Michigan's Jeff Gutt leads Stone Temple Pilots' third act

Jeff Gutt in Mount Clemens.
Jeff Gutt in Mount Clemens. Noah Elliott Morrison

Jeff Gutt has brushed shoulders with royalty, baptized his son in the River Jordan, and has, on more than one occasion, performed for millions of people on national television. And this was all well before he was tasked with filling a role within a hit-making musical institution that has largely been plagued with tragedy amid a history of revolving tabloid drama and addiction.

Eight months into his gig as the lead singer of Stone Temple Pilots, Gutt seems to be fitting in, looking every bit the role of a frontman of a band that inarguably remains a support beam, if an unstable one, in the pantheon of alternative rock.

At 42 years old, Gutt sports all the rock 'n' roll costumery one might expect from a local rocker-turned-reality-TV-runner-up-turned-international frontman: spiked hair, faded tribal ink, second-skin jeans, and, most notably, a pendant of a fist clutching a dagger around his neck — worn as a nod to writer Hunter S. Thompson. From a distance, one could easily mistake the slender, sharp-jawed singer for someone trying to resemble a Velvet Revolver-era Scott Weiland. But this is only true from a distance.

When we sit down with Gutt on a sweltering afternoon in Mount Clemens — a city that gave Gutt his musical legs — it is made obvious that he is joyfully out of place. Once home to mineral bath houses, Mount Clemens now boasts Macomb County Jail, a magic shop, a head shop, and a coney island restaurant with a curious obsession with Avengers: Infinity War (as evidenced by window art featuring Thanos clutching a hot dog). He notes that nothing has really changed since becoming an L.A. resident in 2016, yet marvels at the sensation of returning to the place where it all started, something he has not been able to do since STP welcomed the Marine City native as its newest member in November of 2017.

We are situated in a coffee shop minutes from where Gutt spent most of his life and where his family still lives, and a mere stone's throw away from the now defunct Hayloft Liquor Stand — one of several local rock venues Gutt frequently performed at during his time fronting bands Dry Cell, Acrylic, Punch, and Band With No Name.

"I used to work for the flooring company right across the street from the Hayloft," Gutt says, pointing out the window. "So, I would drive my truck over there after the gig, sleep in my car, and then I'd work 15 hours and then go home to finally shower. I basically had to play 5-6 nights a week just to pay my bills," he admits. "I lived in a house right around the corner here."

"At any point I could have quit and did something else," he adds, "but I always had the feeling that I would keep myself available to do things in case anything ever came up, and it did. All of it prepared me for this — all the disappointments and all the near misses."

When Gutt first auditioned for the U.S. X Factor, it was 2012 and he delivered a stirring rendition of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" that just so happened to coincide with a roar of thunder from outside the studio. "Even God is rocking out right now," judge and pop star Demi Lovato said of the eerie timing. Unfortunately, Gutt would not make it past the following episode. He auditioned a second time for the 2013 season, where he would score mentorship from former Destiny's Child singer Kelly Rowland, and eventually, a spot in the finals.

"At the time, my choices were go on TV or move back to L.A. and try to make it the hard way... again. Or I could go stand in line for a day like all these other people do," Gutt says of X Factor. "I've been getting my teeth kicked in for 20 years, so I figured I can go stand in line for one day and get my shot. It's a guaranteed shot."

Gutt's voice is not particularly unique to the rock market. Sure, he can slither and snarl on demand, elongating the last letters of words to fill space. But what Gutt is a master of is adaptation and control. Take his second audition, when he performed Aerosmith's "Don't Want To Miss a Thing" — which was stopped midway through after Simon Cowell accused Gutt of impersonating Steven Tyler. To redeem himself, Gutt launched into a soaring rendition of "Creep" by Radiohead, sounding nothing like Thom Yorke. In fact, the audience learned that Gutt's vocal tenacity had real range — he could soothe and seduce just as easily and skillfully as he could howl.

During his time on the show, he quickly became a fan favorite, delivering rock anthems like "Bohemian Rhapsody" and wild card pop ballads of the likes of "Without You" by Harry Nilsson, closing out his run with Celine Dion's version of "O Holy Night." He even managed to belt a pretty badass rendition of "Amazing Grace," winning the approval of the impossible-to-please Cowell, who called it the best performance of the night.

In the end, Gutt left the competition in second place, which he now considers a blessing.

"If I would have won that crappy contract I would have been stuck in purgatory for the rest of my life," he says "It's a bunch of suits that have control over your career at that point. I got to cut and run and do my own thing. I think I've proven that I'm more than just a TV singer. I was always more than that, even before I went on TV."

Meanwhile, 2013 was not just a rollercoaster year for Gutt, as STP was experiencing setbacks, adjustments, and a second coming after a string of hiatus' and breakups. In February, the band fired founder and lifelong frontman Scott Weiland, which quickly spurred a flurry of lawsuits from both parties regarding rights to the name and the music. Months later, the remaining members of STP would enlist Linkin Park vocalist Chester Bennington to fill Weiland's spot, while Weiland toured solo.

‘If I would have won that crappy contract I would have been stuck in purgatory for the rest of my life.’

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Bennington announced his departure from STP in 2015 to focus solely on Linkin Park. A month later, on Dec. 3, Weiland was found dead on his tour bus in Minnesota. A lethal cocktail of cocaine, pills, and alcohol found in his system lead to what has been ruled an accidental overdose.

"Let us start by saying thank you for sharing your life with us. Together we crafted a legacy of music that has given so many people happiness and great memories," the band's surviving members — guitarist Dean DeLeo, bassist Robert DeLeo, and drummer Eric Kretz released in a statement following his death.

"The memories are many, and they run deep for us. We know amidst the good and the bad you struggled, time and time again. It's what made you who you were. Part of that gift was part of your curse."

Bennington would commit suicide in 2017.

Gutt wasn't really in the market for a job when STP began soliciting for new singers in 2016. At the time, he was overseas with his band Rival City Heights, who had embarked on a tour throughout the Middle East opening for Trapt. Over the course of several months, STP rifled through over 20,000 submissions, and though they managed to narrow their search down to 29 hopefuls, they were not convinced they had found the one. When Gutt returned home, he bypassed the submission process, receiving an invitation to audition after a friend tipped off STP bassist Robert DeLeo, who was performing in Johnny Depp's supergroup Hollywood Vampires at a show at DTE Energy Music Theatre.

"I was one of those guys who no matter who they got, I would have been standing in the back of the room with my arms crossed going, 'No, no I could have done that way better,'" Gutt says. "So you know what, why don't I just go do it then. I already know what everyone is going to say, all the negativity. I've already gone through it all in my mind, so nothing surprises me. I've got thick skin."

"I was one of the last people to walk in," he says. "My thing was just getting in the room — if I can get in the room I can get the gig."

And he did.

The audition consisted of seven STP songs, including "Interstate Love Song," "Big Empty," "Dead and Bloated," "Vasoline," and "Sour Girl." Gutt chose to start with "Piece of Pie" from the band's 1992 debut, Core, because it is the most challenging to sing.

"There are certain things that I'll try to sing something like Scott, but then after awhile I have to go back and re-listen to it," he says. "It's how I remember it in my mind, as opposed to doing an imitation of it."

"We were asking a lot from a new singer, someone who was able to not only honor the past, but move forward as a band making new records," Robert DeLeo admits when asked about the selection process. "We needed someone that was going to have the balls to step out on stage and make it happen live, also. We felt Jeff was going to be best at handling all this."

In November 2017, the band performed for the first time with Gutt during a secret performance at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. Four months later, STP released its first album in eight years. The band's self-titled re-introduction stormed the rock charts (it peaked at 24 on the U.S. Billboard 200), and included the churning single "Meadow" — a song Gutt helped write on his first day.

"I just do what the music tells me to do," Gutt says when asked about writing and recording with the band. He describes his time so far as being supportive and collaborative, but he remains humbled by the tenure and experience of his bandmates, and says he comes into writing sessions open-minded and without intent.

Looking to the future, there are a few STP songs that haven't made it onto the setlists because, for Gutt, it's personal. "Sour Girl," Gutt admits, is tough for him because of where Weiland was in his life when it was released. "Scott had just got out of jail," he explains. "It's about one of his ex-wives and he's calling her a 'sour girl' — to sing that is a little uncomfortable for me." And 2001's "Wonderful" remains off the table because it feels too much like Weiland's autobiography.

"There's enough hits that we can sustain ourselves for a little while before we do something special for Scott," he says. "Other than that, I'm not really trying to go out of my way to get to those yet."

What is perhaps most remarkable about Gutt's journey isn't so much how he got here or how long it took, but moreso it's the task he has been entrusted with — and the fact that in only a few short months, he has proven himself not just worthy but fully capable.

"We are finally looking forward to hope and creativity rather than being tragic," DeLeo says of STP's future with Gutt. "Great things come out of tragedy."

Gutt confesses that his STP bandmates have never watched any of his X Factor episodes (though he says they think it's pretty wild) and acknowledges attaining this level of success late in life, going on to say that if this opportunity would have been available to him 20 years ago he would likely be dead. Though he says he regrettably hasn't spent as much time in Michigan since going full force with the band as he would like, he recognizes the sacrifices required to keep the dream alive.

"I'm not trying to be Scott or Chester," Gutt explains. " I want people to remember who they were, too. I want people to be able to bring their kids to shows and talk about Scott and teach them who Scott was instead of letting it die with them."

"I just have to go out there every night, give it my best shot and let the chips fall where they may," he adds. "At the end of the day, I'm here for my son and our future, to be the dad I always wanted to be and in the position I always wanted to be in. I'm not really scared of anything."

Stone Temple Pilots will perform with Bush and the Cult at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, July 24 at Michigan Lottery Amphitheater at Freedom Hill; 14900 Metro Pkwy., Sterling Heights; 586-268-9700; 313presents.com; Tickets start at $21.

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