by D. House
September 20, 2009
Mark Lanegan first hit the scene as the front man for Screaming Trees, the Ellensburg, WA. band who quickly became associated with the Seattle grunge scene. Between 1986 and 1996 the Trees released seven studio albums. In 1990, Lanegan released his first solo album, The Winding Sheet, and has released 5 more solo records, the last being Bubblegum from 2004. Mark is also known for his work with Queens Of The Stone Age, appearing on Rated R (2000), Songs for the Deaf (2002), and Lullabies to Paralyze (2005). He has also made a number of records with former Belle and Sebastian singer Isobel Campbell and Greg Dulli in The Twilight Singers and The Gutter Twins, and the Soulsavers from the U.K.
You’ve been making music for almost 25 years now - a quarter of a century - which is a remarkable. I was wondering if you think about that and if you ever ponder all that you’ve done and what a huge part of your life music has been.
You know, I don’t really think about it unless someone brings it up. Thank you. [laughs] I think about it in a “where has the time gone” kind of way, if at all. It’s gone by in a hurry. It really is true; time flies.
Can you imagine ever doing anything else, or do you see yourself doing this for the next 25 years as well?
I’m probably going to have to, to make a living. [laughs] Not having had any 401k. Yeah, I definitely feel lucky that anybody would want to hear anything I’m doing. I’ve always felt like that. I feel blessed to be able to do it. It beats the shit out of any number of other jobs I’ve had. I still have the love for music.
Do you not think that what you do is special? Clearly people are drawn to your work.
It’s hard to enjoy or appreciate what you do in the same way you appreciate what somebody else does. In other words, I’d much rather listen to somebody else’s music than my own, in the same way I’d much rather talk about somebody else than myself. [laughs]
What about when you listen to older music, for instance listening to something that the [Screaming] Trees did 15 or more years ago? Does it sound different to you because so much time has passed? Do you feel somehow distanced from it, as if you can hear it as an outsider?
I’ll let you know the minute I listen to some of that stuff. [laughs] I’ve actually had to listen to the odd song recently to get ready for this tour that we’re doing, but I sort of knew which one I wanted to do and basically just listened to that. I prefer to stay in the here and now, and I’ve heard that stuff a ton. Will I ever be able to listen to it objectively? Probably not. I maybe should have been a little more critical of it at the time, but it is what it is.
How long have you lived in LA?
11 or 12 years, more or less.
What originally drove you to come here?
I had of course been here many times, and had stayed for a couple of months at a time before, but I had never really spent time here. I came down here in 1997 to go to rehab.
I supose being out of the environment that was providing the negative influences was the best thing to do.
For me it was more about being around the positive influence than trying to escape from the negative. I got involved in something that was much more positive for me and decided I wanted to stick with that.
Do you think the sunshine also makes a difference in some of that positivity compared to the Northwest?
Absolutely. I love the Northwest, I lived there for many years and I’ll always consider Seattle to be home. But that said, the weather is incredibly hard on some people, and I’m one of them. It’s the darkness and gray, even when it’s not raining. There’s something about getting up most days and seeing the sun and seeing a palm tree. I have a tough time having a shitty day in the sunlight.
Do you think - creatively and musically - that moving to LA was a different chapter [for you] re: your creativity, or how you think about your music? Or does it have more to do with the fact that you’re interacting with different people here?
Everything that I’ve ever done, I was pretty much interacting with different people than with the previous thing...outside the [Screaming] Trees that is. It’s really hard for me to remember what I thought about music at a different time. I know that I appreciate it a lot more now, and back then at times it was not something I always enjoyed. For several years now, I’ve enjoyed it and have gone out of my way to do things I was going to enjoy instead of things I felt obligated to do.
I'd love to talk about some of your more recent collaborations. You’ve got this upcoming tour.
It’s called “An Evening with Greg Dulli and Mark Lanegan.”
How did the collaborations with Greg come to be the Gutter Twins? You’ve done some things with the Twilight Singers as well, correct?
Yeah, and he’s also sung on a couple of my records, and played keyboards in my band before as well.
Is this current collaboration a two-piece or a three-piece?
Was this collaboration through the Sub Pop community of artists? Is that how you came together?
Although we met in the late 80s, we were never really around each other or became friendly until the late 90s. We were both no longer with Sub Pop at that time. We were both living down here. Actually, I may have still been with Sub Pop, but he definitely was not. We saw each other around and started hanging out down here and liked each other’s company and liked a lot of the same music. And now he’s one of my closest friends.
Do you tend to write together or do you tend to write separately and then bring your songs to each other?
For the Gutter Twins record we did at least half the record together in the same room. A couple songs I brought to him, and a couple he brought to me. Pretty much did it both ways.
And that record came out on Sub Pop?
Yes. Jon [Poneman] has come to see us when we were doing the Twilight Singers a couple of times, and we had been talking about doing something that was not just him or me but the two of us together for a long time. I think Megan Jasper (Sub Pop label manager) was responsible for putting us in touch with each other in the first place because Greg had some music that he thought would be cool for me and gave it to Megan, and she gave it to me, and that’s really how we got in touch with each other. From that point on we were talking about doing stuff together, but really the first things we did were with the Twilight Singers and my solo things. Slowly we started writing together when we had the time. We did a couple of songs around Christmas time one year, and then didn’t do anything else for another year. Then a couple more songs. It was not really at the top of our priority list, but then we were finishing a Twilight Singers tour, and neither of us had anything else going on for a short period of time, so we decided to try and finish it. So the last half went pretty quickly, but the first half was excruciatingly slow.
Speaking of excruciatingly slow, I need to ask you if the story’s true about the second solo record, Whiskey for the Holy Ghost. It took several years to record?
Yeah, not in total time, but spread out over a good four years.
The story was that you were to a point of frustration where you just said ‘fuck it, I’m going to throw the masters in a pond,’ and Jack Endino stopped that from happening. Is that the stuff of myth?
No, it’s actually true. It was a creek, I think. Bear Creek. He physically got in the way. [laughs] But yeah, that was frustrating because of me, not because of anyone else involved. I would go in to mix a record, which I would have completed, or think that I did, and inevitably start writing songs and wanting to record them. I was basically out of my mind for several years, that’s what happened there.
How did the collaboration with Isobel Campbell come to be?
I was on tour with the Queens [of the Stone Age] and got something in the mail, a piece of music she had sent to my record company and asked if I wanted to sing on it. I didn’t realize there were actually words for this piece of music already, I didn’t read the entire letter or something, and I went ahead and made up my own singing part for it, which happened really quickly. I got back to her and she ended up liking what I did and put it on an EP. We met in person a couple of times when I was up in Glasgow, hung out and became friendly. One thing led to another. I just finished working on a third record.
When’s that slated to come out?
Sometime next year (2110). Whenever it’s ready, which is basically up to her. I think I’ve done all my part on it.
I’m guessing you’re probably not as interested to talk about it because it’s old history now, but I’m sure fans would be interested in the whole connection with Kurt Cobain and Nirvana around the Leadbelly song, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”
We had talked about making an EP of Leadbelly covers because he was someone that Kurt and I both enjoyed listening to, and we’d listen together. We got together in basically two days and recorded that song, which I sang, and another song which I was supposed to sing but didn’t, and a couple that Kurt sang. At the end of it we started to lose interest in it quickly, realizing it wasn’t as cool as the originals that we liked listening to. We told Sub Pop that it probably wasn’t going to happen, and that’s when they suggested to me that I make a solo record.
So the first solo record came from that collaboration with Kurt?
Yeah, it did. I didn’t know how to play guitar at the time. I was working a regular job, and not in a good living situation which I needed to get out of, and they offered me at the time more money than I had ever been given to make any records, so there was definitely motivation. I would come home from work and come up with a melody in my head. Previous to this I had just sung on Screaming Trees records and changed some of the words that were already in place for those songs, but I hadn’t done a whole lot of writing. I would go home and grab the book I had with guitar chords in it, Mel Bay, and I would find the chords that fit underneath the melody I had made up at work and write a song with that. For a couple of weeks I did that and came up with songs, and Mike Johnson came and added intros and middle parts to them.
Mike did a lot of the arranging?
Absolutely, and co-wrote all of that stuff with me as well. I would basically just have the chord progression that was being sung over and nothing else, very rudimentary. Someone described my style as being when your older brother picks up a guitar for a week in high school and then quits, but I kept playing and stayed at that same place. It’s true: I’m still the same shitty guitar player I was then.
I’ve always been really fond of that record. I’ve always thought it felt like a really organic record. It sounds like a pretty cool thing came out of the fruits of that initial collaboration. I've often thought about the way that the Seattle scene has changed - initially by the enormous success of Nirvana, the way that Kurt’s songs changed everything. What I remember even more though is when he died, how everything seemed to crumble in that scene. Do you ever think about all that?
The chronological order of things?
I guess more about the nature of fame, how the fabric of that whole scene was shaken up, and how things changed in pretty big ways, seemingly overnight.
What was strange about it is that Seattle is basically a pretty small provincial city. To have so many bands from such a condensed thing become so hugely popular, that was odd. From a personal standpoint, everybody I have ever known that became really famous, it didn’t do them any good, if you know what I mean. So I do think about that stuff, though, again, only when asked to. I generally prefer to stay in the here and now, which I think is more conducive to a healthy mental state.
I think sometimes being able to reflect on that stuff helps to keep what you’re currently doing in perspective. In that scene in particular - more than most - there were a lot of casualties. You worked with Kurt and Layne Staley. When I think about them, it makes me sad. Both such huge losses.
Absolutely. I don’t know if you can really blame the music for the casualties though. I think it’s probably more drug addiction.
I wasn't trying to suggest that the music caused the addiction. I think that sometimes it's a for that people self-medicate, just to deal with the pressures of fame. I’ve always thought that the ideal success as a musician, would be to be able to play middle-sized places like the El Rey. It seems like it would be like a prison to be a Bowie or a Jagger, where you can’t walk in any city anywhere in the world and not get accosted.
I wouldn’t know about that [laughs].
I always felt like that’s what happened to Kurt, that he couldn’t deal with being under such a huge microscope.
I don’t know if I’ve ever shared this story before, but he was staying in an old hotel on Madison between Terry and Cherry. The Sorrento Hotel. He was staying there and was in the process of moving back from [Los Angeles] to Seattle. It was right at the time that “[Smells Like] Teen Spirit” was huge. We were sitting in the hotel room, he was laying on the bed, the TV was on MTV, and the video came on of course. Kurt picked up a shoe and angrily threw it at the TV and turned it off. Right at that moment from a car down below on the street, the song was playing on the radio, and he just went, “Arrrggh.” It was overwhelming.
He was a very private and personal guy.
He was really a gentle guy, very kind. That’s what I remember most about him, just his kind and thoughtful nature.
Let’s move away from the sad memories and the overcast of Seattle, and come back to the beautiful sunny day that’s outside. Your last solo record was Bubblegum. How many years has that been?
It’s been five years. It’s gone by in a hurry.
But you’ve been doing a lot of other stuff too, a lot of collaborations.
Are there thoughts of, or is there a new solo record in the works?
You know, there’s always one in the works because there’s always a group of tunes that are sort of being kicked around and added to and subtracted from for various other things. It’s always really until I’m actually in a studio recording one that it’s sort of a vague idea, but it’s an idea that god-willing will come to fruition at some point. I’ve been blessed with all these collaborative situations that I’ve been enjoying. With this last record I did with Isobel, that will be six [different records] in five years. The second record I made with this British band, Soulsavers, is coming out in August. The there's The Gutter Twins. I’ve actually been on one of the Twilight Singers’ records in that time too. I've been active. Life's been good.