Last Of The Multi-Platinum Post-Grunge Bands: Creed Talk My Own Prison At 20
The US record industry was doing numbers in the late 1990s that seem incomprehensible now. The year 2000 was the all-time peak, with 785 million total album sales according to Soundscan. In 2001, that number would drop to 763 million, and 681 million the year after that, and it’s been downhill ever since. But in 1997 and 1998, sales were still climbing year-over-year, from 652 million to 711. (To put that in some perspective, more albums were sold in 1998 than in 2014, 2015 and 2016 combined.)
On August 26, 1997 — 20 years ago tomorrow — Wind-Up Records re-released Creed’s debut album, My Own Prison. (The band had pressed 6000 copies of an earlier version of the album on their own Blue Collar label.) It debuted on the Billboard 200 chart on October 18, 1997 at #174, with the title track already a Top 10 hit on the Mainstream Rock chart, which combined sales and radio airplay. In March 1998, My Own Prison was certified platinum; at the time, it was #30 on the Billboard 200. One year after release, on August 25, 1998, it was double platinum and was at #22 on the chart, where it peaked. Ultimately, My Own Prison sold six million copies, and sent four singles — “My Own Prison,” “Torn,” “What’s This Life For” and “One” — up the Mainstream Rock charts. “What’s This Life For” hit #1. It was the 26th best-selling album of 1998, landing right above Janet Jackson’s The Velvet Rope and below the Spice Girls’ Spice on Billboard’s year-end chart. (Thanks to Chris Molanphy for supplying all this chart data.)
The music on My Own Prison took ideas from grunge, which had mostly come and gone by that point, and filtered them through more mainstream hard rock and arena metal. Creed weren’t interested in the punk-rock energy of Mudhoney or Nirvana, but they were borrowing heavily from Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains, whose lugubrious style was a natural fit for Scott Stapp’s baritone roar. Their tempos were slow and heavy, especially on the singles, but Mark Tremonti was a full-on shredder — the guitar solo on “Pity for a Dime” could have come off a Dio album. And album tracks like “Ode,” “Unforgiven” and “Sister” had a pleasingly thick-necked stomp. Lyrically, Creed were plainspoken — poetic, but free of abstraction, a legacy of Stapp’s love of earnest frontmen like Jim Morrison and Bono. And they found an audience fast, seeming to leap straight from clubs to arenas without ever spending time as an opening band or fourth on the bill at some festival.
There was a model for this career path: Grand Funk Railroad. A three-piece from Flint, Michigan that later expanded to a quartet, Grand Funk were maybe America’s most popular and populist band between 1969 and 1972. Their fan base was massive — they sold out Shea Stadium — but critics hated them. Rolling Stone ran an article in 1971, when the band was at its critical and artistic peak, called “Grand Funk Railroad: Is This Band Terrible?” Creed, too, got huge without ever having critical respect. And like Grand Funk Railroad, they haven’t really left much of a cultural footprint behind. They’re not cited as a major influence by any current radio-friendly hard rock bands, as far as I know. The former members are still out there, though. All three instrumentalists are currently in Alter Bridge, who have a new live album coming out September 8, and Mark Tremonti has a solo band, whose last album was released in 2016. Scott Stapp is singing for Art Of Anarchy, whose album The Madness came out in March, and headlining the Make America Rock Again tour as a solo act. All these projects are playing theaters and decent-sized clubs, not arenas. Like the music industry itself, they’ve downsized.
But Creed were genuinely huge at the time. So on the 20th anniversary of My Own Prison, it seemed worthwhile to talk to the men who made it.
STEREOGUM: You guys were all working day jobs and going to school when you made My Own Prison. What was everybody’s job, and was that the last time you had to do something besides music to make a living?
MARK TREMONTI (GUITAR): I was working at Chili’s, I was a cook, Scott Stapp was working at Ruby Tuesday’s as a cook, Scott Phillips was managing the knife store at the mall, and Brian [Marshall] was the only one who didn’t have a job, he was also the only one who ended up getting his degree before it was all said and done.
When we got our first record deal, we got an advance and I quit that job and started working for maybe three weeks at the local guitar shop and then after that we started going on tour and whatnot, so that was it — that was my last job.
STEREOGUM: How did the sessions for the album come together?
SCOTT STAPP (VOCALS): I tell you, you know, we didn’t have a record deal, and we probably had 12-15 songs that we liked a lot and wanted to try to record, but we really didn’t know where we were gonna record ‘em or who we were gonna record ‘em with. And we had met a local promoter and bar owner who had booked us at his venue a few times and had approached us about managing us, and we hadn’t made a decision on that, but he said “Hey, I know a guy in town named John Kurzweg, a former artist who’s now producing records, and he’ll work out a really good deal with you guys and you can kinda pay him as you go.” So that’s what we did, we just went in, in between going to class and all working 40 hour a week jobs and pitched in like 100 bucks a week each and started recording songs. I really don’t think we knew what we had until we started getting the demos done and the album done. And we really lucked out — John Kurzweg turned out to be more than just a local producer. He was extremely talented and I think that definitely shaped the sound of the band and helped us grow and we really made, I feel to this day, a great record.
JOHN KURZWEG (PRODUCER): A friend of mine that I’d known a little bit over the years, who was kind of a fan of one of my old bands and knew that I produced locally and regionally, his name was Jeff Hanson and he took on the role of managing the band. Jeff called me and said, “I have a band that I really believe in and you need to be involved with this and work with them.” I did go see them several times and I actually wasn’t impressed at the time, but I was to find out later when I did finally agree to work with them that they had some really great songs that they weren’t playing live that much. When I would go see them, it was very different from the kind of material they brought into the studio. I think what it was was that, when you’re playing a club, whether you’re playing covers or originals, you gotta keep the energy level up. You’re not necessarily gonna do the more nuanced things. But they were pretty green live. They were not a great live band yet. That said, you could watch people in the audience, especially women, react to Scott Stapp. You knew there was something going on there.
STEREOGUM: Were the songs mostly together before the sessions, or was there a lot of writing in the studio?
STAPP: Yeah, we were just four college guys in a band, playing once or twice a month and just doing this in our spare time and on our own dime. So we had the songs worked out, and recorded them exactly how we were playing them live.
TREMONTI: There were maybe one or two songs that we would change a drumbeat or drop the drums out for a verse once we got to the studio, but still to this day with Alter Bridge and my solo band, I like to go into the studio 100 percent prepared, and then if something magical happens, so be it, but worst case scenario you already have your arrangements ready to go.
KURZWEG: On the first album, it was more [about] trying to get six- to eight- minute songs down to four or five minutes. ‘Cause they had never been in a studio before, and they were used to the way they did them live. A lot of my work with them on the first record [was teaching them that] playing in the studio is a different skill set than playing live. But the songs were either all finished or 90 percent finished when they came in. Now one thing that was different on that record than the others was, we literally started with about 16 songs, I think, and I pretty quickly was like, “These 10 songs are great, these other ones…” I think there were three or four of them that were just fast riffs with yelling and stuff, and they weren’t really songs. They didn’t appeal to me. And I believe Jeff Hanson had to come in and help me — the two of us had to convince them to drop the other songs. Like, let’s don’t spend any more time on those, let’s concentrate on getting these done, ’cause these are all really strong.
STEREOGUM: What was the band dynamic? Was it a democracy, or were there definite leaders, creatively speaking?
STAPP: Mark and I wrote everything and made all the decisions on arrangements — we were the driving force behind the music and made all the decisions.
TREMONTI: I always wrote all the music and Scott would write the lyrics, mostly. I wrote lyrics early on, but then as the band went on, Scott took more of the lyric role. But I was always a big melody writer. Melodies are my favorite thing to write, and then Scott would morph my lyrics into his or combine them or whatnot, but yeah, it was always me and Scott [who] were the writers in the band.
Back then it was pretty straightforward, it was pretty much what you heard in your head would go down as the arrangement. But the guys would come in and we’d play it live sometimes, and if it felt a little different and we needed to make some changes, we always respected Scott and Brian’s opinions on parts — if we played a song that had one part that didn’t add up to the rest of the song, they’d voice their opinions and we’d go from there.
KURZWEG: Those two always had the most say, but on the first record it was closer to a democracy. You’re not famous yet, and the media has not made Scott Stapp a star yet. And so I think Scott and Mark were more open on the first record to listen to how Brian or Scott [Phillips] might feel about something. But I think Brian and Scott were already getting [a lot of] honing in from me, because they’d never played in a studio before, so the drum parts were probably four times as many drum fills and more complicated patterns than we ended up with. I had to…not tell Scott what to play, but get him to play less complicated fills, which he hated at first, but over time, he became brilliant at it himself, where I didn’t have to say anything. He’d know exactly what the right drum part was for a song.
They were so young. It’s amazing how young they were, so it was a matter of editing down the talent and getting them to play in time and not rush and that kind of thing. They had so much to do, me with them, that I think — I don’t remember them having a lot to say about the rest of the process because I probably wore Scott and Brian out. We didn’t have Pro Tools on that record. I had to punch them in on a digital tape machine, so sometimes it might be four bars or eight bars at a time. “Whoops! That was too complicated; simplify that. Why’d you do that drum fill there? Move back and let’s redo it.” With a young band now, with Pro Tools you can have ‘em play the song four or five times and then edit it all together, but it was a harder process for all of us on that first record, and I really think — they thought they were gonna do the whole album in about a week or two, and it took about six months. They thought they were gonna come in, play the songs and sing ‘em, so I think it was a little bit of a rude awakening, hearing the tape play back and realizing, “Oh, when we slow the song down and do it in time, we gotta make sure it’s really tight and together.” That was new to them.
STEREOGUM: The recording process was slow and piecemeal; was there much second-guessing and re-recording, or was it steady forward progress?
TREMONTI: No; I mean, we were still too young and inexperienced to be smart enough to second-guess ourselves. We were just so excited to be able to record and hear the stuff played back sounding good, you know? It was the second time I’d ever done the recording process. The first time was back when I was maybe in seventh grade, in Detroit — I went to a professional studio and recorded with my band from Detroit, and that was just a one-day thing, get in and get out, but this was meticulous and slow and we were just all excited to hear it for the first time.
STAPP: It was all based on finances. We were self-financing, so if we needed to collectively save up a little bit of money in order to get more studio time, we’d have to wait it out till we had more money to record more songs, and really we were just in the moment and had a lot of belief and faith in our music, and were pretty confident in what we were doing.
STEREOGUM: John Kurzweg wound up producing your first three albums; did you know immediately he was someone you could work with?
TREMONTI: Well, he was very meticulous and we really didn’t know any other producers, he was just our buddy. He had a record deal before, so we all looked up to him, and he knew what he was doing and cared about the process, but he wasn’t the type of producer who would come in and write anything. I don’t think I could live with myself if someone else wrote something. Producers do that a lot, but John would just record what we did, and he would definitely give us opinions on what songs he felt were stronger, but it wasn’t the kind of thing where [he’d say] “Hey, let’s scrap this bridge and put a 4/4 thing here and a 6/8 thing there, and let’s tune differently” — it was more just a partnership in recording the stuff the best we could.
STEREOGUM: You had four big singles off the album; did those tracks jump out at you right away?
KURZWEG: My thing as a producer is always, do you have good songs? And I really couldn’t tell for quite a while whether they did. Jeff kept hounding me about it, and my ex-wife would go see them more than I would, and she hounded me about it too; she said, “I really think there’s something there.” Honestly, the way it worked for me was, finally I said, “All right, let’s bring them in and let’s see.” And when we first started to track, the first song we tracked was “My Own Prison.” And right away I knew there was a really cool song there. It had a vibe, it had a verse and a chorus and all the things I couldn’t quite grasp when I’d see them live.
STAPP: I think they definitely stood out to us. Even before we were recording them, they were our favorites. All except the song “One.” That was the only song we went back and forth about, and at one point in time didn’t even know if we wanted it to be on the record. We felt it was a slight departure from the direction we really wanted to go in, but ultimately because of fan response and label response to that song we kept it on the record and it ended up being a very successful single for us.
TREMONTI: I think we played it just right. “My Own Prison” was the obvious song — when we were playing in local bars, that was the showstopper for us, it was a song that people who worked at the bars would come up and say, “I couldn’t wait to see you guys again, ’cause that’s my favorite song,” or whatnot, and that’s the song that took off immediately at local radio. “Torn” was our second single, and that was one of my favorites off the record for sure. “What’s This Life For” was the big ballad, and “One” was more upbeat. I can’t think of anything else on the record that would be more radio-friendly than those four.
STEREOGUM: Your lyrics sort of set you guys apart right away, and were something fans really connected with — did you have an idea about putting a message across when the band started?
STAPP: Well, I never thought about it. There was never any kind of sit-down, “Let’s discuss how we want to approach this and how we’re gonna write lyrics and how we’re gonna put songs together” — there was never any of that. It was all organic and all natural and all authentic, how I wrote lyrics. It’s just what came out of me naturally, so there was no real thought or motive behind any of that. That was just my style of writing, and it seemed to connect with people.
STEREOGUM: Was that what you were like as a kid? Introverted, emotional?
STAPP: Very much so. And all of my journals and poetry and writings were always that way, once I began doing that. And I think [my writing] was shaped a lot by U2’s Joshua Tree album and how Bono wrote lyrics on that record. I think that pushed me subconsciously, being such a huge fan of that band and that record at a period of time in my life, you know, I connected with those lyrics and how they made me feel and I think that pushed me in that direction. And then the way Jim Morrison approached lyrics as a body of work and poetry and art, that was another inspiration and a shaping of how I approached my lyric writing. I wanted them to be able to stand on their own as a body of work irregardless of being put to music.
STEREOGUM: But after The Joshua Tree, Bono kind of retreated from that kind of earnestness; Achtung Baby and Zooropa were more ironic and distanced, but you’ve never gone that route.
STAPP: I think it’s just not in me. I think I have a particular style to my lyric writing that’s natural and authentic and it’s just who I am and the way that I write, and I just continue to go with that. I never overthink it or have a plan, I just write what I feel. And have continued to do that my entire career.
STEREOGUM: When the band signed with Wind-Up, they wanted the album to be remixed to make it more radio-friendly. What was that process like?
KURZWEG: It was kind of a weird thing, because the album had done really well with the mixes that I had done basically in my house. The studio we recorded the record in was basically my house when I lived in Tallahassee, and that record had already been getting played on radio a lot and sounded good on radio. I remember Atlantic Records almost signed them and said, “We’re just gonna put it out the way it is — we don’t even want to remix it.” But Wind-Up found out that I had recorded the album on ADATs, and they flipped out about that for some reason, even though Alanis Morrissette had just had the biggest record ever — the biggest record of the decade, practically, and it had been done on ADATs, this digital tape format that was affordable. They flipped out about that, and they wanted us to re-record the whole album. They gave us a really small budget and two weeks to do that, and put us in a studio with a tape machine and a console, [and] I had grown up working on that stuff, so I said “OK, we’ll try.” We got two songs re-recorded in those two weeks and they realized this wasn’t gonna work, and we made some compromises with them. They came to me and they said, “How do you feel about the album being remixed?” And I said, “If you use one of these four mixers, I’m fine with that.” And somehow it wasn’t one of those four. And the mixer they chose [Ron St. Germain] was because he had an affiliation with Soundgarden, even though they thought he mixed Superunknown and I kept trying to tell them, “No, that’s a guy from my list named Brendan O’Brien, he’s on my list, but that’s not who this guy is.”
I was part of the process. They put us in a studio, Longview Farm up in Massachusetts, and at first I wasn’t much of the process. The band really felt like they wanted to get with Ron, the guy that was mixing it, but pretty quickly, within maybe three or four days, they came to me and said, “You gotta work with him on this, because some of it’s not turning out right.” He didn’t want me there. It was a difficult process. But eventually we found some kind of working common ground. And I will say this. There are parts of that record that are hard for me to listen to, because I don’t agree with the levels or the effects that were used.
Sound quality-wise, as far as the sound of the vocal and the sound of the bass guitar, it’s glorious what the mixer did. We bounced it to tape and it got mixed on an old Neve console. The guitars got a little bright, that was the one thing I didn’t quite understand — he was hearing the guitars different than Mark or I were hearing them. I know Mark wanted the guitars to have a little more body. But he was the guy that was gonna mix it, so we worked with him on it until everybody was generally happy, and some things really took a step up and that was good. Some things, to me, maybe not so much. I think the most important element of the album was that he got a great vocal sound and he put Scott’s voice right out front. That was something we all agreed on, was that Scott’s voice needed to be front and center and sound really good. I never had to say to Ron, “Hey man, I think the vocal needs more high end.” I wanted the vocals to be a little drier and not be all wet [with reverb], but I think we arrived at some good compromises.
STEREOGUM: Were you surprised by the speed at which the band took off?
TREMONTI: Back when we lived through it, it never felt like an overnight success at all, ’cause we were slugging it out in clubs, and “My Own Prison” was a big song, but it wasn’t a big pop sensation, overnight zero-to-hero kind of thing. It took years to get up to theaters and then a little while longer before we got to arenas. But back then, years felt like lifetimes; you look back now, and it was a quick rise, but I think we had just the right amount of time to build as performers and entertainers. I think if we had gone right into it, it might have been disastrous. I remember we went out on one of our first big headlining tours — and that was another thing, we always headlined, we weren’t an opening band, no matter how big we were, even if 30 people were showing up — but when we did one of our first big tours, a band called the Tea Party came out and supported us. We were young college kids and then this band comes out of Canada and all their crew have all the walkie-talkies and all the cool gear and they had been playing all around the world and the guitar player, Jeff [Burrows], was just mind-blowing how good he was back then — the whole band was just incredible. It was like playing with a Led Zeppelin-type band, so that really helped us develop our live show, just having to follow them every night.
We didn’t do a lot of festivals. Nowadays with Alter Bridge, festivals are such a huge part of what we do, but back then I can only remember a few times, like I remember playing in Tampa and the only opening dates I can really remember are some dates for Metallica, which was amazing, ’cause that was my favorite band growing up, and I can’t really remember anybody else we opened up. Oh, we opened for Van Halen a couple of times.
STEREOGUM: Who was singing? Sammy Hagar, or Gary Cherone?
TREMONTI: It was Cherone [laughs].
STEREOGUM: You guys had a really large and passionate fan base, but the critics seemed to really be after you. What was that like to deal with?
STAPP: Well, initially we did have a lot of critical acclaim, prior to it really blowing up. It’s ironic, before we were extremely successful we were getting a lot of critical acclaim and a lot of people behind us in terms of the rock press community and the media community, but once it got enormous almost overnight, going from clubs to arenas, that’s when the critical acclaim kinda shifted a hair. And I think that’s pretty much par for the course for any band that has that kind of rapid rise to success, but you know, I think we just connected with people emotionally. And I think that it was not intentional, but we were saying things in our music and presenting them sonically in a way that impacted them emotionally and intellectually, and they felt the music on a personal level. And it kinda spoke the inner thoughts of what a lot of people were feeling at that point in time. That’s my best analysis of it, based on the feedback from fans over the years.
TREMONTI: You know, it’s the biggest bummer of the whole Creed years, was dealing with the negativity on that side of things. Millions and millions of fans and millions of record sales and sold-out venues, but then you had everybody — not everybody, but a lot of people — throwing comments at you and making you second-guess yourself. But we always just fought through it and did our best. And when Creed ended, when we started Alter Bridge, we tried to do something as different as we could at the time, just to outrun all that stuff and start fresh.
Now we kinda have the best of both worlds. We got to have big success with Creed with some nasty critics, but with Alter Bridge we are still fighting through the clubs and theaters and whatnot, but the critics are very positive about us.