the roadshow has come to town; warm, dusty, petrol head heaven Indianapolis; butane, baby - fire up, spin the wheels and burn rubber. Home of the big race, the Indianapolis 500 - life and death on cambered turns so banked that one mistake and you're a lightning smear to hell. But this ain't Indy - this lumbering beast that's parked all over town is the festival that used to define that other indie, is now a controversial step closer to mainstream, and is still the biggest travelling show of its kind in the world. Welcome to Lollapalooza, 1996 style. Smeared by the kind of commercialism it once disavowed, cut from 50-plus to 30-something dates, headlined by the brute might of Metallica, spun-out once indie gods Soundgarden, the ageless Ramones, the entirely aptly-named Rancid, amongst the side-stagers the staggering You Am I. If it's a long way to the top when you rock'n'roll then the peak is somewhere in this 'hood.
A collection of talent that approaches some kind of deification - capped by the band that got lost in the ruck of grunge and the wall of Seattle units charging into hype central. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, they blew grunge like a torch through the smouldering, faint fire of late '80s rock, lit a trend and cultural metamorphosis, then grew out of their beloved cultism into mass acceptance and mainstream. Nirvana went with Kurt, the rest have question marks pending, something Soundgarden failed to answer on Down On The Upside, Alice In Chains won't with their forthcoming Unplugged and Pearl Jam may with the late August release of No Code.
And they all forgot about the Screaming Trees. Always on the fringe of the major league, the Trees played in the same ball park but never grabbed the frontpage. Until now. Until Dust. A decade after forming in Ellensburg, Washington, the Screaming Trees - the Conner boys, Van (bass) and Garry Lee (guitar), big, bad lads they say, real gentle giants in person ... unless riled; drummer Barrett Martin who moonlights in Mad Season with the Chains' Staley and Mike McCready of Pearl Jam; and the dark, gravel-voiced Mark Lanegan - have delivered the disc to smash the mirror of their contemporaries so-called genius: Dust is the record Soundgarden would love to have made, Alice In Chains may never make (although Jar Of Flies is mighty close) and Pearl Jam, so far, are too entrenched in their ways to make.
On Dust, the Screaming Trees take a step into the past, grab the best of Mountain and quasi-psychedelic Led Zeppelin, rip into their imaginations, grab Benmont Tench of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers for some mellotron, organ, electric piano, piano and wurlitzer, add tablas, sitar, djembe, cello and harmonium, write the songs of their lives and unleash a melodic, harmonic, rock monster for today of towering strength and massive beauty.
Martin has just finished coffee with Ben Shepherd of Soundgarden, they've been mulling over some harsh realities: the American Dream ain't so pretty; the reports ain't so far off beam - the States of decay, then.
"We were saying like when you're on tour your senses are heightened and you're more aware of what's going on," he muses. "You see things with clearer eyes, because you aren't in the protection of your home environment where you're just removed from everything - not that we live behind walls or anything, we all live in houses like everybody else, but you're a bit more removed from what's happening.
"The States is just so big that when you start to travel and get out there, you see a lot of the problems in the inner-city and you just sort of observe and absorb and it can be really frightening sometimes; it's really disturbing at the very least that this country is kind of crumbling apart. Like the Trees had their days when we were rebel rousers. We had some great blow out bar room brawls but that's before cowards started carrying guns and shooting at people and things like that. This was back when you could really live the way you wanted to.
"We had some great blow out bar room brawls but that's before cowards started carrying guns... This was back when you could really live the way you wanted to."
"We all still have that a little bit but the climate's changed and there's a certain degree of anxiety when you're on tour and you see what's going on out in the world. It can be pretty unnerving, at least here in the US. Ben and I were just talking about the kids in the crowds. Lollapalooza is playing some large rural centres but it doesn't matter so far where we go they just loose it real bad, smash into each other, no care, nothing. It's kind of scary, it's always that close to ... "
Over the next hour, Martin unravels a sweeping picture of not only the America he fears, but the responsibility he now sees as vital that the Seattle brigade adopt as some of rock's leading icons and spokespersons, of the four years that led to the munificent Dust (US Rolling Stone just gave it four stars and they've never according to Martin, reviewed a Trees album before), of heroes, respect and the close-knit fraternity that the Seattle connection has become as they finally step outside the limitations of grunge and make the music of their dreams, swapping instruments, line-ups and roles for blistering side projects like the superb Mad Season debut, Mike Johnson of Dinosaur Jnr's deeply moving, slowly simmering, Charlie Rich and Leonard Cohen-influenced second solo Year Of Mondays, Lanegan's two solos particularly the gut-wrenching, oily, knife-edged Whiskey For The Holy Ghost, Lanegan's '95 solo shows supporting Johnny Cash with a pick-up band of Martin, Johnson, fellow Dinosaur Jnr J. Mascis and Mudhoney's Dan Peters, Shepherd's Hater and, earlier, Temple Of the Dog starring Kris Cornell and Matt Cameron of Soundgarden and the surviving members of Mother Love Bone.
"Seattle isn't dead; it's exactly the opposite," Martin says. "Everybody has made a bunch of records and they wanted to collaborate with each other. It's like the old Chess Records when they were getting all those different guys together like Eric Clapton on guitar and the Stones rhythm section and Howlin' Wolf or like the old jazz records where they'd get all these guys together and they'd make a record: you got (Charlie) Mingus and Thelonius (Monk) and Max Roach and Miles (Davis) and (John) Coltrane playing together and all those guys are the heavyweights of all time but sometimes they wanted to collaborate. Likewise us.
"Lanegan's solo stuff is much different to the Trees but he has to do that stuff to get his ideas out, similarly everybody else. We're working on another Mad Season album right now. It's going to be a double album. We just started working on and recording a lot different types of songs about six months ago. There's some all acoustic stuff, very dark and atmospheric, and some stuff that's just like rock'n'roll but it's short and more like we wrote songs as opposed to these extended jams.
"It really is honestly a small supportive community. We're all in Seattle and we all run into each other and work in the studio and play together and hang out. It's just kind of fun to do it. And I agree that it's important that the guys who set the pace a while ago now have to go on and take it somewhere.
"We're all a little bit older but we're not old men by any means. We're all in our late 20s/early 30s, have developed our songwriting and abilities to play other instruments and want to branch out. Now we have the confidence to do so."
And on Dust they finally put it all together. At times, it's hard to believe it's the Screaming Trees that are coming down hard through a tabla led bottom end while Lanegan sings - not growls, sings - some pure notes and harmonics he probably never dreamed he'd find in himself (try Look At You), or it's the Trees that are so incalculably sonorous and melodic that pop spills in rich rock gushes from some heavenly emotional cup - listen to Sworn and Broken, it's as good a song as you'll hear all year, particularly Tench's rippling cascade of tears Wurlitzer solo in the middle off a lovely rolling build from Martin: Mountain's magnificent and timeless Theme For An Imaginary Western echoes at its very heart and soul - or it's the Trees that are so somantic on All I Know and Make My Mind (Conner's solo is blinding), so gentle, articulate and poignant, cerebral on Look At You and Traveler, as assured, experimental, eastern-graced, Western-spaced on the opening Halo Of Ashes and the six-minute plus closing Gospel Plow.
And you know Martin is proud, and rightly so, the Trees threw away an album to find these moments. Van Conner put it straight recently when he said, " ... In the past we'd just go record the thing - now we actually consider whether we like the song or not. In the old days it was like 'hey, somebody's gonna give us money to make a record - let's go make one!'. Now we want to cut something you'd hear in 10 years and it would still sound good. That's why we took so long with Dust, trying to make it timeless."
Martin laughs, "Van never mixes his words but that's pretty much it. We wanted to try and experiment but we've never really had the time before or the kind of producer that leant to doing that. But when we got George Drakoulias, well, he's this amazing person with this incredibly vast knowledge of music and all styles and influences and when we started talking and working up this stuff he was really receptive to it and happy to turn to the odd instrumentation. Lanegan and I were both wanting to experiment with different instrumentation and had been on our side projects so it kind of built up to the point where it was 'alright, we're going to make the record we want', do the all these different things we've been talking about and experimenting with."
Since finishing Dust the Trees have branched out further adding former Kyuss guitarist Josh after Van Conner and Martin discovered him living in Seattle and going to college after Kyuss split last year. They worked on solo material he was demoing up and, hey, "this is the first tour any of us have done in a couple of years and they're like the best shows the Screaming Trees have ever played - having Josh in the band really supports that rhythmic driving sound. "I have to say though that talking about live shows on the side stage are You Am I - those guys are amazing, really good. We played with them on Big Day Out, then they came to Seattle on their US tour just playing clubs but now they're just so fucking good. The Soundgarden guys have been big fans of theirs. So it's cool to have them on the tour. This is fun. And Soundgarden and Metallica have never been better. It's fun, man. It really is fun."
"People prefer to believe the worst about others instead of the best.We all have problems, we all have things we're embarrassed about or ashamed of in our past and we're just trying to be better people."
So is listening to him talk with inordinate respect about Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. Here is the heart of rock, what fires up these guys who are discovering their adulthood, finding that music is much more than just a blaze of lights and a blur of amplified sound in the darkness of endless nights in nameless towns and cities.
His voice drops an octave, "Wow, Willie Nelson. Oh that is so cool, man, Willie ... just to talk to him. You actually talked to him, recently. Wow. Willie's one of those guys who's seen it all from the beginning. Did you ever get that Willie Nelson tribute Twisted Willie ... the guy who produced it was at the last Lollapalooza with Waylon Jennings. And Waylon is like on stage and all the musicians on the tour are on stage, as well, looking at the guy like 'Holy fuck, it's Waylon Jennings, you know' - you can't even believe the guy. He's just a myth. The same way Johnny Cash - those guys they were living rock'n'roll before there was even a term for it.
"There's absolutely nothing that the Trees have gone through that doesn't pale in comparison to what those guys have gone through. I would not even like bring it up in conversation with a guy like Willie Nelson because the guy is - there's nothing that you could ever say or do that even comes close to the legend that that guy is. To get to even talk to the guy, that's amazing."
So he says, in a different light, is Layne Staley, the most naturally gifted of songwriters and singers he's worked with. A man who can walk in a studio and get it in one take, nail the essence of a vocal, an emotion and/or a song to the floor and walk away. His retort to Staley's critics and the endless stories of his drug addiction is the right place from which to depart Indianapolis and Barrett Martin. This, just like the essence of Sworn and Broken and Dust, is the spirit and sense of Seattle, these darkly lit days where life is a struggle and hope can come hard to find.
"People prefer to believe the worst about others instead of the best," Martin burrs. "Whatever Layne's problems are they're not more important than the fact he's an incredibly gifted songwriter and singer. We all have problems, we all have things we're embarrassed about or ashamed of in our past and we're just trying to be better people. We just happen to be musicians and we write songs and we make records. It's no different than digging ditches or pouring concrete or building houses which is something we've all had experience doing."