Magnet Magazine
Oct/Nov 2004

Mark Lanegan
by Matt Ryan

If the album title suggests Mark Lanegan has gone pop, Bubblegum's creepy opener should bury this notion deep in the cold, hard ground. The funereal, claustrophobic "When Your Number Isn't Up" features Lanegan's rich baritone wrapping itself around every murderous syllable. "Did you call for the night porter?" he intones. "You smell the blood running warm." Although Lanegan hasn't altered his dark lyrical bent, his recent stint in Queens Of The Stone Age, participation in Josh Homme's Desert Sessions and numerous collaborations on Bubblegum (with Homme, Polly Harvey, Dean Ween and Greg Dulli, to name a few) have served him well musically. On previous efforts, you could bank on simple acoustic guitar and the occasional piano as the only backdrops for Lanegan's dark musical paintings. He expands his palette on Bubblegum, deploying fuzzed-out bass on "Hit The City," clanking, industrial percussion on "Methamphetamine Blues," spaghetti-Western guitar on "One Hundred Days" and a revved-up Stooges riff on "Sideways In Reverse." Although Lanegan's voice will always be the familiar, unifying factor to his work, Bubblegum is a full-blown creative revival for a man whose solo output was becoming far too predictable.

MAGNET woke up at dawn to chat with Lanegan, vacationing six hours ahead in Antwerp, Belgium.

Are you on tour?
I'm living here. I got a bunch of friends here. Just felt like hangin' for a few weeks.

It looks like you had a cast of thousands on this record. Was it chaotic?
Nah, man. It's just like some friends came in and If I had to do it all in one day, I'm sure it would be very chaotic, but it didn't happen like that.

Bubblegum wasn't the Mark Lanegan version of the Desert Sessions?
No, although the way I make these records is very similar. Just throwing songs at people and having them do whatever they want. So, yeah, there's a major similarity there, but I do mine over periods of time in my off hours.

Was the recording process a creative free-for-all, or did you come in with a blueprint?
Listen to it. Of course I've got a blueprint. Am I gonna have to kick your ass?

It sounds looser than what you've done before. "Hit The City" almost sounds like a demo. I mean that as a compliment, by the way.
I appreciate it. The songs are more playful, for sure. Some of them. In that way, I'm happy that I did something a little bit different. Baby steps, I guess. I'm not exactly reinventing the wheel.

Bubblegum is a little out of the box compared to what you've done in the past. There are a lot of styles going on, like the blues
I don't feel like I've ever played a blues song in my life, so I think we are clearly at odds there. The idea when I started was that I wanted to have the feeling of the blues without having the music be that way, because I think the blues are outdated. If what you mean is the feeling, then we can agree, but I don't feel like I've ever really played a blues song. In fact, I go out of my way to not do it.

OK, so how do you distinguish between the feeling of the blues and playing the blues?
The feel is the content. Just check it out. Everything I've ever done is the content of the blues.

Lyrically, or musically?
Lyrically, there's an emotional ... There's an 'x' factor to all good musicians. I mean the feeling of the fuckin' blues. If you listen to what's being said lyrically, it doesn't really tell a story from start to finish, but what blues song does? They jump from line to line. Listen to fuckin' Blind Willie McTell and he jumps from "I can't read and write and spell my name" to "I'm goin' to fuckin' Niagara Falls," all in one sentence. There's an overall feeling from it. That's what I mean. It's the 'x' factor that comes from the combo of music, voice and melody. Do I have to write the story for you?

What you just described sounds like the blues to me.
The blues that you're talking about is the 12-bar, outdated mode, played by people who've been dead for 50 or 60 years. At least the good stuff. I wouldn't want to be siding with that.

Fair enough.
I felt like I was trying something different. Ever since I started, to me it felt like a hybrid of gospel, country and rock music with a feeling of the blues. That's all. And they called me genius.

Alrighty, then.
I'm walking up four flights of stairs here and I'm dying. I'm sorry for being an asshole.

It's 6:30 a.m. here. You need to take it easy on me.
That goes for me, too. I've been awake for exactly 20 minutes. Carrying my fuckin' groceries home. It's hot here, too. Where are you at?

Aw, shit. I'm sorry.

Hey, it's not that bad.
[Laughs] I love Pittsburgh, man. I was there like 20 times last year.

You didn't have to say that.
I enjoy it there.

So how long has Bubblegum been in the works? Seems like only yesterday the announcement came out that you were leaving Queens and now your record is out ...
It's not even out yet. Are you talking about Bubblegum?

Yes. Well, OK, it's done, anyway.
Well, yeah, it's done, but it's not out.

What are you trying to ask me?

I'm asking you whether this was a frantic process or if it has been in the works for a few years.
It was recorded in a few sessions over the course of a couple years, but short sessions. Just when I had time off to do it. I'm in the midst of recording my next one right now; that's partially what I was doing here in Antwerp. Actually, I'm recording a few. A double album of originals and a little record of covers.

What can you tell me about them?

They kick ass like all the rest of my records.

Could you be a little more specific?
I can't, because I haven't really started. I'm going to start in the next couple of days.

What are you thinking about for covers? Can you talk about that?
Yeah. I'm going to do crooner tunes. Andy Williams. Shit like that.

Are you pulling my leg or are you serious?
This is dead serious. I've been wanting to do it for a long time and I'll call it Mr. Sophistication. That was the name of the guy in The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie (a 1976 film directed by John Cassavetes and starring Ben Gazzara) who was the kind of guy that told jokes in a strip club. I wanted it to be orchestrated and shit. It's something I've wanted to do for a long time because the singing on those songs is pretty damn great. If you're a younger singer, it's quite challenging. You don't know how great a fuckin' singer Sinatra was, you know? [Clomping sounds and heavy breathing]

Do you need to take a breather?
Yeah, hold on a second. [More panting and cursing]

You gotta give up those cigarettes.
Dude, you have no idea. You have no idea. OK. [Panting] Back in the game. What's up?

I'll give you a minute to collect yourself.
Yeah. Thank you. I appreciate that. I gotta get a drink of fuckin' water after it almost killed me bringing it here. I'm a veritable camel. Might as well enjoy the fruits of my labor.

About three or four years ago, I read you were putting out a record with Greg Dulli. I know you did a Twilight Singers song and he's on one of your songs, but is there something full-blown in the works?
We're three-quarters of the way through it. We're supposed to finish it next month. We just got to record a couple more times and we're done with it.

A few distractions along the way?
That's why I've got to come to some foreign country where there's no water or electricity and carry my shit up four flights of stairs. Just to try and write a song.

So did you take anything away from the whole Queens experience in terms of your solo material?
I think you take something away from every experience unless you're a dummy.

OK, I'll ask it this way: What did you take away from being in Queens Of The Stone Age?
I took away a lot of money that they didn't want to give me, but I took it because contractually they had to.

That's cool.
[Laughs] I'm kidding. Here's the deal, man. My job there is never done. In fact, I gotta go home to work on the Queens record right now. I just got a call yesterday. It's the most satisfying collaborative situation that I've had. I've had a lot of great people that have played with me and written records with me and all that shit, but me and Josh have a lot of fun when we write together. It's just as simple as that. I'm a really huge fan and I don't have to be responsible for it. It's a lot of freedom. What other guy in rock do you know that gets to get up and sing for five minutes a night and not have to fuckin' stay out there and sweat? Just be up there to throw a little darkness on people and then get the hell out. It's the best job in the world when I'm working with Queens, and I love those guys. They're my best friends. That's what I take away from it. And I think we're making music that is unique and timeless. When you hear the new record, it's going to blow your fuckin' mind.

What's your take on the split with Nick Oliveri?
My take is that it's between them. I love Nick, I do. I just sang on his new record, which is an acoustic record. It sounds great. It's stuff from all through his career, from his very first band to his last Queens record. He's been doing a lot of acoustic shows and he wanted to do a record that represented that. In typical Nick fashion, he did like 25 tunes in 18 hours. The way I look at it is this: We get to have twice as much of the music that I personally love, so I think that's a good thing.

Somehow I can't picture Nick playing acoustic material.
It's funny, because we were on the road three years straight up until six months ago. He and I must have done 100 guerrilla acoustic shows. In other words, if we got to a town and we had a day off, we'd go down to the local record store and offer to do an in-store. He's really good at it. Usually I would just sing a couple tunes like I do in Queens, but when you see Nick do that thing, you get to see the great side of him that we all who are friends of his and love him see the humanity of him. Which is not necessarily what you see Not to sound corny or anything, but when he's onstage with Queens, you don't get an idea of this really lovely guy. He's a special character and also one of the most talented musicians I've ever known. He's probably the most natural talent I've ever known. That's why doing an acoustic show with him is really a charming experience, if you can believe it. If you can get past the dicks tattooed on his chest, that is. [Laughs]

It's funny; the things you say about him are exactly what Greg Dulli said about you in an interview I read recently. I'm wondering if there's a kinship with Nick because you were a bad boy in your younger years.
I turn 40 in two months, dude. I'm surprised I made it up those stairs. That almost killed me. That's about as bad boy as I am these days. I live vicariously through those guys that are 20 years younger.

Let's jump back to the record for a minute. When do the lyrics come to you? In the studio? In the shower?
It comes to me in a golden shower.

I'm sorry I asked.
Hey, that was a fuckin' fastball right down the middle. That 12-year-old humor I still got going on. You know what? A lot of times I'm drivin' and I get it. Really, I'm kind of a bricklayer when it comes to making songs up. I don't know how other people do it, but first off, I make a sound on my guitar. Then I make a sound with my voice. And then that sound tells me what the first word is and so forth. Usually I'm not sure what the hell the thing means until it's done.

You seem to have a death obsession.
I think it's just a matter of my musical taste. There are obviously people who are darker than me. I'll tell you a little story if you got a second at 6:30 in the morning.

I have a second.
When Johnny Cash made his first record with American, they asked a bunch of different guys to write songs for him. I was one of those guys. I had just seen him on a Billy Graham crusade on TV and I thought my songs were way too dark for Johnny Cash. So I sent him all these pussy songs that I had, and his record came out and it was all like Glenn Danzig. That was the last time I ever fuckin' questioned it. That was my big mistake. So it depends on your idea of what dark is.

So what are you doing for fun these days?
I am reexamining ... [Grunting] ... my ability to take my coat off with one arm. I think we got it. Yep, that was fun. Let's see ... I'm makin' records, man. Getting a divorce, that's fun. And makin' records. Those are the things I'm doing for fun. I know the things that you do around those two polar extremes, which for me, means spending a lot of money on processes and whatnot. But in case my mom reads this, I'm just kidding.

At the end of the day, the lawyers get rich. That's what it's all about.
[Laughs] What part of Pittsburgh do you live in, man?

About 10 or 15 minutes south of downtown.
Ah, you're in the 'burbs.

I'm old. I've moved to the 'burbs to die.
That's OK. I'm living in this place because it's free. I had to come all the way to Belgium to find a place where somebody would let me live for free. Pittsburgh, the last time I was there, believe it or not, I had to walk that fuckin' hill. That must be some sort of theme here today. That almost killed me, too. Behind the hospital, or wherever?

Up by the Arena?
I thought I'd score some drugs up there, but it wasn't worth the walk.

You don't want to be walking around in that area.
Well, yeah, you know. Like I said, I was only there seven times last year.

With Queens?
Yeah. We were in Pittsburgh more than any other place. Every fuckin' couple of months, there we would be in Pittsburgh again. Finally we realized we'd been there like eight times. Nick and I kept going to that little record store out there. A punk-rock record store up some flights of stairs?

Probably in Oakland. Out by Pitt.
Yeah, Pitt.

I saw you guys play there at Club Laga. Which is closed now, by the way.
That was one of the places. We also played in like 10 degrees below zero weather outside right there at the campus. It's was so goddamned cold. It was like, how are my hands going to work? Finally, we did it because come showtime, the place was fuckin' packed with people in their parkas and shit.

I didn't hear about that show.

People probably weren't talking about it, because a lot of people wet their pants. This happens when it's really, really cold out and you listen to rock music. You can't really feel your bladder working and there's the excitement of seeing a bunch of hot guys onstage. That's why that one has gone unreported until now. I'm pretty sure. I know I wet my pants during the show.

That's a good tip. I'll remember that for the next outdoor show.

Yeah, wear your Depends.

So are you getting in hostility in Europe because you're from the U.S.?
I tell you what, man. Everyone on this street wears a turban, so I'm from the Yukon Territory. It's not even a province of Canada. It's a territory. [Laughs] I've probably been asked 10 times a day since I've been here. Not in a shitty way, but I'm pretty much the only dumbshit of my kind on the street here in Antwerp.

But you're telling everyone you're from Canada?
I'm telling everyone I'm from Canada. Yukon Territory. You know, a province is like a state, but a territory isn't even real. It's tough, man. Bush is something else, isn't he?

He is something else.
I'm not a political guy. I'm just this dumbass singer, but I'm so surprised that people don't see what these people are doing. It isn't about people in another country at all; it's about stealing from American people. It's about these huge corporations and these guys who sit on the board of directors and they need to create an infrastructure. They need to create a whole fuckin' city every time they create one of these wars. So Halliburton gets a $30 billion contract and then contracts out to the Iraqis for $1 billion. You know what I mean? It's all about those fuckers making money and they're killing young American people to do it and obviously all these other people. That's my spiel on that. That's why America fuckin' sucks right now, because of George Bush, Dick Cheney and everyone that's part of that government.

Hopefully we'll wise up in November.

Yeah. If I wasn't a convicted felon, I would vote.