Loose Lips Sink Ships
Words: Stevie Chick
When was your first time in jail? "I was twelve years old...It was for
shoplifting. Shoplifiting booze, heh heh heh." Have you always been attracted
to trouble? "Attracted to trouble? No. It's been attracted to me." Has
it always been attracted to you, then. "Well...Less and less, as time
I first saw Mark Lanegan on No Nirvna : Nevermind, a Late Show special
on BBC2 somewhere past midnight, in the plaid-shirted early 90s. I still
have it somewhere, on ratty old videotape, his band Screaming Trees launching
into their torn, noble regret anthem 'Dollar Bill'. Lanegan haunts the
foreground, leaning into the mic-stand like it's holding him afloat through
frenzied waters, the colossal Conner brothers rocking out behind him,
bulky fingers squeezing barbs of melody from the melee. Adrift from his
bandmates' ecstatic writhing, Lanegan's movements are barely measurable,
but potent: cadaverous tresses of seaweed-coarse blonde hair hanging lank,
lips struggling to part with each word, and those eyes...So dark they
don't reflect any light, focused fissure-tight and sunk so deep and sullen
into his face you sense no hope resides there. The shrouded vacuum beneath
his brow seemed to suggest some forbidding wisdom, some awful truth traditionally
hidden in the essentially anodyne realms of modern rock 'n' roll.
A penchant for regularly testing the limits of his mortality with poisons
and his fractious relationship with the law have hewn a legend, thorny
with whispers and gravely shadowed, about him. Beyond that infamy lies
the voice, flickering tones weathering over twenty or so years into a
rich and complex instrument, composing a burnished gothic grandeur for
his lauded solo albums, or, for the Screaming Tress' 'Sweet Oblivion',
absolving the heroic denim fringed guitar workouts into the definitive
treatise on a 'blues' that weighs deeper than mere guilt and regret: words
sung like their weight was wearing bloody grooves into his spine, a fallen
man nevertheless straining for some nobility in bearing what he has wrought.
"I remember working at a diner, mouthing off to these guys that I was
a better singer than David Lee Roth. That weekend, they screeched into
the diner carpark and hollered, 'Lanegan, you'd better not have been bullshittin'!'
They dragged me to some party where their band was playing, and I sang
through a set of covers. We must've played 'Dancing Days' by Led Zeppelin
a dozen times that night..."
Mark Lanegan sits in a threadbare armchair, backstage at the Birmingham
Academy, where his Mark Lanegan Band are headlining tonight, cradling
an iPod, scrolling through the menus to tell us what he's been listening
to as of late: PJ Harvey; Greg Dulli's Twilight Singers; (smog); Azure
Ray; Cat Power; Martina Topley-Bird; PW Long, whose 'Remembered' album
Lanegan says helped save his life this year. Of slim build, athletic almost,
his hair cut short and bristly, his eyes bright and alert and his skin
shades warmer than the cement pallor he used to sport, he looks nothing
like the wraith he was ; saved indeed. only his hands giveaway the indiscretions
of his past: red, blotchy and swollen like an old lady's legs, and decorated
with rows of blue stars tattooed over his knuckles and fingers.
He flashed these little smiles that you never see in photographs of him
- almost conspiratorial, eyebrow arched- smiles boyish in their unguarded
intimacy, mannish in that you sense they're being rationed out, to keep
people at a distance and preserve the solitude a peripatetic life beset
by tragedy and chaos has taught him to treasure. He has few close friends,
you imagine, and perhaps fewer every years, but those relationships run
deep, to death.
The stone-faced silence Mark has greeted interviewers with in the past
is absent today, maybe thanks to the presence of snapper Steve Gullick,
an old and dear friend: but, also, Mark no longer has to struggle to be
taken seriously, thanks to the respect garnered by his revered solo releases
and commercially-consolidating sessions with Queens Of The Stone Age.
But those days with the Trees, toiling in some kind of undeserved obscurity,
have left their marks on him. While on tour in support of his excellent
new EP , 'Here Comes That Weird Chill', he's also hooking up with old
friends at Sony Europe, to hammer out details for a box-set covering Screaming
Trees' major label releases. Such respect is a long time coming.
"Sony America released this 'Greatest Hits'," he scowls, "It was horrendous: no
sleeve notes, hideous cover, and the worst selection of songs. It's a real
shame...If you go to the Northwest and ask guys - well, most of them aren't
around now - but if Kurt Cobain was around to ask, or Layne Staley, they'd
tell you we had a profound influence on the bands of the Northwest. And
I feel that the fellas and myself didn't get our due."
Mark Lanegan and Van Conner met, somewhat poetically, while on detention
in High School, in Ellensburg, Easter Washington. In a small country
town, where no-one had long hair, no-one had tattoos and, certainly, no-one
listened to punk-rock, Van Conner was a misfit, physically huge and perpetually
dressed in a raincoat topped-off with a U2 badge, which was pretty daring
for Ellensburg. Lanegan, already a heavy drinker and dabbling in drugs
and trouble, didn't fit in either, and the two bonded over music. Soon,
Lanegan was manning the lights for the band Van formed with brother Gary
Lee and, after a short stint in jail for theft and drug possession, working
for the Conner's parent, repossessing TVs from trailer parks. When the
Conner brtohers tired of playing covers at local dance parties, they hooked
up with Lanegan, who soon swapped his initial drumstool for the microphonestand,
and formed the Screaming Trees. Moving swiftly, with the aid of friends
like producer Steve Fisk and Beat Happening's Calvin Johnson, the band
released a slew of EPs and LPs throughout the 1980s on labels like Velvetone,
Homestead, Sub Pop and, most prolifically, SST. Mark chalks their impressive
work rate up to poverty. "We'd come off the road and record an album for
the $1000 advance SST were offering us, because we needed the money to
go back on the road."
Mark certainly doesn't view those early days with excessive romance. "Those
SST records were a mish-mash," he grumbles. "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 psychadelia
thing, which I wasn't into. He hadn't even eaten acid, which I'd been
selling for a number of years."
While he's overly harsh in his dismissal of Screaming Tree's SST years
- everyone should own the brutish garage-fuzz of 'In The Forest", the
karmic psych-out of 'Black Sun Morning' and the stoned, immaculate sublime
of 'Gray Diamond Desert' - it wasn't until the band signed to Epic that
they may good on all their promise. Their first for Epic, the Chris Cornell-produced
'Uncle Anesthesia', was something of a misfire - "It was dismal", says
Lanegan now - but it allowed Mark to take Screaming Trees' creative reigns
from thereon in.
"I'd made my first solo album by then," remembers Mark. "I'd quit the
band a number of times, but said I'd return for one more album, but we'd
have to do it my way. 'Sweet Oblivion' was the first where I wrote all
the words, and it ended up being our most successful one. Then things went
crazy for a while, we were on the road for a couple of years; by the time
we made 'Dust', everything was in disarray."
1996's 'Dust', produced by George Drakoulias, should've been the album
to break the Tree's 'big' ,but, for many reasons, it never happened that
way. Another year or so of crazy touring followed, but the band were in
a bad way; internal relations between the members were frayed beyond repair,
and Mark's drug habits were spiraling out of control (it was while touring
this album that he was arrested in possession of crack cocaine). A few
years of silence, save for the odd local show, followed, until, after
a June 2000 show to celebrate the opening of the Experience Music Project
in Seattle, they announced they had split.
"The fucking odds were against us," Mark sighs. "It was perverse. I realized
what utter underdogs we were, and that just made me wanna succeed with
it, put superhuman amounts of effort into this losing battle. I came to
realize in time though that I was the only guy in the group that did that,
that the other guys didn't work as hard, and that they just didn't care
about it as much as I did.
I had my share of personal problems as well. I kind of liken the whole
experience to Fitzcarraldo, it was like hauling a boat over a mountain.
I worker real hard at it for a long time, and I will probably never work
as ha rd at something again, nor would I want to. Some battles you just
have to surrender."
By the time Screaming Trees finally imploded, Lanegan was already four
albums into a solo career that had garnered more respect and plaudits
than anything Screaming Trees has released. The first, 1990's 'The Winding
Sheet', was originally planned as an Ep of blues songs recorded with friends
(and then unknowns) Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic, later morphing into
an unlucky thirteen sprawl of mainly-acoustic mourns, crafted by producer
Mike Johnson (a molten take of Leadbelly's 'Where Did You Sleep Last Night'
remains from the Cobain session). Lanegan's voice was a revelation, powerful
yet vulnerable, something deeper than mere rock 'n' roll.
" I remember photographing you in Seattle, and you said Screaming Trees
were more important to you than you solo stuff," begins Steve Gullick.
"That struck me as odd; I loved the Trees, but your solo albums..."
"I wasn't telling the truth," murmurs Mark. "I was trying to convince
myself the Screaming Trees were worth all the effort I was putting in.
I probably shouldn't have worked so hard at it..."
1993's follow-up, 'Whiskey For The Holy Ghost', is perhaps the definitive
Lanegan solo album, and Mark's own personal favorite. Pieced together
from sessions covering four tumultuous years of Lanegan's life, during
which time Mike Johnson quit the project, it sprawls from the epic and
thunderous 'Borracho' to haunted fragments like 'Riding The Nightingale',
an album etched with violins and acoustic guitars and brooding standup
bass, and tempos slowed enough for Lanegan's vocals to ooze richly from
the speakers. "Felt much older than I really was," he sings on 'El Sol',
and he certainly sounded that way too.
Lanegan waited five years for the follow-up, 'Scraps At Midnight'. "At
the time I was in a Halfway House situation in California. It was sort
of like a rehab house, it's a structured living environment where they're
rules, and it's halfway between jail and society. It's meant to get you
to a place where you can live outside and not break the rules. It hasn't
succeeded 100%, that's the challenge, but it succeeded. I got out on a
three-day pass and met Mike Johnson at Studio Rancho in Joshua Tree. We
wrote the material on the spot, cobbled it together; it was an exercise
in letting go. I hadn't seen Mike for a couple of years and we reconnected,
but that was it. The next two records, he had very little to do with it."
Around this time, Josh Homme, ex-Kyuss and one-time Screaming Trees sideman,
invited Lanegan to front his new band, Queens of the Stone Age. Sequestered
in the halfway house, Lanegan had to refuse, but a crucial link was made.
"I wasn't able to play on that first record, and in retrospect I'm really
glad that's the way it happened, because it would have been different,"
reflects Lanegan, of the sylph-throated slo-mo quicksilver that was Queens'
self-titled, sublime debut. "The success of that record gave him the confidence
to make 'Rated R', and I was glad to be a part of that. I sang backups
on half that record and I was there for half of it."
Were you reluctant to be joining a band again, after your experience with
"No, not that at all. In fact 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. It took convincing
on his par that I wasn't tying myself to a rock that was going to the
bottom of the ocean. It's been one of the most rewarding situations I've
ever been in, and I don't mean because of it's success," he says, smiling,
the contrast with the Trees immediately apparent, "but because 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."
"Mainly it just grew out of my friendship with Josh. It's grown in stages,
sometimes reluctantly on my part. I have a job that nobody else in rock
has...It's like when I played baseball and I was a relief pitcher, I had
to just come on and do my thing when needed. It felt weird at first because
I'd never seen anyone else do it, but it wasn't weird to him, to his credit.
It really does work the way he envisioned it."
So, to The Mark Lanegan Band, then. The title is something of a misnomer;
in place of a static , solid line-up, the The MLB, for the purposes of
'Here Comes That Weird Chill' at least, is a fluid coterie of friends,
including Josh Homme, Nick Oliveri, Greg Dulli, and Chris Goss, of Masters
Of Reality fame; a spat of unpleasantness between Lanegan and Goss means
that material recorded with the ex-Kyuss producer won't be appearing on
The MLB's forthcoming full-length, which prompted the release of '...Weird
Chill'. Fittingly subtitled 'Methamphetamine Blues, Extras and Oddities',
its thirty or so minutes of obscura finds space for crunching industrial
eerieness ('Methamphetamine Blues'), haunting, fragmentary hymnal ('On
The Steps Of The Cathedral'), and incandescent Beefheart cover ('Clear
Spot'), soulful piano-led gospel ('Lexington Slowdown'), and 'Skeletal
History', a chilling descent into squalor taking in hookers and hypodermics,
over a spasming tungsten-punk groove.
"For a short while I had a band with Duff McKagen, and some of the stuff
I did with him was sorta like that," he says of Skeletal History', which
dominates the EP like a tumor. "I call it my Saccharine Trust song. To
me its one of the most real kind of songs I have, the most honest."
'Here Comes That Weird Chill' is a decided departure from the dust-etched
austerity of the rest of Lanegan's solo output, as if his excursions alongside
QOTSA have re-engaged Mark's interests in a harder-edged , more explicitly
'rock' music. The slow-burning, brooding majesty remains, and that voice
- steeped even deeper in sin and despair and more fearsome and chilling
than ever - but the mood is more unhinged, more vicious than the other
albums' after-midnight, tumbler-fulla-whiskey ruminations (although Lanegan
says he's only had one drink in several years, on a flight to California
following his divorce a couple of years ago. Once told by his doctor,
aged twenty, that his booze habit would ensure he never saw his thirtieth
birthday, Lanegan quips half-seriously that heroin "saved me from becoming
The route to 'Here Comes That Weird Chill' took in two further solo releases:
1999's elegiac 'I'll Take Care Of You', a moving and dark covers suite
including songs by Fred Neil, Buck Owens and his departed friend, Gun
Club singer Jeffrey Lee Pierce; and 2001's bleak 'Field Songs' (opener
'One Way Street', with its refrain "Can't get it down without crying,"
is maybe Mark's most gloriously downbeat glide; 'Kimiko's Dream House',
meanwhile, is preciously delicate, and dreamy like doo-wop).
'Field Songs' marked the end of Lanegan's collaborations with Mike Johnson,
and Soundgarden bassist Ben Shepherd, who shaped the last two albums like
Johnson had the first two.
"I said I didn't want to make that same kind of records anymore," remembers
Mark. "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 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 mus ic we made together. But
I wanted to do something else."
"Something else". Sitting eating breakfast with Mark the next morning,
as he tucks into a plate full of eggs, bacon, hash browns and tomatoes,
I sense that his horizons probably haven't seemed so limitless for a long
time. The night before, his touring Mark Lanegan Band backed him for a
set that was majestic, dark, and bitter, a set of songs from his solo
career - no Trees songs, unlike his execrable last UK show at the Astoria,
late 2001, 40 minutes of disappointingly autopilot Lanegan, including
cursory and bloodless encore of 'Gospel Plow'. Numbering members of Ween,
A Perfect Circle and Caustic Resin, this version of the MLB aren't as
stellar as the A-List cast on the album, but they're fine at segueing
between the moods of the show, from a turbulent 'Borracho', to a sleazy
and unpleasant 'Methamphetamine Blues'.
This morning, Mark's buzzing at the prospects lying before him. There's
talk of more work with Martina Topley-Bird (he guested on her debut 'Quixotic'),
of collaborating with PJ Harvey on her next album. Upon returning to the
states, Greg Dulli will be joining the band as keyboard player, and afterwards
he and Greg are taking ten days off together to record their long-mooted
Gutter Brothers project.
"The very week I was offered the Queens gig, Greg and I had time booked
in Memphis, with the Hi Rhythm Section as our backing band," winces Mark.
"It was paid for and everything, that was our window of opportunity, and
I chose to do Queens instead. But we're finally gonna do it. I don't know
what's gonna happen. I'm excited. He wrote some songs for me to sing,
I wrote some for him to sing, and we chose covers for the other guy to
The smile he breaks into now is nothing like the guarded and compromised
winks he was shooting us yesterday. Three months clean, he'd told us that
afternoon, but the benefits of that lifestyle change are only really kicking
in now, you sense; he's only just realizing the millstone that's held
him down all these years is absent now, that those opportunities torn
and broken over the years can be taken now. The weight of his music, its
power, drawn from his bleak experiences and the belligerence that's doubtless
kept him alive, against all the odds, all these years, that's still present,
pulsing and panicking throughout the heart of his methamphetamine blues.
But the weight on his shoulders that was dragging him ever faster into
oblivion, that's gone now. And he's only beginning to realize how good
How did you react when you were told. aged 20, that if you kept living
the way you were living, you wouldn't see 30?
"I reacted the same way that Jeffrey Lee Pierce reacted when they told
him he was gonna die. In early 1996, he went to Japan, and right before
he left he and I were at his mom's in LA writing songs. He seemed in really
good health - sometimes he wasn't in such good health, sometimes h could
barely walk because he was so fucked up.
When he came back from Japan, he left me a couple of messages on my answerphone.
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 come back, that he'd 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
So, that's how I reacted. You don't actually believe that stuff; you feel
okay, and all that. I didn't think twice. I probably would today, if they
told me. I would probably take it a lot more seriously."
You say the halfway house made you clean yourself up. But you must've
made a decision yourself, to get clean?
"Well sure. I mean, there was a time when I thought I didn't have any
choice in the matter, when I spent almost a year in various 'situations':
jail, rehab, halfway house. And just through the sheer fact that I wasn't
able to get outside, so to speak - and also because I really just did
not want to live that way any longer - for me it wasn't hard. It was the
end of a nightmare that had lasted for years and years. I had always hoped
that I would be able to stop but I never was able to. Eventually, I was.
A lot of that had to do with changing my way of thinking on a great many
things; again, some battles you just have to give up. I was pretty stubborn,
I thought that I could do a lot of things myself. 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"
What attracted you to get fucked up in the first place?
"Shit man, what attracted you? (laughter) Let's change the subject."