Learning to Fly

Stone Temple Pilots bassist Robert DeLeo finds peace and passion on the California coast.

There’s about 2,800 miles of America between the cliffs of Palos Verdes and the coast of Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey, and Robert DeLeo has traveled most of them. As the bass player, songwriter and co-founder of Stone Temple Pilots, he has endured 30 years (and counting) of rock ‘n’ roll absurdity, and he’s got the road rash and platinum plaques to prove it. But before any of the awards and accolades—before the first home he bought in San Pedro in 1994 or the ’76 VW Rabbit he bought (and slept in) for $500 in 1984— Robert was just a Jersey boy dreaming about the West Coast.

“A couple of weeks ago I took my family up to Santa Barbara, and we stopped off at Rincon and Malibu and all these places I used to look at in magazines,” he says. “It was just a natural progression in my life to move to California. I don’t know why—there was just something pulling me here. There are definitely parts of [the South Bay] that remind me of my hometown. Now I have an excuse to live the majority of my life in shorts and flip-flops year-round. Things come full circle.”

A surfer from the age of 9 and a member of the Point Pleasant Beach skateboard team, Robert has always been in tune with the beach. He moved to Los Angeles shortly after graduation and, like most aspiring rockers, lived a nomadic lifestyle.

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“I did the full couch tour,” he laughs. “It was gypsy life, meeting this person and that person and hanging and crashing. It was all over town—Venice, the Valley, Redondo. I lived in my car for a year and learned to sleep on my side in the fetal position.”

Robert linked up with singer Scott Weiland and drummer Eric Kretz in 1985, and after convincing his older brother, Dean, to join them in LA, Stone Temple Pilots was born. Their debut album, however, was a polarizing affair … to say the least.

Released a year after breakout albums by Pearl Jam (Ten), Nirvana (Nevermind) and Soundgarden (Badmotorfinger), many wrote off STP as imitators riding the plaid flannel coattails of grunge’s mainstream success. In a 1994 poll Rolling Stone readers voted them “Best New Band,” while the magazine’s rock critics handed them the dubious title of “Worst New Band.”

On the strength of its first single, “Big Empty,” STP’s second album, Purple, debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200. To date, both albums have sold more than 14 million copies in the U.S. alone. Robert is listed as either the sole writer or co-writer of the music for 17 of the two albums’ 23 songs, which is something you’d have to Google because it’s not information he would voluntarily share.

Robert is a musician’s musician—a wide-eyed rock historian and a studio junkie. Disarmingly gentle and polite, he’s a serene conversationalist who just happens to have thundering pipes, and he plays his bass as though it were an extra appendage on his tall, broad frame. When I first interviewed him back in 2010 about STP’s self-titled sixth album, we spoke at length about his ability to achieve balance despite rock ‘n’ roll excess and a complex, heavily publicized relationship with former lead singer Weiland.

“I go out on the road, and I feel humbled to be able to do this in this point in my life.”

“I go out on the road, and I feel humbled to be able to do this in this point in my life,” he said. “I’m the kind of person where I don’t carry my rock ‘n’ roll around with me. When it’s time to do a show, I put my rock ‘n’ roll on, and I give my all every night. But when it’s over, I take my rock ‘n’ roll off. That’s the way I choose to do it.”

That philosophy has blessed him with a healthy, 16-year marriage and two sons, Duke (10) and Malcom (5). Since 1998, Robert’s wife, Kristen, has owned and operated a nonprofit fitness program called electriKIDS that seeks to inspire elementary school-aged children to live an active lifestyle. The two met when Robert was living in his house in San Pedro.

“It was a 1930s, Spanish-style house that I bought from the original owners, definitely not her style,” he laughs.

It was Kristen who inspired the move to their current home in Palos Verdes, not far from where the couple tied the knot at the picturesque Wayfarers Chapel. Whether it’s AYSO and Little League or local spots like the Point Vicente Interpretive Center, the local community is constantly imprinting itself on the DeLeo family.

“I think a lot of people who live in California don’t really know this area, and there’s a certain feel about it that the people in the South Bay enjoy,” he says. “There are a lot of parts of Southern California that people go to for specific reasons, and they’re usually reasons that are to further yourself—not about furthering your family. I really value where we’re at.”

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One of the biggest steps he took to align his passions was the construction of a home recording space, a project that exhausted a fair amount of “blood, sweat, tears and patience” before it finally came to fruition. HOMeFRY is now a fully functioning studio that’s become home base for STP as well as other recording projects of Robert’s, including a session with brother Dean for a song by “Dream Weaver” writer Gary Wright.

“Gary had a song he wrote with George Harrison in 1971 called ‘To Discover Yourself.’ Gary recorded the vocals and keys at his studio, Dean and I recorded bass and guitar in my studio, and Ringo Starr tracked the drums at his studio. It was an honor to be a part of that session.”

With a string of September tour dates in the rearview mirror, STP are now back in Los Angeles. The High Rise EP they put out in 2012—with Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington on vocals—is the last batch of original material they’ve recorded and the first songs they’ve released without Weiland as an official member. It’s an exciting new energy for Robert and the band, and it shines through in their live performances.

“Everything is different,” admits Robert. “The energy of my whole day is different, even on days off in my hotel and on the road.”

Next year, Robert will turn 50. His rock ‘n’ roll will still be hanging in his closet, neatly pressed and ready for its next tour of duty. He’s got two decades worth of solo material that’s been slow-cooking in his studio, and if it’s anywhere near as impressive as the catalog of #1 classics he’s already penned, he’ll be enjoying the type of creative resurgence reserved only for first-ballot rock hall-of-famers. But he’s still got a long way to go, that much he will tell you.

“I’m still getting to know myself as a human being,” he admits. “I take the advice of good friends who I respect. I listen to my own body. My dad passed at 57 years old. I smoked cigarettes and partied, but it’s my choice to do things that are healthy for my life, and it’s a pleasure to be where I’m at. For a Jersey boy to move out to California and make a living off of music? Dream come true, man. I never take that for granted.”

Written by Rich Thomas  |  Photographed by Jeff Berting