first appeared in Filter Magazine, October, 2004
Getting To Know Mark Lanegan
Mark Lanegan wears all 40 years of his life on his
face. His skin, once puffed in that Tom Waits sort of way, is now ironed
out into a smooth sheet. His thin amber eyes pierce his surroundings with
a devastating gravity. Even his thick maroon mane, which spikes out beneath
an indescript black hat, seems to be spun by the hands of time, hammered
by hard living.
So it's a peculiar feeling to be taking a seat across from him at a nameless,
sparkling Starbucks in Studio City, California surrounded by lattes, SUVs,
aspiring actors and the Valley that gave birth to the mini-mall. Lanegan
doesn't seem to mind.
He exudes an ease he didn't have for the first 12 years of his musical
career as the figurehead for the Screaming Trees. He's just left a birthday
party thrown for a more recent ex-bandmate, Josh Homme, of the Queens
of the Stone Age. He sits down across from me and smiles, his face alighting
at the sight of a stranger, silhouetted against a backdrop of idle chatter
and banana muffins.
Lanegan split with QOTSA to concentrate on his sixth full-length record,
the cannily titled Bubblegum. Though his break with the band nearly coincided
with Homme's firing of longtime partner, bassist/singer Nick Oliveri,
it's clear that Lanegan's departure has not caused the tears and heartache
Oliveri's has. The crooner continues to write with Homme and appears regularly
at Oliveri's solo performances.
"Whatever's going on between those guys doesn't have shit to do with me,"
he says with that parched voice, chain-smoking and pumping bottled water.
"I don't concern myself with other people's dramas. But it is a shame,
because both those guys are my friends. I have a feeling though, that
since they've known each other for a long time, they'll patch it up."
That he was able to salvage both friendships amidst such turmoil is an
example of Lanegan's social grace. He's also preserved relationships with
his ex-wife, Wendy Rae Fowler, two former members of Guns 'N' Roses, and
the temperamental Greg Dulli of Twilight Singers and Afghan Whigs. All
of the above appear on Bubblegum, as does PJ Harvey. (Lanegan and Dulli
have also conspired to form a new group, the Gutter Twins.)
Rarely does someone who's reaching his autumn years sound so vibrant.
This is supposed to be bottom-rung time, when the excesses of youth begin
to show their influence. Let us not forget what got him to this place
in his career: 12-plus years with the tumultuous Trees ("For a lot of
years I didn't enjoy music…probably however long I was in the Trees"),
compiled with heavy drug use and a wanderlust streak that left him with
more than 20 different addresses in the last three years alone.
Maybe it's a nine-month-old Boston terrier named Archie that's rekindled
the embers in his heart. Or the languid feeling of having completed an
unexpected marathon tour that lasted two-and-a-half years after the release
of QOTSA's Songs For The Deaf, an album which placed QOTSA squarely into
the vanguard of popular rock 'n' roll.
"I spent more time with the band than I originally intended to," he says,
"because the record did so well [commercially] and I said that I would
stay with it until all the touring was done. It ended up being a full
year longer than I anticipated."
Whatever the change is, it's been good for him. Because Bubblegum is,
perhaps, the best album he's ever made. He's joined by more friends than
ever, but more importantly, he rallies them with expertise and excitement.
The once intense and at times morose Lanegan is actually laughing at the
beginning of the first single, "Methamphetamine Blues."
The most touching moment on the album is a duet he performs with his ex-wife
called "Wedding Dress." The song includes a fleeting, obscure reference
to Johnny Cash in the final line: "We got buried in a fever" (Cash and
his late wife, June Carter Cash, originally sang, "We got married in a
fever" on his song "Jackson"). Sure, it's a more sombre take (or perhaps
more sly), but that's just the sort of thing he's always excelled at.
And a guy could do a lot worse than emulate the Man in Black.
"I actually started doing shows because of Johnny Cash," he says. "I had
two solo records before I ever did one of my own gigs. I would get asked
all the time to do them, but I didn't want to; making solo records was
something I did for fun. Then I got asked to open for Johnny Cash, and
I thought 'I just can't say no to this one.' I put a band together and
was lucky enough to spend some time with him in 1995 for his second American
Lanegan was also able to harvest recordings with another pre-eminent star
before his more untimely demise: fellow Seattle neighbour Kurt Cobain.
The Nirvana guru surfaced on Lanegan's 1990 effort, The Winding Sheet,
which included the pair performing a noisy rendition of "Where Did You
Sleep Last Night."
Known for her collaborative spirit, the snaring of PJ Harvey for Bubblegum
didn't require any courting whatsoever. "She was a fan of QOTSA and she
approached me at one of our shows," he recalls. "She said she had Whiskey
For The Holy Ghost and really liked it… I just jumped in, like I always
do, and said, 'Well, you have to do something for my new record, then.'
I mean, of course, who doesn't want to record with her?"
Or more to the point, who doesn't want to do a record with Mark Lanegan?
The surprisingly humble sage smirks as we finish off our coffee, "As the
years have gone on, I've recognised that I have a gift, that a lot of
people would love to do what I do, and I'm really lucky." Which is something
they all say, but in his case it might actually be true. It's a long winding
road full of potholes and wrong turns for a person such as he to end up
where he is (even if that's just a Starbucks in the Valley on a Wednesday).
He's got some people to call and some errands to run and a tour to plan.
Twenty pairs of eyes watch him as he stands to leave, "If someone had
told me that I'd still be doing this when I was 40," he says, shaking
my hand with that now-easy smile, "I would have laughed."