bridge between indie rock with punk attitude and ’60 sensibility, and the more well-structured sound of American alternative rock (grunge music/scene was included, indeed we moved from Boise, Idaho to Seattle, Washington when Treepeople were born, but in this context, you had an even larger sonic vision, do you share?). Can you talk about how did happen the start of your indie music reality?

State of Confusion was the second hardcore band we had after Dissident Militia, our first punk band. We were influenced by all of the early hardcore bands like Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Minor Threat, etc. We would skate down to the local record store and finger through the one box of hardcore music and pick out records that  we had no idea what it was was but looked cool. We would take it home put it on the turntable and go “wow” cool. So I quit playing football and started playing guitar in high school. I took lessons from a really cool guy named Rob Matson and he showed me scales, cords and Black Sabbath songs. I loved Led Zeppelin and alot of the 70’s hard rock bands.  Once we got into hardcore me and Erik Hansen (SOC’s drummer) started jamming together. Our buddy jumped on bass and we became Dissident Militia. Our other buddy Wayne Flower started writing lyrics and singing for us. The bass player quit, Wayne went to bass and my brother Pat Brown (Schmaljohn) came back to Boise from college and started writing lyrics and singing. That is when SOC was born. We toured and played a lot of shows in Salt Lake City where the promoter Brad Raunch booked us with awesome bands including Samhain, DRI, Agnostic Front, Poison Idea and others. SOC went from 1983 – 1988. We met Doug Martsch in 1985 and he was just starting to play guitar. He was from Twin Falls ID where we would go play often. He would ride up there with us to hang out with friends and watch us play. He formed a band called Farm Days and we would play shows together in Twin Falls and Boise. SOC and Farm Days broke up and we joined forces with Doug.  Pat moved to bass and Wayne moved to drums. That became Treepeople. Our friend Tad had moved to Seattle and said there was a great music scene going on there so we decided to move Treepeople to Seattle in 1989.”

Treepeople is a band with cacophonic and sweet melodies at the same time, whereas the drawings of Mark Sheer in your artworks are emblematic, indeed a dreamlike, weird, sweet and sour imaginary emerges from these works almost-similarly to the Marc Chagall and Henri Rousseau paintings. The weirdness flows between you, in a similar way as other indie bands like Sonic Youth, Hüsker Dü and Dinosaur Jr. Anyway I can see rawer influences that came from the last Black Flag and Butthole Surfers sounds (indeed during the Guilt, Embarrassment, Regret period you play a rework from Butthole Surfers’ coupled-song that was Lazer Beam-Flame Grape (with guitar phrases from another BS’ song titled Jimi)). How did happen this ambivalence, and what were the real reference point, visual or musical?

“After our hardcore punk days we started getting into other things like Hüsker Dü and The ReplacementsSonic Youth and Butthole Surfers. Doug was into David Bowie and some other things that inspired some different song writing and melodies to our music. We still had an edge but wanted to explore different things than just fast bar cord punk. Treepeople was a great collaboration of all kinds of bands. We really liked the Pixies and Dinosaur Jr. Mike Scheer is a great friend and artist from Boise. He was Doug’s age and they went to high school together. We loved his bizarre, surreal art and it seemed like a perfect fit for Treepeople. Both me and Doug have used his art for his band Built to Spill and my last band The Hand. Mike is an amazing artist.”

Something Vicious For Tomorrow is your masterpiece, a real greatest-hits in any sense. Liquid Boy has a rampant flow with abstractist distortions and candid riffs and in addition sweet original harmonies. Big Mouth Strikes Again has a more tentacular, polychromate sound with respect to the Smiths’ cover. The titletrack has a multifaced character with heavy distortion, hardcore velocity and a more hip-hop part at the end. Funnelhead in permeated by a feeling of naïf and caustic at the same time. There was a certain interesting atmosphere that many other bands (in the past or future) should capture for their production, which I can describe as fabulous in an indie rock sense. Can you talk about how this record was born and how the relative situation happened?

“We made this record after our drummer Wayne Flower quit. There was strife in the band between Pat and Wayne and Wayne quit. We had half of the record written and we got offered to record it and use our EP Time Whore as the side B to make a full record. Time Whore had been a limited release so we wanted to release it with CZ records to get it distributed. I wrote Something Viscious for Tomorrow and Filter and Doug wrote the others. I was really happy how that came out. Steve Fisk and Stuart Hallerman did a great job recording and engineering that record.”

You made a split with Archers Of Loaf, a double seven-inch with, per band, two tracks, one original song, and one cover written by the other. You played Meet At The End (the original song, which is a sunny-glimmers, fervidly catchy song) and the cover from Archers Web In Front, a most chaotic, magmatic, weirdly noisy version of the hit by the Chapel Hill band. (Archers offer a version of your piece Funnelhead from the EP Something Vicious For Tomorrow, that appears slower and more rarefied). Can you talk about how your relationship with Archers Of Loaf happened? Can you talk about the meaning and the creative process of the song Meet At The End, which I should see as a clearly unlucky indie/alternative hit?

“We used to play with Archers of Loaf and had similar indie style rock. We met them and hung with them in Chapel Hill North Carolina. We thought it would be cool to cover each other’s songs. Not really sure about Meet at the End and how that came about. It has been a long time now and things have been forgotten.”

The next two albums following Guilt, Regret And Embarrassment (that are Just Kidding and Actual Re-Enactment) lacked the energetic bass sound by your brother Pat Brown (who missed in 1999), and before the release of your last album, there isn’t the more rounded and jangle Doug Martsch’ guitar. The total future direction moved into more fuzzed and heavy sonorities (in particular the last one (Actual Re-Enactment) is in the sign of a further variance because of the most personal abrasive and powerful usage of distortions and sour-sweet harmonies), by contrast, the energetic and dreamlike music represented your debut. Can you describe the motivations behind this change of policy? Moreover, can you talk about quitting those founder members?

“Doug left Treepeople to form Built to Spill and we still had a record contract with CZ so I decided to finish out that contract and just write and perform my songs. My brother Pat quit and moved back to Boise to have a baby. Pat was a great bass player, brother and friend. R.I.P. He became addicted to opioids and passed away in 1999. With the loss of Pat’s bass, the new members, and loss of Doug and his songwriting it made the Treepeople sound different for sure.”

In the end, can you talk to us if there will be next news about new unpublished material by Treepeople? Next news about a tour with Doug and Wayne?

“There are no new or unpublished recordings.

“Treepeople (and the original line up minus Pat with his replacement Troy Wright) is doing a Northwest tour August 9 – 13th in Boise, Portland, Seattle and Bellingham.

“Thank you for this inteview.”

Share This