When Creed lead singer Scott Stapp was growing up in Orlando, Florida, in the 1980s, rock music wasn't allowed in his house. Not even Christian rock - his Pentecostal parents thought the electric guitar was a tool of the devil. But when he was about 11, Stapp disobeyed them and bought his first record: Def Leppard's Pyromania. He listened to it twice at a friend's house, then brought it home and hid it in his bedroom. Not well enough, though: His parents immediately found the album and confiscated it.
Stapp's mom loved Elvis Presley, however, so that was one rock star whose music didn't end up in the trash bin. "I definitely had an Elvis complex when I was a little kid," Stapp says. "I thought he was the coolest guy in the whole world." Sometimes, Stapp would dream that he was at an Elvis concert: The King would see him in the audience, stop the show, and pull him onstage. While Stapp sang, say, "Hound Dog," the man from Memphis would exclaim, "Damn, that boy is good!" Twenty years later, Stapp leads the most popular hard-rock band in America. Creed's second album, Human Clay, recently went quadruple-platinum and is holding strong in the Top 10 almost a year after its release. With Stapp, rock'n'roll germinated in a place it wasn't supposed to, which may be why Creed are such an anomaly: The foursome assembled in the musical backwater of Tallahassee, Florida.
Their tormented, fire-and-brimstone music, which crosses the thick guitars of Metallica with the thundering dynamics of Alice in Chains, would be more at home in the grunge era. Stapp eschews baseball caps for tight leather pants and long hair, looking like an early-'90 throwback (and his baritone sounds eerily like Eddie Vedder's). But whether it's the Doors or U2 or Soundgarden or Live, the world always needs at least one rock band with an overwrought sense of musical drama, and Creed hold that mantle today. Stapp's lyrics, which draw heavily on biblical imagery, are usually news bulletins from the land of anguish. For instance, "Forked tongues in bitter mouths / Can drive a man to bleed from inside out." "Sometimes I wish we weren't so damn serious, you know?" Stapp says. "My agenda from the beginning was to write music that had meaning and was from the heart. You can't force the hand of the muse. I wish we could write a fun, happy song. I'd love to write some party music.
"Right now, we're just doing what feels right. But maybe our fifth record will be called Girls, Girls, Girls." In the heart of the San Jose State University campus, across the street from the Beta Theta Pi frat house, is the artfully named Event Center. Six hours before show time, bassist Brian Marshall is having an anxiety attack in Creed's dimly lit dressing room. "Every show, I get fucking nervous," he drawls, sprawled on a couch like a starfish. "Doesn't matter what size the audience. Doesn't matter if it's rehearsal."
The band's usual tension-reliever is Ping-Pong. "Scott is the champ," says drummer Scott Phillips. "Mark [Tremonti, guitarist] considers himself the No. 1 contender. And I'm right underneath Mark. Scott plays once a week and whips everyone's ass. He says he hasn't played much, but I'm pretty sure he's lying." Stapp's true obsession is golf; he and Phillips will drive over an hour just to play a round before a show. Though Stapp seems more like the kind of guy who'd join the philosophy club, he was actually a high school jock. Sports were the only extracurricular activities his parents permitted, so he played football, baseball, and basketball. "I swear, if I were 6'4", I'd be in the NBA," the 5'10" singer attests. Instead, he brings his athletic prowess to Creed's sweat-drenched live shows.
In concert, Stapp writhes around, stalks across the stage, and frequently strikes the infamous rock-star Christ pose. He practically doubles over when he sings "Beautiful," a bitter dis of an ex-girlfriend. His eyes gleam as he reveals the story behind the song. "I'll tell you how it ended: We'd gone out a year and a half; we're in a bar; I had no idea anything was wrong. She hooks up with a guy, starts making out with him in front of me and all my friends, grabs his hand, and walks out of the bar. I was crushed." Of course, when she heard Creed's first single, "My Own Prison" (from their 1997 debut of the same name), on the radio, she decided she had made a mistake. She sent Stapp flowers and told him she wanted him back. "So I did what any man would do," Stapp says. Which is? He just grins, his jaw all puffy thanks to a big wad of chewing tobacco. Stapp spits into a water bottle, then worries how his dip habit will appear in print. "I don't want anyone else doing it because of me," he says.
He's extremely media-shy and hasn't been happy with anything he's read about his band - even the positive stories. He didn't want to do this article at all, he informs me, which is why he kept rescheduling interviews - he was hoping I'd just give up. "I was really hurt by a lot of the press we were getting, a lot of the negativity that was thrown our way," he says. "We worked our butts off, and I didn't understand why people wanted to write us off and not give any validity to what we were doing." To wit, some of the phrases critics have used to describe Creed's music: "white-bread, bloated, and monotonous"; "bland and bombastic"; "aimless, formless, charmless bluster"; "Pearl Jam knockoffs." [Apparently tired of the comparisons, Marshall recently said that Eddie Vedder "wishes he could write like Scott Stapp." Stapp subsequently apologized on behalf of the band, calling Marshall's comments an example of "arrogance and stupidity."] An Ohio paper called Stapp a "Prince Valiant - Jesus - Jim Morrison cartoon rocker." Shawn Crahan of Slipknot complained to a Canadian newspaper, "If I gotta listen to bands like Creed anymore, I might as well shoot myself, dude." Stapp took such jibes "real personal" and fantasizes about getting physical with his naysayers on Human Clay's "What If."
Not that he's totally humorless about the situation. When told that Blink-182 mock Creed every night in concert (bassist Mark Hoppus puts one foot on a monitor, does a strangled Stapp imitation, then asks, "Does that guy even speak English?"), he just laughs. "That's fine," Stapp says. "We rag on them in soundcheck." He hops into the shower, where he belts out Queen's "We Are the Champions" at top volume. He emerges ten minutes later in nothing but a pair of leather pants, displaying both his washboard stomach and his skinny frame. Stapp used to weigh about 160 pounds, he says, but he lost 12 pounds on the road. "I used to be big, muscular," he claims. "I lost it all - and I have a pencil head. My son's only two hat sizes smaller than me." His boy, who's almost two, is named Jagger Michael Stapp, which is not a Rolling Stones reference, Stapp says; he read in a "Gen X baby-name book" that Jagger means "one who carries a message sent by God." Stapp was married to Jagger's mom, Hilary, for a year, but they separated last year. "We screwed up, got lawyers, and all of a sudden, we're divorced," Stapp says. "It only took three weeks. I guarantee you, if we'd taken a three-week break and regrouped, we'd still be married." But they kept living together because it seemed best for Jagger - and eventually reunited as a couple. "We live together; we love each other; we're just not married," Stapp says. "It's a weird situation. We just want to be good parents." He pauses for a moment. "I tell you, that kid is the spitting image of me. You love to see yourself in your children, but I don't want him to have the same personality as me. I'm a little high-strung sometimes. I take everything real seriously, and I have a hard time loosening up. I just don't want him to have the same demons that I have. I don't want him always thinking about the grand scheme of things - life and death and heaven and hell and good and bad. That's the cross I bear daily." Stapp was born in Florida on August 8, 1973. Both Mom and Dad, an oral surgeon, were devout Pentecostal Christians. "My whole life was church," Stapp says. He had Bible study on Friday evenings and attended services every Wednesday night, twice on Sunday. He was forced to wear a necktie to high school. His weekend-night curfew was 10 p.m. "I would sit in my room and wish I could go to parties after the football game," Stapp remembers. "I wished I could go to the prom. I felt weird; I felt different." In church, when the spirit of God passed over them, people would suddenly start speaking in tongues, falling to the floor in ecstasy.
It never happened to Stapp, and he couldn't understand why God kept passing him over. "I thought something was wrong with me, so I lived with a lot of guilt," he recalls. "I constantly found myself asking God to prove himself to me, which is a cardinal sin. I'd lie in bed and say, 'God, if you're real, just make my light go off so I won't doubt it. I promise I'll be the best Christian in the world.'" If Stapp disobeyed his parents' rules, according to an old band bio, his father made him "copy - word for word - entire books (usually Psalms or Proverbs) from the Bible." A Creed spokesperson now says this isn't true. In any case, constant punishment filled Stapp with a lot of anger, though he bears no ill will to his parents anymore: "I realize now that there was a lot of love in their hearts," he says. "Now they respect me as an adult and realize they can't change me." At age 17, a fed-up Stapp left home. He stayed with a friend's family while he finished school and attended his first rock concert three years later when a girlfriend took him to see Lenny Kravitz, Blind Melon, and Porno for Pyros.
Completely overwhelmed by the experience, Stapp had a revelation: This was exactly what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. A week later, he moved to Tallahassee, simply because his hero Jim Morrison had lived there for a time. In Tallahassee, he met Metallica fan Mark Tremonti, who had been in bands since seventh grade. When they weren't working at Governor's Square mall (Tremonti cooked at Chili's; Stapp shucked oysters at Barnacle Bill's), they wrote songs together and eventually recruited fellow mallrat Scott Phillips as drummer. In 1995, with bassist Brian Marshall on board, the band scored a weekly gig at a family restaurant. One night, a slightly drunk Stapp was livid that the crowd of 50 was sitting down and told them to "get up or fuck off."
The rest of the band lectured him on this breach of manners, but the next week more than 200 people showed up. He was just beginning to explore the freedom he had missed out on as a teen. "I kind of went to the extreme," he says. "I just wanted to party. It was very self-destructive." Taking Morrison's lead again, Stapp decided to "open my mind, open the doors of perception" - through mushrooms and weed. (He quit smoking for good two years ago; as a dad, he wants to stay totally clean.) In 1996, Atlantic Records, which was keeping close tabs on the Southeastern rock scene - having already signed Matchbox Twenty, Seven Mary Three, and Collective Soul - got wind of Creed's regional success. They invited the band up to their New York City office but ultimately passed them over.
A year later, the band borrowed $6,000 from a local promoter and recorded My Own Prison themselves. The title track, Stapp's angsty analysis of his personal failings, picked up airplay on a few Tallahassee stations. In April, Diana Meltzer, head of A&R at tiny New York indie Wind-Up, saw the band play and insisted her husband's label sign them. Wind-Up had no bands at the time, but it did have deep pockets and a distribution deal with BMG. Creed wondered whether they should hold out for something bigger but worried that this might be their only chance. Wind-Up quickly released a remixed version of Prison and sent Creed out to tour the Southeast, with a street team doing advance work two weeks ahead of them, giving away promo copies and hyping local record stores. To everyone's surprise, "My Own Prison" broke onto rock radio almost immediately, and MTV lagged just a few steps behind. "They're very derivative of classic '60s and '70s rock," says Bruce Gillmer, vice president of music and talent relations at VH1. "And they're very derivative of grunge. But they're also very much their own band." Borrowing from the past has certainly worked in Creed's favor: Here was a new band that people who had worn out their old Led Zeppelin LPs could relate to.
The quadruple-platinum debut is still at the top of the Billboard catalog charts; Human Clay stands to do even better, spawning its fourth hit single in a row with "Higher." "I think there's a lot more life in the record," says Wind-Up president Alan Meltzer. "I'm not going to say we're on cruise control, but we're trying to let it all happen naturally." One question follows Creed wherever they go: Are you a Christian band? No, no, no! they insist, though they do realize they have a significant number of Christian fans. "I think there are a lot of kids in strict families who are allowed to listen to us because we don't have any negative messages in our music," Tremonti says.
Everyone in Creed is a Christian, but the band says they didn't start playing rock'n'roll to spread the good word; they want to play music that anyone can relate to. Ed Roland of Collective Soul, another band with a religious background, shares Creed's frustration with the "Christian rock" label. "You'd never call somebody a Christian policeman or a Jewish policeman," he says. But it's easy to understand why Christian radio supports Creed: Stapp's lyrics are steeped in angels and hellfire and visions of the cross. One "My Own Prison" verse reads, "I cry out to God / Seeking only his decision / Gabriel stands and confirms / I've created my own prison." Creed may not be Bible-thumpers, but they do keep one another on the straight and narrow - even cursing is frowned upon. When Marshall refers to a "fucking dork in Portland," the following exchange ensues: Tremonti: Did you need to use that word? Marshall: What? Dork? Tremonti: No, the F-word, before that.
Marshall: I didn't say effing, did I? Spin: Yeah, you did. Marshall: Really? See, he watches me like a hawk. Believe it or not, Stapp is most relaxed about the sin issue. "I had gotten to the point," he says, "where I felt guilty if I looked at a girl and said, 'Wow, she's got nice tits.'" He laughs. "I'm over that now." It's almost showtime, so Creed shed their golf shirts and shorts. "Onstage, we don't wear anything too flamboyant or shiny, but offstage, I might. I'm a clothes freak," Marshall says. Clad in their black-on-black uniforms, the band climb onstage to a delirious roar from 7,000 fans. With a wall of flame, explosions, and other pyrotechnics, it's the archetypal Big Rock Spectacle. Creed finish with "Higher," which Stapp says is not about Christ's ascension to heaven or taking a big bong hit - it's about the power of lucid-dreaming. "You're physically asleep, but you're awake in your mind," he explains.
He read a book about Hindu monks who have perfected the technique and thought it might help him squelch a recurring nightmare: He's running down a highway, closely pursued by a man with a gun. He turns left and hides behind a pillar beneath an overpass but gets shot anyway. Stapp says that once he learned how to lucid-dream, he was able to alter the nightmare so that he turned right and escaped. After he wrote "Higher" about the experience, he never had the nightmare again. Too bad he's got plenty of other things keeping him on edge at night. "I'm definitely in a better place than I've ever been, but I still have my old demons because my philosophies on life are much different from how I was raised," he says. "There's always those doubts in the back of my mind: Are they right? Am I wrong?" He smiles wistfully. "That's something I'll probably struggle with for the rest of my life."