Interview with Mark Lanegan
Berlin, Germany
Aug. 22 2004
by Jadwiga

I did this interview for the Polish "Free Music Bulletin" (Bezplatny Informator Muzyczny) which is a joint promotional publication of Gusstaff Records and Sonic - Polish distributor of Beggars' Banquet, and I will use some fragments in the article. But my article will be in Polish and I thought that this tapescript might be interesting for all fans of Mark's music. Thanks to Raeni for helping me decipher some places that I couldn't catch by myself.

How is the tour going?
Oh, it's great. I'm having a good time. I'm enjoying it.

And festivals?
They're always fun. I like going to the festivals because you get to see a lot of other bands, you know, that you wouldn't normally see in one day.

So the last one was Pukkelpop?
Yeah, yeah.

Did you sing with the Twilight Singers?
Yes, I did, I sang with the Twilight Singers and I sang with Mondo Generator also so it was a long day for me, I sang three times.

A family meeting?

Is this the first time you're playing in Berlin?
As a solo artist, yes.

And with Screaming Trees?
Oh, I played here many times before.

Did you play in West Berlin before the wall came down?
Three times before the wall came down.

So what's your memory of this city from that time?
From that time? It was very different. It was a strange atmosphere and very much, maybe it's just because of how old I was and everything, but it was a big party all the time every time I came here, you know. And there was this strange feeling of, you're kind of on an island and there is nothing else to do except sorta party and I met a lot of people from different places, and in fact at one time I even thought I would move here before the wall came down. But after it did, it didn't feel the same any more.

But wouldn't you mind living in a place where you can't even go to the forest outside?

No of course not. It's for the best.

Did you find some time this time to go sightseeing?
I just got in so I haven't really had time to do anything. Not yet.

So, when you tour do you find time to see places?
Yea, sure, try to. You know, it's not always possible but, as much as I can, sure.

Which is your favorite place in the world?
Wherever I'm at right now, and that's the way I try and look at it.

OK. Let's get to the music now. As far as I know most of the early Screaming Trees songs were written by Lee Conner and you were "just" a singer. How did you get started on writing your own songs?
Well, I started because I had to sing these words that I didn't like for the most part so I started just out of necessity. I was uncomfortable singing words that didn't fit me so I started writing them to try and please myself and make them more comfortable.

So that's how Winding Sheet started?
Well, I started writing words long before the Winding Sheet. It was only on the first couple of Screaming Trees things that I didn't write, in fact every Screaming Trees record I wrote some words. It's just that maybe the first couple, the bulk of them were written by the guitar player.

I read somewhere that shortly before Winding Sheet came out you cooperated with Kurt Cobain on some blues band. Was it something serious or was it just for fun?

Just something for fun, I mean like all music that I've done, you know. I don't really look at any of it as real serious, yea, but we had a band together, me and Chris and Kurt with Mark Pickerel from Screaming Trees.

Was that your idea or Kurt's? Or somebody else's?
I don't really remember how that came about, but um, I think, it was something that those guys cooked up and asked me to be involved in.

Are there any recordings, besides "Where Did You Sleep Last Night", that are the result of that?
Uh-huh, yes, I've said this many times, there are. Although I have no idea where they're at. I guess Sub Pop would probably know.

Do you have your whole discography on CDs, cassettes, records? Are you a good archivist of your own work?
Do I personally own it? No. I don't any of them. I don't have any of them except, I think I've got the new one on my I-pod, but I don't have a hard copy of it.

So do you have any idea how many records there are with your contributions?

[thinks for a while]
Including all singles and everything?
Oh, It's near 40 or so probably.

Uh-uh. There's more.
There's more?

I've got 50 and I still don't have everything.

But I still don't have at least ten.

Well, there's more than I thought [laughs]

There's some rumor about two upcoming Screaming Trees records. What's that?
Yea, one of them we just put to bed yesterday. It's for Sony, it's called Ocean of Confusion - Songs of the Screaming Trees. It's like an anthology for Sony, from 1989 to '96, I think it's 19 or 20 songs There's some unreleased songs on there from a record that we made between Sweet Oblivion and Dust. And then there is another record that a friend of mine and I are trying to put out on our label which is songs that we recorded after Dust for another record that never came out. So, we'll see if that happens. But, those are real things. The one thing should be out early next year, the Sony thing.

Will it include all the songs that were on the singles that were for Sweet Oblivion? Two of them were possible to find at some point when I started collecting them, the other two were probably destroyed.

I think there is one B-side from there. There's no "Morning Dew", there's no "Freedom", none of the stuff from "Butterfly" single is on there, none of the stuff from "Dollar Bill" single is on there. There's no "Peace in the Valley", there's no "Tomorrow's Dream". I think "Song of a Baker" is on there, I'm not sure which B-side that's from, oh, damn, that reminds me..
That's from "Dollar Bill"
Is that from "Dollar Bill" also?
[Of course "Song of a Baker" was a B-side on "Nearly Lost You" single, my stupid mistake!!!]
I just remembered there was some stuff from the first record's B-sides, it's "This Perfect Day" for instance, I forgot about that, I might have to try and get that on there. There's so many things, it was tough to choose because you only have 80 minutes on a CD.

What about the music that was leftover from the sessions for Buzz Factory. I remember there was material for 2 records...
That stuff was recorded over supposedly, that was actually... , it wasn't left over from Buzz Factory, it was a double album that we made before Buzz Factory and then decided not to put out, and that stuff, I've no idea what happened to it. We never used any of these songs again. Mike Watt played bass on a lot of that, and Donna Dresch played bass on a lot of that.
[A question mark on my face]
Mike Watt, from Minutemen, Firehose.

Oh, OK. Mike Watt [never heard about his collaboration with S.T. and I thought I knew everything about their history]
If you look back at the whole "grunge thing" that happened 10-12 years ago, do you think it had a lasting impact on music scene?

Well, quite obviously, I mean there's many things out there that have bits and pieces of, you know, sadly, most of it is like imitation. I don't know how much of the lasting influence it had in a creative way, but I hear a lot of guys trying to sound like Layne Staley for instance, you know, in bad metal bands. And I hear a lot of bands over the years have, sort of sound like Eddie Vedder, like Third Eye Blind or Matchbox 20, these kind of bands which I'm not a great fan of any of that stuff. I mean it all has its merits but it's just not my cup of tea. And I think definitely Nirvana had a lasting influence on the landscape of American music anyway because what was previously an underground thing is now mainstream.

Do you have any fond memories of that time?
[pauses] None that spring to mind, I mean you know,, like any period of time there's good things and there's bad things. When I think of memories they're personal memories and not public ones.

And I noticed some time ago while reading about Queens of the Stone Age, that journalists often refer to your "grunge past" by mentioning your flannel shirts. Does that upset you?
I'm not wearing a flannel shirt and it doesn't upset me at all. You know, I generally don't pay attention to what journalists say, it's not a... I have, hopefully, other ways of spending my time than reading about myself.

In what way do you think being a part of Queens of the Stone Age was different from being in Screaming Trees for you?
It was very different. For one thing I just have a small component of something, you know my role is just as a collaborator and not as the main guy, you know, I'm not responsible for it, it's something I do for fun, it doesn't really go any further than that. Something I do because I enjoy it not because I have to.

So do you think you will still collaborate with Josh and Nick?
I already am. I'm on both of their new records, so.

Are you going to be on the new Queens of the Stone Age record?

I already am. I've already worked on it.

But talking about Queens, I have to admit that the three songs that are on Songs for the Deaf that are with your singing are, kind of, my least favorite in your discography and on that record. And I just came to this conclusion that maybe it's because they were not your songs, not 100% your songs. Do you feel different when you sing somebody else's lyrics and when you work on your own songs, some kind of different approach?
No, I just try and get to the heart of it, no matter what it is and, you know, what might be your least favorite might be somebody else's favorite, so that's the beauty of music, you know. It's a very personal thing. For me from singing a song I try and get to a place with it where, regardless of who wrote the words. And that's one of the things that I enjoy about my involvement with the Queens is that a lot of times the words that I'm writing somebody else is singing and songs I'm singing are not the ones I wrote and that's what makes it fun for me. Sometimes I'd much rather sing somebody else's words and also I'd rather see somebody else sing mine. "No One Knows" for instance. I'm not on that song but I wrote a lot of words so, it's just a different way of working now, and it keeps it interesting for me. I would almost always rather do something I haven't done than to do the same thing over and over and over again, which is boring.

Was there any specific moment that you remember when you realized that you wanted to be a singer, that you had a voice that was "good enough" to be a singer?
No, there wasn't really a moment. It's just something that's happened over time, you know, from doing it, eventually I became comfortable with it, you know.

In many articles journalists and people that like your music say that you've got the best voice of your generation. Are there any singers in current rock, or rock related music that impress you?
Yea, there's great many. P.J. Harvey comes to mind, I like her singing a lot, I like Martina Topely Bird singing, I like this woman Neko Case, I like her singing a lot, I like Isobel Campbell singing, I like Hope Sandoval. There's a lot of singers that I like. Almost always they are women.

How did it happen that you started collaboration with Mike Johnson?
I was friends with his girlfriend at the time, she promoted shows in the North West and that's how I knew him, from just playing shows together, just became friends and started working together.

Until the new records came out I couldn't imagine your records without Mike's contribution, but now when I thought about it I saw that his part on the last two records, I'll Take Care of You and Field Songs, was, kind of, becoming less...
He was barely on them, he was hardly on those records at all, and a lot of people don't know that he wasn't very..., he was hardly on Whiskey For the Holy Ghost at all. A lot of people don't know that. His involvement even back then was a lot less. The records that he had the most to do with were The Winding Sheet and Scraps at Midnight. And all the other records he had a small part in them

And what was Ben Shepherd's part on Field Songs?

It was much, much bigger than Mike's, I would say that that record is to me, 50% Ben's.

I played some statistics before coming to this interview and counted all the names on your records, there're 67 people that contributed. I think one of the things you said already explains that a little bit, but why don't you just stick to one band and....
Because I've had that before. I started making these records as a reaction to being in a band where I'd just had four people making them. The reason I wanted to make them was so that I could have any of my friends come and play on these records and I could enjoy myself, enjoy the process, have it be more of a loose thing, more like a party as opposed to work. With the Screaming Trees it was never any fun, it was always drag, it was always just four guys, fighting, serious, and that's not how I like to work, you know, so I don't. I don't make records like that any more. I don't have to.

On Bubblegum there are some guests who are, at least for some people, more famous than you. Aren't you afraid of this situation when people, that don't listen to your music, find out that there are people from Queens of the Stone Age or Guns'N'Roses and they will expect something similar to those bands?
I don't really pay any attention to what somebody else expects. That's their business. They can go take a leap as far as I am concerned, you know. It's their business not mine.

Did you know Duff McKagan from his Seattle times?
No, I met Duff in California several years ago when he approached me to sing on a record which never ended up happening but we became really good friends.

Why did you choose Sideways in Reverse for a video? It's not quite representative of the record, if anything could be, actually.
I think that it is. I think that at least half the record has something..., I think all the songs on the record, to my mind, have something in common with each other, if you listen to it. But there's plenty of songs that have the same kind of movement as that song. Because I like it, that's why, cause I'm into it.

And what about "Come to Me"? Is it going to be made into a video?

I don't have any plans to do that, no.

I just thought it would make a great single
I don't think so.

You don't like talking about your lyrics, but if you notice any interpretations that people make of your songs, what do you think about them?
I think often times they misinterpret the lyrics, in fact whenever they're printed out, whatever website has them printed out, they're almost always incorrect, so I'll probably print them out sometime soon, when my website comes back up. I shut it down for a while but when it comes back up it's gonna have the correct lyrics and hopefully that'll be the end of it.

So the lyrics that are on "onewhiskey" are not...?

Almost all of them are incorrect. A lot of the lyrics on there are incorrect, somebody who's listening to it thinking that they are writing the right lyrics but there's mistakes in all of them, some really bad mistakes, it's embarrassing.

Do you think you are going to continue collaboration with P.J. Harvey?
I don't have any plans to at the moment, but then again I don't really like, you know, to think about that stuff until it's time to do stuff. But I would love to, I just have no plans to at this time, no more than having any plans to work with anybody else right now, I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.

Quite a few songs on Bubblegum were done by just you and Alain Johannes. Was that because you got sick of too many people in the studio?

No, it's just because I enjoy working with Alain, because we have a certain way of working together that's something I enjoy. It's easy, it doesn't really go any deeper than that. And I'll definitely work with Alain again, he's one of my favorite guys to collaborate with.

So how does it happen in a situation like this? He makes all the music so do you tell him what he should put there or he comes up with ideas?
I play him the song and then he records it, it's like I do with anybody else, it just happens to be one person instead of five or whatever.

10 years ago in one of the songs on Whiskey For the Holy Ghost you sang "I'm as tired as man can be" - I don't know if it was about yourself at that time, but now you're so busy making records all the time, touring, so it seems that something has changed?
It's a different kind of tired.

You invite a lot of people to play on your records and you get invited to make contributions on other people's albums. Do you often refuse?
[pauses] I can't think of many times when I have. If I have it's because I wasn't able to because of whatever, logistics didn't work out. I get asked to do some things that I can't do because I'm already doing something, for instance, you know, or can't be there. Occasionally.

Which of the collaborations that happened was most challenging, difficult?
I generally don't do things that are difficult. Again, I make these records and I work on things because I don't have to work under difficult circumstances any more and if something is difficult or a drag, then I generally won't be involved in it.

The only one record that was made for a good cause where you contributed a song was Free the West Memphis Three. Why did you choose to be on that record?
Because I was asked to and because I believed that it was a good cause.

Did you write "Untitled Lullaby" specially for this record?

Do you follow the case somehow?
Yes, I do. It's a shame what's happened there.

These days there are a lot of anti-Bush compilations. What do you think about this kind of thing going on in music, when musicians get involved in this kind of activity?
I think in this case it's a very good thing, you know. I'm not really a political person. I love my country but I don't love my government right now and a lot of people that I know feel the same way, so if you can do something, it's good to do something, if you believe in that.

Do you think that music has so much power, to change so many people's minds?
I think that everything starts with one person and it's easy to say 'Oh, I can't do anything, I'm just one person, what can I do?' Nothing would be changed that way and as we know just looking in the recent history, last century or so, being here, for instance, in this country. If people don't do something, horrible things can happen, so I think it's a cop out when people say 'I'm just one person, what can I do?" I think that everybody can do something, if they have the balls to do it.

Now that you're Californian, did you take part in the elections for governor?

I wasn't there, I was travelling when that happened so, no I didn't

I read somewhere that you don't have a TV set. Why?
I'm just not into it, not interested in television, would rather do other things. It's mindless waste of time.

I talked a few months ago with Jerry A. from Poison Idea and somehow we ended up talking about the Internet and he's a big enemy of the Internet saying that this is the devil's tool. What do you think about the Internet?
I think he might be right but it's our reality today. I use it. I'm sure Jerry A. if he could figure out how to use it, he would use it too.

How long did it take you to figure out?

I'm still figuring it out.

And did you learn how to download music?
Yes, I did, and I do it occasionally if it's something I can't buy, then I might download it, but I'll always buy it anyway, if it's available.

It seems that your record was in the Internet to be downloaded, so what do you think about that?

You know, like I said, if I download something I'll also buy it and I hope that people do the same when they download my record, mainly because if they don't they're stealing from me. And a lot of people think, 'OK., I'm just one person, what's this gonna hurt? I doubt people go into the store to steal an orange, just because it's one orange and if everybody was doing that then the store owner's gonna be losing a lot of money and eventually go out of business. You can't tell people what to do, you hope that people who like your music are also going to support it by buying it. But I'm not a policeman, I can't go out and check everybody's house, so...

You mentioned Lester Bangs as one of your favorite writes last year...
Rock writers, he's the only one really.

Do you discover a lot of music through reading about it?
I do discover some from reading. There are certain magazines that I enjoy, reading the reviews and if it sounds like something interesting then I might buy it. Like I'll read Mojo, or Uncut or Q. There's a new British magazine called Careless Talk Costs Lives, the NME, you know stuff that everybody reads. But generally I can get a pretty good idea of a record by reading the review there, and there're some things on the Internet that I read reviews from and if it sounds like something I'm interested in then, yea, I'll go check it out. That's how I found music as a kid and that's how I still find it.

Do you have any special memories about interviews, when you just wanted someone to shut up and finish [Mark starts laughing] except now?
That's a loaded question, lady, that's what we would call a set up. No, you know, it's not my favorite thing to do, but ... I think anybody that has to sit and talk about themself would rather be doing something else. I know I actually have something else I have to be doing right now, so I don't have much more time.

OK. so just one last question. Actually, we've just come to the end.
If someone approached you suggesting that they want to write a book about you, would you agree to do a series of interviews? Would you want to have a book written about you?
Again, that's a loaded question. [pauses] I have been approached to do such things and so far I haven't done it. Again I find a lot more interesting subjects than myself to think about or talk about, you know, that's just the way I am. Maybe someday.

Thank you very much for this.
My pleasure. Take care.