Stone Temple Pilots bass idol and principal songwriter Robert DeLeo steps out for a journey of his own with his debut solo album
With a career that has accumulated many milestones and tremendous achievements in the span of almost four decades, Stone Temple Pilots’ Robert DeLeo has just now notched off a new accomplishment at age 56. With the release of Lessons Learned, DeLeo marks his debut as a solo artist through the deeply personal and beautifully emotive album. Though taking the spotlight in this way is a first, songwriting is nothing new to the seasoned bassist, as he has always served as the principal writer for Stone Temple Pilots, alongside his guitarist brother Dean, drummer Eric Kertz, and the band’s latest singer, Jeff Gutt. Stylistically, the album differs greatly from his alternative-rock writing with STP, as energetic riffs, bold bass runs, and distorted lines are traded for warm acoustic tones, folk and roots influences, and at the heart of it all, simplicity.
In 2020 Robert was faced with his longest stretch of downtime off the road since he first formed STP in 1989, and he was experiencing changes in his life that resonated deeply within him on every level. Being unable to tour for the release of STP’s acoustic album Perdida , he decided that he needed a vehicle to work out the emotions he was experiencing. Finding inspiration with the recent acquisitions of a modified guitarrón and a nylon-string guitar, he turned to the one constant comfort in his life: songwriting. Focusing on his lyrics and the bigger scope of each song, his bass playing is somewhat minimal across the album’s ten tracks, with a greater focus on placement and tone, which he accomplishes expertly. His rich lines on “Big Sky Woman,” “Love Is Not Made of Gold,” and “Lessons Learned” tastefully encapsulate the low end of the music that filled his New Jersey home when he was a boy.
A lot has happened in Robert’s life since those early memories, but his love of folk and bossa nova music has always remained and has fueled his writing for STP as much as it has his solo work. Stepping away from his larger-than-life persona that he’s cultivated with the band, this next chapter unveils the vulnerability and sentimental warmth of a man reflecting on his ups and downs, while healing himself along the way. As far as debut albums go, this one was long overdue and well worth the wait.
What inspired you to write your own solo album at this point in your career?
Really, it was the state of the world these past couple of years. Everyone was allowed a lot of time to sit down and rethink life, which has definitely been rearranged. I had that time to pull out these instruments and not only appreciate them, but start playing all of them again. After touring for so long, I had an urge to get back into my guitar playing again. I play so much bass at all times, but I’ve written a whole lot of songs on guitar, and I draw a lot of inspiration from that. I got back into my finger playing on my acoustic and got back to where I once was with that. This album basically sparked from all of that. I acquired a couple of new instruments, and every time you get something new, it steers you in a direction or speaks to you in a different way. I was on the hunt for a great couch guitar, and I found an old nylon-string that was perfect. Sitting down with it, I immediately wrote “She Brings the Rain,” which was the first song I tracked for the record. I ended up using that guitar in the studio to record the song. That was the start of this journey.
This album is very different stylistically from STP and most other projects you’ve done. Is this the true musical voice of Robert DeLeo, or just certain shades of it that you were feeling while writing it?
For me personally, I’ve always delved into those areas, even since Core [Stone Temple Pilots, 1992]; “Creep” was almost a country-inspired song, if you really listen to it. All the way through to now, I’ve been integrating my inspirations into STP, which is a lot of acoustic-based bossa nova and samba. I hate to label music, but I just wanted to make a record that was purely me and acoustically pure. That’s really what acoustic instruments do — they bring out the purity of a song. It’s one of the ingredients I appreciate about Brazilian music and country music. The acoustic aspects of these genres speak purely.
You played almost all of the instruments on the record. What was the writing process like?
I’m using a lot of different tunings and capo positions. When I’m writing, I always have my producer hat on. When there are other people involved, especially another singer, you want to get the proper key for that person to feel comfortable and for the song to sound the best it can. Using five different singers was quite the challenge in writing songs that were in the right keys. When I first reached out to them with the songs, I always asked if the keys were working for them, because that was the main consideration. You can’t proceed with recording anything if you don’t have the right key. In finding the right key, you need the right instrument to complement the piece of music. That’s where these instruments came in, and it helped having a choice of what to use. My choices in my basses and guitars were very important to me; all of the layers needed to sound right and work together. It all means something to me. and everything speaks in a different way.
How was your approach to writing these songs different compared to writing STP songs?
It was different in a lot of ways. I’m playing tonight, and STP allows me to do something that I dreamt of as a kid, which was get up onstage and play songs that are 30 years old now. For people to be singing these songs back to you while you’re onstage, it’s a gift. It’s something I never take for granted, and it’s a part of my life that gives me a bit of the fountain of youth. It’s definitely different, however, from sitting down in my place and indulging myself in my feelings or in my life. This record, to me, comes across as my diary to myself. It was that kind of journey, and it was very personal — more personal than anything else I’ve ever recorded in all of my years doing this.
Does it feel vulnerable releasing something like that into the world?
Yes! It’s all on me, but I admire the people that I look to and grew up on for those influences. I look at Gordon Lightfoot and what he unveiled of himself, or Jim Croce, or Cat Stevens — very personal music, and I used that as a template. I wanted to make a record where people generally sit down and play it as an experience in listening. There’s a universal theme on this album, which is heartbreak, love lost, love gained, love lost again. Hopefully someone can get out of it something to help or comfort their own experiences and emotions.
Where did writing your bass parts come in during the process?
Once again, I always put on that producer hat and first try to figure out where the song is going. If it had drums on the track, then it needed bass. “Big Sky Woman” has Steve Ferrone on drums, so I had to play bass on that song, of course! Generally, I had to think about what bass would do to a song if I put it on. For a lot of these songs, I wanted the focus to be on the vocals and the simplicity of that. I was always thinking where the bass would land and where it wouldn’t on these songs. I wanted to use bass judiciously.
How did you go about tracking the songs?
Most of the record was done in Ryan Williams’ garage — he engineered and mixed the album. I obviously had other people that were recording their parts in their places and then sending them to me. Most of my work was done sitting on a couch in Ryan’s garage using the UAD plug-ins. We could pull up the Capitol Studio reverb from the records I love so much. UAD stuff is simply amazing. I have vintage mics, and each mic serves a different purpose on each instrument. When I used my ’59 P-Bass, that was all done direct with no amps and with the Ampeg plug-in, which I think is brilliant. That combination just did it for me for this album. I favor ribbon mics with digital recording nowadays; there’s a little more warmth in there. I was going for a very warm-sounding record.
You could have put out a bass-focused album full of licks and solos, but that doesn’t seem like it would ever be your intention.
I mean, maybe someday. I don’t know. There are so many other people who are so much better at that type of thing. When I first started songwriting I worked at Mesa Boogie, and I was mostly trying to focus on my bass playing back then. I realized that there are so many other people who are great at it, which is what ultimately brought me to songwriting. Songwriting meant so much more to me — and [compared to playing only] it makes you somewhat immortal in a sense, unless you’re Jaco, of course [laughs]. I still have my slapping chops and love stepping out on bass, so who knows what the future will bring.
For this album, I wanted to round out the whole thing. I wanted to play weighty bass — nothing flashy or that necessarily takes the spotlight. I wanted it to come from a different area of my playing. There has always been something very appealing to me about players like Dee Murray and Herbie Flowers using a pick on flatwound strings. I think it originated from [German composer and orchestra leader] Bert Kämpfert and those easy-listening and jazzy albums he made from the late ’50s to the late ’70s. I love those records and the tone he got from the rhythm section’s pick work. I’ve done it before on STP records; I did it on a song called “I Got You” from No. 4 . Picking a ’59 Fender Precision Bass with flatwounds, with the tone all the way up, is something that’s part of my childhood. My parents listened to those Kämpfert records and somehow they stuck into my DNA. I played upright when I was young and I love the sound of that, too. It’s something that I’m forever trying to capture.
You used your modified guitarrón on “She Brings on the Rain” and “Is This Goodbye.” Tell us the story of that unique instrument.
It’s a piece of art, really. It’s beautiful. Ben Harper’s grandfather started a folk music center out in Claremont, California, called The Folk Music Center and he collected an array of amazing and rare instruments from around the world. The store is unique because it’s a music store and a museum, in reality. During the making of STP’s acoustic album Perdida , I needed something that would emulate an upright. We did a field trip out there, and Ben’s brother Peter was kind enough to show me their guitarróns; they had six or seven of them. This one came out and it was converted to a 4-string and fretted. It sounded beautiful. I purchased it right away, along with the nylon “couch guitar” that day. It was a true find. Those two instruments have complemented my songwriting so much.
Which other basses did you use?
I only used the guitarrón and my ’59 P-Bass. That was it.
Can we expect some live performances from this?
It’s been talked about, but this band of musicians would be very difficult to assemble with everyone’s availability. I’d have to try to get everyone in one place at one time. But I’m hoping to make it happen. It would be such an amazing collection of talent. It’s something we’re continuing to talk about.
What’s coming up for STP?
We’ve been touring like crazy since we’re finally able to get on the road again. It’s a lot of fun and a part of my life that I missed for those couple of years, now that we’re out there and playing loud. I need that; it keeps you young. I will always enjoy playing live, and we’re definitely going to keep doing it for a long time to come. –BM
Robert DeLeo, Lessons Learned 
Bass 1959 Fender Precision, modified fretted guitarrón
Rig Ampeg SVT, SVT 810E cabinet
Strings SIT Power Steel and Power Flat strings (.050, .070, .085, .105 and .045, .065, .085, .105, respectively)
Follow Robert: Here