Artist Spotlight: Truly (or; The Best 90’s Band You’ve Never Heard)

Truly’s Fast Stories… From Kid Coma was just remastered and released on Bandcamp on the albums 25th anniversary, with a vinyl release coming sometime in the near future. In celebration of this album, I wanted to submit an overview of one of my favorite overlooked bands (Some gentle urging by other Avocados caused me to re-purpose this in its own post).

Buckle up for the unofficial story of the best 90’s band you’ve never heard: Truly.

The story of Truly goes back to the summer of 1989. Singer/Guitarist/Keyboardist Robert Roth and his band Storybook Krooks had just released a demo tape, but by the time it was out, they had broken up. Sub Pop’s Johnathon Poneman and Roth had a chance meeting on a city bus, and Ponemant told Roth how much he liked the tape. When Roth explained to him that the band had just split, Poneman told Roth, on the down low, that Nirvana was looking for a second guitarist.  They were half kicking out Jason Everman, and Everman was half quitting. Nirvana was specifically looking for someone who could write, in addition to playing guitar. The Storybook Krooks tape had found its way to Kurt Cobain through a mutual friend of Roth and Mark Lanegan, who was talking up the tape a lot. Roth had a chance meeting with Cobain at a TAD show, and the two spent a few hours just talking about music. Cobain told Roth that they were going to go on tour as a three-piece to try that out before committing to adding another guitarist. Roth explained that now was the time for them to get together, because he would be busy by the time Nirvana got back.

So, Roth and Nirvana jammed for about four hours, and seemed to be hitting it off. Word got back to Roth from mutual friends that things were looking good, but they wanted to hang out one more time when they got back from their tour. Once they returned, Cobain told Roth that they decided to stay a three-piece.

Meanwhile, Hiro Yamamoto had been becoming increasingly unhappy with the direction of Soundgarden. By some accounts, a rift had been forming between Yamamoto and Chris Cornell, where Cornell’s shirtless sex god antics and increasing ego were rubbing Yamamoto the wrong way.  He left the band after the recording of Louder Than Love and before the tour. He felt that A&M Records was forcing them into a heavy metal pigeonhole, he was fine with being in a hard rock or punk band, but heavy metal was a bridge too far (sometimes, the reason for his departure is that he wanted to go back to college, sometimes he quit because of depression). Yamamoto was replaced temporarily by… Jason Everman.

After Roth was not going to join Nirvana, he started Truly with former Screaming Trees drummer Mark Pickerel. Pickerel quit Screaming Trees not long after they signed with Epic, partly because of frustration with excessive touring, partly because he didn’t feel his contributions were valued in the band. In 1991, after two years of no musical activity, Yamamoto joined the fold.

Truly set up a meeting with Sup Pop with some 4-track demos.  On the day of the meeting, Nirvana had just left Sub Pop, and Poneman was seething. Roth reflecting on the meeting said, “How much more of a receptive audience can you have than a label guy who just lost his best band?” The label and band agreed to do a four song EP, alternately titled Truly, Married In the Playground, or Heart and Lungs, depending on who was cataloging it for sale. Roth’s vision for the band leading up the October 1991 release of the EP, was that the first wave of grunge was over, and that the band was “going to be sort of a post-grunge band in the way that maybe Siouxie and the Banshees or a band like that was considered post-punk. Like, we’re going to take the original premise and idea of this and try to expand on it, because it’s been going for about three years.”

Sub Pop was ready to sign Truly for a huge amount of money based on the band’s “Heart and Lungs” being selected for the Singles Soundtrack. Cameron Crowe hand picked the song himself, but thanks to major label shenanigans, their track was replaced by Screaming Trees’ “Nearly Lost You”. The soundtrack was on Epic, Trees were on Epic, Truly had become a victim of corporate synergy. Sub Pop was still going to sign them, but for a very long deal, and with very little money, so the band walked. (The track did make it onto the 2CD special edition of the Singles Soundtrack… they just had to wait until 2017.)

Congratulations, and thank you if you read this far, now we’re getting to the point.

After that setback, the band eventually signed with Capitol Records in 1993. At the time of the signing, the label told the group to focus on building a brand, and making cohesive albums, as opposed to singles. Capitol wanted the band to be more Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd, and told them not to worry about singles until their third of fourth album.

Sometime during the recording of Fast Stories… From Kid Coma, Cobain had killed himself. The entire music scene had changed overnight, and labels were rethinking their strategy. By June 1995, the album had more or less come out too late.

This album is not like anything else under the sun. Yes, it’s rock, yes, it’s grunge adjacent. The elements put together make something else entirely. The bass is severely heavy, the guitars are loud and fuzzy, but the songs have pop hooks… that is the songs that don’t have long dirges or prog keyboards. It’s pretty weird that Roth almost joined Nirvana, he has a real Cobain quality to his voice, particularly on the screams. In a perfect world, Truly would have filled that void left by Nirvana.

Once again, Columbia House came to the rescue for me in late 1995. This album was added, and naturally the description mentioned “former members of Soundgarden and Screaming Trees.” I was getting it for half off, so why not take a chance? A few years back, I learned that a lot of bands never got paid from Columbia House sales, so I humbly apologize to the band.

I remember, I had been working at McDonald’s for a little more than a year. Fall was ending and winter had just begun. Being 19, I of course was saddled with all the closing shifts. I had saved up for a discman and a cassette adapter for my car, and I had gotten the mail on the way to work. Fast Stories sat in my car and waited all night for me to get out of work and give it a spin.

Putting it in, “Blue Flame Ford” starts with a simple, soft mellotron riff. I immediately worried that I had been burned, and bought something because I was misled. But then, BWOMP. WOMP WOMP WOMP. The bass kicks in like a punch in the nose. Ok, we’re off and running. Driving through the deserted small-town streets, and then rural roads, in the dark of night with moonlight reflecting off the new fallen snow, I was treated to something akin to Cobain singing for Black Sabbath if they played psychedelic pop.

This past Saturday, Truly unexpectedly released a remixed and remastered version of the album through Bandcamp for it’s 25th anniversary. The also reinstated a fan favorite b-side, “Aliens On Alcohol”, which was supposed to be on the album in 1995, but at that time, CDs weren’t stable enough for music over 74 minutes. The album has been out of print for at least 15 years, and it’s available for a mere pittance of $10. DO NOT SLEEP ON THIS RECORD.

Fast Stories… From Kid Coma on Bandcamp

After the release of Fast Stories the band had successful East Coast and European tours. However, when they returned home, the music climate was not what it once was.

After Cobain’s suicide, grunge was in a death spiral. People wanted lighter fare, and that void was filled by Everclear, Hootie and the Blowfish, and the hottest Seattle band at the time… Presidents of the United States of America.  Even though “Blue Flame Ford” was going to be added to Modern Rock Radio, Capitol made the decision that they weren’t going to back any of their existing works, on focusing on the future. They wanted to start the next record instead of “dumping money” into the old record.

There was a fluke, a song called “Leatherette Tears”, a piano driven pop song that the band had been fooling with at sound check. Capitol records loved it, and said “give us ten more just like it!” Well, everything the band did, Capitol wasn’t into it. So, inevitably, Truly left Capitol and signed with Thick Records out of Chicago.

1997’s Feeling You Up is a very different record from Fast Stories. The songs are shorter and more direct, but the darkness is still there and the atmospherics prog-style transitions between songs are also present. “Twilight Curtains” is a (then) modern rock take on a sort of goth song, while “Possessions” is a psychedelic eulogy culminating in a scream, and “Repulsion” showcases some ribcage rattling bass from Yamamoto.

In my personal journey, it’s the opposite side to the same coin. It was the beginning of summer when I heard “Public Access Girls”, and I wasn’t so concerned about the change in sound (it was only the first track after all), it still sounded like Truly. I can remember being psyched for the record, and it was one of the first internet purchases I had ever made. I had just broken up with a girlfriend, and I was for the first time really putting myself out there. After dates, I would drive home with the windows down, listening to album, again in the dead of night. Those girls came and went, but Truly was with me forever.

Until they broke up.

It’s the age old story, a band that almost made it, but instead is ground up and spit out by the major label machine. There was a Europe only CD collection of b-sides called Twilight Curtains, but other than that, the band was gone.

This album is also out of print. There are two copies listed on Amazon, one for $902.81, and the other $969.00. Now, I’m not going to tell you that it’s worth that much, but I’m not going to dispute it either. You could also just buy it digitally on Amazon for $8.99. To find it, you have to look for the Singles Soundtrack Special Edition under Digital Music, then click on the band’s hyperlink. Otherwise, you’ll just be wading through a million versions of Savage Garden collections.

Feeling You Up on Amazon

But wait, there’s more…

Ten years after breaking up, Truly was invited to play a Spanish rock festival in 2008 with Sex Pistols, Ray Davies, Dinosaur Jr, Los Lobos, and … Hanoi Rocks?

Anyway, the band had reformed, and had been promising new music since 2009. Eventually, they played a 20th anniversary tour for Fast Stories in 2015. In 2015, they announced a new single. The single, Wheels On Fire b/w No One Remembers the Game, eventually arrived in 2018.

The vinyl 7” is long gone (mine is purple!), but the single is available on Bandcamp for the princely sum of $4, and it includes three other b-sides. “Aliens On Alcohol”, “I Hit Ignition” (both from the Fast Stories sessions), and “20th Century Voluntary Slaves” (from the Feeling You Up sessions).

Wheels On Fire on Bandcamp

That’s it. Go home.