Interview August 1998

Rock & Roll Resurrection

With his moody Scraps at Midnight, Mark Lanegan ditches his old demons and signs a new pact with life. When the grunge revolution hit in the early '90s, Seattle's Screaming Trees seemed headed for immortality. Their turbulent songs were more passionate and dynamic than those of many of their peers, and, more important, singer Mark Lanegan possessed a whiskey-worn baritone that could evoke tears more effectively than an onion slicer. But Lanegan also had a drug habit that hampered the band's productivity and ultimately their popularity. Some have argued that it was the singer's addiction that made the band's music--and his two solo albums--so powerful. But as the freshly cleaned-up Lanegan demonstrates on his 1998 solo project, Scraps at Midnight, the compulsion to create can be more potent than the urge to self-destruct.
The album was written with his long-time collaborator Mike Johnson (ex-Dinosaur Jr.), and it communicates a kind of vitality Lanegan hasn't expressed in a while, sounding like an amalgam of Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed, Hank Williams, and the more reflective side of R.E.M. writer Jon Wiederhorn hooked up with Lanegan and talked about productivity, drug dependency, and the future of the Trees. Scraps at Midnight is a haunting and evocative follow-up to its predecessor, Whiskey and the Holy Ghost. It sounds like you're back in peak form.

Mark Lanegan: Thanks, but I don't know. Scraps was done really quickly. Mike [Johnson] came down to Pasadena [California], where I lived, and we wrote the songs in a couple of days. Then we rehearsed them with band guys for three days and recorded them in three more. I didn't even sing the songs until I was actually on the mic, and I wrote the lyrics just as we were doing it. The whole thing took about three weeks. It was a nice change from the previous one, which was spread out over a period of years and much craziness. It doesn't feel rushed. It seems like a complete artistic expression.

Lanegan: Maybe it feels like a complete thing even more than the other ones because I had to focus on it and do it so quickly. I had just gone through drug rehab, and I was still living in a recovery house when I made it. And that's really why I didn't have time to do a whole hell of a lot as far as sitting down and writing a bunch of songs. I think the feel of it is more positive than any of the other ones in that way. I was in a much better mood when I did it. Did being clean affect the songwriting process?

Lanegan: Yeah. For starters, I think I was less negative. I have a pretty negative attitude when I'm using drugs. Don't some people use drugs to escape and feel ecstatic?

Lanegan: I think I remember feeling that way. It must have been 1978 [laughs]. Once you were clean, did you feel particularly creative?

Lanegan: No, because it was all too new. I'd been high for the greater part of the past decade, at least. But after a little time had passed, I started feeling really creative. Suddenly I'm wide awake and life's full of possibilities. We're already almost done with the next album. We started just doing some covers for British B-sides, and then we decided to do an EP, and then we just started writing originals. I don't even understand how it happened, but it's nearly finished. I just have so many ideas. Maybe you've spent so much energy feeding your habit in the past and now you're just redirecting your focus toward something more creative.

Lanegan: Definitely. You've got to keep busy. It was real hard for me to make records for a long period of time. I just wasn't able to focus most of the time because of the nature of my addiction. I couldn't concentrate or do much of anything. That's why there were so many years between Screaming Trees records and why we made records we didn't put out. What happened that made you decide to get clean?

Lanegan: The Trees did Lollapalooza in 1995, and I was fucked up all the time. I just felt I could do touring in my sleep, and I did. But making records was a different deal because you have to actually use your brain. And I wasn't up to that. Finally, those guys just decided that they couldn't work with me anymore. What did you do then?

Lanegan: I made a solo record that was really terrible. And then things just got worse in my personal life. I reached a point where it was either quit or die, and I was just lucky enough to be able to stop. I had stopped for periods of time over the years, but not for long. This is the longest I've been clean. What do you do with the solo stuff that you can't do with the Trees?

Lanegan: The Trees are five guys who all have very strong opinions, and all of them write songs. There's a lot of diversity and some great ideas going on there. But for me, I just naturally prefer something slower and quieter. It's just a different kind of expression. What's happening now with the Trees?

Lanegan: We're looking for a new record deal. We asked Sony to let us go from our contact because things have changed over there. Most of the people we started with are no longer there, and we wanted to make a fresh start. We've got a ton of new stuff, and it sounds really good. I think it's more like old Screaming Trees than the more recent stuff we did. We're doing a show in Seattle in September [1998] at the Bumbershoot festival, and hopefully we'll be able to play a bunch of the new stuff there. What excites you these days?

Lanegan: Everything. I just love this world. Anything's possible. When you are forced by circumstance or addiction to live a certain way for a long time, everything is difficult. I'm free now, and if you can't enjoy being free, then shit is really bad. I'm trying to live a normal, well-rounded life. I'm reconnecting with family and friends. There's a lot I've missed out on over the years, and I'm enjoying the opportunity to do normal, boring shit. I'm just living, man. For the first time in a long time, I'm just living.