In summer 2012, singer Jeff Gutt walked onto The X Factor audition stage and stunned judges Britney Spears, Simon Cowell, Demi Lovato, and L.A. Reid with a remarkable rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” that brought the entire audience to their feet. And in a scene straight out of a movie, a loud thunderclap from a nearby storm echoed throughout the theater as he soaked in the adulation. “I’ve heard that song a lot,” said Cowell. “I’ve sat in this chair a long time. It was one of the most brilliant auditions I’ve heard. Jeffrey, you’ve got four big, fat yeses.”

But Gutt didn’t win The X Factor that season. He didn’t even make it past the boot camp portion of the show. And even though he returned the next season and came in second, he didn’t become a star in the aftermath. Nothing serious happened to his career until 2017 when Stone Temple Pilots hired them as their new frontman after parting ways with both Scott Weiland and Chester Bennington. Over the past seven years, he’s toured the world with them many times over, and sang on their last two albums. They’re headed back on the road this summer with Live, Our Lady Peace, and Soul Asylum.

It’s a tough gig since Weiland is one of the most beloved frontman of the Nineties. “I feel like the best way to keep Scott’s memory alive is to go out and do the songs justice for him and his family, and for all the fans,” Gutt tells Rolling Stone via Zoom from his apartment in Los Angeles. “There’s always going to be negative people that don’t accept me, but there’s not really much you can do about that. I don’t really worry about the things I can’t do anything about.”

Gutt grew up in the tiny suburban Michigan towns of Algonac and Marine City. His earliest musical memories revolve around listening to his father’s Simon and Garfunkel, Cat Stevens, John Denver, and Eagles records. When he was just six-years-old, he picked up an acoustic guitar and began playing along to those records, but he didn’t get serious about music until he was 12. “I got really really into Jimi Hendrix and the way he could express himself through the strings,” he says. “I really gravitated towards that. And then it was on from there.”

By the time he was 16, he was proficient enough to win a national guitar competition. He played biker bars on the weekends with his high school band Innefaith. “My high school let us throw a concert in the gymnasium, and we split the money and paid for prom,” Gutt says. “We had all these bikers pulling up to the high school to go to this concert. It was great.”

He planned on remaining a guitarist, but he kept getting pulled towards the center mic to sing. “I didn’t want to be the center of attention guy,” he says. “I wanted to be the guy on the side that wrote the songs and did all of that. But I always ended up singing anyway because no one else could do it right. So I was like, ‘Well, dammit, I’ll just do it.’”

This happened right as the alt rock revolution was taking over MTV and rock radio. “I put the guitar down and didn’t pick it up for all of 1992,” he says. “Nirvana, STP, and Alice In Chains were all happening. I got really, really sucked in. Something about those Eighties frontmen weren’t enticing to me. I didn’t want to do that. But when the Nineties hit, everything changed.”

Gutt enrolled in a community college after high school, but was unable to focus on anything but music. He dropped out after one semester and moved to L.A. with his Innerfaith bandmate Steve Mazur, who ultimately got a job as the gutiarist in Our Lady Peace he has to this day. Gutt wasn’t so fortunate and eventually moved back to Michigan to play in cover bands.

He took a job epoxying floors to pay the bills. “We did the Ford Rouge plant,” he says. “We also did people’s garages. I got concrete in my eyes all the time. Your clothes are all sticky because you have to actually mix the epoxy. It’s one of the grossest jobs in the world. Your pants basically stand on their own after you take them off.”

Gutt thought he landed his big break at the turn of the millennium when he became the lead singer of the Linkin Park-esque rock band Dry Cell, which had a deal with Warner Bros. But their timing was horrendous. The record industry was hemorrhaging money due to file sharing, and MTV and radio moved away from rock almost completely.

A fascinating New York Times article from 2002 tells the story Dry Cell’s misery. “In this environment, that intangible record industry dance, which depends upon timing, impulse and who your connections happen to be, is even more pronounced,” wrote Laura M Holson. “In the case of Dry Cell, it left a band that seemed to have everything going for it, at least for the moment, going nowhere at all.”

“Mr. Gutt, at 26 the oldest of the group, said he had no plans to return to Detroit,” the article continues, “hopeful the album will still be released by someone and become a success. ”In the end, if we have a hit record,’ he said recently, ‘does any of this matter?’”

The hit didn’t come. Dry Cell became little more than a footnote in rock history. But right around the time of their album flopped, American Idol came on the air. Simon Cowell left in 2010 and started a new version of The X-Factor in America. It gave Gutt a chance to prove himself on a very large stage, and eventually bring him to the attention of Stone Temple Pilots.

What led you to audition for the second season of The X Factor?
Well, the prize for the first season of The X Factor was $5 million. And so I kind of got duped into the second one, I guess, because they dropped it to a million after that. But I found out that I had a son back in Michigan, which I didn’t find out about until he was eight months old. And so I moved back to Michigan and moved right around the block from him and got a house.

At that time, I was very jaded on music and the music industry. But I wanted him to have a similar experience to what I had as a kid, so I was showing him all the stuff I loved when I was really young. That kind of made me come to the realization that music’s in everyone, and I shouldn’t let someone else ruin the beauty of what it means to me.

I’d been out of the industry for a few years at this point. I didn’t want to use any of my old connections. I was like, “I’m just going to go on one of these singing shows and kind of see if I can beat them at their own game and see where I stand in the world of vocals.” That’s because I always despised those shows because people spend their whole lives paying their dues, and I’ve spent a few lifetimes of dues.

What was it like to see that huge reaction from the judges and the audience from your first audition?
It was very fulfilling to have that moment. The crowd’s reaction was the main thing, because judges are judges and people are going to have opinions, and you can’t really do anything about that. But I just tried to make it as undeniable as I could. I drank a lot of ginger tea that day, so as soon as it was over, I got the worst stomach ache in the world, and they don’t show that. And the power went out in the whole building right after I sang because of the thunderstorm. It was like God was shutting down the show after I was done. It was hilarious.

How crushing was it to be sent home during boot camp week?
That was a baffling thing to me because I didn’t understand why they were sending me home because I felt like I had a chance to win it. I wouldn’t have showed up if I didn’t think I could have won it.

A few weeks later, Simon Cowell said they made a mistake in sending you home so early.
I was kind of looking around for a little while going, “I’m going to get ambushed by cameras at any moment now. They’re going to ask me to come back.” But I was trying to hide so they couldn’t do that. And I didn’t actually audition for the following season because I was still a little bitter about that. One of the producers ended up calling me as soon as the process ended. Because I was like, “Well, I didn’t show up. I showed you guys.” And then I got a phone call, and she’s still my personal assistant today, the TV producer that called me.

How do you think you grew as a singer throughout the course of the next season?
The lucky thing is that I was one of the older people on the show. I had all this wealth and knowledge of music. And I grew up in Michigan, so I had the Motown experience. I knew all the music so well that I didn’t really have to do anything. I just showed up and sang. While everyone was scrambling around everything they’re doing, they were always finding me under the production table, taking a nap. I did all my work at night at the hotel.

You came in second. How did that feel?
That felt amazing because I didn’t have to deal with the contract and stuff the winner had to sign. So it was a win-win-win for me.

If you think of American Idol, Jennifer Hudson, Clay Aiken, and Adam Lambert didn’t win. Carly Rae Jepsen didn’t win Canadian Idol. It didn’t matter at all since it gave them such a huge platform.
Yeah, it’s great for that. But I understand that the knocks against it, because like I said, you basically stand in line for a day and get your shot. That’s not the way it was when I was growing up. We had to actually go do things.

What happened to your career right after the show?
Well, obviously there’s a lot of inundation of messages and emails and things like that, and I actually became really good friends with the Princess of Jordan, and so I went over there and we ended up playing at Jerash, which is like an old Roman ruin. It was amazing because it was all lit up at night, and my band Rival City played a show there. My son got baptized at the Jordan River where it’s not even allowed, but somehow we got it done. So that was all incredible. And we went to Dubai and Istanbul and Egypt and Cairo, and we went all over the place. I was basically just doing that.

What’s your first memory of STP as a kid?
That was the year I put down the guitar and was just really into all the different frontmen that were happening at that time. And what they were bringing to the table was just…it hearkens back to the Rolling Stones and all that. The presence that they were bringing was so infectious that I literally set the guitar down and basically just sang as much as I possibly could.

They were called grunge, but they sounded different than the other grunge bands.
I hear the Led Zeppelin Seventies influences. There’s a lot of Beatles influences with the chords and jazz, and I don’t want to speak for their influences, but there’s a lot going on in there. Nirvana hearkens back more to the punk days of the early Eighties.

How did you hear they were losing for a new singer?
I first heard about it when I was overseas with Rival City. When I came back to Michigan, I was driving in my car and “Interstate Love Song” came on the radio, and it just dawned on me. I’m like, “Did they ever find anyone?” So I called up some friends and actually had a friend that knew Robert [DeLeo] and was going to see him play in Hollywood Vampires. He was like, “I’m going to tell Robert about you.” And so he did. That’s the story Robert tells.

And then I had another one because I had a friend who knows everyone in the music industry, he lives in New York. I called him up and I was like, “Hey, did STP ever find a singer?” And he’s like, “I’ll send them your stuff right now.” So I had multiple ways of getting in there. And that’s kind of how it came to be. But I didn’t do the tape thing where people submitted on the Internet. I was in Istanbul when that happened.

Who reached out to say they were interested?
I believe it was the manager, Jeff Varner at Red Light. I think he sent me an email or called. They just gave me a list of eight songs. I flew out and did that. Actually, I was in the studio in Las Vegas working with a huge producer. I told him I was going to the Vegas strip for the night, and I flew to L.A. to do the STP audition. I didn’t want to upset him because we were doing all this work together.

Tell me about the audition.
It was at 606, the Foo Fighters building. They sent an Uber to pick me up, and the guy looked just like Chester [Bennington], identical. Chester was still alive at this point. I’m like, “Am I getting Punk’d right now?” I knew Chester, you know from the Warner Bros. days and everything else, but obviously it wasn’t Chester.

But I remember showing up and seeing their faces for the first time. That was really weird because when you meet people when you know their face and their name, it’s weird.

What did you play?
We started with “Piece of Pie” because it was the one that I knew the least. It was the one I was studying on the way over there, but no one else picked that song to sing first because apparently it’s the hardest song of the ones on the list. I just wanted to get it over with, because after that it was going to be smooth sailing for me.

But I went to sing and I sing so much louder than the person they went before me that the speakers lit up and almost blew up on us. So they had to stop and reset everything. There was a film crew there and everything. they have video of all this stuff. That whole process was amazing.

How quickly did you find out you had the job?
That took a long time. It took like a year, but for some of that I knew that I was going to get it, obviously. I was very confident. But it was a long time of me hanging out. It was an amazing time though because I had this huge secret that no one knew. When I used to drink, I used to go to this little bar called the Snake Pit. It a little whiskey bar on Melrose I used to go sit at and just go over things with my headphones on. And I just remember STP would come on and I’d just sit there shaking my head going, “This is crazy. I have a secret. No one knows.”

How did they officially tell you that you had the job?
They invited me to come to the manager’s office, so I knew I was either in trouble or they were going to give me the gig. But when I got that call, I was at my little house where I was living in Melrose. I had walked into the laundry room to take the call because there were people around. I walked in there and I looked down and there’s a megaphone sitting in the corner. I’ve been in this laundry room a hundred times and I’ve never noticed a megaphone sitting there. And it was just the weirdest, because I knew that they were probably going to offer me the gig at that point. So that was just weird and trippy. And then I went into the office and they offered me the gig.

How did it feel when they made it official?
It was surreal. I was wondering if it was really happening, if I was even there. It was one of those moments, for sure.

The first order of business was the make the 2018 STP record, right?
Yeah. But we had been working on it. We had a handful of songs at that point. “Meadow” was the first song that we wrote together. Well, they had music was already recorded, and I just kind of came in and I did six songs the first day, just mumble and gibberish. But I did six songs in the first day. They wanted to see if I could write melodies and lyrics, and I came in and recorded all of my mumbles and nonsensical words and then whipped up the lyrics. And most of those melodies are ones that we kept.

Was the album done by the time they announced you were joining the band?
Yes, I believe so. That was announced when we were at the Troubadour Show, and that was live on SiriusXM radio. So it was a trial by fire.

What was it like to walk onstage at the Troubadour and play with them in public for the first time?
It felt like a lifetime of work had culminated into that one moment of. And I know that most people don’t have those kinds of moments in life where it seems like everything you’ve been working towards your entire life has finally paid off in one single moment. My son was there, my family was there, so it was definitely something I’ll cherish forever.

I know your singing voice is naturally similar to Scott’s. When you’re doing the old songs, are you adjusting the way you sing at all to sound more like him? Just talk about your approach to the job.
No. I naturally sing very much like the Core record. That’s kind of my wheelhouse and my style of singing that I’ve always had. And so sometimes I go back and listen to the Scott version and I’m like, “Man, I really don’t sing it anything like that.” I’ve just kind of done it my own way a little bit. But I think I’m just naturally the same timber and whatever it is. I used to sing a lot higher and more powerful in Dry Cell, so it’s not as straining, which I can say is a blessing because I don’t know how long I could have done that in my life. Poor Chester, man. I don’t know how he did that.

Yeah. Speaking of Chester, you were replacing not just one iconic singer in STP, but two. That’s pretty heavy.
Well, it’s a simple transition for me because it’s all about the music. And it’s all about what I was doing when I was younger, when I was learning and creating and finding my way around just on my own, through music. And with these guys, they come in with amazing things that I get to hear for the first time, and no one else has ever heard them. And I get to come up with what I’m going to do to those. And so the process is made simple for me because it’s all about music, and that just makes it so much easier for me.

Your first show with STP was just a few months after Chester died. That must have been a really difficult time.
It happened right in the middle of us recording that first record. It was just horrendous. I found out before it hit the news, so it was just devastating. You can’t reach out to anyone because you don’t know who knows yet, and you don’t want to be the one that’s like, “Did you hear?” And I have some friends that were really super close to him, and they’ve struggled as well from the same thing. So it’s a tough thing for sure.

He just sang at Chris Cornell’s funeral.
It happened on Chris’ birthday, and I had a really strange feeling in my stomach when I saw him singing “Hallelujah” at Chris’ funeral. Chester was the guest list for a friends and family STP concert [we did before the official debut at the Troubadour]. He asked me if I was okay with him going. So right there it tells you everything to know about Chester. It’s his former band, and he’s asking me if he can come. He came up and did “Pruno.”

It was like a passing of the torch.
Yeah. Well, he was sitting there and I could see how much fun he was having in the front row, so I’m like, “Dude, come up and do one.”

The other guys in the band don’t get enough attention. Rob and Dean are such distinct players. I can hear Dean play one note on the guitar and I know it’s him.
Yeah. Each of them. And Robert’s bass player is big. It’s like if an AI built yourself the perfect bass player for what you’re trying to do, nine times out of ten, it would be him.

You did 100 shows in 2018. Was that like for you mentally and physically?
I think the hardest part is the traveling. It’s living out of suitcases and going from bus to hotel and to bus to hotel, and not even knowing what city you’re in half the time, because all you did was get on a bus and show up. That part can be daunting, but I love doing the shows, and the shows make everything better. I would never complain about traveling the world, but there’s sometimes when a staycation at home is necessary and you just want to binge-watch Band of Brothers or something.

Was it hard on your voice?
No. I used to do five nights a week, singing four hours a night just to pay my rent and gas. So when Covid hit, I was almost ready to just be like, “Okay, this is cool.” Not that it was cool, but it was cool not to have to sing and basically have vocal rest for a while because I’d never had it.

STP toured in 2018 with the Cult and Bush. Did you get to know Gavin Rossdale and Ian Astbury?
Yes, I did. The bands are great. I did some interviews with Ian, so we were doing a little traveling early morning news shows or whatnot, and he was always a mentor to me. He did the Doors thing for a little while, and he was like, “Just stay within yourself and don’t try to please anybody.” He gave me some good advice.

Right. That hadn’t occurred to me. He’s one of the few people on the planet to have really gone through what you went through.
Yeah. And I don’t want to ruin his reputation, but he is a really nice guy. He is a sweetheart guy. At least to me, he was.

Were you worried some nights that you’d walk onstage and the fans just wouldn’t accept you?
No. I do what I do, and I feel like I’m good at what I do. So as long as I go up there and do that, I feel like I’ll be all right. And to me, it’s about getting to go up and feel these songs and really just having the chance to express them for as many people as humanly possible, preferably without a roof.

The second record you made with STP was Perdida in 2020. Was that a different experience than the 2018 self-titled record since you were there from the start of the process?
Yeah. Also, we were doing the vintage instruments on that. It was an amazing process to be a part of. And the songwriting, especially because that record was very therapeutic, was very introspective, and there’s a lot of self in that record. I was basically bleeding my heart on my sleeve.

Tell me about writing “Fare Thee Well.”
I think that was one of the first ones that we wrote. We were on a tour in Canada in the winter, and we were in the basements of these cement block hockey arenas, and it was all cold. We came up with all these song ideas. I would step out, write, and then come back. We were only going to do six songs. We were going to make an EP, and we just kept writing, kept writing. So we just kept going until we said, “Okay, we have to stop. We’re going to have a triple record here.”

I really like “Sunburst.” What do you remember about writing that one?
I was having trouble writing. Some songs just kind of write themselves. The inspiration just comes and some songs, you got to search for it. And that was one I was searching for. I had the title of the song, and I was up late with a bottle of wine trying to figure this out, and the sun was coming up over my building, and I just saw the sun come up and the morning dew. It all came very quickly. I kind of double entendre’d it with humanity and life and put the two things together all at once. It was done in ten minutes.

There was an acoustic tour planned for 2020 that was called off.
That would’ve been amazing too because there were going to be extra musicians. We were going to do the Perdida record and older songs that we could reimagine different ways, kind of like how they did the Unplugged concert. That would’ve been pretty special. But I had to have back surgery. I had a disc that just disintegrated in the gym, so that was fun. I couldn’t walk for a while. I couldn’t move.

When did that happen?
It was just before Covid. I was one of the last surgeries in L.A., because I couldn’t even do physical therapy. I had to start painting my apartment just so I could move around.

It’s a shame you never had a chance to play any of those songs live.
We didn’t get a chance to promote it. Everything just shut down. So those songs will always be special to me. And the people who get to hear them, I feel like they can get something out of them. That’s because everything that I write personally, it has enough of a vagueness to it that people can relate and relate it to something in their lives. There’s layers in there.

The first show back was at Sturgis in the summer of ’21. What was it like to walk backstage after two years off?
It was crazy because we didn’t know if we were ever going to be able to do it again. We had an idea that we would be able to, but that’s everything for us. Being able to go out and play songs and just spiritually, economically…just every single way that there is. That’s all we have.

How was the tour you did last year with Smashing Pumpkins?
Oh, man. Just being able to hear those guys every night was incredible. I grew up listening to those guys as well, and some of their videos I remember. Some of that sepia tone they had in their videos along with the tone of their guitar and Billy’s voice…It had its own vibe, and that vibe hasn’t been diminished or lost in any way over time because he’s still amazing. And just being able to see him peek his head out of the dressing room and wave… It’s like it’s friggin’ Billy Corgan right there. Wow.

This summer is going to be Live, Soul Asylum, and Our Lady Peace.
Yeah. I finally get to do a show with Steve Mazur from Our Lady Peace. Right around 2000, I was in Dry Cella and he used to come over to my house every Sunday for dinner because he was teaching guitar in L.A. When he told me when he had an audition for Our Lady Peace, I knew right then he was going to get it. I was like, “You’re totally getting that, dude.” Happy for him.

What a huge full circle moment for you two. You’re back on the road, but now playing to 20,000-seat sheds.
It’s going to be crazy. “Hey, remember when we used to learn these songs that we’re playing tonight for our own band?”

It’s the 30th anniversary of Purple. Will that album be the focus of the set in any way?
I believe so. Yeah. That’s the word on the street. That’s what I’m hearing. I don’t know, but if you find out before me, let me know.

It would be great. That’s such a great record.
Yeah, we did it during Covid. We went and just did the whole record, and we did Core too. And those were fun because I used to listen to them from front to back and read through the lyrics while I’m listening to it, and just kind of immerse myself in the aura of it. And to be able to go in and with these guys and do these songs the way I used to do it in my own head at home was incredible.

You’ve sang the big hits like “Plush” and “Vaseline” many, many times at this point. Do you have a deeper appreciation for them after that?
Yeah, and especially when we get to do deeper cuts and stuff, because some of the bigger hits are ingrained in my soul like they are everyone else. But then there’s songs like “Glide” where he’s doing really intricate things vocally. He goes falsetto and back into his full voice seamlessly in a line. Some of those things are fun to do as a singer.

Are you guys working on a new record?
Well, I’m always writing, so I still have half a record finished from beforehand. We’ve been on vacation for a little bit, so I haven’t really spoken to them a ton other than logistics for shows and traveling and stuff like that. But we’ll have a moment when we get back into musical discussion.

Are you thinking about a solo record at some point?
Well, I’d hate to leave things unfinished, and seeing that I have half a record finished, at some point I’d like to get it out. [Drummer] Will Hunt from Evanescence is in it, and a couple other people have helped out. But yeah, I would love to finish that up someday and put that out, but I’m not really in a rush right now to get to that.

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Do you wish you had gotten the chance to meet Scott?
Yeah. A part of me does, but a part of me feels like I do get to, because it’s his legacy is this music and what he left us. And I feel like that’s the best way to get to know him, for me. Because obviously they knew him personally like a brother. So that’ll never happen. But that’s okay. I get to understand him through his art and his work, which to me is the most beautiful and sacred thing that you can do.

Keeping that music alive is a very important thing.
Yeah. And to see younger generations at the STP shows, that’s kind of what I’m here for. It’s to help my heroes go out there and sustain themselves, and really be able to be who they are and not have to change for anyone else. And I want people to remember Scott.

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Freelance journalist covering Indonesia and Timor-Leste. Bylines in the South China Morning Post, Nikkei Asia, The Telegraph and other outlets. Past TV work for ABC News US, Al Jazeera English and TRT World. Previously reported out of Taiwan.