Exclaim! Canada's Music Authority
From Seattle to the Stone Age
By Jason Schneider
With the 20th anniversary of the Seattle scene's insurgence
fast approaching, the ghosts of its fallen figures will still not be allowed
to rest. However, it's unlikely that proper tributes will be paid to the
survivors, those who have transcended the ubiquitous "grunge"
tag and continue to make music that challenges both themselves and their
audiences. Granted, there aren't many; Pearl Jam and Mudhoney have stuck
to relatively familiar territory, while Chris Cornell's post-Soundgarden
work is best left out of this discussion entirely. That leaves Mark Lanegan,
the scene's poetic misfit, an image largely rooted in his original miscasting
as lead vocalist of Screaming Trees. Yet, from his first emergence as
a solo artist, it was clear that Lanegan possessed an understanding and
appreciation of songwriting that far outstripped his peers. Over the past
decade he has allowed those traits to consistently lead him into uncharted
territory, both on his own and through a steady stream of collaborations.
Whether it's making cameos fronting Queens Of The Stone Age or his latest
collection of duets with Scottish folkie Isobel Campbell, Sunday At Devil
Dirt, Lanegan's soul-stirring baritone always sounds at home. It's a voice
that's become as powerful a vehicle of expression as any in rock'n'roll,
and in spite of his well-publicized bad habits, it thankfully doesn't
seem like it will be silenced anytime soon.
1964 to 1984
Mark Lanegan is born November 25, 1964 in the small town of Ellensburg,
130 miles southeast of Seattle. Some of his early years are spent in a
trailer park, and by age 12 he is committing petty crimes. "When
I was a kid I got caught shoplifting by a store security guard in Ellensburg,"
Lanegan would tell Seattle magazine The Rocket in 1996. "The next
time I saw that store guard was when I got thrown in jail again —
this time for not paying court fees. The guy happened to be in jail too,
right next to me. That's what Eastern Washington is like — you never
get too far away from anybody." He begins experimenting with drugs
and is arrested several more times. Although his listening habits favour
imported British punk singles, his imagination is also stoked by a box
of blues records that his father, a teacher, finds in the attic of his
school. Among them is Lead Belly's 1944 recording of "Where Did You
Sleep Last Night." In high school Lanegan strikes up a friendship
with fellow punk fan Van Conner, who — along with his brother Gary
Lee — play in one of Ellensburg's few bands. Lanegan, however, is
more intent on a baseball career; that is until age 18 when he is arrested
for drug possession and handed a prison sentence. It's deferred when he
consents to enter a yearlong treatment program. Following that, he works
for the Conner family business repossessing appliances and furniture.
Lanegan eventually falls out with the Conners and takes a job on a farm,
a position he only expects to hold temporarily until he's able to ride
his motorcycle to Las Vegas where better work awaits with his cousin.
Unfortunately, things don't go as planned. Just before Lanegan is about
to leave the farm, his boss accidentally runs over his legs with a tractor.
"After that, I couldn't ride my motorcycle," he'll tell Mojo's
Keith Cameron in 2004. "So I lent it to Van Conner. My girlfriend
left me around that time too, so he would come by and bring me food, 'cos
I couldn't walk. One day he came back without [the motorcycle]. He'd totalled
my bike, so now I didn't have any wheels. That's how I ended up being
in the Screaming Trees. Two months later we made our first record."
1985 to 1986
The Conner brothers are in the process of forming a new band with vocalist
Mark Pickerel when the still-recovering Lanegan offers to play drums.
It's determined that Pickerel is a better drummer, so Lanegan switches
to vocals, even though he has little experience in that role either. With
few places to play in Ellensburg, Lee Conner buys a four-track and the
band records original demos, laying the foundation for a sound that, although
rooted in hardcore, shows a strong love of psychedelia, from Lee Conner's
fondness for the wah-wah pedal, to Lanegan's Jim Morrison-inspired singing.
Seeking to expand upon the demos, the band meets local producer Steve
Fisk, who had previously put out several of his own cassettes on Calvin
Johnson's K Records. Fisk gets the band to record new versions of the
songs and six are chosen for the self-released Other Worlds cassette.
This sparks the Trees to write more and by summer, 1986 they finish their
full-length debut, Clairvoyance, released on Ellensburg-based label Velvetone.
By now Fisk is the band's champion and arranges the Trees's first legitimate
show on May 11, 1986 in Olympia, Washington, Calvin Johnson's home base.
Johnson is impressed and agrees to re-release Other Worlds on K. The band's
relationship with Johnson is fully consummated the next year when they
record a joint four-song EP with Johnson's band Beat Happening. However,
Fisk's next move is to play Clairvoyance to his friends at SST Records
in L.A. and the Trees soon join the label's influential roster that includes
Hüsker Dü, Black Flag and the Minutemen.
1987 to 1988
The Trees release Even If And Especially When, a stellar effort that establishes
them on the national college radio charts. It also gets them touring for
the first time, which quickly brings out underlying tensions among all
the members. "We'd come off the road and record an album for the
$1,000 advance SST were offering us, because we needed the money to go
back on the road," Lanegan told Stevie Chick, of UK quarterly Loose
Lips Sink Ships, in 2004. Although the Conner brothers would often fight
each other, the singer's main complaints stemmed from the fact that Lee
was insisting on writing most of the material. "Those SST records
were a mishmash. I was singing parts that the guitar player had written,
in a higher register than mine; I was always walking offstage with a splitting
headache. He was really into a psychedelia thing, which I wasn't into.
He hadn't even eaten acid, which I'd been selling for a number of years."
Lee Conner's psych fetish reaches its apex on the next album, Invisible
Lantern. Its laboured creation is too much for Van Conner, who quits just
after it is completed. He is replaced on bass by Donna Dresch in time
for a fall 1988 tour with fIREHOSE.
1989 to 1990
Dresch stays on board as sessions commence in L.A. for the Trees' last
SST album, Buzz Factory, before Van Conner rejoins and more tracks are
laid down in Seattle with local producer Jack Endino. Under Endino's guidance,
the album possesses more qualities that will soon be termed "grunge,"
which leads to interest from emerging Seattle label Sub Pop. The Trees'
only Sub Pop release is the aptly titled EP Change Has Come, although
the band temporarily splits again soon after its release. "The Trees
was four complete nuts," Lanegan would tell Mojo. "We didn't
have a damn thing in common except insanity. So we fought a lot. And we
had two brothers, who fought like brothers. Only they were huge. We made
a rule that no girlfriends or wives could ride with us. But none of us
had a girlfriend and only one of us had a wife. So [Van Conner] felt a
little discriminated against. And maybe he was. So he quit for a year
and a half. And when he came back, the very first show back, I was walking
off while the show was still going, like I usually did, and I heard a
commotion that sounded not like your usual applause. I came back out and
there he was beating the shit out of Lee Conner, on stage. It was like
prison. Without the sex." The Conners each form other bands: Solomon
Grundy (Van) and Purple Outside (Lee), while Lanegan signs a solo deal
with Sub Pop. His initial idea is to release an EP of Lead Belly covers
recorded with fellow Sub Pop signees Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic of
Nirvana, until he forms a partnership with songwriter/producer Mike Johnson.
Their initial efforts form the basis of The Winding Sheet, a stark, acoustic-based
collection that shows off the full depth of Lanegan's voice for the first
time. A version of "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" done with
Cobain and Novoselic does make the album, and the song will be resurrected
three years later when Nirvana performs it in a similar arrangement as
part of its Unplugged In New York session.
1991 to 1992
Despite Lanegan's creative breakthrough, the major label feeding frenzy
in Seattle pulls the Screaming Trees back together. They sign on with
high-powered manager Susan Silver, who lands them a deal with Epic, and
her then-husband Chris Cornell of Soundgarden is tapped as producer. The
resulting Uncle Anesthesia unfortunately doesn't live up to anyone's expectations
and the members start losing interest again. Drummer Pickerel quits before
the record is released, and Van Conner accepts an offer to tour with Dinosaur
Jr. When the Trees themselves finally tour — with Mudhoney drummer
Dan Peters sitting in — the tightening grip of drug addiction nearly
sends everything off the rails. Specifically, Lanegan is using heroin,
which greatly hampers his plans for a second solo album. His initial sessions
with Mike Johnson drag on until he is forced to give in to pressure from
the Trees' camp to make a new record with the band. Much of the focus
is restored when they enlist powerhouse drummer Barrett Martin and hire
producer Don Fleming, who brings a more polished pop edge to the new material.
However, it's a surprisingly renewed sense of camaraderie that is the
hallmark of the sessions, as Lanegan would later explain to Stevie Chick:
"I'd quit the band a number of times, but said I'd return for one
more album, only if we did it my way. Sweet Oblivion was the first where
I wrote all the words, and it ended up being our most successful one."
Released at the height of grunge mania, Sweet Oblivion is indeed the Trees'
best work in all respects, and "Nearly Lost You" becomes a surprise
hit, in part due to its inclusion on the Singles soundtrack. In keeping
with this mainstream attention, the band is handed a new touring regimen,
one that includes an unfortunate string of dates opening for Soul Asylum
and Spin Doctors.
1993 to 1994
As the hype surrounding Sweet Oblivion wanes, Lanegan is able to finish
Whiskey For The Holy Ghost, an even more powerful personal statement than
his solo debut. Songs like "House A Home" and "El Sol"
are drenched in melancholy, and the album as a whole seems to foreshadow
the looming collapse of the entire Seattle phenomenon, just as it mirrors
Lanegan's own personal struggles. "I started it in '92, and planned
to get it done in a week," Lanegan tells Seattle weekly The Rocket
upon Whiskey's release in 1994. "I finally finished up this August,
but that was for a lot of different reasons. At one time when I was prepared
to finish it, I couldn't go into the studio because of financial difficulties
with Sub Pop. Another time I couldn't sing. Then I was on the road for
over a year [with the Trees]. I used my breaks from that tour to fly to
New York and attempt to finish it again. I knew what I wanted the record
to sound like overall. I didn't even come close, and that changed. It
changed radically about a year and a half into it, and I recorded a bunch
of rock songs thinking I wanted to change it, and ended up, actually,
after the whole thing was said and done, using more songs from the very
first session than from anything else. I think it sounds amazingly cohesive
for how it was made." By the end of 1994, questions of a follow-up
to Sweet Oblivion are raised, but after recording an entire album's worth
of material, the band shelve all of it.
1995 to 1996
The Trees toil for another entire year on the new album, a process increasingly
hindered by Lanegan's heroin use. Ironically, he's called upon to contribute
vocals to the Seattle "supergroup" project Mad Season when Alice
In Chains' Layne Staley becomes too strung out to complete what will be
the band's only album, Above. When the Trees' solid, if at times overwrought
Dust finally appears in time to coincide with the band's slot on the 1996
Lollapalooza tour, its lacklustre sales are another sign that the "alternative"
scene's dalliance with the mainstream is coming to an end. This is further
illustrated by the controversy surrounding the tour's headliner, Metallica,
and the fact that others on the bill such as Soundgarden and the Ramones
have already announced their dissolution. To boost morale, the Trees draft
Josh Homme – on the rebound after leaving Kyuss – as second
guitarist, and he and Lanegan immediately bond. "Josh's presence
alone was the glue that kept [the Trees] together the last few years,"
Lanegan will tell Magnet in 2002. "We didn't want to act up too badly
in front of the kid. We were also really aware that he was capable of
a lot more than playing these rhythm guitar parts." Still, Lanegan's
drug consumption continues to escalate, and before the end of the Dust
tour, he is arrested for crack possession and forced into rehab.
1997 to 1998
Lanegan spends eight months at a drug treatment facility near Joshua Tree,
California and details the experience in a clutch of new songs. Feeling
ready to record, he calls Mike Johnson and arranges for a three-day pass,
during which time they lay down Scraps At Midnight, released in July 1998.
"I didn't know how to sing any more, 'cos I hadn't done it in long
time," Lanegan will tell Mojo. "A lot of friends and family
members came out to Joshua Tree and stayed with me while I was making
it. A really, really special record. That started beating me to actually
make records again." Among those friends is local resident Josh Homme
who invites Lanegan to join his new band Queens of the Stone Age, formed
out of the infamous "Desert Sessions" held at the same studio
where Lanegan and Johnson record. "I wasn't able to play on that
first [Queens] record, and in retrospect I'm really glad that's the way
it happened," Lanegan will tell Stevie Chick. "I've always preferred
being in a band, but I didn't want it to be an unhappy experience. I'd
been in this other band for a really long time, and it was a band of people
who really disliked each other a lot, beginning with two brothers who
disliked each other. There was always this threat of violence and a lot
of dysfunction and unhappiness. I didn't want to experience that again."
1999 to 2000
Lanegan and Johnson collaborate again on I'll Take Care Of You, a well-chosen
collection of folk, country and soul covers, along with "Carry Home"
by Lanegan's close friend, Gun Club leader Jeffrey Lee Pierce. Lanegan
forms a new band and begins performing this material at intimate club
shows along the West coast. At the same time, he finally accepts Homme's
offer to join Queens Of The Stone Age, after contributing vocals to three
tracks on their sophomore album, Rated R. "It took convincing on
his part that I wasn't tying myself to a rock that was going to the bottom
of the ocean," Lanegan said in 2004. "It's been one of the most
rewarding situations I've ever been in, and I don't mean because of its
success. It's one of the rare beasts in that it's good, but it also has
the ability to obviously get through to a lot of people, so it's not marginalized."
On June 25, 2000, Lanegan performs one final show with Screaming Trees
for the inauguration of the Experience Music Project in Seattle.
2001 to 2002
Field Songs, Lanegan's last collaboration with Mike Johnson, is released
to glowing reviews. He tells Mojo at the time of its release, "I
tried to make my second record again. Not a sequel to it, but the same
record, from a different perspective. One of 'em I made when I was out
of my mind, and this one I made when I was not." One of the notable
tracks is "Kimiko's Dream House," co-written with Jeffrey Lee
Pierce just before his death. "In early 1996, he went to Japan, and
right before he left he and I were at his mom's in L.A. writing songs,"
Lanegan will tell Stevie Chick. "He seemed in really good health
— sometimes he wasn't in such good health, sometimes he could barely
walk because he was so fucked up. When he came back from Japan, he left
me a couple of messages. He sounded completely out of his mind, though
not like he was drunk. It was strange, like he'd gone crazy. Finally I
got hold of someone, and she told me Jeffrey had been drinking while he
was gone, and his liver had sent poisons through his system, and he was
experiencing dementia. The hospital turned him away saying, there's nothing
we can do for him, his liver's shut down, he's dying. After this, I get
a call from him; he was up in Utah and he sounded normal. And I said 'What
the hell, man, everyone's saying you're going to die.' And he said 'They
always say that.' And a week later, he fell into a coma and died."
Lanegan takes part in Desert Sessions 7, which sets the stage for the
next Queens album, Songs For The Deaf, a tour de force that has him front
and centre on standout tracks "Hangin' Tree" and "Song
For The Dead." His appearances at Queens concerts soon become famously
selective, an approach he likens to when he was a relief pitcher during
his baseball-playing days.
2003 to 2004
Lanegan sings on Martina Topley-Bird's Mercury Prize-nominated debut Quixotic,
and makes more significant contributions to the Queens' Lullabyes To Paralyze,
while working on his next solo album with members of the Queens circle.
Initial efforts are heard on the Here Comes That Weird Chill EP —
credited to the Mark Lanegan Band — which finds the singer in a
much more experimental frame of mind than ever before. That's partly carried
over to the full-length Bubblegum, although overall it is a well-balanced
reflection of all of Lanegan's capabilities. Among the many guests are
Polly Jean Harvey, who duets on "Hit The City." "I said
I didn't want to make that same kind of records anymore," he'll tell
Stevie Chick. "I considered them all rock records, but I noticed
people thought of them as blues records or folk records, and that's just
not interesting to me. I didn't want to make something that was so rooted
in period that it was a genre exercise. I wanted to make rock'n'roll records,
my kind of rock'n'roll records. I listen to a lot of different kinds of
music and very little of it is rooted in the past. Mike [Johnson] in particular
was not interested in doing anything that was 'unsafe,' y'know? That's
no slam on him at all; he makes wonderful records and all those records
bear his stamp, and I'm very proud of and love the music we made together.
But I wanted to do something else."
2005 to 2006
During a Queens tour stop in Glasgow, Lanegan meets former Belle &
Sebastian singer Isobel Campbell and offers to record an album of duets
with her. Campbell takes up the challenge and writes new material she
feels is suitable. They construct Ballad Of The Broken Seas — and
the companion Ramblin' Man EP — mostly via the Internet, although
they meet in L.A. to record two of Lanegan's selections, one being a cover
of the blues standard "St. James Infirmary." Most compare the
album favourably to the classic Lee Hazlewood/Nancy Sinatra duets from
the late '60s. "[Mark's] voice is rough and a lot of people say mine
is angelic," Campbell said. "It's like two sides of the coin,
really. That's how we both always looked at it. It's very unlikely. It's
a very feminine/masculine thing as well."
2007 to 2008
Lanegan pushes his musical boundaries further by collaborating with Soulsavers,
comprised of English production duo Rich Machin and Ian Glover. The album,
It's Not How You Fall, It's The Way You Land, features Lanegan on eight
tracks. They include reworkings of the Rolling Stones' "No Expectations,"
Neil Young's "Through My Sails," and Lanegan's own "Kingdoms
Of Rain" from Whiskey For The Holy Ghost. However, most of his time
is spent getting his long-gestating partnership with former Afghan Whig
Greg Dulli off the ground. Lanegan had contributed to several albums by
Dulli's Twilight Singers project dating back to 2003, but the two close
friends had always planned to put their own band together. Under the name
the Gutter Twins, they release Saturnalia, a dark, dense collection that
shows Lanegan in top form on "Idle Hands" and "Who Will
Lanegan and Campbell's second album together, 2008's Sunday At Devil Dirt,
is reissued with five new bonus tracks. The pair works in closer proximity
this time, with Lanegan flying to Glasgow to lay down his parts over the
course of a week. The result is more powerfully evocative folk-based balladry,
with the damaged grandeur of Lanegan's voice once again the album's most
prominent instrument. "I was pretty stubborn, I thought that I could
do a lot of things myself," he summed up in 2004. "Nobody likes
to believe that they need anybody's help in anything, and the smarter
you are — and I'm not smart — or the tougher you are —
and at times I thought I was pretty tough — the more trouble you
have. The smartest guys I ever met are not around anymore, because they
thought they could think their way out of an unthinkable situation, and
the tough guys have to just be beaten up repeatedly, and some guys just
never do make it out. As far as I remember I don't have any warrants out
for my arrest anymore. I can travel without fear. I'm not carrying anything
in my pockets that might get me caught, so that's a good thing. I thank
God that today, I'm okay. That doesn't mean that tomorrow I won't be of
the mind to do something stupid. But God willing, I won't."
The Essential Mark Lanegan
Screaming Trees – Sweet Oblivion
It gets harder with each passing year to listen to albums of the "grunge
era," but this top-to-bottom hook-laden collection still holds up.
Although the neo-psych trappings still linger, it's Lanegan's emerging
confidence as both a singer and lyricist that shines through. Sure, it
was his biggest commercial success, but his career really started here
Mark Lanegan – Whiskey For The
(Sub Pop, 1993)
Another stellar batch of songs, but this time in the completely opposite
vein. With Mike Johnson's brooding arrangements as a foundation, Lanegan
is able to completely bare his soul. Although the performances are awash
in confusion and despair, there's still a strong sense of hope in the
conviction Lanegan displays in facing his demons. For this reason alone
it will probably always stand as his definitive solo recording.
Mark Lanegan Band – Bubblegum
(Beggar's Banquet, 2004)
Having found a taste for hard rock again through his work with Queens
Of The Stone Age, Lanegan uses it as a starting point from which he combines
all of his musical influences. It could have been a mess, but Lanegan's
singular vision keeps it all together. Although with a supporting cast
that includes Polly Jean Harvey, Josh Homme, Dean Ween, stoner rock guru
Chris Goss, and even Duff McKagen, it would have been hard to go wrong