The Independant, July 2004

Mark Lanegan: The grateful undead

Mark Lanegan has always lived on the edge. He survives by making music and by always moving on, he tells Kevin Harley
30 July 2004

It's a world of pain, the one Mark Lanegan moves in. It is on the day I meet him, at any rate. Sprawled on a settee at his record label's office, the jet-lagged, 6ft-something singer - formerly of Seattle's powerhouse rural-grunge outfit Screaming Trees, occasionally of Queens of the Stone Age and largely solo - is grimacing as he rubs at his belly beneath a black T-shirt. Not only is his sour stomach giving him grief; he hasn't had much sleep in two days, either (he grabs a little mid-interview but, thankfully, not for long enough to give me a complex). "Yeah, in need of some serious sleep," he growls, rummaging furiously in the pockets of his black jeans, "and something else." Eh? "Do you know what Pepcid is? It's a space-age antacid. Here it is! Oh, thank God." He pops it, takes a deep breath and squints my way: "OK, I'm with you."

Lanegan is a man of few words, but his being with us is a thing to be thankful for. Over 15 years fronting the hard-living, in-fighting rock circus of the Trees, he cooked up a history as one of rock's most lived-in figures and developed a cadaverous aura to match. When his friends, Kurt Cobain and the Gun Club's Jeffrey Lee Pierce, died young in 1994 and 1996, it was difficult not to worry that Lanegan might be next.

His stint as a touring co-singer with QOTSA suggests the degree to which this walking-dead image has firmed up around him: materialising mid-set, he would sing about four songs, say nothing, stand stock still and vanish fast once he was done - as if to give anything away or stay in one place for too long might get him caught. The intent, he once quipped, was to get QOTSA fans asking, "Who is this vampire?"

But Lanegan is more than just a survivor. Aside from boasting one of rock's great voices - a deep, grainy and bluesily expressive rumble, now matured with age but not at all tamed - he's on a creative roll right now. With five strong solo albums behind him, recent months have seen him recording with Martina Topley-Bird and the former Belle and Sebastian chanteuse Isobel Campbell; releasing an excellent eight-track EP, Here Comes That Weird Chill; undertaking a superb solo tour hot on the well-worn heels of QOTSA's last trek; and contributing to the Queens main-man Josh Homme's Desert Sessions projects. He also has a sixth solo album, the moody, mischievously monikered Bubblegum, out on Monday under the new name of "Mark Lanegan Band", to suggest, as he puts it, "starting a new chapter, in a small way".

As for what brought on the activity, attention seems to have found Lanegan, rather than him pursuing it. "I've just been blessed with opportunity, man," he growls, his voice sounding like the roughest road even at a tired whisper. "And taking advantage of it. You have opportunities and you don't take advantage of it, it's sheer folly. I like to make records, and there were times when I wished I could make one and there weren't enough people, so now, whenever I can, I take advantage of it."

He bristles at the suggestion that touring with QOTSA might have influenced the more rock-flavoured tracks on Bubblegum, which seem to deviate slightly from the bluesy strains of his previous solo work. "Well," he frowns, "if you listen to the last record, Field Songs, there's songs like that on there. It's just the ratio between loud and quiet this time is more even. That's how I look at it. It doesn't seem like there's anything that's a radical departure from stuff I've done before. It just seems like there's more of a certain kind of song, which has less to do with who I'm playing with and more to do with who I'm not playing with."

The notable absence on the album is Mike Johnson, the former bassist with Dinosaur Jr who co-wrote Lanegan's previous solo albums and added some moody guitar work to them. What happened there? "Mike seemed less and less interested as time went on in making these records with me," Lanegan says. "Had his own records to make, which he should make. We made a lot of records together. And more than enough. Time to move on, y'know? Time to move on. Don't wanna do the same thing for the rest of your life."

The new team of collaborators on Bubblegum indicate the esteem that Lanegan is held in. QOTSA's Josh Homme and Nick Oliveri pitch in, alongside PJ Harvey, Greg Dulli (Afghan Whigs, Twilight Singers), Dean Ween (Ween), Chris Goss (Masters of Reality), and the former Guns N' Roses live-hards Duff McKagan and Izzy Stradlin'. "That's just guys I know," Lanegan shrugs. "Duff was on Field Songs. I've stayed in his houses, watched over them while he wasn't in them. He has a lot of stuff, so he likes to have someone there." As for Harvey, is it true that Lanegan was intimidated to be singing with someone so noted for their voice? "I was probably trying to pretend I was humble when I said that," he rumbles. "I was excited to be working with her, she's fantastic. It was great. Why wouldn't it be?"

It's clear Lanegan likes to keep moving, then, although a surprising example of a working situation that did seem to become untenable was the recent splintering of the seemingly rock-solid QOTSA. Lanegan knew Josh Homme from his time in the Trees, when Homme, then in his band Kyuss, toured as a guitarist with the Seattle giants. In return, Lanegan sang on QOTSA's Rated R and Songs for the Deaf albums, describing the group as "a picture of mental health compared to the other band" (Trees). At the end of the two-year-plus tour for Songs, though, Lanegan, Homme and the band's hellfire bassist, Nick Oliveri, seemed to go their separate ways, with some apparent acrimony between the latter two players.

"You know what, I was always going to," Lanegan says of his moving on (and you think: well, of course you were). "It was always known that I was just going to work for the life of that record, which went on for a lot longer than any of us anticipated. Then I was going to come and do this. I'm still involved with the band, still on the next record."

Was he surprised by Oliveri's split with Homme? "Two very different kinds of guys," Lanegan shrugs, "which made things pretty volatile. The mix of personalities made for a very creative environment at times and some oily water at times. It's a shame they couldn't reconcile that, because together they're really great. But you know what? Separately they're great, as well. So you'll just get twice as much shit out of them."

He takes a similarly no-sentiment, just-keep-moving stance on the Screaming Trees, despite their being one of rock's genuine should-have-beens. Lanegan joined the band in 1985, having met the mountainous Conner brothers, Gary Lee (guitar) and Van (bass), when he was working for their parents, repossessing electrical appliances. He became their drummer initially, until they swapped him for someone who, he says, "could actually play drums". They scored a near-hit with "Nearly Lost You" and garnered great reviews for their 1996 swansong album, Dust, but dissolved quietly after a live reunion in 2000. These days, Lanegan isn't in touch with the Conners and isn't overly concerned that the band didn't get their due in their lifetime. "No, not really. Very happy to put that behind me. Can't think of any reason to revisit that. It was 15 years, y'know? Long enough, I think."

He began his solo career as a response to the Trees in 1990, recording the largely acoustic The Winding Sheet album with the help of Mike Johnson and the then-little-known Nirvana's Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic. "It was a reaction against loud music," he says. "To play something a bit softer. I never thought about it too in-depthly." Does he prefer the solo work to being in a band? "It's nice to not have to put everything before a delegation to figure out if it's worth doing or not," he says, with the air of someone who likes to get things done. "And definitely, there are some records I like better than others. But I don't go back and revisit them, unless we're looking at songs for a tour. I'm usually focused on what's right in front of me."

Getting Lanegan to reflect on his past, especially today, or explore his lyrics is a tough call. It's fair enough, in a way: after all, you don't get to sing with the immediacy he does by theorising about it, and with more than one dead friend haunting his history, you can understand a certain determination to keep moving. How does he feel about Lee Pierce and Cobain cropping up in just about every interview and article on him? "Doesn't bother me. It's obvious if you listen to our records that we have much in common. Just people who were friends of mine," he adds, pausing for a heartbeat, "who aren't around anymore." Does he ever find himself wondering what they would be doing if they were? "Probably something brilliant, I'm sure. But I try not to."

Keeping moving seems to be his chief concern. Touring Bubblegum is on his slate until January, and this winter should also see the results of his work on Oliveri's Mondo Generator and Homme's QOTSA albums (he's been "passing between them like an olive branch", he says). Other possible future releases include some rare Screaming Trees material, alongside further collaborations with Greg Dulli and Isobel Campbell. What to expect from the latter is anyone's guess, but it'll probably be something brilliant, I'm sure.

He's having to turn gigs down, too: recently, conflicting schedules forced him to abandon plans to tour as the frontman with MC5, which he regretted. "I did. I was looking forward to it. Instead, I had to come here to do press for Bubblegum." I tell him I feel almost guilty. "Well, you should," he says, his humour as sandpaper-dry as his voice.

At any rate, it sounds like a cue to let him concentrate on the more pressing matters of the day. "Thank you very much, man, take care," he says, unpeeling his rangy frame from the settee, smiling wonkily and pumping my hand: "I gotta use the restroom." And with that, true to form, he's out of here like a flash.

'Bubblegum' is out on Monday on Beggars Banquet

The Winding Sheet
Mark Lanegan (Sub Pop, 1990, )
Grunge gets the blues on Lanegan's in-the-raw solo bow, including the wryly despairing "Mockingbirds" and a deep and dark cover of Leadbelly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" that you really wouldn't want addressed to you.

Whiskey for the Holy Ghost
Mark Lanegan (Sub Pop, 1994, )
Postcards from the edge. "The River Rise" sees Lanegan stretching his vocals with languid muscularity, before building to a spine-chilling bellow on the tortured "Borracho". "Here comes the devil," he sings, and it sounds like it. Superb.

Scraps at Midnight
Mark Lanegan (Sub Pop, 1998, )
Apparently recorded close to a stint in rehab, the album named after a friend's cat and dog veers from light to dark with ragged majesty and, even, grace moments fit to make you swoon. The should-have-been-a-hit single, "Stay", is almost beatific, while on "Bell Black Ocean", Lanegan's world-weary growl reflects along a gorgeously simple piano melody on a love outliving death.

Screaming Trees (Epic, 1996, )
The Trees' swansong was the crowning glory of the Seattle grunge era. It was the mellowest of the Trees' Byrds-meets-Black Sabbath outings, with the man they called Old Scratch's growl on the tenderly sonorous "Look At You" sounding like that of a wounded bear. It's a great American rock album; Pearl Jam would crumble before it.

I'll Take Care of You
Mark Lanegan (Beggars Banquet, 1999, )
A covers album charting the dark flipside of the Great American songbook. Lanegan is a would-be suitor on his richly soulful yet faintly ominous take on the Brook Benton/Bobby Bland title track and Eddie Floyd's fabulously forlorn, last-ditch love-plea "Consider Me". Elsewhere, he takes good care of Jeffrey Lee Pierce's spooksome "Carry Home" and OV Wright's "On Jesus' Program". Lanegan doesn't so much change this sacred material as occupy it, possessed by and utterly in possession of the song.

Field Songs
Mark Lanegan (Beggars Banquet, 2001, )
Lanegan's last album with his trusty sideman Mike Johnson plays like a set of confessionals about being trapped and trying to get out, without, it seems, much success. "She Done Too Much" is a tragedy in miniature, "One Way Street" a stealthy chiller, "Don't Forget Me" a pleading growl. On a lighter note, the lovely "Pill Hill Serenade" sees the old bear crooning with crushed-velvet tenderness.